“Welcome to what we now call sacred ground,” said K. Wyking Garrett, standing in the still bare-bones corner space of the Liberty Bank Building where a new restaurant by That Brown Girl Cooks will land this summer. His comments marked the start of the first community design meeting for the planned Africatown Plaza affordable housing and commercial retail development on 23rd and Union.
Thursday’s meeting gave a first glimpse into what Africatown Community Land Trust, of which Garrett is president and CEO, plans for the site, and was a first step in the design process that is supposed the mirror and exceed the success of the affordable housing development Liberty Bank Building. The opening of the building this spring signaled the start of what is hoped to be a wave of equitable development across the Central District.
“We are here today to talk about the next project, the next building (…) across the street. Which will be similar, but we will improve on what we’ve done here,” Garrett said.
The project, like the Liberty Bank Building, is a partnership between Africatown and affordable housing developer Capitol Hill Housing. Africatown Plaza will be built at 23rd and Spring, just across from the Liberty Bank Building on the south end of the site of the former Midtown Plaza, and will include about 138 affordable housing units, specifically for “those who have been displaced due to rising rents”, as well as several thousand square feet of retail space.
Buildings on the Midtown Center lot are currently boarded up and ready for demolition. Lake Union Partners is financing a major new development on the north end of the land that will create a set of seven-story apartment buildings with 429 apartment units, including around 125 affordable housing units. The project will take up 80% of the Midtown block. The remaining 20%, about a half acre, was sold for $4,500,000 by Lake Union Partners to Africatown Community Land Trust and Capitol Hill Housing to develop Africatown Plaza.
The project is still in its early stage, explained Jon Hall, Principal architect at design firm GGLO, which will be leading the design process.
“This is our first exercise with the design team,” Hall said. “We will be coming back with what we’ve heard in a couple of months,” with a building concept, he said. “Then we’ll come back again at the end of the summer to have another presentation on the final design on the building. Then they’re [Africatown and Capitol Hill Housing] going to go out and find all the money.”
Garrett said Africatown is currently in the process of seeking public funding from the City of Seattle’s Office of Housing, among others, and that they are currently in the process of a capital campaign slash philanthropic drive to raise funds for projected funding gaps.
If all goes to plan, the hope is that groundbreaking could begin as early as the fall of next year.
The goal is for Africatown to become a “cultural placemaker” for the community, architects of GGLO explained to the many dozens who had shown up for the community design meeting, including a handful of residents of the Liberty Bank Building. “A building that is rooted in the community and has importance to the community,” explained Simba Mafundikwa of GGLO after someone asked to define the concept.
Community members, seated at round tables with plates of fried chicken and rice, received large cardboard printouts of the empty lot and were invited to use brightly-colored cards to map out their priorities for the development. Afterward, representatives of each table came up to explain why and where they’d put greenery, retail spaces, barbecue area, community rooms, artists studios, market stalls, play areas, childcare facilities, job training, and business incubators, among other facilities.
“We wanted to have a balance of apartments and greenery as well as little areas to support small businesses,” one ‘table representative’ said. “because it’s hard to get retail space in our communities.”
“We need some parking if we want people to come back to the community here,” another presenter said.
“I find that we do need some parking,” Cheryl Hawkins, who lives in the Liberty Bank Building and came to the community design meeting, told CHS. “I would like to see a community garden on the rooftop. Use some of that produce for the eateries here,” she added. “If you provide the food and other services, that will keep the dollar in the community a little longer.”
Hawkins grew up in the Central District, and her parents owned shares in Liberty Bank, she said. “I know a lot of the area, and it’s really different — a lot of things have changed. I welcome the change. We’re just going to go forward and do the damn thing.”
The sentiment was echoed by Garrett. “It’s encouraging to know that when the community really does gets involved, they can have an effect on their environment. We shouldn’t just be subject to other people’s plans, designs,” Garrett told CHS.
“Hopefully many others are inspired, not just in this community but around the city and around the country where neighborhoods are facing the same challenges and obstacles. We have to be the ones to create the future that we want to see.”
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