As the Africatown Plaza Project moves forward, business owners are left to wonder if their vision aligns with the developers’
By Melissa Hellmann, contributing writer
*Disclosure: The author worked on a project for Ampersand Magazine, which is produced by Forterra, a participant in the MidTown Center project.
In the 15 years that Saad Ali has owned the 99 Cents Plus store on 23rd and Union, he’s seen the historically black Central District radically transform. “Now they’re gone,” he says about some of his black, former customers as he leans over the convenience-store counter on a recent Saturday afternoon. His soft voice is nearly drowned out by the undulating melody of the traditional Ethiopian music blaring overhead.
The change in his clientele marks a neighborhood trend: In 1970, the Central District was nearly 80 percent African American and, by 2016, it was less than 20 percent black, according to The Seattle Times.
“Still, I have my best customers,” Ali adds reassuringly, when asked how business has been going in recent years. He’s optimistic about the future of his store in the MidTown Center strip mall, although he might soon face a similar fate as his former customers who were replaced by newcomers.
The MidTown Center has stood as a symbol of the Central District’s black legacy and the impending gentrification sweeping throughout the city. In May, Africatown Community Land Trust—a group that acquires land for the growth of black businesses and community— entered into a partnership with conservation nonprofit Forterra to purchase 20% of the MidTown Center block, which was bought in its entirety by Lake Union Partners, a for-profit developer, for $23 million.
Last week, Africatown and Forterra announced that they’d partnered with affordable housing developer Capitol Hill Housing. They plan to build a seven-story building with up to 130 affordable-housing units, local businesses and possible homeownership opportunities.
The Lake Union Partners project on the same block will include 125 affordable-housing units. The redevelopment would create over 200 new affordable-housing units altogether.
For now, the building on the south end of the MidTown Center block, which will be called Africatown Plaza, is also projected to have retail space on the ground floor and community rooms, according to a press release. Rent will be kept affordable for individuals that make 30 to 60 percent of median income, or about $20,200- $40,320.
A lack of transparency and community outreach?
The project is considered a potential solution to displacement by local media outlets, but absent from the conversations about inclusion is what will happen, once the construction begins, to Ali and the other mostly black business owners in the current MidTown Center. Although the project is still in its nascent stages, some activists have complained about the lack of transparency and community outreach and have wondered if the redevelopment will truly retard displacement.
Ali knows that he’ll have to move his business during construction, which is slated to begin in late 2019, but he’s unsure if he’ll be able to move back to the block once it’s completed. Although Ali, originally from Ethiopia, is a part of the African diaspora community that Africatown aims to protect, he says that he’s been left in the dark about the future.
He works by himself seven days a week, and says that he often can’t find a worker to watch the store during Africatown meetings. He says that his neighbors seem to be as uninformed as him. “They never give us any information,” he says about the owners of the building. But the neighboring business owners have convinced him “that everything is going to be okay,” he adds.
But trying to find other places to rent in Seattle, ranked the fifth most expensive city for renters in the country by online real estate agent Nested, puts the business owners in a precarious situation, notes Ali.
“I’m going to be around in the city if I can get a spot,” Ali says, but he hasn’t been informed if he will be helped to look for a temporary place during the construction that is expected to be completed by early 2021. “If they help me that would be nice,” Ali adds.
Africatown president K. Wyking Garrett says that they will assist the current business owners with the transition as much as possible, but that it’s too early to determine how they would help. “We’ll be working with the business owners around how they would like to be a part of the redevelopment,” he says when asked if the current business owners will be guaranteed a spot in the future plaza. “It has to do with their goals and how it fits in with the vision for the future of the property,” he concludes. Garrett says that the group has an ongoing community strategy and that the next community update will be in a yet-to-be-determined location on October 26.
Over the past six months, some Seattle activists have criticized Africatown for neglecting to hold community outreach sessions. In a May press release, nonprofit S.A.F.E. (Standing Against Foreclosure and Conviction), which was at the center of the protests prior to the purchase, applauded Africatown and the developers for its promise of affordable housing, but also chided them for only accepting 20% ownership of the MidTown Center strip.
Cliff Cawthon, the former S.A.F.E. Organizing Director who no longer speaks for the organization, says that he considers the plaza a step in the right direction, “but it’s not going to be the kind of cultural shift that we were looking for.” Prior to the agreement, Cawthon’s vision for the project included rent-controlled apartments, opportunities for economic development and a cultural center that would honor the district’s black history. He referenced Beacon Hill’s Roberto Maestas Plaza as a model for its affordable housing and cultural center that allows for public discourse.
Liberty Bank Building will help black businesses
Capitol Hill Housing communications manager Ashwin Warrior says that the project could include some of the qualities that Cawthon desires. Capitol Hill Housing is currently working with Africatown on the Liberty Bank Building across the street from the strip mall. Warrior says that the company is incorporating features to help empower the neighborhood like prioritizing the hiring of black female subcontractors, and featuring art that honors the community. They also set up a small business innovation fund to try to help black business owners lease in the commercial space.
“Those are lessons learned that we can hopefully take from the Liberty Bank experience and bring it forward into the Africatown Plaza project,” Warrior said.
Aside from building features that preserve the culture of the area, Cawthon hopes that the new plaza will allow longtime owners like Earl Lancaster from the barbershop Earl’s Cuts and Styles to return because of their influential impact in the community.
Patrick Foley, a Lake Union Partners’ principal, agrees. “Earl is an important person in the neighborhood, and we want to make sure he sticks around,” Foley writes in an email. He added that Earl’s Cuts and Styles will either be secured a spot across the street at the new Liberty Bank project, or that the shop will be welcomed into the Lake Union Partners’ project.
But the future isn’t as certain for Ali at the 99 Cent Store or the other business owners in the strip mall. “We are scheduling conversations with the other tenants … to discuss their plans, and hear about any hopes and dreams they may have, and see if there is a fit for the future project,” Foley writes.
In the meantime, business owners like Ali are left to ponder their visions for the future of the Central District and whether or not their dreams align with the developers.
At least for now, Ali knows that he doesn’t want to leave the block where he’s run his business for nearly two decades. “I just want to stay here,” he says, “because I want to be in the community.”
Questions, comments, tips?
Melissa Hellmann is a freelance contributor to Outside City Hall. She is not a member of Seattle Displacement Coalition, nor does she speak for the organization. George Howland Jr, longtime independent Seattle journalist, is her editor at Outside City Hall. As a woman of color who has reported globally, Hellmann’s multicultural perspective grants her access to underrepresented communities everywhere she has lived. Over the past six years, she has written about domestic and international news for a range of publications including YES! Magazine, The Associated Press, TIME, The Christian Science Monitor, NPR, Time Out, SF Weekly, SF Business Times and many others.