Ballard diner site sold to Chicago firm

The corner where a landmark preservation battled was waged is now in the hands of a company chaired by media and real estate mogul Sam Zell.

The corner where a landmark preservation battled was waged is now in the hands of a company chaired by media and real estate mogul Sam Zell.

Various media report that the old Ballard Manning's/Denny's diner site has been sold to a publicly traded Chicago firm specializing in owning apartments. The empty, fenced site at the Ballard gateway corner of 15th Avenue NW and NW Market Street has been undeveloped since the previous owner, a branch of Benaroya Properties, demolished the landmark structure a couple of years ago despite the structure having received landmark status from the city's landmarks board.

The saga of the Manning's/Denny's began with reporting here on Crosscut when it turned out that the 1964 structure had been built by a prominent Bay Area modern architect, Clarence W. Mayhew, in a style that has become known as "Googie." The diner had been saved from the wrecking ball once before and had long been an old Ballard gathering place. Its distinctive swoopy roof resembled a design that seemed a unique combination of Polynesian, Scandinavian and North Coast Indian and it was a familiar roadside landmark.

Seattle preservationists won the battle to have the diner designated a landmark, but the city landmarks board agreed with Benaroya that preserving the building was not financially viable, in part because of the high price they had paid for the site, which had previously been designated for a Green Line monorail station, then sold off when that project failed. A historic survey of the building had not been done.

The current deal is for $12.5 million, reportedly what Benaroya originally paid. When the landmarks board refused to protect the structure, under threat of a lawsuit by Benaroya that challenged the entire landmarks process, it was immediately demolished and the site has been empty since.

A couple of comments.

Eric Pryne's Seattle Times story has this sentence: "Benaroya demolished the boarded-up Denny's in 2008 after a fight that attracted national attention." And that is accurate, but the "boarded up" reference has been repeated in many media accounts and deserved clarification. The implication is that the building was somehow derelict. But in fact, the diner was a functioning, profitable member of the Denny's chain and could have continued to operate up through today had not the owner kicked them out and boarded the place up. Graffiti taggers showed up on cue and in short order the place looked like a wreck. I believe, along with many preservationists,  that this was part of a common strategy to sabotage the landmarks case by making the building seem worse than it was. Visually, it worked.

According to Pryne, the purchaser, Equity Residential, is chaired by billionaire Sam Zell. Zell is the abrasive, controversial, real estate mogul who is owner of the Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times, a newspaper he has been accused of "destroying."

While the diner is frequently referred to as a Denny's, the building was custom built for the Manning's restaurant chain founded in Seattle as a coffee company, a kind of proto-Starbucks. The building's historic association with Manning's was more significant than its association with Denny's.

Nevertheless, props were due to the Denny's chain for not tearing the building down, as planned, in the 1980s, and thus winning the hearts and minds of Ballardites of that era.

The developer of the site, Rhapsody Partners of Kirkland, went through a lengthy design review process, which resulted in a mixed-use commercial and condo development that features a strange light-house-like tower with a gazebo on top (see pictures at My Ballard). There had long been concerns about the design of the new development, which once included a drive-through. But it was eventually approved with modifications.

Some critics say that it looks like it was designed by committee, having achieved a look that is hulking, generic, and odd. If built, maybe it will grow into historic and quirky, but I doubt it. Let's hope the new owner approaches that key Ballard corner with a fresh eye.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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