Unsustainable Seattle

When you consider the carbon footprint of new construction, this city promotes growth and development policies that are wasteful, destructive, and myopic. Greens and historic preservationists need to find common cause in creating a truly sustainable urban landscape.
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New construction in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. (Chuck Taylor)

When you consider the carbon footprint of new construction, this city promotes growth and development policies that are wasteful, destructive, and myopic. Greens and historic preservationists need to find common cause in creating a truly sustainable urban landscape.

Necessity is the mother of preservation. At least some places it is. Take Cuba, where an estimated 60,000 pre-1960 cars are still on the road. These so-called "yank tanks" — classic Chevys, DeSotos, Plymouths etc. — were kept rolling not because they were historic but because the Cubans had to make do after the U.S. embargo cut off their American car supply. They've nurtured, coddled, and improvised to keep their old wheels turning. Now, as times change, the old cars have become a tourist attraction — a slice of heritage on rolling rubber. That provides a whole new incentive to keep them going (and they can, by the way, be retrofitted for fuel efficiency, too), but they wouldn't exist today if they hadn't been needed, if the Cubans hadn't been forced to rely on Cold War-era ingenuity.

Americans have no such incentives. Despite global warming fears and greater competition for resources, we're still happily throwing useable things away. We pay lip service to "sustainability," but the modern ethic is still biased toward the new. We aren't a duct-tape society, though that will likely have to change.

As a result, historic preservationists have to make their arguments based on significance, hoping for tax breaks or government grants or a landmark designation will protect the old from being replaced by the new, because the old are demonstrably important, not because they still have life or use left in them.

Buying new rather than fixing the old is almost always the preferred public policy, whether it's stadiums, bridges, ferry boats, city halls, or libraries. Building new stuff makes developers and bureaucrats happy. But one wonders if, for the sake of the environment and growing taxpayer burdens, we'll have to learn to be more thrifty and more adaptive.

Historic preservation walks hand-in-hand with the kind of sustainable approach that says sometimes "making do" is much better than thinking big. We're trying to build green, but often that's simply a new rationale for old-fashioned 20th century consumption. We haven't outgrown "planned obsolescence," the phenomenon that industrial designer Brooks Stevens defined as "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." In fact, our economy still counts on it.

Those pushing new development often cite safety concerns — sometimes legitimately — and in Seattle, making things more eco-friendly (like "green" highrises) is a common justification for tearing down old structures. But rarely do they factor in what is called "embodied energy," which is the energy used to build something in the first place. A building is the physical manifestation of all the carbon used to create it in the first place. Tear it down, you not only have a solid waste problem with all the debris (about 30 percent of waste comes from construction and demolition debris), but you waste all that embodied energy.

In May, Historic Seattle hosted a talk here by Donovan D. Rypkema, an economic development consultant based in Washington, D.C., whose company, PlaceEconomics, specializes in the revitalization of areas through preservation strategies. I missed it, but fortunately Historic Seattle posted the text on their Web site, and it is worth reading in full.

On the topic of "embodied energy," Rypkema points out that while the "green building" movement touts energy efficiency in new construction, it tends to ignore conserving energy that is already expended. "[T]he energy embodied in the construction of a building is 15 to 30 times the annual energy use."

He continues:

Razing historic buildings results in a triple hit on scarce resources. First, we're throwing away thousands of dollars of embodied energy. Second, we are replacing it with materials vastly more consumptive of energy. What are most historic houses built from? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are among the least energy consumptive of materials? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are major components of new buildings? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. What are among the most energy consumptive of materials? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. Third, recurring embodied energy savings increase dramatically as a building life stretches over fifty years. You're a fool or a fraud if you say you are an environmentally conscious builder and yet are throwing away historic buildings, and their components.

When you calculate embodied energy and building longevity, Rypkema says, it makes sense to save a less energy-efficient building that lasts 100 years than a 24 percent more-energy-efficient building that will last only 40 years. And much new construction, as you may have noticed, is not built to last. If you squint a little, some of today's instant townhouses already look like tomorrow's tenements.

Rypkema also says the Environmental Protection Agency is asleep at the switch when it comes to sustainable development, a term that is nearly absent from its own 2006 strategic plan. But not as absent as "historic preservation," which is never mentioned.

Greens and preservationists should be allied. But that's often not the case. In the recent dispute over the Ballard Manning's/Denny's, both the developer and urban advocates argued that tearing it down was meeting the city's goals for greater density and mixed-use development. So, too, demolishing the old Waldo Hospital, with its lovely old grove. A slew of wonderful old Capitol Hill apartments and street retail structures along Broadway were condemned earlier this year to make way for a staging area for Sound Transit station construction. Pioneer Square and the International District will be squeezed by encroaching high-rises. And residential neighborhoods are feeling pressures from a building boom enabled by city policies allowing taller, denser, and faster-track development.

During the Nickels years, the mayor's embrace of "green building" has added an environmental gloss to land-use policies that encourage the destruction of existing structures. It's served up in the name of protecting the environment, but the formula is unsustainable by any reasonable definition: It's not as eco-friendly as advertised, it's environmentally inefficient (often more energy wasted than conserved), and even if it goes as planned, it will transform the city beyond all recognition — it fosters displacement and disconnect, not stewardship. And that's leaving aside the problems of affordability and class bias in density strategies.

In the meantime, preservationists have yet to fully embrace ideas of sustainability. Heritage activists are too often focused on one-shot preservation projects, or are so preoccupied with the past that they seem disinterested in the city that is to come. Others tend to maintain a rather elite view of preservation — they are satisfied if the monuments and mansions are surviving, but everything else is of little concern.

Greens often view preservationists as Luddite obstructionists lacking imagination. This attitude was prevalent during the Seattle Monorail Project battle earlier this decade, which pitted "enlighted" transportation advocates in an almost generational war against oldtimers who questioned the line's impact on the city. The monorail's advocates seemed willing to sacrifice anything to "rise above it all" — to rise above what they saw as an old-fashioned city stuck in the past. More recently, the Manning's/Denny's activists were repeatedly charged with being opposed to development, even though they were in fact begging the city and developers to consider building a taller condo complex than current zoning allowed if that could save the diner.

So while greens and preservationists have some causes in common — a desire to protect farmland, an agreement about the need for land use regulation, and a skepticism about extreme property rights arguments — they are often working at cross purposes in a false "future versus the past" paradigm.

Many preservationists have yet to make the connection that a building saved can make a real difference environmentally. The landmarking process tends to drive preservation efforts into narrow channels of thinking. ("Is it Googie?" "Did Rutherford B. Hayes sleep there?") A few historic "trees" are saved, but the heritage forest is mowed down.

That comparison is apt as the city's tree preservation laws do much the same thing: protect exceptional trees while allowing the tree canopy to be virtually clearcut by private property owners. Some on the City Council have caught on to that absurdity (Sally Clark, Richard Conlin). But what needs to be pointed out is that tree preservation and historic preservation are basically the same battle: finding ways to have a greener, sustainable city. Saving existing trees and structures accomplishes the same purpose.

Rypkema forcefully makes the point that greens, sustainability advocates, and preservationists must work together:

When you rehabilitate a historic building, you are reducing waste generation. When you reuse a historic building, you are increasing recycling. In fact, historic preservation is the ultimate in recycling.

At most perhaps 10% of what the environmental movement does advances the cause of historic preservation. But 100% of what the preservation movement does advances the cause of the environment.

You cannot have sustainable development without a major role of historic preservation, period. And it's about time we preservationists start hammering at that until it is broadly understood.

He makes several key points. One is that while the goals of the "smart growth" urbanization strategy are largely supported by preservation and adaptive re-use, while smart growth itself doesn't even pay lip service to historic preservation. Another is that other cities have figured out how to do it better than supposedly progressive towns like Seattle:

Today cities around the country are racing each other who can adopt "green building" ordinances the fastest. Such centers of environmental activism as San Francisco, Berkley, and Santa Fe are, of course, leading the way. And what are they doing? Encouraging or mandating central vacuum systems, back draft dampers, bicycle racks and waterless toilets. And that's fine, I guess, but again misses the larger picture. Santa Fe, certainly one of the most important historic cities in America, is just about to adopt a 110-page "Sustainable Santa Fe" document. Historic preservation in that initiative? Not even mentioned.

Meanwhile, Dubuque, Iowa, is far ahead of any of those places. It is in the process of designating its 28 square block warehouse district as a pilot project for a comprehensive Energy Efficiency Zone. And what does Dubuque have as a basic principle? That the adaptive reuse of those warehouse structures is key for energy conservation for Iowa's future. I'm telling you, the model for real sustainable development is not going to be San Francisco, Santa Fe or Berkley, but Dubuque, Iowa.

After Rypkema's visit to here, he was impressed by Seattle as a laboratory of ideas, but he also expressed concern about the unintended consequences of the city's push for density uber alles. He saw wonderful older apartment buildings doomed to the wrecking ball that would be replaced by less affordable (and perhaps less permanent) structures and was concerned about the displacement of small, neighborhood retailers who were being priced out by development:

Walking around Seattle neighborhoods, talking to neighborhood activists, developers, preservationists and city officials, here's my observation — there are unintended consequences to this "density above all" approach that need to be addressed. In Seattle three other important public policy priorities seem to be being sacrificed at the altar of density — affordable housing, historic preservation, and small business. ...

Historic preservation in most of America has moved from being an end in itself — save old buildings in order to save old buidlings — to being a vehicle for larger, and perhaps even more important ends. ... [T]he myopic focus on "density" is putting that substantial contribution of historic preservation at risk.

As a city that has economically benefited so much from historic preservation, you'd think the value of it would be a no-brainer, even without the eco argument. And we do get it situationally. The Pike Place Market is a great example of how preservation can serve multiple goals — generating urban vitality, supporting local food and crafts, creating affordable housing, serving as both a tourist attraction and a centerpiece of civic identity. The $75 million market levy that will be on the ballot in November is the kind of basic maintenance and improvement measure the Market needs and a public investment in much more than history.

Seattle has yet to integrate preservation and sustainability more broadly. But the urgency increases with the rate of change, with the impacts on climate, and with more and more battlegrounds outside of downtown and inside the neighborhoods. A few people get it — Peter Steinbrueck, for one — but we're still a long way from using the combined muscle of the environmental and historic preservation movements to create a city that reflects the best of the past and the future.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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