Correction: An earlier version of the story stated that buildings cannot be nominated for landmark status if they are too small. The story has been corrected to say that while small buildings can be nominated, they do not automatically trigger a landmark review.
South Lake Union in Seattle was once home to timber mills, commercial laundries, warehouses, even a factory making Ford Model Ts. It’s now being targeted for major new development, with the city’s mayor proposing raising building heights dramatically in the low-rise district. But historic preservationists say the plan does not adequately address the area's unique history and they worry it will result in the obliteration of many of the old buildings that provide the city’s connection with the past.
Out With The Old, In With The New?
Mayor Mike McGinn’s plan would allow 24-story towers in much of South Lake Union and 40-story towers in the areas closest to downtown. That’s a big change from the six stories that are allowed in most of the district today.
For much of its history, South Lake Union has been home to variety of light industries: warehouses, commercial laundries, wood shops, along with relatively modest workers’ housing.
Much of the district has suffered neglect over the years.
But there still are 14 structures that have been granted landmark status by the city, including St. Spiridon Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the Naval Reserve Armory and the Seattle Times Building. A city survey identified an additional 34 buildings that are of historic importance and that might be eligible for landmark status.
Preservationists say that if developers are allowed to build higher, they should also be given a host of incentives to preserve at least some portions of the old structures that remain.
“It’s tremendous economic development for the city in many ways,” acknowledged Chris Moore, field director for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. “We just don’t want it to erase what does exist.”
How To Save A Landmark
Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate, which owns the majority of land in the area, has been one of the leaders in the redevelopment of South Lake Union. The company has developed scores of new buildings, including an 11-building headquarters for Internet giant Amazon.
At the same time, Vulcan has also committed itself to preserving some of the area’s more important landmarks. It has been involved in five preservation projects, including the restoration of an old brick warehouse, a former horse stable and two 1920s era auto dealerships.
Right now, Vulcan is restoring a two-story brick building at the corner of Yale Ave North and Republican Street. The 1906-era building once housed the Supply Laundry Company, one of the many commercial laundries that were clustered in neighborhood.
Workers have peeled away concrete panels that covered the original masonry “revealing the bones of the structure, if you will, and all of this beautiful character and detail,” said Brian Runberg, principal architect with Runberg and Associates.
Runberg has compiled archival photos of the site. One shows multiple horse drawn laundry trucks parked in front of the building and the words "Supply Laundry Company — Always The Best!" inscribed on the print.
“Each of these buildings has a story to tell. You peel back the layers and you find out more and more,” Runberg said. “It’s fun to uncover, and then, hopefully, expose for new generations to see what had happened here.”
According to Ada Healey, vice president of real estate for Vulcan, preserving historic structures can add significant cost to a development. The buildings are often in bad shape, they don’t sit correctly on the site and they usually can’t have parking underneath.
“The counterbalance to that is, we believe, preserving that historic building brings character and marketability to your site because it’s a little different,” said Healey.
But Vulcan also has a legal responsibility to preserve the structure.
The Supply Laundry Company is an official Seattle city landmark. That means the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board has found it to have historic or architectural significance. The designation gives the building some protections and any plan for redevelopment must be reviewed and approved by the board.
But there’s a high bar for achieving that status and preservationists worry that many historic buildings that don’t qualify are now at risk.
Losing Layers Of History
Take a walk around the neighborhood with preservationist Chris Moore and you’ll see why he’s nervous. Under a steady rain, we stop to look at a collection of four old wooden buildings. Moore is surprised to find them boarded up and empty.
“The last time I was here, there were no boarded up windows, no boarded up doors, no chain link fences around them,” he said, “which tells me they’re probably already slated for redevelopment right now.”
The buildings date back to the beginning of the 20th century. They were probably built for workers at the nearby commercial laundries. According to one historical account, they may have been used as secret munitions warehouses during World War II.
“These are examples, I think, of buildings that are really the last vestiges of that first phase of development in South Lake Union, and they’ll be gone," said Moore. "So as a preservationist, you see this and, you know, it makes you a little sad because they are wonderful examples of the early development of the area.”
It’s a similar story throughout South Lake Union. There is construction underway on nearly every block. The neighborhood is peppered with white signs that announce "Notice of Proposed Land Use Action."
Moore says there is a certain inevitability that buildings like these will be lost during redevelopment of an area. They are too small to trigger a review by the Landmarks Preservation Board and they are in very poor shape. But he thinks there are many other buildings in South Lake Union that are similarly unglamorous, but important to the area’s historical fabric, and that should be saved.
“The worst case scenario is with all the development, all of the construction, you literally lose any sense of those layers of development, those layers of history that exist in Cascade and South Lake Union,” he said.
More Incentives, Please
Moore and other preservationists argue that as the city moves forward with its rezoning plan, it should offer more incentives to developers to preserve old buildings on their sites.
In downtown Seattle, for example, the city entices owners to preserve historic structures by giving them the rights to build higher on other sites. That's referred to as the transfer of development rights (TDR).
Preservationists want TDRs to be available to historic buildings in South Lake Union as well.
In a letter to the City Council, Moore also asked the city to establish a fund for preservation projects, funded by fees on developers, and to identify all remaining properties that may be eligible for landmark status.
There are other state and federal tax incentives for historic preservation, but preservationists and developers say they do not adequately defray the cost of preservation.
Vulcan has been able to move ahead with its preservation projects in part because it owns such large pieces of land around the historic sites and can work around them, according to Brandon Morgan, Vulcan’s development director.
That’s been the case with the old Supply Laundry Building, which sits on the corner of an entire block owned by Vulcan. It will be surrounded by apartments, retail and office space, even a restaurant, which will help defray the cost.
“Suppose we didn’t own this and someone else did. That someone else probably wouldn’t be able to make this rehab pencil,” Morgan said.
Morgan says it doesn’t make sense that South Lake Union should have fewer preservation incentives than other parts of the city.
“The city needs to decide [whether] historic preservation is important or not, regardless of what neighborhood you are in,” Morgan said.
City officials say they have heard the preservationists' concerns and are evaluating whether any more preservation incentives can be offered in the South Lake Union re-zone plan.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Marshall Foster, the city’s planning director.
The current re-zone proposal does provide one incentive for historic preservation. Developers that preserve landmarks can get slightly more development capacity on their sites. But that is only available to sites larger than 60,000 square feet. According to Foster, that’s meant to address two specific landmarks that are "at risk:" the Troy Laundry Building and the Seattle Times Building.
Foster says the city is looking into whether it can offer those incentives more widely in the neighborhood.
The city is also evaluating whether it should offer the more dramatic incentive, a program to allow TDRs from historic buildings. Foster said that is has proved to be a highly effective tool for preservation in Downtown Seattle.
But he said in the South Lake Union plan, a trade-off was made to use TDRs to preserve rural open space instead.
The 271-page re-zone proposal is now before a special committee of the Seattle City Council. The committee plans to address historic preservation in South Lake Union in the coming weeks.