So What Happened At Midtown Center?

by Erica C. Barnett 

The fate of a proposed deal between the nonprofit group Africatown and the environmental preservation group Forterra to buy and develop the Midtown Center property at 23rd Ave. and Union Street hit a wall last week, when the owners of the property, the Bangasser family partnership, changed the locks at the office occupied by Black Dot, an incubator for African-American-owned businesses. According to a police report obtained by Capitol Hill Seattle, the lease for the space Black Dot was occupying ended in February. Black Dot was never the leaseholder on the space.

The Bangassers, who are white, also moved to evict Omari Tahir Garrett, the father of Africatown leader K. Wyking Garrett, from the house adjacent to the Midtown Center property, where Garrett lives and runs the UMOJA Peace Center. (The family partnership paid residents of an encampment on the property to vacate the premises last year, CHS reported). The moves come at a time when housing prices in the Central Area are rising rapidly, displacing many longtime residents and driving a demographic shift in the area from mostly black to largely white.

Protests erupted on several occasions over the past two weeks about the eviction of Tahir-Garrett, who had been living in the space rent-free since at least 2012, when Tom Bangasser—a dissenting family member who has argued that any redevelopment of Midtown Center must benefit and be led by the African American community—signed a lease with the UMOJA Peace Center, which puts on an annual parade in the neighborhood. That lease expired in 2014.

Although many demonstrators said they were protesting the eviction of the UMOJA Peace Center from the property, Wyking Garrett himself said in a sworn deposition (DECLARATIONOFHUGHBANGASSER) that the organization “is not now nor has it since 2015 been a tenant or occupant” of the house where the elder Garrett has been living. “Umoja has no keys or other access to the Subject Properties. Umoja has no intent to reoccupy the subject properties as a tenant or otherwise,” Garrett said.

The other Bangassers, led by brother Hugh and sister Margaret Delaney, have been trying to evict Tahir-Garrett from the property for about a year, arguing that he has “created an unsanitary, unsightly, and dangerous site.” They also say he had no authority to allow a large, unauthorized encampment in the side yard of the property; last year, two cars parked next to that encampment caught fire after their occupants hooked up a power cord to the house in order to heat and cook inside the cars, according to a police report.

In a deposition at the time, Tahir-Garrett said that a “Native American woman” (DECLARATIONOFHUGHF.BANGASSER) told him it was okay for him to let people camp on the property, and that it was “an effective utilization of space” that would otherwise go unused. After police searching the house found it empty, protesters surrounding Uncle Ike’s pot shop in a separate demonstration a block away announced that Garrett had been admitted to Harborview for an unspecified illness.

The increasingly heated dispute makes it appear highly unlikely that Africatown will be successful in its efforts to partner in the redevelopment of Midtown Center, which requires cooperation from the Bangasser family members who control Midtown Center. (Tom Bangasser was removed as controlling partner on the family partnership last year). The latest clash between the Garretts and the Bangassers comes just two weeks after Africatown and Forterra announced plans to buy the Midtown Center property, and just a month after a deal to redevelop the property involving Africatown, Miami-based multifamily housing developer Lennar Communities, and Regency Centers, which was planning to purchase the property from the Bangassers, fell through.

“This situation just highlights the crisis and the vulnerability of many in our city, and it just happens to be [happening] right here at 23rd and Union,” Wyking Garrett said last week. “The technology companies are growing and bringing in people that are paying higher rents and we have property owners and developers that are trying to take advantage of [that influx] at the expense of many others in our community that … are vulnerable to being displaced.” Indeed, just down the street at 23rd and Jackson, Promenade 23, which includes the Red Apple community grocery store, will soon make way for a new mixed-use development, with 570 apartments, from Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate.

Garrett said he had heard “negative comments by the property managers about having images of black people in windows, about attendees at our events, and [about] African-American entrepreneurs and business owners, even to the point of making the statement that it needs to be ‘more vanilla around here.’”

Hugh Bangasser, the general partner of the family ownership group and a partner at the K&L Gates law firm, did not return calls seeking comment.

The larger portion of the proposed development would have included a large grocery store and a chain drug store, small retail storefronts, and 355 apartments, 30 percent of which would have been affordable. A smaller portion of the block would have been developed and run by Africatown, and featured 120 apartments, some of them also affordable. The development would have required a small upzone to 70 feet, less than an upzone for the area under the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda planned for later this year. The HALA upzone would only require that 10 percent of the units in the new development be affordable, so the plan would have represented a significant affordability upgrade from the HALA minimum.

Clashes with the Garretts and Africatown weren’t the only reason the Midtown Center deal may have fallen apart.

One theory I heard as I called a trying to get to the bottom of why the Midtown Center project, so many months in the works, fell apart, is that the city dragged its heels on the upzone, delaying the project for too long and making the Bangassers skittish about the deal. Brad Reisenger, president of Lennar’s Northwest Division, told me, “Ultimately it came down to the time we needed vs the time the seller was willing to give us to close on the land.” Reisinger says the plan “sacrificed certain design elements to meet other city and community goals, with various stakeholders. It was a complex process that just took too much time in the end.”

Another person with knowledge of the discussions between the developers and the city said that because the city was dragging its feet on the contract rezone, the developers (who had already sunk half a million dollars into the project and given up about 100 units’ worth of potential development by agreeing to sell part of the property to Africatown), needed another extension on their contract with the Bangassers. The Bangassers decided to walk away, perhaps believing they could get a better deal somewhere else.

Neither Hugh nor Tom Bangasser returned multiple calls seeking comment on why the deal fell through, and no one at the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections would comment on the rezone or say whether delay contributed to the demise of the deal.

Jeff Floor, chair of the Central Area Land Use Review Committee, says he doubts that the long review process is what killed the deal. “Everybody knew that there was going to be additional design review,” he says.

Another theory is that the community simply balked at the prospect of two more big chain stores in the neighborhood, which already has a Walgreen’s, a Safeway, a Red Apple (soon to be redeveloped by Vulcan and replaced by a different grocery store), and a Grocery Outlet. At the January design review meeting, several members of the design review board expressed concerns about the size and location of the drugstore and grocery store.

According to another person involved in the discussions, the developers did themselves a disservice by failing to name the retail anchors and assuaging neighborhood concerns. When developer Velmeir announced it was redeveloping the City Peoples garden store in Madison Valley, the project was (and continues to be) controversial, but Velmeir did one thing right by announcing that the anchor tenant would be a PCC (and not, say, an Albertson’s), this person theorizes.

Another neighborhood resident and business owner familiar with the project believes that the two out-of-town developers may have simply gotten fed up with all the Seattle-style pushback against major retailers in neighborhoods.

The final theory, one I heard from several (though by no means all) the people I spoke to for this story, is that Midtown and Regency decided they didn’t want to take a risk on Africatown, even before the most recent round of protests and demonstrations.  “They’re evolving and there’s a lot of curiosity about what they can handle as a pretty new organization,” Floor says. “They’re certainly not a developer.” Africatown has never run even a small retail business, much less a large commercial leasing operation—a prospect that can be daunting even for much larger nonprofits with extensive real estate experience.

However, Lennar’s Reisinger says that the demise of the development “had nothing to do with the framework we were working with Africatown and Forterra on.” And Forterra spokesman Michael Beneke said only, “We continue to work closely with all the parties and are optimistic about a good outcome.”

Two blocks adjacent to the Midtown Center have already been redeveloped as six-story mixed-use buildings with luxury apartments above, coffee shops and high-end retail spaces below. If Africatown and Forterra are unable to work out a deal to develop the property, which appears increasingly likely, the most likely scenario is that the Midtown Center will follow suit.

4 thoughts on “So What Happened At Midtown Center?”

  1. I came to live this summer and ended up Homeless behind Midtown Center at 23rd and Union. I document it all in a series of multimedia projects.. #weirdwood

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