City and Neighborhood Collaborate to Revive Community Center

Mar 31, 1997
Dec 14, 2017

Seattle, Washington

Rainier Community Center in Southeast Seattle is bustling with activity from morning until closing time. It has become a magnet for the neighborhood, providing programs, classes, counseling and games for children and adults, from senior pickleball players to internet web page designers.

Project Background

In 1993, the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation conducted a needs assessment of its 25 community centers. Rainier Community Center, in southeast Seattle, was found to be too small, structurally unsound, inaccessible, and lacking programming that would bring in participants from the diverse African-American, Asian, and white neighborhoods around the center. Programs focused mainly on football and basketball, making the center attractive only to youths and intimidating to others. Rainier was the first of six community centers to be rebuilt.

Because the community's needs clearly outweighed the size and condition of the old building, a decision was reached to tear it down and start over on a site across the street. The new building, which has become the hub of the area, is located at the edge of a 55-acre park stretching down to Lake Washington with a three-mile loop path and greenspaces for gathering.

In planning the new center, resident-inspired facilities included a multi-purpose room for classes and events with an adjacent kitchen for catered parties and meetings, two computer rooms, and two gyms. Security concerns were addressed with an open, bright, one story plan that eliminated the dark corners that typified the old building. During construction, the city commissioned local artists to develop installations for the center using recycled materials gathered by the community. For example, artists cast sculptures from aluminum cans and children collected bottlecaps which were used for a mural.


The new center was funded by an $18 million levy that was approved by voters in 1991 for funding improvements for Seattle's six neediest centers. Profits from space rentals go into the city's general fund, not to the center directly. A local foundation funds and staffs a program linking sports and schooling for young people. Project Compute, the huge computer program at Rainier, is funded by donations from local and businesses and residents.


When project manager Joy Okazaki saw the first attendance reports from the district showing 5,000 people a week at the "new" Rainier, "I thought it was a typo," she said. However, records show participation has doubled at many old programs. At the new center, Seattle's Family Services Center sponsors classes in nutrition, counseling and a young fathers program that gives parents and their children activities to participate in simultaneously. The community center also provides such diverse adult classes as African drumming and dancing, coed step aerobics, and developmentally challenged cooking. For the first time, there are extensive senior programs, ranging from Polynesian nutrition to computer usage and lectures. Drop-in activities include contract bridge, table tennis, a weight room ($1 entrance fee), and a pool table. Kids Place (a non-profit educational and play program funded by the city) provides activities for younger children.

Teen and pre-teen attendance at after-school computer, sports, and arts activities is almost overwhelming, according to Rainier's staff. There is a camp in the summer, city-league basketball and field sports, music lessons, arts and crafts, conflict resolution, and health and self-esteem programs, among others. "The center markets itself," said Okazaki, and cites as evidence a group of Asian pickleball players -- a combination of badminton, wiffle ball and paddleball -- who approached the center for use of the second gym. Now they meet there regularly, and Asian-Americans come to Rainier not just from the neighborhood, but from all over the city.

Gil Petitt, vice chairman of the Rainier Advisory Council, concurs and cites the computer program, known as "Project Compute," as another key to Rainier's success. The project, carried over from the old center, has 22 workstations in two rooms and every type of hardware and software, all donated by businesses and non-profits. It is so popular that over $100,000 has been raised by the center in the last 12 months, some of it from excited participants and volunteer tutors. "Providing an educational resource along with a recreational resource attracts people with means to our center," said Petitt, who then gave an example of how the program works; "Recently," he said, "the CEO of a software company came down to demonstrate his product at the center. Not only did he leave copies of his software behind after the demonstration, he came back later as a volunteer, having been touched by what he saw."

Volunteer tutors teach all ages and levels in basic programming, math and science, internet/web design, and computer art. The program can train adults and children in valuable skills that the local, underserved schools cannot afford to provide. Parents come in to learn along with their children, and sometimes become volunteers themselves.

The center's multi-purpose room and second gym are also magnets. They attract weddings, parties, conferences, meetings, speaking events and outside classes. The city charges a fee to rent the space unless the event is open to the public and run by a non-profit group.

Lessons Learned

Rainier's success is due to many factors, among them community involvement, good building design, and programs that educate as well as provide recreation. However, the popularity of the new facility has stretched the building's capacity to its limits. There is a waiting list for every computer class, and scheduling problems are common for the multi-purpose room, especially during the summer, when day camps virtually "take over."

Additionally, the staff worries about providing for the huge teen presence at the center. While Kid's Place provides programs for younger children, there are fewer structured programs as the kids get older. A game room only holds 15 and is frequently crowded. One staffer noted that arts and crafts classes are commonly held in the lobby, both to provide extra space in the multi-purpose room, and to allow the staff to keep an eye on who is coming and going.

(Spring 1997)

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