Cathy Hillenbrand recently completed two years of service as Chair of the Board of Directors of Capitol Hill Housing. A 49-year resident of Capitol Hill, Cathy also chaired the Steering Committee of the Capitol Hill Champion, a volunteer-led effort to advocate for the incorporation of community goals into the redevelopment on top of the Capitol Hill light rail station. We sat down to talk with her about the June 19 groundbreaking for Station House, CHH’s affordable housing venture that will provide thoughtfully-designed residences for working families on Capitol Hill. [Ed. Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity]
You have been involved with many efforts to shape Capitol Hill, including the aboveground development that will soon accompany the light rail station. How did you first become involved?
I kind of get rooted and attached to a place. I’ve always felt about Capitol Hill that you could roll off it in any direction and get anywhere you wanted to go in Seattle or in the region. What’s interesting to me is the persistence of the arts and cultural life up here. What’s challenging is how it’s changed in such a short time. Still, depending on the time of day that you’re out and about on Capitol Hill, you see different slices of life and layers. The fact that we have a playground in Cal Anderson Park that is heavily used is a huge thing to me.
I had been on the Seattle Arts Commission, and I was part of the Light Rail Review Panel for University Link, which was the Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium stations. I got involved in that because my husband and I bought this place that was two blocks from the light rail station in Capitol Hill. So, when I moved over here, I started trying to meet people. And then when I got off the Arts Commission, I got involved with the Transit-oriented Development (TOD) Stakeholders Committee of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce. There was funding from the City for the neighborhood to engage with Sound Transit. The Chamber hired Schemata Workshop to do a study for us, and that resulted in the TOD Recommendations Report, and that resulted in the creation of the Capitol Hill Champion. First, I was the co-chair, and then I was the chair until Capitol Hill Housing applied to develop the site for affordable housing. During that time, I was asked to be on the Board of Directors for CHH, and I said I would do it so long as it didn’t compromise my position as chair of the Champion.
On June 19th, we will celebrate the groundbreaking for Station House. Is there an impact that you are hoping the development around the light rail station will have for the community?
I think it remains to be seen. The big thing is the viability of the plaza and how it’s managed. I see that plaza as a hardscape to Cal Anderson Park. The layout of the properties was done from the point of view of where the train would be – Sound Transit didn’t want to build directly over the station box. One might have planned it differently if one had placemaking at the top of the list, but we have what we have. And we wanted a community center. But we are getting a community room, a daycare, and a farmer’s market. We will see how it all plays out. Hopefully, we will be able to move forward with building LGBTQ-affirming senior housing on the Hill. LGBTQ-centered development was a priority in the conversation about building above the light rail.
The fact is, once they decided they were putting a train through here, it changed the neighborhood, even though it’s not obvious. And I don’t know if a community can ever get ahead of development. And everything moves so fast now, and land is so valuable that it puts communities at a disadvantage. Through the EcoDistrict, CHH has devoted staff and played a critical role in watching out for Capitol Hill. We are stewarding our community. As we get bigger, I don’t want us to lose that role. I personally see the EcoDistrict as the place were that’s going to happen.
The Capitol Hill EcoDistrict, where you’re also on the steering committee, formed out of the conversation around development at the light rail station. What are your hopes for the EcoDistrict’s future?
I didn’t join the EcoDistrict Steering Committee until I got off the Champion, but from the beginning, before the EcoDistrict was conceived of, the Champion was pushing for deeper environmental considerations to be included in the design guidelines for the light rail station itself. We’ve been trying to get to a place where you could go to a developer and say, we have an EcoDistrict up here; please engage with it around your building, and here are some ways to do that. The EcoDistrict is shaping a lot of things, but it’s a challenge to influence every development.
The EcoDistrict is the place where so many hopes and dreams – ideals one has – can be manifested in so many interlocking ways. It’s equity, it’s environment, it’s local – it’s hyper-local. In our bodies, our bones are a matrix. Activity draws calcium to our bones, and they become stronger. I see the EcoDistrict as a big matrix of all these small hubs where there is self-determination and as a hub in an even larger matrix. You’re bringing all these pieces together to look at the health of a bigger thing, like the health of the Salish Sea. Currently, jurisdictions are fighting for the survival of their bureaucracies and their government functions, and we need to figure out how to unify those in a way that is driven from the ground up by communities.