Saturday, April 11, 2020

Black Lake Way, old Black Lake Road and how history could have been

One of the most interesting, long-term and simmering debates in Olympia, is how several dozen blocks in SW Olympia are connected to the rest of the city.

Southwest Olympia south of Division and east of the mall is an interesting place. Unlike anywhere else in the city, they are unusually cut off from the rest of the city. Other than 9th Avenue and 4th Avenue, there is really no way to access much of the Southwest side neighborhood.

But, like a lot of things you'll read on my blog anymore, it wasn't always that way.

It turns out that the weirdest little street on the westside, Caton Way, which juts northeast from near 9th and Lee street for half a block is actually the last portion of an old county road that had connected the westside with the rest of the county.

Black Lake Way can be seen plainly here in this 1945 plat map:

In the 1937 version of the westside map, Blake Lake Way is the primary route out of west Olympia.

In this era, there is no Black Lake Boulevard further west, Black Lake Way was it.

Fast forward to 1951:

And you can see the map hardening and stretching. The northern portion is renamed Caton Way already, Decatur in the middle and the last stretch is "Old Black Lake Road."

What happens next is pretty clear to figure out. Here is the 1959 USGS topographic map:

In the 1950s, the interstate highway system came to town and reshaped our communities in ways we're still feeling now. Old neighborhoods in Tumwater (not the downtown or main commercial area) were sacrificed to interstate 5, Lacey was given the seed it needed to be transformed from a sleepy rural neighborhood to a suburban city and west Olympia was given its trajectory. 

Whoever made the decision to site the interchange at Mottman (later Black Lake Boulevard) instead of old Blake Lake Road, created the conditions for the westside we have now. At least according to this document, one of the options when they laid out 101 in the 1950s was to connect what had been Black Lake Way to the new highway.  Like an unused limb atrophying, Black Way Way retreated up into the neighborhood, being covered over by new development and becoming the stub of Decatur. When the current Auto Mall neighborhood was platted in the early 1980s, one portion of the old road was reclaimed and named Caton, acknowledging its historic connection to its severed relative less than a mile north.

It certainly didn't help that the development that resulted surrounding the Southwest neighborhood was focussed towards the Blake Lake Boulevard exit and was autofocussed. The 1980 replats of the historically square blocks favored windy, care friendly designs with little thought to connect to the older neighborhoods.

So, what's the bottom line? First thing, I'm pretty bored. If you look at the date stamp of this post, this is maybe week three of the COVID Stay at Home Order. I've got a lot of time on my weekends to read technical reports and download old maps.

Second, people get very excited about protecting their neighborhoods. This isn't breaking news. No one is surprised by me saying NIMBYs are going to NIMBY. People who live up on the Southwest side just don't want to be connected to the rest of the city. 

But, what is interesting to me is that how history really could have played out differently. We could have seen a history where the Auto Mall never happened and West Olympia sprouted a traditional commercial center on the end of Decatur that is now a dead end. Had the decision been made differently in the 1950s to connect Primary State Route 9 (now Highway 101) to west Olympia by the Old Blake Lake Road instead of Mottman (Blake Lake Boulevard), we would have likely seen a different development pattern emerge. 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Who was Karen Frazier?

Not Karen Fraser, but Karen Frazier.

Because the name of a street in Southeast Olympia resembles the name of a longtime local politician, I've always wondered who the Karen Frazier (not Fraser) of the street actually was. Who had been well-known or important enough in Olympia decades ago to name a dog-legged street after?

Well, it turns out, no one at all. Karen Frazier never existed.

What the name signifies is the overlapping plans of how housing developments used to be planned and then abandoned. One of the vital steps before building a neighborhood is to subdivide a larger property, plan where the streets are going to go and then name them. This plan is called the plat and is submitted to the local government.

Here is a portion of Squires plat in 1890:

You can barely see the current day Olympia on this map. The current Boulevard Road is identified as "County Road." on the far left-hand side. Also, in addition to (Karen) Frazier, the current Van Epps, Humphrey, and Allen streets were also platted. The rest of the plat was never built and is lost to time. 

Van Epps, Frazier, Ellis were all names of Olympia in those days. So, in this case, Frazier likely refers to either Andrew, Katherin or Washington P. Frazier. 

There is a series of small notations you can find if you look up the Squires plat here, that the county commission officially abandoned this plat in the 1960s.  

So we can see that in the 1890s, there was a Frazier street platted where the north end of Karen Frazier street meets the current 18th Avenue.

So, where did the "Karen" come from? Sixty years after Squires plat was laid out, Kenneth and Allegra Boone laid out "Boone's Addition," overlaying some of the old Squires plat.

Here is Boone's plat in 1950:

In constructing the plat, they joined Karen Avenue with Frazier Street. Eventually, either through an official act or just recognition of common use, the name of both shifted to Karen Frazier Road Southeast. 

Monday, December 09, 2019

There is a worse fate for the Olympian than our present and a future without the Olympian

1. I got into a discussion this afternoon with a local, talking about the state of the Olympian and whether it would be worthy of support if it changed its corporate structure to a non-profit. Here's the original argument:

I don't disagree about local news being produced by non-profits. Great idea.

The Olympian is the only professional organization covering the news in the city I love. Let's just not call them names while they're doing it is all I'm saying.

Also, I think we're missing a lot of nuance on the current state of the Olympian's corporate owners, the McClatchy company. I've been reading a lot about them lately, so I wanted to write down what I've learned.

2. I'm not sure how many of us realize how quickly the fate of the Olympian could turn. And turn so quickly and quietly that we'd have no reason to notice. Right now, the paper's parent company is in the process of trying to negotiate a deal on $124 million in pensions it is due to pay. After spending the better part of the last decade paying down $4 billion in debt it took on to buy up Knight Ridder (of which the Olympian was part), McClatchy seems to face this one additional hurdle to start making forward progress.

While this is happening, the stock price of the company tanked, going now for only pennies per share. That gives the managers of the company very little room to move as they try to chart a path forward. The immediate risk from my point of view had been just that McClatchy would declare bankruptcy. Maybe, I thought, they would just shut the Olympian down, maybe just fold it directly into the Tacoma News Tribune.

But there is a fate worse than death. And a fate that because McClatchy almost killed itself buying our paper (along with dozens other) we've avoided as the company tries to get itself back on its feet. Hedge funds, like the one described here, are ripping through the carcasses of struggling newspapers, feeding investments with the goodwill of subscribers:
It is no secret that the newspaper business is in decline. So it’s hardly surprising that Freeman would feel the need to shrink the head count at his newspapers, just as almost every other newspaper owner has had to do for years. 
But what sets Freeman apart is that he seems to have a rather unique view of a newspaper’s purpose. In this view, his papers are intended not so much to inform the public or hold officialdom to account, but to supply cash for Freeman to use elsewhere. His layoffs aren’t just painful. They are savage. 
Last year, Digital First Media’s chief executive, Steve Rossi, sent a company-wide email saying that the company was “solidly profitable,” and that “advertising revenue has been significantly better” than competitors. Yet the layoffs have not let up. Just last week, Alden Global imposed another round of layoffs, including a third of the staff at the Denver Post. As recently as 2009, Denver had two competing newspapers; it is now down to 66 journalists in one demoralized newsroom.
And, this is a fate we're avoiding in Olympia because our newspaper was luckily bought by a company that is still interested in being a newspaper company.

Meanwhile, in August, the New Media Investment Group announced that it was buying Gannett Co. and combining it with its GateHouse Media subsidiary, which instantly created the largest newspaper chain in the country. New Media is controlled by Fortress Investment Group, and its approach is not terribly different from Alden Global’s. People are starting to call papers owned by hedge funds “ghost papers” — defined by the New York Times as “thin versions of once robust publications put out by bare-bones staffs.” 
Although they’ve had their share of layoffs, McClatchy’s 30 media properties... are not ghost papers. A little more than a year ago, Julie K. Brown, a journalist at the Miami Herald, published an extraordinary expose of the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein; that series sparked an outcry that led to Epstein’s arrest in July. In October, the well-regarded McClatchy Washington bureau documented a disturbing rise in the rate of cancer treatments at Veterans Affairs hospitals. And just a few weeks ago, the Kansas City Star published a powerful examination of Missouri’s public defender system
I've pulled a lot of quotes from Bloomberg's coverage of McClatchy, but Joe Norcero's "McClatchy Goes Digital to Ward Off ‘Ghost Papers’" article is a good discussion as any of McClatchy's current situation. The most telling part of the article to me is where I learned that the actual McClatchy family hasn't taken a dividend in a decade. This is not a company that is trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

3. The Sacramento News and Review is an alt-weekly that does a great job skewering the Sacramento Bee, the McClatchy mother paper. But even they point to the Bee as an irreplaceable local asset. Whenever I feel sad about the state of local papers, I remind myself that people of goodwill exist by reading Eric Johnson's "Support the Bee Anyway" and "Save the Bee."

For the record, I'm all for the non-profit, locally controlled Olympian. I'm all for the web-based non-profit locally owned web-based, podcast heavy local news organization. I'm all for all of that.

But this is a bus stop, not UberX. I need to pay the fare for the bus that gets me closest to my destination. So I support the Olympian anyway.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

How did our housing practices shape Olympia's racial makeup?

Amanda Smith, the former mayor of Olympia, sat in a suddenly silent city council meeting in the spring of 1968. She had been mayor in the 1950s and had come back to city hall to speak out in favor of an ordinance to prevent housing discrimination.

Duke Stockton had just stopped speaking against the ordinance and had pieced together a speech that shocked the crowd to silence.

"A man should have the right to do what he wants with his own property."


"We don't want them living in Olympia, but if they do live here, let them stay in their own communities and leave us alone."


"It leads to intermarriage..."

Mayor Smith was the first to break the silence: "I wonder if everyone's heart was beating as hard as mine was as I sat and listened to that. I have never heard a more ignorant talk in my life!"

Given what we know about the world back then, I can hardly believe that to be literally true. But it is possible that the debate over open housing only brought such attitudes to the surface.

Olympia along with Thurston County, Lacey, and Tumwater, would end up passing Open Housing ordinances in 1968. The effort here was part of a longer effort nationally and statewide to break apart racist housing practices.

Back up a little first: It is fairly well known that as a local rule that currently Lacey is more racially diverse than Olympia. The vast majority of Olympia's neighborhoods are still over 85 percent white, with only a few outlying neighborhoods below 80 percent at all. The most racially diverse neighborhood in Olympia is about 65 percent white and is the section between the Martin Pacific split and Interstate 5 where it crosses Pacific.

Lacey, on the other hand, has more racial diversity in general. Specifically, Lacey has more neighborhoods with higher concentrations of non-white residents. 

When housing activists were lobbying our local governments for open housing rules, Lacey held back at first because the leaders of the new city (only founded in 1966) were under the impression that Lacey already was open to all races. They passed the open housing rules anyway.

The housing practices that Amanda Smith and other Olympians were trying to prevent by adopting Open Housing rules in the 1960s were in reaction to decades of racist practices. It seems that at least on the surface, we're still seeing the impact of these practices decades later.

Here is a deeper dive into these practices and how they worked:

1. Olympia real estate agents as late as the 1960s actively steered African American home-buyers away from certain neighborhoods.

From the Olympian in 1968:
(African American residents) put the blame for the trend toward a (racially segregated) ghetto squarely onto the practices of some real estate businessmen... 
What is happening, they say, is that real estate salesmen are trying to steer Negroes into certain areas while at the same time urging whites not to buy there "because Negroes are moving in." A check with some whites who are hunting houses confirms this. 
According to at least one Lacey city councilmember in the 1990s, Lacey was one of the places where real estate agents would steer minority customers.

2. There were certain neighborhoods in Olympia that as late as the 1940s were officially off-limits to anyone who was not white.  

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but while it didn't seem to be common practice, there were a few neighborhoods in Thurston County that has racial covenants. Two of these were in Olympia, and a third I found was Beachcrest, north of Lacey. 

Stratford Place, one such neighborhood just north of Olympia High School, had these racial covenants baked in.

Another neighborhood just up from the end of West Bay Drive, also advertized homes based on racially exclusive covenants.

When you look at how widespread this practice was in King County, I was a little surprised I could easily find more examples in Thurston. There is a lot of history behind racial covenants, and this paper is a great long walk through their use and eventual rejection.

Moving on from the 1960s, we continued to have housing debates in Olympia. But as they continued, they had more to do with density and liveability than they had to do with (one the surface) race.

Less than 10 years after Olympia, Tumwater and Thurston County passed Open Housing ordinances, Olympia began a long debate about multi-family zoning throughout the city. While this debate mostly centered upon income (and sometimes crime), it certainly had the same structure that the debate around anti-discrimination fight had in the late 1960s.

The 1970s saw the largest influx of new residents in Thurston County's history. It changed the nature of our communities and it drove a historic increase in higher density housing types in Olympia. The historic nature is true because after this influx we made most of these housing types (duplexes, quadplexes) illegal through most of the city. 

One term that got thrown around during the housing debate in the 70s and 80s was also "ghetto." While the term in the 1960s obviously meant a neighborhood with a large non-white population, what did it mean in the 1980s? Were our anti-density rules stemming from that era racially motivated? Obviously, on a certain level, they were motivated out of a fear of crime and nearby poverty. But how far did we grow in just over 10 years?

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Olympia housing post in two parts: Answering a question on Ron Rants and asking a question on Samuel Stein

Both of these came up at the same time, so I'm doing them in one post.

1. Answering Steve Salmi's question here first:
...Dan Leahy was right to “follow the money” regarding tax breaks for developers – including Ron Rants. Olympia would do well to display greater transparency in its decision making if it wishes to build the credibility of Missing Middle initiatives. 
For the sake of historical honesty, it would also be helpful to know if Ron Rants is now being subsidized to undo the very problems he helped to create – both as an elected official and a development industry leader.
On the first go around on this post, I actually noticed a few places where Ron Rants, in fact, sounded like a 2010s era urbanist.

First from May 1980:
Fellow commissioner Ron Rants said the existing policy didn't mesh with his personal view. The city should be encouraging mixed housing, he remarked. Mix housing includes having duplexes in single-family neighborhoods.
Then in September 1980:
Rants said the city, in fact, should encourage denser living patterns within city limits, to put an end to what he called rapid leap-frog growth to the county.
I will say that Steve's point that the city commission, which was on its way out in the early 80s, was certainly the body that laid the groundwork for a series of downzoning in the 80s and 90s, they didn't seem to be enthusiastic about putting on the density brakes. In fact, to me, it seems like the same populist dynamics that put in the city council form of government where the same dynamics that were also arguing for exclusive single-family zoning throughout the city.

2. In the past few months, the opponents of denser and less expensive housing in Olympia have started using Sam Stein's "Capital City" like a cudgel. Without really explaining how Stein's arguments about how the modern real estate industry works in regards to single-family zoning, they simply state that more options for buildings (for-profit, non-profit or government) would just allow for more building and builders are bad.

While this behavior does fall into the broader "why NIMBYs just hate developers" thing, it doesn't really center Stein's arguments in Olympia's history of downzoning. I poked around Stein's book for discussion on downzoning on a broader scale, like what happened in Olympia or Los Angeles in the last 50 years. 

A historic district, a contextual rezoning––which means changing the zoning rules to match what’s there right now––or a downzoning, which means in the future people will only be able to build smaller than what’s here right now. So it wasn’t even, I said neighborhood before, but it’s really block by block, block by block by race, so white blocks––predominantly white blocks––got protected, predominantly African American, Latino, and Asian blocks were subject to big, new development. And so, the result of that ends up looking like integration. If you look at those prior, mostly Black, Latino, and Asian blocks, and you see there was this luxury development that was built and suddenly all these white people moved in, now something else is happening. But at the same time, they cut off the ability to build out low-income and mixed-race development on those white blocks. And so, they were channeling integration in one way and cutting it off in the other. It’s like a one-way street that’s going––there’s a one way street and you’re moving in the wrong direction. If we want to do integration, we need to unsegregate those white spaces. The problem is not the concentration of people of color in neighborhoods that they built up over a long period of segregation and disinvestment. So that in many cities the integration that’s happening is the exact wrong way to do it.
In context to Olympia and the Northwest, this brings up a few things for me.

One, we've seen how the debate over changing single-family neighborhoods into "ghettos" has affected the course of Olympia housing policy. Calling people racists in historic terms is not fun, but I'm just going to leave that there.

Two, people who trot out Stein are also unironically talking about "nodes" of high-density growth in Olympia. There are places where added density that could take place in single-family neighborhoods should more appropriately go. And, unsurprisingly, when you poke around a block group map of white distribution around Olympia, places with a lot of apartments (existing "nodes") also have the fewest white people.

So, to my question: how is Stein's discussion of protecting white neighborhoods not like what happened and is happening in Olympia?

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

How much did cutting the middle out of our housing stock cost Olympia in the last forty years?

Or, Olympia's spreading tax-subsidized single-family neighborhoods. 

I've pointed to this chart oftentimes as an illustration of how we changed directions back in the 1980s.

I've recently been rethinking this graph, mostly due to new perspectives on a fairly old policy tool to encourage apartment construction in downtown Olympia. Dan Leahy has been writing in Works in Progress about the multi-family tax exemption and how the rest of us are subsidizing new construction downtown.

While the discussion around the multi-family exemption does not reveal anything new (someone pays taxes if someone else is exempt), it does give a new ax to grind to people who would rather stay the course with how Olympia has been developing in the last forty years. Car-dominated suburban developments get a pass, while any sort of development downtown that is not a parking lot is given a side-eye or actually challenged legally.

But, the discussion did open an opportunity to examine how exactly our spreading suburban development pattern has cost the city's bottom line.

As a background, I used the Thurston County Assessor's parcel data provided by Geodata. This dataset gave me locations and construction dates (important for that chart), but also lot sizes and total values.

Also, I wanted to point out that only in the broadest sense am I talking about "denser" housing. Leahy is mostly discussing downtown Olympia apartment buildings, while I'm discussing anything from a duplex to a quadplex. While we oftentimes conflate these when we discuss housing and zoning, I want to make sure we know I'm talking about different types of housing. 

Now, let's get to the data!

At some point in the early 1980s, the construction of duplex to quadplex sized homes became disconnected from population. I chose 1981 as my splitting point because it seemed to make sense to me.

Between 1960 and 1981 Olympia averaged 6.2 two to four-unit buildings per thousand of population increase.

After 1981, that rate fell to 1.23 units per thousand new residents. Building non-apartment/non-single family home dwellings went through the floor after the early 80s.

What happened in the early 1980s? Go back and see the policy changes we made to favor single-family homes and the hateful political ecosystem that created it.

And because we know how many people have either been born or moved here, we can calculate how many du/tri/quadplexes we lost because we changed the rules. If we built at the same rate we did before 1981, we would have built 723 more du/tri/quadplexes. We currently have 786.

That on its own is shocking. That means we outlawed between 1,500 and 3,000 living spaces since the early 80s. If we continued building duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes in Olympia, we would have nearly doubled the number of these more affordable units.

But, let us not stop there, this is about the public subsidy, not affordable homes removed from the market by bad laws. Because we know how much single-family home properties are worth and how much du/tri/quadplexes are also worth, we can calculate roughly how much each type pays per acre.

It should surprise no one, but the more dense housing types subsidize single-family homes.

Du/tri/quadplexes cover just over 216 acres of Olympia and they are valued at an average of $1,159,413 per acre.

Single-family homes cover over 4,528 acres of the city and those are valued at an average of $1,035,155 per acre.

This is not taking into consideration the added value du/tri/quadplexes would have brought to single-family homes.

So, when you lay out what we lost (at least 1,446 affordable units) against their higher value, you can get an idea of what our historic single-family home favoring policies has cost our city.

Doing a back of the napkin calculation based on last year's levy rate, the lost taxes (not just to the city, but to everyone who collects property tax in the city) was $3 million per year.

To put this into perspective, in his post that I linked to above, Dan Leahy points out that across of all the multi-family exemption projects, the loss in total government revenue is $3.4 million over eight years.

What we lose per year because we made a decision forty years ago to favor single-family homes is the same amount we lose over eight years for encouraging more dense development. This calculus also ignores the higher tax receipts that an apartment building will produce as opposed to a parking lot once the exemption is over. And, also (obviously) that the tax exemption is temporary, while single-family zoning is a bit harder to budge.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Indian Shaker Church and the Lewis Family totem pole

Surprisingly terrible people.
And, by way of making this re-telling of these incongruent stories even weirder, they both originally were written about in the same edition of the Daily Olympian on July 5, 1970. 

The Indian Shaker Church on Mud Bay needed to be rebuilt. 

It had burned down in the winter before. And, in the summer of 1969, Indian Shaker adherents had noticed the roof had begun to cave in because of snow anyway. 

The original church structure had been only been built in 1910, the same year the Indian Shaker church was formalized.

So, the community of this particular fairly new faith got together to rebuild. They also reached out to seek help. A Seattle architect sent down plans and Simpson Timber company gave and delivered all the wood they needed. 

On July 4, 1970, Indian Shaker faithful from all across the region came to celebrate the reopening of the church. Because this church wasn't just an Indian Shaker Church, but the Indian Shaker Church. The mother church.

I'm not a tribal member nor a person of this particular faith, so I won't go into the history of the Indian Shaker religion. But, only to say that the religion was only founded in the late 1880s and for years was a robust expression of tribal culture. One white people even feared.

So, let's leave that there for a second and move to a week earlier, on Cooper Point, when something else entirely happened.

While Indians from all over the region were planning their visit to their newly rebuilt mother church, a white family on the other side of the bay was dressing up as Indians and unveiling a brand new totem pole they'd just bought.

And, in only the way that white people being totally unaware of the way they look or how they would be judged almost 50 years later, the Lewis family and their friends not only dressed up as Indians and played recorded "musical Indian chants, alternatively soft and loud..." but they called themselves by terribly derogatory Indian names that I won't recount here.

I should let you read the story yourself, and you really should, but the Lewis family should be judged. And judged harshly. The way they acted is not respectful. If their plan was to honor tribes and tribal history, treating it like a dress-up party is especially tasteless. I don't need to tell you that, though.

Where did they even get the idea to buy a totem pole?

Three years before the party and unveiling (I'm not going to use the term they use, but read the story) one of Dick Lewis' friends needed help moving his own totem pole. Being a nice friend, Dick came through with a truck and was smitten.
"Mrs. Lewis reported that 'totem fever infested the Lewis tribe" and they determined to have one for themselves." 
Dedicated as "unfolding a bit of Pacific Coast history, reminding all of us our precious heritage and need to preserve our God-given rights and freedoms," it provides "a tangible link between past and present" to the Lewises and the many people who are received as guests in their hospitable home.
This talk of freedom and God-given rights is a double serving of irony if you head back across the water to Mud Bay.

I mean, why were Indian Shaker adherents gathering on July 4?

Jeremiah George (Squaxin) wrote a bit in 2010:
When we practiced our culture in secrecy (for our European conquerors were quick to label us as hostile savages, disposing of us as such) tribes came from miles and miles away to a potlatch we called the 4th of July Celebration at Squaxin Island. That celebration must have had an impact, because an elder from Canada in his 70’s-80’s recalled when he was young an “old” elder claimed his favorite place was Squaxin Island. Culture got us through hard times and the assimilation that keeps us distant from culture and the apocalyptic measures of genocide that will continually go unaccounted for. 
They had to celebrate on the fourth of July because they didn't have the freedom to celebrate otherwise. In the early years of the Indian Shaker church, its members were arrested.

At the same time, the Lewis family was appropriating and pounding their chests about heritage and freedom, tribal members were being arrested and prosecuted all over western Washington for fishing. A right not reserved by God, but by treaty.

It would take only a little over three weeks for the fall chinook season to start and for two Puyallup tribal members, Bob Satiucum and Charles Cantrell, to be arrested for fishing. Just as illegal as it had been to be an Indian Shaker, it was still illegal to be an Indian fisherman in 1970. The Lewis family had the freedom to buy a totem pole and dress up like Indians, but actual Indians didn't have the freedom to be Indians.