23rd and Union is the big story on the front page of The Seattle Times today.
Close readers of CDNews won’t be too surprised by much of the news, but it’s presence on the front page suggests that momentum for changes really is growing.
But the story also points out the sober reality that the corner’s cultural narrative is up for grabs, and there is a potential for the corner to be essentially annexed by the insatiable demand for housing and commercial space on Capitol Hill.
“What we are looking at are rents that are achievable for a lot of folks that have been priced out of Capitol Hill,” Joe Ferguson of Lake Union Partners told the Times. Lake Union Partners is behind plans for the long-stalled six-story building on the vacant southwest corner. As we reported last month, Ian Eisenberg bought that property recently with hopes of getting the project moving.
The Central District’s location makes it easy to walk, bike or take transit to the region’s largest employment center: downtown. Groceries, shopping, eating and playing are all within close reach from any CD home. With demand in Seattle for housing with such urban amenities growing far faster than the supply (and with no signs of slowing down), the CD is destined to continue its growth as a desirable place to live. These desirable traits are all good things. But as more people move to the neighborhood, what place story will they hear when they get here? Is the Central District an exciting, vibrant and unique place to be, or is it just gentrifying new growth on the edge of Capitol Hill?
Huge sections of Madison and Pike/Pine that were once considered part of the Central District are now colloquially and culturally considered Capitol Hill. A sign posted at Pike and Madison welcomes road travelers to the Central Area, but ask anyone standing around in front of Piecora’s where they are and they will most likely say, “Capitol Hill.”
Place narratives are incredibly powerful. On a basic level, they are the stories people tell themselves and others about what a place is all about, and where it is headed. This neighborhood is dying, or that neighborhood is up-and-coming, or this is the International neighborhood, or that neighborhood is full of stuck-up NIMBYs, or this neighborhood has bad crime, or that neighborhood is an arts area, etc. Unless CD residents, businesses and developers create a different narrative, there is no reason to expect that 23rd and Union would not simply become part of Capitol Hill’s powerful and appealing place narrative as an innovative, fun and highly-desired central neighborhood.
Some people in the CD, led in part by Omari Tahir-Garrett, have tried to rebrand the neighborhood as “Africatown,” going as far as hanging banners bearing the name at 23rd and Union. In the way that Chinatown-ID protects and supports growth in Asian and Asian-American culture and business, the Africatown concept would promote the culture and businesses of the African-American population that once made up two-thirds of the neighborhood and support the newer African immigrant culture and businesses in the CD.
Whether “Africatown” catches on or appeals to the majority of residents living, working and investing here, the point is that the folks pushing it realize the need for a counter-narrative of some kind to the ever-growing Capitol Hill. “Africatown” is a dramatically different story than “Capitol Hill South.”
Interestingly, there are a whole lot of projects coming our way that could either accelerate the Capitol Hill narrative or be an opportunity to put a different narrative into action:
- It’s time to update the Central Area Neighborhood Plan. There will be many public meetings to help shape the document, which helps guide investments in the neighborhood. Stay tuned for how to get involved.
- 23rd Avenue will get a $14+ million repaving and complete streets redesign in 2014-15. The first open house for the project should be in late February or early March. This could be a chance not only to make the street safer, but also to change the way it looks and feels to enter the neighborhood and spend time at the neighborhood’s major commercial centers: Union, Cherry, Yesler and Jackson.
- Talks of rezoning 23rd and Union have heated up with the pending departure of the Post Office. Residents and business owners started a conversation in December about what that could and should mean for the corner and the neighborhood. The point is: Vacant properties are not good for the CD, and existing facilities aren’t viable. Change must come, but what should that change look like?
- The city’s Department of Planning and Design is launching a 23rd Avenue Action Plan project that could in part pave the way for zoning and other changes at the three commercial nodes at Union, Cherry and Jackson. The Times reports that those meetings should start in April.
- The Central Area Community Development Coalition, which meets for the second time 4 p.m. Wednesday at Greater Mt Baker Baptist Church, could possibly be a new voice in the conversation about development changes in the neighborhood.
Barring more unforeseen financial crises, the CD’s major commercial centers (especially Union) will look very different in ten years. With heavy private and public investments headed into the neighborhood, what can/should the CD do to guide the changes?