FIRST HILL IMPROVEMENT ASSOCIATION: A HISTORY
“When the big issues crop up we sort of spring into action,” said Michael Gray secretary of the First Hill Improvement Association in 1997. It was an apt description. Since 1958 when First Hill residents, medical institutions, and businesses organized to address problems of insufficient police protection, inadequate city lighting, and the effect of the recently proposed freeway, the association has taken an active role to retain the qualities that make First Hill one of Seattle’s most desirable neighborhoods.
Initial meetings led to the formation of the First Hill Improvement Club, the first name. Articles of Incorporation were filed in January, 1959. Signers included Tom S. Patterson, Minow Kimura, M.S. Dunn, Alden Lenz, Kenjiro Yamata, Thomas Miller, Dr. Albert Hurley, Lloyd Huffaker, and Walter Greathouse. Six months later the Club “appealed to the City Council for improved street lighting and more adequate police patrolling.”
However, plans for the Freeway, first proposed by the state in 1957, mobilized FHIA. An economic analysis prepared by Prof. W.J. Ramey of Seattle University in 1960, had warned that unless attention is paid to the area’s traffic problems, access between downtown and the area west of Broadway between Pine and Jefferson Streets would be affected. A year later FHIA “emphasized that the club’s primary concern is whether access and egress ramps…are adequate to serve the First Hill area, and whether streets and avenues west of the freeway would be unduly congested.” As a result of their efforts, Madison (originally the only thru street), Spring, Seneca, and 8th Avenue overpass (now under Washington State Convention Center) provided links to downtown and the expanding medical-hospital district.
To increase community involvement in 1964, the Association selected Miss Humphrey of 1006 Spring Street as Miss First Hill. She would represent the neighborhood in the annual Seafair festivities. A year later she cut the ribbon marking the dedication of the 8th Avenue freeway overpass. The Club continued sponsoring a Miss First Hill until the early 80s.
Throughout the 70s and 80s the FHIA addressed zoning and parking issues, the elimination of one way streets in the First Hill neighborhood, and fought a proposal to house nonviolent misdemeanor offenders in the Washington Center Building, former home of Villa Care nursing home, 1421 Minor Avenue. “The prisoners have to be put somewhere, but they can’t be put in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” said Tom “T.V” Dean, past president. The Association was successful, no prisoners. Nevertheless, a year later King County signed a contract to move its alcohol-treatment Program from Firland to the Washington Center Building.
To enhance the neighborhood, in 1985 FHIA began to raise money to place a clock on the northeast corner of Summit Avenue and Madison Street. Tom “T.V.” Dean and Louis Magrini co-chaired the committee. A successful fund raising drive brought in $45,000. The clock now stands in front of the Coppins Well apartments. “Tom and Ida Dean were the driving forces behind the organization from the early 60s to mid 80s,” said Michael Gray, an early president. To honor them, the club granted them permanent membership on the Board of Directors, Emeritus in 1982.
In the spring of 1996 FHIA became part of the First Hill Organizing Committee, a coalition of concerned citizens and businesses authorized to oversee the First Hill Neighborhood Plan. The Plan, when adopted would be in compliance with Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan for upgrading the city neighborhoods. The committee would also be able to designate an area as an Urban Neighborhood, making it possible to seek funding for needed projects.
When the city adopted the Neighborhood Plan in 1999, it designated FHIA as steward. To implement the plan the Association formed the First Hill Neighborhood Plan Stewardship Committee. Early projects included improvements to First Hill Park, installing a marked crosswalk on the SW corner of Seneca and Summit, starting a community newsletter, working with the City on upgrades for Yesler Terrace play field, and planning for Sound Transit.
In 1996, voters overwhelming approved a $3.9 billion rail and-bus network. Early plans, strongly supported by FHIA, included a Light Rail station for First Hill on Madison Street with entrances at Boylston Avenue and Summit Avenue. Unfortunately in June, 2005 considerable engineering, geology and construction risks caused the Sound Transit Board to eliminate the site. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood was less than pleased as First Hill had one of the lowest car ownerships in Seattle.
The Association lobbied to retain the First Hill Station but finally accepted the fact and brainstormed to find an alternative “reliable, efficient, grade-separated transportation system.” After a four year process, FHIA agreed to support the First Hill Streetcar Connector Project. Construction began in 2012 and is expected to be running in 2014.
This 2-mile streetcar serves Seattle’s Capitol Hill, First Hill, the International District and Pioneer Square with connections to Link light rail, Sounder commuter rail and bus service. Sound Transit funded the project while Seattle Department of Transportation managed the design and construction.
As the Association continues to tackle problems, such as better police protection, inadequate parking, development and land use, “springing into action” remains an apt description. As stewards, FHIA continues to find solutions that will benefit the community.
About the Author
FHIA history was contributed by Jacqueline Williams. Jaqueline Williams is an award winning author of historical books and essays, including The Hill With AFuture: Seattle’s Capitol Hill and The Way We Ate: Pacific Northwest Cooking 1843-1900. She is also a chapter author for Historic Seattle’s forthcoming First Hill History. In 2008 she received the Pacific Northwest History Award given by the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild.
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