Central Area Senior Center's future remains unclear

Mayor's team says three city-owned properties on course for transfer, but The Central remains held up by criteria requests

Central Area Senior Center's future remains unclear

Central Area Senior Center's future remains unclear

The Central Area Senior Center was left in the lurch when funding it thought was in place to satisfy criteria for taking over ownership of the city-owned building it operates in turned out to be claimed by its Sound Generations partner. With less than two weeks to raise $55,000, the task was great.

“We had people on the phones, we did a lot of networking, a lot of communicating across the community,” said CASC member Benester Fields.

By the time the Sept. 3 fundraising deadline arrived, the senior center had counted $97,000 in community support.

“It was the satisfaction of a job well done,” Fields said. “It was just amazing.”

It is also a testament to the importance The Central senior center has in the community, having operated in the Central District since 1975.

CASC board member Winona Hollins-Hauge said the fundraising effort started strong because the board raised the first 10 percent.

The Central presented an all-day thank-you celebration on Oct. 21, with food, musical entertainment and games.

While there was a lot of laughter and celebrating that day, many members remain concerned Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and her interdepartmental team assessing The Central’s viability will not honor the wishes of the city council, which last November directed the property be transferred to the nonprofit senior center.

The Greenwood Senior Center and Byrd Barr Place, which also operate out of city-owned properties and were included in the city council’s green sheet for ownership transfers, have been deemed ready by the interdepartmental team, but more criteria demands keep cropping up for The Central, said executive director Dian Ferguson.

“They keep indicating that whatever we provide to them isn’t enough,” she said.

The $55K Challenge fundraiser was launched after Sound Generations, for which The Central is a community partner, using it for human resources, accounting and information technology, determined through an audit that there had been charges dating back to 2013 that had never been applied, Ferguson said, sapping the $78,000 CASC thought it had in the bank.

The last reporting Ferguson thought would be due when the fundraiser started had an Aug. 30 deadline. After that reporting was met, the interdepartmental team then requested The Central separate its financial reporting from Sound Generations and provide new reports and budget projections, she said.

“That’s been the process with us is, just one thing,” Ferguson said.

The Phinney Neighborhood Association, which operates the Greenwood Senior Center, and Byrd Barr Place have both satisfied the interdepartmental team’s criteria.

“They went forward into the next phase of it, which is the conversation around transfer,” said Department of Neighborhoods director Andrés Mantilla, who is leading the mayor’s interdepartmental team.

Mantilla said the mutually offsetting benefit (MOB) criteria developed by the interdepartmental team is also a win, because it is the first time that multiple city departments came to an agreement about the requirements for city transfers, which can now be applied when assessing future requests. He said the team is not intentionally delaying The Central.

“There hasn’t been any new criteria. It’s the same criteria along all three [properties] and we’re waiting for them to send that criteria. They’ve submitted some of that criteria,” Mantilla said. “The financials they were providing to us, we asked for CASC financials, and I don’t know their interactions around Sound Generations criteria, but we’ve asked them to break out the financials that surrounds the criteria that pertains to them.”

There is no indication at this point that The Central is not meeting the criteria based on the information provided, Mantilla said, and the hope is to move all three properties ahead in the transfer process.

“Our hope is to transfer these together as a piece of legislation to council,” he said.

The mayor’s administration continues to look at city-owned properties that could be suitable for developing affordable housing, however, the Office of Housing — which is not represented on the interdepartmental team — determined in 2016 that the steep slope behind The Central made the site financially unfeasible to do so. That doesn’t mean the city couldn’t sell the property and dedicate the proceeds to developing affordable housing elsewhere.

With its panoramic views of Lake Washington, Ferguson said The Central property is highly desirable to developers. She said a property transfer is not in Durkan’s 2020 budget, and the communication she’s received from staff is that the mayor can simply consent to it later. The transfer would still require city council approval, and Ferguson said she thinks the mayor is waiting for a dynamic change in leadership next year before making a decision.

“We just feel like it just keeps dragging on further and further, and she’s waiting for a new city council,” Ferguson said.

Mantilla said property transfers are dependent on the budget process, however, the council can approve them as an independent transaction.

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, which is represented on the mayor’s interdepartmental team.

Ferguson said if Durkan is as concerned about race and social justice as she claims, she shouldn’t take away a senior center that means so much to residents in the rapidly gentrifying Central District who use it regularly.

“I’ve told her team this on several occasions: ‘You love to talk about the Race and Social Justice initiative, but I don’t see you behaviorally living it,’” said Byrd Barr Place executive director Andrea Caupain.

Caupain and Ferguson said they felt that the mayor’s interdepartmental team was pitting the two Central District nonprofits against each other, so all organizations came together early to move the transfer process forward as a team. They have meetings once a quarter, Caupain said.

“We’ve had these like intense criteria meetings over the summer,” Caupain said, “where they were telling every team a different thing.”

Just like with the Phinney Neighborhood Association, Byrd Barr Place’s covenant agreement with the City of Seattle includes a requirement to include affordable housing should the building undergo any development or redevelopment. That is not interpreted to include bringing the building to seismic and ADA code, Caupain said.

Mantilla confirmed the MOB criteria does state that if development on the properties being considered for transfer is a choice, then the city would participate in creating affordable housing there.

Byrd Barr Place was determined to be an infeasible site for affordable housing in 2016, Caupain said, at the same time the Office of Housing made that determination for The Central.

Byrd Barr Place was able to secure an extension for a $1.4 million grant from the Washington Department of Commerce that had been set to expire in June; the nonprofit’s receipt of the funds are dependent on it taking ownership of the property. The deadline was pushed to July 31, 2021, and that grant brings the total funds raised for upgrading Byrd Barr Place to $3 million, with a total goal of $7.4 million. Caupain said there are a lot of potential donors that want to give, but not until ownership is resolved.

Caupain said Byrd Barr Place is in the process of engaging a land-use attorney to address a state environmental assessment of the property, which the nonprofit has used since 1977. It’s known that the building contains asbestos and the site has ground contaminants, and the nonprofit does not want to accept liability for remediating environmental issues that were present before its time.

“What we’re saying is we want to know what’s being transferred to us,” Caupain said.

The hope is to begin construction in February 2021, which will include moving its large meeting space downstairs to make it easier to access for people of all mobilities, Caupain said, even though the project includes the addition of an elevator. Byrd Barr Place loans the space to church and community groups for free during evenings and weekends, she said, and wants to be able to continue to do so.

The Central not only draws in longtime Central District residents, but also those who were priced out off the neighborhood years ago and come back to catch up with old friends.

Maddie Ross grew up near The Central until the high cost of living in the Central District pushed her down to Tacoma. When the building she lived in was sold, she was forced to move in with her daughter, and now she lives in Everett. She was introduced to the senior center by her friend Eunice five years ago. She said she was very impressed by the activities and services offered.

“I’ve been to one other one, and it didn’t compare to this,” she said.

Ross said she was surprised by the changes she saw when she first returned to the Central District.

“When I came back, I didn’t know where I was,” she said. “The change was so great.”

That’s a common reaction to former Central District residents upon returning to the neighborhood, Caupain said.

“You have a lot of people saying, ‘We feel like strangers in what was once our home,’” she said.

Ross’ friend Eunice said she’s angry about the changes she sees. She grew up two blocks away from The Central, and now she comes there from Rainier Beach to see the friends she grew up with, she said.

When the topic of affordability comes up, she said she’s constantly asking what that means, and who the Central District is supposed to be affordable to.