The empty, fenced-in KeyBank building at the corner of 24th Avenue and East Union Street in Seattle’s Central Area is at the center of a gathering storm.

The nondescript brick structure opened in 1968 as the home of the first and only bank established to serve African Americans during a period of pervasive redlining, and its closing last spring marked the end of an era, of sorts.

Now the city of Seattle’s Landmark Preservations Board is considering a nomination to designate the building a historic landmark.

A hearing is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Seattle Municipal Tower, 700 Fifth Ave.

Omari Tahir-Garrett, a Central Area resident and community agitator, nominated the structure for landmark status, citing among other things what he called its distinction as the site of the Northwest region’s only African-American bank, called Liberty Bank.

His real goal, he acknowledges, is to suspend gentrification in the Central Area and slow developers, who historically have not flocked to the area in any significant numbers.

Liberty was founded by a group of individuals of different races, including Garrett’s father, an African-American engineer.

In 1988, regulators closed Liberty and reopened it with new capital as Emerald City Bank to continue to serve the community. That bank failed in 1993 and was acquired by KeyBank.

Tahir-Garrett, 67, is well known for the 2001 incident in which he whacked then-Seattle Mayor Paul Schell in the face with a bullhorn during a community event. He was later convicted of felony assault and served 21 months in prison.

He is an aggressive opponent of gentrification in the neighborhood, and many people involved in the community admit he frightens them, including some worried he’ll label them racists for disagreeing with him. His
appearances at community meetings are often disruptive.

“The goal is to build a strong, peaceful, viable Africatown,” he said in a telephone conversation, using the name he applies to Seattle’s Central Area.

“We need to stop gentrification,” he said. “If we don’t put a stake in the ground, we’ll have nothing left.”

Capitol Hill Housing, which has developed affordable housing throughout the city, is in contract with KeyBank to purchase the bank property and has plans for a mixed-use apartment building at the site.

A landmark designation for the bank building, depending on restrictions, could delay work for years and drive up costs significantly.

Officials from Capitol Hill Housing did not return calls seeking comment. In a letter Capitol Housing submitted to the board, its architect, Larry Johnson, suggested board members might consider for the historic designation not the bank building, but the site on which it sits. It’s unlikely Capitol Hill would proceed if the building were granted landmark status.

Merle Richlen, daughter of one of Liberty’s founders, Jack Richlen, opposed the landmark designation in a letter to the board.

Her father is a long-retired business owner who still owns property at the corner of 23rd Avenue and Union Street. Jack Richlen, who is white, purchased the bank property from the gas station’s white owners who at the time refused to sell to black people.

Capitol Hill Housing’s mission, Merle Richlen wrote, “is in line with the vision of the bank’s founders.

“For the building to remain fenced in and unoccupied for an undetermined amount of time does not serve the community,” she wrote.

One letter of support for landmark status came from neighborhood resident, Brendan Patrick, who called the building a cornerstone of African-American history that deserves to be preserved.

The city’s standards for historic landmark designation requires a building be at least 25 years old and meet at least one of six criteria.

Board members will decide after Wednesday’s meeting whether to nominate the structure. On March 19, they would then vote on whether to designate it as a historic landmark.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.