Historic Preservation and the Illogical Dangers of Hyperbole

I prepared this article in response to a misleading article published on December 22, by the Sightline Institute. A link to the article appears below. Today, January 17, 2018, the Landmarks Preservation Board (LPB) voted not to impose Controls and Incentives on the Wayne Apartment the recently landmarked building discussed by Mr. Bertolet and me. The vote effectively makes my arguments weaker. Even though the building is part of Belltown, I share the article so as to give our readers a sense of the obstacles we face protecting the historic fabric of Queen Anne.

The LPB’s vote is the result of the property owner’s claim that preserving the building would be an economic hardship. It frees the property owner to sell the building with nothing in the way of its demolition. Part of the argument for the vote, which resulted from a rigorous review of all the options by the staff of the city’s Preservation Program and its recommendation to oppose Controls and Incentives that might have protected the building from demolition, rested on the huge disparity between the amount of money owners could realize from selling the Wayne and the cost of repairing and restoring it. It is a very dangerous argument in this time of incredibly high land values throughout the city. The Queen Anne Historical Society plans to begin redrafting the landmark ordinance in cooperation with other preservation organizations and lobbying the city council and the mayor for its eventual adoption, so stay tuned.

Here’s the article: 

Dan Bertolet’s article published on December 22, http://www.sightline.org/2017/12/19/when-historic-preservation-clashes-with-housing-affordability/ for the Sightline Institute paints Seattle’s historic preservation program as an enemy of housing development and implies that it contributes to the city’s intransient homelessness. Bertolet’s arguments miss the point of historic preservation and make illogical leaps to a specious conclusion.

Bertolet disparages the decisions to landmark buildings without presenting the reasons for their preservation nor the inherent logic of the landmark preservation ordinance.

Bertolet makes a leap contending that the luxury apartments or hotel rooms that could have been built had demolition of historic buildings been allowed would have helped solve the city’s daunting homelessness problems. Consequently, he pits the preservation of the city’s historic fabric against a social problem that is in fact unrelated both in its causes and in its possible solutions.

Wayne Apartments 19137
Wayne Apartments 1937

It makes sense to dissect Bertolet’s lead example, the Wayne Apartments on Second Avenue at Bell Street. Bertolet correctly describes the building as dilapidated and as being plunked on top of a one-story unreinforced masonry building that is, as he suggests, in danger of collapsing in a serious earthquake. He notes that landmarking the building prevented the construction of a 124-unit apartment building on the site and suggests that the building received landmark status only because neighbors didn’t want to lose a favorite hangout located in the 1911 brick ground floor. The attempt here to impugn the members of the Landmarks Preservation Board, with whom I often disagree, is simply misplaced.

The Landmarks Preservation Board (LPB) includes professional volunteers who are practicing architects, structural engineers, urban planners and historians. They can designate buildings as city landmarks only if the buildings meet at least one of the city’s six standards of eligibility. The 6 to 3 split on the designation of the Wayne Apartments points to the board’s consistently fair evaluation of the buildings it considers.  Bertolet fails to explain the importance of the Wayne Apartments in city history or give the reasons the building was designated.  In fact, the LPB found the Wayne Apartments met three criteria, c, d, and f. That is an impressive number of reasons when the law only requires that a building meet but one criterion. The ordinance defines these three criteria as follows:

(c) It is associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community, City, state or nation;

(d) It embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style, or period, or a method of construction; and

(f) Because of its prominence of spatial location, contrasts of siting, age, or scale, it is an easily identifiable visual feature of its neighborhood or the city and contributes to the distinctive quality or identity of such neighborhood or the City.

The Wayne Apartments nowadays. Photo: Jenni Moreno

It is easy to see how the board came to those conclusions, for the Wayne is the sole surviving example of a building that preexisted the Denny Regrades; moreover, it documents clearly the efforts of early 20th century Seattle residents to save the structures dislocated by the regrades. It is probable that most of the buildings lost between 1911 and now were just about as undistinguished architecturally as the Wayne. Consequently, it is a great example of the impact of the regrades which in themselves stand as one of the most dramatic reworking of urban landscapes in the history of the United States. It would be a horrible shame to lose the Wayne. Its value in visibly documenting this important transformation of Seattle’s landscape is immeasurable.

Bertolet describes the Wayne as dilapidated implying that it might not be an attractive addition to the list of over 450 city landmarks. Fortunately, the city’s landmark ordinance avoids all consideration of the aesthetic quality of buildings removing those subjective values from the designation conversation.

Bertolet includes among his examples new buildings proposed for historic districts. Seattle, by the way, has but eight historic districts, a very low number when compared to other West Coast cities.  Districts are generally understood as clusters of historic buildings, none of which need to be of individual landmark status.  Districts create a collective spirit which can be easily compromised by the introduction of buildings that are out of scale or that fill in gaps with unsympathetic designs. Bertolet points to 316 Alaskan Way S., a project he finds unreasonably denied in Pioneer Square, but he makes no mention of the new Weyerhaeuser headquarters on Occidental Square that respects the scale and feeling of the buildings in the district.

A walk down Ballard Avenue one of Seattle’s first historic districts, raises all the questions about changes to historic districts. Along Ballard Avenue, you’ll find Seattle’s oldest buildings that were moved from the International District in the 1970s and which are barely compatible with the late 19th c. commercial buildings that surround them. You’ll also find modern hotels and office buildings over shops that barely respect the scale of the district’s historic buildings as well as setback penthouses that, when taken all together, respect the general scale and look of Ballard’s historic buildings. It is not insignificant that the preservation of the low-rise buildings in Ballard favors start-up businesses and a variety of modestly priced apartments above the many small first story shops.  All those buildings and homes would be lost were high-rise buildings to take their places.

Often trumpeted as protecting the castles of the rich and famous, the American historic preservation movement is dedicated to the retaining those buildings of character that define all people. This is particularly true in Seattle where buildings as varied as the Ballard Avenue cottages, the maritime workers cottages in Belltown, the Stimson-Greene Mansion and the Smith Tower are all city landmarks.

Bertolet is right in describing the city’s historic preservation ordinance as a cumbersome tool.  There is no doubt that its strong language and rigid oversight structure has prevented the creation of additional historic districts. That same language makes Seattle’s ordinance one of the strongest in the country and provides incredible protection for designated buildings. The need to submit nominations for nearly all the old buildings developers might wish to replace has certainly generated a cynical attitude about the process and a small industry of professionals who prepare nominations that are designed to fail.

Bertolet himself admits that there may be no logical connection between the lack of low-income housing in the city and the landmark board’s perceived intransigence or designation of apparently uninteresting buildings. He gladly recognizes that preventing 140 high-end condos or apartments in Pioneer Square or even allowing them, would have at best a distant impact on the number of low-income properties in the historic district or anywhere else in the city.  He speaks of a step-down process where failing to build a fancy apartment building downtown eventually prevents the construction of an equal number of low-income properties. He acknowledges the difficulty following this argument:

True, any new homes forfeited to preservation would have been market-rate, not subsidized. But when there aren’t enough homes in a city for everyone who wants one, even the loss of relatively expensive market-rate homes ends up squeezing out families on the low end of income spectrum.  –Bertolet, http://www.sightline.org/2017/12/19/when-historic-preservation-clashes-with-housing-affordability/

Bertolet’s soft pedaling of his trickle-down theory is dangerous because it carries the weight of the Sightline Institute’s seriousness of purpose and its influence on local politicians.