A little over a week ago we held our annual fundraiser, Top of the Town. (Thank you to all who sponsored, attended and donated—because of you, we exceeded our fundraising goal.) What follows is a version of the remarks I gave at that event.
Originally I had planned to talk about the crisis of homelessness and affordable housing in Seattle and King County—an issue that has not only been in the local media spotlight lately, but one that is at the very heart of CHH’s mission. However, the events that have transpired in the past few weeks surrounding the Liberty Bank Building have made me realize that there is a different dialogue I want to engage in today.
On Monday, April 25, CHH held a community design charrette to solicit input from community members about the Liberty Bank project, a CHH development in the works that will create 115 new affordable apartments in the Central District. The architects presented current massing studies and other early design elements; then community members met in small groups, brainstormed their priorities, and reported back to the whole group. It was great! We got a lot of good ideas that will be incorporated into the final design of the building. It’s exciting when these events function as they are supposed to, extracting meaningful feedback from stakeholders that will make a project more useful and equitable for the immediate community. But this charrette stands in stark contrast to the design meeting we held the week before with the Land Use Review Committee (LURC). At that meeting, there was so much pent up frustration from a small number of people in the audience that CHH was unable to even make a presentation.
To understand why this happened, you need to understand the history of the Liberty Bank Building. Liberty Bank existed on the corner of 24th and Union from 1968 to 1988. It was the first African American owned and operated bank west of the Mississippi. The founders, the owners, the managers, the tellers, the borrowers and the depositors were all local residents. The bank became a hub for the Black community, a proud institutional resource for a community that has historically been excluded from the kind of banking services that White America takes for granted.
Sadly, as is the case with most small businesses, Liberty Bank suffered some turbulent times and was forced to go out of business. When the bank closed, people lost money. That was 28 years ago, and to this day there are lingering resentments and a sense of ownership loss.
When CHH acquired the building in 2015 it was from Key Bank, who had been operating a branch there for 22 years. Although we had significant community support, we were also met with an effort to turn the site into a historical landmark, preventing any future development on the site. Though the landmarking effort was ultimately unsuccessful, we listened closely to the community. We convened an advisory board that included two daughters of Liberty Bank founders, and worked with them to determine the most sensitive and dignified way to memorialize the history of Liberty Bank at the new development. Among other things, we’re naming the development “the Liberty Bank Building”; we are incorporating the original sign into the building; we are creating places with remembrances of the bank for people to sit and reflect on that history; and we are displaying many old photos of staff and bank history.
Since making those commitments a year ago, we’ve been doing normal development stuff like demolishing the old building—but we’ve preserved the vault door, the safety deposit box doors, and many, many bricks, all of which we’re incorporating into the design of the new building. We’ve done our soils remediation work, hired our general contractor and architect, and have been negotiating a partnership with Centerstone. All of this work led up to the productive charrette at the end of April, where we continued to absorb stakeholder thinking that will lead to a design supportive of community priorities.
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What I’m about to say next will seem like a tangent, but if you bear with me, I promise these stories will come together.
Let me tell you about Uncle Ike’s marijuana shop. A little over a week ago, there was a protest outside Ike’s. If you don’t know, Uncle Ike’s is likely the most successful marijuana shop in the state, and is located at 23rd and Union next to the Liberty Bank Building. It has a huge marquee lit sign, murals and glassware displays—and, as you’ll know if you’ve ever walked or driven past it, it’s a pretty popular spot.
As it turned out, the coordinated protest of Uncle Ike’s also happened to be the same day as the Liberty Bank LURC design meeting. The community was protesting because they don’t want a pot shop in such close proximity to a church, Mt. Calvary Christian Center, and its teen center. Now, there’s no State law against how close a marijuana shop can be to a church or teen center, and no one complained about Ike’s proximity during the formal licensing period in 2014. These protestors had gone to court and for these reasons, the judge ruled against them. That ship has sailed. But how would you feel if a drug dispensary opened up next door to your place of worship?
A lot of people roll their eyes at the protesters and write demeaning things about them in the comment sections of the blogs. But I understand their frustration, because there is a dark irony at work in the background of Uncle Ike’s. For a hundred years, the Central District was the only neighborhood in Seattle where Black folks could live. They were shunted there by redlining and racially restrictive covenants so that by the 1970s and 80s, seventy percent of the Central District population was African American. The community faced disinvestment from business and industry, and from public investment. So a concentration of poverty built up. And the corner of 23rd and Union became the place where some young Black men, who were given so few options and so few opportunities, plied the drug trade. Some were arrested; some were killed; and most were unable to gain employment because of their newly minted criminal record.
So this corner is steeped in symbolism and history. It is entrenched in the memory of a community who banded together for economic freedom, to create a Black-owned financial institution that was a community hub. And it is now at the epicenter of the radical change that is happening in the Central District. It has changed from an African American poor and working-class neighborhood to an increasingly white and affluent one. It has changed from a neighborhood where young Black men were arrested and jailed for selling marijuana, to a neighborhood where White people buy and sell pot freely—not only without fear of arrest or violence, but also at great profit.
So after the protesters were done demonstrating at Uncle Ike’s, a small number of them (perhaps eight) came to the Liberty Bank LURC meeting, steeped in a hundred years of neglect, indifference and inequity. We could not make our presentation because of the hostility, yelling, and sometimes hateful language.
I don’t condone their behavior—it was beyond disrespectful and certainly misplaced. But I do understand it. I hear it. As a community organization and as a developer that builds for the benefit of the community, we respond to those concerns, angry or not. In the end, the project that we deliver will have shared ownership with a local Black-led organization; it will be designed to reflect the priorities of African-American and African cultures; it will memorialize the history of Liberty Bank and its role as a hub for the Black community; it will be set up so that small local and Black owned businesses can operate there; and it will be planned so that African American individuals and families may find the Liberty Bank Building a comfortable and welcoming place to call home.
The commitment of CHH isn’t to do what we want. Our commitment is to do what the community wants. Some communities ask for theaters in their buildings (perhaps you’ve heard of our award-winning 12th Avenue Arts building). Other communities ask for ownership. And in this case, as in all cases, it has not been easy to meet all of the stakeholder priorities. But that does not mean that CHH shies away. We stand firm in our mission and will continue to listen, humble ourselves and take on the projects that we know will build up the cultural fabric of this great city. And in the process we will provide affordable housing to the families and individuals who serve as the backbone of our communities.
Of course, no community is a monolithic voice. It is a thousand voices. In the presence of this chorus—or perhaps more accurately, this cacophony—our vow is to listen. We listen so that we can reflect those voices, and out of them, together with the community, we strive to bring them into relative harmony. At the end of each project there can only be one song, but it is composed by many, many authors.
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My friend George Staggers and I sometimes share funny e-mails exaggerating how much we get beat up in the community. But I sent him one the other day that shared some real exasperation, and he said, I don’t have any solutions or advice except to be honest and sensitive. And then he said, Peace.
This is my expectation of myself. To be honest, and to be sensitive. And if I may be so bold, this is my expectation of you, too. Our design team and contractors, our vendors and stakeholders, our staff and board members, I say this to you. As we venture into these grounds steeped in symbolism and mired in history: be honest, be sensitive.
Christopher Persons, CEO