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Coffee & Conversation: Lands and community

By Forterra NW

Civic leader Lyle Quasim and Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp speak with Forterra President and CEO Michelle Connor for a thought-provoking discussion about the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for Washington State communities and lands.

Lyle Quasim is a longtime civic leader and civil rights activist who has co-chaired the Black Collective — a volunteer leadership organization addressing issues affecting the Black community in Tacoma and Pierce County — since the group’s founding 50 years ago. He became the first African American to head the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services in 1995 and served as chief of staff for Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg from 2001 to 2008. He led Tacoma’s Safe Streets Campaign in 1988 to engage the community against a rise in gang violence. He currently serves on the Strong Community Fund board of directors.

President Fawn Sharp is the current president of the Quinault Indian Nation in Taholah, Washington, having previously served as the tribe’s managing attorney and lead counsel. She also is the 23rd president of the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native tribal government organization in the country. She has held numerous leadership positions, including a trustee for Grays Harbor College and a member of the Washington State Bar Association’s board of governors.

Michelle Connor, president and CEO of Forterra, is a third-generation Washingtonian who has worked to conserve land for community and environmental wellbeing throughout her 25-year career at Forterra. She has played a part in more than 400 transactions and provided executive leadership in all phases of public policy, community engagement, negotiations, fundraising, and innovative finance.

What is Lyle Quasim’s involvement in Forterra’s attainable housing project in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood? Any updates on the project, and will the project use sustainable building practices?

Lyle: I am a board member of the Strong Communities Fund, which is advancing the Hilltop project. I have lived and worked in this community for over 50 years. I will assist the project through my volunteer engagement with Forterra, and I have a desire to improve the community that I have served.

Michelle: The Forterra team is working closely with the Hilltop community, including a community engagement partnership with Fab-5, a neighborhood nonprofit. The project has a Community Investment Council made up of people who represent the neighborhood. The Council provides input on key project decisions. To adapt our community engagement process to respect new public health measures, the project team is continuing to work with the Community Investment Council, which already has convened twice online.

The project team is preparing for broader community design workshops this summer, which are likely to be held online as well. While the uses and design of the Hilltop project are still in the planning stages, Forterra intends to build the homes and commercial space from cross-laminated timber (CLT). CLT is a wood product that is lightweight, strong, and does very well against fire, earthquake, and temperature change. CLT generates savings in construction costs, and Forterra can pass those savings to the community and provide attainable housing.

How are Forterra’s development projects driven by the community?

Michelle: Forterra is completing multi-year community engagement efforts for attainable housing projects in Hamilton (Skagit County), Tacoma, and Tukwila. We work closely with community engagement partners to meet the unique and specific needs of each neighborhood.

You can learn more about our Hamilton project, our Hilltop project in Tacoma, and our Wadajir project in Tukwila by visiting Forterra.org.

We adhere to the following community engagement principles:

  • Forterra believes in community ownership at every level: land and buildings.
  • Forterra is accountable to the neighborhoods in which we work.
  • Forterra endeavors at all times to communicate clearly and consistently with the community about project plans and updates.
  • Engagement events must provide the local community with the opportunity to shape each project.

Outreach on our attainable housing projects also must provide a format for community direction on unit mix, pricing, and ownership structure (co-op ownership or rental units).

How do we sustain communities in urban areas where residents are being pushed out by gentrification?

Lyle: I have a goal that a person working as an attendant at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma making the minimum $12 an hour is able to take light rail to and from their place of work and live in an affordable space in which they could build equity. We can sustain urban communities by creating conditions that enable persons to have the basic elements to sustain themselves in that community. Employment, transportation, health care, education, and housing are at the top of the list.

Michelle: Tackling gentrification means making commitments, dedicating time for authentic inclusion, sharing power, and prioritizing investments. We need to learn from history and to fully understand the systemic injustices that result in gentrification. We need policy and planning that prioritize anti-displacement at regional and local levels. There are promising examples of progress in the forthcoming VISION2050 regional growth strategy for the central Puget Sound region, as well as strong civic inclusion in planning in cities like Tukwila.

People also need to be able to afford to live where they grew up. How land is used is driven by the priorities of who owns the land. At Forterra, we believe communities need to own their property in order to own their future. That’s why at Forterra, we acquire lands and work with communities to develop attainable housing. Ultimately, much of this housing will use a co-op model, meaning in the long-run the community owns the property.

How can areas outside of the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett metro area achieve greater economic stability?

Michelle: If cities and towns outside of the central Puget Sound are to flourish, they need opportunities to rebuild robust, locally appropriate enterprises that are resilient to economic and political change. What this looks like on the ground will depend on the opportunities, resources, and desires of a given community. Here are three examples of how Forterra is creating economic, ecological, and social opportunities outside of the central Puget Sound area:

  • Cross Laminated Timber Coalition: The way we construct buildings is changing due to the emergence of mass timber products, particularly cross laminated timber (CLT). Forterra recognizes the potential of CLT to address the diverse needs of Washington’s communities: housing that’s affordable, good-paying jobs, and thriving natural landscapes. That is why Forterra leads a statewide coalition to develop and implement a coordinated strategy to catalyze a CLT market in Washington state, and its successes are bringing new opportunities to our rural and urban communities alike.
  • Shelton Community Vision & Action Plan for Downtown Revitalization: Forterra worked with the City of Shelton, the Shelton-Mason County Chamber of Commerce, local business owners, and residents to create a Community Vision and Action Plan for revitalizing downtown Shelton.
  • Aberdeen Community Planning and Investment: Over the past 10 years, Forterra has worked with the City of Aberdeen on its revitalization vision. For example, we participated in and supported the City of Aberdeen’s Historic Downtown redevelopment planning and vision to reconnect to the waterfront. We also helped with planning and acquisitions to address flooding in Aberdeen-area communities, and planning for restoration and repurposing of the historic Morck Hotel, a cultural and economic hub in Aberdeen’s past.

As Lyle likes to say, “We are who we’ve been waiting for.” We can do this, but we may need to be creative in the process.

Now that we know we need more housing to break poverty, homelessness, and address the pandemic, how can we dedicate more land to meet these needs? Building more and more density has produced more issues with this virus.

Michelle: There is a lot more to learn about the coronavirus, how we cope in the current pandemic, and how we prepare and build stronger resilience in our communities to mitigate any future crises. That said, we respectfully disagree with the conclusion that better preparation for a pandemic entails spreading our housing footprint into rural areas. We believe spread beyond our current footprint will compound current issues—pushing people further from jobs and service areas, increasing our transportation issues, worsening environmental impacts, and reducing our quality of life.

In terms of affordability and homelessness, we need to address more systemic issues of injustice, which includes economic development and policy work, along with a community-informed development process. We also need more attainable housing options that are in proximity to good jobs and convenient transit. That’s why Forterra is partnering with communities to create projects like Wadajir in Tukwila and Hilltop in Tacoma. It’s also why we support our governments at all levels to develop plans and invest in actions that help us better stave off global public health crises and mitigate the impacts should they occur again.

How do we leverage the environmental rebound we are seeing as a result of stay-at-home orders (for example, reductions in traffic and fossil fuel use)?

Michelle: What seems apparent is our economy and systems are not resilient to catastrophic circumstances. We’re also not prepared for the looming earthquake, climate change, and wealth inequality. We need more resilience in our systems. We’ve known this, but this pandemic has brought it into focus. We need to do things differently if we are to be prepared for and resilient to challenges at multiple scales. We believe we can meet these challenges.

Forterra’s mission is rooted in a vision that maintains our quality of life in a future different than our past. We are committed to look at our challenges and our opportunities and to seek new ways to get more accomplished. As Lyle likes to say, “We are who we’ve been waiting for.” We can do this, but we may need to be creative in the process.

What are a few practical steps the conservation/environmental movement can take to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in our work?

Michelle: As a historically white-led organization, we strive to pursue our work equitably and inclusively. Practically speaking, we are addressing our commitment in three ways: who we partner with and how we work with them, staff hiring, and board appointments. Our partners help educate us and guide how we approach our work. We are learning to slow down, and to be comfortable being uncomfortable. We’re also focused on hiring staff and recruiting board members who are more representative of the communities where we work. This takes time as well as a willingness to be humble and learn from our mistakes.

Lyle: Michelle’s response is on the correct track. This is an important question that is often asked. I want to ask the person who asks this question to be introspective. Are you curious, or are you serious about increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion? Information exists on this subject and is not difficult to locate.

What is Forterra tangibly doing to address inequality concerns? And what do our donations specifically pay for?

Michelle: Forterra has a long history working on community-informed conservation and development projects. In our 30-year history, we have developed innovative policies, conserved more than 250,000 acres of land, and supported sustainable rural and urban development. Our work is rooted in the understanding that coalitions and partnerships are essential to successful outcomes. In our community work, we work closely with local partners to meet the unique needs of the areas we work in. Our partnerships are built on a shared set of values and commitment to the community.

In regards to your second question, donations made to Forterra support the projects we work on—whether that’s covering the cost of supplies, covering the rent, funding our ability to have the legal and financial infrastructure to administer complex projects, or supporting our staff to engage on the ground. Additionally, donors can choose to designate their support toward specific projects, property purchases, or program areas.

What are Forterra’s new, immediate challenges?

Michelle: The pandemic raises a lot of uncertainties and challenges. For example, right now we cannot do our normal on-the-ground work—organizing volunteers to steward city parks, sending out work crews to restore riverbanks, or hosting in-person community events. This is the primary challenge we face right now. In the long-run, we face potential underfunding of conservation work through an economic downturn. Learn more about how we’re addressing coronavirus by reading my recent blog.

What do you think of using the University of Washington and Department of Health cumulative impact mapping tool and the Environmental Justice Taskforce recommendations to inform how we consider future investments and any potential cuts due to COVID-19?

Michelle: We strongly support use of public health and environmental justice assessments to ensure that we are providing opportunities and investment of infrastructure in an equitable way throughout our communities. Forterra’s Strong Communities Fund prioritizes neighborhoods where lack of public investment correlates with poor public health outcomes, and we strongly advocate for prioritization of investment in new parks and park restoration, access to healthy foods, and core infrastructure investments to better support communities that have been historically marginalized from these resources.