Historic Preservation Police Power and our Role Protecting the Seattle Coliseum

On October 22, 2018, the administrators of the city’s historic preservation program, exercising their police power issued a Preliminary Certificate of Approval for the alterations to the Century 21 Coliseum (fka Key Arena) and surrounding landmarks. I cringe using the words ‘police power’ when it comes to historic preservation, yet they describe a key factor in protecting the designated landmarks in our community.  Interestingly, the power to control what happens to designated structures increases significantly the more local the jurisdiction.

Key Arena 2008 (from Wikipedia CC License)

Federal law does not prohibit owners from tearing down registered properties or altering them any way the owner sees fit. Listing on the National Register of Historic Places only means that when federal dollars are to be spent on a project such as a new highway, the historic landmark must be evaluated and preferably protected. State law tends to mimic federal law when it comes to historic landmarks. At both the federal and state levels, environmental impact statements are the usual tool for evaluating whether to demolish or alter registered buildings or, in the case of historic districts, entire neighborhoods.

Locally, historic landmarks have lots of protection, but the ‘police’ need our help. Once the Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board (LPB) – a  terribly overworked 12-person board of volunteers – designates a building a landmark, its owner negotiates an agreement with the city for its preservation. Called ‘Incentives and Controls,’ the agreement specifically calls out those features of a landmark that cannot be altered and those that can. Each building or historic district nominated by the LPB for designation must be approved by an ordinance voted by the City Council and signed by the mayor. The ordinance includes the Incentives and Controls agreement. In other words, the landmark designation of a building is in fact a law, and violating it is a crime (of sorts).  That means protected buildings cannot be changed without permission from the city’s LPB or (for minor changes) its staff.  

In a nutshell, the seven all employees of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods serving the LPB have the power to issue a stop work notice if a building owner attempts to violate the terms of the ordinance protecting their building. You might say they are the historic preservation police. Of those seven people, only one oversees the over 400 buildings designated as individual landmarks. The city’s historic districts which cluster many buildings and sites each have a staff member watching over them. In fact, the person in charge of individual landmarks also administers the Sand Point Historic District.  

The October 22 Preliminary Certificate of Approval gives Oak View Group (OVG) permission to change the Coliseum, and this is where you and the Queen Anne Historical Society come in. We must be the watch dogs who help the ‘police’ —the staff of the LPB— make sure the certificate is followed to the letter. The Certificate of Approval for the Coliseum is very clear. It concludes, “Work must occur exactly according to approved plans and specifications. ANY revisions, omissions, and/or additions to plans and specifications must be reviewed and approved by the Landmarks Preservation Board prior to implementation.”  Underlining and capitalization are in the certificate.

It is our mutual responsibility to learn exactly what changes have been approved and to assure all the work complies with the certificate. The Queen Anne Historical Society pays attention to every landmarked building in our neighborhood calling out to the staff of the LPB alterations that have not been previously approved. The society knows what has been approved since it attends LPB meetings and reviews the Incentives and Controls for ever newly designated buildings. Now, you will know what has been approved for the Coliseum and be able to help the city police OVG’s work on the most iconic historic building in Uptown.

The Preliminary Certificate of Approval is limited to the proposed height, bulk, and scale of the proposed additions and alterations to the building exteriors and surrounding buildings and spaces. Although the certificate does not approve details, it does call out and allow the following:

  • Removal of the non-historic west, south, and east plazas of the Arena.
  • Removal of non-designated buildings and structures directly south of the Area and north of Thomas Street.

    South Side to be demolished
  • New above-grade perimeter buildings to accommodate Arena egress, ticketing, and garage elevator; including an addition to the south end of the Northwest Rooms and the deconstruction/reconstruction of the south end of the International Fountain Pavilion.

    South Wall Swedish (International Fountain) Pavilion
  • Selective removal, storage and re-installation of the Arena’s west, north and east curtain wall framing and glazing.
    Protect great glazing: east wall


  • Selective removal, storage and reinstallation of precast-concrete architectural panels form the south end of the International Fountain Pavilion and the upper north plaza.South Wall of the International Fountain Pavilion(Swedish Pavilion)
  • Selective removal, storage and re-installation of artwork in the upper and lower north plazas.

    Dupen Fountain art removed and safely stored we trust!
  • Removal of two legacy trees from the lower north plaza, and selective removal of small trees and plantings with the Area project boundary.

    Heritage tree already down

The certificate does not yet approve the tunnel planned under the Bressi Garage (Pottery Northwest), but that work must assure preserving that landmark’s total integrity. It cannot be demolished and rebuilt to allow tunnel construction. 

Looking north at Bressi & tunnel site

For now, we can only watch and make sure OVG follows exactly (to cite the certificate) the preservation of features as called out. Once the final certificate is issued, and we know details about what is being allowed, the Queen Anne Historical Society will reach out to the community to help it and the LPB staff monitor OVG’s work. We know the person overseeing hundreds of city landmarks can’t attend to every detail, but by getting informed and keeping our eyes on this project, we can help protect this neighborhood icon.