A public meeting convened this past March 5 at Centerstone (18th Avenue & Cherry) brought people out to brainstorm the possibilities for marking the history of the site at 24th and Union, most recently occupied by Key Bank, and currently under consideration simultaneously for a low-income housing project and for historic landmark designation.
The phenomenon of “redlining” is neither pretty nor flattering for our country’s history. The Central District was one of the many urban neighborhoods in the US where banks were reluctant to conduct business, including locating branches there or, most significantly, not lending for any properties within zones identified as too risky for investment. Drawn out on maps, the zones coincided with predominantly African American neighborhoods and paralleled the similar reluctance – whether by explicit policy or otherwise – to lend to people of color, regardless of their neighborhood or economic status. Combined with the covenants in some private developments that barred minority buyers, the net effect led to economic depression, a lack of infrastructure upkeep and dwindling property values within minority neighborhoods. In 1968 a group of Central Area African American residents took matters in their own hands and formed Liberty Bank, with a branch at Union Street and 24th Avenue.
Liberty served the community for 20 years before hitting hard times and reorganizing in 1988 as Emerald City Bank, which lasted for another five years until being bought out by Key Bank, which maintained a branch there for another 20 years. At that point, Key’s management determined the continual losses from operating a brick & mortar branch at this location had become excessive and approached Capitol Hill Housing (CHH) to gauge interest in developing a low-income housing project on the property. Not wanting to step on any toes of other organizations more active in this part of town, CHH in turn approached Central Area Development (CADA), who declined involvement in favor of focusing on their already full slate of programs.
CHH has since carried the effort further and is looking to build a project that would have a mix of two- and three-bedroom units, along with some one-bedroom and studios, and all well below market rate, available to qualifying renters earning less than 40% of the area median income.
The assembled group of around 20 people came up with a variety of thoughtful ideas, including parameters for any art that is incorporated (i.e., it be publicly visible at all times); that there be an educational component regarding redlining; salvage material from the existing building for re-use in a new one; naming the new building after Liberty Bank; and contracting with minority firms for construction. CHH representative Katie Porter indicated that they will be forming an advisory group for gathering community input throughout the design and construction process, and have been actively engaging NAAM for input on the historic narrative.
The mood in the room was serious and committed, with a distinct majority of attendees expressing some degree of support for the project and a hopeful sense that a meaningful gesture could be made with the new work to keep the memory of what had happened here alive for future generations. Despite the obvious need for this type of housing in our time of gentrification and escalating housing prices in the Central Area however, the proposed project is not without its controversy. One person present, Omari Garrett, declared extreme misgivings, claiming that his family still has legal right to the property. He has submitted the property to the city’s Landmark and Preservation board for historic designation, for which it has passed the first hurdle. A subsequent public meeting will be held at Seattle Municipal Tower on March 19 (after this story has gone to press) for consideration of the Landmark proposal. Ms. Porter of CHH made it clear that if the existing building is maintained, the proposed project cannot happen.