South Lake Union: the bulldozing of Seattle's past?

Development can be a friend to preservation, as a Tom Douglas restaurant has shown. But a lot is at risk.
Development can be a friend to preservation, as a Tom Douglas restaurant has shown. But a lot is at risk.

In late December, Seattle history was in full flower on the south shore of Lake Union. On Dec. 29, the new Museum of History and Industry opened in the refurbished Naval Armory and received a rave review in The New York Times. Outside the museum, historic ships were moored with easy access for visitors to such vessels as the old Mosquito Fleet survivor Virgina V, the Duwamish fireboat and the lightship Swiftsure. On an adjacent South Lake Union park beach, a Haida Indian led a group of Native American youths in the construction of a canoe by steaming the wood of the carved boat to obtain the right configuration. Smoke from the fire filled the damp air with the essential scent of the Northwest.

If history is thriving on the shore, it's struggling just inland. The transformation of the South Lake Union-Cascade area is impressive and massive. A proposed rezone would allow new buildings near the lake to go much higher. For many, the neighborhood is a blank slate welcoming more density; for others,  it already has a rich history, a soul, that new development threatens. Debate over the rezone has tended to focus on building heights, view-blockage, affordability and fairness. But heritage advocates also worry about the impact of the rezone and their concerns were made explicit and specific in a recent letter to Seattle city council member Richard Conlin, who has been shepherding the rezone as chair of the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability committee, from Chris Moore, field director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

Moore isn't the only one concerned. In fact, the rezone's own Environmental Impact Statement warns of the development impacts on historic properties. And yes, they do exist in South Lake Union-Cascade. There are 14 current city landmarks within the neighborhood, according to a 2010 city survey, and another 34 structures that are considered to be landmark eligible. As the EIS notes, the rezone "could...result in the greatest amount of development pressure on existing small scale structures that may be eligible for historic designation." In other words, the rezone will put the squeeze on heritage properties.

A walking tour of South Lake Union is an eye-opener: It is far more than throw-away light industrial warehouses. A remarkable variety of architectural styles exist there, from 19th century row houses to turn-of-the-century bungalows, from mid-century modern commercial buildings to Deco structures, even some interesting Brutalist brutes. Beyond what's landmark-worthy, there are vernacular structures that give the place a lot of character, and these are especially vulnerable. While some older buildings can and are being adapted for new uses (e.g. the Supply Laundry), others potentially face the wrecking ball. It's not an historic district exactly, but neither is it a blank slate. The question is: Can density, development and heritage all be accommodated, and to the extent that heritage suffers from growth, what steps can be taken to mitigate the impact of development within the district?

The South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan advocates "sensitivity to the area's history and historical elements" as a guiding principle and lays out some of the steps that should be taken. The 2007 plan includes recommendations such as establishing incentives for preservation, rehabilitation and the adaptive reuse of historic structures. And an expanded Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program to help property owners save significant structures by selling their development rights to other projects.

Chris Moore's concern is that the rezone as currently proposed doesn't do this. Speaking for the Washington Trust, Moore writes, "[I]n our opinion, the legislation as proposed does not go far enough in demonstrating this sensitivity. The significant increase in height allowances will substantially increase the pressure put on historic resources present in the area..." For example, while there are 14 landmarks and some 34 eligible properties in the district, the current plan has no TDR program. Incentive zoning is available for some historic properties of at least 60,000 square feet, but only the old Seattle Times building and Troy Laundry qualify.

"Setting a lot size unnecessarily exclusionary," says Moore, who is concerned about smaller properties. He believes all existing landmarks in the area should be eligible to participate in a TDR program, including those located in the adjacent Cascade Neighborhood. He also says owners of future landmarks should be able to qualify for the program too. The city's Department of Planning has previously stated that it considers that the lack of TDR's in SLU will have no significant impact on historic properties. Moore disagrees. Tools are needed to give property owners an alternate path.

Even now, there are SLU structures going through the city landmark process, such as the modernist office of noted architect J. Lister Holmes (he did Yesler Terrace) and 777 Thomas Street, a 1930s Art Deco former auto service garage. Properties like this are often reviewed as part of the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process required in advance of development projects. Moore and the Trust recommend that the city proactively seek landmark status for the most eligible properties, as was done for the downtown rezone.

They also suggest a "mitigation fund." Developers would pay into it and it would be a source of funding for SLU landmark capital improvements. They also suggest exploring incentives that are used in managing conservation districts with an eye toward possibly applying those to South Lake Union. Lastly, the letter reminds that while the city touts LEED standards in green building practices, redeveloping existing building stock is "the greenest building practice that exists." The National Trust for Historic Preservation's Green Lab (officed in Pike/Pine) is currently working in the neighborhood and is working with the city on developing new policies, like outcome-based energy codes, that would make it easier and more profitable for developers to rehab existing structures.

Richard Conlin, who has endorsed the SLU rezone, says that he will review these proposals early in January. "I am happy to take a look at it and see what we can do to be helpful." Clearly, there is a lot more that can be done to shape South Lake Union with a stronger commitment to heritage throughout.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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