Crews began work this week to tear down the old commercial strip following a slow final year for the old buildings as the final commercial tenants moved out and chain-link fencing went up.
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Construction will follow soon after — though nothing with the changes at 23rd and Union has come as quickly as expected. Developer Lake Union Partners is creating the new Midtown: Public Square on the land, a three-piece, seven-story mixed-use apartment development with more than 400 market-rate and affordable apartment units, a quasi-public central plaza, and a huge underground parking garage. Regional pharmacy chain Bartell Drugs is planned to occupy the large retail space on the corner of 23rd and Union with a mix of smaller, more neighborhood focused retail and restaurant spaces surrounding the inner square.
A long public design process wrapped up last year with an “art plan” as the board’s final touch to try to direct the project toward a design more reflective of the neighborhood’s history and culture. “This art plan is rooted in the values of reverence and discovery and takes into account responses from community members around their desires for how the project functions as a community space that is friendly, representative of an aesthetic that boldly recognizes the area’s rich heritage, and welcomes multi-generational interaction,” the developers wrote of the effort. It will manifest itself in large art panels and installations around the block-wide development. A plaza on the corner of 24th and Union, meanwhile, will feature the James Washington Fountain, which the sculptor saw as a symbol of the struggle of African Americans.
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).
On the south end of the Midtown block, meanwhile, Africatown is working with Capitol Hill Housing on a plan for a fully affordable new Africatown Plaza development that seeks to emulate the success of the nearby Liberty Bank Building in achieving inclusive development with the help of new City of Seattle policies including community preference in which nonprofit developers offer a portion of their affordable units to communities with ties to the neighborhood, particularly those with a high risk of displacement. The Plaza apartments development will eventually rise above land where a contentious standoff occurred in 2017when the elderly Omari Tahir-Garrett, Africatown CEO Wyking Garrett’s father, refused to move out of the house he had been living in on the property, sparking days of protests with activists including City Council member Kshama Sawant.
The redevelopment of the block has been a flashpoint for community anxiety regarding gentrification in the Central District and the Midtown Center has been called home by a number of minority owned businesses. The first Midtown property parcels were purchased by the Bangasser family 75 years ago and the family had been managing it for decades before its $23.25 million sale to Lake Union Partners. Paul Bangasser was active in the neighborhood’s fight for racial equality and fair housing, according to his 1992 obituary.
Once considered the core of the area’s “open air drug market,” crime around Midtown Center has been part of the corner’s reputation even as incidents steadily decreased. Police rolled through the lot to bust up drinking, drug use, and gambling. There were shootings and ongoing incidents of gun violence even as use of the center decreased. This summer, with fences up, police were called to hot spots nearby including 21st and Union and 29th and Alder near Powell Barnett Park.
The shopping center’s end days also exposed the missing safety net in Seattle for small businesses as remaining tenants struggled to find new locations when faced with the coming demolition and redevelopment. Some, with hope, will continue to thrive. Earl’s Cuts, with a boost from a fundraising campaign, moved on and is making its new home in the Liberty Bank Building at 24th and Union. And a community service valued by many in the neighborhood will continue as the post office found a new nearby home.
This week’s demolition will finally set most of these plans and changes fully into motion. It also brings an answer for what had become one of the most asked questions for CHS in recent months. When will Midtown Center be demolished? The answer is now. As for the other question we hear the most about 23rd and Union, that answer is still murky. The 18,000-square-foot New Seasons grocery store that will anchor Lake Union Partners’ East Union building on the intersection’s northwest corner still does not have an official opening date.