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Originally published January 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 4, 2008 at 12:28 PM

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Preservation on the menu for Ballard's shuttered Denny's

It looks like a cross between a barn and a ski chalet with a little Jetsons thrown in. But the tired old Denny's diner in the Ballard neighborhood...

Seattle Times staff reporter

It looks like a cross between a barn and a ski chalet with a little Jetsons thrown in.

But the tired old Denny's diner in the Ballard neighborhood, where more and more condos are going up, could be preserved as one of Seattle's few remaining roadside landmarks.

Earlier this week, the city's Landmarks Preservation Board voted 8-1 to nominate the property for landmark status.

It did so after Benaroya Companies, which owns the site and wants to sell it to a condo developer, said the 1960s-era structure no longer fits the character of the increasingly upscale neighborhood.

In a pre-emptive strike, Benaroya had asked the Landmarks Board to look at the Denny's building, expecting the board would decide it didn't deserve to be nominated for landmark status.

"Developers want to make sure they can go ahead unencumbered," said Benaroya spokesman Louie Richmond. Plans call for a 260-condo tower with ground-floor retail to be built at the site.

But the board, which also heard from architects and preservationists concerned with the loss of Seattle's roadside architecture, surprised Benaroya.

The old diner, now boarded up, may not be grand, "but it's part of our daily life and documenting that is important," said Alan Michelson, head of the University of Washington's architecture and urban-planning library. He urged the board to nominate the Denny's for preservation. The board will make the final decision.

"It's not a throwaway McDonald's," he said.

Both sides are gearing up for what could be a heated public debate Feb. 6 about the value of old commercial buildings to Seattle neighborhoods.

The debate has a particular resonance in Ballard, whose business district in the past decade has lost places that served a working-class, industrial community to stores that cater to young professionals.

A gateway to the Ballard business district on the corner of Northwest Market Street and 15th Avenue Northwest, the distinctive building has been a familiar anchor since 1964, when it opened as a Manning's Cafeteria & Buffet.

Passing drivers couldn't help but notice its unusual parabolic roofline, evocative of the "Googie" architectural style that played on the futuristic optimism of the 1950s with lines suggestive of space travel and the atomic age.

This style got its name from a Sunset Strip coffee shop designed in 1949, according to a report submitted to the city, and featured upswept roofs, large plate-glass windows, boomerang shapes and starbursts.

Michelson said the Manning's chain started as a coffee shop in Pike Place Market in 1908, later expanding into meal service. At its peak, the chain had 45 restaurants in California, Oregon and Washington.

"It put Seattle's coffee business on the map," Michelson said. "It's a forerunner of important Seattle businesses like Starbucks."

But by 1983 the restaurant chain was ailing and the Denny's restaurant chain took over the Ballard property, operating there until recently. In spring 2006, Benaroya Companies bought the property from the Seattle Monorail Project, which had acquired the site for a future Green Line station but was forced by voters to cancel its plans.

Richmond said that Benaroya bought the property under the assumption the building could be torn down, then the site was sold to a developer. The Monorail Project had permission to demolish the Denny's structure, he said.

Benaroya expected its request for the landmark nomination would be rejected. It planned to sell the site to a developer, Rhapsody Partners in Kirkland.

"Ballard's changed dramatically in the last 10 years," Richmond said. "The restaurants people support are not the sort of Denny's restaurants."

Richmond said he's not sure what will happen if the building becomes a landmark. "It's very, very possible nobody will build on that site," he said.

The board's Feb. 6 meeting is scheduled at 3:30 p.m. on the 40th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower, 700 Fifth Ave.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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