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Africatown and affordability: City Hall wants Central District’s Liberty Bank Building to be a model development

City leaders have long talked about the need to create affordable development projects that serve the needs of multiple marginalized communities. A model project could now be taking shape at a planned affordable housing building in the heart of the Central District.

The 24th and Union Liberty Bank Building has come to represent the aspirations of Mayor Ed Murray’s administration to combine affordable housing, arts space/cultural identity, and economic development under one roof.

“Up until recently, this has been a really abstract conversation,” said Brian Surratt, director of the Office of Economic Development. “The question is, ‘why can’t these themes be better linked together?’”

After starting work on the project in 2013, nonprofit developer Capitol Hill Housing is now planning a six-story mixed-use building that could have up to 115 units and several commercial spaces. CHH is well equipped to build and manage Liberty’s affordable units, but determining how to meet the City’s wider objectives and honor the legacy of the region’s first Black-owned bank will take some outside help.

According to Surratt, the nonprofit developer has agreed to work with the City to ensure that commercial space is targeted towards local business, with a primary focus on black owners. In recent months, OED has brought together a group of Central District organizations with the goal of creating a pipeline of area small business owners that can move into the space when the project is complete. Centerstone, Africatown, and the Black Community Impact Alliance are also discussing how arts can fit into the equation.

“I don’t want to put too much on this project … but this could a great example of those policy objectives,” Surratt said.

The Capitol Hill Housing project is moving forward as Surratt’s OED suffered criticism in the neighborhood for its response to 23rd Ave merchants who said their businesses have been critically damaged by the intensity of construction during an overhaul of the street to make it more pedestrian and transit friendly — and, presumably, to make 23rd Ave a better street for the neighbors who live there and the hundreds of new residents that will be part of the new wave of housing being built in the area. This week, Surratt and Mayor Murray relented on their stance denying the merchants mitigation and agreed on a $650,000 fund to support small businesses in the area.

The Liberty Bank project will join blocks around 23rd and Union that are also busy with development. One six-story building is now complete on the southwest corner and another just wrapping up design review on the northwest corner. Both are projects from private developer Lake Union Partners and both are being put together as market-rate developments — though a quest to upzone the northwest project could help the community have a little more influence over the second project. Meanwhile, a buyer for the block of MidTown Center is expected to be announced soon.

CHH is also seeking out community input to honor the legacy of the historic bank. Last year, CHH announced the Liberty building will “feature multiple historical elements in the exterior design” as part of a set of recommendations from an advisory board convened by the developer “to learn more about community priorities for the site.”

Construction isn’t planned to begin until mid-2017 but the old Liberty Bank building came tumbling down in October. Environmental remediation is now underway at the site that was once home to a gas station.

In September, CHH applied for City of Seattle funding to help get construction underway. Funding for the project will likely mirror the recipe used to create CHH’s 12th Ave Arts — tax credit, levy dollars, state programs and some commercial bank loans. The make-up of the affordable units in the Liberty building hasn’t been announced yet but at 12th Ave Arts, the 88 units were reserved for those with household earnings no greater than 60% of the area median income.

Opportunities in the Central District to build such projects may be rapidly dwindling as a bidding war plays out for on of the area’s “last remaining developable sites” and Vulcan moves ahead with plans to redevelop 23rd and Jackson.

In 2014, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board rejected the 1968-built bank as a protected landmark despite support from the daughter of the bank’s 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 had 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.

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6 thoughts on “Africatown and affordability: City Hall wants Central District’s Liberty Bank Building to be a model development

  1. “With a primary focus on black owners”?????

    Am I hearing correctly or is this government sponsored racism towards entrepreneurs whose background is less than desired in this neighborhood?

    Replace “Black owners” with “White Owners” and lets see how people would feel about this policy.

    This is a disgusting double standard and I am ashamed of my city for not rising up against such social justice insanity.

    I fully support local small businesses (even though they tend to be far more expensive than national ones). But I will not support somebody who got ahead based on racist preferences.

    • My hometown of New Haven CT was also trying to develop an African-American neighborhood, and publicly stated that black merchants were preferred. The storefronts are still empty years later, as Asian merchants have been turned down again and again.

    • “At its core, racism is a system in which a dominant race benefits off the oppression of others — whether they want to or not. We don’t live in a society where every racial group has equal power, status, and opportunity. White people have never been enslaved, colonized, or forced to segregate. They do not face housing or job discrimination, police brutality, poverty, or incarceration at the level that black people do. This is not to say that they do not experience some of these things (like poverty and police brutality) at all. But again, not on the same scale — not even close. That is the reality of racism”

  2. I would whole heartedly support this project if it will truly encompass the arts, or facilitate art/performance/music in some way. So much development is happening in an around the CD, and Seattle wide, that the small spaces where creative work happens is getting edged out. Creating a place for this area’s rich history of art and music to continue and prosper could really bridge the gulf of racism and gentrification.

  3. I find it interesting when people get all up in arms and cry “reverse-racism” around projects like this. Maybe the words and tone could have been presented a bit better, and I’m sure once the lawyers get their hands on things, the actual rules will be quite clear.

    Instead of jumping directly on the black/white issue, maybe people could focus on concepts like “community” or “historic” or “civic” or “arts”? None of these terms are overtly racial, but they certainly don’t suggest another pot shop, for example. Market forces aren’t the only thing count, after all….

  4. Between the time this business was Liberty Bank and the time it was named Key Bank, probably in the 90’s, it was called Emerald City Bank. I remember that one of the officers was Jim Thomas, who was also very active in the Central District community.