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

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

The storefronts are all run — and often staffed — by independent owners who, thanks to the reasonable rent and people seeking out the area’s lively mix, are able to make a living for their efforts. The attraction people feel towards Capitol Hill and the attraction that developers feel for the neighborhood are due in large part to the draw of such a block.

Supposedly, there is something called a conservation overlay protecting the building. But what that means in practice is that the developer can do a façade-ectomy — gut the building, leaving only the front wall at the street (more veneer and pretending) and build up from there. All existing businesses will have to leave. Not until 18 months later (a lifetime in retail) will new storefronts be available for lease at aggressively higher rents.

By then of course, all the current establishments will be long or forever gone. And the delightful mix that would make a flaneur proud will be gone with them.

It is easy to bemoan the developers themselves for the crappy design quality, the cheap construction details (Just think how crummy those acres of buildings will look in a few decades), and the loss of local jobs, but after all, this is the free market. Who are we to say that the buildings shoulda/coulda/woulda been better? It is clear that this way of doing things is working very well for developers, who keep rolling out more of the same all over the city.

Likewise, on Capitol Hill, the developer who bought the block is just exercising his freedom to develop the site, not breaking any laws or rules. Which is in fact the problem.

Why, in progressive Seattle, does this happen over and over again? 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? Why are developers allowed to act as judge and jury over who stays and who goes? In this consensus-ridden oasis, why don’t the users get a say?

This is not progress. 

The only civic mechanism available to those who might wish to stop or amend the development of the Pine Street Buildings or others like it, is the cumbersome, politics-laden landmarking process, which protects designated buildings as landmarks under city code. Needless to say, the process wasn’t created to help maintain cultural diversity and doesn’t work well as such a forum. The process rarely saves buildings without a particular architectural notoriety. 

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. While this practice of exploiting and contravening the system is reprehensible, it is understandable. The guidelines are strict and were written to preserve historically ‘significant’ structures. They were not intended as a means of maintaining cultural richness in the present.

The Pike-Pine Corridor has been discussed, argued over, and touted for more than twenty years now. Some visionary developers have found creative and money-making ways to preserve older buildings there by updating their possibilities, but wholesale tear-downs of old building stock to replace it with junk is a terrible disservice to the city and — historic preservation laws to the contrary — it’s also a disservice to the history of the place.

Too much of Seattle’s new face is repetitive two-dimensional grandstanding that makes a mockery of zoning; maxing out every building to take full advantage of regulations. The world’s most interesting cities jockey tall and short, old and new, small business and large, affordable rents and luxury. They don’t look like the mere expression of a zoning plan or like a city that was built all anew one year ago.   

Why couldn’t the Bauhaus block be left intact and a higher rise building be built right behind it? A designer could play with a tall skinny high-rise backing up the three story brick apartment/retail building and the fine one story Melrose Building. This could create an interesting three dimensional compound that reflects new and old working together instead of fake facades and fussy detailing.  

We need to create a functioning mechanism that protects affordable retail and the life of the street. People won’t pony-up for ever-escalating parking fees or take the suddenly not-free bus to shop somewhere that offers exactly the same franchised options as the mall. It’s good business and good civic responsibility in action to preserve a mix that helps keep things interesting.

How can that happen before there’s little left to protect?  Victor Steinbrueck successfully campaigned to maintain Pike Place Market as a place for small businesses. We have his effort and vision to thank for the market’s continued existence and its continued attractiveness, which certainly hasn’t precluded the addition of new, even expensive housing there.

What worked there were zoning restrictions that came with potential incentives. If a developer provided such things as low-cost housing or building conservation, they were allowed extra height. This trade-off approach seems rarely used in the zoning applied to such places as Capitol Hill. Instead, in the name of density, a developer is given the unconditional option (which is almost always taken) of building higher. But what if, in order to get that maximum height, the developer had to provide benefits to the city’s street life — giving small businesses priority as tenants or rental discounts, offering a variety of retail space sizes, or mixing high and low-rise development? We should not give away development rights without seeing some benefits in return. 

We challenge the Seattle City Council and the planning department to reach beyond the coffers of developers; to create a Seattle mechanism for the preservation of economic and cultural diversity. We shouldn’t have to sit idly by while developers reshape our urban experience in their own image.

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