While the particulars of last week's eviction are as complex as the characters involved, there's a simple question underlying much of the current acrimony:
What's going to happen to MidTown Center, the large CD property at the southeast corner of 23rd and Union?
The land MidTown Center stands on was purchased in 1941 by Paul Bangasser, a man who was described in his 1992 obituary as having been an activist for racial equality and "prominent in the work that led to Seattle's first fair-housing ordinances."
Some of Paul Bangasser's children now manage the property through the MidTown Limited Partnership, which put the land up for sale for redevelopment in 2015. The Capitol Hill Seattle blog reported that developers Legacy Partners then placed a $23.5 million bid on the property in March 2016, but that deal didn’t pan out. Another offer from two Florida development firms in partnership with Africatown, a community group, also fell through earlier this year.
According to data from the King County Assessor's office, the nine land parcels that make up MidTown Center were valued at about $11,700,000 in 2016—more than 1,000 percent higher than what they were worth in 1982.
K. Wyking Garrett, co-founder of Africatown and the neighborhood business incubator Black Dot, placed a bid on the land in 2016 with help from Forterra, a nonprofit that buys urban and wild lands for community use and redevelopment. The amount of the bid from Africatown and Forterra remains unknown. Forterra declined to comment and neither Garrett nor Hugh Bangasser, one of MidTown's landlords, returned The Stranger's calls on the matter. However, CHS reported last month that "a land deal on the scale of around $20 to $25 million will be a major milestone" for the group.
When reached by phone last week, Hugh Bangasser, who is also a member of the MidTown Limited Partnership, said they currently have “a purchase of sale agreement in place” for the property from another developer, but would not comment on who placed the bid.
Tom Bangasser, Hugh's brother, said he has long advocated for his siblings to sell the property to the Central District community. However, in 2015, according to CHS, "[Tom] Bangasser’s siblings voted to remove him as controlling member."
Garrett maintains that the bid from Africatown and Forterra should be accepted by the MidTown partnership so the property can be redeveloped to focus on the neighborhood's needs.
During a press conference on March 16, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant agreed, saying that the owners of MidTown have to make a choice.
“They can go down in history as having aided the disintegration and displacement of this historical Black neighborhood,” Sawant said. “Or they can earn the goodwill of this community and our movement by accepting the bid from Africatown and its partners and, hence, help the Central District’s culture to thrive."
Sawant also called on other council members and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to demand "the owners work with the community to make this possible.”
Brian Surratt, director of the City of Seattle's Office of Economic Development, said that office staffers, who report to Murray, have been working closely with the CD community about the MidTown Center project for more than a year. The model for equitable and inclusive development was established last year when OED worked with Africatown, Capitol Hill Housing, and Centerstone on redevelopment plans for Liberty Bank, the first Black-owned bank west of the Mississippi River. The Liberty Bank project would include affordable housing and retail space for Black and minority business owners.
"The next project that emerged after Liberty Bank was MidTown Commons," Surratt said. "With a partner like Forterra coming into the equation ... if they are not able to buy the property outright, I think they are in a great position to speak on behalf of the community and work with the community and with the new buyers to figure out if there [could be] some kind of shared ownership of that site."
In a follow up interview, Garrett, the grandson of Liberty Bank co-founder Holbrook L. Garrett, said that the current tenants of MidTown Center are “threatened by the sale of the land” and that “it doesn’t make sense if [the Bangassers are] selling to push people out.”
“If [their] goal is to sell, allow the community to own and be part of the future of this community,” Garrett said. “Stop taking actions to displace important community resources."
He continued: “We are prepared to move forward with our vision to acquire and develop an inclusive development that allows the African American community, which has been here for 130 years, to thrive and grow here. We stand behind the offer and we’re ready to move forward.”
Forterra spokesman Michael Beneke said that even if Africatown isn’t able to buy all of the land from the Bangassers, the two organizations will work with the buyer to acquire at least one of the parcels of land within the block. Garrett said that the parcel would be developed to “address community needs,” including providing affordable family-sized housing units and space for neighborhood businesses and community programming.
It was important to partner with Africatown, Beneke said, because of neighborhood residents’ anxieties about housing affordability and gentrification, and to help preserve the “rich Black heritage in the neighborhood.”
In the last year, Forterra, which once solely focused on acquiring wildland space for community needs, shifted its focus to include affordable housing in its mission, too. This partnership with Africatown is Forterra’s first project focusing on urban development, Beneke said.
“For the whole region to be sustainable, our city has to include welcoming, sustainable places that include affordable housing and affordable neighborhoods,” he said.
Garrett said that other communities feeling the pressures of displacement and gentrification are looking at what happens with the redevelopment of MidTown Center in the hopes of finding a community-centered model for development.
“We are looking to work with anyone with shared values for a Seattle that is world-class and reflective of the community that’s here—not just accessible for one class,” Garrett said.