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The case of the doomed diner

Seattle's Landmarks Board greenlights the demolition of Ballard's Googie landmark. The decision leaves a lot of wreckage in its wake.
No longer standing: the Ballard Denny's. An empty lot is at the intersection. (Chuck Taylor)

No longer standing: the Ballard Denny's. An empty lot is at the intersection. (Chuck Taylor)

The former Denny's in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, aka Manning's Cafeteria. circa 1964. (Eugenia Woo)

The former Denny's in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, aka Manning's Cafeteria. circa 1964. (Eugenia Woo) None

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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Comments:

Posted Wed, May 21, 11:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Well said: This is an awesome piece of journalism; it fully captures the dynamics of the questions raised from this incident. Hopefully we can learn from this one . . .

Fremont

Posted Thu, May 22, 6:12 a.m. Inappropriate

lessons: Yes, maybe we can learn to landmark significant buildings and not a tired old and uninteresting building like a diner.

Just how is it that you get to stop someone from using a building the way they want? Because you like pretty? How nice. Of course you aren't affected by it. And you are lucky enough that something you own isn't in the cross hairs of the nostalgicists.

You want to preserve a diner? Then be honest and buy it. Don't steal it from the owner because you have a morally superior attitude of "I like old diners."

Posted Thu, May 22, 8:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Who's Fault? Benaroya; Who Should Fix? Preservationists: Mr. Berger does a great job of counting the bodies in this debacle, although I think he devolves into conspiracy theory when he suggests that the reader should not be surprised with the Denny's/Mannings outcome when Ms. Gordon and Mr. McCullough together negotiated the controls and incentives agreement. These talks are normal with any landmark designation. Could it be that Ms. Gordon and the Landmarks Board simply didn't have the power under established law and city rules to protect the building?

If we have to lay blame for this disaster, it should rest squarely on the shoulders of the property owner and developer, whose collosal failure to perform due diligence could end up damaging a process that most cities in this country envy. In the end, however, the right to earn a reasonable return on investment will always trump aesthetic sensibilities. It's just a fact of free market life. Having said that, the landmarking process could always be strengthened with improved incentives.

Who should drive these improvements? The preservationists. They need to educate people on the importance of post-WW II architecture, and that landmarking doesn't just apply to quaint Victorian brick buildings. And they need to explain to their supporters that landmarking is a way to manage ongoing change, not a way to stop ugly development.

Supporters also need to learn that landmarking has not and never has been forever. Look at South Lake Union right now: an historic ship, listed as a City Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places, is about to be broken up at the behest of Mayor Nickels and his developer friends. And here's the irony: Many of the same folks in Ballard extolling the virtues of the Denny's/Mannings, with that Scandahoovian sweep of a roof, would take one look at that boat--manned by many of their Norwegian granddads--and scoff that it's ugly and ought to be made into kindling.

Posted Thu, May 22, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

city still loses an architectural gem: Mossback Knute- An impressive lot of words- negated in one stroke by your calling this beknighted Mannings/Dennys "an architectural gem". Trust me, this structure is- and always was- far from it.
Jerry Gropp Architect AIA

Posted Thu, May 22, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

The doomed diner and historic preservation: Your coverage of the Mannings/Denny controversy (over about 3 articles) was excellent and the clearest account of what transpired. It also gives a pretty good sense of the in and outs of historic preservation in Seattle, whatever your outlook on the role of City staff, which, on the face of it, seems to be caught "between a rock and a hard place." I looked forward to your article on the latest development in the Mannings/ Denny controversy and was not disappointed. Thanks very much.

Unfortunately, this controversy and its outcome could have a deleterious effect on historic preservation in Seattle. Let us hope that it does not and good things come of it. We should not allow this or any other controversy weaken existing ordinances and laws concerning historic preservation. As we loose important parts of the city's history and infrastructure, the city is loosing its sense of place and soul. We can not allow this to happen!

Thanks again for all your work!
Kamille

Posted Thu, May 22, 2:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Ballard.: Look at some old photos of what building the Denny's replaced. The old building was beautiful but the current structure is not. Am not sad to see it go.

dawsea

Posted Thu, May 22, 2:39 p.m. Inappropriate

What about moving it?: I think this decision is character-destroying for Ballard. Even if the building isn't an architectural gem, it's a part of history. Plus, it's a cool building! I'm surprised so many people don't see it that way. Regardless, Seattle wants its 1000th generic condo building so it must die.

Or does it? It's possible to move houses, and this building isn't much bigger than one, so could it be moved to a parcel with less development value? Wouldn't that be a nice compromise? Or does it really have to be winner takes all?

Posted Fri, May 23, 10:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Next step: I think that there is still hope for a positive resolution on this issue. It is in the developer's interests not to incur a very negative view from the community - Benaroya is local and this issue has gotten significant local and national press.

It may be possible to encourage the developer to see this building as an amenity to the project by sponsoring a community wide charette. Perhaps, the building could be moved to another portion of the site or even an adjacent site. Nichol Brothers House Movers could do this (206) 347-0570. They have moved larger and more complicated buildings.

In any case, whatever is brainstormed - I'd like to see Knute write an article that explores options and potential next steps. These battles are going to become more frequent and creative ways to resolve them are desperately needed.

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