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Wallingford could be next battleground in Seattle’s war for density

A new feasibility study from Historic Wallingford has the potential to throw a wrench in MHA. (Stacy Kizer, Flickr Creative Commons)

A Wallingford organization is looking into getting the neighborhood its own historic district, a move that could throw a massive wrench in Seattle’s mission to build more dense, affordable housing.

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Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability regulations passed back in March, upzoning a handful of the city’s “urban villages,” and allowing for the construction of multi-family homes in roughly 6 percent of the city. Included among those areas were parts of Wallingford, a largely single-family neighborhood.

Fast forward to May, when Historic Wallingford announced its plans to study the historical significance of buildings and areas of the neighborhood. The goal?

“We’re interested in gathering information that can guide and enhance what Wallingford does in the future in terms of development,” Historic Wallingford’s Sarah Martin told MyNorthwest.

The organization says it will “likely” focus on “a listing in the National Register of Historic Place,” a largely honorific title that doesn’t affect the ability of developers to demolish or build over existing properties. That said, its mission statement for the study also outlines “identifying potential historic district boundaries based on the neighborhood’s platting and development patterns.”

That latter goal is where things could get tricky for MHA.

Seattle currently features eight historic districts listed by the Department of Neighborhoods. Inclusion in an historic district affords a handful of protections, including maintaining “the appearance and historical integrity of structures and public spaces,” and falling under the purview of either a citizens board or the Landmarks Preservation Board. In short, it makes it exponentially more difficult to upzone single-family homes inside those boundaries.

That precedent is seen in Ravenna-Cowen’s own newly-minted historic district, announced in January 2019. Just a month later, an amendment to remove Ravenna-Cowen from MHA was unanimously approved, effectively saving over 400 single-family homes from being upzoned under the measure.

Will Wallingford follow Ravenna’s lead?

Wallingford’s plans for its study bear similarities to Ravenna-Cowen’s own road to MHA exemption. Ravenna started with an entry in the National Register of Historic Places in September 2018, a move outlined as the first goal in Wallingford’s feasibility study. That was quickly followed by the historic district designation months later, the second outcome Historic Wallingford is looking at.

Martin acknowledged that while the organization is using a variety of cities and neighborhoods as possible roadmaps, “Ravenna is definitely an example, and I think we’re going to learn from them.”

Back when Ravenna was first exempted from MHA, critics worried that other neighborhoods would do exactly what Wallingford could accomplish with its study.

“There is a danger that historic districts will become the new tool of choice to evade upzones,” SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield cautioned in February. “It will be interesting to see if the Council uses this dichotomy to start to set policy on when historic districts take precedence over density.”

The Showbox saga

In terms of “historic districts taking precedence over density,” we don’t have to look far for a recent example. In early June, Seattle City Council voted to temporarily extend the boundaries of the Pike Place Historic District to include the Showbox.

That subsequently halted the Showbox owner’s plans to demolish the venue to build a 44-story apartment building, at least for the time being.

The sole vote against the Showbox measure was District 4 Councilmember Abel Pacheco. Pacheco — whose district includes Wallingford — has been outspoken regarding his stance on historic districts.

“I believe that historic districts should be used as they were intended: to preserve historic areas in our city,” he told MyNorthwest. “I recently voted against temporarily including the Showbox in the Pike Place Market Historical District because I believe that it is an example of misusing historic districts in a way that prevents density near transit and restricts the housing options we know Seattle needs in order to address affordability.”

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Ultimately, that could put Pacheco at odds with the neighborhood he represents, especially if Wallingford ends up going to war over MHA’s upzones. At least for now, though, fighting potential upzones isn’t part of the discussion.

“I don’t think zoning is the topic of conversation in our events, our newsletter, [or] among our board — that’s not where we’re heading,” Martin said.

But even with zoning not a “topic of conversation,” the end result of it still appears to be front-of-mind.

“I think development is always a concern,” Martin also noted. “The whole intention of the study is to figure out what we’ve got, and maybe how to guide and inform future development in Wallingford.”

For the time being, that future development includes upzones for all areas included under MHA. Still, if Ravenna and the Showbox are any indication, Wallingford could face a similar battle in the near future.

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