It took more than a decade, but it finally happened.
The Seattle City Council is poised to approve the transfer of former Fire Station 23 to Byrd Barr Place, a social services organization that has been operating in the Central District for more than 50 years.
The matter appeared before councilmembers in the Finance & Neighborhood Committee on Sept. 15, where Byrd Barr Place Executive Director Andrea Caupain could speak to the issue.
“It was surreal, presenting in that moment,” Caupain said. “Holy cow — this thing is really moving forward.”
Caupain and her team have worked across multiple mayoral administrations to try to secure the rights to the building. The organization needs to own the building before they can seek the remaining $5.8 million necessary for seismic and accessibility upgrades to the building.
A cool $1.4 million appropriated by the state legislature for the task is also waiting for the property transfer to take place.
Ownership wasn’t the only option. They had debated the pros and cons of a long-term lease versus outright ownership, Caupain said, but owning the building opened more doors. While public funders are satisfied with a long-term lease, private foundations are not.
“We now have the pathway to launch the capital campaign,” Caupain said.
Byrd Barr Place soft-launched a campaign several years ago and so far has raised about $3 million of the $8.8 million. Given the late date and the current climate, they are pushing their plans to begin construction on the building a bit further out: They will have to vacate the premises for a year and come back in 2022.
Caupain is not confident that the organization will be able to raise the money that they need in time for construction to start because of the delays, so the organization is exploring low-interest bridge loans; the Federal Reserve has slashed the interest rate to near zero and expects to keep it there until as late as 2023, according to The New York Times.
In the meantime, Byrd Barr Place will rent small amounts of office space, embedding staff in offices already held by partner organizations that work with their clients, to continue popular programs like rent and utility assistance, financial counseling and home repair.
But having the refurbished building in hand is an opportunity to tie Byrd Barr Place to the community in perpetuity and help cement a foothold in a piece of the city that is losing Black residents. The district is less than 20 percent Black, down from more than 70 percent in the 1960s and 1970s. Gentrification pushed people out from the only neighborhoods in which they were able to live because of racist redlining practices championed by the federal government and mortgage lenders.
“There is no better wealth building than ownership,” said Samuel Assefa, director of the Office of Planning and Community Development at the committee meeting. “As a lease, you are not an owner of a property. Ownership is a critical element of that psychologically and practically as well.”
Transferring Byrd Barr Place was one of the promises that Mayor Jenny Durkan made at the height of the protests against police brutality that began at the end of May and have upended Seattle. Durkan also discussed other buildings in the pipeline, including Fire Station 6; the Africatown Community Land Trust plans to transform the old fire station into a Black community hub called the William Gross Center for Cultural Innovation.
In total, there are six properties that the city is working to give to community, said Andrés Mantilla, director of the Department of Neighborhoods. Some are supposed to appear on the City Council docket in coming weeks.
One such is the Central Area Senior Center, a community hub overlooking Lake Washington. The view attracts people who want to rent event space, and the center’s leadership hopes to revamp the center to allow multiple events to take place at once. However, transfer conversations were held up because the redevelopment could trigger an affordable housing requirement that the center opposed; leadership felt that would be incompatible with the use and expensive, given the need to shore up the earth where such apartments would be built.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Sept. 23-29, 2020 issue.