The case of the doomed diner

Seattle's Landmarks Board greenlights the demolition of Ballard's Googie landmark. The decision leaves a lot of wreckage in its wake.
Crosscut archive image.

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

Seattle's Landmarks Board greenlights the demolition of Ballard's Googie landmark. The decision leaves a lot of wreckage in its wake.

If you're going to play King Solomon, you have to remember one thing: Don't actually cut the baby in half.

Unfortunately, that's the grisly result of Seattle Landmarks Board deliberations over the Ballard neighborhood Manning's/Denny's diner.

On Feb. 20, they voted to make it a city landmark.

On May 21, they OK'd bulldozing it.

The long and short of it: A landmark structure will be destroyed by following the rules of the city's process. The result: the baby is dead and hands are bloodied.

But some folks are happy, notably developer Benaroya and Kirkland developer Rhapsody Partners, who will now move ahead with a mixed-use condo project for the site on the northwest corner of Northwest Market Street and 15th Avenue Northwest. They had fully expected the building to be dispatched in the early rounds of the landmark process but were surprised when the city found that it was an architecturally significant structure. That was bad news for the owners, who had purchased the diner and adjacent property for $12.5 million, blissfully unaware that the building was a candidate for landmark status.

Unhappy are the architects, activists, and Ballard residents who formed Save Mannings to fight to preserve the building. Unlike Benaroya, they had no lawyers, no flacks, no paid consultants to help make their case. They won a landmark designation based on the building's merits. But the way they lost leaves a bitter taste. Eugenia Woo, one of the diner's most passionate advocates, accused Benaroya of running a "Willie Horton-style campaign" to do the building in, complete with misleading experts and a plan to close the Denny's and let the diner devolve into instant blight so they could bolster their arguments that it was a dump not worth saving. Graffiti taggers and vandals helpfully gave an assist.

Manning's fans could also be excused for the way the decision to kill the diner went down. After the February landmark designation, the Landmarks Board staff was charged with negotiating an "incentives and controls agreement" with the owner. These agreements determine how the landmark will be managed in the future. The landmarks board then approves or modifies the agreement and sends it along to the city council for a final OK. But consider these dynamics:

  • The owner of the property was on-record as wanting to tear the building down. Period.
  • Karen Gordon, the city's preservation officer, is assigned to negotiate with the owner. Only she was on record as opposing the board's landmark designation. So of the two parties charged with coming up with a workable plan, one wants the diner to die and the other is officially against its protection.
  • The man Gordon is negotiating with — land use lawyer Jack McCullough — is suing the Landmarks Board and essentially Gordon herself because she runs the thing, threatening not only to challenge the Manning's/Denny's designation in court but also attacking the entire landmarks process. The suit will go away, however, if the landmark designation is overturned.

Is there any reader surprised to read that Gordon and McCullough came to the conclusion that there was no way to make a buck on the property as long as the Manning's was still standing?

Their ace in the hole was Benaroya's miscalculation when they bought the property in the first place. Unaware that the diner might be historic, they paid a price that made sense given the full, high-density development plans that would be allowed. They bought it for $12.5 million and were going to sell it for a handsome profit to a developer. When the city landmarked the diner, the controls and incentive agreement focused on whether they could make money by finding a use for the building that would keep it viable, say by turning it from a Denny's into a high-end restaurant.

That proved not to be feasible under multiple scenarios, the fly in the ointment being that if you sink $12.5 million into a Ballard restaurant on that busy street corner you're not going to get your $12.5 million back, let alone a profit. Even Tom Douglas couldn't pull that off. In looking at a financial plan for saving the diner, the humble Googie treasure was burdened with having to earn the impossible.

Advocates pleaded for a more creative approach, one that considered a re-zone of the property. But without a willing and eager partner, the chances of that were nil. And it may not have worked anyway: Allowing taller buildings on the site to compensate for saving the diner might have opened a whole 'nother can of worms.

As a result, Gordon recommended that no controls be put on the building. The Landmarks Board voted 10-0 to adopt that plan. Meaning the diner is a landmark with no protection. Benayora and Rhapsody will proceed with their project, and the diner will soon be history.

As to the lawsuit, will it be dropped? Why give up a loaded gun when it worked so well? Lawyer McCullough told me that his clients were "not ready to address dropping the lawsuit."

The Landmarks Board — at least some of it — is another embarrassed party. Board head Stephen Lee called it "a sad situation, a rare situation." Meanwhile, the debacle leaves a whole series of questions yet to be answered.

Is the landmarks process broken? Disgruntled activists who have seen popular causes like Waldo Hospital and the Manning's/Denny's go down think the deck is stacked against preservation and that the rules are too limiting. In the Denny's case, creative use of the site was ruled as being beyond the scope of the discussion, and in Waldo's case, the fact that a small urban forest would be destroyed didn't fall under the purview of people charged with determining architectural significance.

Then there's Art Skolnik, the preservationist pariah who is seen as siding with property rights advocates who are trying to undermine the process. Skolnik has pushed the City Council to review the entire process in the hope of making it more voluntary and more friendly to property owners. But Skolnik is seen as a preservationist apostate and is not trusted by the preservationist establishment. They worry that opening up a broad review would be like inviting a bull into the china shop and that Skolnik's "reforms" would weaken Seattle's law.

More cautiously, the Seattle City Council, guided by Sally Clark, is forming a task force that will look at beefing up incentives for property owners of landmark buildings. That's something Skolnik has been pushing for, but what he may not like is that Clark intends to do this by working with the Department of Neighborhoods and Karen Gordon. She says Gordon generally gets high marks for the job she's doing, and her staff will be the ones who have to implement any new rules. Gordon is working on a draft document about the task force's scope for Clark's review in the next couple of weeks. Clark would like to have the task force under way in June and hopes for recommendations by the end of the year.

More incentives is something both owners and activists generally can agree on, and perhaps they would have made a difference in the Manning's/Denny's case. Most of the usual incentives didn't apply to the diner, however. For example, downtown landmarks can transfer development rights, but that program isn't in place for neighborhoods like Ballard. But those don't address other flaws in the process, and it may be that the risk of sorting them out is too high with a lawsuit and a property rights rebellion lurking. Seattle may decide to stay with the devil it knows. The Manning's/Denny's failure could be seen as an unfortunate casualty in a larger war to "save" the city's soul.

But counter to that is that outcomes like this Solomonesque slaughter make the entire process suspect. Citizen activists are left disillusioned; property owners are out of pocket tens and perhaps hundred of thousands of dollars and feel bruised by the process. And the city still loses an architectural gem. Surely, we can do better.

And all of this occurs amid massive change. The night before the Landmarks Board killed the Ballard building, fans of 20th century modern architecture had gathered at the Swedish Cultural Center for a lecture by Al Hess, an architect and historian who is the expert on Googie (and a big fan of the Manning's/Denny's). Standing in the center's bar, with its spectacular view of Lake Union and downtown, someone pointed to the skyline and asked the well-traveled preservationist Hess if he'd ever seen a city with as many cranes. "Las Vegas, maybe," he replied. To me, it looked like Seattle was being overcome by a slow-motion tsunami of glass and steel.

We preservationists know that we can't save everything, just like my namesake King Canute couldn't tell the sea to go back. But it does seem to me that it is incumbent on us to protect what's important and to apply high standards to the new, to demand that the old be replaced with something better. That is not happening. Preservationist panic is in part driven by the fact that we're undergoing a boom that is flooding the city with market-driven mediocrity and not fulfilling the urban promise that has been embraced by the developers and policy makers.

A consolation for the loss the the quirky diner would be if the developers helped us move on by building something truly special on that gateway Ballard corner. The fact that Rhapsody was talking about putting in a drive-through pharmacy there doesn't offer much hope, but because of the Manning's/Denny's battle, a lot of people will be watching the next phase much more closely. The best outcome would be if they built something that, 40 years from now, folks rallied to save. But don't hold your breath.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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