Libbank68 xcrr0n

The Liberty Bank Building, pictured here in 1968, is set to become the site of Capitol Hill's newest affordable housing development and, just like Liberty Bank, the project developers plan to pave a path for African-American ownership of the building. 

The site of the first Black-owned bank west of the Mississippi—Liberty Bank—is set to become a new six-story affordable housing development in Seattle’s Central District next year. And the project developers say they plan to pioneer long term African-American ownership of the building in response to the gentrification and displacement plaguing the area. The building has stood vacant since the previous owners, Key Bank, consolidated their branch in 2013.

Local affordable housing developer Capitol Hill Housing, whom Josh recently gave a PubliCola "Political Genius" award, bought the old Liberty Bank building on 24th and Union last year after agreeing with Key Bank that the site would be redeveloped to empower the Central District’s rapidly declining pan-African community; in the last 50 years African Americans have gone from representing 70 percent of the neighborhood's population to just one fifth. 

Yesterday, CHH released a joint statement with partners Africatown, the Black Community Impact Alliance, and Centerstone formalizing how the project will attempt to mend what CHH staffer Ashwin Warrior calls the economic, cultural and physical displacement of the area’s once prominent Black community. (The partners are a collection of groups that either serve the local Black community specifically or work to improve Seattle's affordable housing–or lack thereof.)

Lib bank interior bezcaw

Photo Courtesy of Michelle Purnell Heburn Collection

Established in 1968, Liberty Bank was the first Black-owned bank west of the Mississippi. Pictured above is the old interior of the building on 24th and Union.

“There are at least four other market-rate developments in progress or that have already gone up around 24th and Union that are definitely changing the culture and the character of the neighborhood,” Warrior said. “The vision for this building is to have a community-based approach to affordable housing and set up a pathway for African-American ownership of the building similar to the legacy of Liberty Bank.”

In addition to 115 housing units (which Warrior says will be restricted to annual incomes around $31,000 to $51,000), the coalition of developers plan to provide 2,600 square feet of commercial space in the building for local businesses and an annual $5,000 fund to support Black-owned small businesses for up to three years.

Less tangibly but equally ambitious, the project promises to “reaffirm the Central District as a hub of the pan-African community” by marketing the rental units to “members of the community that have been historically disenfranchised and displaced.” Warrior says they will also prioritize local and minority hiring by identifying Black-owned subcontractors to work on the redevelopment.

Totaled up, the building is expected to cost around $30 million with a mixture of city, state and other traditional lending sources. The Seattle Office of Housing has committed up to $12.2 million from the 2009 Housing Levy. The Washington State Housing Trust Fund has committed up to $1.0 million. Separately, the Capitol Hill Housing Foundation, the 501c3 arm of CHH, has committed $5,000 a year for three years to fund black owned businesses as part of the ground floor component. 

Construction is set to break ground in spring 2017, before wrapping up by the end of the summer season in 2018.

To CHH and the other partners, Warrior said the development is meant to mirror the history of Liberty Bank, which opened its doors in 1968 as a “community response to redlining and disinvestment in Central Seattle.”

“Within the Central District there’s sure to be 5, 10, 20 more developments in the next 5 to 10 years,” Warrior said. “At the end of the day we’re hoping that this project serves as a baseline for other developers, for-profit and non-profit, for how they can engage and serve the community.”

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