Heartfelt goodbye to Park Lake Homes

Home was where Alma Harrell's first-born child played at the park and made his first friends as soon as he was able to walk. Home was where her gregarious next-door neighbor helped draw her out of her shell and offered advice for growing plump tomatoes and monster-sized zucchini in her garden.

For Harrell, her husband and three kids, home was Park Lake Homes in White Center. It never mattered that Park Lake was a community of subsidized public housing, or that its residents were among the poorest in King County.

"I never thought of Park Lake Homes as a place for low-income people to live," said Harrell, a resident from 1991 to last August. "When I was cooking in my kitchen or sitting in my front room, that was my home. I felt free. I felt comfortable. I felt proud to call it my home."

Harrell, her eldest son D'Shawn, now 12, and about 50 other current and past residents gathered at the new White Center Heights Elementary School yesterday afternoon for a solemn 45-minute ceremony to bid farewell to the place they called home. After 55 years of providing shelter and support services to poor people, Park Lake Homes' 97 acres is about to be transformed into a new mixed-income community called Greenbridge.

Demolition of the first 300 units is to begin in January.

The King County Housing Authority, a municipal corporation that owns and manages Park Lake, is leveraging a $35 million federal grant to redevelop the community at an estimated cost of $205 million. Under the current plan, 569 housing units for the very poor will be replaced by 408 houses sold at market rate, 311 homes for the working poor and 300 units of public housing.

The housing authority's Park Lake Homes II public-housing project, built in 1964 also in White Center, is not part of the redevelopment.

Before the remembrance ceremony, residents posed for Polaroid pictures in front of the weathered Park Lake Homes sign, which had been removed from the entrance at Southwest Roxbury Street and Fourth Avenue Southwest. Then, one by one, residents took the microphone and shared their Park Lake memories.

"You gave me and my family a chance," said a teary-eyed Harrell as a neighbor clutched her arm to offer comfort. "If I hadn't found Park Lake Homes, I might have been on the streets, homeless. I am so grateful to this home and this community, all the diversity. Thanks for believing in me and my family."

Harrell's family, one of 275 that have moved from Park Lake while it is being rebuilt, is now living in a government-subsidized Section 8 rental house near Burien.

Some of the relocated tenants will return when the first phase of redevelopment is done, probably by the summer of 2007.

About 70 percent of Park Lake's residents are immigrants or refugees, hailing from 30 different countries and speaking 48 different languages.

A. Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who moved to Park Lake 10 years ago, mentioned the friendships he'd formed with neighbors of different cultures, including Cambodian, Russian and Somali.

"When I come here, I thought I would leave here alone," said Tran, now a U.S. citizen. "But now I am not alone."

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com