This is the story of two buildings. Both are unloved by many of their neighbors, both share the same address. Given Seattle’s rapid growth, with blocks razed and remade within years, they've come to represent a pivot point in the city’s transformation. Because of these buildings, preservationists and opponents of deep changes in neighborhoods – particularly historic ones – are realizing they may have fewer tools at their disposal.
Along Seattle’s once and future waterfront, a clash has emerged between the city’s heritage and its path forward, centered around 316 Alaskan Way South.
Enshrined in the city’s municipal code is a bit of vague language, meant to prevent neighborhoods from becoming a schizophrenic mishmash of building styles and heights: “Exterior building facades shall be of a scale compatible with surrounding structures.” This can refer to a number of concerns, from window width to how “bulky” the building looks. But its central issue is the stature of a proposed building compared with its surroundings.
The Pioneer Square Preservation Board has referenced this idea of scale throughout the past year, as they considered a proposed 120-foot-tall residential building on the corner of Alaskan Way South and South Jackson Street. As its name implies, the board was created to preserve “Seattle’s First Neighborhood," which is on the National Register of Historic Places. After numerous meetings and considerable back-and-forth with developers, the board voted 7-1 to nix the proposal, declaring it a poor fit with the surrounding area, given that nearby structures are only about half its size or less.
“I think what people are responding to when they say ‘out-of-scale’ is that you’re losing some of the finer grain, deeper experiences of pedestrians as they’re walking through a block,” says Dean Kralios, vice-chair of the preservation board and architect at Seattle-based SMR Architects. “I think when you have a historic district, you have to look at compatibility on a broad scale.”
Two weeks after their July 15 vote, however, the board received an extremely rare smackdown. Seattle’s newly appointed Department of Neighborhoods director, Kathy Nyland – a former policy advisor to Mayor Ed Murray – overturned their decision, giving developers the green light despite the board’s near-complete objection.
In an article on Nyland’s move, Seattle Weekly reported that she refused to respond to emails and phone calls asking for an explanation. Nyland calls this a mischaracterization, and describes herself as an open book on this issue.
The preservation board’s vote simply represented a non-binding opinion, she explains. The section of Seattle’s building code referring to “scale” is vague to the point of meaninglessness.
“I think the issue of scale is all subjective and how people interpret it,” says Nyland. Pressed multiple times on whether a building can be out-of-scale while within height limits for its zone, she says scale isn’t a worthy consideration to her, given how “fuzzy” its definition is. There are defined height limits in the city’s code. The approval of buildings “will go to what’s allowable under height limits. That’s the bottom line.”
“There’s always that tension between what you look at and see as the current use, versus the current zoning,” Nyland says. “In my neighborhood this happens pretty frequently. People see a little bungalow being replaced by a triplex, or three condos or townhouses, but the zone allows for that.”
Nyland notes the preservation board only serves in an advisory capacity to the city: “They make recommendations, and we consider them.” Near-unanimous decisions of such boards have been overturned in the past, she says, though she can’t cite any such instances off the top of her head.
In the two weeks between the board’s vote and her overruling of it, Nyland says she consulted with board leaders, read meeting hours, and met with representatives of the proposed building’s developers, Portland-based Gerding Elden. The developers made concessions, she says. These included making “setbacks” to the building’s glassy upper section, which are meant to minimize its appearance of dwarfing nearby buildings.
As far as Nyland sees it, the neighborhood’s maximum height was decided in 2011, when areas of Pioneer Square were up-zoned. That can’t be re-litigated through a preservation board. Stopping a development that’s within height limits is “outside their purview,” she says.
Beyond municipal codes and neighborhood boards, the fight over 316 Alaskan comes down to the two buildings in question, and what they represent to neighborhood residents. The first – slated for destruction – is a dumpy-looking parking structure. Located directly beside the city’s elevated viaduct highway, it’s hidden from view for most locals. That’s a good thing. Splotchy, dark green paint covers the majority of its exterior, which is punctuated by graffiti, chips and cracks in the facade, and old metal.
Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.