Sunday, November 08, 2020

The semi-rural breakwater in Thurston County politics

 I've oftentimes described the geographic nature of (mostly) partisan politics in Thurston County. 

If you are a Democrat or left of center, you try to drive up your margins in the areas close to downtown Olympia. Then you drive outwards in all directions and try to win as many other precincts as possible until you run out of time and money.

If you are a Republican or right of center, you start in South county and push in towards Olympia. 

There are exceptions to this rule. But these are usually non-partisan races where the typical left/right politics get subverted. Sue Gunn when she ran for port commission springs to mind.

In this simpler out from Olympia, in towards Olympia model, I have always wondered where the meeting point actually is. Where are the places where a normal liberal and Olympia-centered candidate could hope to win before they run out of steam?

It turns out, it is the corner of College and Yelm Highway in Lacey that acts as the lynch-pin to a series of dozens of precincts that are our true battleground. I came up with this by looking at how the two county commission races are finishing with such disparate results. Carolina Mejia is leading C Davis by a much larger lead than the difference in the Michael Steadman and Gary Edwards race. So, there are precincts that both Mejia (on the left and Olympia-centered) that Edwards (on the right and south county centered) are winning.

Below are the places they both won:

I also did a map showing the precincts that were both won by Republican Dusty Pierpoint and won by the two other Democratic legislative candidates, Sam Hunt and Laurie Dolan. There was about an eight-point difference between Pierpoint's loss and how the Republicans running against Hunt and Dolan.

So, starting from the Yelm Highway and College Street intersection, there is a wide band of precincts heading north all the way to Puget Sound. Then, along the south side of Yelm Highway, there is another line of precincts that stretch all the way to the Black Hills.

On first blush, these are largely incorporated precincts but are either close to or are in the cities' urban growth boundaries. They're also within the school district boundaries of the three large north county school districts. So culturally, these are not true rural "South County" areas. There are a couple (South Scott Lake and South Union) that probably qualify as South County.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Olympia's failed experiment with single-family zoning

I was not able to make it to the Housing Options hearing with the Planning Commission tonight. But here is what I sent them (and what I planned on saying).

I am asking for you to consider relegalizing housing types that have traditionally been allowed in Olympia.

Up until 1980, housing patterns in Olympia followed a fairly predictable path. For every 1,000 new residents, we would build an average of six 2 to 4 unit buildings. In the early 1980s, that changed. 

Egged on by a multi-year debate over the spread of so-called ghettos in Olympia, the City Council downzoned large portions of the city at several points since 1980. 

Since the downzones, the ratio of duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes dropped from 6 per 1,000 to only 1 per 1,000 new residents.

These downzones included neighborhoods where duplexes and quadplexes had already been built. This set up the ironic situation of it being illegal to replace affordable housing in a downzoned neighborhood but needing to replace it with more expensive single-family housing.

We are now reaping the harvest of these forty-year-old decisions. 

The neighborhoods we have built since the 1980s are car-dependent and not walkable. Instead of allowing the neighborhoods we already built to absorb growth, we have cut down trees, built new roads, and sprawled growth to the edges of our city.

The city we have become since 1980 is not equitable. Olympia is a largely segregated community. According to census data, the more single-family homes there are in a neighborhood, the whiter that neighborhood is. By only allowing more affordable housing types in specific parts of our city, we will continue this segregation.

Allowing low density, multifamily housing is the traditional way we have always grown as a city. We moved away from it because in an era after racial discrimination in housing became illegal, fears of crime and ghettos drove our zoning choices. We used to write racially restrictive covenants, but today we segregate our city with single-family zoning.

The downzones are a textbook example of institutional racism. While the downzones in the 1980s may have been born in a context of racism, I don’t think people who are trying to protect them are racists. But we can clearly see how they have terrible impacts.

We can see clearly that the experiment in exclusive single-family housing has failed. Allowing more housing options in all parts of Olympia is the right thing to do.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Book Review: Red Coast: Radicalism and Anti-Radicalism in Southwest Washington

The Red Coast is a rare book of Pacific Northwest history that unpacks a vital era. The labor, free speech, and political wars in the first third of the 20th century is an often misunderstood and glossed-over part of our heritage. Written by three authors, including two St. Martins Saints (I guess), the episodic nature of the book makes it interestingly readable. 

This book goes straight onto my shelf of classics of Pacific Northwest history. My criteria are generally works that are based on original research and primary sources, but also take a new perspective. Red Coast does both of these in spades. 

Other works I put on that shelf include Confederacy of Ambition, by William Lang, and the three statewide histories by Robert Ficken. Red Coast gives a clear view of a unique period in our history. Despite the well-known incidents, such as the Centralia Massacre, Red Coast ties these lowlights into a consistent narrative that redefines our understanding of regional history through the Depression. 

My primary insight, though, is on the second part of the subtitle of the book: Anti-Radicalism in the early 20th century. Or, what seems to be now the conservative re-radicalization of Southwest Washington.

Throughout my life, Southwest Washington has always been a stable, union-friendly Democratic bastion. In fact, this has been true since the re-alignment of politics in Washington after the 1932 election. Before the Roosevelt wave election in 1932, Washington was a Republican supermajority state. Democrats in 1932 swept the table and reestablished a new balance of power. Even after the parties again realigned in the late 1980s (King County voted for Reagan twice!), Southwest Washington Democrats held onto a seemingly genetic stranglehold on legislative and countywide seats in Grays Harbor, Pacific, and other Southwest communities. 

Obviously, since the 1980s it became plenty obvious to point out a Democrat from South Bend was not the same kind of Democrat from South Seattle. But the big Democratic Party tent was big enough to keep the Coastal Caucus happy and on the team.

The taste of the coastal voters seemed to change in recent years with less than stellar returns for top ticket Democrats. The election of Rep. Jim Walsh and how well Trump did the same year in Southwest Washington indicates that in a decade or so we'll be talking about how the region re-aligned, yet again.

After reading Red Coast, I'm not sure if this is a re-alignment or the end of an 80-year truce or a tapping into of a strong political tradition in the region. The echos between current conservative politics and the chapter on Rep. Albert Johnson are strong. Rep. Johnson served in the 3rd Congressional District for almost two decades and was a direct product of the anti-radical movement in Southwest Washington described in The Red Coast. While anti-radicalism is the second fiddle nemesis in The Red Coast, it seems to be the more lasting phenomenon worth studying. I don't want to spoil the book, but the Wobblies did not win.

Johnson's primary legacy was anti-immigrant politics and actual anti-immigrant legislation. I need to do more work on this, but there seems to be a direct tie-in from Johnson's political work to the specific Oregon brand of "Free Soil" politics that birthed the black exclusion laws. But that is for another day.

Johnson's anti-immigrant politics dove-tailed with the homegrown anti-radicalism in his district because Wobbly and Socialist politics largely rotated around ethnic lines. The socialist camps and community halls were also largely Norweigian cultural centers.

So, this brings us back to today in the post-2016 Southwest Washington. It may be too early to tell, but despite Washington being a safe state for Democrats statewide, we may see the cementing of a new conservative alignment in Southwest Washington this November. In fact, if Democrats can run the table everywhere else, but Republicans can keep the seats they've already won and possibly pick off an incumbent, I'd say that shift has happened. Also, I don't think its too much to say that the energy at the top of the ticket in 2016 and 2020, with barely hidden anti-immigrant sentiment, is one of the reasons why. 

There is a lot more to the regional political identity in Southwest Washington (and the broader Pacific Northwest) than anti-immigration politics.  But reading The Red Coast reminds us that this isn't a new evolution, but rather a part of the DNA that is just now finding new emphasis again.

I bought my copy at Browsers Books downtown. You should buy a copy locally as well.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

We have to face Slade Gorton's legacy, not bury it

The evil that Slade Gorton did lives after him.

In the weeks following his death, I think it is a good time to relitigate the legacy of Slade Gorton. It isn't only about damning the man himself and whether he has a "racist bone in his body." It is also about how we as a region understand our own fairly recent history. It is also about how we will continue to understand racism in the Pacific Northwest. If we can let Slade Gorton off the hook, we can continue to let ourselves off the hook.

The Boldt Decision is the big case that everyone points to when we talk about Slade Gorton, Indian Fighter. I spent nearly 20 years working at the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission blinking at the public retelling of Slade's time as Attorney General. I didn't get into it then, but I was also part of a team on which picking a fight with an elder statesmen was a particularly bad strategic move. 

There also was not a lot of love in that world, if any at all, for Gorton. He was pretty hated and I don't think I need to explain that.

1. Not Boldt, but around Boldt.

I am not going to relitigate Boldt, that is for much smarter people than me. And in the end, Gorton lost that case. His office and the institution of the state itself (different independent offices) spent years fighting federal court orders. But again, in the end, he and his fellow travelers lost. After the Supreme Court finally weighed in in 1979, the state and the tribes set up a system of co-management that stood Gorton's understanding of tribal sovereignty on its head. 

Let's backtrack a little though. Let's talk about the time between the Boldt Decision and the decision in Washington State Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel Association. This second case is where the Supreme Court finally put its stamp of approval on the Boldt Decision. But why isn't it called "U.S. v. Washington" (which is the official name of the case in which Judge Boldt decided)?

Because when the two agencies that managed fisheries in Washington wrote rules to implement Boldt, they were sued by fishing organizations (like the Passenger Fishing Vessel Association). They argued that allowing tribes to catch 50 percent of the salmon violated the equal protection clause in the state constitution. 

I don't want to get into the legal arguments here. I'm going to give you a huge spoiler: The Supremacy Clause. It's a thing.

But, while Passenger Vessel was winding its way first through Thurston County Superior Court, up to the state Supreme Court and eventually on the U.S. Supreme Court's docket, a lot of shit was going on.

I think the 9th Circuit's decision in Passenger Vessel (as quoted by the Supreme Court) says it best:
The state's extraordinary machinations in resisting the [1974] decree have forced the district court to take over a large share of the management of the state's fishery in order to enforce its decrees. Except for some desegregation cases ..., the district court has faced the most concerted official and private efforts to frustrate a decree of a federal court witnessed in this century. The challenged orders in this appeal must be reviewed by this court in the context of events forced by litigants who offered the court no reasonable choice."

"Except for some desegregation cases..."

That should ring in your ears. 

That was in 1979. For decades, federal courts had been hearing segregation cases and forcing local school boards and states to impliment Brown vs. Board of Education. In one line, the federal courts compared Slade Gorton to segregationist John Ben Sheppard. 

In the South, this local and state defience meant that President Eisenhower would send the 101st Airborn into Arkansas to open the schoolhouse doors. In Washington, we would need to have the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Marshals acting as game wardens.

It wasn't the arguing of the orignal case that dooms Gorton. Granted treaty fishing rights was probably new territory back then and deserved an honest fight in court. But the disengenous route to Supreme Court, plus the stoking of violence and disent is what tells you what kind of Attorney General he was.

In the mid-1970s as federal marshals and the Coast Guard attempted to implement court decrees, non-tribal fisherman rammed their boats and physically blockaded their work. Tear gas was fired at non-treaty fishing boats. At one point a gillnetter was shot when he tried to ram an enforcment boat.

At the end of the day, these fishing groups had an ally in the state's top attorney, who took their arguments about federal supremacy and treaty rights to the Supreme Court and lost.

2. Oliphant, the nut of Gorton's arguments and the downstream impacts

Outside of Boldt, there has not been a lot of (if really any) discussion of Gorton's record regarding treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. I've seen brief references that Gorton argued in front of the Supreme Court fourteen times (fourteen times!), but little discussion of what he actually did with his time.

Fun fact, of the fourteen cases that Gorton argued in front of the Supreme Court, five were cases against tribes. One of those cases was Oliphant vs. Suquamish Indian Tribe. This case has become a classic in Indian law because of how it limited tribes' ability to enforce criminal law on their reservations. The basic crux of the case is that Oliphant was arrested by Suquamish cops. He appealed, not because he was innocent of whatever he did, but because he claimed the tribe could not enforce criminal codes against non-tribal members. 

And of course, in the same way Gorton inserted the state Attorney General of Washington State into Passenger Vessel on behalf of non-tribal fisherman, he interserted the office into this case. His office was not a party to the case, but he had a chance to limit tribal sovereignty, so he took it.

And, while this argument is present in other Gorton tribal arguments, I want to point it out here. In Oliphant, Gorton argued:
The Sovereignty of the United States over the area which is now the State of Washington under the concepts of sovereignty which have always been accepted in western country, in western civilization in the United States came from explorations beginning with those of Robert Gray and from a series of treaties, the Louisiana Purchase Treaties with Spain and Great Britain culminating in the treaty with Great Britain of 1846 under which we settled the northwest frontier of the United States.

At that point, the United States' claim to the sovereignty over the Washington area was total, absolute and complete.

This is the smoking gun.

In Gortons' legal mind, the tribes in fact do not exist. Tribal sovereignty as a thing itself does not exist. His arguments in front of the Supreme Court were a forearm crashing of all the place settings off the table. All of this we are arguing about is totally pointless because, at the end of the day, it was the sovereignty of the United States that is "total, absolute and complete." He thought he was arguing with non-entities.

Even though Gorton won in Oliphant, tribes continued to exist as governments. They continued to have the ability to prosecute their own members, and despite efforts in his legislative career, grew in capacity. But Oliphant hung around the neck of the tribal legal system and had real-world impacts on tribal members.

In 2011, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported: 

  • 55 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women experienced physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.
  • 90 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native female victims of intimate partner violence report an inter-racial perpatorator.
And these cases were not being prosecuted on the federal level, the default jurisdiction for non-tribal members in Indian Country.

We've recently begun pulling back on the strings of Oliphant. In 2013, Congress passed an update of the Violence Against Women Act which specifically gave tribal courts jurisdiction over non-tribal defendants in domestic violence cases. 

When we talk about Gorton's legacy, the unbearably high rate of Native women that are beaten and raped by their partners is as worthy of discussion as to when he "saved baseball."

3. Not a racist bone in his body

At the end of the day, I don't care if it really was true whether Gorton held racist anger in his heart. The question is whether he supported racists in his actions as Attorney General and (more importantly for us today) whether he put together an institutionally racist system.

The former is obviously true in the role he took as Attorney General during the lead up to Passenger Vessel. He had the opportunity for years, but especially during the at-sea riots in 1976, to pull the state back and negotiate a settlement. He had a choice to insert himself and the state of Washington into a Supremacy Clause fight alongside non-tribal fishermen and he decided to fight a losing battle. We waited for years until we began to set up the co-management system.

The former is even more true with his arguments in Oliphant and the impacts it had for decades. Gorton argued as an instrument of the state that tribal sovereignty doesn't exist. 

He had a choice to insert himself and the state of Washinton into a case whether someone like me can punch a tribal police officer in the face, and he won that case. The downstream impacts of that case meant that thousands of sexual violence victims that are also tribal members never received justice. 

That is a racist system that Slade Gorton built.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Tract 105 in Olympia. Or a story of how the nodes argument of density is racist

Last week I wrote about how on the macro-level, Olympia's neighborhoods are racially segregated along density lines. The more single-family homes in a neighborhood, the higher percentage of white people that live there. And now I've found an example of how adding high-density housing in one neighborhood, and preserving single-family housing in the neighborhood next door, has a predictable impact on racial make-up.

Up until the 2010 Census, Tract 105 on Olympia's westside was one tract. But, since then it has been split into two tracts, 105.10 on the west and 105.20 on the east.

The two new tracts are split by Black Lake Boulevard. They range from the older residential neighborhood on a bluff over Capitol Lake to newer neighborhoods around Capital Medical Center and Yauger Park.

And, their journeys since their 2010 schism show how our current housing policy, especially the "nodes" approach, results in more white, single-family neighborhoods. While our intention hasn't been to create zoning that segregates on racial lines, that is what we've done.

The nodes approach to growth and density argues that we should build extremely high density near Capital Mall, the far Eastside and downtown. Then we won't have to allow for more reasonable increased density in exclusive single-family neighborhoods.

105.20 has been fairly static for the last 10 years in terms of available housing. It includes many older, largely single-family blocks. Before the 1980s, these blocks would have slowly densified as older single-family houses were replaced by duplexes, quadplexes, and small apartment buildings. This was the trend that was stopped forty years ago when we downzoned many near-downtown residential neighborhoods. 

105.10 started the decade as a mostly commercial tract with a mobile home park and a few apartment buildings. Also, several undeveloped green zones. Since then, it has added a couple of new apartment complexes along either side of Capital Mall Boulevard where trees once stood.

A major portion of 105.1 in 2010:


Both tracts also began the decade in significantly different spots, racially speaking. 105.20 was comprised of just a hair less than 80 percent white people, a lower percentage than a city on the whole. 105.1 started as an extremely white neighborhood, clocking in at almost 94 percent. 

105.1 total105.1 % white105.1 white105.1 nonwhite105.2 total105.2 % white105.2 white105.2 nonwhite

Since then, they've gone in completely different directions. 105.1 became strikingly more diverse in seven years, with its white population dropping to 81 percent. 105.2 went in the opposite direction, with its white population growing to almost 86 percent.

It looks even worse for 105.2 when you look at the raw numbers. The total number of non-white people living in 105.2 dropped by over 200 people between 2010 and 2017. At the same time, 150.1 went up by almost the same amount. 

This has all happened as Olympia as a whole has slowly become more diverse, going from 85 percent white in 2000 to 83.6 percent white in 2010 to 82.5 percent white in 2017.

One neighborhood built high-density housing (in a node) and became less white. The other followed the node approach by protect existing single-family homes and became more white.

It is also worth noting, that while 105.2 got whiter in the last decade, it also includes a significantly sized apartment complexes. These are mostly concentrated along Black Lake Boulevard and Evergreen Park Drive. But, if you look back at the block-by-block data available from the 2010 Census, you see a stark racial breakdown even within 105.2.

The blocks zoned single-family are much more likely to be whiter.

From JusticeMap, darker blocks are more white:

From Thurston Geodata, the red are single-family homes:

And further south:

The further you get in the single-family home portions of 105.2, but especially north of 9th Avenue, the more likely blocks are going to be white.

So, if you got this far, it's clear that as we build denser housing outside of single-family neighborhoods (and in an environmental lense, in what used to be a forest), we are also keeping single-family neighborhoods white.

There is no law in Olympia that some neighborhoods are reserved for white people. But, by focussing building higher density housing outside of these exclusive single-family zones, this is what we're doing. This is the current "nodes" strategy, or has some have called it "density done right."

And, this is the intention vs. impact this when we talk about racism (here and here). 

I think it's helpful to quote Rachel Cargle here in her frame on racism:

Recognize that even when your good intentions are truly good, that’s totally meaningless. Try this on for size: when you accidentally step on somebody else’s foot, you do not make your good intentions the focus of the episode. Instead, you check to make sure the other person is OK, you apologize, and you watch where you’re going. You don’t get annoyed with the person you stepped on because you caused her pain or declare that she is too sensitive or defend yourself by explaining that you meant to step to the left of her foot... But I’m a nice person does not cancel out the fact that you’ve silenced, marginalized or used your privilege to further disenfranchise black and brown people, whether you intended to do it or not.

We don't build neighborhoods with racially exclusive covenants (but we did once). There is nothing in our Comprehensive Plan that says it's our intention to build super white neighborhoods. But by not allowing even modest high-density housing throughout our city, we are doing a lot of damage.

Building more affordable housing types (literally anything other than single-family homes) would allow a more diverse population to grow. And, in conclusion, I'm just going to leave this here: being able to live in a walkable, liveable (non-node) neighborhood is good for everyone.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Zoning and race in Olympia, WA

Last November I posted about the history of race and housing in Olympia. I tracked local ordinances to outlaw racial discrimination in housing. I also wrote about some housing developments that have racially-based covenants. 

One of the things I noticed in these racially-restrictive covenants is that they always came with another requirement, that the neighborhood also be exclusively single-family homes. Not every restrictive covenant I found had a racial component, but every one with a racial component also required single-family homes. 

In fact, in Strattford Place near where I live, they put the single-family requirement at the top of the list:

Thankfully, racially restrictive covenants are illegal. But, since the 1930s (when racially restrictive covenants were en vogue in Thurston County) single-family zoning has increased in popularity. 

Over the years, we have created zoning laws that restrict housing to (largely) only one type: single-family homes. I want to back up and reiterate this point. In the past, housing in Olympia was much more diverse. But, in the 1970s and 80s, we downzoned much of the city to outlaw anything that wasn't a single-family home.

So, think about this next phase in three steps:
  • We build much of our city in the most expensive housing type.

  • Single-family homes are the most expensive housing type. Do I need to give you a link to back that up?

  • And, in the Pacific Northwest, income is a proxy for race.
So, what happens when you compare race with housing type in Olympia?

This may seem obvious, but the more single-family homes there are in a neighborhood in Olympia, the whiter that neighborhood is. 

Here is my spreadsheet. I took the date from the American Community Survey, specifically tables B25024 and B02001.

Olympia is a massively white city that is slowly growing more diverse over time. But even as the city grows, the white population is concentrated in largely single-family neighborhoods.

Recently, we have tried to allow for more housing types (like duplexes, quadplexes or small apartment buildings) in white, single-family neighborhoods. Fighting these policies is the same thing as saying you would like to preserve the racial nature of single-family neighborhoods.

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.