The Central Area Land Use Review Committee hosted a meeting last week for developers and neighbors to discuss the ongoing Midtown Center project at 23rd and Union with the community. And while the meeting was ostensibly focused on the design of the project, neighbors and advocates at the meeting reminded developers of the block’s importance in the African American community’s past — and future — in Seattle.
The community meeting was a preview for an upcoming design review meeting that will take place July 18th at Seattle University that could be the project’s final step in the review process for the much watched development:
The project moved forward in the design process in January as many community members said they hoped to see more thought given to design that highlighted the corner’s place in African American culture in the city.
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The proposed development would create a four-piece, seven-story apartment building that would include 429 units and underground parking for 258 vehicles. Local pharmacy chain Bartell Drugs is in talks to occupy a large retail space on the corner of 23rd and Union but they have yet to sign a lease, according to Patrick Foley of developer Lake Union Partners. This project will take place on 80% of the block, while the other 20% of the property was sold by Lake Union Partners to Africatown Community Land Trust and Capitol Hill Housing. The two projects, which have separate design review processes, will share a familial plaza that will be gated off from the public.
In total, the developers say nearly half of the total housing units on the entire block will be affordable to people who earn 40-85% of area median Income.
Including three ciphers held by Africatown, this is at least the sixth meeting held by developers or architects where community members could give input on the Midtown Center project. Weinstein A+U, the lead architect for the Lake Union Partners property, presented four takeaways from those prior gatherings and showed how they were taken into account in the latest designs.
The first issue was the activation of three pedestrian alleys — previously called “portals” — to welcome community members into the 16,000 square foot public square, which, depending on public opinion, could feature concerts or movies among other amenities, and retail spaces. Many attendees of Wednesday’s meeting did not see the 20 to 24-foot alleys as inviting.
“That’s not what we were asking for you to do. You’ve got to open this up,” one community member who suggested trimming the buildings to make the public square more visible said. “Make this a new space for everybody who wants to use it.”
“Since when do you go, like, ‘Oh there’s an alley, I can’t wait to walk down that’?” another constituent joked.
The second, and possibly most contentious, concern was that the development would commit to encouraging locally-owned, small businesses that promote the Central District’s identity. The developers say they are working on bringing local black businesses into the project. Much of the dialogue was connected to a greater interest in making sure that black business owners receive adequate representation in this neighborhood.
Lake Union Partners was also criticized for its lack of black employees though Donald King, a local African-American architect, is a paid consultant for Weinstein A+U for the project.
The third issue was the establishment of large plazas on the project’s corners. There will be one at the corner of 23rd and Union, which is newly added from when the Central Area Land Use Review Committee last saw the designs for this project.
A plaza on the corner of 24th and Union, meanwhile, will feature the James Washington Fountain, which the sculptor saw as a symbol of the struggle of African Americans. One of the top priorities from the project’s start has been the integration of this community element that has been in the neighborhood for over 20 years, but this location seemed, to some, to be a way of hiding it.
“It appears [the fountain] has been relegated again, to the back,” one community member said.
However, this was the specific piece of property that the Washington Foundation selected for the new location of the fountain, according to Todd Bronk, a landscape architect from Berger Partnership.
The fourth concern addressed from prior meetings was the usage of the public square. The developers are still unsure of what to do exactly with this space in terms of programming. One idea was to have a huge movie screen on the back of the building on the corner of 23rd and Union, but the community can still give their input on this front. There was a board on one side of the room for the duration for the meeting where attendees could give their opinions on the space with sticky notes.
Another issue that was brought up at the meeting was the shapes of the buildings. Many community members were concerned with Weinstein A+U’s derivative rectalinear designs for the structures.
“[All of Lake Union Partners local buildings] look the same,” one Central District resident said. “We’re looking for Midtown to have more of a culturally aesthetic look, so we’re not for this whole everything looking like squares and boxes. Can we work together on something that looks a little bit different than what we’re looking at right now?”
Weinstein A+U’s plans for the buildings include “relief” which will create depth in the sides of the structures, allowing for variation between the buildings. The architects want to express the buildings as differently as possible.
“Housing is primarily rectalinear, it always has been and it always will be,” Ed Weinstein said. “But we are doing our best to erode them and capture them and make them sting.”
After looking at dozens of slides featuring designs of the planned buildings, some community members were still not convinced that they were unlike neighboring housing units.
“There is nothing that you are doing that is different from anything else,” one woman said.
The meeting won’t be the last chance the community will have to help design this major development in the Central District.
“This isn’t a space that I’m designing and my team is designing for your community,” Bronk said. “This is a space your community is designing and we’re helping you shape it.”
Meanwhile, on July 8th, Africatown is planning a community painting day party to decorate the open lot where their property will sit in order to show the African heritage of this neighborhood. 150 volunteers are needed to paint the area.
“Just using paint to change the energy, change the environment, and create a space that is more interactive,” K. Wyking Garrett of Africatown said of the project.