The affordable housing development known as the Liberty Bank Building is set to begin construction early next year with a goal of opening by summer of 2018. With an agreement announced this week between the project’s nonprofit developer Capitol Hill Housing and a group of Central District community organizations, advocates hope the development’s framework of respect for history and empowerment of the African American community will spread across the street from the site where the region’s first Black-owned bank once stood and well beyond 23rd and Union.
“This is just the first project that embodies the vision and values of Africatown and inclusive development,” Wyking Garrett tells CHS about the memorandum of understanding announced this week by his organization, Capitol Hill Housing, The Black Community Impact Alliance, and Centerstone.
The memorandum lays out eight agreements between the organizations including what could amount to a massive milestone in strengthening the black community around 23rd and Union — ownership of the building.
“CHH will develop a partnership with Centerstone and Africatown that provides the opportunity for African-American community-based ownership of the building,” the announcement of the agreement reads. The organization will have a right of first offer and first right of refusal to acquire the project after 15 years, according to the announcement.
Liberty Bank Building Memorandum of Understanding’s 8 Elements
- Secure long-term African-American ownership of the building. CHH will develop a partnership with Centerstone and Africatown that provides the opportunity for African-American community-based ownership of the building. Centerstone will have both a right of first offer and first right of refusal to acquire Liberty Bank after 15 years.
- Provide affordable commercial space. CHH will work with Centerstone, Africatown, and BCIA to ensure the commercial space of the Liberty Bank project is designed and operated to prioritize affordability for small African American-owned businesses which meet minimum leasing criteria.
- Develop and support Black-owned businesses. The Capitol Hill Housing Foundation will commit $5,000 per year for three years to help establish a business innovation fund to support small, Black-owned business development in the Central Area.
- Design a building that connects with the history of the community. The project partners will ensure that the building design both appropriately memorializes its history as Liberty Bank and is representative of African-American design sensibility.
- Prioritize local and minority hiring. CHH will work with the Partners and other community partners to identify Black-owned subcontractors. The project will also recognize the goals of the City of Seattle’s “priority hire” program.
- Reaffirm the Central District as a hub of the pan-African community. CHH will work with Centerstone and Africatown to affirmatively market available rental units to members of the community that have been historically disenfranchised and displaced by past and present policies and practices. CHH will work with the partners to program activities in the building in ways which maximize activation of the building reflective of community priorities. CHH will further work with partners or other organizations to develop or facilitate access to services that provide a pathway to home ownership, business ownership, and wealth building.
- Explore further policy changes. The partnership recognizes that one building is not enough to address the growing issue of displacement in the Central District. The project partners will work with the City to explore policies that allow for the prioritization of displaced families and individuals in publicly financed affordable housing.
- Diversify CHH. CHH strives to reflect the diversity of the communities it serves. As CHH expands its work in the Central District, it will continue its commitment to diversifying the CHH Board and staff, as recognized in recent hires and appointments as well as ongoing training.
“This level of community involvement at least in Seattle, we think of it as pretty new,” Capitol Hill Housing spokesperson Ashwin Warrior said, calling the project “a new standard of development in the Central District and beyond.”
“This represents a new day for development in the community and hopefully for communities that are facing similar displacement,” Garrett agreed. The Africatown CEO and grandson of Liberty Bank co-founder Holbrooke L. Garrett said completing the agreement has been a long journey.
The agreement with community groups didn’t come without some fights along the way. In 2014, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board rejected the 1968-built bank as a protected landmark despite support from Africatown and the daughter of the bank’s co-founders, James C. and Mardine Purnell. The decision cleared the way for the Capitol Hill Housing development at the site to move forward. Liberty Bank operated at the site until 1988 when KeyBank took over. CHH agreed to acquire the property from KeyBank in 2013 “at a rate well below its assessed market value, in order to develop a mixed-use building with affordable apartments and space for local businesses.” It was demolished late last year. Environmental remediation has been underway at the site that was once home to a gas station.
Landmark petitioners maintained Liberty was the first Black-owned bank on the West Coast, though there were Black-owned credit unions in Seattle prior to Liberty’s opening in 1968. Purnell-Hepburn, who has continued to work in the banking industry, said credit unions at that time could not give mortgages, one of Liberty’s defining legacies.
Today, Capitol Hill Housing is planning a rezone-enabled, six-story mixed-use building with five stories of residential floors above a one-story podium, with up to 115 units, and several commercial spaces. The development took its first step in the design review process earlier this year but must still get the board’s final blessing. Capitol Hill Housing must also apply for a contract rezone to build the project to its planned six stories. Neighbor Ian Eisenberg, owner of Uncle Ike’s and the surrounding property, support the rezone, by the way. The Liberty building will also “feature multiple historical elements in the exterior design.”
The $30 million project will provide housing affordable to individuals and families earning $18,000 to $54,000 a year and, the groups behind the memorandum hope, small business opportunities that reach Africa American entrepreneurs. In addition to a mix of more traditional financing, the Liberty Bank project will receive $12.2 million in funding from the city’s Office of Housing and $1 million from the State of Washington for the mixed-use project at 24th and Union. Funding for the project will likely mirror the recipe used to create CHH’s 12th Ave Arts — tax credits, levy dollars, state programs, and some commercial bank loans. Capitol Hill Housing’s 501c3 foundation, meanwhile, is pitching in with $5,000 a year in a three-year program to help support Black-owned businesses in the building’s commercial spaces.
There is another echo in the agreement. In spring of 2018, developers will break ground on the 100,000-square-foot commercial, housing, and community space project set to rise above Capitol Hill Station. A community design process that is still ongoing has helped integrate neighborhood priorities into the massive development.
Earlier this year, CHS spoke with city officials about the importance of the project and its new approach to community development combining affordability and cultural identity. “I don’t want to put too much on this project … but this could a great example of those policy objectives,” Brian Surratt, director of the Office of Economic Development, said in February.
It’s too early to say what kind of template the agreement will make — it hasn’t been applied to the building it was designed for, yet. But nearby development has been surging ahead without it. On the northwest corner of 23rd and Union, Lake Union Partners will soon build its second market-rate development at the intersection — this one rezoned to rise 65 feet. Across Union, the family legal battle over the Midtown Center property has been settled, clearing the way for a plan from Lennar Multifamily Communities to create a 405-unit, mixed-use project with nearly 500 parking spots. The court’s decision clarifying ownership of the property also meant the end for the homeless campers on the backside of the block.
Garret said that it is true that much of the early impetus for Africatown to shape development around 23rd and Union was focused on Midtown and he believes that the agreement forged with Capitol Hill Housing will also shape how the Fortune 500 Lennar proceeds on the block. The plans for Vulcan at 23rd and Jackson could also be a near-term target.
“The beauty of having vision and values is they can translate to many different players,” Garrett said. “The values that you stand on are pillars.”
One of the most significant challenges of many for the trailblazing Liberty Bank Building development agreement could end up being the plan to “affirmatively market available rental units to members of the community that have been historically disenfranchised and displaced by past and present policies and practices.” Warrior called this portion of the agreement an “evolving conversation.” “We’re still talking to community partners about what that might look like,” he said.
Garrett said he believes the approach should be clear and straightforward.
“We need to reach the community and share the values of the project, honoring, and continuing the legacy here,” Garrett said. With that kind of marketing, the Africatown CEO said he believes the new development won’t just foster respect for history and opportunities for Black entrepreneurs, it will create a community rich with African American apartment dwellers.
— Ashwin Warrior (@ashwinwarrior) October 11, 2016