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Originally published July 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 7, 2007 at 2:33 PM

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Project would add new life while preserving history

Historic preservation is a powerful tool that we can use to enhance our economic and cultural future. By protecting the buildings, districts...

Special to The Times

Historic preservation is a powerful tool that we can use to enhance our economic and cultural future. By protecting the buildings, districts and places in Seattle that are important to us all, we can preserve these landmarks for future generations, both as learning tools and beautiful reminders of our shared history.

In Seattle, passionate public support has been vital in preserving places such as Pike Place Market, Pier 59, the Seattle Asian Art Museum and many other cherished landmarks. Through the strong leadership of local, state, and national preservation organizations, thousands of buildings have been saved from neglect and demolition, effectively safeguarding them for valued uses in our 21st-century community.

In Pioneer Square, however, preservation has been more difficult. Known for years as Skid Road, Seattle's oldest neighborhood is home to the most architecturally significant concentration of historic buildings in the state — one would think that here, preservation would be a given priority. The reality, though, is that nurturing Pioneer Square's rehabilitation from a derelict district to a vibrant and colorful community has been hard work.

For the Pioneer Square community, preservation of historic buildings and the creation of residential housing have long been the neighborhood's top two priorities. Over the past 20 years, both community and city plans have called for more housing — encouraging a variety of new and rehabilitated housing types. Over those same years, little market-rate housing has been added. The most recent projects are The Lofts on Third condominiums and a few market-rate apartments on First Avenue. Pioneer Square has fewer than 300 market-rate housing units, not much progress toward the neighborhood goal of 2,000 such residences.

Much of the investment in Pioneer Square housing has been used to preserve very-low-income housing, as part of the city's commitment to provide homes for all. Although this has been a successful effort, now is the time to complement that program by providing additional workforce and market-rate housing to nurture a truly balanced and vibrant community. While Belltown, South Lake Union and Queen Anne have boomed with new market-rate housing, Pioneer Square has languished.

The Seattle Plumbing Building project will help to address this gap by creating 85 new housing units in direct response to King County's request and Pioneer Square Neighborhood Plan objectives. It's an exciting renewal for an underutilized and deteriorating building.

The historic two-story Seattle Plumbing Building has been used for storage by the county since the Kingdome was constructed. The neighborhood plan encouraged the county to make this site available for needed housing development, along with the north Kingdome parking lot. After soliciting and carefully reviewing proposals, the county selected the proposal put forth by Historic Seattle and Nitze-Stagen — the developer responsible for preservation of Union Station, Starbucks Center and the Seattle First United Methodist Church.

Following a lengthy review, the Pioneer Square Preservation Board has approved a four-story addition to the building. The addition is supported by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and a majority of Pioneer Square community members. They believe this is an appropriate preservation solution for a historic warehouse building that has stood vacant and deteriorating for years and is now dwarfed by construction of Qwest Field and Safeco Field, as well as the concrete onramp to the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

In addition, new projects have been approved or requested across the street from this building for a new Starbucks building and an adjacent development that would include 160- to 240-foot-high buildings. The construction of 85 new housing units in the rehabilitated Seattle Plumbing Building is in keeping with the scale and setting of the south end of Pioneer Square, historically a mix of low- and mid-rise commercial and warehouse buildings.

As we all know, buildings change and so do their uses. Preservation is not about freezing historic buildings or neighborhoods in time. Rather, preservation is about understanding the important characteristics of a historic building and protecting these features while infusing new life through rehabilitation and adaptive reuse. The Seattle Plumbing Building project is good preservation through adaptive reuse. It is good for Pioneer Square, and it's good for Seattle.

John Chaney is the executive director of Historic Seattle and former president of the Pioneer Square Planning Committee. Jennifer Meisner is the executive director of Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, and former Pioneer Square Preservation District coordinator.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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