Are Historic Districts or DADUs the Best Way to Preserve Queen Anne?

Torn by the perceived conflict between preserving Queen Anne’s historic character and of increasing urban density, I waver between historic districts and backyard cottages as the best way to preserve historic fabric. Across the country, we find contiguous districts such as the Ballard Avenue Historic District and thematic districts where scattered buildings of the same general type, style or age are protected as if the buildings were contiguous. Both types of districts protect all the buildings within their boundaries.

The relatively absence of individual landmarks and historic districts in Seattle underlies my angst. Ours is no longer a young west coast city, yet we have but eight historic districts and only the Harvard-Belmont District includes residential properties. The rest are commercial neighborhoods (Ballard Avenue, Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market, International District and Columbia City) or former military bases (Fort Lawton and Sand Point). Seattle has no neighborhood historic districts like Queen Anne, upper or lower and no thematic districts.

Ballard Avenue Historic District created in 1976 and our first district, is a case in point. The city’s website captures it, “Buildings throughout the District embody the distinctive characteristics of modest commercial architecture from the 1890s through the 1940s, creating a sense that the street is almost suspended in time.” The important word here is ‘modest.’ These are no fancy high style buildings or any works of renown architects. The photograph of the north side of Ballard Avenue shows two examples of how Ballard’s landmarks board protects the district. On the left, a brand-new building that is sympathetic in look and scale to the older buildings fills a gap. To its right, a totally modern residential addition sits above a historic building but well back from the street without disrupting the traditional look and feel of the neighborhood.

Ballard Avenue

Ballard Ave district infill respects historic character

The absence of historic districts in Seattle may reflect our city’s cumbersome monitoring method. Each of Seattle’s individual districts has its own landmarks board, a group of twelve community volunteers who approve additions to the historic district such as the new, but apparently sympathetic buildings in the Ballard Historic District. Each historic district is staffed by someone in the Department of Neighborhoods and that makes the price of historic districts high.

Other reasons for the lack of historic districts include reluctant property owners unwilling to submit voluntarily to the controls that come with landmark designation. That may explain why former military bases become historic districts more easily than privately held neighborhoods. For sure, property owners have often resisted the formation of historic districts thinking that the designation might reduce property values or make selling their homes harder.

Well, the tables may have turned. The city’s proposed Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda or HALA ordinances could encourage formation of historic districts since landmarks and buildings in historic districts are exceptions to the rule allowing Detached Auxiliary Dwelling Unit or DADUs. HALA is conceived to increase density in areas now zoned for single family housing. According to the laws that are emerging from the HALA discussions, if you have a lot that meets the minimum dimensions, you can build a DADU on it. The only properties in the entire city exempted from the proposed legislation are landmarks and those in historic districts. You’ll immediately seize the irony in that idea, I’m sure. The HALA exemption applies almost without exception to places where there is no room to build DADUs anyway.  Just think about Ballard Avenue, Pioneer Square or the Pike Place Market and chuckle.

Really though, our neighborhood has a historic sense of place even though most of the homes don’t have views of the Space Needle or Elliott Bay and were constructed for working class people. Even a quick look at the map of Queen Anne in the National Trust for Historic  Preservation’s new Atlas for ReUrbanism reveals a heady concentration of buildings of historic character on Queen Anne. Although hard to read in the atlas, the historic buildings are as diverse as the 1920s brick apartment houses in Lower Queen Anne, the big early 20th c. high style homes on Highland and Prospect and the numerous post Gold Rush Craftsman bungalows and American four squares peppering our narrow streets .

If we had a Queen Anne historic district bound perhaps by Queen Anne Boulevard as it circles the crown of the hill, every structure would be protected from immediate demolition and from the construction of DADUs on their or neighboring properties. So, bingo the neighborhood’s historic character would be preserved. Of course, we’d still have to document the history of every structure within the boundary and hope that it helps to already have Queen Anne Boulevard a city landmark. Even then, our proposed district would not be assured designation by the city.

Instead of spending years building consensus for a historic district, there is a strong argument in favor of DADUs. For example, if parking rules were relaxed, the construction of a small house in my backyard in which my wife and I would live, would allow us to rent the existing house on the lot and provide a nice chunk of monthly income. With that money, we could live on Queen Anne indefinitely, reduce the fear of running out of money in our old age, and maintain our historic 1907 house well. Such an opportunity could increase density significantly while helping people of limited means, whatever their age, live in and preserve the historic fabric of our neighborhood. I couldn’t promise that our DADU would do anything to promote social or economic equity. With the house two doors away up for nearly $6,000 a month, economic equity is not in the cards. As density increases though, there are more places to rent and a potential increase in housing across all slices of the market.

Thinking critically about this idea, I am struck by the number of existing DADUs on Queen Anne. You can find them on every alley west of First North. In some cases, they are garages converted to small houses. In others, they are purpose-built homes constructed well before WW II. In more modern cases, the rear half of deep lots have been subdivided creating opportunities for two full sized single-family homes. In all these examples, the historic character of the streetscapes has been preserved.

As I continue to waver between historic districts and detached auxiliary dwelling units when it comes to preserving historic character of our neighborhood. DADUs are emerging as my first choice. They are more equitable than historic districts; they are easier to implement; and they definitely help preserve historic character. As some people have pointed out, the two choices are not mutually exclusive. They could easily co-exist within the same larger neighborhood.  In fact, DADUs could be added within a historic district if they are approved by the district’s landmarks board.