Facing pressure from the Central District residents who will ultimately have to live with it, the East Design Review Board on Wednesday night declined to move forward plans for the Midtown Center redevelopment.
“23rd and Union is arguably the most important corner in the Central District,” said EDRB chair Andrew Haas.
Lake Union Partners is the second developer in as many years to attempt to raze the 2.4-acre Midtown Center site and put in a major new development.
Unlike its predecessors, Lennar Multifamily Communities and Regency Centers, which ended its business with then-owners the Bangasser family after a rough review from the EDRB in early 2017, LUP committed to the project when it purchased the property for $23.5 million several months later. LUP owns two of the other corners of 23rd and Union, and has developed its The Central and East Union buildings there.
Lake Union Partners and architecture firm Weinstein A+U came before the EDRB on July 18 seeking a recommendation to proceed with permitting for the project, which includes 429 residential units across three buildings, a 16,000-square-foot central square, and a 12,000-square-foot drug store.
The drug store is expected to generate enough revenue that Lake Union Partners can provide smaller retail spaces to black business owners at below-market rates.
LUP principal Patrick Foley mentioned that the project will include 240-250 affordable housing units at income levels between $28,000 and $60,000 a year. That figure includes a second development on the superblock, which is being carried out by Africatown Plaza LLLP, a shared entity of Africatown Community Land Trust and Capitol Hill Housing, which secured $4.5 million in city funding to help purchase 20 percent of Midtown Center from LUP. Forterra, a nonprofit that helps communities acquire properties for preservation and restoration, had initially assisted Africatown with a purchase and sale agreement.
Former longtime Midtown Center property caretaker Omari Tahir-Garrett, who was evicted from the property in March 2017, said the Africatown development should be allowed to be constructed first, making room for displaced businesses on the other side of the property, namely the post office.
Earl’s Cuts and Styles in Midtown Center is relocating to the Liberty Bank building, the first CHH/Africatown partner development, which broke ground at 24th and Union last June.
Foley confirmed earlier in the meeting that LUP is negotiating a space in its new development for the post office.
“We’re excited to be bringing them back,” he said. “We have been working with them to find an interim location.”
Capitol Hill Housing deputy director Jill Fleming told the review board the public corporation supported the project moving forward.
Africatown, which had the same 20-percent development agreement with Lennar at one point, has hosted a number of community meetings and design ciphers for the entire Midtown Center block over the past year. Several community members said Weinstein A+U and LUP took that feedback, but ultimately failed to deliver a design that reflected the historic culture and African diaspora of the neighborhood.
“You heard it, I mean, they said it so many times — ‘design ciphers, design ciphers, design ciphers,’” said Africatown CEO K. Wyking Garrett, “but the number of times that they said it is not proportional to the input that’s reflected in the project, so you just need to create some balance there and let the community actually really feel proud that their input is reflected in the project.”
The black Central District residents asked why they had to leave the neighborhood to provide their input to an all-white design review board that night.
After years of work, a Central Area Design Review Board and neighborhood design guidelines were passed in April, but those board members were just sworn in earlier that day, said Design Review Program manager Lisa Rutzick, and would have their first meeting next week.
The Central Area board didn’t exist when the project was submitted for early design guidance, she said, so it went to the EDRB and is now vested.
Residents still felt the Midtown Center development’s final design needed to be worked out in the Central Area — and the East Design Review Board agreed.
All board members supported getting the new Central Area Design Review Board involved in the decision-making process. Rutzick told (CHT/MPT) the city could consider transferring the project to the Central Area’s jurisdiction by recommendation of the EDRB, but Haas said he thought the boards should partner on the review process.
Weinstein A+U principal Ed Weinstein said early in his presentation on July 18 that the design team had voluntarily applied the new central design guidelines and consulted with architect Donald King, who helped write them.
Tom Bangasser, who managed Midtown Center for 50 years, had always been in favor of transferring ownership of his family’s former property back to the black community. He had a falling out with his family while advocating for Africatown to be that owner.
During the July 18 meeting, Tahir-Garrett, K. Wyking Garrett’s father, called Hugh Bangasser and his other siblings racists for refusing to sell to Africatown. Hugh Bangasser was there to support the project as proposed.
Tom Bangasser echoed sentiments about incorporating more community input into the design, and also pushed for putting the Fountain of Triumph in the central square.
Local artist James Washington, Jr. created the sculpture near the northwest corner of 23rd and Union for the Bangasser family shortly before his death in 2000.
LUP is working with the James W. Washington, Jr. & Janie Rogella Washington Foundation to restore the sculpture offsite, and plans to return the sculpture to the site, but on the corner of 24th and East Union, which is where delivery trucks will enter to reach the loading docks on 24th. Townhomes are proposed to finish off the southern stretch of 24th, and then Africatown Plaza LLLP will develop the last portion, with East Spring Street planned for some ground-floor retail.
“That man would roll over in his grave with where this fountain is being relegated to,” Tom Bangasser said.
EDRB board member Melissa Alexander said the foundation is supportive of the location, but she would like to see the fountain more prominently featured. She compared the corner to “a restaurant courtyard that happens to have this fountain.”
Fellow board member Alastair Townsend agreed with Alexander, who felt the design was more South Lake Union.
“Pretty much hit the nail on the head,” he said.
Alexander also described the podium for the 24th Avenue townhomes as “monolithic,” and the stretch itself as “monotonous.”
Townsend wanted the design to better reflect the community concept, and also the project team’s own commitment to representing the neighborhood’s culture and African roots.
The design team hoped to provide that through paving and facade patterns, but Townsend said he wanted to see a greater expression of the community and African culture.
Architects also expanded on the design of the northwest corner of 23rd and Union, creating an outdoor market space. What the review board had trouble with was a requested departure to remove windows from that side of the drug store wall, so a 10-foot-tall, 50-foot-wide digital media wall could be used to further activate the space.
“This will be a timeless, iconic feature for the community,” Weinstein said.
Alexander said she needed more information about the media wall, which the design team said could include historic imagery from the neighborhood and possibly be interactive. She wanted to know more about how it would activate the space and who would act as the media curator.
“The success of these features really hinge on who’s curating them,” Townsend said, referring to the media wall and planned art murals.
The EDRB also wanted the design team to make the portals, or entryways leading into the central square and along retail spaces feel more open to the public.
Midtown Center Design Rec by branax2000 on Scribd