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Black ownership, Black identity, Black residents: Liberty Bank Building’s one-of-a-kind ‘memorandum of understanding’

Inside the old Liberty Bank (Image: Africatown)

Inside the old Liberty Bank (Image: Africatown)

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.

Liberty Bank in '68

Liberty Bank in ’68

“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.

You can learn more about the memorandum of understanding at

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33 thoughts on “Black ownership, Black identity, Black residents: Liberty Bank Building’s one-of-a-kind ‘memorandum of understanding’” -- All CHS Comments are held for moderation before publishing

  1. When the apartments in SLU were “targeting” their residents by offering incentives to Amazon and the like, I think most people (rightfully) thought that was a bit sketch – so how is this project’s proposal of targeting residents (beyond the income requirements) any better? The same bureaucratic fabric needs to cover everyone, or else we create a subjective (and easily corruptible) disaster.

    • You make sense…but this is Seattle. Rules are very selectively applied. Also…the crazier the better (see homeless ordinance).

    • If “the same bureaucratic fabric needs to cover everyone”, how could you ever philosophically justify affirmative action?

    • In the same way that money laundering is a crime, laundering of generational wealth acquired during Slavery, Jim Crow, school segregation, redlining, and the mass incarceration of the wrong colored bootleggers…is a crime. Now one can easily say “The second mouse gets the cheese” and start the justice clock after the worst periods of race-based molestation so that little well-groomed Billy from the suburbs can climb the latter faster than those suffering from PTSD of racial terror (see United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent September reports)…But from recent history (boomers to millennials), you can see that a level playing field spans more than just one generation. Even if you got rid of inheritance and legacy programs in schools/fraternities/unions (you said level playing field, right?), you’d still be dealing with implicit resource disparity in grooming.
      Tl;DR this is how we enforce the ruling of Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling.

    • Evan, i guess we can get all Old Testament with things and assume ‘an eye for an eye’ as our judicial modus operandi. However, the end of that road is very whack. Almost every conflict raging on the globe had its start in sectarian revenge, often initiated by natal courts trying to “even things up” in an unbalanced way. I understand your sentiment, I just think offering housing to a preferred group is bad law so long as humans are so corruptible. The judicial needs to be as simple and straightforward as possible so the tables can’t be easily turned on you at some future date.

    • Evan, the black owners of Liberty Bank sold it to Key Bank in the 1980’s. The idea of giving it back to this group is very dishonest as it was never taken unfairly any more than the synagogue a few blocks away which was sold by the Jewish owners and is now the Langston Hughes art center owned by blacks. They are using tax payer funds to give away a property specifically for the benefit of one race of people. Of course this is racist and illegal. It would be illegal even if it was done between private parties but the fact that it is taxpayer money being used is off the charts. If I remember correctly a similar thing was done a few years ago.

    • The reductionist “eye for an eye leaves everyone blind”…isn’t even an applicable maxim. We’re talking about providing low income housing to a demographic that has been displaced by a tech boom in which they by and large were not in a position to join as the first generation of first class citizens who even today face this kind of malarky (

      And Jane, your perception isn’t in line with the shared reality in which actual damage is being done to a specific ethnic group. It is not racist to address or acknowledge the disparity. I’m assuming you wouldn’t deny the Holocaust on the basis of Jews being just another group of people impacted by Germany’s war machine. And the Liberty Bank building isn’t just some random property. It was designed by a black architect (Mel Streeter) and co-founded by one of the first black electrical engineers in the PNW, and was the first black bank in the state if not West of the Mississippi…The bank opened May 31, 1968…You might remember MLK was shot a month earlier. These were landmark achievements of an oppressed people during a pivotal moment in the history of the country. Your city is choosing to recognize that history and learn from it…You should have the presence of mind to do so as well.

    • Evan, since you are suggesting applying a tool that has been deemed immoral (and illegal) – to a group you are (rightfully) sympathetic to, then it is very much “an eye for an eye.” As I said before, humans are far too corruptible to offer housing to any group legally defined as “preferred.” In an unknown future, the criteria that bestows preference could never be protected from those with malicious or misguided intent. However, if you want to talk about straight up reparations, then I’d be 100% supportive – that’s simply payment for a long past due bill and doesn’t require denial of rights to the rest of the population. In a conceptual moral universe, a “bad” law can’t become “good” based on the sympathies of highly flawed beings (and whose sensibilities seem to violently flail around).

    • David, the argument of “corruption exists in funding allocation, so let us not undertake any venture” is what is deemed immoral because it isn’t applied to any other community initiatives. It is specifically reserved for actions geared toward uplifting black people and acknowledging their socioeconomic position and the reality of what has followed from historical events. What has followed are merely unenviable ‘circumstances’ to be shrewdly exploited or neglected by the white majority but never remediated, and that is abhorrent. Your allegations of illicit or immoral assistance to a group that is targeted is a farce to put it kindly.

      The “straight up” reparations (that are only now being discussed as a distraction because if they ever did manifest, you’d be right where you are now talking about immoral and illegal use of public funds and trying to forestall the momentum) are already happening in a sustainable fashion via historically cognizant affirmative action in housing, work contracts, and education…But you don’t want stability or to part with the resources it draws to take effect so folks try to strike it down like in the Fisher v. University of Texas hearing of the Supreme Court. You want to splash some money around and buy out the annuity. That splashed money can then safely be siphoned off since it won’t meet the prerequisites for access to investment capital for growth, and it won’t be enough buy Black people buy controlling interest in their local economy….Keep your beads, man. Some of us have thought this through.

  2. So nice to see some concrete, positive actions rather than just more empty talk about racial equity and displacement. Kudos to all the parties for working on this MOU – hopefully it can be a good example for other projects in the future.

    • The CD is 20% black. I am trying to imagine a neighborhood that is 20% Asian or Jewish and 80% black getting the same Asian-only or Jewish-only services, and I can’t. Africatown supporters have often pointed to the ID and saying them want something similar. That is dishonest. The ID was not an artificially created Asian homeland, and disproportionate amount of the services in that area go to non-Asians.

    • I remember about 6 years ago a scandal involving the city giving land to a black church group at taxpayer expense. Then there was a smaller scandal involving the black church getting to run a childcare business out of Seattle Central College without paying for it. Then there were incidents of financial impropriety involving black organizations improperly using taxpayer funds they received. These incidents involved city orgs and more recently state ones. Is there any transparency when it comes to these groups and our city’s relationship with them? They seem to get massive favoritism and a huge amount of taxpayer funds. Can someone give us facts about this? I remember the NAACP and Urban League getting worked up because they claimed Uncle Ike’s (a pot shop in the CD) was not following the letter of the law. That proved to be a lie. But these community orgs sure as hell seem to flout the law left and right. Africatown has a history of racism against whites, Asians, Jews and homophobia. Would CHH partner with an organization that showed similar hatred of blacks or Muslims? They need to answer to the public for their choices.

    • I’ll reserve judgement, but I suspect you wouldn’t point to China Town and scream racism against whites, jews, and paint it with a brush of homophobia despite its cultural leanings. I also suspect that your critiques of white favoritism as Amazon consumed South Lake Union got lost. ( …It does beg the question of why your ethnic critiques start and end with opposition to any conscious effort to recognize or establish African cultural heritage or economic stability. Is it just a whim?

    • @Tara isn’t America an artificially created European homeland created on the backs of kidnapped Africans who had the fruits of their labor capital maldistributed to whites for hundreds of years? White only homesteading and land grants (free handouts of indegenous lands)? Really encourage you to refresh your US History and make a trip to the National Museum of African American History & Culture and appreciate the handouts that were extracted violently from Africans brought to the “New World”. What do you think the 228 years in the article below represent? These are really crumbs in the scheme of things.

      Race – the Power of an Illusion: The Genesis of Discriminatory Housing Policies

  3. “Reaffirm the Central District as a hub of the pan-African community.” Sorry, but that ship sailed about ten years ago.

    Why not recognize that the “Pan-African Community” is no longer relegated to a particular neighborhood, and is now everywhere in our region, not only our city? Why doesn’t Africatown put their energy behind helping African-American business owners throughout the Puget Sound area, instead of trying to hang on to a neighborhood that embodied segregation?

    • “Why not recognize that the “Pan-African Community” is no longer relegated to a particular neighborhood” Because they got a free building, $5000 a year for black only services, and a pledge to rent only to black tenants. They got a lot of handouts and free stuff out of it. That might make people cringe but it is the truth and it is the motive. It’s a pattern. Hasn’t anyone else noticed this pattern?

    • You’re thinking about race instead of cultural identity. Recall that the transatlantic slave trade created a new cultural identity when they were aggressively denied assimilation. Now white people drop a lot of coin on dinners in Little Italy, or Dim Sum in China Town, and on claddagh rings and celtic tattoos to reminisce about cultural identity and triumphs in the “New World”…But when black people restore a traditional aspect of a black-owned bank to respect or acknowledge their own heritage you can’t sleep at night unless you oppose them. Now that the historic preservation has segued into a memorandum recognizing the ethnic component of the housing crisis, you step right back into zero-sum game mentality and scream segregation. You scowl at the hard-scrambled black men you see outside of the mens homeless shelters ritualistically tormented by economic and race-selective law enforcement. Yet here you sit trying to step on their knuckles as they hang off the bottom of the housing ladder…Are you proud of yourself?

    • @Tara isn’t America an artificially created European homeland created on the backs of kidnapped Africans who had the fruits of their labor capital maldistributed to whites for hundreds of years? White only homesteading and land grants (free handouts of indegenous lands)? Really encourage you to refresh your US History and make a trip to the National Museum of African American History & Culture and appreciate the handouts that were extracted violently from Africans brought to the “New World”. These are really crumbs in the scheme of things.

    • Evan, cut the preaching and the buzzwords. You cite Chinatowns and Little Italy’s, but here’s the thing – people move on from them. Asians were happy to move from Chinatown to Beacon Hill, and from Beacon Hill to everyplace when the housing restrictions were lifted. The same is true of the Jews.

      Why not concentrate on giving African American business owners throughout the region the support they need so that they can build wealth, instead of trying to hang on to some semi-mythical past? Why not focus on giving black kids the support they need to get a good education and a good life?

      The best way to mitigate systemic racism is to get black people into positions of authority in society.

    • If you don’t foster a sustainable environment for the parents, there’s no margin for error for the kids. The state can’t parent them if it doesn’t understand that out of love, the kids will help their parents with the staggering expenses of instability and get nowhere themselves. It’s a poor triage and a bad business decision to take on double the risk rather than create a predictable and controlled housing cost.

      The reason why a Chinatown or Little Italy, or even Silicon Valley existed in the first place was to foster SUSTAINABLE (taxable) economic partnerships which would retain investment among the regional population, support newcomers from the same walk of life, and keep building out a middle class within that demographic which could branch out. That middle class could then consistently have access to the resources (As opposed to wunderkind winning the self-made-man/woman lottery every once and again) to participate in the competition for upper-middle class/investor class and the authority positions therein.

      If Black people don’t have an economic monolith like Boeing, M$, Amazon, Chinatown, etc. have, they’ve gained no ground and their equity will be scattered to the wind by the other economic engines just like it is now in the CD.

    • Evan, the idea that the CD can be the economic catalyst for the African American community died a long time ago.

      What proposals like this do is create a few artificial environments – sort of like potted plants – that white liberals can look at and talk about and feel good about. They accomplish nothing for the people they are supposed to help.

      Why not look at where the African-American neighborhoods are now – south Seattle and the souther suburbs of Seattle – and put some real effort into those?

    • If there was going to be “some real effort” put in the south regions then why hasn’t it happened yet? Why the implied mutual exclusion of the ventures? You’re really just playing a shell game. The resources never come, only the foot dragging, indecision, and hand-wringing about uplifting the folks just beginning to scrape together generational wealth.

      But if you don’t understand why it is bad for a marginalized population to be distanced from the general population and the land it values for habitation, talk to the people living under dense high voltage power lines in the south regions right now and ask them about their schools, roads, and the cost/quality of a local basket of goods. Talk to Flint, MI citizens about water quality. You could even go talk to the natives fighting the oil pipelines in the midwestern US.

      The economic catalyst potential of the CD is the high-water mark of black achievement that exists all around the CD in places just like Liberty Bank. A renaissance is coming with the millinneals. A people without history are a people without glory, and a people will only lack history if authorities do not rise among them, to protect and revivify they memory of their historical heroes so that they can follow and emulate.

    • I’ll throw the question back to you, Evan – Why hasn’t more assistance been given to minority business owners and the neighborhoods they currently live in? Part of it is the patchwork of jurisdictions (Seattle, unincorporated King County, the south suburbs) but part of it is energy being wasted on pet projects in the city so that white people can feel good about how good we treat “those people”

      If you want to talk about establishing “generational wealth”, the property values in the CD, for those people who bought their homes in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, are really jump-starting that, don’t you think? Gentrification is not always a bad word – not if you are a property owner.

      And your vision of south King County is bizarre. If you think it’s nothing but power lines and remote areas, you need to get out of your bubble. It’s one of the last affordable areas of the region, and lots of interesting stuff is going on down there. It’s the new cultural hub of the African-American community, judging by the churches and other institutions that are relocating there.

      But yet we insist on paying homage to a “history” that encompassed about thirty years. Black people had a role in the history of the CD, but they aren’t the totality of the history of the CD.

    • Gentrification is always bad when it forces families out of their homes in neighborhoods with higher rents and into what are essentially reservations with no political or economic power to self-determine. It is bizarre for you to maintain the belief that somehow equity gained by some excuses such a sickly sphere of moral concern for so many.

      Also, the money never gets to the non-white areas for the same reason civil rights don’t. The magical idea that melanin (not multi-generational poverty caused by centuries of socioeconomic exclusion and exploitation) is a blight that results in petty crime. And your moratorium on “pet projects” is blind to a the mid and longer term importance of aspiration. It’s arbitrary and crass to cut funding for this and say “We’re only going to allocate tax dollars to black subsistence” in the middle of a tech boom.

      The people “excited” to move to one of the last affordable areas…Don’t have a choice. They’re making the most out of a bad situation and you’d better believe there will be all kinds of religiousity where that’s the case..

    • Oh Evan, now you’re just being silly. There’s plenty of people of color who have profited handsomely from gentrification in the Central District. Even if you are “forced” to sell your home, selling it at a 500% markup is pretty sweet. If you choose to ignore that to make your own ideological points, you are being intellectually dishonest.

      I do agree that there are victims – renters, mostly – and that we need some sort of curb on the crazy rise in rents in this town.

      What I fear is that we are going to end up with a town of uber-rich, and a few institutional poor, who know how to work the system to get into subsidized housing, and that the wealthy will regard them as something between pets and the serfs who benefit from their largess. No middle class, no working class. And that’s going to suck.

    • Dismissal is a poor argument. I’m glad that you are able to see past your nose to the renter’s problem once you finally address it. The answer to the wealth gap is a sustainable economic base that has access to investment capital and leverage. That comes from ensuring that the 20% black residency of the CD remains where the resources are actually being allocated and where they have access to infrastructure such as Liberty Bank and other “pet” projects instead of being contained in a place where the funding comes last if at all.

  4. If their goal is to replicate a Ballard sort of thing – a neighborhood that has a perpetual hat tip to a particular cultural group – I think that’s pretty cool…it makes for interesting neighborhoods. However, if they’re trying to codify preferential treatment for that same group, it just seems old school in a bad way, especially when it involves housing.

  5. “The Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) introduced meaningful federal enforcement mechanisms. It outlawed: Refusal to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”