The Central fights city hall

Community comes out to support senior center property transfer to nonprofit

The Central fights city hall

The Central fights city hall

The Central Area Senior Center continues pushing for the city to let it take ownership of the property the nonprofit has been operating in for more than 50 years. Now, it has Kshama Sawant’s support, the Seattle city councilmember amplifying the message in city hall.

CASC spent around $180,000 developing business, communications, marketing, operations and other plans to satisfy conditions set by former mayor Ed Murray in order to acquire The Central property.

It’s been executive director Dian Ferguson’s focus since she started the position five years ago.

The nonprofit still expected the transfer to be in last year’s budget, but Mayor Jenny Durkan didn’t include it. The Seattle City Council ended up passing a green sheet calling for The Central, as well as the Byrd Barr Place and Greenwood Senior Center properties to be transferred to the nonprofits operating in them. Negotiations were supposed to be well underway by March 31.

Ferguson was joined by John Perkins, a consultant working with CASC to get the property transfer completed, to fill in the community during a meeting at The Central on April 15.

Ferguson said CASC reached out to the mayor’s office in March, after a lack of communication. A mutually offsetting benefit (MOB) interdepartmental team had been formed last September to negotiate with the nonprofits and assess their financial and operational readiness to assume ownership of the properties.

The team set a March 13 meeting with CASC and representatives from Byrd Barr Place and Greenwood Senior Center. One day before the meeting, Ferguson said, CASC received the MOB Eligibility and Evaluations Criteria.

The Seattle Finance and Administrative Services department determined in 2013 that CASC could assume ownership of the property, as did a 2017 Soul Light report submitted to FAS.

The building at 500 30th Ave. S. was constructed in 1959 to serve as the Christian Science Church. A group started providing senior programs and activities there in 1968, prior to the City of Seattle acquiring the property to serve as a senior center in 1975, Ferguson said.

The purchase was mostly funded with $185,000 from the state through Referendum 29, passed in 1972. The measure authorized the state to issue $25 million in general obligation bonds to acquire and build health and social service facilities.

The Central notes in its response to the MOB interdepartmental team that no Referendum 29 funding would need to be returned, as the building would continue serving as a senior center, just as it was prior to the city purchasing the property. The senior center cites Washington code related to transfers of real property and facilities to nonprofit corporations (RCW 43.83.410).

Ferguson said she has no intention of responding to the “busy work and nonsense” being asked of CASC in the MOB Eligibility and Evaluations Criteria, which public records show was generated as far back as December but only provided to the nonprofit in March.

Those public records, obtained by the Madison Park Times and provided to CASC for comment, show a restrictive covenant agreement drafted for the Phinney Neighborhood Association, which operates the Greenwood Senior Center, committing it to continuing to provide social services to the public. Under the covenant agreement, any development or redevelopment would have to include affordable housing, and all maintenance and property insurance would be the responsibility of PNA.

The records also show that, prior to sending CASC its eligibility and evaluations criteria, the MOB team already provided the mayor with recommendations for either selling, leasing or holding the building, plus potential covenants, including conditions on future development, all of which were redacted, as were recommendations for other city-owned properties being considered for transfer.

The latest MOB response to Ferguson was an April 22 letter sent by Andrés Mantilla, director of the Department of Neighborhoods, the lead agency for the mayor’s interdepartmental team.

Mantilla writes that the mayor and her staff have a responsibility to ensure city-owned properties are serving the greatest public benefit, and that transfers of such properties will include the consideration of affordable housing.

“We already know that there’s no low-income housing that’s going to be built on this property,” Ferguson said during the April 15 community meeting.

Developing affordable housing at The Central site has already been determined to be unfeasible.

“WHEREAS, on October 7, 2016, OH [Office of Housing] determined that mitigating the steep slope on the east side of the property at 500 30th Avenue South (Central Area Senior Center) would make redeveloping the site with affordable housing financially unfeasible,” according to the resolution adopted by the city council last November, “and the benefits of having Central Area Senior Center (CASC) continue to serve African-American seniors in the community far outweigh the benefits of redeveloping the site for affordable housing.”

But Mantilla’s letter insists that it is in the public interest that any planned redevelopment of city-owned property include consideration of affordable housing.

“Therefore, we expect to require a durable covenant allowing the City to participate in any major redevelopment so that the redevelopment can include affordable housing,” Mantilla writes.

Beyond that steep slope on the east side of the property are picturesque views of Lake Washington and Mount Rainier, which Central Area residents — no strangers to displacement — worry could be The Central’s undoing.

“It is not a million-dollar view, it is a $10 million view,” said Sawant during a news conference she called on April 23.

A rally of seniors sat on the steps in city hall leading to council chambers during the conference, holding Defend The Central and Defend Byrd Barr signs. The Central even provided transportation from the senior center to city hall, where a number of community members then provided public comment during the Human Services, Equitable Development and Renter Rights Committee chaired by Sawant.

Sawant criticized Durkan for running her mayoral campaign with backing from developer Vulcan and Amazon, and said the city is dominated by for-profit developers.

Kamaria Hightower, Durkan’s deputy communications director, reached out to MPT in an email on April 23 to state that the city can’t just give these properties to private organizations, and that Sawant had previously responded positively to the MOB process.

Sawant did issue a letter to Durkan on April 3 supporting the transfer of The Central, Byrd Barr Place and the Greenwood Senior Center to their nonprofit operators.

“I appreciate the positive recent development, particularly last month’s release of a first draft of the Eligibility and Evaluation Criteria for these property transfers,” a portion of the letter reads. “I understand that you intend to finalize those criteria by May 1.”

Sawant also urged moving forward with the transfers without further delay, but Mantilla’s letter to Ferguson outlines an assessment process that goes beyond the reporting the MOB team is asking in its evaluation criteria.

Should the city decide to move forward with transfers, Mantilla writes the city is required to conduct environmental impact statements (EIS) or a Determinations of Non-Significance (DNS) in accordance with the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). The SEPA process is typically only required when a property is slated for redevelopment or a change in use, but The Central would continue operating as a senior center, Ferguson said. The nonprofit does want to add an additional floor above the dining hall in order to expand its programming.

A purchase and sale agreement and other transfer documents would then be sent to the city council for review and approval.

“As the City has never transferred a Mutually Offsetting Benefit property at no or little cost to a tenant, the timeframe that we might use to estimate this process is based on prior property sales where the purchaser has paid market or a portion of the market value for the property,” Mantilla writes. “In these cases, the transfer has taken a year or more to complete.”

Sawant said during the April 23 news conference, and wrote in her April 3 letter to the mayor, that Byrd Barr Place could lose a $1.45 million state grant if ownership or a long-term lease is not obtained by June.

“The mayor has missed the deadline, and community members are urging urgent action,” said Sumeet Pamma, operations assistant at Byrd Barr Place, calling for a quick transfer of both Central Area properties.

Sawant said during the April 13 community meeting that the resolution approved by the city council last year committing to the property transfers is nonbinding, so the mayor missing the March 31 deadline is not illegal.

“What it does show is she doesn’t care what the community thinks, that’s for sure,” the councilmember said.

Africatown Community Land Trust president K. Wyking Garrett also supports the property transfers, and said the community needs to support its elders, who endured redlining and infrastructure discrimination. Equity means ownership, he said, and that should extend beyond affordable housing to include the Central Area’s support networks.

Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action executive director Mike Andrew also threw his support behind transferring the senior center properties. They are an important part of any community and a social lifeline for seniors.

“I love the senior center,” said Kelsey Watson. “It helped keep me alive.”

Watson suffered a brain aneurysm 18 years ago that caused her to go blind. The Central helped her relearn how to walk through its enhanced fitness class.

“I got so good at walking, I took up dancing,” she said.

Watson is also a borderline diabetic, who has benefited from classes offered by The Central, as well as its lunch program.