The Norton Building, a modern structure that was recently granted historic status. (City of Seattle, Department of Neighborhoods)
at the March 21 showdown over historic preservation in Seattle wondered if consultant and landmark critic Art Skolnik felt a bit like George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn. Skolnik later acknowledged that he was outnumbered, bruised and had taken some arrows, but he remained firm in his belief that the city's landmark designation process is deeply flawed and could be headed over a cliff. "You could lose everything," he worried.
But on this day, Skolnik was a voice in the wilderness. He had tried to rally disgruntled property owners
— some of whom are his clients — to a meeting of the city council's Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods committee to vent their frustrations. Few showed. Skolnik said later it was because the property owners were afraid of public vilification and being branded as anti-preservation.
Skolnik's effort to boost turn-out was successful, however, in generating a crowd of pro
-preservation folks who defended the city's process and current preservation officer Karen Gordon. They included representatives from the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, Historic Seattle, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, and others. In the audience was former Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, who had "come out of retirement" for the first time since leaving the council earlier this year. He didn't lobby or speak; he simply sat in the audience, and his presence alone helped to send a near universal message to the committee: Don't try to fix what ain't broke.
Skolnik argues for a major revamp of historic preservation in Seattle. He is asking the city to appoint a citizen's task force to study the landmark processes and wants a moratorium on all landmark nominations and designations until they report. He believes the process needs to be more open, voluntary, incentive-driven, and re-organized to better represent the interests of property owners and developers. If not, he fears a backlash that could undo decades of preservation work.
Perhaps most infuriating
to preservationists, he has said the current process results in property takings, implying Seattle's rules aren't simply misapplied, but illegal. His critique goes to the foundations of a system that has been at work in Seattle for decades. As it is, he says the process is "victimizing property owners." The debate is whether landmarking should be voluntary, or regulatory, like zoning.
Defenders of the current system are equally adamant. Larry Kreisman of Historic Seattle argued that the ordinance was established with "great wisdom" and said that if Seattle only had voluntary landmarking, "the city would have lost some of its most important vestiges of city life," meaning places like the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square. And Historic Seattle's Pete Mills said the landmark law was "One of the few gems that allows us to preserve what's important in the city."
David Miller of the Maple Leaf Community Council agreed that the process has some flaws and complained about the Landmarks Board's handling of the nomination of Waldo Hospital, which was ultimately turned down for landmark status. But he suggested Skolnik's approach would make things worse. "Let nobody tell you this process is biased against developers and property owners," he said.
Linda Larson, a former Landmarks Board appointee from the Charles Royer years and a longtime library trustee, emphasized that historic preservation is "a core value of the people of the city." Everyone seemed to agree on that.
And if Skolnik sounded a warning that there could be a property rights rebellion over historic preservation, state preservation officer Allyson Brooks came up from Olympia with a warning of her own. She said that if Seattle watered down its landmark process too much, it could lose the state certification that is required if Seattle wants preservation money from the feds. That bureaucratic broadside woke people up. Brooks flexed just enough muscle to remind everyone that there could be serious financial consequences for doing too much tinkering.
In the end, Skolnik was disappointed when the committee indicated that a full-scale review of Seattle's system didn't seem warranted. Sally Clark said she was not interested in an "open-the-barn-door task force process." However, Clark did suggest a limited task force to look at improving incentives for property owners to encourage preservation. In other words, let's keep the stick but look to offer more carrots.
People on both sides of the debate agree that more workable incentives is a good idea. Tim Burgess concluded that Seattle didn't need a landmark moratorium and told Karen Gordon that she was "doing a great job."
For her part, Gordon didn't seem to be too enthusiastic about having a task force of any kind looking over her shoulder or requiring time and resources from her office that are already stretched thin, but she didn't outright oppose it. Gordon says the landmarks process can always use some "tweaks." She also thinks her office needs to spread the word about existing incentives. One of those is a new downtown TDR (Transfer of Development Rights) Bank that would allow owners of historic properties to sell their development rights to other downtown builders.
Stepping back a bit, both Skolnik and preservationists make thoughtful points. Skolnik worries that the preservation process is out of touch with regular folks. He says that after too many years, the city's preservation office is another entrenched bureaucracy that is running rough-shod over people. He says for a property owner who opposes the landmarking of their building, it may cost as much as $100,000 to fully fight through the appeals process. Most don't have the money to fight a designation and give in. Very few, like the Benaroya Company, have the money to take a further step and sue, which is why their lawsuit over the landmark designation of the Ballard Manning's/Denny's diner is unusual. Skolnik says "I'm a believer that preservation should be a positive process for everyone."
Landmark proponents say the reason there have been so few lawsuits over the years is that the process does work, in part because it is selective. Architect Susan Boyle, one of the busiest preservation consultants in town, told the committee that she has prepared at least 100 landmark nominations and that 60% of them were successful, 40% failed. That, she said, showed the board is very discerning. And Karen Gordon pointed out that in the city's controversial survey of downtown buildings, they looked at 387 that were old enough to be eligible as landmarks (built before 1966), and determined that 45% were clearly not of landmark quality. In other words, those owners are now off the hook. The city only proactively nominated 37 structures and identified scores of others that are maybes.
Others have also said that it's not surprising there are tensions over historic preservation since Seattle is going through an unprecedented growth boom. The increase in property values has raised the stakes; the rate of change has alarmed preservationists; and the city's own rules and policies are sending mixed messages. On the one hand, the city is upzoning downtown to encourage development, but at the same time it is working against the clock to save downtown structures that might be jeopardized by those policies. There are mixed signals over environmental rules, too. The city is pushing for more density and greener buildings, though at the same time it is toying with the idea of relaxing rules on environmental review on some large projects. On the other hand, as one preservationist at the meeting quoted, "'The greenest building is one that's already built.'" Recycling buildings, says Peter Steinbrueck, is the ultimate in sustainability.
The area of conflicting policies poses a bigger problem for the city council and the Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods committee as it looks ahead to possible changes in the city's development rules and comprehensive plan in the year ahead. How do you manage all the moving parts of a complex city yet keep the contradictions to a minimum?
What's also needed is a more comprehensive and innovative approach to dealing with "saving the city's soul," especially as density moves beyond downtown and into Seattle's beloved neighborhoods and disrupts community cultural icons (Sunset Bowl is just one example). Skolnik is right that landmarking can't do it all, and shouldn't. Steinbrueck is correct that the city we love won't survive if the rules don't have teeth.