by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
In 2007, the Seattle LGBT Community Center closed, leaving America's third-largest LGBT population without a space to call their own. There has been talk - mostly among LGBT non-profit executive directors, community organizers, and the City of Seattle LGBT Commission - to once again lay the groundwork for the development of an LGBT community center on Capitol Hill.
But where would the center be housed? If a center did emerge, what would it look like? And most importantly, who would fund such a project? After all, the last community center closed its doors amidst funding problems. Money talks, and in this economy, the talking is so scarce it could be heard as a whisper.
Still, community leaders like Louise Chernin, the Greater Seattle Business Association's executive director, believe that an LGBT community center housed on Capitol Hill is not only possible, but could flourish under the right leadership and community support. Chernin, along with City of Seattle planners, believes that the ideal site is the Sound Transit Broadway light-rail station.
'Conversation about what would be located at the light-rail station has been going on for over two years,' Chernin told Seattle Gay News. 'The Greater Seattle Business Association has had the discussion at our board level and came to the conclusion that an LGBT community center would be something we'd support. In fact, some of our board members have expressed interest in working on it.'
Although no formal group - from within the GSBA or any other LGBT organization on the Hill - has been formed to officially tackle the project, Chernin says the informal group of LGBT non-profit executive directors and community activists do have a vision of what a modern community or civic center would look like. She told SGN that services not currently provided in the community could find a home inside the space.
'Services such as a senior citizen drop-in center or LGBT senior housing,' said Chernin. 'Perhaps childcare for LGBT families. These are services that not one of our organizations currently provide.'
The obvious uses would be a community meeting space, a safe place for LGBT youth to meet, among other basic services that may be provided at other locations on the Hill - but apart from each other. Chernin's vision is that the new LGBT community center would bring the community together, in one place, at the heart of the cultural center of LGBT life in Seattle.
'We are one of the only minority groups in all of Seattle that does not have our own center,' she said. 'Almost every service provided to the LGBT community is done through the community with very little help from the city or state. We identify with Capitol Hill. It is the right spot for such a place.'
Chernin, however, says she is well aware that the center would cost a pretty penny, but she thinks it is doable. 'In order for the LGBT community center to be successful, there would have to be anchor tenants that would be able to actually afford to pay the rent. Smaller groups that do not have enough money to pay for rent would be included because the larger organizations would make it a part of their mission to include them by providing resources or meeting space for them.'
As the director of one of the nation's largest LGBT business chambers, Chernin said she knows that there is interest to support a campaign to purchase the space, but at this time no anchor tenants have been identified.
The development of the property surrounding Broadway's light-rail station is enormous and ever-changing. City of Seattle leadership is hoping to work with Sound Transit to have the agency commit to selling its surplus properties at Broadway with 'strings attached,' meaning they get a say as to what goes into the buildings. These sorts of negotiations are what have made an LGBT-focused community center possible.
'Through our work with the community on the future of these sites, it became clear that there is a strong interest in a community space focused on the history and culture of Capitol Hill being included in future development,' Bryan Stevens, customer-service manager and Seattle's industrial permit liaison at the Department of Planning and Development, told SGN. 'Capitol Hill has a prominent role as a center for the LGBTQ and arts community. The Urban Design Framework (UDF) highlights this as an important desire for future development and programming needs.'
It is important to note the UDF is not a regulatory document - rather, it establishes a shared programming and design vision for the Sound Transit-owned properties on Capitol Hill.
According to Jeff Kinney, a GSBA member who volunteers with the organization's scholarship fund and has taken a lead role in canvassing the community to drum up support for the project, 'We are at the point now where we are trying to broaden the conversation within the community about a community center. We are still very much in the planning stages.'
'The idea doesn't belong to me or the GSBA,' he continued, 'it belongs to the community. What has been expressed, through various meetings and the outcome of the City of Seattle's LGBT commission survey, is that people would like to see an LGBT community center on the Hill. How that manifests in a physical space is yet to be determined.'
Kinney said that anyone interested in the LGBT community center - currently called a 'civic center' by city planners - is welcome to contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vanessa Murdock, senior urban planner at the Department of Planning and Development, told SGN, 'Inclusion of a community center of any kind in the redevelopment that will occur on the Sound Transit-owned properties on Capitol Hill is not a done deal.'
The property disposition process for the Sound Transit-owned properties is a Request For Qualifications (RFQ)/Request for Proposals (RFP) process. Interested development teams will need to respond to the RFQ and meet certain requirements in order to be invited to submit a proposal, she said.
Developers and development teams responding to Sound Transit's RFQ/RFP process for the disposition of property may choose to include a community center in their program. For more information about the RFQ/RFP process, contact Bruce Gray at Sound Transit at email@example.com.
'A draft Urban Design Framework was released in May for public comment,' said Murdock. 'I received over 50 comments on the draft. A number of comments suggested that the Framework did not adequately reflect the conversations taking place within the Capitol Hill community regarding the desire for a community cultural space within the redevelopment, open to all, that represents the diversity of the Capitol Hill neighborhood including the LGBTQ community. There was mention of a LGBTQ community center within the redevelopment in the May draft Framework, in the 'Other Great Ideas' section.'
A copy of the full UDF for the Capitol Hill light-rail station sites can be found at http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cms/groups/pan/@pan/@plan/@capitolhilllightrail/documents/web_informational/dpdp021537.pdf.
One of the guiding principles in the Framework is that the cultural center would represent the history and evolving culture of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, including its prominent role as a center for LGBTQ culture and the arts. Additionally, in the Desired Uses section, there is the following reference: 'A community/cultural gathering space within the redevelopment is strongly supported by the community, ideally located facing the Plaza. This space could serve as a community meeting and gathering space, contain office spaces for non-profits, and possible performance and/or arts spaces. There is strong community interest around a facility open to all with a significant LGBTQ culture and services component. Additional work continues to be undertaken in the community to further refine the vision of the center and its identity as well as to continue to explore funding mechanisms and partnerships.'
Chernin believes that there are those in the community who are up for the challenge and that realizing a new LGBT community or civic center on Capitol Hill could move from the planning stages to the development stages with the right direction and leadership. At any rate, she says, the community will, once again, have to take care of itself.
'We have to be our own champions,' concluded Chernin. 'This is an important conversation to have. We have an opportunity to come together as a community and work with the city - or whomever we have to - to make this happen.'
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