Architect Donald King, UW architecture professor Sharon Sutton, and Suttons students visited 23rd and Union in the Central District to help imagine a mixed-use development using Afrocentric design principles.
Architect Donald King and UW architecture professor Sharon Sutton (center), and Sutton's students visited 23rd and Union in the Central District to help imagine a mixed-use development using Afrocentric design principles. Courtesy of Sharon Sutton

The vast majority of our city planning and architecture is based on the dominant Eurocentric culture. As an architect, I am passionate about seeking alternative approaches that are more culturally relevant to our city’s diverse populations.

The Central District has been a historically vital center for Seattle’s black community—a nexus of cultural heritage, community strength, and economic opportunity. The once-thriving community that grew in the face of challenging sociopolitical circumstances has been weakening for some time and is now in serious peril of totally displacing its African American residents, businesses, and institutions. Decades of redlining, unforgiving economic trends, mismatched tax assessments, and surging real-estate prices have splintered the community, hurt local businesses, and driven many black residents out of the city or to distant neighborhoods.

Last fall, I asked Dr. Sharon Sutton, a professor of architecture at the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments, if her students could use her Afrocentric planning and design methodology to imagine a mixed-use development site in Seattle’s Central District.

Dr. Sutton’s principles of Afrocentric design include:

• Is a unified collective expression. Is a melting pot of improvisation. Contains individual stories.
• Is instructive of life.
• Has a balanced asymmetry.
• Exhibits a continuous back and forth rhythm. Is grounded on the earth.
• Connects earth and sky. Recycles for innovation.
• Brings artists together in non-hierarchical, selfless collaboration.
• Blurs the boundary between audience and artist. Offers the freedom to express individual stories.

The process began with research and an immersion in African American literature, dance, music, and quilting. The resultant site plan they came up with includes opens space, articulated building massing (building mass that is broken up into a variety of sizes, shapes, and materials), and decorative facades.

The students’ work was inspiring and had a potentially applicable outcome: a model of development that would encourage social interaction and stimulate the prospect for neighborhood empowerment and economic development.

I began to realize that this outcome is not limited to the Afro-centered design features, but encompasses a design response that is generally more neighborhood-friendly and equitable. It has made me think about a very different development “standard” than what is currently being built in Seattle neighborhoods. The current edge-to-edge, maximum-allowed height development standard is becoming an unwelcomed in-your-face statement of gentrification, rising rents, and physical change in many neighborhoods, and is insensitive to the cultural history in the underdeveloped Central District.

I believe a more equitable impact can be composed of the following elements:

• A “bite-size” site development based on a neighborhood-sensitive master plan would have smaller parcel sales or land leases under the control of a “master developer.” This approach would offer greater opportunities for local, racially inclusive participation and possible partnership in the development, without additional risk to developer profit. In conjunction with architecture and real-estate development advisers, our neighborhood group is crunching the numbers on a financially viable development scenario that meets the smaller development qualities. Contrary to conventional thinking, this approach may also produce a higher square-foot sales price or lease rate and allow access to more than one large developer, anchor tenant, architect, and property owner.

Public open space and internal pedestrian pathways would enliven the site, increase chances for social interaction, and improve security.

More articulated and porous building massing, with more diverse facade design applications (such as street-front windows), provides a welcoming atmosphere and lively sidewalk environment.

A land-use incentive to allow for greater heights where the site edges are facing compatible commercial zones, and lower heights where there can be a negative impact on low-rise and single-family zones. This allowance would help spread out density to avoid the “flat top” appearance that you commonly see on new developments—the result of developers filling the allowed buildable envelope in order to maximize profits. With more flexible building heights, structures and facades can therefore be more articulated and sensitive at the edges of the site that impact lower-density zones.

• Not-for-profit housing developers can purchase or lease parcels to build ground-floor family housing and affordable apartments. This approach would afford the maximum, meaningful empowerment for neighborhood participation in the planning and design of their neighborhood’s redevelopment.

Smaller rental spaces would allow for greater entrée of current neighborhood small businesses and can increase the number of jobs created or saved, resulting in more jobs per square foot.

With these elements, a development’s facade and street presence can have greater transparency, a more human scale with a variety of designs. The development can contribute to ethnic authenticity and be more respectful of the historic and cultural heritage of the neighborhood’s current residents, businesses, and institutions. The development can be evolutionary, as older neighborhoods have evolved their physical presence over years of development. The smaller-scale development’s expression of scale and design is less static and homogenous.

There would be many opportunities to include local, smaller, and racially diverse developers, real-estate agents, architects, and builders. And smaller is the best way to realize ownership by the local community.

Donald King has been a Seattle architect for 35 years. He is the director of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Northwest & Pacific Region, a member of the AIA National Board of Directors, and is the recipient of the 2015 AIA Seattle of the Medal of Honor.