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Developer Kristin Ryan On How To Make Seattle A City For Everyone

The recent explosion of economic growth in Downtown Seattle has left many wondering how the city will retain its character and affordability. Developer Kristin Ryan of barrientos RYAN has some big ideas.

Developer Kristin Ryan of barrientos RYAN

Before venturing into real estate, Ryan spent seven years in the nonprofit sector, where she worked in child welfare, AIDS and human rights organizations. In 1995, Ryan founded an advocacy and service organization for children in the U.S. who were orphaned by the AIDS crisis.

“That work brought me into a lot of contact with people who don’t have as much of everything. People who face a specific challenge, whether it be a health-related challenge, an economic-related challenge, an education-related challenge,” Ryan said.

She said this dedication to serving the community in the public sector informs her current work in the private sector.

“In any individual project, I’m always looking at how is it serving not only the people who are going to be living, working or shopping in that project, but how does it impact our city in its collective? How is the everyday population interacting with the project?” Ryan said.

Ryan took this collective spirit with her when she served on the city's Housing Livability and Affordability committee. The committee was composed of leaders from the Seattle community representing diverse stakeholders, including for-profit developers, nonprofit affordable housing developers, social justice advocates, labor and businesses. As a member of HALA, she helped champion the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, also known as the “Grand Bargain.”

“We should be densifying, we should be bringing more product to places that have the jobs, have the transit, have the schools, but it is an expensive and complex mix,” Ryan said. "It is not just a developer out there, single-handedly stretching the limit to make as much money as they can. I think that’s one of the pieces that gets forgotten about, is all of the parties at the table that go into actually making a project come together.”

MHA plans to expand rent-restricted affordable housing as Seattle grows by requiring new commercial and multifamily residential development to contribute to affordable housing. MHA requirements will take effect in zones where new height and/or floor area limits are adopted to increase development capacity. Ryan supports the plan she helped design, but said the full execution of it has faced some roadblocks.

“I do know that part of the implementation has been challenging with continued, escalated construction costs and land costs — it has challenged the plan to reach the outcome that it was originally intended to have,” Ryan said. “I believe firmly that we can have on-site performance and have mixed-income in buildings as a really strong goal, but the economics as they’ve ended up are not working to accomplish that.”

In addition to affordable housing, Ryan is committed to increasing the amount of workforce housing throughout the city. She is collaborating on several large public projects and joint ventures with nonprofit development agencies that will provide some workforce housing as well as market-rate housing.

“I think that’s pretty vital for the city’s ongoing growth and economic stability, to make sure that we can provide for folks that are making between 80 and 120% of our median income to still have access to the urban environment,” Ryan said. “That’s access to neighborhoods where there is core transit, access to jobs, access to schools and child care and then access to open space and cultural stuff.”

As the city grows and building becomes more expensive, Ryan hopes her work can provide a lifeline for small retail.

“It’s a funny statement to make in a city dominated by Amazon, but I think it is critical to have spaces where you can go in and touch things and see things and interact,” Ryan said. “I think what’s key in the market is so many of those vendors have created more of a maker economy with people making things locally. That work provides for real connection.”

She said building codes, fees, bank financing and other obstacles are making it more difficult for small retailers to stay afloat in the city.

“We all collectively desire active, vibrant, grade-level uses. Not vacant storefronts. For better or worse, we see that increasingly with projects. There are a lot of retail for lease signs floating at the bottom of a lot of buildings, instead of having actual retail there,” Ryan said.

To achieve these goals, barrientos RYAN is looking at ways to partner with private equity firms that share its values and have the best interest of Seattle as a whole in mind. Ryan wants to work with people who recognize the long-term viability and sustainability of projects, beyond their personal financial goals. She said it is important for private equity to recognize that there is a threshold amount, and that once that threshold is reached, there is an opportunity to put the excess back into the city and support longer-term affordability.

“I think we’d like to continue to expand the marketplace for folks that are thinking that way and see that as important,” Ryan said.

She hopes by countering some of the stereotypes about developers in Seattle, she can foster a greater sense of community and collaboration.

“I think it’s really important to change this dynamic of the language and the impression that developers are evil and only out to line their own pockets,” Ryan said. “That is first and foremost. I think if we don’t go into it trusting each other as a community, believing that folks are onboard to make the community a better place, we end up at extremes. We tend to get to a less collaborative place and, instead, a more controversial place. That definitely doesn’t get us to an outcome that we’re seeking.”

Ryan is one of the panelists scheduled to take to the stage at the Bisnow Future of Downtown Seattle (The Challenges and the Promise of the Urban Explosion) event Aug. 24 at the Four Seasons Hotel Seattle.