South Lake Union: the bulldozing of Seattle's past?

Development can be a friend to preservation, as a Tom Douglas restaurant has shown. But a lot is at risk.

In late December, Seattle history was in full flower on the south shore of Lake Union. On Dec. 29, the new Museum of History and Industry opened in the refurbished Naval Armory and received a rave review in The New York Times. Outside the museum, historic ships were moored with easy access for visitors to such vessels as the old Mosquito Fleet survivor Virgina V, the Duwamish fireboat and the lightship Swiftsure. On an adjacent South Lake Union park beach, a Haida Indian led a group of Native American youths in the construction of a canoe by steaming the wood of the carved boat to obtain the right configuration. Smoke from the fire filled the damp air with the essential scent of the Northwest.

If history is thriving on the shore, it's struggling just inland. The transformation of the South Lake Union-Cascade area is impressive and massive. A proposed rezone would allow new buildings near the lake to go much higher. For many, the neighborhood is a blank slate welcoming more density; for others,  it already has a rich history, a soul, that new development threatens. Debate over the rezone has tended to focus on building heights, view-blockage, affordability and fairness. But heritage advocates also worry about the impact of the rezone and their concerns were made explicit and specific in a recent letter to Seattle city council member Richard Conlin, who has been shepherding the rezone as chair of the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability committee, from Chris Moore, field director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

Moore isn't the only one concerned. In fact, the rezone's own Environmental Impact Statement warns of the development impacts on historic properties. And yes, they do exist in South Lake Union-Cascade. There are 14 current city landmarks within the neighborhood, according to a 2010 city survey, and another 34 structures that are considered to be landmark eligible. As the EIS notes, the rezone "could...result in the greatest amount of development pressure on existing small scale structures that may be eligible for historic designation." In other words, the rezone will put the squeeze on heritage properties.

A walking tour of South Lake Union is an eye-opener: It is far more than throw-away light industrial warehouses. A remarkable variety of architectural styles exist there, from 19th century row houses to turn-of-the-century bungalows, from mid-century modern commercial buildings to Deco structures, even some interesting Brutalist brutes. Beyond what's landmark-worthy, there are vernacular structures that give the place a lot of character, and these are especially vulnerable. While some older buildings can and are being adapted for new uses (e.g. the Supply Laundry), others potentially face the wrecking ball. It's not an historic district exactly, but neither is it a blank slate. The question is: Can density, development and heritage all be accommodated, and to the extent that heritage suffers from growth, what steps can be taken to mitigate the impact of development within the district?

The South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan advocates "sensitivity to the area's history and historical elements" as a guiding principle and lays out some of the steps that should be taken. The 2007 plan includes recommendations such as establishing incentives for preservation, rehabilitation and the adaptive reuse of historic structures. And an expanded Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program to help property owners save significant structures by selling their development rights to other projects.

Chris Moore's concern is that the rezone as currently proposed doesn't do this. Speaking for the Washington Trust, Moore writes, "[I]n our opinion, the legislation as proposed does not go far enough in demonstrating this sensitivity. The significant increase in height allowances will substantially increase the pressure put on historic resources present in the area..." For example, while there are 14 landmarks and some 34 eligible properties in the district, the current plan has no TDR program. Incentive zoning is available for some historic properties of at least 60,000 square feet, but only the old Seattle Times building and Troy Laundry qualify.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jan 9, 10:05 a.m. Inappropriate

This excellent piece raises the all important question of how we achieve legitimate balances between redevelopment and historic preservation. One important omission (from the Space Needle's former writer in residence) is that the high rises proposed in the rezoning will probably block the Space Needle's protected view corridors. We should be alert to that possibility as well. Yikes, the Space Needle is our most cherished landmark and only one of two city landmarks to qualify for that status on all counts.

MJH

Posted Wed, Jan 9, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes, good point about the Needle. Some public views from parks are protected, but I would urge a broader assessment of how to protect its visibility from various parts of the city. One thing that keeps the Eiffel Tower the Eiffel Tower is that Paris has kept high-rises well away, and the low rise areas of Belltown, Denny Triangle and SLU have helped to keep the Needle standing out. That's changing.

Posted Wed, Jan 9, 12:51 p.m. Inappropriate

The original plans for the twice defeated at the polls evil land grab of the early-mid 1990's otherwise dubbed "Seattle Commons" sought to bulldoze many dozens of acres in South Lake Union. Original 'dreams' sought 100 acres; that shrunk to 61 acres, and then 40 acres from the time frame of 1991 through May of 1996 when wise Seattle voters killed the beast. Many historic structures would have been lost. Thank you again to all the good people who stopped the Seattle Commons!

animalal

Posted Wed, Jan 9, 3:53 p.m. Inappropriate

I have two observations that have been disturbing to me.

1. The fact of a building being on the historic inventory seems to not matter one whit as far as the SMC. And, guess what? Every year that inventory should be growing as buildings age. I would hope we'd have a range of protections that do not require all of the work needed for landmarking. I am especially concerned about historic streetscapes like Cherry, which leads me to

2. The integration of the buildings needs to be done better. What an awful experience was provided by the Amazon building. My coworker's child called it a really ugly block. Out of the mouths of babes. Great they saved the building. Better would have been that what grew up around it actually fit. To maintain a street level experience, I'd like to see more facade preservation. Go ahead and go up and behind. Overlays anyone?

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 7:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Property rights anyone?

Posted Wed, Jan 9, 4:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for your insightful piece on the historic preservation of SLU.

As one of Seattle's oldest neighborhoods, it's story is told through it's architecture. And within the soft patina of those old brick exteriors lies a rich, robust, radical and sometimes militant progressive past.

Cascade/SLU has always been an interesting mix of artisans, working class and more affluient populations living side by side.

As the cradle of Seattle's labor movement, the fiesty laundry women workers strike of 1917 yielded humane working conditions and the 8 hour work week was written into law.

Toiling side by side his laundry working mother, was future labor leader Dave Beck, whose early impressions helped form and shape his successful contribution to organizing Seattle's labor unions and later, becoming President of the Teamsters..a formidable native son.

A new narative begins for SLU, one that is as equally dynamic as it's predecessor. And if it is a neighborhood that is to be crafted, then the new will not succeed without the old. They need one another.

Preserving the past through landmarking and re purposing is a proven marketable strategy in Cascade/SLU. More and more we see traces of our developer friends looking for ways to keep telling the story.

But preservation needs more tools. In the face of the proposed rezone, so much more needs to be done and right now!
Like our ancestors, we need to apply the same muscle and demand expansion of TDR's to smaller but equally significant older buildings, many who provide the dual purpose of preserving neighborhood character and affordable housing.
As Chris Moore's letter suggests, we need to require the city to proactively seek landmark status for the most eligible properties as was done for the downtown rezone.

I have lived in the heart of the city (Cascade) for over 24 years.
And I have observed that it actually responds with all the rich charateristics of the heart.
Our neighborhood is layered with complex memories of the past, it's suffered bruises and set-backs, yet always growing and never static, it's fought for itself and won, it does not lay down in the face of mighty opposition, it manages to win other hearts
and through it's wise expansion..it is compassionate.
It is worth fighting for.

Still fiesty in Cascade,
Christine Lea
Resident - 24 years
Business owner
Cascade Neighborhood Council - President



Cal29

Posted Thu, Jan 10, 1:40 p.m. Inappropriate

There are (were?) two former Ford Motor plants in Seattle: The "Public Storage"/Craftsman Press building on Fairview and a second near the Duamish. The former has some official preservation status.

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