Anti-historical histrionics

When it comes to the debate over historic preservation, the members of the Seattle Times editorial board ought to read their own paper. They might learn something.
Crosscut archive image.

Delivering the <i>Seattle Times</i> in 1927. (Museum of History and Industry)

When it comes to the debate over historic preservation, the members of the Seattle Times editorial board ought to read their own paper. They might learn something.

The great thing about large daily newspapers is that if you read something ridiculous in one part of the paper, likely you'll find it counter-balanced (maybe even refuted) in another part. Such was the case with the Seattle Times' recent editorial criticizing Seattle's historic landmarking process, suggesting that "involuntary landmarking amounts to a partial taking of the owner's property." The Times was taken to task by a number of commentators, including Mossback and Will of who, for once, found something to agree on. It also raised ire and many eyebrows in Seattle's historic preservation community. How could the paper get something so fundamental so wrong? If the Times editorial board had simply waited a week, they could have read a thoughtful explanation of the landmarking and preservation process in their own paper – one that might have changed their minds.

That piece ran Sunday, Jan. 14, in the Times' Sunday magazine, Pacific Northwest. It's by Lawrence Kreisman, author and staff member of Historic Seattle. Kreisman was doing a follow-up to a popular feature he did for the Times last year on historic structures in Seattle that deserve to be saved, from buildings to boats.

In the new piece, Kresiman says that 2007 was a banner year for historic preservation here, not so much for what was saved – though some important buildings, like Seattle's First United Methodist Church downtown, did avoid the wrecking ball – but because there was so much public discussion of and media attention paid to preservation issues, notably the city's proactive research into potential downtown landmarks.

The city's effort is one Kreisman applauds, even if some Times columnists (and editorial board members) did not. Bruce Ramsey spoke up for property rights, writing, "I remind myself, however, that every property has an owner who has money and hope invested in it, holds responsibility for it and has rights over it. These buildings are not mine." And columnist Lynne Varner worried that the city's enthusiasm for saving buildings was a sign of nostalgia running wild and suggested the city was embarked on "hysterical preservation."

But Kreisman carefully lays out many of the advantages of historic preservation – including the financial ones. The entire intent of preservation, he says, would be undercut if the landmarking process was strictly voluntary. The city we know today would never have come to be:

If Seattle's 1973 Landmarks Preservation Ordinance had included owner consent, the city would have faced what other major cities experienced: Some of the most important vestiges of city life were demolished because the roles of boards and commissions were advisory rather than regulatory. They could stay a demolition for a short time, but they had no authority to stop it. Had owner consent been required in Seattle, few significant downtown commercial buildings would be protected today, because most of them, no taller than 25 floors, do not constitute the highest and best use for the quarter- or half-blocks that they use. Say goodbye to the Exchange Building, the Arctic and Alaska buildings, the former Frederick & Nelson and Bon Marché department stores, the Coliseum and Paramount theaters, and hundreds of other designated landmarks in the city. For that matter, Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market and the International District would likely not have been established over the naysaying of individual property owners. ... The foundation of Seattle's preservation program evolved from local citizens' pride in their surroundings, their concern for hanging on to significant physical aspects of Northwest heritage, and their interest in maintaining historic continuity downtown and in the surrounding neighborhoods. These concerns were amplified when important pieces of that heritage were threatened with destruction in the 1970s for proposed parking garages, roads and high-rises. Many of these threats came from within city government itself, under the guise of economic improvement. Sound familiar?

Indeed it does. Give Kreisman's piece a read. He does an excellent job of laying out the issues, including the incredible challenges preservationists face in many of the old "streetcar" neighborhoods. And kudos to the editors of Pacific Northwest for asking him to update last year's story. Let's hope the editorial board is reading the rest of their paper.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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