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Central District landmark bid denied clearing way for Capitol Hill Housing development

Thursday's hearing -- See? We were there (Image: CHS)

Thursday’s hearing — See? We were there (Image: CHS)

Citing the 1968-built structure’s lack of architectural significance, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board voted 6-5 Wednesday night to deny granting landmark status to a Central District building that once housed what applicants said was the region’s first Black-owned bank.

Petitioners trying to save the former Liberty Bank building at 24th and Union needed seven votes for landmark designation at the emotionally charged meeting. The narrow vote now clears the path for non-profit developer Capitol Hill Housing to continue with its plans to build an affordable housing project on the site of the now empty, fenced-off building.

Prior to the vote Michelle Purnell-Hepburn, a former Liberty employee and daughter of bank co-founder James Purnell, urged the board to think about the risk and bravery it took to open a Black-owned bank in the 1960s.

“Given our collective history, non-white individuals could not walk into any financial institution and expect a loan,” she said.

The parking lot was put to use for a community garage sale in 2012 (Image: CHS)

The parking lot was put to use for a community garage sale in 2012 (Image: CHS)

For a volunteer board that is usually mulling over parapets and facades in sparsely attended meetings, the raw of emotion displayed during the hour-long public comment was, as one board member said, “distressing and disturbing.” Many supporters of the landmark designation invoked the long history of marginalization of African American’s in Seattle.

“To me it feels like were not even talking about the building,” said board member Nick Carter before voting against designation.

Several members were visibly distressed when giving their reasons for their vote on the landmark application (PDF), saying they had difficulty weighing the narrow architectural guidelines that make a landmark against the building’s historical context. Board member Aaron Luoma acknowledged the building’s lack of historically significant design, but decided to vote in favor of a landmark designation.

“I’m not convinced that the story isn’t so big, that by voting for preservation we’re voting for something that would help tell the story,” he said.

Longtime Central District activist Omari Garrett, who filed the preservation petition on behalf of the Africatown community group, told the board the Central District needed Black-led institutions, not more housing.

“We’re not basketball players, and football players, and dope dealers only, we’re bankers, and we have a bank,” he said. “We’re going to build a community around that bank”

While petitioners maintain Liberty was the first Black-owned bank on the West Coast, there were Black-owned credit unions in Seattle prior to Liberty’s opening in 1968. Purnell-Hepburn, who now works for Salal Credit Union, said credit unions at that time could not give mortgages, one of Liberty’s defining legacies. CHH representative Katie Porter said given those earlier credit unions and the building’s failure to represent its history, it did not warrant landmark status.

Architect Larry Johnson, who inspected the building for CHH, said the repairs and remodels made to the building by its last owners, Key Bank, detracted from the building’s architectural significance.

“It would’ve been a lot different if it was built as originally designed,” he said of Liberty’s famed African-American Seattle architect, Mel Streeter. “I think it’s pretty generic. I think you could find banks that look like this just about anywhere.”

Inside Liberty (Image: Africatown)

Inside Liberty (Image: Africatown)

The vote came two days after Africatown leaders organized a small rally and march to call for the city’s board to designate the now-empty building a landmark. The nomination of the building was accepted in February by a unanimous 10-0 vote of the board, according to a representative from the Department of Neighborhoods, but board members said they needed to learn more about the building’s cultural significance and, equally important, its remaining architectural significance.

Omari Garrett’s brother, Frederick Garrett, gave one of the most impassioned comments before Thursday night’s vote.

“Jimi Hendrix said ‘a castle built on sand will drift into the sea,’ and that’s what Black people and Black institutions are in this city,” he said.

Capitol Hill Housing has not said when it plans to begin construction on the mixed-use, affordable housing project which still must pass through the city’s design review process. The non-profit has indicated they would preserve the legacy of Liberty within a new development.

The fits and starts of big changes at 23rd and Union appear to be gaining momentum as this apartment project on the southwest corner of the intersection digs in and plans move forward to open development up on the southeast corner to 65-foot-tall buildings. On the northeast corner, the former Med Mix restaurant remains shuttered but paperwork indicates some plans afoot for change there, too.

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28 thoughts on “Central District landmark bid denied clearing way for Capitol Hill Housing development

  1. Good, this was a silly petition. The building is not worth saving with no significant architectural style at all and getting in the way of much needed affordable housing. Normally I am all for saving some history and culture, so I hope they find a way to share the important history of the site into the sites new future of providing affordable housing in an area of the city that needs much improvement.

      • Omari and his africatown supporters represent the worst form of bigots. All of my interactions with them have ended with straight up predjudice and name calling. I have yet to see them do anything productive for anyone.

      • Omari and some hangers-on occupied the old Coleman School in a (much less successful) copycat of what Roberto Maestas had done a decade earlier in the establishment of El Centro de la Raza. Needless to say. they ultimately failed. It took the Urban League and some bank (WaMu?) to finally clean up his mess and create what is now the NW African-American Museum.

        And he slugged poor old Mayor Schell in the face with a bullhorn at one of his half-witted protests over nothing in particular at was otherwise a normal comment event.

        That’s his legacy. That, and sucking off the SPS Retirement system for decades after mis-educating a few dozen classes of kids at Garfield.

      • While I do not object to the ruling, I did want to remind you that Omari is a Seattle hero for hitting Mayor Schell-shocked. Status few ever reach. And it wasn’t just for no reason. Mayor Schell did nothing over the shooting of an African American male by the SPD. Most people in Seattle wished they’d swung the bullhorn. In fact, some took credit for it when Omari denied it.

      • Assaulting someone only makes one a “hero” to the thugs and other idiots who society disregards (and usually supports). Paul Schell was a dismal mayor, but only a simpleton would regard what Omari did to him as “heroic”

        In the future, let the grown ups talk.

  2. I am dubious when I read comments like “much improvement”. What does that mean, exactly? Certainly the structure itself needs to go (there were not many in the neighborhood who wanted it to stay) but in the absence of what CHH wants to do (and I hope they succeed) what else is coming our way? A rebuilt 23rd Avenue (at last!), several possible development projects at the 23rd/Union intersection, another one in the works on the SW corner of 24th/Union, and a new project at MLK/Union. MLK/Union will be a good project because the developer is a long-time community member; CHH will do good because that’s what they do. The rest? Most likely more high-rent one-bedroom and studio units. Does that constitute ‘improving’ the neighborhood? Changing it, certainly.

    As much as I opposed the landmark designation for the bank building, I fear that we lose yet more of the story of what the CD has been to folks who move in and build 8′ fences at the sidewalk line, drive themselves to work at Microsoft and really don’t know anything about what was here before. I respect the Landmarks Board for getting sucked into a very emotional conversation and doing their best given the constraints they operate within to come to a good decision. But the issues are much larger than what they could consider.

  3. “I fear that we lose yet more of the story of what the CD has been to folks who move in and build 8′ fences at the sidewalk line, drive themselves to work at Microsoft and really don’t know anything about what was here before.”

    LOL the comments on these blog posts are routinely hilarious. Since when did everyone living in Seattle start working for Microsoft (or Amazon for that matter)?

    • It’s just so predictably easy for people to demonize MS or Amazon employees. Don’t you know? They’re totally responsible for the entire decline in quality of life on CapHill and the CD? And of course, it goes w/o saying that since they make more money they must not give a crap about history, respect for local cultures, appreciate vintage architecture, etc. They’re just not like you or I, or all the more worthy ‘starving artist’ culture…how could they be?

      It’s lots easier to demonize and deflect, than it is to substantiate silly-assed claims to substantiate saving fugly buildings, while tossing in a healthy dose of white guilt.

    • It’s the usual thanks we MS/Amazon people get for spending our money on local businesses, contributing to the tax base, and otherwise improving the standard of living around here. Also, we’re routinely conflated with greedy developers, as if we’re dictating what happens to every property around here. Shrug. Haters be hating, but I still love the Hill.

      • Which point was that? That it’s a supremely ugly building? The best way to honor the memory of the bank is a nice historical plaque at the site of a new building whose presence is an immediate and dramatic improvement over the eyesore it replaced.

      • Jim, I was actually referring to the points John above was trying to make. I completely agree with you that landmark designation was inappropriate for this building. I contributed to a letter from the Central Area Neighborhoods District Council to that effect. I believe keeping the physical structure would actually be a hindrance to the goal of preserving the history of the banking institution and educating people about it and its role on the civil rights struggle. The site is toxic, having been a gas station prior to the bank, so the building would probably have to go anyway. The plan put forth by CHH offers the best shot the community has at memorializing the bank.

      • Very true. It doesn’t honor the memory of the bank to have an ugly and continually boarded up building, because no business succeeds in that hideous structure. It’s just not viable for much of anything as it is.

      • I agree. CHH will construct affordable housing on a site which would otherwise stay abandoned and unused. It’s laughable that Omari Garrett says that such housing is not needed in the CD, because he and others are always lamenting that “white gentrification is driving black folks out of the neighborhood.”

    • It does get frustrating to be “one of those people” who choses to take public transit to work at Microsoft to do my part to reduce congestion and pollution, and put my earnings back into preserving my 108 year old Victorian house in the Central District and have some pride in my neighborhood, and then feel chastised for it in the comments on these stories.

  4. I attended the hearing. Could not believe my eyes and ears when I heard the applicant Omari Garrett and his associates making their arguments. No wonder the Board felt distressed. I have an idea for them. Go start another bank in the neighborhood. There is plenty of land to buy. Go get some investors and make it happen. There’s nothing holding you back now.

  5. > Board member Aaron Luoma acknowledged the building’s lack of historically significant design, but decided to vote in favor of a landmark designation.


  6. To clarify on the presentation by CHH’s representative, the intent was to address the City’s specific legal requirements that a building needs to “convey its significance” in order to be landmarked. CHH’s comments were intended to address that there is no architectural component, signage, art, or other feature of the current building that is able to communicate the historical role of Liberty Bank in the community. In addition, a number of changes to building’s exterior over the years means that the building has been changed too significantly to satisfy the “integrity” requirement a building needs to meet in order to be landmarked.

    Also, it is important to note that there is broad community support for the CHH proposal. At the most recent Central Area Neighborhood District Council (a council of community councils in the Central Area) meeting, the present members voted unanimously against landmarking the existing building for a variety of reasons, including that CHH is committed to incorporating the history and legacy of the bank into the new development. CHH is developing a Memorandum of Understanding with a number of community organizations so that the bank will be honored in accordance with the community desires. CHH looks forward to working with the community to develop plans for honoring Liberty Bank’s legacy and to integrate their ideas into the development of affordable housing for the neighborhood.

  7. I knew it would not be preserved, for the people on landmarks board are still stuck on Victorian. Anything newer is just tacky to them, although they are starting to flirt with Art Deco ;-)

    With that said, this building doesn’t have much going for it, and the bank failed due to bad loans and had to be rescued by Key. There’s not much there to commemorate.

    This Africatown movement seems fishy to me. At it’s heart, it seems to be a land grab, all wrapped up in buzzwords that people are afraid to question, lest they be called a racist. The Africatown website complains about gentrification, and calls for more African-owned businesses in the CD, but if the neighborhood is all just those “awful” (and presumably white) MS/Amazon folks, who’s going to patronize those places?

    • I’d be happy to support more black-owned businesses. But where are they? Yeah, starting a business is hard– but it’s hard for everybody, not just black-owned businesses. Does Africatown expect black-owned businesses should be community funded, have special incentives, etc? Is Omari Garrett ready to start a business? Bring it on.

  8. The Vote was 5-6 !

    That sounds close to me. I’d notch this one as a political victory for Africatown. If the movement could just find a better position to rally behind, I bet it could make a real impact in our neighborhood.

    However it plays out, I’m happy to see the “Build a Plaque” appeasement strategy is being abandoned. Granite slabs are for the graveyard.

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