Decades of change at 23rd and Union is about to accelerate. The first week of 2017 will bring a much anticipated first public review of the development plans for the Midtown Center, a flashpoint block in the wave of new investments reshaping the Central District and a corner with a deep history of pride and tragedy.
Just four days into the new year, developer Lennar and the architects at Encore are scheduled to present what have so far been closely guarded plans for the project after months of work banging out a plan for the 2.4 acres of shopping center land. What you see above aren’t design renderings — those aren’t available yet — but community design concepts for the block created by UW architecture students in 2015.
The Central Area Land Use Review Committee community group is preparing for the crucial review with a meeting for neighbors and those interested in the project Wednesday night. “The project will transform one of the most significant sites in the Central Area,” organizers write.
The California-based developer Lennar’s framework includes a rezoning of the block that would allow 85-foot heights and construction of seven-story mixed-use apartment buildings on the land pitched as “one of the last remaining large developable sites” in the city as the real estate market around it heated into overdrive this summer. To achieve the rezone, the project will need community buy-in — and approval from the Seattle City Council.
It may have a partner in that pursuit.
“We’re striving to acquire that property to be developed in a way that includes our (community),” Africatown CEO K. Wyking Garrett said about Midtown in a discussion of his organization’s efforts to reshape gentrification and development in the Central District earlier this fall.
Africatown has been pressing its vision for the future of 23rd and Union for years. In spring of 2015, CHS reported on its community design process and visions of a “Black Wall Street” with aspirational prototypes for development from students at the University of Washington School of Architecture.
There is another possible model for how to proceed across the street at 24th and Union. There in the Liberty Bank Building project, Capitol Hill Housing has forged with Africatown what has been a “one of a kind” memorandum of understanding joining the nonprofit housing developer with the black community building organization along with partners at The Black Community Impact Alliance, and Centerstone. The Liberty partnership is hoped to become a template for inclusive development in Seattle with a respect for history and the empowerment of the African American community. The group is working to incorporate the site’s historical significance and create housing that is home to black residents and commercial space with black businesses. The agreement also includes a path to black ownership of the development. Walsh Construction is the general contractor for the project and is seeking black subcontractors for the work. “One of the biggest things that I’ve been pushing for, that we’re all pushing for, is to make sure when there’re people on the job site, they look like our community, they look like us,” said Jaebadiah Gardner, Capitol Hill Housing’s assistant project manager for the Liberty Bank Building, at the Africatown community meeting in October. The affordable housing project with plans for 115 studio, one-bedroom and two bedroom apartments and four commercial spaces passed through its first design review in late November.
If the Midtown project is to follow a similar path, it must first emerge from a rockier start. In March, CHS reported on the family legal fight holding up agreement on a $23.5 million deal to sell the land to developers over a plan to transfer ownership of the property to a land trust that would come under community control. “There is a difference of opinion in what the exit strategy should be,” Tom Bangasser told CHS of the disagreement at the time. “I’m a believer that the neighborhood should own the property.” The first Midtown property parcels were purchased by the Bangassers’ father 75 years ago and Tom Bangasser had been managing it for decades. Paul Bangasser was active in the neighborhood’s fight for racial equality and fair housing, according to his 1992 obituary.
But the lawsuit brought by Tom Bangasser to challenge his family backfired after the court ruled that he had been lawfully removed as a general partner and that another member of the partnership could now lead the group with the authority to sell. Bangasser was also eventually found in contempt of court after filing for his case to be dismissed but then attempting to reopen it. By August, Judge John H. Chun decided the legal maneuverings in the case had gone far enough and ordered Tom Bangasser to pay his family partnership’s legal costs as well as $2,500 in sanctions for trying to reopen the case after the dismissal.
The property has also faced other legal challenges and, despite a plan afoot to rezone many areas of the Central District to increase affordability including increasing heights around 23rd and Union, a 2015 bid to rezone the Midtown block was rejected by the City Council.
For neighbors who live nearby in the rapidly developing streets around 23rd and Union, concerns have been less about the courts and more about gunfire, sirens, and cops. A December 10th shootout at Midtown Center early on a Saturday night was just the latest bout of gun violence on the property. In October, police investigated two shootings inside Midtown that left two men injured under nearly identical circumstances.
Reminding neighbors that the recent gun incidents are a small scratch in a history of street violence, drug dealing, and intensely focused policing at the corner isn’t necessarily useful when mothers are worried about their children and the corners of 23rd and Union are increasingly densely populated.
Hugh Bangasser tells CHS his family partnership has taken several steps to try to reverse the course of crime and violence around the block as the development project moves forward. He provided this roster to CHS of seven recent improvements he says help to address safety at the center:
- Enhanced lighting along the 23rd Avenue business front of the Midtown Center building to East Spring;
- For over a year we have pursued, and cooperated with City actions for, vacation and clean-up of the site at Spring and 24th;
- Obtained the peaceful departure of between 15 and 20 individuals who had set up an unauthorized, unlawful and unpermitted homeless encampment there;
- Hauled from the site a substantial volume of the trash and junk although we have been hindered in that removal by others there;
- Repaired retaining walls along Spring and 24th and reduced shrubbery and tree overhang on the site;
- Brought new small business tenants to the Midtown Center – two along 24th Union, one at 23rd and Spring, and two in the old post office space; and
- Cleaned up and restored the kiosk at MidTown Center to make it suitable for commercial, non-food rental.
CHS reported on the third item on Bangasser’s list in September as we found former campers on the property lined up to sign agreements to move off the land and never return. Some of the homeless residents told CHS they had been paid $400 to leave the camp and sign the agreement.
The January 4th design review could represent the start of erasing that list of troubles at 23rd and Union. The plan’s only public shape at this point calls for a seven-story apartment building with 440 units above ground floor retail and parking for up to 482 vehicles underground. Given the usual development schedule, the January review puts the project on path for the start of construction sometime in 2018. And there is a bit of insurance in the works to keep things moving.
In an unusual filing, the developer also has a second plan in its paperwork with the City of Seattle that appears to be preparation for a scenario in which it cannot build the project to 85 feet. The second plan calls for a set of buildings that rise to only four stories with space for a planned 405 units. Given some of the recent challenges faced by the block, it is probably smart to have a backup plan.