The intersection of 23rd and Union in the Central District has become the symbolic heart of the fight against gentrification in Seattle. On the northeast corner, you have Uncle Ike's, a shiny new recreational pot shop and accompanying accessories store. On the northwest corner, a gas station and boxing gym, both of which are slated for redevelopment. On the southwest corner, there's a 92-unit, six-story mixed-use development under construction. On the southeast corner is the last remaining holdout, the MidTown Center, a sprawling, 106,000-square-foot property that's home to a post office and half a dozen African American–owned businesses that cater to this historically black neighborhood.
But the MidTown Center is not immune to the forces of change.
The longtime owners of the property, Tom Bangasser and his family, who are white, want to sell it. They say it badly needs to be redeveloped and that the property taxes are unsustainable. They've asked the city to rezone the property from 40 feet to 65 feet (which would allow the construction of a six-story building like the one currently being built across the street). Who buys the property and how it gets redeveloped will significantly impact the neighborhood, the black community, and, to a certain degree, the city of Seattle. And Bangasser is clearly aware of the stakes.
"This property will set the tone of what this whole area will become," he told me. "Most developers would say it's about the money. We're saying it's more than that."
Now a grassroots movement is under way to try to determine the property's future—and preserve the history of the neighborhood in the process. At a community meeting on February 14, about 40 people gathered in a vacant storefront in the MidTown Center to discuss how they might accomplish such a monumental task. They included not only residents and local business owners but also representatives from Seattle University, the Union Street Business Association, the University of Washington, and the Central Area Land Use Review Committee.
Among the possible solutions: buying the property. Bangasser has offered to give the Union Street Business Association (USBA)—a small group composed of people who care about the black business community—site control, kind of like a down payment, for just 10 percent of the asking price. (Bangasser is currently the USBA's director and treasurer, although he said he's being replaced given his conflict of interest.) And at the community meeting, the total cost to purchase the property was put at $16 million, but Bangasser's response to that number was, "I don't know where that came from."
"The USBA is now trying to come up with the money," said local architect Donald King, who's an adviser to the USBA. "If it's successful, it could be a model for not only other neighborhoods in Seattle, but other neighborhoods across the country."
It may sound far-fetched, but a similar effort is under way in San Diego, where residents are in the process of designing and building a commercial, residential, and cultural center that they also own called the Village at Market Creek. (Bangasser estimated the actual cost to redevelop the property at between $150 million and $200 million, so the USBA would still need to find a deep-pocketed developer for the project.)
Aside from coming up with the funding, there's also the very real challenge of getting a roomful of impassioned people from various backgrounds with different priorities to agree on a course of action—and within a narrow time frame. Not everyone agrees that ownership of the block is the best (or most realistic) option to pursue. Some think efforts should focus on stipulations for the future developer—whoever that may be. There are those who are concerned about building heights, and others who want to preserve the existing black businesses. There are those who want to stop gentrification, and others who want to take advantage of it. There are people who believe Bangasser has the best of intentions, and others who are less sure. Although these interests aren't all necessarily oppositional or competing, they make for a complicated web.
In the meantime, the clock is ticking. If Bangasser had his way, he would've sold the property "yesterday." He said he's been receiving offers for five years, and that all the developers who've expressed interest are white.
Will the community be able to mobilize in time? "It's a big stretch," said King. "Some people have said it's impossible, and the people who believe in it are saying sometimes the impossible can be possible."
Gentrification is nothing new in the Central District. According to census data, the black population in the CD has plummeted from 51 percent to 21 percent over the past 20 years. But there's a feeling now that the forces at work that are pushing out poor people of color in the area are happening at a much more accelerated rate.
As previously mentioned, 23rd and Union is being redeveloped on every corner. The six-story, 92-unit building on the southwest corner of the intersection is being developed by Lake Union Partners. That same group plans to turn the northwest area (where the gas station and gym are) into about 145 housing units. According to Puget Sound Business Journal, there's a four-story, 41-unit apartment project at 24th and Union, also being developed by Lake Union Partners. And Capitol Hill Seattle blog reports that Capitol Hill Housing will build a mixed-use affordable-housing complex also at the 24th and Union intersection—a development that was met with fierce opposition last year because it will be built on the site of Liberty Bank, one of the region's first black-owned banks.
Residents are concerned that gentrification is fundamentally destroying the cultural heritage of the city. "In the last eight years I've been here, there's been a lot of change," said David Harris, who attends meetings of the Union Street Business Association and is the founder of Hack the CD. "What's going on here, what the outcry is, is some people don't like to see historical landmarks disappear... It's a growing community of people who are concerned."
In the 2009 art installation and storytelling project The Corner, former and current residents described the intersection as having struggled over the years with crime and poverty, but also as being a hub of the city's black community. They recalled the neighborhood as a place of thriving businesses and a lively social scene—a place of record stores, music clubs, Mardi Gras parades, and radio stations. It was also the center of the civil-rights movement in Seattle and continues to be the heart of the city's black community, the commercial center of a large neighborhood that also includes the Northwest African American Museum and the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.
But it's clear the leadership in the Central District has shifted. One resident who only agreed to speak anonymously questioned whether the Central Area Neighborhoods District Council had the best interests of the neighborhood in mind. "It's mostly white people," the source said. "I didn't experience a lot of respect [at their meetings]... From what I understand, people of color have stopped going. They felt it was hostile, it was unwelcoming."
An agenda from a recent Central Area Neighborhoods District Council meeting addresses these sentiments. In a public comment from Dick Burkhart titled "Need for CNC [City Neighborhood Council] Sensitivity to Race and Class," he stated: "I wonder if representatives from some of the less affluent or minority groups in Seattle would feel comfortable here—more people of color are leaving the CNC than joining. And the more politicized and less diverse the CNC becomes, the less democratic legitimacy it has."
Although the MidTown Center is home to just a half-dozen African American businesses—including a barbershop, a coin-op laundry, a sandwich shop, and a liquor store—there is a sense that when the property is redeveloped, the businesses and the community they serve could further lose the stake they once held here. "This is the last place where there's black-owned businesses in that intersection," said architect Donald King. "It's a microcosm of Seattle, one of the whitest large cities in the US... There are those who say [the black population is] going to be replaced by other people, but in a sense it's saying the black businesses and the black lives don't matter, and we can lose them because they have no intrinsic value."
If there's anyone who appears to understand this, it's Tom Bangasser. His family has owned the MidTown property since his grandfather purchased it in 1941. At one point, 19 family members had a stake in it. Now it's down to five. "We've been talking about developing the property for 20 years," said Bangasser. "It's a young person's sport... As we exit, we're very aware of the past... We're in a position where we can really make a difference."
Over the years, the need to sell the property became more urgent as property taxes increased. (The MidTown Center's anchor tenant, the post office, also downsized.) "We're taxed as if we live in Capitol Hill," said Bangasser, who added that a mile away, at 23rd and Jackson, property taxes are about $30 less per square foot. "Everything is out of balance."
In April of 2013, Bangasser and his siblings applied for an upzone to 65 feet, which would make the property much more attractive to potential developers. If the rezone is approved, a developer could build as many as 500 units on the site, according to Bangasser.
But the rezone request didn't sit well with some Central District residents. Jonathan Konkol is the vice chair of the Central Area Land Use Review Committee (CA-LURC), a volunteer group of CD residents that's a committee of the Central Area Neighborhoods District Council and is "devoted specifically to guiding area land-use and development," according to its website. It formed in 2012 when a Texas-based real-estate investment trust had purchased property at 23rd and Jackson. "There was a rumor that they were going to put a Walmart there," recalled Konkol, who's a planner. "We don't have a citizen's group looking out for this neighborhood. If a group of us didn't organize, we'd have to deal with it passively. We don't want to settle with whatever developers give us. We try to meet with developers before they start—to represent the interests of the community."
In the case of the Bangasser family, CA-LURC opposed their request for a rezone because they did not "include conditions to mitigate negative impacts [of the redevelopment] and provide public benefits... or any conditions of any kind," according to the group's website. Konkol said the members of CA-LURC tried to get Bangasser and his family to agree upon a set of terms and conditions, called a property use development agreement, that would accompany the rezone proposal. Last summer, the group held a public meeting to discuss what those terms might be. What came out of that meeting were desires for affordable housing, small, independent businesses, and a graduated step down in height from multistory buildings to houses, said Konkol. But Bangasser and CA-LURC never reached an agreement about the stipulations.
For his part, Bangasser called the members of CA-LURC "unreasonable" and "dishonest" about their requests, which he also said kept changing. He added that he spent about $150,000 to hire an architect to come up with drawings in order to "placate those people," even though he knew he would not be the developer of the property, nor did he want to attach stipulations that might dissuade a potential developer.
On January 23, the city council's planning, land use, and sustainability committee rejected Bangasser's request to upzone the MidTown Center property. "Normally when someone requests an upzone, you have to submit plans," explained Konkol. "There was no plan here... and no way to guarantee a good outcome, to protect against the worst-case scenario—a large, corporate investor."
Bangasser called the whole rezone process "bizarre" and "disingenuous." On the one hand, the city wants to upzone the property—he said they had discussed a blanket rezone (or legislative rezone) for the whole neighborhood, but instead Bangasser had to apply for a contract rezone for his property. "When you do a legislative rezone, you can talk to the city council, but when you go for the contract rezone, you can't talk to any of them, but your opposition can."
While on the surface, Bangasser and Konkol appear to want the same thing—a development that has the interests of the community in mind—Konkol, who is also white, isn't so sure. "I want to believe that he wants to do the right thing, but I can't afford to just hope for the best," he said. "We also need to prepare for the worst."
The effort to save MidTown Center is just one part of a broader fight against gentrification in the Central District.
Strengthening the black business base is one of them. Resident Wyking Garrett wants to designate the Central District as Africatown, a globally connected community that would develop an economic base for African Americans and draw entrepreneurs, artists, and other creative types to the area. "This is an opportunity to make a mark on history," Garrett said at the February 14 community meeting.
There's also David Harris's organization Hack the CD, whose goal is to make the Central District a hub for innovation and technology by increasing opportunities for kids of color to get involved in tech and encouraging entrepreneurs in the African American community.
Architecture is another front of gentrification. Sharon E. Sutton, a professor of architecture, urban design, and planning at the University of Washington and the first black woman in the country to earn a full professorship in architecture, has been working with students on envisioning a more "Afrocentric" approach to architecture. She got involved with the MidTown Center project through King, a colleague of hers. Her students—a mix of international and American students—"didn't have a clue about black life," explained King. Sutton said she had them "learn what Afrocentric approaches are to art and literature" and see how that applies to architecture. They examined the impact of black culture in the fields of music, dance, and quilting. They read The Color Purple and Black Boy.
"We gleaned some principles that are really overlapping in those fields," said Sutton. "A make-do approach—make do with what you have, making do with leftovers. That's what soul food is. It's nonhierarchical; it's earth-centered rather than heaven-reaching."
Using those principles, the students came up with collaged, Photoshopped drawings of fictional neighborhoods. These drawings were presented to the community at the February 14 meeting.
"It made me realize how much of my culture I don't see in architecture," said Harris about the designs they came up with. (Several of Sutton's students who attended the February 14 meeting said they felt inspired by the MidTown Center movement to engage in similar fights in their home countries.)
Sutton believes that these Afrocentric principles should be adopted in the design of any future redevelopment at 23rd and Union—for example, having small stores as opposed to a single large store, or fragmenting the structures so the block "has air passing through it." Most developers tend to use the entire envelope of space to maximize profits, said Sutton, hence the large, blocky buildings you see going up all over Seattle.
Although Sutton acknowledges that, as a professor, she's free to think about design principles without the demands of the bottom line, it's not outside the realm of possibility for a developer to think about the needs of a community. CA-LURC's Jonathan Konkol said Lake Union Partners, the developer that is responsible for several new developments in the Central District, has been "very receptive" to some of their feedback. "We have a good working relationship with them," said Konkol. "We've hosted community meetings where we invite the public to meet with them, and we feel like that process is going pretty well. They're locally based and there's a sense of community accountability."
Lake Union Partners did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite all the obstacles, many people remain hopeful that the MidTown Center can remain within community hands.
"If it were possible to have a crowdfunded or a community-based project entity, that would be the best possible outcome I would see," said Konkol. "I'm a little skeptical, because I haven't had a lot of examples like that around the US at this scale, but I'd love to be proven wrong."
At the February meeting, community members broke up into groups to discuss possible solutions to buy the land and to envision their ideal scenario of what it might become. Among the ideas for the former idea: getting a grant from the city, starting a Kickstarter campaign, and forming a neighborhood real-estate investment trust, or REIT. Among the latter ideas: having a worker-owned cooperative, a maker space, a farmers market, an urban garden, a community center, a rec center, a shared workspace, clubs, shops, and restaurants.
But even if a big pile of money ended up in USBA's hands tomorrow to buy the MidTown Center property, there would still be a multitude of questions to be answered, such as what the ownership structure would be. "Would it be a community holding as a land trust, as a not-for-profit, as a for-profit?" asked King. "There's now a structure that's between for-profits and not-for-profits, where there can be a return on investments."
One person involved in the project doesn't think the USBA can even get that far. "USBA has not done all of the due diligence that's necessary for all that's involved in an association trying to own a piece of property," said W.H. (Joe) Knight, a law professor at Seattle University who runs the Community Development and Entrepreneurship Clinic there. The clinic, which includes graduate business students and law students to help serve as consulting teams for local developing businesses, has been trying to help the USBA. According to King, that included writing business plans and developing marketing strategies for some of the MidTown Center businesses.
"Right now, the association has no means. They don't have revenue. They don't have an account," Knight said. "So in many ways, it's an outlet for community voices. We're trying to outline some of the challenges. We have to think about what steps they need to do."
To Knight, a key question to ask is "How does one define a win?" Hack the CD's Harris says he wants to reverse displacement. USBA adviser King wants black residents of the CD to "actually be a part of the benefits of gentrification" by becoming landowners. "If you don't own property, you don't control your own destiny," he said.
For USBA member Victoria Santos, "My primary concern as an individual is for the Central Area to become and to develop itself as a thriving neighborhood, where people of color and people of African descent and people in general—this includes white people and everybody—can come together in harmony and not feel that they don't belong because they've been replaced by the high-priced monoculture that is becoming Seattle. So people of color don't become aliens."
"Everybody's got a different view of what success should look like, and until we can actually develop a common vision for what success would look like and until we can figure out all the characters who are necessary to make that vision happen, until those things occur, we aren't going to see as much progress as most of us would like to see," said Knight. "I think people feel a sense of urgency, but you can't develop that property until you understand all the aspects that are involved in redevelopment, and maybe understanding is the first step as opposed to saying it's all urgent and it has to be done tomorrow."
Nonetheless, at the end of the February 14 meeting, it was decided that the group needed a mission statement and a way to pool and share their resources. Members of USBA promised to send out an e-mail in the next week or two to all the participants, and to hold another meeting to solicit the input of more young people. A meeting was scheduled for April 4 at the MidTown Center.
Regardless of what happens to the property at 23rd and Union, there is a sense that the effort to seriously address gentrification in the Central District is gathering momentum. "The Central District, in a way, is waking up," said Santos. "There's been a lot of efforts... So it seems like the strength of the Central District is coming together."