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Central Area Senior Center fights city effort to add affordable housing

Courtesy of Central Area Senior Center

A senior center in Seattle’s historically Black Central District, also known as the Central Area, is fighting a proposal that would require affordable housing to be built on land surrounding the center.

Dian Ferguson, executive director of the Central Area Senior Center, said she isn't opposed to affordable housing, but the plan would hinder the senior center's ability to provide services.

For the past 50 years The Central, as it’s known, has provided not just lunches and exercise programs for seniors, but a meeting place where the African American community came together.

“It’s where people celebrated life and where people gathered to strategize on who to support in political parties,” Ferguson said.

And, she said, plans are to add a coffee shop and other amenities so that the senior center can become self-supporting. With meeting rooms and a terrace overlooking Mount Rainier and Lake Washington, The Central has long been a popular rental venue for weddings, Ferguson said.

But, she said, the planned expansion can’t happen until the city, which owns the senior center site, transfers ownership to the community. In 2013, the City of Seattle agreed to transfer The Central and several other senior centers to local communities as long as services were maintained. But, negotiations have dragged on.

Ferguson said whenever a new mayor comes in, new criteria gets added. In the latest negotiations, the city proposes that the senior center grant the city a  “negative easement” for land surrounding the center so that affordable housing can be built on it. In recent years, the city has made affordable housing a top priority, but Ferguson said studies have shown it's too expensive to build new housing on the land because of a steep slope. The senior center plans to expand its space by adding an extra floor.

Ferguson said she wants to be able to provide more services to African American seniors in an area with historic significance to them, and the city's latest proposal would hinder those plans.

In 1975, local activists urged the city to buy the building for a senior center that would serve older people in what was then a neighborhood that was 70 percent African American. With gentrification, that number has declined. Currently, less than 15 percent of the population in the Central Area is Black.

Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.