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Originally published January 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 12, 2008 at 4:30 PM

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School is transformed into museum, housing

Running her hand over the exposed brick of the old school walls, and checking out the view of downtown skyscrapers, Jennifer Hopkins couldn't...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Urban League Village: Thirty-six apartments for moderate-income households. Rents from $649 to $986 a month. Located above the Northwest African American Museum in the former Colman School, 2300 S. Massachusetts St. Info: 206-622-2893, www.hrg.org

Opening in March: The Northwest African American Museum. Info: www.naamnw.org

Running her hand over the exposed brick of the old school walls, and checking out the view of downtown skyscrapers, Jennifer Hopkins couldn't help but let out a little cry of delight.

"I'm so excited," said Hopkins, 27. "The humongous windows, the high ceiling, the fact that it's brand-new. And it has a dishwasher, a luxury I haven't had for five years!" "Brand-new" might not be the most accurate description of the 1909-vintage Colman School on South Massachusetts Street in Seattle's Central Area.

But it is on the verge of beginning a new life: Its main floor opens in March as the Northwest African American Museum, capping decades of proposals, planning, fundraising and sometimes bitter wrangling.

And much sooner, probably within the next two weeks, the top two floors will take on a new title for Hopkins and other successful applicants: Home.

"Million-dollar views for working families." That's how James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, describes the 36 apartments dedicated Thursday as "Urban League Village."

The apartments are open only to tenants of moderate means — households earning no more 60 percent of the area's median income. The income limit would be $46,740 for a family of four, for example. The rents start at $649 a month for a studio, compared with the market average rate of $866.

Constructing the apartments took $10.4 million of the project's overall $22.6 million cost, a figure that includes $8.1 million for museum construction and $800,000 for purchase of the school. The remainder includes an endowment and operating funds for the museum.

"For the Urban League, this is really part of its larger community-building agenda," Kelly said. "A roof over working families' heads, the opportunity to educate people about the contribution of African Americans and to restore a community icon, which is Colman School."

The apartments, 22 of which are still available, are managed by the nonprofit Housing Resources Group (HRG).

Prospective tenants cannot be selected on the basis of race, but the fact that the apartments share a building with the Northwest African American Museum has influenced how word about the project has been spread.

Sarah Rick Lewontin, HRG executive director, said in addition to advertising through mainstream channels, HRG circulated word through the Urban League, leaders of the museum, churches and community centers and publications with high readership among people of color.

About half the tenants approved so far are people of color, Lewontin said.

The apartments' 14-foot-high ceilings, brick walls and refurbished wooden window frames preserve the character of the old school building. Donald King Architects of Seattle, a black-owned firm, designed both the apartments and museum; the RAFN Company of Bellevue is the general contractor.

Financial institutions receiving low-income-housing tax credits provided the bulk of money for the apartments through Homestead Capital of Portland. Money for the museum has come from corporations, foundations, individuals and local government.

The museum was created to tell the story of African Americans in the Northwest but is intended to be a living part of the community. It will have artist work spaces, educational programs, rotating exhibits and space for community events, said Barbara Earl Thomas, curator of programs.

As far back as the early 1980s, the idea of using Colman School as an African-American museum was discussed. The school was closed by the school district in 1985 because of expansion of neighboring Interstate 90.

In November 1985, African-American activists broke into the school and demanded it be made available as a black-history museum. A core group of four men continued to occupy the school for eight years.

Subsequent years saw disagreements over how to proceed, with two separate groups each claiming to represent the museum.

In 2003, the school district sold the school to the Urban League, rebuffing a group backed by the original occupiers, who objected to having part of the school become housing.

Kelly said it wasn't financially feasible to operate the entire three-story building as a museum. Although the original group of activists is not directly involved in the museum now, Kelly said their contribution to securing the site will be acknowledged in the museum.

An early proposal that called for the top two floors to be sold as condominiums didn't appear to pencil out, Kelly said. And reduced-rate housing was judged to be more in keeping with the Urban League's mission.

Hopkins said she was first in line when applications became available in November. She'll pay $831 for a one-bedroom unit with much more space than her current $850 studio unit in Belltown.

Better still, she'll be just seven blocks from her work as a volunteer coordinator for an agency of Catholic Community Services. What could be a drawback for some potential tenants, the proximity of I-90, doesn't worry her. "I've lived in Belltown for three years," she said. "I can sleep through anything."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

The information in this article, originally published January 11, 2008, was corrected January 12, 2008. The RAFN Company of Bellevue is the general contractor for the Urban League Village and the Northwest African American Museum at the old Colman School in Seattle's Central Area. A previous version of the story incorrectly identified the contractor as the RAIN Company.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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