If you're going to play King Solomon, you have to remember one thing: Don't actually cut the baby in half.
Unfortunately, that's the grisly result of Seattle Landmarks Board deliberations over the Ballard neighborhood Manning's/Denny's diner.
On Feb. 20, they voted to make it a city landmark.
On May 21, they OK'd bulldozing it.
The long and short of it: A landmark structure will be destroyed by following the rules of the city's process. The result: the baby is dead and hands are bloodied.
But some folks are happy, notably developer Benaroya and Kirkland developer Rhapsody Partners, who will now move ahead with a mixed-use condo project for the site on the northwest corner of Northwest Market Street and 15th Avenue Northwest. They had fully expected the building to be dispatched in the early rounds of the landmark process but were surprised when the city found that it was an architecturally significant structure. That was bad news for the owners, who had purchased the diner and adjacent property for $12.5 million, blissfully unaware that the building was a candidate for landmark status.
Unhappy are the architects, activists, and Ballard residents who formed Save Mannings to fight to preserve the building. Unlike Benaroya, they had no lawyers, no flacks, no paid consultants to help make their case. They won a landmark designation based on the building's merits. But the way they lost leaves a bitter taste. Eugenia Woo, one of the diner's most passionate advocates, accused Benaroya of running a "Willie Horton-style campaign" to do the building in, complete with misleading experts and a plan to close the Denny's and let the diner devolve into instant blight so they could bolster their arguments that it was a dump not worth saving. Graffiti taggers and vandals helpfully gave an assist.
Manning's fans could also be excused for the way the decision to kill the diner went down. After the February landmark designation, the Landmarks Board staff was charged with negotiating an "incentives and controls agreement" with the owner. These agreements determine how the landmark will be managed in the future. The landmarks board then approves or modifies the agreement and sends it along to the city council for a final OK. But consider these dynamics:
- The owner of the property was on-record as wanting to tear the building down. Period.
- Karen Gordon, the city's preservation officer, is assigned to negotiate with the owner. Only she was on record as opposing the board's landmark designation. So of the two parties charged with coming up with a workable plan, one wants the diner to die and the other is officially against its protection.
- The man Gordon is negotiating with — land use lawyer Jack McCullough — is suing the Landmarks Board and essentially Gordon herself because she runs the thing, threatening not only to challenge the Manning's/Denny's designation in court but also attacking the entire landmarks process. The suit will go away, however, if the landmark designation is overturned.
Is there any reader surprised to read that Gordon and McCullough came to the conclusion that there was no way to make a buck on the property as long as the Manning's was still standing?
Their ace in the hole was Benaroya's miscalculation when they bought the property in the first place. Unaware that the diner might be historic, they paid a price that made sense given the full, high-density development plans that would be allowed. They bought it for $12.5 million and were going to sell it for a handsome profit to a developer. When the city landmarked the diner, the controls and incentive agreement focused on whether they could make money by finding a use for the building that would keep it viable, say by turning it from a Denny's into a high-end restaurant.
That proved not to be feasible under multiple scenarios, the fly in the ointment being that if you sink $12.5 million into a Ballard restaurant on that busy street corner you're not going to get your $12.5 million back, let alone a profit. Even Tom Douglas couldn't pull that off. In looking at a financial plan for saving the diner, the humble Googie treasure was burdened with having to earn the impossible.
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