A failed deal to transform a superblock in Seattle’s Central District is being seen as a great opportunity for the community to take the property and reshape its vision to something that reflects and benefits the neighborhood’s African American heritage.
Up until recently, the Midtown Center that exists today at the corner of 23rd Avenue and East Union was slated for demolition, making way for a 30,000-square-foot grocery store, 10,000-square-foot pharmacy and an additional 6,500 square feet of retail space below five to six floors of apartment units across a 160,000-square-foot parcel.
“All I know is they wanted an extension on their contract, and the family said ‘no,’ ” said Jeff Floor, chair for the Central Area Land Use Review Commission.
Floor was among a group of neighborhood residents that attended the Black Seattle 2035: Midtown Center Design Meeting on Thursday night, Feb. 23, wanting to get details about developers Lennar Multifamily Communities and retail-focused partner Regency Centers ending their big plans for Midtown Center, and what comes next.
“They’ve kind of retreated,” Floor said. “I reached out after I heard about it.”
Lennar and Regency had requested two early design guidance meetings with the East Design Review Board. The first took place on Jan. 4, following a community meeting with developers just before Christmas.
The board had issues with the bulk and scale of the project, and wanted to see several new designs that broke up the development more. Developers argued that much of the project was designed around the 30,000-square-foot anchor grocery tenant. Many residents told developers — and repeated sentiments to the review board — that the neighborhood has enough grocery stores.
Africatown Community Land Trust CEO K. Wyking Garrett, who led Thursday’s design meeting, said plans for Midtown Center falling through means the neighborhood now has the opportunity to better shape the property to what it wants.
“Our vision did not start with that contract,” Garrett said, “and our vision does not end with that contract.”
Africatown had been brought on to the original Midtown Center project, with plans to develop 20 percent of the 106,000-square-foot property, on the south side. With Lennar and Regency out, the property is now for sale.
“The family wants to sell,” Garrett said, “and we want to buy.”
Paul Bangasser purchased the property 75 years ago, leaving it to his children. The Bangassers had been legally fighting over selling the property to developers for $23.5 million.
The property is reportedly now on the market. Jonathan Konkol, Central Area Land Use Review Commission member, told the Capitol Hill Times he heard the price is now at $25 million.
Forterra, a nonprofit that helps communities acquire property for preservation and restoration, had been working with Africatown to acquire its 20 percent of Midtown Center. Executive vice president Michelle Connor confirmed Thursday it has submitted a letter of interest to owners for the entire 2.4 acres. She said it’s important that communities be diverse and inclusive.
“That’s what makes us special as a community,” Connor said, “especially in these times.”
Tom Bangasser wants Africatown to be the entity that acquires the large property, he said, because he sees the African American community disappearing. Bangasser said the old race-driven stigmas about the Central District that had kept development out in the past are gone.
“My advice to Africatown,” he said during the meeting, “hold your ground.”
Doris Koo with the Yesler Community Collaborative explained that through Forterra’s Strong Communities Fund, the nonprofit collects investments that it can make for Africatown. Forterra would hold the property for as long as 10 years, Koo said, while design, financing and development can take place. Forterra would exit the property, leaving Africatown in charge of paying off remaining debts.
While the deal seems “doable” to Bangasser, he currently does not have the full support of his siblings.
“The family’s really split on this,” he said.
Forterra isn’t a developer, and neither is Africatown. There are many options for moving forward, and Garrett asked meeting-goers to brainstorm what they do and don’t want to see in a new development, then think of how those goals can be accomplished.
The city’s 23rd Avenue Action Plan includes a response to the Mandatory Housing Affordability program that is part of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda. The MHA program is proposed to upzone 23rd and Union to seven stories, and was counted on in the original Midtown Center design. This upzone is planned to be an incentive for more development, though 23rd and Union has not been lacking construction activity over the past few years.
Garrett said there is a community development framework to help guide planning, which was used when working to form a partnership with Capitol Hill Housing on the Liberty Bank affordable housing development across the street from Midtown Center.
CHH entered a memorandum of understanding with Africatown, the Black Community Impact Alliance and self-sufficiency nonprofit Centerstone last year, that commits the public corporation to a design that connects with the history of the community; prioritizing local and minority hires for the project; developing and supporting black-owned businesses; long-term African American ownership; reaffirming the CD as a hub of the Pan-African community, exploring further policy changes and diversifying CHH. The MOU was “groundbreaking,” Garrett said.
Work groups on Thursday came up with a number of wants for a potential new development, which still included a desire for a strong anchor tenant, as well as possibly a black-owned bank, ample community space, multicultural food options, mixed-income housing, an open market and pocket park. Undesirable elements included big stores and buildings, as well as any more liquor stores and pot shops.
Konkol said community developers could split up the property, selling portions to for-profit developers and then use the revenue to finance projects that benefit the neighborhood. There was also a suggestion for a public development authority, which is what was used to save Pike Place Market.
Connor said the large 23rd and Union property is a premium site, and it will be sold as such. Should only a portion of the property ultimately be all that’s offered, she said Forterra and Africatown would pursue acquisition.
“We’re prepared to engage at whatever opportunity is presented to the community,” Connor said.