South Lake Union and the boom-town blame game

Look out, preservationists. The developers are here to transform the city for density, and they have their attorneys ready to make you just get out of their way.
Crosscut archive image.

This building is an example of the kind of non-landmark, vernacular architecture that is historic, but hard to protect.

Look out, preservationists. The developers are here to transform the city for density, and they have their attorneys ready to make you just get out of their way.

You knew it would happen. The Great Recession brought an unlikely truce in the development wars. As the real estate bubble popped, the cranes disappeared and holes in the ground stayed holes.

That was then. Now is now and the city and development are getting back into the swing of things. Towers are rising, bridges, highway and rail projects are moving ahead. And here's a sure sign of growth's new spring: pointing fingers. The "ramps to nowhere" are coming down but the blame game is ramping up.

For example, the issue about Washington State Department of Transportation boondoggles (cracked pontoons, low bridges, the listing Chetzemoka) has been heated up in part because of a Democratic House proposal in Olympia to raise taxes and fees on gas, cars and even bikes to build more stuff. The public is having none of it.

An Elway poll revealed that large majorities oppose new gas taxes (72%) and license tab fees (62%). And in light of questions of competence, a Washington State Wire story last week asked the pertinent question: "$100 Million Boo-Boo at 520 Bridge Has Critics Raising a Bigger Question — How Come State Road Projects Cost So Much?"

Turns out, it looks like Washington does generally pay more for its highway infrastructure. But WSDOT was quick to point a finger at forces outside the agency. According to the story, "There are communities that have to be satisfied, [WSDOT Chief of Staff Jeff] Reinmuth says, and they all want some form of 'mitigation' — traffic improvements, noise reduction, bike paths, pedestrian walkways. Environmental permits must be obtained, meaning designs must accommodate environmental concerns."

In other words, it's the fault of all those folks who want WSDOT to follow state and federal laws, the greens, the people concerned about cultural impacts like, oh, buildings collapsing while a tunnel is bored underneath them. You know, the complainers with their hands out.

Blaming the NIMBYs is one way to get attention off of cracking pontoons, flawed ferry boats, and a Columbia River bridge that was designed to be too low for major boat traffic.

Reinmuth says he understands that such annoyances as public input are all part of the system. He goes on to say, "We take that stewardship and responsibility very seriously, and it is not inexpensive. When you look at the amount of engineering, the amount of construction, the amount of environmental work and the amount of community mitigation that needs to happen, it all adds up. And with all of the hundreds of public hearings that have happened on the 520, and with all of the concerns that have been addressed and built into the design, all those things add to the cost of the bridge."

Note the emphasis on "hundreds of public meetings," which suggests that WSDOT is being a good sport as it is dragged through the process of working with citizens. Anyone familiar with the public process knows that it is flawed; for one thing, it's too often weighted in favor of a project, not its critics, who must be satisfied with a few mitigation crumbs. During the economic slowdown of the few years, one growing line of attack has been to "streamline" development rules, like the state's push to loosen elements of the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) in order to speed-up project approvals and cut down on public notifications. If you can't build in a bust, you can at least change the rules so that the next boom will be boomier. Upzones and other development incentives have been pushed too — an example is Seattle's South Lake Union.

Which is the site of another attack on public process. A thwarted developer has filed a lawsuit against the city of Seattle and the Landmarks Preservation Board, arguing that the Board's decision to designate a SLU property as a city landmark is "unlawful," "clearly erroneous," "not supported by substantial evidence," and violates the state constitution and the City Charter.

The story has a familiar ring. A developer buys a property in hopes of building a high-rise development. The modest structure is vetted by the city's Landmarks Board and turns out to qualify under one or more of the city's landmark criteria. This time, it's an old garage at 777 Thomas Street, and its exterior happens to be an example of Art Deco architecture by a prominent architect. The Landmarks board votes to designate it a landmark, and the owner goes ballistic.

On Feb. 26, the property owners, 8th and Thomas LLC filed suit not only asking the the decision be thrown out, but arguing that the entire Landmarks Board is illegitimate and unconstitutional. One of the main lawyers in the case is local land use attorney John McCullough, who — and here comes the "sounds familiar" part — has filed similar suits including one in 2008 when the Landmarks Board designated a Googie diner in Ballard that was a Denny's restaurant.

The Denny's suit was used by McCullough as a cudgel against the Landmarks Board to force what was, in effect, a reversal of their decision. In the Denny's case, though the building was by a notable California modern architect and had been voted a landmark, the Board chose to put no restrictions on what the owner could do with it. It was argued that limitations on the building would create an economic hardship for the owner who had paid dearly for the property. This let the owner off the hook for having to save the building, which they promptly bulldozed. A legally demolished landmark, who knew?

8th and Thomas LLC might consider a similar decision to be a win. The development group, officed in San Francisco, intends to put up a 7-story, 183-unit residential and retail building on the 777 Thomas site. Another older building on their property was considered for landmark status, but turned down.

Among the arguments McCullough and his partner G. Richard Hill make in the suit filed in King County Superior Court is that that the decision to designate 777 Thomas was simply wrong and that the building is not a distinctive Art Deco structure and that the criteria for designation are too loose and too open to interpretation and aesthetic judgments. Since there is no appeal process for designation, they chose to go to court.

Beyond that, they raise arguments aimed at questioning the very existence of the Board, which was also done in the Denny's complaint. One is that the Landmarks Board decision should be void because it is biased — members of the Board are selected in part because they are sympathetic toward preservation — and therefore fair hearings are impossible. McCullough and Hill argue that the decision in their case is in violation of Seattle's Comp Plan; that the delegation of what is essentially zoning authority to the Board is illegal; that the Board's decisions are not a reasonable exercise of the city's "police powers" in that a designation does not "promote the health, safety, or welfare of the public"; and that the whole set up is unconstitutional.

One could be forgiven for hearing the clattering of a kitchen sink in there somewhere. Normal procedure is for the Landmarks staff and the property owner to discuss "controls and incentives" for the property, and a public Board meeting to discuss and vote on those. Liza Anderson, who is handling the case for the City Attorney's office, would not comment except to say that a "stay" in the lawsuit for nine months had been agreed to. Presumably, if 8th and Thomas LLC doesn't get their way, the litigation would do ahead. Normally disagreements over controls and incentives would be resolved by a hearing examiner, but the suit preserves the property owner's right to sue if they don't like the outcome.

South Lake Union is a development hot spot, and preservationists have been mobilizing to get the city to take saving historic structures in the district more seriously, such as adding preservation incentives to the planned re-zone under city council consideration, and advocating development rules that benefit adaptive re-use of older structures. One compromise in the 777 Thomas case could be the Denny's option: let the building come down. Bulldozed landmarks, however, are rather an embarrassment.

Another option is to incorporate the building's protected exterior into the new development's design. This has been done elsewhere in SLU (e.g., Amazon's Van Vorst Building) though preservationists are not particularly happy with such outcomes. Chris Moore of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation called that trend "facadism." One could argue that saving a building's outer skin is to historic preservation what taxidermy is to wildlife management. Still, a stuffed dodo is better than none at all.

The 8th and Thomas LLC lawsuit, of course, calls for dismantling the entire city landmarks process which, one would think, could bring chaos, raising questions not only about designations, but also presumably non-designations. Would we have to have a moratorium on development and a massive do-over? Would we just wipe out decades of landmark preservation? The suit's challenges are particular to the case at hand, an effective scare tactic. But they're reflective of a broader blame game that we're going to see more of: Protection, preservation, mitigation, local concerns are all demonized as costly barriers to the desired transformation of the city into a dense land of new highways and high-rises. Get out of the way, Seattle, the new boom is here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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