The news faces of the historical Liberty Bank building. From L to R: Evelyn Thomas Allen, BCIA; Wyking Garrett, Africatown; Andrea Caupain, Centerstone; Kevin Dawson Jr., Centerstone; Jaebadiah Gardner and Jill Fleming of CHH.
The news faces of the historical Liberty Bank building. From L to R: Evelyn Thomas Allen, Black Community Impact Alliance; Wyking Garrett, Africatown; Andrea Caupain and Kevin Dawson Jr., Centerstone; and Jaebadiah Gardner and Jill Fleming of Capitol Hill Housing. Courtesy of Capitol Hill Housing

Seattle’s Central District is all too familiar with the pains of gentrification. As housing prices have surged, white Seattleites have swooped into the historically black neighborhood to take advantage of cheaper rents, displacing long-time residents. Census data shows the neighborhood’s black population dropping from 51 percent to 21 percent in the last two decades.

A new union between Capitol Hill and Central District community organizations hopes to change that.

Through a formal partnership announced last week, nonprofit organizers with Africatown, Black Community Impact Alliance (BCIA), Centerstone, and Capitol Hill Housing (CHH) have agreed to work together on equitable development plans in the Central District.

Their first project: redeveloping the lot that was once home to Liberty Bank, the first black-owned bank in the Pacific Northwest.

The four organizations now hope to construct a new building to honor the bank’s legacy, and ensure the building’s ownership reflects the black community. Earlier this year, Mayor Ed Murray announced plans to work with the community nonprofits to honor the bank's legacy in the Central District.

The new building, which will begin construction in 2017, will include ground-level retail spaces and five floors—about 115 units—dedicated entirely to affordable studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments. Those units will be specifically marketed within the Central District community to people who have been or are at risk of being displaced by soaring housing costs. This strategy, which is called "affirmative marketing," is supported by city and federal housing policies and is used to ensure people, particularly those who have been disenfranchised, have an equal chance of applying.

The process takes shape in advertisements in ethnic media, outreach to community organizations, and hosting community meetings. "At the end of the day, we will happily accept anyone who meets the income requirements and passes our standard screening," said Ashwin Warrior, communications manager for Capitol Hill Housing, an affordable housing provider.

Board members James Burton, Dr. McKinney, and Dr. James I. Jackson.
Board members James Burton, Dr. McKinney, and Dr. James I. Jackson. Collection of Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

“As the developer for this building, we have a unique opportunity to not only honor history and cultural significance of Liberty Bank, but also to provide much needed affordable housing in the Central District, and set a standard for other developers for how to advance goals of community partnership and anti-displacement,” said CHH acting CEO, Jill Fleming, in a statement.

There are not yet any businesses slotted to move into the new Liberty Bank building, but the four organizations will prioritize renting commercial space to black- and minority-owned businesses at affordable rates.

"By creating more affordable housing and commercial space, and ensuring ownership reflects the diversity of Seattle’s African American community, we can continue Liberty Bank’s role as an agent for equity—to ensure all residents have an opportunity to make a life or start a business in Seattle," Mayor Murray wrote in an e-mail.

The bank was a “force of economic resilience,” something that is much needed in the Central District today, said Warrior.

“Seattle has been a vision of the future, a city that can creatively solve hard problems. There’s definitely enough resources and brainpower in this city to figure out the problem [of gentrification],” he said.

Today, Africatown, the BCIA, Centerstone, and CHH want to continue Liberty Bank’s legacy as an institution by and for the Central District community. To combat the forces of rapid gentrification and displacement, the groups committed to hiring minority-owned subcontractors from within the community.

The projected cost for the redevelopment is about $30 million, which will be funded in part by the Seattle Housing Levy and Washington State Housing Trust Fund in addition to low-income tax credit funding.

“This is a project that demonstrates that there’s a path forward [from gentrification] rather than people throwing their hands up [in defeat],” said Wyking Garrett, a community activist for Africatown and grandson of bank co-founder Holbrook L. Garrett.

The Liberty Bank board of directors on opening day. From left: Robert N. Joyner, Ralph S. Munro, Mardine Purnell, Dr. James I. Jackson, James Burton, vice president; Holbrook Garrett, Dr. Reverend Samuel B. McKinney, George Tokuda, Larry Gruwell, cashier; and Jack H. Richlen.
The Liberty Bank board of directors on opening day. From left: Robert N. Joyner, Ralph S. Munro, Mardine Purnell, Dr. James I. Jackson, James Burton, vice president; Holbrook Garrett, Dr. Reverend Samuel B. McKinney, George Tokuda, Larry Gruwell, cashier; and Jack H. Richlen. Collection of Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

Liberty Bank was founded in 1968 as a response to redlining and disinvestment in Seattle’s black community, racist policies that pushed minorities to Central Seattle.

At the tail-end of the civil rights movement, opening Liberty Bank had a similar triumphant weight to it as Barack Obama becoming president decades later, says Michelle Purnell-Hepburn, daughter of bank co-founders Mardine and James C. Purnell. She also serves as an advisory board member on on the redevelopment project.

Some of Liberty Banks first employees.
Some of Liberty Bank's first employees. Collection of Michelle Purnell-Hepburn
“The sense of pride, given the history of African Americans in this country, was the pinnacle of the time,” said Purnell-Hepburn, who was 10 years old when the bank opened. “For us to do this here was a feat beyond belief.”

Liberty Bank eventually closed in 1988 and reopened as Emerald City Bank and then as KeyBank. Capitol Hill Housing bought the property from the large bank with the intention of developing it into affordable housing for the community.

Purnell-Hepburn and Garrett hope that this legacy will be rejuvenated with the opening of the new building.

Support The Stranger

“I think the Liberty Bank building represents a new day and a new way of redeveloping the community,” said Garrett. “This is a model and framework that can be improved on and spread to other projects. It represents a new model of development that’s community-based, [community-]led, and respectful.”

“This is now a shared vision, a shared history,” said Warrior of CHH. “What we’re thinking of with the legacy of the bank is how you can create a living history for the community, which is more than a museum or a plaque [could accomplish].”

This post has been updated.