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In the Central District, the Liberty Bank Building celebrates black heritage—and a resilient future

The community-led development hopes to fight displacement in the Central District

The Liberty Bank Building.
Courtesy of Capitol Hill Housing

The community-led development at the former site of Liberty Bank—the first black-owned bank west of the Mississippi—opened over the weekend to a large community celebration for what hopes to be “a new standard of development in the Central District.”

The development, a collaboration between Africatown, the Black Community Impact Alliance, Capitol Hill Housing, and Byrd Barr Place, hopes to build resilience in a neighborhood that’s been fraught with displacement with not just affordable housing, but a deep, codified recognition of the site’s—and the neighborhood’s—significance.

Historically the epicenter of Seattle’s black community after a decades of redlining—exclusionary housing practices that pushed non-white residents out to the margins—the Central District has been among the hardest-hit by the city’s rapid change and income inequality. According to city data, while the Central District was 73 percent black in 1973, that number has been steadily falling. By 2010, less than a quarter of the neighborhood was black.

With the neighborhood’s dramatic gentrification, the development needed more than just affordable housing, although it has that, too—115 affordable homes include studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments, renting for a fraction of the current market rate of the neighborhood.

A memorandum of understanding attached to the project codifies several measures to fight black displacement in the Central District by securing long-term African-American ownership—the partners have first right of refusal in the building’s ownership. The building’s team also secured black-owned businesses, Earl’s Cuts and Styles and a restaurant by That Brown Girl Cooks, as commercial tenants at below-market rates to ensure financial sustainability. 30 percent of the contractors that worked on the building were women- or minority-owned businesses.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday saw a large community turnout.
Courtesy of Capitol Hill Housing
Detail of some of the art in the Liberty Bank Building courtyard.
Courtesy of Capitol Hill Housing

In an effort to “reaffirm the Central District as a hub of the pan-African community,” according to a factsheet provided by Capitol Hill Housing, a $250,000 art program took input from the community and secured a team of eight black artists to work on the building’s design, led by Al Doggett and Esther Ervin.

The goal was to make sure the building showcased Liberty Bank itself, the community’s cultural heritage, and an “ancestral connection to Africa,” project co-curator Doggett told Curbed Seattle during the planning stages in 2017.

The architecture also incorporates some elements of the original Liberty Bank, including bricks and the vault door.

Capitol Hill Housing was at the big ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday, and has more photos of the big opening day and interviews with the team and some residents.

At Liberty Bank Building, rent depends on income, but even at the high end is well below market rate. Studios range between $471 and $942 a month, one-bedrooms go for between $448 and $1,103 a month, and two-bedrooms rent anywhere between $605 and $1,210 a month. By contrast, in other new buildings in the neighborhood, a one-bedroom can cost anywhere from $1,700 to $2,700 a month, according to Capitol Hill Housing.

Meanwhile, another parcel across Union, the Midtown Center, will be developed by a partnership of Africatown, Forterra, and Lake Union Partners. While some rents over there will be market-rate, the development is also slated to include affordable housing, plus space for small businesses.