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Originally published April 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 7, 2008 at 12:19 PM

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Vulcan welds old with new in South Lake Union makeover

In South Lake Union, where construction cranes sprout like dandelions, "in with the new" doesn't always mean out with the old. Vulcan, the neighborhood's dominant...

Seattle Times business reporter

In South Lake Union, where construction cranes sprout like dandelions, "in with the new" doesn't always mean out with the old.

Vulcan, the neighborhood's dominant developer, has unveiled plans to build two 11- or 12-story office towers for Amazon.com around a modest, two-story brick warehouse that was built the same year a guy named Boeing began working on his first biplane.

Vulcan isn't just preserving the 93-year-old Terry Avenue Building. The developer and the project's designer, Callison Architects, say they like it so much that they are modeling Amazon's two new towers after it.

The preliminary design for the office buildings, which will fill most of the block between Terry and Boren avenues and Thomas and Harrison streets, "is really a modern interpretation of the warehouse," architect Peter Krech told a city design-review board last month.

The Terry Avenue Building will be the third old South Lake Union structure that Vulcan has preserved, at least in part, as it methodically transforms the long-forgotten neighborhood into an urban village of corporate headquarters, condos and cafes.

Two more Vulcan-owned buildings have been designated historic landmarks by the city and must be incorporated into whatever projects the developer ultimately designs around them.

South Lake Union has a rich history that Vulcan likes to preserve and showcase when it can, says Vice President Ada Healey, because old buildings add character to the neighborhood.

And they appeal to some tenants, including Amazon.com, Healey says. The two towers around the Terry Avenue Building would be part of a six-block, 11-building headquarters campus that Vulcan is building for the Fortune 500 online retailer.

"It's a very cool thing,"Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith says of the Terry Avenue Building's preservation. "Little quirks and charms — they can add up to a lot."

The Amazon campus also will include the partly preserved and restored Van Vorst Building on the block to the north. It's a 1909 warehouse where the old Frederick & Nelson department store once may have stabled its delivery-wagon horses.

The Terry Avenue Building dates back to a time when South Lake Union served as downtown's storage closet and utility room. The neighborhood was home to warehouses, commercial laundries and the people who worked in them.

A Northern Pacific rail spur ran down Terry when the 21,000-square-foot, post-and-beam warehouse was built in 1915. A freight depot stood across the street.

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The Terry Avenue Building has served as a truck factory, a cabinet warehouse and headquarters for Kelly-Goodwin, a hardwood-flooring distributor whose name still is visible on the north wall. Today, the building is partly vacant, partly offices. Healey says Vulcan plans to nominate it for city-landmark status.

Preliminary plan

Under Krech's preliminary plan, the old warehouse — right across the street from a stop on the new South Lake Union streetcar — would become shops or restaurants.

A newer one-story warehouse to the south would be demolished and replaced with a plaza and stairs leading east, up the hill from Terry, to a terrace. A walkway between the two new towers would link the terrace to Boren, creating an east-west passage across the entire block.

For the plan to work, however, the city would have to vacate part of an alley.

Plants might be installed on the Terry Avenue Building's roof, Krech says — to absorb rain that otherwise would run off into city storm drains, and to give the 2,800 Amazon workers in the two new buildings something interesting to look down on.

The towers' preliminary design calls for wide, tall windows, Spartan ornamentation and a textured exterior — perhaps brick or concrete rather than aluminum or glass. All are intended to create an updated warehouse look, Krech says.

It fits, he says, because 11 or 12 stories is a common height in old warehouse districts: Brick buildings couldn't be built any taller.

Vulcan hasn't always been enthusiastic about historic preservation. In 2000, it fought landmark designation for the Van Vorst Building and lost.

Two years later, however, the Landmarks Preservation Board approved a Vulcan plan to preserve the building's Mission Revival-style facade on Boren Avenue and parts of the north and south sides.

The rest of the old warehouse was demolished last month. The smaller, restored building will become Amazon offices and community meeting space.

Laundry landmark

The 1917 New Richmond Laundry, another landmark, was Vulcan's first foray into historic preservation in South Lake Union. Parts of the old brick industrial building became flats and lofts in Alley 24, a full-block, residential/retail/office development that opened in 2006.

Not everyone is a fan. Christine Palmer, now preservation advocate for the nonprofit group Historic Seattle, wrote in 2006 that despite everyone's best intentions, Alley 24's new construction "engulfs the old brick laundry."

"The final product is unrecognizable as a contributor to Seattle's heritage," Palmer wrote.

But Lloyd Douglas, president of the Cascade Neighborhood Council on the east side of South Lake Union, says he mostly likes what Vulcan has done to honor the area's history.

"They're tearing down a lot of stuff anyway," he says. "We like to see them keep alive the meaning of what used to be here."

Vulcan hasn't announced development plans for blocks that include two more designated landmarks — the ornate 1920s Pacific McKay and Ford McKay auto showrooms at Westlake and Mercer and the Supply Laundry Building in Cascade, which dates to 1908.

Part of the challenge will be finding new uses for those old buildings that work, says NBBJ principal David Yuan. NBBJ designed — and later moved into — Alley 24.

"Buildings, like Madonna, can have several lives," he says. "We need to respect the building's history, but it also needs to enhance the project it is becoming part of."

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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