The campaigns for and against the landmarking of a controversial Ballard diner are ramping up as a Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board meeting nears to determine the structure's fate. The owner, Benaroya Properties, submitted the landmark nomination late last year in the hope it would be turned down. They plan to sell the site to Rhapsody Partners, a Kirkland/Las Vegas company that plans to build condos, retail, and possibly a drive-thru Rite Aid. However, instead of rejecting the nomination, the Landmarks Board accepted it in January and will take a final vote on the matter on Feb. 20.
The debate and PR campaign on both sides hinges on a number of issues, some relevant to the landmarks laws, some a matter of public image. For example, the two sides cannot even agree on what to call the diner. The Benaroya people tend to refer to it as the "Ballard Denny's" because the Denny's chain was the last tenant of the building. The chain vacated the site last fall after operating there for some 20 years. The idea of "landmarking a Denny's" generally causes people to scoff, making the preservation process seem like overreach. Preservation proponents like to refer to the diner as the "Ballard Manning's" after the Pike Place Market-founded restaurant and coffee company chain that built it in 1964. One name tends to play down historic value, the other emphasizes local roots. The Seattle Landmarks Board refers to it diplomatically (and accurately) as the "Manning's/Denny's."
Another battle is over the issue of the diner's condition. Up until this fall, the Manning's/Denny's was a functioning restaurant that had been a neighborhood fixture for years. But anticipating demolition and on a month-to-month lease, Denny's decided to shut down. The windows were boarded up, and the exterior of the building was soon tagged with graffiti and peppered with "Ron Paul" signs. In short, it looks like instant blight.
That serves the owners' interests because they want to be able to swing the wrecking ball as soon as possible. After all, they paid $12.5 million for the surplus Seattle Monorail property without the slightest inkling that the diner might be of historic and architectural significance. On Thursday, Jan. 31, Benaroya took media on a tour to show off every flaw in the structure. It was well attended (many print reporters and at least three TV stations), and Benaroya was there in force with a bevy of representatives, including PR man Louie Richmond, representatives of Rhapsody and their architect, and Larry Johnson, a preservation consultant who assembled the landmark nomination for Benaroya, making the case against saving it.
The gist of their pitch: The landmarks process is about "preservation, not restoration." They conceded that the diner may once have been a great example of Googie architecture, a "box filled with light," as Johnson described it, with a cathedral-like ceiling and lots of glass. But no longer. The interior was remodeled by Denny's. There are booths, a counter that didn't exist before, an expanded kitchen area, the classic modern light fixtures were removed, much of the glass paneled over. Those alterations have destroyed the building's architectural integrity, they say. In addition, they point to cases of dry rot, water damage, weathering, repair, and reinforcement of pillars to make the case the "Denny's" is in poor condition and beyond "preservation."
In addition, they made their economic case. Mark Nemirow of Benaroya says he can see no financial model that will allow them to preserve let alone renovate it. Further, he points out that the mixed-use development planned for the site is in keeping with the city's and neighborhood's planning goals, although the final design and shape of the Rhapsody development has not been approved and has itself been controversial, apart from the diner debate. The architect for Rhapsody, Arthur Chang, says that if the project goes ahead, the designers will seek additional community input. Nemirow says Benaroya has no "plan B" if the building is landmarked but does admit they will have to develop one, if necessary. Despite previous threats, it is unlikely they would allow the corner to remain "blighted," as they suggested last month.
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