Does Seattle have too many historic landmarks?

A preservationist questions the current boom in landmark nominations, wondering if people with NIMBY agendas are hurting the process by trying to lower the bar for historic properties. He also steps into the middle of the Ballard Denny's conroversy.
Crosscut archive image.

The Denny's restaurant in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood (top and bottom), with a resembling information booth at the 1962 World's Fair.

A preservationist questions the current boom in landmark nominations, wondering if people with NIMBY agendas are hurting the process by trying to lower the bar for historic properties. He also steps into the middle of the Ballard Denny's conroversy.

Are too many Seattle buildings being considered for landmark status? At least one dedicated preservationist thinks so. He's Larry E. Johnson, a Seattle architect and consultant. He is on the board of Historic Seattle, the preservation group. He's also worked for many local developers, such as Justen Co. and Wright Runstad.

Johnson was on my radar screen because he's involved with the controversial development project by Rhapsody Partners, of Kirkland and Las Vegas, that would demolish a longtime Denny's restaurant in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Some experts have questioned whether the architecturally unusual diner should be torn down because it is the work of an important West Coast mid-century modern architect named Clarence Mayhew. Some experts say it's an excellent example of eccentric post-war roadside Googie architecture.

The Denny's was recently featured KUOW-FM's Weekday program as part of a look at local modern architecture. The program opened with an architectural tour of North Seattle with Susan Boyle and Eugenia Woo of the modern architecture preservation group DoCoMoMo-WeWA, with host Steve Scher and me tagging along. Guests also included Googie expert Al Hess and Alan Michelson, head of the University of Washington's Library of Architecture and Planning. A podcast of the show can be found here.

The 1964 Denny's restaurant was saved from the wrecking ball once before, back in the 1980s, when the people of Ballard protested that it was an important local landmark – sometimes referred to as the "Taj Mahal of Ballard" – and a gathering place, especially for the neighborhood's seniors, who loved its earlier incarnation as a Manning's cafeteria, a Western chain that grew out of a single coffee company based at the Pike Place Market.

Johnson is involved because Rhapsody has let go the first consultant it hired, Mildred Andrews, a respected historian I met earlier this summer. Andrews had been picked to put together a city landmark nomination for the building. It is common for property owners and developers to nominate their own buildings for landmark status, often in hopes that such nominations will be rejected so that demolition and redevelopment can proceed. Rhapsody does not believe the Denny's is landmark-worthy.

That can create potential conflicts of interest for historians and consultants, who are paid by property owners who often don't want their properties protected. Make a strong case for an historic building and you undercut the guy signing your paycheck; make a weak case and you could be enabling the destruction of a significant structure. At best, preservation consultants walk a mighty thin line between the community's interests and their employers'.

Andrews did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview about her departure. Johnson said that she produced a "well-prepared" report on the building's significance, and he was hired to complete the process of compiling the nomination. He also said that Rhapsody was unhappy that Andrews had talked to the press, referring to a comment of hers reported on Crosscut. There is also speculation that Andrews may have made too strong a case for the building. Johnson declined to characterize his views about the Denny's building.

Last week, the Ballard News-Tribune's Rebekah Schilperoort reported on the consultant switch. Rhapsody has also hired longtime local public relations whiz Louie Richmond. He's not only fielding questions about the historic status of the project but trying to smooth over criticism of the developer's plans. Some in the neighborhood worry that the proposed development isn't pedestrian-friendly. Richmond assures that the design is not final.

The News-Tribune story also carried some provocative observations by consultant Johnson regarding the state of the landmarking in Seattle:

Johnson is concerned that nominating a building for historic status has become the new way to fight unwanted development. "I think all these fights – we're reacting to change, such rapid change," he said. The city's all-volunteer landmark board already has its hands full with considering the designation of 38 downtown buildings, he said, and their time shouldn't be used inefficiently. "We're scraping the bottom of the barell [sic] (sometimes)," Johnson said. "We can't keep everything and we shouldn't be throwing everything out either."

I asked Johnson if he was referring to the Ballard Denny's as an example of obstructionism and he says no, that he was providing context for what's happening more generally in town. But he absolutely thinks that there are too many projects being proposed for landmark status and that NIMBY's are abusing the process.

The example he offers is Waldo Hospital in the Maple Leaf neighborhood. Johnson was the consultant to Camp Fire, the owners of the property. Camp Fire plans to turn a park-like site into townhouses. Johnson says the hospital clearly didn't meet the criteria for landmark status – though it is listed by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the state's "most endangered" properties. He says the process was used by activists to try and stop development mostly because the land contains many old trees (some call it "Waldo Forest"). "That's not what [the landmark law] was intended to do," he says. Johnson won that fight. The city declined to landmark the building in July.

Change is difficult, Johnson acknowledges. "It's hard for me when I walk downtown to recognize the city I grew up in," he says. But he worries that if the bar is lowered too much for landmark status, it will destroy the value of historic districts – unless, he says, "you're going to call the whole city a landmark district." Johnson described himself as a "realist" who believes we can't turn back the clock.

Johnson reiterates that he thinks that Seattle's volunteer landmarks board is overwhelmed, both by NIMBY submissions and by the recent, controversial spate of downtown building nominations from the city itself. In an e-mail, he writes that "the Landmarks Board, an unpaid and largely unappreciated group of people who spend a significant part of their lives doing their best trying to responsibly make the cut on what is important to preserve in our city, as well as trying to positively direct changes to those buildings, landscapes, and structures that have already been assessed as significant to our city – are now forced to deal with what are basically land use issues, rather than real preservations issues."

Karen Gordon, the city's historic preservation officer, bristles at the suggestion that the city's new nominations are a problem. She says her office can handle the job: "It is not for consultants to property owners to speculate on the workload for a city agency. We are considering buildings along with our downtown workload and plan for that." City Council member Peter Steinbrueck says staff has been added to "support the downtown nominations work."

Johnson says that scores of other downtown property owners have been informed that their buildings might be landmarks, and that has resulted in a flood of calls to land use attorneys and consultants like him from property owners who want to clarify their buildings' status. Isn't that good for the preservation consulting business? "I'm an architect. I'd rather design buildings," he answers.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.