Preservationists score a small victory in Pioneer Square

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Opponents of a proposed Pioneer Square development, which has been criticized as “out of scale” with the historic district, won a procedural round from a city hearing examiner this week. The ruling effectively puts the development on hold for an undetermined amount of time.

In July, the Pioneer Square Preservation Board rejected the design of a new development at 316 Alaskan Way South in a 7-1 vote, after many months of debate over the proposed 120-foot-tall residential building. Two weeks later, their nearly unanimous recommendation was unexpectedly rejected by the head of the Department of Neighborhoods, Kathy Nyland. Overturning the board’s recommendation was highly unusual, and infuriated many Pioneer Square residents who believe the project’s design is problematic, and worry the role of the Preservation Board has been compromised.

Nyland, a former aide to Mayor Ed Murray, subsequently told Crosscut that the project’s zoning height was the main factor in her decision, and that concerns over mass and scale were too vaguely defined in the city’s building code to hold weight. “The approval of buildings will go to what’s allowable under height limits. That’s the bottom line,” she told reporter Drew Atkins.

David Bricklin, an environmental attorney, calls that attitude “shocking” for the director of the department overseeing land use code. That code says that bulk and scale are relevant considerations. Bricklin filed an appeal to the hearing examiner, on behalf of by a volunteer group of concerned Pioneer Square residents and businesses called Save Our Square.

This week, the hearing examiner found that the Department of Neighborhoods violated its own rules by acting to green light the project, because it did so without receiving a formal written opinion from the Pioneer Square Preservation Board, as required by law. Instead, the department acted on the written recommendation of one of its own staffers to ignore the board’s vote.

In other words, the process of decision-making was flawed, and must be fixed before the project can move forward or its other issues can be addressed.

The Pioneer Square Preservation Board must approve and submit its written recommendation to Nyland concerning 316 Alaskan Way South. The board has that on its to-do list for its scheduled meeting on October 7.

The decision delays a late September hearing, given that the project’s “certificate of approval decision is reversed” according to the examiner. A press release from Save Our Square says “This decision by the Hearing Examiner restores the [Preservation Board]’s role as a necessary mediator between the fragile historic district and the push of developers and density advocates.” The group said it's concerned about the “dilution” of the district’s character due to development.

Bricklin says he’s “hopeful the board can now author its own recommendation in a full-throated way, and make it clear why it believes [approval of the project] is a bad idea.”

Development pressures are being felt all over the city, and have preservationists very concerned. A recent effort by Nick Licata to revamp the Pike Place Market Preservation Commission was met with anger by Market stakeholders earlier this week. While Licata did not intend to erode preservation protections and has beat a retreat on many of his revisions, his proposal would potentially have had that effect.

The mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) report, which was released to controversy earlier this year, also contained a host of recommendations and complaints that included opposition to neighborhood conservation districts (like Pike-Pine) and gripes about design review in general and review in historic districts specifically.

Protecting historic districts – which provide tax and other benefits through their federal recognition – requires that issues like building appearance be regulated to preserve the integrity and character of the district. This does not mean no charge or development can occur. For example, see the proposals for the Weyerhaeuser headquarters under construction along Occidental Avenue South.

As a general rule, preservationists welcome this growth, but see historic districts as a tool to guide it. The integrity of such districts is critical, providing rules, oversight, and review that add discipline to Seattle’s development boom. Historic districts around the city are experiencing growth pressures from adjacent development.

The issue isn’t the proposal at 316 Alaskan Way South per se, a large residential development that would replace a parking garage. Rather, it is how the proposed design fits in Pioneer Square, and whether it enhances or detracts from the neighborhood’s historic character. The process by which these decisions are made is also at stake, and clearly needs to be watchdogged.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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