The Interbay Opportunity: When We Need Good Urban Planning, We Botch It.

Following the decision by the Landmarks Preservation Board (LPB) on November 1st denying landmark status and assuring demolition of the delightful Art Deco Williams & Company Potato Chip Factory at 1405 Elliott Ave. W. in Interbay, a friend snidely remarked that Seattle always seems to botch its efforts at urban planning. Agreeing that we’ve got nothing like London Docklands, les Halles in Paris or la Convergence in Lyon, I took exception to my friend’s comment noting that he couldn’t condemn Seattle planning efforts since the city hadn’t really attempted urban planning since the doomed 1911 Bogue Plan.

The distinctive tower will soon be gone at William & Company!

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Now, I think I may have that wrong. Seattle has some good examples of successful urban planning. Sadly, it all appears to have been done privately. The cluster of Amazon skyscrapers in the old Denny Regrade/Clise tract with its green globes, Mary’s Place, bevy of lunchtime dining spots, cool Amazon Go! store and super safe protected bike lanes on 7th and 8th is not botched urban planning. That’s also true for South Lake Union. Hey, how about those new Google buildings at Mercer and Fairview?

The age of the Williams & Company Factory required getting the LPB’s opinion in anticipation of its demolition. The factory lies in largely human-made stretch of land (yup, it’s nearly all fill from Harrison Street north to the Ballard Bridge) that includes at its southern edge Smith Cove’s large piers fishing and cruise ship activities and that wobbly bridge connecting Magnolia to the rest of the world. This tract is undergoing massive development without anyone paying attention. From what I can see, no one is doing any urban planning there. Worse yet, the number of government agencies dealing with the zone is not coordinated. It feels kind of scary. I call it silo planning. The LPB’s participation underscores a lack of planning. Its decision was made in the absence the factory’s place in the context of the larger neighborhood and its future.

 

Expedia Explorer at transportation hub.

 

Expedia, for example, is just moving into its massive offices west of the railroad tracks and taken over the old Blackstock site at Prospect Street for a transportation hub it operates independent of Metro. Follow the blue Expedia Explorers zipping (ha!) along Mercer to find this intrusion. Expedia surely had SDOT cooperation in creating this bus turn around. My complaint is that this happened in the absence of an urban plan for the corridor.

 

Dravus and Interbay Apartments

 

Sound Transit (car tab stories notwithstanding) is studying a light rail route through Interbay. It may follow the route of Elliott Ave. and Interbay, or it could run along the edge of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railway tracks. It will build a large station where the tracks meet Dravus. The route will cross into Ballard on a new bridge across Salmon Bay or an unlikely tunnel. This planning is also happening absence a plan for the larger neighborhood.

If you need more examples, remember (1) the huge shopping mall where Whole Foods and smaller tenants flank a large parking lot; (2) the quasi suburban big box stores along W. Armory Way, (3) the tract of land along W. Armory Way the Army wants to sell; (4) the large self-storage facility coming to completion on the northern edge of the Magnolia Bridge; (5) the multiple new and cheap apartment houses just added to the spaces where Dravus crosses Interbay and that the Seattle Monorail (remember it?) destined for a train yard; and finally, (6) the rumbles from the Port of Seattle about redeveloping its property upland of Smith Cove.

The Port of Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal south of the Ballard Bridge and the BNSF tracks, train yard and shops (the elephant in the room I almost failed to mention) are reminders of this corridor’s industrial past. Both agencies build and tear down net sheds, piers, gas tanks, locomotive storage sites and much, much more with little public input or apparent city oversight. Ugly as their various components might be, they could be preserved and cherished in a well-planned redevelopment zone.  

 

The BNSF trainyard, the elephant in the room

 

With apparently little or no consideration of what else is happening in the zone, SDOT also has another, albeit wonderful, uncoordinated project nearby. Within the last year or so, city traffic engineers have constructed a protected bike lane along the east edge of Government Way from the heronry at Kiwanis Memorial Preserve Park all the way to the BNSF railyard. Just where the trail exits the yard and scoots along the edge of Smith Cove Waterway, it hooks up to Expedia’s new bike and pedestrian trails. Then where the trail turns to the east at the southern end of the waterway, Expedia has built a fantastic amphitheater with glorious views of the city skyline and Mt. Rainier. The new bike lanes and this clever redesign of the shore are wonderful additions to the city and provide a great place to watch Mt. Rainier at sunrise and sunset (or the implosion of the Kingdome if it were still standing). My gripe is that much as the new trails prove Seattle has traffic engineers, landscape architects and urban planners capable of fantastic designs, none of the redevelopment happened as part of a marvelous well-coordinated plan.

Imagine if the city had prepared an urban plan as well done as Expedia’s new campus for the entire swath from Harrison Street to the Ballard Bridge. It would have surely enhanced Martin Selig’s beautiful black boxes and sculpture garden at W. Roy St. west of Mercer Place, and it would have found ways to protect (among several great Art Deco industrial buildings) the Williams & Company Factory, the 1922 Wilson’s Machine Works, both dating from the early filling of Smith Cove, Champion Party Supply building or the neat drive-through market (now Builder’s Hardware).

This list goes on. The essential message confirms my friend’s nasty thought that without urban planning and well executed designs, everything is random, everything is poorly planned and executed. Alas, without even trying, Seattle has botched it in Interbay!

Sad Day on Elliott! Art Deco Factory Lost

Sweet Art Deco factory failed to garner votes at Landmarks Board! Good bye!

 

On Wednesday, November 5, 2019 (Guy Fawkes Day) the Landmarks Preservation Board voted to allow the demolition of the Williams & Company potato chip factory at 1405 Elliott Avenue W.  While Guy Fawkes failed to blow up the Parliament Building in London on this day in 1605, the landmarks board commemorated the day by denying the building’s nomination as a city landmark and paving the way for its likely demolition.

As we noted in our letter to the Landmarks Preservation Board, the potato chip factory meets designation criteria “D,” as it is a remarkable example of the industrial Art Deco/Zigzag style buildings constructed in Seattle as the city slid into the Great Depression. As one member of the Queen Anne Historical Society remarked, “this is so sad. Seattle has very few Art Deco buildings, and this is a very nice one indeed.”

We supported the nomination for several reasons. First, it is on Smith Cove, historically an extremely important site that documents how the filling of tidal flats constitutes one of most significant aspects of Seattle’s economic heritage. The building site is located on one of the most important land fill projects in the city’s history. The filling of Smith Cove and the elimination of its mud flats transformed the eastern edge of the cove into a major transportation corridor and the site of many nearby industrial buildings. Interbay’s industrial heritage is rapidly disappearing as the neighborhood changes to accommodate new uses.

Also relevant to criteria “D,” we pointed out to the Board that the Williams and Company building represents a creative use of malleable concrete as its sole material expression. With its stepped features and the delightful decorative elements of its central tower, The Williams & Company building is a remarkably expressive utilitarian building. Alas, the distinctive tower will soon be gone!

The distinctive tower will soon be gone!

 

The 1925 Parisian International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts set off an explosion of new design parameters. It provided inexpensive and distinctive answers to the pomposity of the Beaux Arts movement and brought crisp lines, dynamic geometric designs and new fenestration patterns all of which, window alterations notwithstanding, are present here.  The boom of the stock market and its crash in 1929 contribute to the significance of the Williams & Company building. It is one of the last buildings completed in Seattle prior to the construction hiatus during the Great Depression and compares well to the many Art Déco industrial buildings along Elliott Avenue and Art Déco buildings elsewhere in the city, e.g: the Meany Hotel, the Skinner Building, and the Armory at Seattle Center .

Also, as the document prepared for the nomination shows, this building met the criterion that the a building or site be the outstanding work of architect or designer. We contended that the Williams & Company potato chip factory is an outstanding design by George Wellington Stoddard who between 1920 and about 1960 is responsible for a large body of work in Seattle. Jeffrey Ochsner’s book, Shaping Seattle Architecture is peppered with references to his work. His 777 Thomas St. building is a simpler design that has been previously recognized as a Seattle landmark.

Jeffrey Murdock, a preservation advocate on the staff of Historic Seattle, attended the Landmarks Preservation Board’s discussion of the nomination and advocated for its preservation. He lamented that with so many public comments posted on the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection website once the land use sign was posted, none of these community members was present to speak in favor of the nomination.

Jeff’s email following up on the vote is compelling.

“The owners and attorneys introduced how the property is now a superfund site, and that the site must be cleared for remediation. I began by commenting that all buildings come before the board with some kind of back story, and that the only task before the board is to determine the property’s historic significance. The proposed demolition of a landmark should not enter the board’s consideration, according to the city’s landmarks ordinance.

“I focused on the exemplary level of concrete craft in the region during this period, which this building certainly conveys. I also commented how it is significant that this building, unlike other art deco buildings that usually rely on applied ornament like tile and metals, stands elegantly and convincingly in its proportion and form, crafted of humble concrete. What is significant about this building is that it is a well-designed example of the art deco, made much more significant by its material expression.

The vote was 3 in favor, 3 against. Those voting against said they just did not see that the building was significant.”

Jeff knows well the landmark process, having served for many years on the board. He recently completed a dissertation on Robert Reichert, the architect who designed one of Queen Anne’s mid-century gems at the corner of Smith Street and Third Avenue West.

James Washington, Jr. on Queen Anne: Where’s our Public Art?

Georgia Gerber’s dog in front of Trader Joe’s notwithstanding, I may be barking up the wrong tree when I worry about the lack of public art in our neighborhood. But truth to tell, Seattle Center aside, we simply do not have many works of public art on Queen Anne!

I was drawn to this subject of Queen Anne’s public art when the Landmarks Preservation Board included James W. Washington, Jr’s sculpture, The Oracle of Truth in its designation of the AME Zion Church on Madison Street. I am really thrilled by this decision to landmark one of Washington’s sculptures. With Gwendolyn and Jacob Lawrence, James Washington Jr. was one of the most important African-American artists in Seattle’s 20th c. history. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a sculpture been folded into a landmark nomination, so the designation is momentous. …Continue reading “James Washington, Jr. on Queen Anne: Where’s our Public Art?”