Change at 23rd and Union is front page news: Is the corner destined to be annexed by Capitol Hill?

Design for planned but stalled building on southwest corner

Design for planned but stalled building on southwest corner

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?

45 thoughts on “Change at 23rd and Union is front page news: Is the corner destined to be annexed by Capitol Hill?

  1. I’m glad to see the changes on the horizon for 23rd & Union. There’s a demand for housing near downtown, and this spot is a natural one for an urban village that allows ready access to public transportation and vital services. Having more people living in the area and feeling invested in it is a positive thing. Yes, it’s too bad that some small businesses will be displaced (either temporarily of forever). However, part of what makes Seattle a desirable place in which to live is its dynamism–a place that, to its credit, is growing, changing and re-inventing itself.

  2. I think this whole concern about the alleged need to “re-brand” the area, or paranoia that it be “annexed” by Capitol Hill, is senseless drivel. What does it matter? It sounds trite, but “it is what it is”. People will always know Union&23rd is the Central District. And so, what? It sounds like pointless insecurity to be whining about Capitol Hill usurping any identity the CD has. Exactly what “identity” is there to maintain? Most of the existing identity of the CD is more associated with income level than race, culture, or anything else. I just don’t see how expansion of apartment buildings threatens any remaining cultural identity there may still be. IMO, this is much ado about nothing.

  3. Great article Tom. I have long thought that it is time for us ALL in the CD to stand up for the historical boundaries of our neighborhood. Not only is the “Capitol Hill Creep” happening in the Madison/Union corridor, it is also happening on the 12th Ave. corridor in Squire Park.

    The CD is a large a neighborhood that is becoming more and more attractive to people of a very diverse ethnic and socio-economic background. These are the reasons many of us have moved here over the past decade, and blazed a trial for those that are following. We need to remind the people now investing in our neighborhoods that we are NOT Capitol Hill. Although it may be attractive from a marketing standpoint to describe their business as being “on the Hill”, it does nothing to further the perceived value of the rest of the neighborhood. and the investments of those who have worked hard to create an environment that is attractive for these businesses.

    As these, what was recently described to me as, “in between” areas develop attractive business climates, we as a community need to politely ask that they acknowledge the true neighborhood their business is in. Or at least not mislead about where they are by calling it “Capitol Hill”. Aligning these business with the CD will in the long run make it easier for the entire neighborhood to attract better investment.

    Jim, you may find it trite.. but if you own property in the CD near these businesses people associate with being Capitol Hill, just try listing your home as being on Capitol Hill and see what the King County MLS has to say about it. Neighborhoods do matter.

    • I think you’re missing my point. I’m not suggesting anyone should call the CD anything like Capitol Hill. Trying to piggy-back on the identity of Capitol Hill is silly, and insecure, and pointless. I agree, it doesn’t fool anybody (such as the MLS) anyway. And why bother? My point of “it is what it is” meant that whether you call it Capitol Hill or the CD, or even if someone invents another cutesy name for it, it still doesn’t materially change the identity of the neighborhood, the economic viability of it– or really anything. The whole “identity of the CD” debate is pointless when considered in the context of real estate. Any identity the CD has– or wants to hold onto– is made up of the people, their values, and their activities– not by the buildings. If they are strong and viable, they will withstand any new construction and commercial expansion. This debate just reeks of insecurity, in my book–and for no need, either.

    • “blazed a trail”?

      Comments like that make me real nervous and bring up feelings of being somehow invaded.

      Having lived in the Central Area on and off for 35 years, and for all the time I lived in Seattle, I would not call it blazing a trail. I would call it MY community and where I chose and still choose to live.

  4. I don’t know of anyone trying to re-brand the CD as anything other than what it is. The CD Association actually went through an branding exercise last year to come up with a logo for itself and potentially things like the signs you see in some area from the poles. If anyone is interested in seeing it I could send it to Tom – although he probably has it. From marketing perspective I think one could conclude it is best to take pride in the CD’s rich history and culture.

    • I agree. And I think the CD has just as good– or better– a cultural “story” there than Capitol Hill has (or had).

      • Sorry if this wasn’t clear, but I agree with you. I think the CD has a unique and awesome story and character of its own. And I like Capitol Hill a lot and think its doing really cool things and deserves the attention it’s getting.

        When someone moves to the CD (which people will keep doing), I would like to see them choose the CD for what it has to offer, not just move here because it’s the closest to Capitol Hill they could afford. I guess that’s what I was trying to say by talking about the story of the place.

  5. When I bought my house a block and a half from this intersection almost 23 years ago, I was told to say I lived in West Madrona!

  6. I agree that the Central District should be the Central District, which is easier said than done. I would be careful with Food4thought’s assertion that the people moving here in the past decade have blazed a trail for others. Every decade blazed a trail. Remember that most of the community councils were founded more than 2 decades ago, and that all of us who live here have believed in and advocated in many ways for our neighborhood for many decades. A positive common narrative acknowledging the area would be nice. Yes, 30 some years ago I was made to understand that this area was in no way part of Madorna or Capitol Hill. Now there are time that decisions that affect the area seem to be made by Capitol Hill and the Capitol Hill design review group is the one that reviews our designs. I wonder why it is not called the Central Region Design Review Board or something beyond Capitol Hill. At times I feel that the neighborhoods bordering us are more united in advocating for the residents and their communities than we are. I have toyed with the ideas that if the decisions for the are are being made in Capitol Hill or in other communities, then let us become South Capitol Hill or wherever we would have the most say and get the best information. The Garden Tour is an example of tradition that can help build our identity as a community. There is no real reason that we cannot come together and advocate for things like more cultural opportunities, parks,and better infrastructure for pedestrians There are other neighborhoods and few here who profit and gain power from a constant division in the narrative among CD residents and those claiming to represent us. Diversity can bring a great vitality to an area and to revitalization, but that vitality has to be cherished and protected. Otherwise, it will be used by others to fracture the community and take control for other interests.

    One thought that I have is that at the moment is that our elementary schools for students are located Capitol Hill, Leschi, Madrona, Mount Barker and on the southern boundaries. Bailey Gatzert is located in the CD and has a very full assignment area. Decisions regarding assignment areas in the coming months in Seattle School District will profoundly affect the identities of the School communities. Where our community schools?

    • Joanna I agree wholeheartedly with your points. My point is that this area has continued to change, for the good or bad, every decade or so since it’s founding. Those that have come each decade or so blaze the path for those that follow. Fortunately over the past few decades the trend has been diverse, that is what makes a truly vibrant neighborhood that we can ALL be proud of.

  7. At one time the Madrona Community Council, I believe thought the western boundary was at 32nd. I know that in 1977, 27th Avenue was definitely not Madrona. Currently the Madrona School Assignment area stretches west to 23rd. I am not sure what boundaries the Community Council claims.

    • Madrona used to have boundaries that stretched to 26th or 27th. A number of years ago, they redrew the boundary to be MLK.

      Since most community councils have their boundaries as a major street, it will be very important for all residents and property owners near 23rd, Union, Cherry and Jackson to connect beyond their community councils and get their visions and goals heard when it comes to both the 23rd Avenue improvements and the 23rd Avenue Action plan.

      Note that the overall Central Area Neighborhood Plan Update is farther in the future.

  8. is the map of the areas to be included in meetings of Central Area (Neighborhood) District Council. Note that neighborhoods that typically had their own identities such as Leschi and Madrona are included. I believe that Squire Park always defined itself as a neighborhood in the Central District. I am not sure about the others. General agreement on terms is not always easy.

  9. If you live in the south CD you live in what the realtors call and post as “West Leschi”.
    I love it when I am asked where I live and I say the CD. I have friends in the NorthCD who tell people thay live in South Capitol Hill. They have not had the great and wonderful experience of having a couple standing next to you at Harrods food court in London, and after having a great conversation about recent theater productions in the West End asked you where you are from. I did and I said Seattle, They said Seattle, Queen Anne. They asked where in Seattle, I said the CD. After that the woman clutched her purse, moved it to the other side of her body and they did not speak to me again ( remember this is Harrods in London). When it came their turn to order the Cockney deli person told then he had heard the conversation and thought they were very rude and refused to serve them. Off they went embarressed in a huff. He smiled at me and took my order. Yes! I live in the CD.

    • That’s funny to think that anyone eating in a food court– Harrod’s or not– would think their s**t don’t stink, regardless of where they live. There’s nothing particularly “upper crust” about the Harrod’s food court!

    • Great story! My family is the same way: We proudly announce that we live in the CD…and we definitely live in the “South Capitol Hill” area that people like to claim. I love our neighborhood, its history is fascinating, and I’m excited to be a part of its next chapter. Squire Park, Central District! Home Sweet Home.

  10. A part of the neighborhood naming confusion stems from some apples to oranges comparisons: Madrona and Leschi are both in the Central Area, but when we talk about the neighborhoods just to the west, we usually say “CD” and not Mann and Minor. The same holds true for Capitol Hill. Who do you know that refers to the area between 15th and the Arboretum as Stevens? Or considers Madison Park a part of Capitol Hill?

    Granted, some of these neighborhoods have better sounding names than others, but to call the area surrounding 23rd and Union Minor/Mann would both be accurate and kind of cool. I can already picture the hoody…. :)

    • There’s also a difference between the “Central District” and the “Central Area” – but I don’t think you could find any two people who could agree on the definition of either one vs. the other. It’s at least partly a historical viewpoint, I’ve been told, but there are undoubtedly other aspects that play into it also.

  11. Pingback: Africatown-Central District in the news again today »

  12. I like the CD vs. Capitol Hill angle, but the basic story is the same- Gentrification, and the loss of neighborhood identity. Not necessarily a bad thing- does anybody miss 1970’s Brooklyn?

    One bit that I liked in the Seattle Times story was about Earl’s Barbershop changing up to cater to non-black customers. I’m a fan of Rudy’s but I’d give Earl’s a shot with my straight hair- that could be a place I’d like and an example of the sortof “fusion” that makes a neighborhood unique.

    Thanks for the post Tom

  13. .
    This is what I was told. Most, maybe all, parts of Seattle have historical names.
    Where the avenues and streets do not have directional designations is Downtown. Also, the grid is not or mostly not due North and due South or due East and due West.
    Where the avenues do not have directional designations and the streets have the directional designation East is the Central District. That is zip code 98122 as far as I can tell. Here the grid tends to be more due North and due South and more due East and due West.
    This means for the most part East Denny Way is the North boundary and East Yesler Way is the South boundary.
    Out into the lake is the East boundary of 98122. Broadway south of East Madison St is part of the West boundary. North of East Madison St the West boundary is irregular and extends to or close to the freeway in part of the area.
    The neighborhoods within the Central District were historically referred to by the name of the public elementary school that the children were assigned to, those being Madrona, Mann, Minor, Gatzert, King and maybe some others.
    I suppose some people did not like the name Minor and came up with Squire Park though I have no idea why anyone would want an association with the British gentry or any other gentry. In my opinion, those of you who live there should consider chucking that name.
    Central Area has no historical meaning. It is something recently concocted by the city officials and has arbitrary made up boundaries.

  14. Squire Park was named for Watson Carvosso Squire (May 18, 1838 – June 7, 1926) who was an American Civil War veteran, twelfth governor of Washington Territory, and United States Senator from the state of Washington. The original plat in what is now part of Squire Park was in his name and that is how Squire Park came to have this name. There used be a local link to more details of his time here and others know it better than I. This is what I can find at the moment:

    • .
      ok, glad to know the history of the Squire Park name, thanks
      Oddly enough, and just coincidentally I would guess, some things in the wikipedia piece fit with the dictionary definition of squire. For example:
      purchased large holdings in the Territory of Washington in 1876
      moved to Seattle in 1879
      Sounds close and maybe exactly like the landed gentry to me. And Squire as a word or as a name conjures up that image.
      Even knowing what I know now, it is still my opinion that those of you who live there should consider chucking that name.

      • 98122, we have considered that due to the misunderstandings. However, it is not that easy. I don’t think we align exactly with Minor or whatever. On the other hand, we have worked very to hard to advocate for the neighborhood and to print and distribute newsletters for more than 20 years. We have a recognizable name now. A new name would possibly make us seem like the disparaged new comers. The other option is to make sure that all understand that it is the name of an underlying plat and to educate more on the diversity of the history here, including the Carmack House. This is one of the oldest continuously residential communities in the City of Seattle with a rich and diverse history and deserves to be recognized as such.

  15. Please join me in my new campaign to rebrand the CD as “Jewishtown” since there used to be so many synagogues around here.

    • It has been the land of the Salish tribes for over 10,000 years and the 1852 treaty allows them to hunt and fish as there “usual and accustom fishing and hunting grounds”. Look it up, it is federal law!

      • How insensitive of me! We should really name the CD after every minority group that has ever lived in the area, in chronological order: “Salish-Pioneer-Jew-Japa-Africa-Hipster-Ville.” Anything else would be trampling on the cultural history of the neighborhood.

        This entire naming thing is ridiculous. It’s the geographical equivalent of licking a donut so nobody else can take it off the plate.

      • Joe. I think you have something there. How about “Licked Donut”? … At least it’s not boring.

  16. Pingback: Change at 23rd and Union is front page news: Is the corner destined to be annexed by Capitol Hill? « AfricaTown/CD

  17. Pingback: Change at 23rd and Union is front page news: Is the corner destined to be annexed by Capitol Hill? | Africatown/Chinatown News Digest