We know that Seattle’s rapid growth is putting pressure on our architectural heritage with demolitions and façadism. The city is being remade at an unprecedented level. But we’ve all long had the consolation that a previous generation of urbanists acted to accommodate growth while creating a heritage bedrock by saving the Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square and establishing historic districts. Cranes and wrecking balls might reign, but at least the classics are safe, right?
Maybe not. News in recent weeks is raising alarms that even what has been “saved” isn’t truly saved, even if it has proved a boon to urban vitality, affordability and livability. To wit:
A massive, out-of-scale new building has been approved for the perimeter of Pioneer Square over the objections of the city’s own Pioneer Square Preservation Board, a move some observers say is virtually unprecedented.
At Pike Place, a park named after the man credited with rescuing the Market from being converted into a parking garage is slated to undergo a makeover that might significantly alter its role in the urban ecosystem that was the very essence of the Market rescue mission: to serve the needs of downtown’s low-income residents.
And Mayor Ed Murray’s advisory board on affordable housing announced a series of proposals (the so-called HALA report) that went beyond the since-shelved suggestion to effectively up-zone single-family neighborhoods. They also included the still-live recommendation to eliminate conservation districts, criticism of design review in Seattle’s historic districts and a proposal to scale back the number of projects subject to the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), which looks at development impacts on sensitive areas, including historic districts and landmarks.
Added together, one has to look at the city’s attitude toward managing stewardship of key heritage assets and ask, WTF?
Growth has many cheerleaders in Seattle, and some of them are also avid preservationists. The caricature often presented is of aged NIMBYs resisting all change. But even the most indifferent student to Seattle history could easily learn that historic preservation has been used as a key aid to spurring and shaping urban development. Indeed, Seattle has been a national role model of using preservation to boost urban vitality, an alternative to the brute force of “urban renewal” or simply letting the market run rampant.
Architect and activist Victor Steinbrueck, for example, believed Seattle would only be a great city if we paid attention to its full range of urban vitality, from old to new. His 1962 Seattle Cityscape sketchbook energized a generation that believed, Jane Jacobs-style, that character really mattered.
The rationale for saving Pioneer Square — promoted by Steinbrueck and others as early as the 1950s — was to revitalize our first urban neighborhood by protecting its historic character and making it work for art galleries, restaurants, clubs and the homeless. Its renovation has widely been hailed. The goal was to attract new people, tourism and businesses downtown and to provide a nexus for social services and adjacent low-income housing and shelter. Immense effort and care has gone into that. Key has been preserving the unique urban character of the Square — its main asset.
The Square is still ground zero for many projects, from the redevelopment of the North Parking Lot of Centurylink Field to the new Weyerhaeuser headquarters along Occidental to all the disruption of new streetcar tracks and the Bertha tunnel work. The growth pressures there and in SoDo will only increase. Now would seem to be the time for extra vigilance in preserving its character, which includes scale, design and attention to context. Insisting that adjacent design is compatible and doesn’t overwhelm or create new barriers is critical.