Seattle Central District Site: Preservation, Reuse, and/or Densification?

I was drawn to a recent article in the Seattle Times about a building in the Central District at the intersection of 24th Ave and E Union St. I pass the site every day on my bus/bicycle commute to the University of Washington and most weekends on training rides. This area has endured significant business turnover and violence over the last several decades.

The former Key Bank/Liberty Bank Site at 2320 E Union St. Photo Courtesy of Central District News

The former Key Bank/Liberty Bank site at 2320 E Union St.
Photo Courtesy of Central District News

The article chronicled the development proposal by Capitol Hill Housing, a public corporation that develops and operates affordable housing and apartments in Seattle. It also noted how the former 1960s era bank building has historical and cultural significance as the “first banking institution for African Americans in the Pacific Northwest” (Liberty Bank) and that an application had been submitted to have it registered as a historic landmark.

There is an eternal debate regarding the preservation of both buildings and landscapes that have cultural, historical or architectural significance.  Every situation is unique and requires careful examination of the context of the site.  I was curious to learn more about how Seattle defines historic preservation, the selection criteria and what the goals the program.

Seattle Historic Preservation Definition & Criteria
“In Seattle, a building, object, or structure may be eligible to be listed as a historic landmark if it is more than 25 years old and the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board determines it fits one or more of these categories:

  • It is the location of . . . a historic event with a significant effect upon the community, city, state, or nation
  • It is associated in a significant way with the life of a person important in the history of the city, state, or nation
  • It is associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community, city, state or nation
  • It embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style, period, or a method of construction
  • It is an outstanding work of a designer or builder
  • Because of its prominence of spatial location, contrasts of siting, age, or scale, it is an easily identifiable visual feature of its neighborhood or the city and contributes to the distinctive quality or identity of such neighborhood or city.”

Seattle Historic Preservation Goals
“Its primary objectives are to encourage the rehabilitation and reuse of historic properties for public and private use; to promote the recognition, protection and enhancement of landmark buildings, objects and sites of historic, architectural and cultural significance in Seattle; and to identify, protect, preserve and perpetuate the cultural, economic, historical and architectural qualities of historic landmarks and districts throughout the City.”

The Seattle Preservation criteria are broad and will be applied to the 100 page application made by the son of the original Liberty Bank’s co-founder.  While the historical and cultural significance of the institution and activities are difficult to question, the structure and land use are worthy of evaluation for update or reuse.  This is especially true given that more than 75% of the parcel is dedicated to surface parking.

As Seattle grows in population, it has a need for increased density along commercial and transit corridors such where this site is located.  The preservation of this structure needs to be weighed against the proposed affordable housing development.  Perhaps the story of the historical & cultural significance of a local bank can showcased at the same time as the site lowers local rents by providing new housing units.

Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, Historic Preservation Frequently Asked Questions. (accessed February 10, 2014)

Seattle Times. (accessed February 9, 2014)

Central District News, (accessed February 9, 2014)


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