What Does Urban League's Head Honcho Want With the S.L.U.T.?

Critics say expansion will lead to gentrification. James Kelly envisions economic development.

James Kelly, head of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, which advocates on behalf of African-Americans and other people of color, wants to rename the S.L.U.T. "Just call it the Love Train!" he says, grinning broadly. The moniker certainly fits for Kelly, who's quickly becoming the public face of a $600 million effort to expand the South Lake Union Streetcar, which opened last year and currently travels from the southern tip of the lake to Westlake Center. Kelly is co-chair of the Streetcar Alliance, a who's-who of transportation and business associations organized to support and help inform the city's plan to extend the streetcar along four proposed routes. (One from South Lake Union to the University District; one up First Hill, then north along Broadway; one through downtown, then east at South Jackson Street to 23rd Avenue South; and another along Westlake Avenue to Fremont and Ballard.) Kelly is gearing up to emcee a series of public forums on the idea this summer, which are being organized by the Streetcar Alliance. He also sat side-by-side with city staff during a recent meeting to brief the City Council on the plan. "Keep an open mind," he told council members. "Don't nitpick this apart." A few days later Kelly was on the Seattle Channel debating the pros and cons of the streetcar with council members and with longtime monorail activist Peter Sherwin, who is arguing for more electric buses instead. "Buses just don't do it," Kelly said. "We have a chance to address connecting communities as well as to reduce greenhouse gases." Of course, electric buses don't emit greenhouse gases. And Kelly's other arguments in favor of the expensive streetcar can sometimes be equally hard to follow. "Seattle has so many diverse neighborhoods that have not historically been well-connected," Kelly says during an interview at the Urban League's Central District offices. "Why would someone who lives in Ballard be interested in going to the ID? We're talking about a train ride that takes people to a destination spot. We're trying to create a vehicle that allows people to be connected. This is one way of doing that without people having to transfer three or four bus lines to get from one part of the city to the other." (For the record, you can get to within a few blocks of the ID from Ballard on the #15 or #18 bus.) Only one of the proposed streetcar lines would reach the communities traditionally served by the Urban League. And streetcar expansion means fewer resources for bus routes: King County, which runs the buses, has agreed to pick up 75 percent of the existing streetcar's operating costs beginning in 2009, but will pay for it by reducing hours of bus service in Seattle.) The city has also said the county would likely terminate any bus routes made redundant by future streetcar lines. These are among the reasons that Kelly's high-profile support just doesn't add up, says John Fox, a housing advocate and head of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. "Why is the Urban League involved when there's a plate of issues that directly affect minority communities and the CD where they could be weighing in? But here they are weighing in on something that is tangential at best, but it could also be perceived as gentrification that could drive rents up on affordable housing units and drive small businesses out," Fox says. "[The streetcar] is not a cost-efficient form of transportation. It's a toy, an instrument to drive up property values." Fox says the movement of African-Americans out of the central area and southeast Seattle "is precipitous because of rising property values, redevelopment, and gentrification. There's a whole host of issues [the Urban League] needs to be working on. But quite frankly they just haven't been there for us....And you wonder why the Urban League is there for the streetcar." Kelly counters that the streetcar won't lead to gentrification, but to economic development. "It's an opportunity to have more people, particularly people of color and of more income levels, being able to come back into an area that hasn't had any development in a while," he says, referring to the route that would run up Jackson Street. Plus, the Urban League has a history of being involved in civic issues, Kelly says, calling the need for "transportation choices" among the more pressing dilemmas the city faces today. He rejects the notion that the organization has lost focus, noting that the Urban League assisted Hurricane Katrina evacuees in 2005 and that it is one of few groups currently working with the city on a program to stave off home foreclosures. George Griffin, a public-affairs consultant, says the streetcar may well be out of the purview of what the Urban League would have advocated for in the past. But he says that's a good thing. "There needs to be a belief that people of color care about everything that's going on in the community. The profile of the Urban League is so much larger than it has ever been. What they're demonstrating is that we can plan and be involved in things all over town, no matter what the project may be...and James is a great role model for that kind of stuff." Griffin says Kelly and the Urban League learned some valuable lessons about bringing people together from the Coleman School redevelopment, an often contentious seven-year project that created the Northwest African American Museum and 36 low-income apartments. Fox, for his part, is more skeptical about the Coleman School project's tie to the Urban League's streetcar efforts. Because the city gave the Urban League more than $3 million for the $19 million project, he wonders if there wasn't some sort of quid pro quo with the mayor's office. "The city put in a huge chunk to keep it going over the years. Why is Kelly the public face [of the streetcar]? I believe it's a good way of remaining in the good graces of the mayor," Fox says. While he says he has no specific information related to the Urban League, former council member Peter Steinbrueck says it wouldn't be the first time for that type of back-scratching. "Many people supported the South Lake Union Streetcar when there wasn't any direct reason," he says. "There tends to be a quid pro quo when it comes budget time and grants are made. Gifts are given to certain nonprofit organizations. I've seen that happen for years." "No. No. No," responds Kelly. "I don't play politics like that." But Steinbrueck (long rumored to be considering a run for mayor himself—see The Cutting Room, p. 8) has another theory for Kelly's involvement. "I would think he has aspirations to run for political office at some point," he says. "It helps, being involved in issues beyond what is directly part of the Urban League." Kelly rejects this notion too. "My brother-in-law's in office," he says referring to City Council member Bruce Harrell. "That's enough." Calls to other leaders in the black community couldn't find any who were troubled by Kelly's active backing of the streetcar (though all want to make sure that South Seattle routes get served). James Bible, for one, the president of the Seattle chapter of the NAACP, says he isn't second-guessing Kelly's judgment. "We haven't asserted any position yet," Bible says. "I'm sure the Urban League has reviewed the information at a different level given that they have asserted a position." Kelly says if he's guilty of anything, it might be ego. "I like challenges," he says. "If I can make Coleman School happen, I can do this. In the words of Rodney King, 'Can't we all get along?'" acurl@seattleweekly.com

 
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