Red Barn Ranch Gets One Step Closer to Potential Black Ownership

by Jack Russillo

Southeast of Seattle, in unincorporated King County near Auburn, sits a nearly 39-acre parcel of wild land and outbuildings. Currently called the Red Barn Ranch and owned by Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR), the property has been everything from a summer camp to a conference center to a farming education program. For the last three years, though, it’s sat empty. To some Black leaders in Seattle, this property could be exactly what the community needs to move toward an equitable model for Black-led land ownership that helps the Black community thrive. 

Several community voices have been lobbying since the summer of 2020 for the City of Seattle to transfer the Red Barn Ranch property to Black ownership. Who the land is sold to is ultimately up to SPR, but a leading candidate to take on the task of stewarding the land is Nurturing Roots, an urban farm located in Beacon Hill. 

“People have asked me if I wanted to own it, but no, I want it to be all of ours,” said Nyema Clark, the founder and director of Nurturing Roots, during an interview with the Emerald in October. “All of us should have a share, and that share should never be able to be sold. You could pass it down to other generations, but you couldn’t make money off of it. We want to make a legitimate model that lasts.”

Clark, like many others, believes a piece of land, owned and operated by and for the Black community, can be a place of healing as well as empowerment for some people who may have never had the opportunity to cultivate a deep relationship with rural spaces that they feel belong to them. It can also be an example for Seattle to demonstrate that it’s tangibly investing in its Black communities.

“This project is imperative, both for the near-term needs of the community and the community needs for land, farming, and Black-led, culturally relevant food programs and services, but also for the long-term,” said Isaac Joy of King County Equity Now in an interview with the Emerald in November. “It’s imperative to transfer this land so that we can get on a path so that Seattle can start self-correcting and move itself on a trajectory where equitable convergence is possible. Seattle has never been on that path before and so it needs to approach these types of projects with the appropriate sense of urgency to get on that path.” 

Though it’s in SPR’s hands now, the property was once owned by a Black person: Elgin Baylor, the former NBA player who attended Seattle University in the late 1950s and bought the land in 1966 to develop it as a sports camp for city youth. In 1970, it was acquired by SPR through a specific grant from the Washington Recreation Conservation Office (RCO) that placed a restrictive recreation covenant on the site. The recreation status ensures that the property must permanently be utilized for “public outdoor recreation,” even after the property is sold from one entity to another. Red Barn Ranch and its facilities were acquired as part of Seattle’s implementation of the Model Cities Program, an effort by the Lyndon Johnson administration to reduce urban poverty, which ended in 1974. 

The City operated the property as a summer camp through 1982. After that, the site was intermittently closed, used for various activities such as conferences and school field trips, leased to Camp Berachah, and most recently operated by Seattle Tilth. The property has been vacant since March 2018, when Seattle Tilth last used it for its farm incubator program for immigrants in King County. SPR has been attempting to transfer the property — appraised earlier this year at a value of $1,764,000 — since early 2020. 

A red structure on the Red Barn Ranch property (Photo: Jack Russillo)

Transferring the Red Barn Ranch to Black community ownership, though, isn’t a simple task. Thanks to the original grant restrictions, the property has already had to work its way through numerous bureaucratic processes, and they’re not over yet. 

First, SPR had to transfer the “public outdoor recreation” grant conditions from the Red Barn Ranch parcel to another property. That way, the Ranch property could be sold to another organization for a broader range of uses. SPR had to find a suitable replacement property with “a reasonably equivalent usefulness” as well as an equal or greater market value, among other factors. 

On Jan. 26, a replacement property was officially approved by the RCO board (although the final stage of the transfer needs to come from a City Council vote, likely this spring). The replacement property is a 0.15-acre parcel in South Seattle, just east of Rainier Avenue South and north of South Charlestown Street between 34th Avenue South and 35th Avenue South. The property, combined with three other properties that were acquired over the last ten years, will comprise the North Rainier Land Banked Park, a developmental project to create a one-acre park featuring a range of amenities. Based on public comment, the design includes a fitness zone, BBQ and picnic facilities, plant installations, and green stormwater infrastructure. The property’s newly acquired recreation covenant will allow SPR to secure additional funds for additional community-proposed amenities. The estimated cost of the development of the park is about $3 million. Just over $2 million of the funds will be provided from the Seattle Park District and the real estate excise tax, along with other grants from RCO and other private sources.

The creation of this new park and the transfer of the decades-old recreation covenant is a huge step for the Red Barn Ranch. 

It “greatly expands the possible uses of the site in the future,” said SPR in an email statement to the Emerald on Feb. 1. Once the covenant, also known as a deed of right, is officially lifted after a City Council vote, the Red Barn Ranch property will no longer have that “public outdoor recreation” requirement attached. That means a whole lot more autonomy for the future owners. And the city is aware of the importance for those owners to be Black or BIPOC. 

“In response to strong advocacy from community members,” continued SPR, “the City has been exploring the possibility of transitioning the Red Barn Ranch property into something that serves BIPOC communities.” 

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. At this point, City and SPR staff are continuing to figure out the legalities and logistics of transferring the property to community ownership, they say.  But while there are a lot of unknowns, “the project is a priority for the Mayor’s Office and Seattle Parks and Recreation in 2021.”

If Nurturing Roots eventually obtains the property, Clark has already envisioned a few aspects of the space: exercise areas, WWOOFing opportunities, a natural birthing site, drive-in movies, residential housing, a co-op solar grid to provide people with power, and an event space. 

“We’re trying to create something we’ve never seen before,” said Clark — a space that serves the environment as well as the community: culturally, economically, and spiritually. “We’ve been strategizing about solar and water catchment. We’ve strategized around co-op models with a time-banking system instead of a monetary system. We’ve been engaged with working with people who are incarcerated and facilitating how we can sell artwork they’ve created, but haven’t been able to market. … We’re still in the design phase where we’re just trying to achieve these dreams that have always seemed fairly out of reach.”

It could also, Clark believes, be a place of safety and healing. “If you want to lay out under the stars without fear that someone is going to come and take your stuff, that’s the kind of place we’re trying to create,” said Clark. “I want safety, I want dreaming, I want that space to be a place where African Americans who don’t have a home could come to. I want it to be a place [for] people who feel homeless, whether because they’ve been displaced from a home or because they don’t have an understanding of where their origins are from.”

Structure on the grounds of the Red Barn Ranch property with a mural that says “Learn Grow Eat” (Photo: Jack Russillo)

Still, before Clark or anyone else’s visions for the Red Barn Ranch property can start to take form, there will be months of legislative work. There are still exact specifications of the conversion of the recreation covenant to work out, as well as ongoing discussions between City Council, SPR, and any other potential buyers of the property before the next owner is decided. There’s no guarantee that SPR will decide to sell the land to Nurturing Roots or any other BIPOC entity, even though the option has been considered for nearly a year.

Since the summer of 2020, there has been large public outcry for Seattle to be more proactive about uplifting BIPOC lives after a history of dragging its feet on important equity issues. From transferring the ownership of City properties to longstanding Black-operated community organizations to making culturally relevant improvements at natural spaces in South Seattle, there have been some efforts to shift its modus operandi. The transfer of the Red Barn Ranch property to BIPOC ownership, though, would be a major step in that direction. 

“It’s kind of a no-brainer,” said Joy. “The property was purchased by a Black person. It was gifted to the City particularly for urban Black farming. Seattle Parks owns it and it’s been vacant, really unused, for years. It’s been chronically underutilized. There’s a huge land disparity and a dearth of land ownership in the Black community, as the Black community has been historically and systematically ostracized from land ownership through a number of ways. … If you’re going to get the Black community of Seattle to equity in land ownership and other crucial metrics, then these are the no-brainers that we have to win. This is a huge swath of land in terms of size, in terms of its purpose, in terms of it being vacant, in terms of Nurturing Roots being the entity that could steward it — these are the reasons this is a no-brainer.”

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured Image: One of the red structures on the grounds of the Red Barn Ranch property. (Photo by Jack Russillo)

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