Save that old firehouse at Magnuson Park

An architect counts the ways, environmental, economic, and architectural, for avoiding the wrecking ball now aimed at Building 18.
Crosscut archive image.

Building 18 at Sand Point is strategically situated, with its hose tower as a way-finding feature

An architect counts the ways, environmental, economic, and architectural, for avoiding the wrecking ball now aimed at Building 18.

Seattle is a green city — isn't it? Let's put our reputation to the test by taking a close look at a building at Sand Point/Magnuson Park.

Recently Mayor Nickels kicked off a campaign he calls "Choose Reusable" promoting reusable bags over disposable ones. "Both paper and plastic disposable bags harm our environment, and every year, residents in Seattle throw out 360 million of them. That's simply unsustainable," said Nickels. Thanks to new efforts by the City and Seattleites, we are on our way to our sixth year of improving domestic and commercial recycling and sending less waste to our landfills. We recycle glass, paper, metal, and kitchen scraps, and we carry reusable totes to the grocery store.

If we recycle paper, bottles, and cans, why don't we recycle more of our buildings? If we are so concerned with being sustainable, why aren't we considering the environmental consequences of demolishing buildings — especially if the building is a public one.

This past week, the City of Seattle and Seattle Parks and Recreation submitted a SEPA Checklist and Determination of Non-Significance in order to prepare all the paperwork to demolish Building 18, the Fire Station Building, at Magnuson Park. In making my case to save this building, I'm going to start with arguments that don't attempt to prove the building's historic significance, beginning with the environment.

The U.S. EPA reports that "In 2006, US residents, businesses, and institutions produced more than 251 million tons of municipal solid waste, which is approximately 4.6 pounds of waste per person per day." If Building 18 is demolished — a solid brick and steel building of approximately 14,013 square feet — 1,212 tons of construction and demolition would be put into a landfill. That's as much waste as it would be for a single person putting his or her 4.6 pounds per day into a landfill for 1,444 years! Even if part of the building was recycled, the energy expended to demolish, load, haul, and recycle is astounding.

Every building is a storehouse of non-recoverable energy and can be considered by its "embodied energy." This is the energy that has been spent in its construction, manufacture, and transportation of materials. When a building is torn down, more is lost than the built resource (and its associated heritage). Embodied energy is also lost, and more energy is expended for the demolition, loading, and hauling of the debris.

The amount of gasoline this represents in a single building can be helpful to understand the impact. For Building 18 alone the embodied energy is the equivalent of driving your (fuel efficient) car every day, 365 days a year, for over 200 years. Tear down Building 18? We have now wiped out the entire environmental benefit from the last 1,972,830 aluminum cans that were recycled. We'ꀙve not only wasted a perfectly good building; we'ꀙve wasted months of diligent recycling by the people of Seattle. In addition, demolition is also equivalent to carbon sequestered by either 427 tree seedlings for a decade or 3.8 acres of pine forest annually. Aren't we a green city?

Embodied energy only tells us part of the story. As the National Trust for Historic Preservation says: "while knowing the embodied energy in a building enables us to understand how building construction and demolition compares to other energy intensive activities, such as auto use, it doesn'ꀙt help with much else. It doesn'ꀙt tell us anything about toxins that are released as a byproducts of extraction, manufacturing, construction, and demolition — or the natural resources consumed in the process." Other tools, such as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), provides a means to do just this. LCA quantifies the energy and materials usage and environmental releases at each stage of a product'ꀙs life cycle, including extraction of resources, manufacturing of goods, construction, use, and disposal.

However, while all this science is extremely useful, there's a point when logic should kick in. Recycle that wine bottle? Absolutely yes. Now, look at a building like the Fire house. Throw that in a landfill? Preposterous. There has to be a really good reason to do so, and so far, there is none to be found.

It seemed like the City was going in the right direction. Earlier this year on March 25, Nickels announced an alliance with the National Trust for Historic Preservation for the Seattle Green Lab, recognizing the important connection between buildings and climate change. The Lab will be looking at connections between existing buildings and energy savings, and using these measures to promote building reuse and green adaptation. 'ꀜOur buildings are our history." said Nickels. "We need to preserve our past, but we also need to prepare for the future. By adapting the latest technology, we can renovate our historic buildings without toasting the planet.'ꀝ

Perhaps the Mayor only meant "historic" buildings — those that are laboriously put through a rigorous process at the City, County, State or National level to get the name "historic" or "landmark," after having been proven to have historic or architectural value. Landmarking has its place for buildings, and not enough is being done to preserve buildings with characteristics that should be seen for generations to come. And Building 18 is arguably one of these buildings.

But, what about those that are on the edge of "significance"? What about those that have none at all? Here we need to consider the impact on the environment before tooting our own sustainable horn. Perhaps we need to regulate more tightly what buildings go into our recycling and trash as much as we do our paper, glass, and food scraps.

If the environmental case isn't enough of an argument for saving Building 18, let's talk about money. The City argues the building has had "years of disuse and neglect have left the structure unsound." In 2001, the City had slated $60,000 to repair the roof that was beginning to fall into disrepair; the money was pulled from the project due to budget constraints or disinterest. An estimate for "roof replacement including basic seismic strengthening improvements to tie roof to building exteriors" was estimated again in 2005, this time at $200,000.

Either of these acts would have sufficiently upgraded the building to await further improvements and find interested tenants, but again no action was taken. In fact, there were interested tenants and a design in place, but due to lack of movement by the City and increased costs, they fell out of the running and the building sat vacant. Currently, estimates to demolish the building are $200,000. If this money had been put toward the building in the first place, Building 18 would have a future as a viable, vibrant place in the park.

In addition, if the building is demolished as planned by the City, the ripple effect could be catastrophic to the future of the park. Currently a National Register nomination for a Historic District has been proposed for the significant buildings in the park, including Building 18 (only the City of Seattle has decided it is not significant). If this building is demolished, it could compromise the integrity of the National Register nomination, and as a result, diminish the opportunity for further renovation projects gaining tax incentives available through the National Register listing. Such a listing could make private-public partnerships an appealing option for underutilized buildings, encouraging more tenants to rent in the park.

Let's look at other reasons to save this building. The old firehouse, in order to be strategically situated for calls, sits prominently in the center of the park. Building 18 is located off the main entrance of Magnuson Park on NE 74th street. This is where the most people enter Magnuson, by bus, foot, bike, or car. The building marks the end of the main street that runs north to south in the historic district, and creates a nice grouping of buildings before the larger open space of grass and parking to the south. Without it a large void would exist and a gap would be exposed to the south. The building also acts as a visual buffer between the historic building cluster and the vast parking lot to the southeast. Without it, park visitors would gaze upon a sea of asphalt — hardly the vision of greenery the park is known for.

The firehouse also acts like a way finder to the activities in the park, and at any given time 5-10 temporary signs are placed in front of the building to communicate events in the park. In fact, this prominent siting is one of the greatest advantages of the building, and one that could be played up in future renovations with creative signage, perhaps even digital, to create a vibrant way-finding device for the park's growing activities. The hose tower acts as another marker, since it can be seen throughout the park and is often cited as a way to find the entry gate from the large expanses of sports fields, playgrounds, dog runs, and other corners of the site.

And finally, what about its historic value? The City argues that Building 18 should not be considered for the National Register of Historic Places nomination because it "does not exhibit Art Deco architectural detailing found on other buildings in the District." It also states that a 1993 Survey concluded that the building "is not significantly associated with the historic events of Sand Point Naval Station; establishment as a reserve base and then conversion to active duties in preparation for World War II." However, later, it states that the Washington State Officer of Historic Preservation added Building 18 as a "contributing building" to the Naval Station Sand Point Historic District, but does not seem to recognize this in the final decision.

What constitutes "significant" historic and cultural value in a building is often hotly debated by historians, politicians, community groups, and other interested parties. At the end of the day, it is clear that some buildings are more historic due to their architectural style, the activities that occurred their, or the important people associated with the site. In fact, if these things don'ꀙt exist, then it's practically impossible to officially declare something historic, and suddenly, the building lacks "value." This is a very narrow way of measuring cultural and historic worth, but is traditionally the leading argument for anyone who wants to tear down an old building. The word "historic" saves it, but "old" or "existing" does not.

In the end, I don't much care if Building 18 it has Art Deco details, there are plenty of those across the street. And that it wasn't part of the preparation for World War II? Well, I'm a historian and love history, but I'm not just impressed by good stories in order to see something valued in a building. What I do see is this: A solid brick and steel framed building with beautiful proportions marking the southern end of a street lined with great old naval buildings. I see a building beautifully sited as a marker and way finder for those coming to visit the park. I see a building ripe with possibilities for new space, light and airy with high ceilings, huge industrial garage doors for machine bays that once held fire engines.

I see inside these spaces a bike shop, a bookstore, a coffee store, a restaurant, or an art gallery. I see signage on the outside announcing all the exciting things going on at the park such as the Friends of the Library book sale, the Lakeside rummage sale, Tree Day, garden and plant shows, soccer playoffs, fundraising runs, sailing events, art shows, graduations, soccer games and dances. I see an old hose tower that speaks to the days when firefighters would hang canvas hoses in the tall towers to dry after a fire. (Nowadays, synthetic hoses don't need to hang to dry, so they're not needed.)

In short, I see possibilities. And those possibilities are built upon choosing to reuse buildings, not tearing them down and expending energy to try to recycle their parts or throwing them in a landfill. We need old buildings, not just historic ones. We need texture, age, and variety in our cities and parks, not just new buildings, for as Jane Jacobs wrote in her Death and Life of Great American Cities, "newness, and its superficial gloss of well-being is a very perishable commodity."

It's time to recall Jane Jacobs' advice: Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.


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