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A vexing debate over saving Harborview Hall

Harborview Hall at Harborview Hospital Credit: 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

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.

Chris Moore, director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, points out that even without local designation, the building could be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. That alone could make tax credits available.

To be clear, Harborview Hospital sees little value in the structure as a functioning part of its campus. Their primary mission is to provide medical services to a wide-ranging population, some of whom are indigent. The building was built to standards that do not comport with contemporary medical buildings. They have no interest in having structures containing uses that are not central to their mission.

Enter King County Executive Dow Constantine, who has a good record on historic preservation. He decided to seek interest from developers to see if the building could be made to work for medical offices, if not hospital services. Certainly, many hospitals have clustered around them offices for doctors, dentists, therapists, counselors, testing labs, and related businesses. So it is reasonable to expect that a similar building. marketed to private tenants, would be possible.

In fact, three companies have made proposals to do just that. While details are not subject to public release, it is evident that repurposing of Harborview House would be feasible.

But, there are even more rubs.

To retrofit the building to both seismic codes and contemporary standards of the servicing, elevators, fire protection, and equipment needs associated with medical practice, the building would need to be “buttressed.” This would consist of a thick addition to the backside of a beefy structure and added floor area for modern services. The 96,000 square feet in the building would grow to 130,000 square feet — a sizable increase. This would mean there would be no space left over for a plaza. No public space for the employees, residents, patients, or visitors in that location. No central organizing Green. Nada. Zip.

In their passionate plea to save the building, preservation advocates argure that public space could be found elsewhere on the campus. Perhaps.

The plaza as planned was centrally located and clearly intended to be the focal point for the hospital complex, with easy access from all sides. Part of its purpose was to offset the bulky nature of the new buildings which have now been completed. Elegant as they may be in details, their girth, both individually and collectively, is formidable. The finely-proportioned original hospital is now surrounded by gargantuan and chunky contemporary additions.

In an earlier article in Crosscut, Stephen Day made an eloquent plea for saving Harborview Hall. But saving the hall and converting it to another big medical-related building clearly comes with the price of sacrificing a central public space. Neither Harborview nor the University of Washington Medical Center, which supplies staff and support to Harborview, see any useful purpose for the old building. The citizen advisory committee that provides advice to the hospital sees the attempts to save the structure as interfering with a thoughtfully crafted and publicly vetted plan for the campus. Indeed, saving the structure and eliminating the plaza would require amending the master plan, a process that is possible but also lengthy and itself likely contentious.

Moreover, the addition of professional medical office space would likely trigger a new environmental review. While the plaza would have generated little traffic, a big office building certainly would. Not to speak of impacts on light, views, bulk and shadows. And parking — the campus can barely accommodate demands for parking now. Professional medical offices are near the top of the charts for both peak hour traffic impacts and parking demands.

Is there a solution that offers both a saved and preserved building and a public space, albeit smaller? To accomplish that would require changing policies that now limit its use to medical-related. But now that the hospital sees no use for it, and doesn’t want it, why can’t it be opened to other purposes. As the owner, King County could simply chose to surplus it for any reasonable use.

What about housing, a re-purposing that had previously been declared feasible? There certainly is a market for rental housing on First Hill. Just recently an apartment tower has been proposed for a site a few blocks away. One does often see dense urban housing located near hospitals. Hospital personnel are often the primary market for such housing.

What about a hotel? Again, hotels are frequently found near hospitals. Visiting families, researchers, and people doing business with the medical center all need conveniently located places to stay, sometimes for multiple days. Just a few blocks away, Virginia Mason has just such a hotel next to its complex. Over time, hotels have clustered near the Swedish campus.

Many older buildings from the early 20th century have been re-purposed and renovated into fine, elegant hotels. They are all peppered all over downtown Chicago. Cleveland has several, as does San Diego. Here in Seattle, the Marriott Courtyard at Second and Cherry is an example.

The beauty of converting the building to housing or a hotel is that the seismic upgrades can be done internally, as has been the case with most such renovations, as the code requirements are less stringent. No need for big exterior structural systems to protect sensitive medical equipment or testing apparatus. No need for floors with greater heights that present challenges of connections to the existing lower-height floors. To comply with current standards for medical operations, circulation, floor heights, and ventilation requirements make the cost per square foot substantially greater than for residential or hotel conversion. Moreover, demands for parking and impacts on traffic associated with housing and hotel use are a fraction of that caused by medical offices.

But the best thing about conversion to housing or hotel is that the building could retain essentially the same footprint as today. It has two low wings that might even be shaved back or removed, as they are pretty mundane extensions of the structure. It would be possible to convert Terrace Street, which dead-ends into Harborview Hall, to an urban park. Not as bucolic or expansive as the one shown in the master plan but certainly a central park. Size isn’t everything; the supremely delightful Waterfall Park in Pioneer Square occupies less than 7,000 square feet of land, about the size of a typical single-family lot in Seattle.

Terrace Street could be redesigned to maintain narrow lanes for use by emergency and service vehicles but provide much more space for planting. The roadbed could be paved with plaza-like materials. Portland’s Pearl District contains several spaces like this that were formerly streets. They are lined with benches, trees, and pedestrian-scaled lighting to ensure safety in the evening. Several have residential building s along their sides, just as Terrace Street has today.

Looking at the drawings in the master plan, I find it odd that Harborview Hall is depicted larger than it actually is. It is shown as having a fat, square center and two tall wings that extend eastward to the alley. This could be an honest graphic error caused by mistakenly extruding vertically the footprint of the building. In fact, the main part of the structure is less than 60 feet deep, leaving considerable space on its site.

It does have two stubby one-story extensions. One or both of these protrusions could be creatively folded into a unique, terraced outdoor public space. Terrace Street would become Terrace Plaza. At some point in the future, the dismal single-story structure to the south, now containing Harborview’s Facilities and Engineering section, will be razed and replaced with another building, as indicated in the master plan. A new, multistory building on that site could include a great indoor room, similar to the exquisite, glass-enclosed bamboo garden in the former IMB tower in New York City. Perhaps this indoor plaza could even connect to the historic and quaint Fire Station No. 3 just to the south. So the outdoor space, usable during good weather would be co-joined with indoor space usable in inclement weather.

So where does this all stand? At a meeting last Tuesday of the Citizen’s Advisory Board, passionate pleas were made on both sides of the debate. Some speakers were so choked with emotion that they could barely talk. One member of that panel was clearly annoyed at what seemed to be a usurping of the adopted plan by “special interests” (in this case, preservation advocates). People were there who dearly wanted the green space. Others were there who dearly wanted the building to stay.

Later the same week, the Board of Trustees for Harborview set aside the impending demolition action to allow time for developing a Memorandum of Understanding between King County and UW on how to proceed. The County Executive now must broker some kind of deal so that all stakeholders feel like they get something.

As it now stands, it’s a “zero sum game.” If one worthy cause wins, another worthy cause loses. Surely there is a solution that can offer more than that unfortunate outcome. Perhaps one that is not “perfect,” but a partial victory for all.

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