At City Hall, a showdown over historic preservation

Trouble is brewing as critics and defenders of Seattle's landmarks process prepare to face off at a public meeting. Meanwhile, a lawsuit over the recent designation of a Ballard diner hangs over the debate.
Crosscut archive image.

The former Denny's in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, aka Manning's Cafeteria. circa 1964. (Eugenia Woo)

Trouble is brewing as critics and defenders of Seattle's landmarks process prepare to face off at a public meeting. Meanwhile, a lawsuit over the recent designation of a Ballard diner hangs over the debate.

Call it the opening salvo in the fight over the future of historic preservation in Seattle. On Friday, March 21, the Seattle City Council's Planning, Land Use, and Neighborhoods Committee, chaired by Sally Clark, will be meeting at City Hall. (Tim Burgess, Tom Rasmussen, and Jean Godden are the other members of the committee.) One of the pieces of business: a report from the city's preservation officer, Karen Gordon, about the state of preservation efforts and her plans for 2008.

The city's work has come under criticism lately from some property owners and developers. One of the chief critics is consultant Art Skolnik, who has attacked the city's program, launched last year, to proactively nominate downtown structures for landmark status. Skolnik has a number of clients who are disgruntled property owners.

Skolnik, a former city preservation officer who has more recently taken on causes such as saving the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the old ferry Kalakala, is sending out e-mails in the hope of generating a show of force at the committee meeting by people critical of the city's landmarking process. This is an opportunity to take on the issue at a public meeting. Skolnik says he will ask that a task force be appointed to re-examine the landmarks law and Landmarks Preservation Board procedures. He also says he will ask for a landmark "moratorium" until the group has completed its work. Skolnik believes the current landmark ordinance is unconstitutional, in violation of the state Growth Management Act, and that the criteria that nominated landmarks must meet are too subjective.

His critique echoes some of the objections raised in a recent lawsuit filed against the city's preservation office by an arm of developer Benaroya, the owner embroiled in the controversial designation last month of the Ballard Manning's/Denny's "Googie" diner as a city landmark. Some have criticized the designation as over-reach by preservationists. Benaroya has said that if the city does not rescind the designation, they will proceed with the suit, which not only claims that the designation was unfair but attacks it as an illegal property "taking." It also claims the landmarks process is flawed and unconstitutional. One preservation consultant predicts that the growing flap over the diner is a slow-motion "train wreck."

Former City Council member (and Crosscut contributor) Peter Steinbrueck, who has taken no public stance on the Ballard diner controversy, calls the Benaroya lawsuit "frivolous" and believes the issues over the general constitutionality of historic landmarking are well settled. Steinbrueck, an architect, says there is room for reasonable disagreement over the application of the landmark criteria. That's to be expected in any deliberative process involving history and community values. But it doesn't warrant dismantling the process.

Larry Johnson, the historic preservation consultant hired by Benaroya to write and present the diner's nomination to the Landmarks Board, believes the Denny's decision is bad news. Johnson thinks the nomination he prepared should have been declined. "This decision will unfortunately result in an undermining of the landmark process that we, the preservation community, have supported for so long by keeping the bar high enough that it has precluded legal challenge."

It has certainly given ammo to Skolnik, who cited the decision in an e-mail to council member Clark, writing, "After recent actions by the Landmarks Board to designate the old Denny's building in Ballard, the property owners I represent want the Council to re-examine the ordinance and make it more user-friendly for both owners and community members." Skolnik says the relationship between property owners and the preservation process is "growing hostile."

And it's not just property owners and developers who are frustrated but preservationists, too. Save Manning's, the group that has fought to preserve the Ballard diner, is upset that Benaroya is threatening to take down the whole process unless they get their way. They have tried to engage Benaroya in a discussion of how the Ballard site could be developed while keeping the diner intact. Benaroya says they've considered and rejected that approach as unrealistic and not financially feasible.

In a statement in response to the news of the lawsuit filing, Save Manning's wrote:

Rather than valuing Ballard's recent past heritage and being creative about including the building in any future development, the owner has chosen a confrontational and potentially destructive path. This self-interested approach goes against established and accepted preservation practices and law."

The group's full statement can be read here [20K PDF].

One has to question whether Benaroya truly has an issue with the process philosophically, or whether they're using the suit as leverage to get an unfavorable landmark decision reversed. During testimony before the Landmarks Board, company representatives went out of their way to say they were not opposed to landmarking per se, simply that they were opposed to it in the case of the Denny's. The fact the lawsuit's raising of constitutional and structural issues, though, suggests their critique has either broadened or that their views are strictly situational. Benaroya has said the lawsuit will go away if the diner is de-landmarked.

But the Ballard lawsuit may also make this an awkward time for the city to go ahead with Skolnik's task force to re-examine and possibly re-invent the landmarks process. Why would the city appoint a task force to critique a process that the city is now having to prepare to defend in court? Wouldn't a task force now be a tacit admission that Benaroya has a case? In addition, the suit might prevent city employees from speaking frankly or publicly about the landmarks process for fear of jeopardizing the city's defense.

There are people on all sides of the preservation issue who believe that Seattle could do a better job with historic preservation. For one thing, strengthening the incentives for property owners to save or creatively adapt and re-use older structures is something that would likely get support from both developers and preservationists.

At the same time, there is a risk that Seattle could needlessly undo preservation laws that have helped make Seattle so desirable. Historic preservation at the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square were ahead of their time and helped Seattle avoid losing urban heritage that was lost in so many urban "renewed" cities in the 1960s and '70s. Yet none of that preservation would have occurred without the public putting heritage ahead of the agenda of many developers and property owners who were intent on tearing down old structures. It turned out that strong preservation laws were a good investment in the general prosperity of the city.

Ironically, that's partly what's created so much tension today: Preservationists are trying to get out in front of the unprecedented rate of tear-downs and development. The city's desire to identify and nominate potential landmark downtown structures is an effort to give property owners more predictability down the road, instead of blindsiding them with controversy at the last minute.

One thing that is not in question is that preservation battles focus the public on larger community values, whether it's property rights or saving the soul of the city. There are bound to be winners and losers in the process, but Seattle has decades of experience that have taught that a strong commitment to preservation is mostly a huge plus.

The Skolnik e-mails are getting wide circulation. Pro-preservation forces are also being rallied to the March 21 meeting. Jennifer Meisner, executive director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, has sent an e-mail encouraging attendance by pro-landmarks forces.

The result should be public airing of views about the kind of city Seattle will become as a result of how we deal with the past.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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