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A vexing debate over saving Harborview Hall

The handsome old building is slated to be demolished to create a needed open plaza for the hospital complex. But must the choice between saving a building for unneeded medical purposes and having a small park? Here's a better way.

The 10 story Harborview Hall atop First Hill

The 10 story Harborview Hall atop First Hill Stephen Day

Harborview Hall at Harborview Hospital

Harborview Hall at Harborview Hospital Stephen Day

Harborview Hospital has been developing a master plan over the past decade to guide the development of its campus on First Hill. Much of the plan has come to fruition with grand new buildings, parking garages, skybridges, and renovation of the original main structure built in the early 1930s, with its distinctive peaked top that is visible from Interstate 5. New buildings, though clearly contemporary and designed to current standards for the delivery of medical services, deferred architecturally to the gorgeous art deco architecture of the central structure.

The master plan — ultimately approved through the City’s Master Institutions Master Plan Process, inelegantly abbreviated as MIMP — included a central plaza. Maps in the master plan show a huge black dot indicating the importance of this plaza, and several renderings depict a grassy park-like setting with trees and water. This space is one of the last pieces of the master plan to fall into place.

Given the distinct lack of public green space on First Hill, this verdant plaza has been eagerly anticipated by residents in buildings surrounding the hospital many of whom work there. Nursing staff has seen the space as a much needed “healing garden” for recovering patients, a concept that has been incorporated into medical centers around the world. The currently available green space on the west side of the hospital has little to commend it but the views, and noise of the freeway just alongside hardly makes it a place of respite and
relief.

The proposed plaza was also seen as the symbolic center of the complex, a sort of town square for the campus that has been expanding upward rather than outward. Last year, until King County asked for a delay, Harborview was poised to give the go-ahead to a contractor to remove the building that currently sits on the site of the plaza.

Therein lies the rub.

That building, Harborview Hall, was built at the same time as the hospital and designed by the same Seattle architect, Harlan Thomas, who was also the designer of the Sorrento Hotel on First Hill, the Corner Market Building in Pike Place Market, and other notable buildings around the city. Harborview Hall was a sort of junior version of the main building, with an echo of the same elegant Art Deco proportioning and detailing on the exterior as well as the main floor lobby. So well-appointed was the building when it opened that an article published in The Seattle Times mocked it for spending so many public dollars to build such an opulent structure.

Harborview Hall was built as a residence for nurses who were being schooled at the University of Washington and receiving their training at Harborview . The building was part of an entire era of exemplary service in a public hospital, an institution that has successfully endeavored over decades to become one of the most respected Level 1 trauma centers in the country. Harborview is the only such trauma center serving Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Alaska. People involved in horrific accidents are often helicoptered to Harborview barley clinging to their lives but saved by the excellent staff and facilities.

When the master plan was being developed, there was some interest in seeing if Harborview Hall could be re-purposed. At least one development company evaluated its potential for market rate housing and determined that renovation was feasible, with some caveats. For example, the cost of renovating of older buildings is significantly offset if they are designated historic, making tax credits available.

Not surprisingly, the structure was nominated for designation as local landmark by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board in the early part of the last decade. Initially seeming to be in favor of such a designation, the board, when it came to make a final decision, was persuaded by arguments from Harborview that restoration and renovation would not be feasible. Specifically, the high cost of retrofitting it to meet current seismic standards was cited. The vote was 4-3 against landmark designation.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Mar 30, 6:03 p.m. Inappropriate

A town with critical low or moderate level rentals not able to think maybe this building has a purpose, a real community purpose? A town that loves that green washing grin, but can't fathom the "greenest building is already built axiom" employed by many great energy-smart planners and architects? No consortium of folks from UW, other colleges, Gates folk, planners, archtects, and others to offer a real plan to use the existing building with far-reaching applications that will make sense? No ideas about mixed use, incubating all sorts of creative energy and research and media enterprises along with housing AND hotel space? No great concepts being offered by UW and NBBJ architects? No complaints from the planning program professors around here?

Like at the Design Review Board meeting Tuesday for the Amazon triple-header towers at Denny Triangle, it seems that people in Seattle can't think outside boxes. Amazon offers little green space at those three city blocks at the Denny Triangle. No great inspirational architectual plan, no outside the box thinking to create green park roofs on some of the smaller buildings? No plans to maybe be good neighbors and split up the Amazon retail giant into nodes or scattered pods? It's the wrong concept, planning for use and not planning for people. Tearing down all that embedded energy, all those concepts gone, you know, beauty, design, quality? So, whereas Amazon just keeps going with that free shipping grin, the hospital must have some wherewithal to get real designers to make a plaza on the roof, or stacked on several stories.

WSU in Spokane wouldn't listen to faculty and business leaders asking for the Jenson Byrd building to be saved, retrofitted. Heck, WSU got a Texas guy to come in and take it down and build some sort of junk, even though a local developer offered to retrofit it -- save it -- and design cool retail and student housing. That's called hubris -- when leaders can't see past their false aspirations and overreach. I am sure with some decent charrettes, plain thinking outside the box, quick refittings of master plan x, y or z, and some dialogue, a solution can be found and changes made.

PaulKirk

Posted Fri, Mar 30, 7:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Go Paul! (And Mark)

afreeman

Posted Mon, Apr 2, 9:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Peter Steinbrueck and others have weighed in heavily on the advantages of adaptive re-use, and Mark pleads eloquently for the virtues of this building.It seems to me that with all the "Carbon Neutrality" rhetoric thrown around in this city, that a little outside-the-box thinking couldn't be found here.

With the massive upzone and give-away that Council, DPD and the Seattle Housing Authority are concocting for the neighboring Yesler Terrace (supposedly a "sustainable" effort), perhaps herein lays a possibility.

Since the YT upzone will virtually give SHA millions of more square feet of development, which they in turn are trading away to other developers (ahhh, the monies to be made in this deal!), perhaps the City broker an exchange of sorts to save Harborview Hall.

I'm just sayin'...

Posted Mon, Apr 2, 1:07 p.m. Inappropriate

In depicting the issue that is Harborview Hall, Mr. Hinshaw raises some interesting points. To date, proposals to rehabilitate the building have focused on developing medical-related office space, a stipulation of the Request for Proposals issued by King County. Yet recently, a vote taken by the Harborview Board of Trustees affirmed that they do not have jurisdiction over the building given that it is not presently being used by the Medical Center, nor will it be in the anticipated future. This does beg the question of whether King County can consider alternative uses, such as the suggested hotel.

Other elements of Mr. Hinshaw’s account require clarification. He is correct in describing the issue of open space as contentious: the citizen’s advisory committee appointed to comment and provide input on the medical campus master plan desperately wants to see open space, as they have been promised for the past decade. But it is important to define what this open space looks like. While early renderings may show “a grassy, park-like setting with trees and water,” more recent designs are far from a “verdant plaza”: the space would be a paved plaza with varied plantings to add greenery. It would not be a grass-filled respite from the hustle and bustle of the region’s only trauma center. The location alone would prevent this. The plaza would be sandwiched between two 10+ story buildings, would face transit oriented 9th Avenue, and would be across the street from the emergency entrance serving ambulances and other first responders. Surely there is another site on the campus that will provide the healing environment sought after and deserved by both the staff and patients Harborview serves.

Mr. Hinshaw also refers to Harborview Hall as possibly eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. In fact, the building is presently eligible for the National Register, a determination the state Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation made in August of last year. As such, federal tax credits are available for a certified rehabilitation project. Based on early cost estimates for the project, the tax credit program, at 20% of overall rehabilitation costs, has the potential to provide up to $10 million in private equity to the project before construction even begins. The availability of tax credits is a powerful tool and argument in support of rehabilitation.

It is correct that the City of Seattle’s Landmark Preservation Board denied landmark designation to Harborview Hall by the narrowest of margins, but it is inaccurate to portray the vote as being based on projected rehabilitation costs. The Landmarks Board charge is specific: to apply the landmarks criteria to the nominated building. Future uses, along with associated costs for those uses, are not considered in determining landmark status. Our hope is that the building will be re-nominated, at which point additional information related directly to the historic significance of Harborview Hall can be conveyed to the Landmarks Board.

Finally, Mr. Hinshaw’s article misses one of the most forceful arguments for saving the building – sustainability. He notes that rehabilitation of Harborview Hall “comes with the price of sacrificing central public space.” But how can one sacrifice what doesn’t yet exist? What about the price of demolishing a nearly 100,000 square foot building in the heart of an urban medical campus that by all accounts will require future growth in the next 10, 20, 30 years? Are we so short-sighted that we fail to see the environmental benefits of preserving a large office building now, rather than tearing it down to create a plaza that might be redeveloped in the future anyway?

We do agree that there is a pathway to achieving both the promised open space and a redeveloped Harborview Hall. Nonetheless, this issue is complicated. In the end, however, Harborview Hall is a historically significant building for which rehabilitation is economically feasible and environmentally responsible. What more do we need?

Posted Mon, Apr 2, 1:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Go Paul, Mark, areeman, south_downtown and chris.
Maybe this isn't such a great idea after all.

Posted Thu, Apr 5, 7:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Hi. I own a unit in the condo that sits directly behind Harborview Hall. It doesn't look like it from the outside, but my condo was built in 1907. Before I moved to condo livin, I lived in the apt. bldg next door. Also an early 1900s bldg. I have great appreciation for historical bldgs. I also work at Harborview, and have spent quite a bit of time in Harboview Hall. But I will admit -I have been holding out for that park like a talisman. Thru all the obnoxious construction, at least I knew we might get a little space behind our building. And, for all it's grooviness from the front, Harborview Hall is quite ugly from the back. So, I was more than miffed when I heard about this last minute maneuver, by folks, I doubt have spent much time on this block, who for all I know, perceive the neighborhood I love and which brings great meaning to my life, as one giant eyesore, or ever even stepped into HH to appreciate it's vintage glory (I don't know if this is truly the case, but am trying to be honest -this is how ethos stuff starts getting triggered and folks get too upset to talk).

With all that said -I will say, that I am changing my opinion, based on the dialogue at the meeting and in this article. Yes, it does seem ridiculous to tear down a building that could be useful -you are right -if a person is to be "green" -then you gotta be "green" and not pay it lip service. So -yes, the tune is changing in my head.

But, I'm not going to tolerate that building growing exponentially. Tell me, if it grows by 40-50%, doesn't that mitigate the environmental advantages of saving the building? If it takes more concrete and steel to save it -as is contained in the building to begin with -then isn't it more environmental to tear it down? And whoever thought about putting some sort of utility space back there?...again, sorry. there is a neighborhood of people living back here.

So as final words -yes, i'm changing my mind. If after truly critical analysis -it is more environmentally sound to save that building...and for aesthetic reasons -it is a pretty cool building -I think the building should be saved. But it should not get bigger. And developers need to consider the back of the building as much as the front. Mark does lay out a pretty nice idea.

asch

Posted Mon, Apr 9, 4:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Mark Hinshaw: Thank-you for the informative and balanced account of the Harborview Hall open-space dilemma, as well as for dreaming on the page a little about a compromise solution. Giving an interesting alternative version for open space for the area backed up by environmental reasons for not tearing down HH by Kirk (above) makes what to do a much more complicated decision.

JohnS

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