Development Pressure and Historic Preservation

Our neighborhood is under pressure as it copes with population growth, increased land values and apparent up zoning. Historic preservation has suddenly become a front-page topic, for it presents obstacles that may slow or even deter developers as they rush to cash in on the building boom.

The building to be demolished at 2220 Queen Anne Ave N

Projects such as the one at 2220 Queen Anne Avenue North provide good examples of what we can and cannot do with Seattle’s existing historic preservation tools. The property is the site of a single family American Foursquare home built in 1905. It has been adapted to commercial use for some time and is now a restaurant. The developers are proposing a 45-unit six story apartment building on the lot. It is located within the boundaries of the Upper Queen Anne Urban Village. Indeed, it is on the northern fringe of the village which terminates at McGraw Street.  A cursory look at the house shows a building in disrepair covered with asbestos siding whose original design and use is still readable.

Massing of the new building

Across the street from the building, the west side of the block is totally commercial. All the houses that were once there are gone. The east side of the street where the subject building sits is a mix of historic commercial buildings that blends to a row of houses starting just north of what used to be Reed-Wright’s offices (they are still upstairs) and which is the oldest building (1901) on that side of the street. The former homes were long ago converted to commercial purposes.  Their historic integrity has been jeopardized by additions and the loss of their original fenestration although the occasional historic window survives.

Reed Wright Building

If someone had been prescient in 1975 when the city’s landmark ordinance was new and designating a building easier than today, they might have succeeded in protecting this house. At the time though, so many buildings on Queen Anne Avenue dated from the first decade of the 20th c. and so many of them looked the same that it seems unlikely that the Landmarks Preservation Board would have found this building exceptional and worth designation.

I haven’t done the research, but I doubt that this house was associated with any important event in the city’s history. Even today, American Foursquare houses are found all over Seattle and, in my opinion, this building simply doesn’t meet landmark criteria. Obviously, it is old and suggests the historic flavor of the neighborhood, but it is not a landmark. If we had a historic district on Queen Anne (a problematic idea in itself), this house would be considered ‘contributing’ to the historic quality of the district, but not defining it.   

It has been suggested that developers be required to move historic buildings if they want to build anew on a site. A big problem lies in defining what’s historic. If we had such a law, we’d probably have to choose a date, call any building constructed prior to the date historic and movable. The feasibility of moving a building, not to speak of finding a lot for it, is probably a greater burden than defining what’s old. Even if we had a site for it, just think how prohibitive it would be to take down the trolley wires in front of 2220 Queen Anne to make room for a move.

Eventually moving old houses to new sites may be required no matter what the cost. If it happens, it won’t be because of some intrinsic historic interest. It will be because global warming will place such a high value on existing structures and the energy already spent in their construction that governments will require saving them. Historic preservation planners, no matter how worried about global warming, will probably oppose such a solution. That’s because we tend to place an extremely high value on protecting historic buildings in situ. I think the planners then will simply have to yield to the compelling logic of saving the planet. I would.

I strive to make good choices when it comes to preserving the historic fabric of Queen Anne. These days any refusal to cudgel city staff or elected officials who decide in favor of new development over historic preservation is seen as a sellout. As the house at 2220 Queen Anne Avenue shows, landmarking, historic district protection or more stringent rules for obtaining demolition permits are not easy, necessarily good nor correct solutions. Old doesn’t necessarily mean historic; urban density instead of sprawl mitigates climate change; bicycles, walking and mass transit are far better choices than enabling continued dependence on single occupancy vehicles. There is no going back to the ‘golden age’ of trolley cars, single family houses on every block or a butcher shop on every corner. Preserving the historic fabric of our neighborhood will require hard battles and the wise investment of our time and energy. I’m ready; I hope you’ll join me.