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Liberty Bank Building

Landscape Performance Benefits

Environmental

  • Retains 85% of rainfall on-site for a 24-hour, 20-year storm event from approximately 50% of the site’s area through infiltration and bioplanters. Planned off-site detention and best management practices will ultimately eliminate surface runoff from 97% of the site.
  • Generates nearly 11,500 kWh of energy per year for the municipal electric grid with a photovoltaic solar rooftop array.

Social

  • Supported at least 10 events in the first year of opening, engaging an average of 188 attendees per event based on attendance reported via social media.
  • Creates a community hub activated by residents and other community members as demonstrated by 48% of those observed using streetscape being associated with the development, indicating a balance of resident and community member use.
  • Attempts to reverse the trend of a declining Black population in Central District. 86% of residents at Liberty Bank Building self-identify as Black. Only 11.2% of the Central District’s residents self-identified as Black in 2017, down from a high of 71.9% in 1970.

Economic

  • Directly prevented the displacement of 1 Black-owned business that is a neighborhood icon while providing 2 additional affordable commercial spaces for new local Black-owned businesses.
  • Accounts for 36% of the affordable units developed in Central District between 2000 and 2019.

At a Glance

  • Designer

    Mithun

  • Project Type

    Multi-family residence

  • Former Land Use

    Commercial/Retrofit

  • Location

    2320 E Union St
    Seattle, Washington 98122

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  • Climate Zone

    Warm-summer Mediterranean

  • Size

    0.5 acres

  • Budget

    $1,425,438 (earthwork and exterior improvements); $21,648,951 (including building)

  • Completion Date

    February 2019

Liberty Bank Building in Seattle, Washington’s Central District is a mixed-use 115-unit affordable housing and retail development on a historic site previously home to the first bank west of the Mississippi River dedicated to serving the Black community. The formerly redlined neighborhood was a hub in the city’s civil rights movement but has experienced demographic changes and gentrification in recent decades. The site developer and community stakeholders signed a Memorandum of Understanding to reaffirm this cultural and historical hub of the pan-African community by ensuring priority and support for Black-owned businesses, and securing long-term ownership by Black community organizations. The developer and design team worked closely with local Black community organizations throughout the design process. A neighborhood-facing entry courtyard extends to a redesigned streetscape, and this ground-level exterior space serves as a shared community resource. A roof terrace with expansive views of the city is well-used by residents and by community members during events. Outdoor installations were created by local artists of color using patterns, colors, and textures inspired by Afrocentric design. Sustainability goals are achieved with bioretention planters, native vegetation, and a semi-intensive green roof. Liberty Bank Building begins to address displacement by facilitating the reestablishment of Black businesses and unrooted Black community members and contributing to an Africatown community identity.

  • The entry courtyard serves as a connection between residents and the community. Its mosaic seating benches can accommodate 16 people within 1,743 sf of gathering space.
  • The entry courtyard has 16 plant species including Princeton Sentry ginkgo (Gingko biloba ‘Princeton Sentry’), vine maple (Acer circinatum), and Arctic Fire red-twigged dogwood (Cornus stolonifera ‘Farrow’). The plantings complement the artwork and Afrocentric style of the benches.
  • The entry courtyard’s bioretention planter collects runoff from 15% (2,550 sf) of the roof and 100% (1,200 sf) of the entry walkway. It features salmon-shaped sculptures that pay tribute to the late James Washington’s historic Fountain of Triumph, which has been across the street for over 20 years. Washington, a prominent Black Seattleite artist, compared the salmon’s struggle in their journey to make their way upstream to the racial struggle for Black Americans to reach a brighter future.
  • The pedestrian-friendly streetscape includes 3,000 sf of plants including Allee Elm (Ulmus parvifolia ‘Emer II’), red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), and Fireball avens (Geum ‘Fireball’). It also has 3 bike parking spaces (with more inside for residents) and 3 seating drums that mark entrances to the businesses. Each business can add café or other outdoor seating within the streetscape as desired.
  • 9 local artists created 11 exterior art installations that celebrate the pan-African heritage of Central District. These include 139 linear ft of colorful tile mosaics on benches, the salmon stormwater feature sculptures, 5 drum stools, 313 linear ft of ribbon and glass panels on storefronts, and a 40-by-50-ft five-story mural wall at the building’s entrance on 24th Avenue.
  • The rooftop has a 4,085-sf semi-intensive green roof with a sedum mix planted at a depth of 4 in. The 2,224-sf residential access area and community gathering space has an additional 1,170 sf of planters of varying height with dogwood (Cornus ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’), Karl Foerster grass (Calamagrostis x acutifolia ‘Karl Foerster’), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), and 836 sf of sedum.
  • The photovoltaic array on the roof inlcudes 22 Itek Energy SE 300 solar modules that can produce 0.3kW per hour when at maximum production. The energy feeds the municipal grid.
  • Elements of the original Liberty Bank were incorporated into the site to highlight its historical significance. These include a new sign inspired by the historic bank logo, 10 salvaged safety deposit doors, and 390 salvaged bricks. In addition, 8 plaques surrounded by the salvaged bricks in a woven pattern tell the history of the site.
  • The site has high-quality landscaping and vegetation which exceeds the required amount of landscape area per Seattle Green Factor codes by 173%. The Green Factor score is only 13% away from reaching the adjacent zone’s Low Rise Development score, which has higher requirements for landscape area.
  • Liberty Bank Building has 115 affordable housing rental units for people earning between 30% and 60% of the area median income along with 2,695 sf of affordable commercial space specifically for local Black-owned businesses, which was specified in the Memorandum of Understanding between the developer and the community stakeholders.
  • The project team was committed to using local women- and minority-owned business enterprises (WMBE) as subcontractors. As a result, 30.1% of the construction budget (over $5 million) went to WMBEs, 58% of which (over $2.9 million) went to Black-owned firms.
  • The project set a 15-year timeline to transfer ownership from the developer to Black community organizations through its Memorandum of Understanding. 

Challenge

  • Repurpose elements from the historic Liberty Bank into the new building and site design to honor the Black history and cultural significance of the Bank and Central District neighborhood.
  • Create an Afrocentric, community-driven design identity.
  • Help reestablish broken social connections caused by displacement in a gentrifying neighborhood. 
  • Provide a hub for the Black community that reflects their needs and expressed desires through flexible event spaces.
  • Actively advertise the development to low- to moderate-income Black residents. Despite a first-come, first-serve application process for rental units, there has been extra outreach with the goal of encouraging low-income Black residents to move to and/or return to the neighborhood.
  • Create opportunities for minority and Black-owned businesses. In the Memorandum of Understanding between the developer and community stakeholders, Black-owned businesses are prioritized for the 3 commercial spaces, minority and Black-owned businesses are prioritized for subcontractors, and an innovation fund is maintained to help develop Black-owned businesses in Central District.
  • Engage community stakeholders (Africatown Community Land Trust, the Black Community Impact Alliance, and Byrd Barr Place) and Black artists as part of the design team, and incorporate their ideas throughout the design process.
  • Develop an activated streetscape to facilitate connections between residents and the larger Central District community.
  • Manage stormwater runoff to meet Evergreen Sustainability and City of Seattle Standards.
  • Provide residents with direct access to a variety of safe, vegetated outdoor environments.
  • Serve as a catalyst for other developments in the area.

Social Infrastructure

Increasing levels of economic disparity in Seattle have displaced residents from their communities as their neighborhoods have become unaffordable. During this gentrifying process, social infrastructure is fractured from losing community support and cultural history. The design firm for Liberty Bank Building has worked on multiple projects in gentrifying neighborhoods in Seattle and San Francisco. They recognize these cities’ economic booms and ask, “A boom for whom?” The tech industry has sparked rapid redevelopment in Seattle, causing significant change and growth within the city. But what happens to existing communities? How are they impacted? It is critical to question who benefits and who is burdened by a project. Liberty Bank Building is one example of a design approach that seeks a just design process that restores and supports communities impacted by city dynamics that increasingly and disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color.

Understand Community Histories.  The area surrounding the Liberty Bank Building in Seattle’s Central District has been home to the Black community since the 1900s, with a majority of its residents being Black between 1950 and 1990. Founded in 1968, Liberty Bank was the first Black-owned bank west of the Mississippi River, and it supported the Black community for over 20 years. Central District was the only place for Black people to own land in Seattle because of racist planning policies, from land covenants in the early 1900s to redlining districts from the 1930s to 1977 when redlining was legally prohibited. These factors and disinvestment in the Black community have created conditions that allow developers to buy low-priced properties, tear down homes or businesses, and make sizable profits off new market-rate townhomes, condos, and other housing.

As urbanization grew and the tech industry dominated Seattle from the late 1990s to today, low- to middle-income Black residents have been increasingly unable to live in Central District due to rapidly rising living costs. The Liberty Bank Building’s neighborhood has seen significant change; the percentage of Black residents in Liberty Bank Building’s census tract went from 90% in 1970 to 11% in 2017. (See the social benefits section of the Methods document for more details.)

Despite continuing gentrification, Central District is considered the “cultural epicenter of Blackness” in the Pacific Northwest. The area is home to churches, restaurants, the Northwest African American Museum, and events like Umoja Fest that draw former residents to visit on a regular basis.  As a place that celebrates the Black history of the neighborhood, Liberty Bank Building is one step of many to restitch a fragmented social network lost in the displacement of Black residents. Not only are there housing opportunities for formerly displaced Black residents, but local, minority-owned businesses find community support and in turn are able to support their community. Social infrastructure is necessary to support community.

Towards Community Ownership. The design team, developer, and local community stakeholders (Africatown Community Land Trust, the Black Community Impact Alliance, and Byrd Barr Place) partnered during design development and community outreach activities to ensure that voices of the local Black community were heard. The developer and community stakeholders showed this commitment to the community by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that leads the way for future Black ownership of the building by a community organization. The MOU also includes provisions for the project to provide affordable commercial space, prioritize local and minority hiring, reflect the Central District’s history in its design, support Black-owned businesses through an innovation fund, explore further policy changes, diversify the developer (Community Roots Housing), and reaffirm Central District as a hub of the Pan-African Community. The project breaks away from typical models of private developments looking to turn a profit who do not include the community in their development decisions. K. Wyking Garrett, president of Africatown, described this project as a “replanting” for the Black community in Central District. 

Amplify Community Expertise and Voices. A just design process requires listening to community needs and desires within specific local and historical contexts. This demands making more time and space for meaningful community contributions. Community members are experts of their place and lived experience. The establishment of the Liberty Bank Advisory Board (LBAB), which was composed of daughters of the original founders, a former executive director of the bank, long-time community members, leaders in the Central area, and religious leadership, was an initial step in the process. The LBAB recommended ten design criteria that promote the Liberty Bank’s story of how communities can support one other toward mutually beneficial goals. The design criteria focused on allowing the history and story of the site to live on in the new building. Additionally, community stakeholders worked with the design team to hold two open houses and three design workshops. Each workshop was targeted to different audiences: one for the community, one for public artists, and one for women- and minority-owned businesses/subcontractors. The community stakeholders represent a social network for the Black community in Central District.

A First of Many Steps Forward. There is a need for “independence and self-empowerment of Black people in the development [of] their community (or what is left of it).” For this project, the developer worked with community stakeholders during the design process to have critical conversations about how to create a place that adds to the social network in Central District for the Black community. As a result of those conversations, 13.4% of the construction budget ($2.9 million) went to Black-owned firms and businesses. While this is a positive step forward, the next step is for development to be less dependent on white-owned organizations. Rerooting displaced Black community members who have called Central District home for over a century requires greater momentum than one development to strengthen and repair broken socio-economic infrastructures. 

Siting the courtyard at ground level and opening it to the street was $137,700 less expensive than siting it at podium-level at the back of the building, which would have been in line with standard practice. Although both options were considered during preliminary design, the courtyard facing 24th Avenue offered many benefits: an activated entry to welcome the community; 600 sf of additional commercial space, maximizing street frontage along East Union Street; a smoother transition between the building and the surrounding neighborhood with its low-density residential zoning; and increased daylight and views for residential units. This single decision created an art-filled courtyard entry with social, aesthetic, environmental, and economic benefits at a lower cost than a traditional back-of-property siting of private outdoor space for residents. The ground-level courtyard is a publicly accessible “front porch” that facilitates community connections.  

  • Working with Community: Despite valiant efforts to get the original Liberty Bank building listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013-14, it was demolished. Concerned its historical significance would be lost in the redevelopment of the property, members of the surrounding Black community initially opposed the project. The project team worked closely with a community advisory board to develop strategies to reveal that history, such as incorporating historic bank elements and art installations. With the design team and developer continuously working to listen and adjust the project based on community input, subsequent community meetings had less opposition and increased support.
  • Deep Listening: The design team worked collaboratively with the community, building trust throughout the design process. Community members noticed, and this trust has carried on in future projects. After Liberty Bank Building was completed, a resident was present at a public meeting for a different project in development. They expressed to community members they could share what they wanted with this design team, and it would actually make a difference–as opposed to past negative experiences with public input being ignored.
  • Co-Designing with Artists: Community stakeholders advocated for art to be integrated in the design of the new Liberty Bank Building. Black artists became critical contributors to the design process and project, producing art that honors the histories of the site. To ensure their art was fully incorporated into the project, the design team collaborated with the artists, who made important contributions in early decision-making. While requiring greater coordination from the design team and developer, it helped foster stronger partnerships and demonstrated a level of care between the design team and community stakeholders.
  • Plant Health: Several factors made for less-than-optimal initial plant health. Planting was done in the middle of Seattle’s rainy season and right after a snowstorm, which are rare in Seattle. During the ribbon-cutting a week later, people walked through the beds and trampled the plants. Installing temporary fencing would have helped prevent plant mortality.  The landscape architects noted that some streetscape plants needed replacing.

Bike Racks: Landscape Forms ‘bola’
Custom Benches: Esther Ervin and Al Doggett, Artists
Green Roof: Columbia Green Semi-Intensive Layered System
Green Roof Media Supplier: Skyland USA
Top Soil and Bioretention Soil: Cedar Grove Composting
Irrigation: Hunter Products
Canopy Motif: Al Doggett, Artist
Pedestal Pavers: Bison Screwjack Pedestal System
Concrete Pavers: Mutual Materials ‘Vancouver Bay’
Decorative Metal Fence: METALCO Fence & Railing System, TWINBAR Fencing System
Solar Array: Itek Energy SE 300 solar modules
Drainage Spout Design and Art: Esther Ervin, Artist
Plaques and Bricks: Millie Collins, Artist
Façade Mural: Ashby Reed, Artist
Planter Material: COR-TEN panels
Gravel Mulch: River Cobble, rounded natural gravel color
Plant Supplier: Nettle Creek Nursery and Pacific Plants

Project Team

Landscape Architecture, Architecture, and Interior Design: Mithun
Client: Community Roots Housing (formerly Capitol Hill Housing)
Development Team: Africatown Community Land Trust, the Black Community Impact Alliance, and Byrd Barr Place (formerly Centerstone)
General Contractor: Walsh Construction Co
Landscape Contractor: SS landscaping Services, Inc.
Civil / Structural Engineering Firm: Coughlin Porter Lundeen
Geotechnical Engineering: Geotech Consultants, Inc.
MEP Engineering Firm for Building: Rushing Company
Building Envelope Engineers: JRS Engineering
Artists: Al Doggett Studio; Al Doggett, Esther Ervin, Lisa Brown, Troy Miles, Lisa Myers Bullmash, Aramis Hamer, Minnie Collins, Inye Wokoma, and Ashby Reed
Specifications: SpecRite

Role of the Landscape Architect

The landscape architects were responsible for all site planning and design from concept development and planting design to permitting, construction detailing, and construction administration for the green roof, courtyard, and streetscape. They partnered with local artists to incorporate art into the design and construction of spaces. For example, the landscape architects worked with the artists to ensure all the footings and construction documents were drawn correctly to incorporate their installations.  

Case Study Prepared By

Research Fellow: Catherine De Almeida, Assistant Professor, University of Washington
Research Assistant: Jennifer Engelke, PhD candidate, University of Washington
Firm Liaison: Amelia Jensen, Landscape Designer, Mithun
August 2020

To cite: De Almeida, Catherine and Jennifer Engelke. “Liberty Bank Building.” Landscape Performance Series. Landscape Architecture Foundation, 2020. https://doi.org/10.31353/cs1620

Topics

Stormwater management, Energy use, Recreational & social value, Access & equity, Economic development, Other economic, Public art, Onsite energy generation, Native plants, Green roof, Educational signage, Social equity

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