In 1961 locals watched the Seattle Hotel get torn down for a parking garage. The loss of this iconic building tugged at the emotions of seeing rich architecture exchanged for drab concrete structures used to store cars. Today, that parking garage is known as the “sinking ship”, and media outlets even call it the “coolest garage in the Nation”. After the hotel’s demolition, Seattle continued to change. Present day landmarks like the Pike Market were even slated to be razed for condos. Enough was enough and locals rallied to Save the Market and, with it, the Landmarks Preservation Board was born.
One can sympathize with the reason why we created an avenue for preservation. After all, if any rich building was proposed to become a parking garage today, angry urbanists — myself included — would be going to any means possible to prevent demolition. But now, nearly 50 years and over 400 landmark designations later, everything that’s worthy of landmarking has been landmarked. Pike Market, the Space Needle, Ballard Ave, and many other countless icons of the city were landmarked decades ago. What gets landmarked today are places that tug at a personal memory or have simply just been there for as long as anyone can remember. Ironically, what’s really preserved are wealthy people’s views, expensive housing prices, and unassuming low density buildings we can’t admit our city has outgrown.
How Landmarking Works
You may think only 100 year old buildings with rich architectural character are eligible for landmarking, but buildings only need to be 25 years old. 25 years ago was 1996, when the Sonics played in the NBA Finals against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Bill Clinton was seeking a second term, so I guess the Microsoft Campus would be eligible if it were in Seattle? The criteria thereafter is loose and unregulated. It simply needs to comply with one of the city’s six subjective requirements to seek landmark approval.
Nominations must meet one of the following loose criteria:
a) Associated or location of Historic Event
b) Associated with someone Historical
c) Associated with economic, political or local heritage
d) Embodies distinct architectural style
e) It is an outstanding work of a designer or builder
f) Distinct identity with a neighborhood
Seattle’s age, criteria and nomination requirements are looser than most other cities. In Portland buildings must be 50 years old. In Chicago, buildings must meet two of similarly listed criteria. In Boston you need 10 registered Boston voters to sign a notarized letter of nomination and their names are made public. In Seattle, any one individual can nominate a project anonymously.
Developers try to get ahead of the issue. Owners will self nominate to get it over with and avoid the angry neighborhood mob who will try to stop development with landmarking when the land use action sign goes up. Most self nominations are not pursued, but some do backfire. In those cases, the developer will illustrate economic hardship of working with an existing structure, but the city has major engineering firms on Line 1 ready to challenge their development capacity or profit margin. These legal challenges have cost the City’s Department of Neighborhoods over $180,000 in billings arguing for preservation in the last two years alone. Take the case of 1001 Westlake, where the developers illustrated that a delay in reviews, expensive structure system to hold up the existing building, and a loss of building area was an economic hardship against demolition and starting from scratch. Yet AECOM — the firm who has made almost $100,000 per year from Seattle working on these cases — argued in their own study that you would still be able to build enough area to make money, even if it’s less than what the developer needs and builds less space than allowed by code. Arguing about buildings like 1001 Westlake, an unassuming former laundry warehouse, seems like a waste of everyone’s time and money. If someone wants to maximize the lot with a hotel or something, and bring more life to the neighborhood, who are we to prevent that? In the end, the board landmarked this unassuming building anyway and has all but killed the development.
How Landmarking is Weaponized
The Guise of Gentrification Protection
Many people follow the account Vanishing Seattle. They highlight buildings and spaces slated for development as the city continues to change. The subtle tone is that Seattle is changing for the worse. What Vanishing Seattle and other Historic Preservationists believe is they are protecting neighborhoods from gentrification by riling up angry neighbors to prevent demolition for all the right reasons. In reality, all that’s done is excusing wealthy white homeowners for opposing apartments and density in their historically exclusive white neighborhoods. Seattle’s history of real estate is plagued with red line banking practices that segregated our city and preserved neighborhoods for whites only. Loans for minority populations were approved in areas of Southeast Seattle and other spaces the deemed “declining” or “hazardous”. In one such area of the Central District, banks referred to it as “the Negro area of Seattle”, and labeled it “hazardous”. Prior to that, Racial Covenants outright banned people of specific races from living in areas of Seattle. Vanishing Seattle highlighted the Stone Cottage, an unassuming building in West Seattle slated to become a tall condo building. But this home is located in an area banks previously felt was best for wealthier home owners because it was populated by people of “the white race” which seemingly created “a good sense of community spirit”. What is defended is exclusivity. Racial exclusivity in the past, and economic exclusivity in the present. Banks would only loan money to Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC) folks in the areas they designated appropriate for “their community”, or, as they put it “declining”. The cottage was eventually preserved and moved off site, with over half of the $70,000 raised in the GoFundMe account gifted by the developer themselves. That cost will now be passed on the new building owners or renters, so while the concern may have been avoiding a landmark demolition for “luxury” housing, all that happened was making the homes even more expensive, more luxurious and the neighborhood more exclusive.
Tax Cut Giveaways Disguised as Racial Sensitivity
In Capitol Hill, a million dollar rental property is proposed for historic preservation which will cut their tax bill. As real estate values skyrocketed during the housing crisis, so did property taxes. The Cayton Home was recently nominated by the white landlords who own it and use it for rental income. After purchasing it for $84,000 in the late 1990s, it’s now worth $1.2 million dollars. Their recent discovery is highlighted in their self nominated landmarks report, which outlines that an historic black family once lived in the home predating those racial covenants and segregating bank practices. 80 years later the new owners utilized their wealth to purchase an excess property as income and rent it at market rate. This home rents out for thousands of dollars per month and does not prevent gentrification. Preserving it continues to exasperate gentrification of the neighborhood by artificially limiting housing growth. As rents in this neighborhood rise, leases are not renewed and new tenants sign up for higher rent every few years. By nominating the property, they are exempt from property tax methods other neighbors around them are subject to. Their property tax bill will decline and be leveraged as “present use” rather than “highest and best use”, since they are maintaining an historic structure and not open for development. In addition to that, there is a 20% federal tax credit for any renovations made to this landmark, meaning that new kitchen will partially be funded by you and me. It was recently zoned up for five story apartments, which will never be realized once it’s landmarked and will continue the problems of limiting Seattle’s housing growth in a transit rich, urban neighborhood. Perhaps if this effort was pursued to maintain below market rate rents this action would feel more socially justified and genuine.
Creating Neighborhood HOAs and Curbing Development
In Wallingford things go a step further than landmarking a single building here and there. A handful of neighbors are pulling together a nomination of over 3,000 homes to be certified as an “honorary preservation district” with the federal and state governments. While their efforts are simply ‘honorary’ and come with no local landmarking control, their group has considered bringing back “neighborhood conservation districts”, a local, self appointed board that would review any proposal within the district and have the power to approve or deny any demolition. This type of HOA style gate-keeping is similar to what is seen in Innes Arden, a suburb near Shoreline started by the Boeing Family that requires all proposals to build temporary structures at full scale so locals can approve or deny any change made to anyone’s home. It’s worth noting Innes Arden didn’t remove their racial covenants from their bylaws until the mid 2000s, citing it as “too big of an effort” at the time. While they may not have had covenants, Wallingford benefitted by downzoning to mandate single family homes which was a defacto racial covenant. By the 1960s, Wallingford had only 27 black residents among their population of 21,000 of white residents. As has been proven with Seattle’s Urban Village strategy, more density creates more diversity. This section of Wallingford is inside an Urban Village and could not avoid a zoning change. Creating a local board of approvals will nullify those zoning changes and prevent a $1 million dollar home from ever becoming an apartment a barista can afford to live in. And if you think it’s a genuine effort of documenting history, think again. One of Historic Wallingford’s board members has openly stated he worked in the city’s building department as a Trojan Horse to curb the development of duplexes and apartments in his neighborhood. Why else would he join this cause?
Honor the Right History
Cities change. The Seattle we are preserving wasn’t here when white settlers arrived. Every one of these structures served as a dramatic change from existing conditions and likely upset any early settlers or native populations at the time. By freezing things in place, we are preserving the heinous history of segregation in West Seattle, lowering taxes for a landlord in Capitol Hill, or giving wealthy white home owners the power of a gavel to decide if Wallingford is ever allowed to contribute in housing growth .
This is not to say landmarking has no value. If it prevents another iconic building like the Seattle Hotel from becoming a parking garage, then it’s serving it’s purpose. However, I fear the day the “sinking ship” parking garage is up for it’s own nomination when locals find out it is slated to become a residential tower.
See more of Seattle’s Redlining Maps from the University of Richmond’s “Mapping Inequality” https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=13/47.631/-122.342&city=seattle-wa&area=B3
Learn more about Seattle’s use of racial covenants at the University of Washington’s research center: https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/covenants.htm