Those who oppose development in Seattle have no greater symbol than the so-called “Up House” in Ballard where Edith Macefield held out against the developer who brought Trader Joe’s and LA Fitness to the neighborhood enveloping her home on three sides.
You can listen to her story on this 99 Percent Invisible podcast, which is titled Holdout.
The surprising thing about Edith’s story is that the construction foreman (who works for what many consider big bad developer) ends up being the hero of the story. He became Edith’s friend and primary caretaker, and she ended up thinking highly enough of him to leave him her house, which the developer had previously offered her one million dollars only to be rebuffed. People generally don’t leave their inheritance to random jerks, but to anti-growth folks who have taken up the mantle of Edith’s story generally paint the developers as jerks worthy of scorn and definitely not inheritances. As the Washington Post reported:
Macefield became a neighborhood fixture. Her little blue car sat curbside. She played her music loudly. “I went through World War II; the noise doesn’t bother me,” she told the Seattle paper about the construction project surrounded her. “They’ll get it done someday.”
While she had a reputation for being a bit cranky, Macefield befriended a number of the people working on the project engulfing her home — particularly Martin, the construction superintendent. “From all the stories I had heard, I expected her to be angry or whatever,” he recalled this week. “But she was actually pleased and excited for there to be activity around there.”
And it wasn’t that she was mean, Martin said; she just had defense mechanisms. You had to earn her trust.
That’s what Martin ended up doing over time. It began with a hello, and soon he was driving Macefield to hair and doctor appointments, and buying her groceries and cooking her meals.
And Edith for her part claimed she didn’t even mind the construction noise. “I went through World War II; the noise doesn’t bother me,” she told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Edith didn’t want to be famous and cussed out a few of the reporters who came knocking on her door, likely with a story angle already selected.
The story gets at why we should be wary of stereotyping developers. Many are hardly the boogeyman they are in pop culture. And they employ people who are stand-up human beings like the construction foreman who befriended Edith.
Moreover, developers perform a necessary service even as they become pariahs to some. If they don’t build then competition for existing, housing stock only increases. Instead of moving into newly-built housing stock, wealthy folks would compete for older stock with middle income folks. Just saying no doesn’t work with housing, particularly for tenants who make up about half the city of Seattle.
Yes, developers hope to profit nicely and in a city with nation-leading housing price increases like Seattle many probably profit handsomely. But when housing crashes come, some see their investments evaporate, too. Risk is inherent with so many moving parts to a project.
One thing this city can do to help more people think more positively about developers is to pass Mandatory Housing Affordability and guarantee each new project contributes to affordable housing for those making below 80% of area median income. Enacting this inclusionary zoning program would harness growth for greater good and demonstrate development isn’t just about profiting the few.
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Doug Trumm is the executive director of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.