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    If it ain't broke, don't tear it down and build condos

    The planned redevelopment of Capitol Hill's signature Bauhaus block highlights the need for more control over the life and death of Seattle's street life.

    Bauhaus coffee, a landmark Capitol Hill coffee shop, will have to relocate for the proposed development.

    Bauhaus coffee, a landmark Capitol Hill coffee shop, will have to relocate for the proposed development. Roger Valdez

    Having just returned from working away from Seattle, it feels good to be back. One of the pleasures of extended stays abroad is experiencing our home city with fresh eyes. But reentry this time was marred by news that the Bauhaus Block on Capitol Hill is to be developed, with only the building's façade to be left.

    This bit of news raises a larger question about the city's role in development. Does the city of Seattle have a responsibility to protect small businesses, popular culture, and the vitality of its street life? Or should it only be responsible for upholding the ‘rights’ of developers?

    For decades here in Seattle, through mayor after mayor, the litany has been the same — if ‘we’ don’t give developers what they want, they’ll go elsewhere. It’s quite difficult to know whether this dictum is true, since the opposite strategy has so rarely been tried here, but looking around the city it’s easy to see what this trend has cost Seattle: Its vaunted quality of life, its standing as a ‘green’ city, and its general appearance.

    For some time now, and for a variety of reasons, Capitol Hill has been an attractive center for young people as a place to shop, dine, and live.

    Of late, it's not just young people who have been so attracted, but so have developers. A plethora of perfectly viable, even interesting buildings have been torn down, the people living in them and the retail establishments at street level sent packing.

    Almost without exception, for-lease signs rather than new businesses have filled the shiny new windows of the much taller buildings built in their place. These signs tend to stay for a long time and pitifully few takers step up to fill these spiffed-up spaces. For months and years, many have remained empty — an apparently tolerated and even expected write-off against the healthy profits engendered by the living quarters above.

    No doubt the economic slowdown is partly responsible for the high vacancy rate of new retail spaces, but this pattern began long before the local economy took a nose-dive. Supporters of this new surge in development would likely argue that if a developer wants to demand high enough rent for retail spaces that they price themselves out of their own market, it's their business — and their problem.

    But it becomes all of our business when the street life of Seattle suffers. People are attracted to urban neighborhoods the world over for their diversity; for the variety of opportunites to spend time and often money. With that attraction comes greater density and enough people to keep those ground floor establishments in business.

    Density in attractive neighborhoods in cities like LA, NY, Chicago, Paris, London, Bologna, Stockholm, and Vancouver, is often much higher then in Seattle and yet is accomplished without the wholesale clearance of existing buildings and the tenants above and the shops below. Maintaining a healthy and appealing mix of old and new, fancy and funky, those well-off and less so, has long been a formula for keeping people living in and coming to those neighborhoods to shop, dine, and be entertained.

    In Capitol Hill (and in South Lake Union), the developer-driven approach is very obviously creating a different mix and a very different reality. Up above the newly expensive retail, building after building features several stories of mediocre or just plain bad design.

    Often now ‘articulated,’ the facades pretend that a block-long building is really a bunch of smaller ones (which often it was). A hodge-podge of materials is appliqued — corrugated metal, brick veneer, ersatz stucco, wood — sometimes all in the same building. The colors are frequently a weak pastel or some other sea-sick palette. Most all of these tawdry new buildings look as if they came from the same easy-to-use computer program.

    Looking more closely at the Bauhaus block brings up other issues too. Currently, the buildings on Pine between Bellevue and Melrose offer potential customers Mud Bay, Edies, Le Frock, Wall of Sound, Spice and Crown, Scout, Vutique, and the Bauhaus café. We don’t live there or even nearby and yet have for years bought books, clothes, and music (at the utterly fabulous Wall of Sound) on the block, often punctuated with a cafe at the venerable Bauhaus. Our porch sports two vintage steel chairs from Kansas bought there long ago.

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    Posted Wed, Apr 25, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

    As a longtime Capitol Hill resident and regular customer at Bauhaus (and LeFrock), I see this development scheme as nothing less than a blight on my neighborhood. It will undoubtedly have the effect of lowering the quality of life there. But because there seems to be no regulatory or governmental means of pushing back against such predatory, neighborhood-busting practices, our only hope--I guess--is for the 'invisible hand' to work even more of its black magic in the marketplace. I mean, we've gotta pray for another financial meltdown that will stop this development in its tracks. (See what happened to B & O Espresso, whose building was supposed to be torn down several years ago, but has had its lifetime prolonged by the effects of the 'Great Recession.') Maybe the election of a Socialist French president will start the dominos falling..?

    Posted Wed, Apr 25, 10:55 a.m. Inappropriate

    Amen, cocktails! And kudos to the writer for pointing out the obvious. The secondary effect, alluded to in this piece is that since the neighborhood boasts lively and flourishing businesses, it's become desirable to developers. Developers will move in and build the ugly and soon-to-be-under reconstruction buildings. Those buildings will have higher rents and retail at street level, also at higher rents. The result will be, as the writer notes, empty storefronts. The other result, that I tnink the writer misses, is that if this contagion spreads to the whole neighborhood, as seems likely, everything that makes it lively and flourishing now will move elsewhere. The lively and flourishing neighborhoods tend to develop where rents are affordable and where creative business people make charming and useful businesses that appeal to their neighbors. When you have soulless and ugly condos with big mortgages and the added monthly HOA fees, not only do the former businesses flee, but so does their customer base. Both priced out of their places. I find S. Lake Union, the latest example, quite soulless and filled with places I'm not interested in visiting. I'm sure the residents don't mind that, but for me, it's another part of my city that has made it plain that I am not wanted. Sad. The end result of this density mania will be a balkanization of our neighborhoods such that one will not be allowed, or able, to visit other neighborhoods. And since the newly built neighborhoods will be assemblages of cube hells, why would we want to visit? I don't know who will want to live like that, but it doesn't excite me.


    Posted Wed, Apr 25, 11:05 a.m. Inappropriate

    The Fels's affection for Capitol Hill informs their questions of how the texture of a city can change before our eyes with little resistance from the local population. Their article warns Seattleites not to sleepwalk through the cityscape as the colorful neighborhood landmarks disappear. They alert us to what we relinquish as citizens when we capitulate to the idea of inevitable development on terms dictated only by financial considerations. Both writers should themselves be considered regional treasures. They are inspiring, courageous, original thinkers who invite us into a dialogue about how we live in the modern world. They have no easy answers, but instead focus on asking difficult questions about the process of living in community, bringing to the table their deep understanding of art, architecture, history, global politics, and economics. We might consider their approach a guide for 21st century living. For further inspiration I suggest Crosscut readers check out Don Fels' site and view the 2009 Emmy-award KBCT documentary on his work. Thank you Crosscut for providing us with such thought-provoking writing.

    Posted Wed, Apr 25, 11:13 a.m. Inappropriate

    Eloquent statement about the fading quality of life in Seattle. Yes, all to often land use decisions impacting the city for generations are left to the "highest bidder" and a developers sense of the market place. One only need look at the demise of Pioneer Square to see what happens when landlords push aggressively for the highest and quickest return on their investment. Pioneer Square has basically been flushed of most of the tenants that made the district interesting. There a few pockets here and there still PSquare but s neighborhood that took decades to build up was undone seemingly overnight. To often the public is only concerned with their neighborhood not sensing that one happens there will eventually happen here.

    Look at how few rallied to save Seattle's last downtown hardware store, the very last place to buy nails and hammers and glue guns, etc....when the PDA evicted from the Pike Place Market Rainier Hardware? Anyone?
    They were replaced by an expanded version of Market Optical, one of Seattle's more expensive and exclusive eyeglass frame shops. In my opinion the market is not a good example of the power of regulation to forestall the wrecking ball or even gentrification. Practices in the market are so far from original intent that the market charter is basically hidden from the public, land-use meetings are rarely publicized, tenants have little if any support. Even the best intended regulation will be subverted.

    Direct action, including rallies, protests, boycotts and the like appears to be the only hope for persevering. Anything else and you just end up in a contained "free speech zone", mired in red tape. Or you end up with unintended consequences like the 619 Western Building protest where citizen outcry led to the saving of a marginal building but not the artists whose studios made up 100% of the building occupants. They were evicted on short notice. The regulations that have led to the demise of so much of the important to pedestrian life buildings on capitol Hill came about as the end result of an exasperated business community that was dying on the vine, street people seemingly having taken over the Broadway business district of that era. Remember when Safeway left? So the Broadway/Capitol Hill business groups rescinded the controls that kept Broadway and Capitol Hill construction human scale. Builders were left to fill in 100% of the site footprint, no setbacks required. The thinking was greater density would overwhelm the street people problem....and to some degree that has worked. Much of Broadway and Capitol Hill si a raving success from a business point of view. But the Bas Haus block isn't the only egregious example of choosing developers dollars over neighborhood values. Look at the way the convention center has cut off Capitol Hill from downtown, even blocking the view of the Pike Place Market! And they getting ready to expand again! Notice buildings creeping into the view corridor along Lake Union. Anyone notice that Deluxe Junk, a 3 decade tenant of the Fremont district, was given 60 day notice. The owners have caved in, they rallied for a while but the hand writings on the wall, the quality of Seattle's neighborhoods and thus the quality of life in general, goes to the highest bidder. And that my friends is that.


    Posted Wed, Apr 25, 11:38 a.m. Inappropriate

    I note that one of Queen Anne's most beloved and best patronized coffee shops is in a four story 1990s building of no particular merit. The essence of the Bauhaus is not the building (at least I hope not); it is or should be the character of the space, the furniture, the proprietors, the customers and whatever hangs on the walls. The implied argument that satisfying and successful entities like the Bauhaus cannot function in commodity buildings is clearly wrong; see Manhatten, South of Market, or countless businesses in our own downtown. The seeds of this protest were planted over years of low rent, subsidized by an owner who was paying taxes based on a high market valuation; then said owner opts to develop his property to something like the envelope the City of Seattle has ordained. The rent subsidy will then disappear or at least be interrupted for several years. The protesters seek to make this a clash of values. I have to ask whose values? what's the alternative, City seizes land, saves coffee shop?


    Posted Wed, Apr 25, 2:41 p.m. Inappropriate

    In 1961 Jane Jacobs argued for neighborhoods with a mix of older buildings, including some run-down buildings, for economic reasons. She pointed out that odd ethnic restaurants, bookstores, unusual galleries, etc., could not survive in new construction because the price for space in new buildings was too high. She noted that shopping malls all have chain stores because those are the only kinds of stores that can afford the cost of new construction. The changes in Capitol Hill likely reflect the same forces at work--new construction may prove too expensive for the kinds of places that could survive in the lower rents of older buildings.

    The difficulty of protecting the character of areas in Seattle like Capitol Hill is exacerbated because Washington State has a history of protecting private property rights and the State Supreme Court has made decisions to support the rights of private owners. As a result, in Seattle, public officials have very little discretion in approving or rejecting land use applications. Whatever is not prohibited by the Land Use Code (and Zoning) is what is allowed. Zoning is a very blunt tool. (Landmark legislation was written to protect specific buildings of unusual merit, but is not really aimed at the nuances of neighborhood character.)

    It is actually quite difficult to write land use legislation that addresses specific sites such as Bauhaus or that protects neighborhood character. Whereas the legal system in some places (for example, Boston MA) allows public officials discretion in making land use decisions, and therefore in addressing neighborhood character, under Washington State law there is little or no discretion. Something like "neighborhood character" can only be protected if it can be put into explicit legal language. This is why design review is often ameliorative, but rarely, if ever, addresses fundamental concerns like numbers of parking spaces, height, bulk, etc., that are already set by ordinance.

    Further, the Comprehensive Plan and/or the Neighborhood Plans that feed into the Comp Plan may speak to neighborhood character, but Washington State courts have held that the Comprehensive Plan presents guidelines only and is not considered authoritative when specific land use decisions are rendered. For the Comprehensive Plan and/or Neighborhood Plans to be effective in protecting neighborhoods, their language must be transformed into specific legal protections that are incorporated in the Land Use Code.

    Finally, the pressure for redevelopment of sites such as Bauhaus Books ultimately comes from the Growth Management Act which mandated that cities, such as Seattle, accept growth. Seattle opted to concentrate growth in neighborhood centers that could be served by transit--this is a reasonable choice. This approach was embodied in the city's zoning ordinance. When a site like Bauhaus Books is zoned for additional height, its value (a reflection of development potential) is effectively increased, and the pressure for redevelopment follows.

    Until Seattle finds a way to write land use ordinances that protect neighborhood character and can be approved and enforced within the framework established by Washington State court decisions, places like Capitol Hill and sites like Bauhaus books will remain vulnerable.

    Posted Wed, Apr 25, 3:49 p.m. Inappropriate

    "...I'm sure the residents don't mind that, but for me, it's another part of my city that has made it plain that I am not wanted..."

    Which is why I now live in Bellingham...


    Posted Wed, Apr 25, 4:10 p.m. Inappropriate

    When a megaquake hits Seattle, an inevitability, what will happen to all of these "historic" buildings? Many will crumble and small businesses like Bauhaus will need find a new home...probably in one of the newer buildings built with some seismic protections. They might even enjoy lower utility bills in these new spaces as new building are also much more efficient.

    If Bauhaus and others are truly successful small businesses, they will be able to survive a short move and a modest rise in rents. In fact, they will have planned for the scenario as any business must when operating in a facility they do not own. Would you move into a rental house without some sense of where you would go if the house was sold?

    We need to come to grips with the fact that not every old building is of historic value. Some are just old, drafty, energy guzzling wrecks built in a time when we didn't value resources in the same way we do today. Hence, the reason we ditched the 5 MPG Impalas for much more efficient means of transport. The reason they are torn down is the cost to retrofit and rehabilitate the building far exceeds the cost of new construction.

    Some might say, well, let's raise money to rehab this jewel of a building. Really!?! With the number of other social issues on the table - thousands of homeless on the street, subpar public schools, to name a few - we are spending our time and money trying to polish turds?!?

    I don't get it.

    Posted Wed, Apr 25, 5:57 p.m. Inappropriate

    The problem with Mr. Oschsner's response, is the very problem with Seattle's response. The article doesn't call for a protection of neighborhood character. Rather it calls for a different approach to the GMA and density. It is not an abrogation of property rights or private property to ask something from developers in return for the right to go higher. The fact is that for decades the City of Seattle has caved into nearly all the demands of the developers. Just because it has done so, doesn't actually mean that is the only thing we can and should do. We can and should have density. But we shouldn't have to give up everything else as a result. Mr. James says there will be an earthquake in Seattle (and there will be)- but once again that is besides the point. Nobody is saying that all old buildings are great. But neither should we be saying that all new ones are. Nobody in fact knows how the new buildings will actually fare in a major quake. We don't need to pass the plate to save the Bauhaus, this is actually not about public expenditure of money. What it is about is whether developer greed should be allowed to determine the shape of the city. Seattle purports to be a different kind of city than those corrupt ones around the world. But the corruption here is of a different sort, wherein our officials don't challenge the status quo. The overdevelopment of the city is a problem. And problems always have solutions.


    Posted Wed, Apr 25, 7:58 p.m. Inappropriate

    Wendell Berry says it almost as well as the authors of this piece:



    Posted Wed, Apr 25, 10:10 p.m. Inappropriate

    I just want to say that I appreciate the thought and effort that is going into this discussion, as well as the civil and constructive tone. It seems rare these days... so thank you!

    Posted Wed, Apr 25, 10:51 p.m. Inappropriate

    "Why is it presumed to be ‘green’ or even okay to tear down sound buildings, old and stout, and send all that perfectly good material to the landfill? The cost to the environment of manufacturing, mining, and deforesting for new replacement materials is enormous and surely won’t be justified by the short life-span of the new buildings, most all of which are designed to last only about two decades.
    And what about the greening of culture? Why don’t we have laws in place that factor in the existing use of a building and its contribution to our cultural richness? ...This is not progress."

    And studiously avoided in the Seattle Climate Action Plan outlined by TAGs (technical advisory groups and presented to Council on Monday so as to advance to tightly orchestrated public participation over the summer. In the world at large, people lose their lives, gain little, yet continue to stand up to dictators and Chicago style economists. Here we cower in fear of green-washers branding us selfish. All but forgotten is that public participation is state law because public participants worthy of the phrase demanded it.

    Oschner states the issue succinctly: "Whatever is not prohibited by the Land Use Code (and Zoning) is what is allowed." Then goes on to make excuses. Nobody said writing code was easy and it makes it harder if one focuses on accommodating those who demand "design freedoms" centered on upzones then complain about "things not penciling out." Elected officials wre once unbidden enough to know better. Elsewhere, unbidden or not, public officials are managing to know better again.


    Today's Seattle Times notes that housing prices were up over last year in only five cities: Denver, Miami, Minneapolis, Detroit and Phoenix.

    The first three, as Chuck feared, stole Seattle's message and advanced to zoning in context, e,g.: http://www.denvergov.org/planning/BlueprintDenver/tabid/431883/Default.aspx

    Detroit, a case unto itself, fell to an unescapable bargain. Phoenix, I know little about.


    Posted Thu, Apr 26, 4:06 p.m. Inappropriate

    If you're interested in getting involved to push back on this development as well as fight for developmental restrictions and a community voice in development then check out the facebook page
    and/or the twitter feed @XtianGunther

    Posted Fri, Apr 27, 4:26 p.m. Inappropriate

    The person who signed himself or herself "thoughts" wrote as follows: "The article doesn't call for a protection of neighborhood character. Rather it calls for a different approach to the GMA and density." QUESTION -- What is that approach? If the article is not calling for protecting neighborhood character, then what, exactly, is being sought?

    "Thoughts" also wrote: "It is not an abrogation of property rights or private property to ask something from developers in return for the right to go higher." This statement would be true if the height legally allowed on the Bauhaus site was limited to the height of the building in which Bauhaus Books is located. However, zoning in this area allows more height. Therefore, under current law, and the history of litigation in Washington, the owner of the site already has the right to build taller. Unless some kind of legal provision such as Transfer of Development Rights is able to be applied to this site, it would "abrogate" the rights of the owner/developer to limit construction to less than what the current zoning allows. On the other hand, if the owner/developer is asking to exceed the height allowed under current zoning then it would be possible to "ask for something ... in return."

    "Thoughts" also wrote: "The fact is that for decades the City of Seattle has caved into nearly all the demands of the developers." The blame here lies only partly with the City. The State of Washington, and specifically on the history of cases before the Washington State Supreme Court, sets the legal context in which the city must operate. This context is one that protects property owners and allows city officials almost no discretion.

    "afreeman" writes: "Ochsner states the issue succinctly: 'Whatever is not prohibited by the Land Use Code (and Zoning) is what is allowed.' Then goes on to make excuses." I do not believe that I "make excuses." I do speak to the very real difficulties of advancing land use legislation to protect neighborhoods in the current legal context in this state. A neighborhood organization to which I belong has been involved in land use litigation and has worked on proposed land use code changes. In our experience, it's a very tough legal environment in which to try to protect neighborhoods from incompatible development.

    Posted Tue, Feb 19, 2:41 p.m. Inappropriate

    "There are a couple well-known Seattle-based ‘historic preservationists’ who in fact make good business out of representing developers who have bought older buildings. As enablers for the developers, they often nominate an existing building for landmark status, and then argue successfully why it shouldn’t be preserved and should be torn down."

    I was told recently that "historic preservationists" like these are just being "professionals." I do not agree with the comment, but an interesting take on this situation


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