Recession, wrecking balls, and history

The new year will be challenging for historic preservation in Seattle, but there are great opportunities and new initiatives ahead, too. Here's a breakdown of six front-burner issues for 2009. First of 2 parts
Crosscut archive image.

The Kenney in West Seattle is the target of a new redevelopment project.

The new year will be challenging for historic preservation in Seattle, but there are great opportunities and new initiatives ahead, too. Here's a breakdown of six front-burner issues for 2009. First of 2 parts
Part 1

In a world of change, a preservationist's work is never done. Seattle has just come through a period of unprecedented growth, yet even with a Great Recession (or worse) looming, it's not time to take a breather. The dynamics of the market have changed, but some of the old historic bugaboos remain: bureaucratic hassles, budget cuts, important landmarks threatened. At the same time, 2009 will see some exciting new initiatives that offer hope for saving and enriching the best qualities of the built environment. Here's my look at some key issues in the new year.

1. Seattle's endangered landmarks

As always, the city has its share of important structures and landmarks at risk. The list includes Washington Hall, the historic performance hall and Central District gathering place that is up for landmark status Jan. 7. It will certainly be approved, but then what? Will its owners, the fraternal Sons of Haiti, come to acceptable terms with the city to keep the hall going? Or will a new, history-minded buyer be found (at a reasonable price) that can restore it? As discovered last year in the case of the Ballard Manning's/Denny's, landmark status is not always the last word in the process.

Some other endangered structures of note: The Kenney, the familiar Independence Hall-style retirement community in West Seattle's Fauntleroy neighborhood that is the target of a $150 million redevelopment project (the West Seattle blog has the background here); the UW's Nuclear Reactor Building, which has been approved by the state for the National Register despite the university's determination to demolish it; the Alaskan Way Viaduct, embraced by preservationist and retrofit-proponent Art Skolnik, but not on the list of options for re-wiring Seattle's waterfront being considered by Gov. Christine Gregoire, et. al.; theFederal Reserve Bank downtown, which the feds want to sell as a potential high-rise development site; and the Pacific Science Center, beginning the process of re-visioning its future, which might put key parts of its grounds and exterior at risk.

A private residence on the list of concerns: the George Carmack House, home of the famous Seattle resident who started the Klondike gold rush. The house is up for sale and within the footprint of Swedish Hospital's Central District expansion zone. Given that 2009 is the centennial of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, the city's first world's fair made possible by gold-rush prosperity, it would be a shame to lose this National Register-worthy home. Saving it is an AYPE centennial-worthy cause.

2. Upside of the recession

Many preservationists see a silver lining in the recession. Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History and Industry finds several positives. One, he says, is Seattle's history of turning negatives (the 1889 Seattle fire, being bypassed by the transcontinental railroad) into positive periods when the city aggressively shaped a better, long-term future. Seattle is often energized by adversity.

Second, the recession itself has benefits. Garfield lays it out this way:

[W]hile economic slowdowns derail many projects and initiatives, it is also true that bad times have often been a silent partner in historic preservation. It is no surprise that some of America's economic backwaters are especially rich in historic buildings. With less to spend on new construction, there is a kind of de facto preservation plan in place. And mis-guided remodelings, which often have disastrous consequences for historic buildings, often take a hiatus when times are tight. So while less is available for grand preservation projects, a little inertia can sometimes be a good thing in a nation that is more often replacing buildings at a rapid clip.

Kevin Daniels, one of the principals of Nitze-Stagen, the group behind saving downtown's First United Methodist Church sanctuary and historic re-developments like Union Station and Starbucks Center, agrees that slow-downs can take the pressure off, but he worries it makes it more difficult for government to expand successful and popular preservations programs like "Barn Again", which provides funds to save historic barns across the state.

But the good news, as Daniels and others point out, is that historic preservation is the kind of redevelopment that can create jobs and pay economic dividends fairly quickly for the people on Main Street. Says Daniels:

Hopefully the proven economic benefits generated by preservation projects...will give preservation programs some protection from the budget cutters. If you can continue to generate more than a dollar return on each dollar invested by government, it's exactly the type of economic stimulus we need at this time. Put people to work and get a long term public benefit.

Donovan Rypkema, a preservation and economic development consultant in Washington, D.C., also believes the recession is an opportunity, in part because new development is such a hit on sustainability and the carbon footprint (see some of his arguments in my story, "Unsustainable Seattle"). In March, Rypkema says, there will be a hearing at the European Parliament on Heritage Conservation as a Counter-Cyclical Economic Development Strategy. In a global downturn they're local, employment intensive, and on a do-able scale.

On an interesting note, economic hard times can also be great for designers, who flourished during the Great Depression by helping the middle-class to streamline and simplify their lives. 20th-century design is a tribute not just to style, but reflected a useful and economically profound devotion to practical-minded, often egalitarian modernist minimalism. The New York Times lays this out in a Jan 3 piece called "Design Loves a Depression." This same creativity applied to adaptive re-use could be a godsend now.

Preservation, sustainability, and stewardship are needed to get a saner economy up and running. Forget being shovel-ready: break out the trowels, hammers, eco-paint and solar panels for a fix-up or retrofit near you.

3. What will Obama do?

For preservationists one question is, does Barack Obama offer any hope? Could preservation strategies play a role in economic stimulus? Preservationists played an active role in Obama's campaign (see Historic Preservation for Obama), and Rypkema says there's reason to think that yes he can boost the cause.

For one thing, the new president, from historic architecture-rich Chicago, is an urban guy who will be establishing an office of urban policy in the White House. Says Rypkema, "For anyone with a more macro view of things, historic preservation and urban quality go hand in hand. Historic preservation is certainly not the solution for every urban problem, but it'ꀙs part of the solution for most of them. And Obama is nothing if not a sophisticated, nuanced thinker."

Second, he says that recent First Ladies (Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton) have been point-people for heritage efforts, and if the dynamic Michelle Obama picked up the mantle of "champion of American cultural heritage," good things could happen.

Lastly, Obama has specifically cited green retrofitting as an important component of his new New Deal energy effort. "If that initiative isn'ꀙt hijacked by green gizmo manufacturers, historic preservation can play an important part," says Rypkema.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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