Seattle is an incredibly beautiful, scenic city of high-tech innovation, enormous business growth, high-wage jobs, and rising property values. Yet, within its geographical heart resides the chronic problem of a gentrifying core, otherwise known as the economically depressed Central Area.
Situated between a touristy downtown waterfront on one side and Lake Washington on the other, the Central Area is a community of roughly 30,000 residing in the shadow of nearby Seattle University. Despite its prime location in the center of the city, and that it boasts its own higher education footprint, the Central Area is economically depressed because it was the target of public segregationist policies for generations. Previous laws authorized the private sector to redline the neighborhood into a racially profiled region, and the city channeled most all of its Black residents into the area, including those arriving during the Great Migration era. By the 1970s, Black residents made up 70% of the Central Area’s population.
Today, the City of Seattle is more cognizant of its notorious past treatment of Black and other minority groups. Unfortunately, one critical component absent in the past remains missing today: investment in a community-led Central Area Strategic Plan for economic stability and urban sustainability. Instead, current public policies that acquiesce to market demands now compete with the ideals of longtime residents, activist leaders, stakeholders, and influencers and have led to gentrification. As a result, a 70% Black population—which established the cultural soul of the Central Area—has been drastically reduced; the Seattle Times reports the neighborhood's Black population is roughly 14% today, with trends projecting toward single digits in the next decade.
Developers have successfully made the case to city council that they are considering inclusive strategies in their designs for developing parcels of land in the three main commercial corridors of the Central Area. However, what appears positive in the eyes of developers doesn’t necessarily align with what’s best for community cohesion and sustainability. For example, Lake Union Partners is working on a new development at 23rd and E. Union that will result in a seven-story mixed-use high-end residential building with retail space on the first floor. This development will join three others also owned by Lake Union Partners on nearby parcels that complete the four corners of the high-traffic intersection. In accordance with city policies, 20% of that development will be managed as affordable housing units by Capitol Hill Housing and Africatown (a local nonprofit group). The result still culminates in 80% of the externally owned development benefiting market-driven gentrification. The Lake Union Partners developments represent a continuation, rather than a disruption, of the current displacement of neighborhood residents.
I’m the chief executive officer of Byrd Barr Place, an umbrella agency in the Central Area for groups like Africatown, the Central Area Collaborative, and the Historic Central Area Arts & Cultural District (HCAACD), and we oppose these gentrification trends. The ideals of the Central Area are clear, as are its priorities: upholding cultural integrity; slowing gentrification trends; managing economic development; encouraging urban sustainability; supporting affordable home ownership as well as rental options; facilitating business ownership, providing access to capital and other resources for growth; providing equitable access to opportunities and pathways to prosperity for returning citizens; engaging in strategic economic planning led by community stakeholders; sharing a common vision of the Central Area; and making Opportunity Zone long-term investments with measurable impacts and outcomes. These top 10 priorities were from among more than 30 developed by community residents.
The Central Area could be a dynamic, economically thriving, sustainable, multicultural residential area with a high quality of life. It could boast an economic vitality centered on a Cultural EcoDistrict strategy with strong local ownership and community benefits, and the city has expressed strong interest in such an approach.
The solution is a Seattle-supported Central Area Strategic Plan that empowers the community to manage its own economic development around its own priorities and ideals.
Without a formal strategic plan enforced through public policy, the designed, market-driven winds of gentrification will continue to blow through the Central Area, uprooting the Black residents who are the community’s heart.