A model by UW architecture student Michelle Kang shows her view of Union Street’s much larger, interconnected African American families being dispersed by smaller, isolated newcomer families.
A model by UW architecture student Michelle Kang shows her view of Union Street’s much larger, interconnected African American families being dispersed by smaller, isolated newcomer families. Courtesy of Sharon Sutton

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In my feature this week about a group of neighborhood activists who, in response to rapid gentrification in the Central District, are trying to buy a block at 23rd and Union, I interviewed UW architecture professor Sharon Sutton, whose students are helping their effort. What does architecture have to do with gentrification, exactly? According to Sutton, a lot.

"One of my dissatisfactions with what’s going on in Seattle in design right now is sites with many small properties are being massed into a single large building, which takes all the texture out of the city," said Sutton. "The reason why things come out looking so awful is because code has these maximum envelopes that are extruded forms on the site, and then the developers require architects to build almost to the maximum envelope, so there’s very little shaping of the building that’s allowed that anyone is willing to pay for."

What's the reason? "Profit," said Sutton. "With the least amount of effort."

With the property at 23rd and Union, Sutton wants to bring "more texture" to the site by having smaller structures that would allow "circulation" to move through the block. "So we did an envelop that is both higher and lower than the maximum envelop that would exist with that site, so we got more variability and more open space."

"I think we could get as much square footage as a single huge building but smaller structures would give more individuality," Sutton continued. "I believe in high density."

Local architect Donald King, UW architecture professor Sharon Sutton (center), and Suttons architecture students touring the site at 23rd and Union.
Local architect Donald King, UW architecture professor Sharon Sutton (center), and Sutton's architecture students touring the site at 23rd and Union. Courtesy of Sharon Sutton

As I described in my story, these ideas are rooted in "Afrocentric" design principles, which is what Sutton has been teaching her students. "I'm trying to walk them through the process to learn what Afrocentric approaches are to art and literature and see how that applies to architecture," she said. "It’s been an interesting process. We looked at jazz because that’s the most thought about as what African American contribution has been to American culture. We also looked at quilting, which is of particular interest of mine. And we looked at dance. And we gleaned some principles that are really overlapping in those fields—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."

"We read some autobiography or fiction, which many of them had read earlier in high school but I had them read toward what is the environment being described, what is the place? Then they were to write their own stories about a place before gentrification and to draw images of that place." Those images were then presented at a community meeting in the Central District on February 14.

A collage by Laura Follis draws from Maya Angelou’s Why the Caged Bird Sings to depict the type of multi-purpose general store she imagines might have existed in a traditional African American neighborhood.
A collage by Laura Follis draws from Maya Angelou’s 'Why the Caged Bird Sings' to depict the type of multi-purpose general store she imagines might have existed in a traditional African American neighborhood. Courtesy of Sharon Sutton

Sutton said the USBA—the group of neighborhood activists who are concerned with preserving black businesses in the Central District and who want to buy the 23rd and Union property—is envisioning an anchor tenant at the site. But Sutton believes this is a mistake. "An anchor tenant is not in the spirit of what they’re doing," she said. "It requires a lot of traffic and a lot of parking."

Plus, she said, "A 100,000-square-foot grocery store does not sell the most healthful food. ... If you’re thinking about healthful food, you’re thinking about locally-owned, farm-to-table kind of food, which is expensive upfront, which is like green architecture—expensive up-front but better in the long-term."