Public comment and the East Design Review Board aligned Wednesday night in agreement that the latest designs for the proposed redevelopment of the Central District’s Midtown Center did not meet expectations for recognizing the history and the culture of African Americans and Black Seattle at 23rd and Union.
The “portals” that open to the street from Midtown: Public Plaza are still not open enough to foster a strong connection to the surrounding neighborhood and to support the hoped-for Black-owned businesses inside — the building needs to do more than utilize masonry to recognize African American-style architecture from the neighborhood — the design needs more “Afro-centric” colors and patterns and, as currently designed, looks too “South Lake Union” — features like the open plazas and a proposed video screen installation to showcase local arts and history need to have more fleshed out programming plans — a proposal to keep costs down on the three building development with connecting skywalks and fewer elevators and stairs needs more thought — and more.
They also agreed on something else.
The review board covering neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Montlake, and First Hill wasn’t necessarily the best body to make the decision.
“How is the Central Area design team not looking at this?,” one speaker asked during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s night’s review, the final stage for the project in the city’s public design process. She also stated the obvious — each member of the design board Wednesday night was white.
“What you are hearing today is just a summary of what we’ve been experiencing through this whole process,” another speaker said.
An answer to why the new Central District board is not looking at the project seen as the most significant development in the modern history of the neighborhood?
They are — some members of the newly convened Central Area Design Review Board were in attendance at Wednesday’s review.
And they will be.
Included in their roster of feedback to developer Lake Union Partners and the architects at Weinstein A+U along with suggestions to do more to incorporate feedback from Central District community meetings and “design ciphers” held in conjunction with the Africatown community group was an acknowledgement by the East Design Review Board that the newly formed Central Area group should join the process.
Wednesday night, the East Design Review Board sent the Midtown redevelopment project back for a second review in this final phase of the process. Going forward, we’re likely to see the new Central Area Design Review Board at the fore.
Earlier this year, CHS reported on the creation of the new review board, splitting off the Central District neighborhoods from the East region in an effort to preserve and grow the historically Black culture of the Central District. Timing of the permit process for the redevelopment of the Midtown Center left the project many see as a catalyst for efforts around inclusive development on its original track with the East board.
That may have changed Wednesday night. East Review Board members said at the conclusion of the meeting they were interested in either incorporating the new Central Area members — or handing over the project in its entirety. The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections will now have to sort out what that will mean.
The new board is ready. Wednesday, just hours before the Midtown design session, a Seattle City Council committee approved the new board’s members: Sharon Khosla, an architect and Central Area resident, Aaron Argyle of LMN Architects, Dennis Comer, a small business owner and member of the Central Area Land Use Committee, Kenny Pleasant, owner of a real estate investment business and resident of Madrona, Jeffrey Floor, an architect and Leschi resident, and Azzura Cox, a landscape architect who has helped run the recent Africatown ciphers.
The proposed development would create a three-piece, seven-story apartment building with 429 apartment 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. The development will include around 125 affordable housing units allocated for households earning between $40,000 and $65,000 per year or 60% to 85% of area-median income (AMI) built as part of both the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program and the Multi-Family Tax Exemption Program (MFTE).
The Lake Union Partners project will take place on 80% of the Midtown 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 from the public.
Once complete, the Midtown developments will create about 250 affordable housing apartments and 280 market rate units. The project will also include 25,000 square feet of retail, “10,000 of which is planned for small scale, locally owned businesses,” the developers say.
Lake Union is already the developer on three buildings around the intersection with a combined 275 apartment units and some 25,000 square feet of commercial and restaurant space. Included in that is the 18,000-square-foot New Seasons grocery store planned to anchor the under-construction East Union building on the intersection’s northwest corner.
Meanwhile, Capitol Hill Housing’s Liberty Bank building is under construction at 24th and Union. There, Africatown joined The Black Community Impact Alliance, and Centerstone in a memorandum of understanding with the nonprofit developer Capitol Hill Housing. The Liberty partnership has been held up as a template for inclusive development in Seattle with a respect for history and the empowerment of the African American community. The group worked 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. 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 2016 and is currently under construction.
The design of Lake Union Partners’ Midtown project, despite the many areas of negative feedback on the night, also isn’t that far from something worthy of approval. Many agreed Wednesday the plan had come a long way and was “light years” ahead of a previous proposal for the site. Community groups including the Central Area Land Use Committee have said they support the design.
Some issues can’t be solved by design review. Some community members who spoke Wednesday night said they were upset the Africatown portion of the redevelopment of the block wasn’t being built first and that the post office which will be displaced by construction should make its home in that new development. Others repeated the criticism that the developer and the architect on the project have no black employees. But the biggest decision by the review board Wednesday night to invite help from a new board made up of experts with connections to the 23rd and Union community will go a long way toward solving the rest and toward getting the long-awaited project off the drawing board and under construction.
“Most of the input from the community was based on the massing — creating the street corners and making sure the businesses on the inside have enough access to the street so that people can go in and they can actually survive,” Africatown CEO K. Wyking Garrett said Wednesday night. “But there hasn’t been a real opportunity to respond to the architecture and the facade because those designs were just presented not too long ago.”
“You need to have a little more time to get that community input and then it will be more authentic.”
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