From an early age, Rico Quirindongo was interested in the impact of the built environment on people. That’s why he became an architect. But he sees an architect’s role as much larger than just designing buildings with a useful life. He believes every architect has an obligation, a responsibility to engage in a civic conversation for design justice – to absorb the history of a place and the needs of the current community in a meaningful way, into each and every design.
Rico started his career as an architect in St. Louis, MO, and later moved back to his hometown of Seattle to work first with Donald King, and then with the DLR group. He has been twice recognized by the AIA as a citizen architect – in 2011 and again in 2020. The AIA looks at more than just the physical aspects of architecture. They also value the architect’s ability to uplift diverse voices, influence social change, and bring about community engagement – all of which hold great importance in Rico’s work.
In 2021, Rico took on the role of interim director at the Office of Planning and Community Development for the City of Seattle, hoping to increase the scale of his social impact. This role feeds his soul. Here he can push harder for what he believes in. Positive results are already rolling in. The trajectory of the Seattle Midtown Square project was significantly altered when Rico gave the local community a role in its planning. The development was transformed from a building of 430 units with a CVS on the corner into a destination location featuring a not-for-profit organization, an artist residency location, an art gallery, and more.
Rico’s success stories show us the amazing results that collaboration can bring. He reminds us that local residents – those who know and love their neighborhoods – can bring a fresh perspective, helping developers create buildings that benefit the people.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:09] Hi there. Thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate. For Good. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo, in order to build better for everyone. If you haven’t already, check out all of my podcasts at our website RethinkRealEstateForGood.co, or you can find them at your favorite podcast station. You’ll find lots worth listening to, I’m sure.
Eve: [00:01:04] From an early age, Rico Quirindongo was interested in the impact of the built environment on people. That’s why he became an architect. But he sees an architect’s role as much larger than just designing buildings with a useful life. He believes every architect has an obligation, a responsibility to engage in a civic conversation for design justice, to absorb the history of a place and the needs of the current community in a meaningful way into each and every design. Recently, Rico became interim director at the Office of Planning and Community Development for the City of Seattle. The city he has lived his life in, and this role feeds his soul. Here he can push harder for what he believes in. Positive results are already rolling in. Please listen in to hear more.
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Eve: [00:02:39] Hi Rico, I’m just delighted to have this opportunity to talk to you today.
Rico Quirindongo: [00:02:44] Morning.
Eve: [00:02:45] It’s very early for you. Yes.
Rico: [00:02:49] I’m an early riser, so it’s okay.
Eve: [00:02:51] Oh, well, that’s good. Yeah. Let me start by asking you, you know, a big question. What led you to move from an international design practice to a planning department in Seattle?
Rico: [00:03:03] Well, I would want to take a step back. So, I began working as a Black architect. Actually, I started working as a Black architect in St Louis at a Black owned firm called Kennedy Associates. Moved back to my, this was after college, I moved back to Washington State to do my graduate work at University of Washington. And in doing my thesis, which was the creation of an African American museum for the Northwest, I met a man who was also helping to lead the community, who was also an architect, Black architect. He essentially adopted me. I became an intern in his practice. This was in the mid 90s. Donald King, who is a mentor and a friend. I worked for Donald and, with Donald, became a partner of his firm for the better part of 17 years, moved over into this international practice to build the civic side of the practice, this was DLR Group, a wonderful firm. Really appreciated my time there, and I essentially was recruited to join the city.
Rico: [00:04:42] I had actually been interested in the Office of Planning and Community Development when it was created. I think that was five and a half years ago. That position was taken by Sam Assefa, who is now providing leadership in this realm in California for the state. He did a great job in building the office, and I was honored to be able to be brought in. I would say that I’ve always been looking for, I’m always looking for how I can leverage whatever I’m doing today to get to something that has a larger positive impact for community, that is scalable. And so, taking my small firm community-based practice to an international firm to kind of infuse that type of community based leadership and design thinking in the international practice and then bring that same thinking to the City of Seattle now where I’m able to hopefully impact a much larger community locally. It’s very meaningful to me.
Eve: [00:06:03] So, what’s your role there?
Rico: [00:06:06] So, I am the acting director for the Office of Planning and Community Development, and it’s a multifaceted role. I mean, so on the planning side, we are in charge of our long-range planning for the city. So, Growth Management Act Coordination and compliance with the Puget Sound Regional Council. So, we have six urban growth areas, sub area plan work that we have to do. We are leaning into redevelopment of our comprehensive plan, which will be a ten-year plan. So, it will look out to 2044 and address issues of continued growth of the city, working with our Office of Economic Development regarding what is the relationship to built environment and job growth. And we also are leaning into a discussion around equity. So, how do we look at a terrible history of redlining in our city, which is no different than what we saw in cities across the nation? And how do we really begin to reverse some of that damage and help lay the groundwork to build generational wealth for our communities of color who have been under served and under supported? I would say a couple of other things are office convenes a capital subcabinet. So, I’m a member of the cabinet for the mayor and we convene on a monthly basis a cross collaborative discussion with ten capital departments across the city, including our Seattle City Light and our public utilities and our department of transportation.
Rico: [00:08:03] To look at how are we making place-based decisions related to how we’re investing dollars and kind of to try to push beyond the silos of kind of each department’s individual capital program. And then lastly, we, I also help lead our Equitable Development Initiative, which is a, it’s our largest investment in the community development side of the work. So long range planning, the stuff that’s up to 20 years out. It’s really hard for people to, people that are living their daily lives. Like, what does that work really mean to me? The community development side, we’re working on the ground in the trenches with our actual development initiative, investing around $20 million a year into community led projects. It is BIPOC-led projects, community based, multifaceted, many different types of projects, some housing related, all invest in different types of services being provided to community. It’s very inspirational and it really connects the dots between kind of our aspirational long-term goals and like work that we do in the day to day that’s actually making a difference in people’s lives.
Eve: [00:09:34] So one of the questions I was going to ask you, which I think you answered, is, does this work feed your soul a little better than the private practice?
Rico: [00:09:42] Yes, absolutely.
Eve: [00:09:43] Sounds like it does.
Rico: [00:09:44] Yeah, I would say that I feel very fortunate. I think that, from the beginning, really, as an intern, it was important to me to be able to do work in the community and to do work that had meaning and value. Whenever I have the chance to be on a panel discussion or speak with students at a university. My message has been that you really can’t wait for a tomorrow that you’re never going to get to. And, if there is something about which you’re passionate or that brings you a sense of purpose or meaning, it is important to try to lean into that, like in real time, like in your day to day. And it doesn’t mean that you can have that meaningful value in your work every single day, necessarily. I mean, there are certainly days where the work is just hard and difficult, but this job does get me out of bed every day.
Eve: [00:10:46] I completely agree with you. So, you know, I think architects are in a unique position that they really do need to think in advance, like 10, 20 years. And so we sort of trained to think about what a piece of land can become 20 years from now. So it’s sort of a very natural shift to add a little bit more to it, right?
Rico: [00:11:09] Yes, absolutely. I think that my thesis, in graduate school was. My thesis chair, George Rolfe, was an urban planner and provided leadership for our school, for the department. Actually, he was also the first ed for the Pike Place Market, which I was chair for three or four years. I was on the board for seven years. But the thesis. At the end of the day, was around development of a large city block and turning it into housing. And this African American museum, which we actually had the good fortune of being able to work with Donald King to see that project into reality with the city and the community, I think it was a decade after the thesis was completed. But as a student, what was foundational for me was that the project, while important, started with a analysis of the neighborhood and the city and context. I think that it is critical that as we make investments in individual site solutions as architects, or as individuals or as a city like it, it is critical to think about what’s the ripple effect of that individual site outward into community, into a urban context, or depending on where you live, a rural context as well. It’s more than just what happens on that single site.
Eve: [00:12:53] Yes. So, you know, this brings me to the architecture profession and an architect role. And is the profession of architecture and planning becoming more focused on equity or does it have a long way to go? How can we impact, how can we make that profession sort of reflect on this more? I suppose I’m coming from this. I also taught in an architecture school, and I found it to be startling how little students were told what they could do with this knowledge they were learning. I think architects are sort of uniquely trained and have the capability to do all sorts of things with that training, you know. But it feels to me like architecture. You know, the iconic building architecture has got to shift a little, right?
Rico: [00:13:44] I think it is. I mean, I think that 150 years ago, if this was a very white male led profession and, in some regards, that is still the case. But it was a profession that was of privilege. Again, still is, but one where the focus was on more of a elite clientele that could afford to bring on board an architect and do expensive developments that were focused on the individual. I think that what we have seen is the beginnings of a shift where we really are. Architects are servants to the community. I was recognized by the American Institute of Architects as a citizen architect in 2011 and again in 2020. And I think that part of what the Institute of Architecture has acknowledged is the importance and value of what the profession can and should be doing to help lift up diverse voices, invest in social change through built environment projects, and understand that to get to a place that is about equity in the community is a multifaceted discussion.
Rico: [00:15:18] And I often talk about Kaiser Family Foundation social determinants of health, which there are six buckets of consideration regarding if looking at the whole health of an individual or family or community, you have to address all six of those buckets. One of them is social and cultural context. One of them is built environment, food, health, health care, access to good education. And so, I think that we hold one of those pillars as architects. And I do think in 2020, with the horrible atrocity of George Floyd’s death and kind of the elevation of the critical issues around how people of color have been disrespected and held down for centuries. You saw a lot of architects actually asking the question, what can we do to be a value to make a difference in this discussion? And I think that we are now doubling down on trying to answer that question. I think it is about being an ally. I think it is about being a support. I think it is about transfer of wealth from those that have to those that do not, and that can be done through environmental projects.
Eve: [00:16:59] When you think about a space or a place that’s being designed, what elements do you think are critical for it to become more equitable.
Rico: [00:17:10] This can be hard depending on the project type. I think that looking at the context of a place. I mean, you have to start with what is the history of that place, right? Like, who did the land belong to? We in our, in these United States have stolen land from our Indigenous population. And that is a burden that we need to carry forward in the work and looking toward righting past wrongs. I think that looking at a context of place, you have to look at the generational history of that place, how that informs site and context. And then what is the community, the resident community that is there in the present and how might they be affected by whatever the built environment project is that is being proposed? And what is the opportunity for that resident community to be invited into the conversation and the process for visioning for the redevelopment of a site. I think depending on what the type of project is, will determine on what the community role is or can be in that project. But I think that it is critical for us as architects to ensure that the community does have a seat at the table.
Eve: [00:18:50] Interesting. Yeah. I mean, I was at the planning department many years ago, and community engagement really meant just some meetings with the community many years ago. I mean, how has that shifted? What does that really mean today? Like community engagement?
Rico: [00:19:05] It is a dangerous prospect. It’s very easy to get trapped in a box checking process where, you know, City of Seattle, we have a regulatory process which requires that for many projects you have to go through design review in order to get your building permit, and that requires that you have two community meetings. So, you go out and talk about height, bulk and scale of the project and then come back for a second meeting and talk about how facades will be articulated. And it’s easy to, I shouldn’t say easy, but it is not unusual for that process to look or function performatively but not actually engage the community in the real conversation about things that they care about. I think that that latter conversation is hard.
Eve: [00:20:03] It’s very hard. Yeah.
Rico: [00:20:05] It is.
Eve: [00:20:06] Very hard.
Rico: [00:20:07] When I was the chair for the Pike Place Market, PDA Council, Preservation Development Authority, honestly, we had public open meetings every single week with a very engaged resident population. Between over 300 businesses, mostly small businesses and residents that live on that urban campus, if you will. A lot of people very much cared about their built environment and their families and businesses and would show up to those meetings to hold us accountable for decisions that we made, many of which were about the buildings that we owned and the public realm environment that we were responsible for. And it is much easier to make decisions about what a building looks like and how it impacts the environment when you are doing the design, executing the project and then walking away, it’s much harder to do that when you’re going to be held accountable week to week long after that project is completed.
Rico: [00:21:23] That is certainly an attitude that Donald and I shared in private practice with our small Black-owned firm that, not only around the idea of repeat clients, but just around community accountability. You have to do well by community through the process. Community has to see themselves as a part of the conversation and not, in a tangible way. There’s a project that I worked on where the part of the call and response with Community got to a place where we really had to have a very explicit conversation about, this is what we hear you saying that you need. This is what we can do. And this is how that input is being incorporated in build form in the project. And this is what we can’t do, and this is why we can’t do it. I think so often we’re afraid to be honest or transparent about what we can and what we can’t do and what the whys are, because then we can be criticized or someone might not agree with us, but the reality is that is the only way.
Eve: [00:22:34] Yes.
Rico: [00:22:35] By having an honest and transparent and real conversation with people, can we build trust and actually do well for ourselves and on behalf of community?
Eve: [00:22:48] The question I always have is this is a very high resource, intense activity. And for the thousands of little projects going on with small developers who don’t have the capability to have that sort of continued conversation, I wish that there was someone building resources for them because I think often that community activity can be perfunctory when you simply don’t have the ability to manage it, right. I mean, if you’re a big developer and you set aside a bucket of funds and time and you can plan for someone to be managing that, you can get it done. But if it’s something small, which could matter equally. Equally, right? It’s difficult.
Rico: [00:23:43] Yeah. I appreciate your point. And I do think that for smaller developers, it is important to be able to provide a small development community. And I have been in conversations with an organization called LISC.
Eve: [00:24:01] Oh yes, I know LISC.
Rico: [00:24:02] That does investments, large investments in the community nationally. Locally, they are engaging in a program to invest in small bipoc developers, figure out where they are in the development of their practices, and then how they can help provide them resource to grow their capacity. Like I said before that level of community investment that is meaningful is hard. But I think that if authentic, then it becomes more straightforward. And what I mean by that is, it is very difficult for a developer to come in from outside the community, into a place, propose a project without having community context or contacts. And I think that, while I understand that if you’re a small developer, you have limited resource, I still think that from a place of responsibility, that part of that resource has to be allocated to talking to people in the neighborhood. Talking about your project. Understanding what the context and impact of it is. And having that inform the design and implementation, including hiring of small business, other small businesses that are part of the construction project or become residents in the project, I think that the activity is scalable. I understand that smaller projects have more limited resources and therefore can’t do the same things that large projects can. But I also know that small developers often find themselves more connected with community in their projects than large corporate ones. I don’t think it’s simply an issue of scale.
Eve: [00:25:55] Yeah, no, I see that. So, I suppose I want to know how can we actively make places that work for everyone and that everyone feels comfortable in? I understand the history and the engagement, but how does that translate physically? Like, have you got an example of a project where you think it might have turned out very differently if there hadn’t been that engagement?
Rico: [00:26:22] I’ll talk about this project that’s opening up now called Midtown Square. It is a project that was built by Lake Union Partners here in Seattle. I was brought in to lead a community conversation because there was a fissure between what the white majority developer was looking to do, building of 430 units, and what the community saw, which was a white developer coming in and taking over what was a very important site to that community at Union and 23rd in the Central District, which was a historically Black neighborhood in the city.
Eve: [00:27:02] You don’t choose easy conversations, do you?
Rico: [00:27:04] No. No, I don’t. Through a community engagement process, so there were, we created a series of open houses, one on one interviews, small group discussions, meeting people where they’re at, going to the local school public events to talk about the project really sought to get community input and direction. What we built was an art program for the project where we brought in eight locally connected BIPOC artists that transformed both site and building, like the facades of the building, actually were turned into canvases for artists to transform. And what we ended up with is a destination location at that at that intersection now where in addition to the art program, we created a new non-for-profit at the prominent city corner, which is dedicated to the artist community, largely Black artists. There’s a place for artists to sell their wares. There is an artist residency location, there’s a gallery. None of which was conceived of in the original project. And the ground floor of that building, both the interior courtyard and the two prominent facades that face major street fronts, will be filled with Black-owned businesses. And so, the transformation of the public realm is both bringing back businesses that were pushed out of that portion of the neighborhood and also creating opportunities for new business or expanded business that’s contributing back to the generational wealth of the owners of those businesses.
Eve: [00:29:08] That’s a remarkable outcome. And it’s a very, very lovely one. I can picture it. And was the developer happy with this outcome?
Rico: [00:29:19] Very much so. And I have to say that I feel like we were very fortunate to. And, you know, transformation happens over time, right. They had done two other projects in the neighborhood that had no investment in a community conversation, at least not one that that was evident or one that was felt and understood by the community being impacted to see the, this developer lean into a different process. And to be clear, like it began because the City of Seattle, through the regulatory process, said, yes, we understand what you are trying to do, but the community is not aligned with you on this project and you’re going to have to go fix it, figure it out.
Eve: [00:30:08] That’s a great role.
Rico: [00:30:10] It was an important role. I think that we were very fortunate to be able to work with a developer who could respond to a different viewpoint and different ideas than what they may have initially visualized, or the extent to which the level of investment that was asked of them was very different than where they were, where the project conversation started
Eve: [00:30:39] I don’t know how they could have imagined that outcome. It’s pretty terrific. I do want to say, like just on our funding portal, what’s been a really interesting shift that we’ve noticed over the last year or two, again since the horrible George Floyd episode, larger and larger developers have been coming to us in an effort to kind of integrate raising capital from the community or letting the community have some ownership in their project as well, it’s been a really pronounced shift. So, I think all of this is kind of happening together. It’s fascinating and fabulous.
Rico: [00:31:18] And even on that project. And so, we, now that I’m on the city side, I get to see it from the other side of the table, like the new not-for-profit applied to the city for funding for their tenant improvement. The ones dedicated to artists on the ground floor, that, there was a push. Like, that was not what the original intention was for that corner actually was going to be a CVS pharmacy.
Eve: [00:31:48] Oh, I like this much better.
Rico: [00:31:52] Yes, everybody did, developer included. But the big push there was a condominiumization of the building where that ground floor unit is now owned by the not-for-profit and providing generational wealth to artists that will be involved with that collective, which was again not what was originally, it was not what was originally conceived by the developer. And so, there is a big push that we are making. At least in this work that we’re doing through the EDI program, to ensure that moneys that are being invested, the properties are held by community members, by BIPOC owners that actually helps them get to a better financial position.
Eve: [00:32:47] We just completed an offering actually for the San Francisco Community Land Trust, which was really interesting because they purchased a 41 unit building with some retail space that was a commercial rental building, and they are going to be converting it over the next few years into a BIPOC owned cooperative for the people who live there. Very complicated project, but we actually help them raise money. Although they didn’t need the money for their business plan, they wanted to let the community invest, and there are so many people out there who want to help. It was very interesting. The return offered was low, but that doesn’t matter to some people. Yeah, we’re hoping that we’re going to raise. I mean, that was probably one of the best do-good projects we’ve ever done. I thought it was a pretty amazing project. So, I think more and more this is happening, which is just in all sorts of ways, which is just fabulous. So, I wanted to talk to you about the Waterfront Seattle Park as well, but we may have run out of time because that’s a huge project that looks amazing. And I know you were involved. And how did that impact the outcome of what’s being built, I suppose?
Rico: [00:34:03] I was recruited to join the Pike Place Market Council in large part because a parcel Pike Place had one remaining parcel on our campus which was able to be developed, and it was essentially an early win for the Waterfront project, which is headed up here by Marshall Foster, Office of Waterfronts and Civic Projects. That opportunity was to develop a site that contributes to the Pike Place Market in creating a huge plaza that allows you to look out over the waterfront and the city, and that’s a public gathering space. Added farmer and market stalls that became an extension of marketplace for us, but, well and created 10,000 square feet of makerspace for businesses. But underneath all of that, and that’s what’s important for the Waterfront project, we built 300 parking spaces which were part of a replacement. There was a study done as part of the Environmental Impact Statement for the Waterfront Project that acknowledged that I believe over 600 spaces were being lost in the redevelopment of the waterfront and that that was a critical impact to the downtown community. And so, Pike Place Market essentially answered an RFP from the city for a replacement of a portion of those parking spaces. So below the project, invisible to anybody that comes into the market, we have provided a solution to a need for the Waterfront development. It’s not what drives the placemaking, but important for the functioning of the downtown.
Rico: [00:36:11] On the placemaking side, the Marketfront Project, that’s what we call it, it was the first development, and I would call it a public private partnership, right? Because half of the 34 million was committed into that project by the city, the rest of it was committed and developed through funding from our Pike Place Market foundation. And we actually, the PDA did a large bond funding to fund the project and tax credit financing. But we had this opportunity to create a public space, public gathering, that contributes back to public realm. And it is the first stage of creating a bridge from a Pike Place Market site across to a future aquarium expansion Seattle Aquarium that then takes you down to the new waterfront. Our project is great. The development, once it’s complete in entirety is going to be incredible, including the Overlook Walk, which connects from the waterfront up into the market. It has been very complicated. Many voices. A huge vision that was the waterfront bringing together the entire city to be a part of that visioning process. It’s been an honor to be able to be a part of that.
Eve: [00:37:39] Interesting. Yeah. The many voices is scary, but it sounds like you manage them very well.
Rico: [00:37:46] I do the best that I can. And, you know, I think that now being at the Office of Planning and Community Development, I have a benefit of having 44 staff that are all very invested in this vision for equity, leading with equity, and kind of doing right by community. And so, this has work. I mean, to be clear, we are the City of Seattle, as an entity is over 11,000 employees. And so, we’re a very small complement, but we are leaning into what is transformation look like for the city and how do we do this work in a way where people have voice and can be seen. And it is hard work, and it does take a village. But I feel like we are starting to make some headway.
Eve: [00:38:47] So one final question. What’s your big, hairy, audacious goal?
Rico: [00:38:54] That’s a good question. I mean, the honest reality is, is that I think that on this conversation of generational wealth, that we have a responsibility, both as a city and as a nation, to look at harms that we have caused for the Asian community, for the Black community, and for the Indigenous community and for the immigrant community and ask ourselves, how do we change policies that we have in place, built environment and otherwise economic investment to get our communities of color to the place that they deserve to be? And what does that mean? That does mean investing and curating a authentic discussion in each of those communities to ask what that means, of the communities that we are engaged with. And then we have a responsibility to act to support those needs. That is not an easy thing to do, but it is a responsibility that we have. And it’s something that I have been committed to since I started. I got into architecture because I saw how much built environment affected people, myself included, and how you could get to transformational social change through built environment projects. That is one piece of the puzzle. But the reality is, is that we have a lot of work to do to get us all to a better place. And I am really excited about it. It is hard work, but it’s what gets me out of bed every morning.
Eve: [00:40:46] Well, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. And honestly, if every single large development ends up with an outcome like the non-profit on the corner, that would make change pretty rapidly. That would be a fantastic thing to see. So, thank you very much for your work. I really enjoyed this.
Rico: [00:41:04] Thank you.
Eve: [00:41:09] Listening to Rico talk about just one project was inspirational. If one developer can move plans for a retail space from a CVS to a community-owned arts building, then just imagine what an army of them can do.
Eve: [00:41:32] You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at our website RethinkRealEstateForGood.co. There’s lots to listen to there. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music, and thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon, but for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image by M Nakamura courtesy of Rico Quirindongo