Lake Union Partners’ mega-project will bring the most sweeping change yet to an intersection with a complicated past.

In 2009, a group of artists, journalists, and community activists erected an open air photography and audio recording installation on an abandoned lot on the corner of 23rd and Union. Simply called “The Corner,” the installation was a source of community curiosity, pride, and criticism for about a year.

The website for The Corner still exists, and it provides a fascinating time travel experience. Dozens of audio recordings saved on the website address questions of belonging, memory, and change. The makers of The Corner called it a “public radio documentary,” describing it as a compilation of over 200 messages that “collectively depict a rich and complicated place.”

“The Corner,” a photography and audio story installation at 23rd and Union presented community’s members perspectives on the site for about a year before being dismantled. The content can still be viewed and listened to on its website. Credit: The Corner

These messages transport listeners back to a time before Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop’s neon lights and billboards dominated the corner’s evening landscape. When 23rd and Union was known more outside of the neighborhood for street crime than a battle over the opening of a gourmet grocery chain criticized for bad labor practices.

Just a year before the installation of The Corner, Philadelphia Cheese Steak restaurant owner Degene Barecha was gunned down in his business at 23rd and Union during the daytime. It was shocking crime with a tragic twist; Barecha had been running the business for nearly five years on his own after the shooting death of his business partner, Troy Hackett, which also occurred in the Central District. Both of the men had been well-known and liked in the neighborhood.

Listening to messages form “The Corner,” it is clear that the Barecha’s murder was still on the mind of the callers, as were drug sales and other crimes. A particularly incendiary editorial in the Seattle PI from this period describes 23rd and Union as a place “where drugs and cash change hands out in the open, protesters take to the streets for justice, and bullets too often fly.”

These days the atmosphere is very different at 23rd and Union. Developer Lake Union Partners have already built three major projects at the site, The Stencil, East Union, and The Central, all of which are market rate apartment buildings with commercial space at the ground floor. These three developments have greatly changed the corner. Uncle Ike’s, while still a visible presence, no longer dominates the business corridor. On any given night a passerby is as likely to be headed to 23rd and Union in search of tacos as weed.

A rendering of the East Union building by Lake Union Partners. The project includes 144 units of mixed income apartments and 18,000 square feet of retail on the ground floor. Credit: Lake Union Partners.

But while new development has flourished, small mostly African-American and immigrant owned businesses have shuttered and disappeared, and the question of who this corner belongs to looms larger than ever.

During the recent ribbon cutting for the Liberty Bank Building, which honors the first African-American owned bank opened west of the Mississippi, speakers like Dr. Marcia Tate Arunga referenced the history of the area and called for reinvigorating 23rd and Union as a hub for Black culture.

While developments like Liberty Bank Building and the Africatown Community Land Trust have focused on preserving the business corridor’s African-American heritage, it is unknown at this point much impact they will have in the face of other larger developments, Midtown Commons in particular.

A rendering of the future Midtown Commons development. Credit: Lake Union Partners

What is Midtown Commons?

Spanning an entire city block, the Midtown Commons project is one of the largest, and most ambitious new developments slated for construction outside of Seattle’s downtown core.

The project includes 432 apartments, 30% of which (130 apartments) will be relatively affordable units, 25,000 square feet of retail space, 227 below grade parking spaces, and a 16,000 square feet publicly accessible square in the center of the project.

To put the square’s size in content, it will be similar in size to Occidental Square in the Pioneer Square neighborhood. According to Lake Union Partners, “The square will be lined with retail shops and is intended to be an active community gathering space from day to night.” However, while the Midtown Commons square will be accessible to the public, it will still be under private ownership and management, raising questions over who will be able to use the space and how it will be used.

A sunny day in Occidental Square. Photo credit: Jennifer Morrow, Creative Commons

Perhaps in recognition of the minority owned businesses were displaced from the site when the existing Midtown Center was closed, Lake Union Partners has made a commitment to prioritize African-American small businesses in the retail spaces along the square, and is currently conducting outreach to business owners.

Lake Union Partners also undertook an extensive neighborhood engagement effort during its design process. It was a sensitive project that attracted a lot of community attention. Midtown Commons actually went through full design review twice before finally being approved the third time around.

According to their media release, “substantial changes to the design of the buildings” were made so that the project would be “more reflective of community input and preferences.”

However, the bulk of the changes made in response to community feedback have been focused on the incorporation of artwork into the development, rather than adjustment to building and landscape design. Eight different pieces of art will be installed on site. These artworks will be connected to themes of “Reverence and Discovery.” According to Lake Union Partners, the article will be reflective of ” the community’s desires for a project which functions as a community space that is friendly, representative of an aesthetic that recognizes the area’s rich heritage, and welcomes multi-generational interaction.”

A rendering of the retail level site plan for the Midtown Commons project. Credit: Lake Union Partners.

Midtown Commons will be sharing space with the Africatown Community Land Trust, which aspired to bring permanently affordable rental and ownership housing to the corner of 23rd and Union. This project is being completed with assistance from Capitol Hill Housing; however, design plans and an estimated timeframe for completion have not been released yet.

Midtown Commons will break ground in July of 2019. Construction is anticipated to take about two years to complete.

Standing at the future Midtown Commons site today, it is hard to imagine the scale of the changes to come. In future years, what will Seattleites think of when they hear of the corner at 23rd and Union? Will Midtown Commons be seen as a high-water mark for gentrification, or the beginning of a more inclusive approach to development that recognizes the history and significance of the land that lies beneath it and the people who have made that land their home?

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Natalie’s question of who the corner belongs to is still valid. Outside of places to spend money, this area has historically been an important meeting spot for the community. And while your crime concerns are valid, most of the activity is/was just people chatting in the parking lot, hanging out at the bus stop, having a friendly conversation with the bus driver (growing up I spent HOURS waiting for the #2 at this intersection). Although midtown center has always been private property, the redevelopment will bring more monitoring and policing of activity (even if it is “publicly accessible private property”. this is BS, private property is private property). What this community really needs is a real urban public plaza. A spot for playing chess, meeting friends… Its a mistake to focus all on the businesses.

  2. Great points Brian. I look forward to the development that will further activate this “corner”. I certainly won’t long for the days of driveby shootings and mayoral muggings that it was once known for.

  3. “When 23rd and Union was known more outside of the neighborhood for street crime than a battle over the opening of a gourmet grocery chain criticized for bad labor practices.”

    It was and still is known inside the neighborhood for its street crime; up until fences went up a few months ago, Midtown Center was a magnet for drugs, prostitution, and other gang activity. As for across the street, there’s general excitement, at least on my block, for the New Seasons to open. The CD/Madrona/Leschi/Madison Valley neighborhoods have one chain grocer, a Safeway, and one discount grocer, a Grocery Outlet, located inside them… An additional neighborhood option is very welcome.

    “But while new development has flourished, small mostly African American and immigrant owned businesses have shuttered and disappeared, and the question of who this corner belongs to looms larger than ever.”

    Natalie, how long have you lived in the CD for?

    The NW corner of 23rd/Union that is now “East Union” was home to a Shell gas station and Cappy’s boxing gym. Once development started, Cappy’s moved down the street MLK/Union.

    The SW corner that is now “The Central” was a vacant lot.

    The NE corner, after the closure of Philly’s Best, sat vacant for years before Uncle Ikes/Neighbor Lady moved in. The other half of that corner was a vacant building that used to be home to Liberty Bank and is now the “Liberty Bank Building.”

    The SE corner that will be the “Midtown Commons” was home to Earls Cuts, a liquor store, a USPS, an office for a non profit, a laundry mat, and a convenience store. Earls moved across the street to The Central.

    To sum it all up, from all this 23rd/Union development our neighborhood lost: two vacant lots, a gas station, a post office, a liquor store, a convenience store, a laundry mat, and an oversized parking lot riddled with drug sales/prostitution/gang activity.

    What our neighborhood has gained: A coffee shop, Tacos Chukis, New Seasons, Bartell Drugs, That Brown Girl Cooks!, Uncle Ikes, Neighbor Lady, and hundreds of apartments. We also get artwork/plaques that honor the history of the area in much more effective way than anything that was there immediately prior to all this development.

    • Sorry for the double post but to say that this development came at the cost of African American/minority owned businesses, a narrative that Omari and his supporters have been peddling for years, is both obnoxious and downright dishonest. For quick reference, here’s a list of minority owned businesses on Union’s six block stretch between MLK and 22nd:

      + Vietnamese owned: Union Street Dental
      + Jewish owned: Uncle Ikes
      + African American owned: Earls, Cappy’s, That Brown Girl Cooks!, Postman
      + Latino owned: Tacos Chukis, the taco truck @ Ikes, Velopez

      It’s a vibrant mix and with the exception of Earls and Cappy’s, these were able to pop up thanks to the new development.

      • Hi Brian,

        I appreciate your detailed reply and obvious care you have for the neighborhood. Some small businesses closed as part of the new development, but there were vacant and underutilized properties as well. As for closures in the area, they occurred in waves overtime with Noble Spirits and the 99 cents store being the most recent ones that will not move into new development nearby.

        You are right to point out that there still are many minority owned businesses in the corridor, particularly in the stretch closer to MLK (Union Street Dental, Cappy’s, Postman, Velopez), which is arguably a different business hub with its own history. One business that is African-American owned that you left off of your list is Cortona Cafe, at Union and 24th.

        But it is important to point out That Brown Girl Cooks and Earl’s barbershop will be in the Liberty Bank building because the owners were dedicated to finding African American businesses to lease the space. People are paying attention to who moves into these spaces because of the work of community activists like Wyking Garrett.

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