Why does something become a Seattle landmark?
The blowback began soon after Seattle's Landmarks Preservation Board ruled that a defunct Denny's in Ballard deserved the same elevated...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Want to learn more about Googie architecture?
California architecture critic Alan Hess, considered the preeminent expert in Googie architecture, is giving a lecture Tuesday, May 20, at the Swedish Cultural Center, 1920 Dexter Ave. N.
The event is co-sponsored by Historic Seattle, Docomomo-WeWa (Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement-Western Washington), 360 Modern, Seattle MODERN, the Swedish Cultural Center and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.
More information: http://www.docomomo-wewa.org/events.php. Tickets are $10 (plus $1.24 service fee).
The blowback began soon after Seattle's Landmarks Preservation Board ruled that a defunct Denny's in Ballard deserved the same elevated status as the Smith Tower and the Space Needle.
The decision put into question Seattle's sense of aesthetics while also raising questions about the way the city designates landmarks. How could a 1964 building distinguished by a Googie-inspired swoopy roof — but blighted by graffiti and boarded-up windows — be declared a Seattle landmark?
"Googie-friggin'-shmoogie ... you have got to be kidding me!" a letter to The Seattle Times said. "Having these elitist fools who wouldn't know the difference between a dump and a da Vinci tell these owners that their private property has been designated virtually worthless should not be tolerated."
If only Seattle's multistep-landmarks process was as simple as saying pretty things are worth preserving while ugly things are not.
The decision to designate a landmark does allow for some subjectivity on the part of the board's 12 volunteer members, but the overall process is guided by strict rules about which factors the members can and cannot consider — and in what order they must be taken up.
During the initial phase, the board cannot take into account an owner's plans for a property or objections that turning it into a landmark would create a financial hardship.
Only after designating the property must the board consider whether landmark status prevents an owner from achieving a reasonable rate of return and whether the landmark has any realistic prospect of being restored. The intent of the city's landmarks ordinance is to re-energize landmarks, not to have them sit empty.
Lorne McConachie, a principal with Bassetti Architects and former landmarks-board chair, agrees that a developer's plan for a property should have no bearing on the board's decision on whether to designate a landmark.
"Winds can change," he said. "If the board banks on something occurring and then it doesn't, what are we left with? Eventually, though, you've got to consider the economics, because otherwise you end up with buildings that don't work. And that's not fair to the communities they're in or to the property owner."
Benaroya Companies bought the Denny's property for $12 million in 2006 so it could be redeveloped as condos.
On Wednesday, Benaroya is set to make its case to the board that there is no financially sound way to redevelop the site with the Denny's still standing.
If Benaroya can demonstrate that the building has no future as a rehabbed landmark but instead would languish as a blight on one of Ballard's most visible corners, the board could allow Benaroya to demolish the Denny's — only two months after designating it a landmark.
While that may seem paradoxical, that's the wisdom of the ordinance, McConachie said.
A reasonable return
Seattle has more than 350 landmarks — a diverse mix of buildings, houses, parks, street clocks, bridges, boats, statues and boulevards.
With most of the city's stately old buildings already on the list, the landmarks process is likely to undergo additional scrutiny as the board considers less obvious nominees, including midcentury designs that people tend to love or hate — like the Ballard Denny's.
Although the landmarks process can be confrontational, it is intended to encourage the board and property owners to negotiate an outcome that re-energizes the landmark and gives the owner a reasonable return on investment.
"I have seen this process work very creatively and constructively," said Lawrence Kreisman, program director for Historic Seattle and former landmarks-board member.
The board must include two architects, two historians, a structural engineer, a real-estate professional and a finance expert.
"That's a whole range of people who can give feedback to property owners ... who may not realize the full value of what they own," Kreisman said.
If a property owner's bottom line was considered at the beginning of the landmarks process, creative solutions would be far less likely to materialize, Kreisman said.
Before serving on the board, McConachie saw that creative give-and-take play out while working as an architect for the school district in the late 1980s.
The district wanted to tear down Franklin High School, believing it seismically unsafe. Franklin alumni and Rainier Valley residents fought to save it, and the landmarks board complied.
"Had Franklin not been designated as a landmark, the exceptional seismic solution that occurred never would have happened," McConachie said. "We figured out a way to knit the old building together."
Franklin essentially was gutted, but its original Greek-style facade was restored, and classic interior elements were retained, such as a big oak clock.
"We told the board, if we are going to save the primary characteristics that make Franklin special, we have to sacrifice some of the secondary and tertiary characteristics, or we can't make it pencil out," McConachie said. "And the compromise began."
Drawing battle lines
A landmarks nomination usually is filed either by a developer who wants to remove encumbrances from a property or by citizens who want to prevent a development from going forward.
Sometimes, citizens file with a motive of preserving a significant building. Other times, they file with a political agenda.
"One of the sad outcomes is when people use the landmarks ordinance to prevent development and therefore bastardize the intent of the ordinance," McConachie said.
Preservationists had never pushed for the Denny's building to become a landmark. Benaroya and others believe that Ballard residents who fought for it did so as a way to draw the line against condo development that has taken over the neighborhood.
"No one is against preserving what is indeed a landmark," said Louis Richmond, Benaroya spokesman. "It's true that more modern buildings, those built in the '40s, '50s and '60s, will be preserved in the future — and that's fine. Our argument has been: Is the Denny's the right building to make that battle on?"
If the landmarks board does not allow Benaroya to demolish the Denny's, the company could appeal to a city hearings examiner. If Benaroya doesn't like that outcome, it can appeal to the City Council.
Despite the outcry when the board declared Denny's a landmark, the process shouldn't be judged until it's over, said Christine Palmer, preservation advocate for Historic Seattle.
"I don't think the board made a mistake at all," she said. "But it remains to be seen if the decision to landmark serves the neighborhood, city and historic preservation well.
"It won't, if the owner is left with no option but to leave that building sitting derelict on that corner."
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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