Preservation groups: Seattle City Council making mistake with historic bank

Jan 6, 2023, 10:58 AM | Updated: 11:45 am

The Seattle City Council will vote next week on a key part of a landmark designation for an old Sea-First Bank branch on Denny Way, and historic preservation advocates are worried that the city is about to make a big mistake.

The old bank branch at Denny Way and 6th Avenue has been home to a Walgreens for many years. It was originally built by Seattle-First National Bank in 1950, and Eugenia Woo of the preservation advocacy group Historic Seattle said it served as the prototype for many similar branches built around the state. It’s a classic midcentury modern building, and it included one of the city’s earliest drive-thru teller areas – a feature emblematic of the post-World War II, car-focused era.

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In 2006, the building was designated as a landmark by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board in recognition of multiple architectural and historical factors. It was determined to be significant in four of the six possible categories that are part of Seattle landmark designations.

Somehow – for reasons that aren’t clear – Walgreens took their time in coming to the table to do the last step of the landmark process, which is agreeing to a series of “controls and incentives” to preserve specific elements of the building and to provide public benefit by preserving a structure possessing attributes which contribute to the visual landscape.

These “controls and incentives” are the legal part of the landmark designation that most protects the historic building from future changes or demolition because it legally requires the owner to abide by mutually-agreed conditions. Once the controls and incentives are negotiated between Landmark Preservation Board staff and the building’s owner, a letter is signed by both parties. Then, the whole landmark designation package goes to a Seattle City Council committee – “Neighborhoods, Education, Civil Rights, and Culture” – for their review and vote before it goes to the full City Council for formal legal adoption as an ordinance.

This process happens all the time with Seattle landmarks, so it’s typically just an administrative or ministerial function, said Woo of Historic Seattle.

For unknown reasons, this typically routine process has played out very differently for the old Sea-First branch over the past several weeks.

Back on Dec. 9, 2022, when the Neighborhoods, Education, Civil Rights, and Culture Committee reviewed the ordinance (which included the controls and incentives agreement) prior to voting and forwarding it to the full council, the members started talking about the importance of housing, and about how that neighborhood has changed since the landmark designation in 2006. Neither of these subjects relates to the landmark designation and what the owner had already agreed to do as part of reaching an agreement with the staff of the Seattle Landmarks Board.

The Dec. 9 discussion of the merits of the old bank as a historic landmark began with Councilmember Tammy Morales, chair of the committee.

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“Preserving this particular one-story [bank] doesn’t make sense given the housing crisis that we’re in,” Councilmember Morales said. “And that the neighborhood has changed dramatically since 2006 before South Lake Union and the areas around there changed so dramatically.

“So I have been giving this a lot of consideration,” Councilmember Morales continued. “It is my belief that this building would be better served, we would be better served as a city if we were able to use this site differently. So I can’t support this project and will be voting ‘No.’”

Then, the three other members of the committee who were present – Councilmember Andrew Lewis (whose district includes the old bank), Councilmember Sara Nelson, and Councilmember Dan Strauss – joined with Councilmember Morales in voicing their opposition to the ordinance based on their feelings that the bank building was not significant enough to preserve, especially in a neighborhood that’s getting denser in a city that needs more housing.

The committee then voted unanimously against the ordinance, effectively recommending that the full council reject the landmark designation and the already agreed-upon controls and incentives – which would essentially render the landmark status meaningless.

A council staff person named Lish Whitson was taking part in the meeting and had given a presentation before the discussion. Before they took a vote, Whitson diplomatically reminded the council what they were being asked to decide.

“Just to remind the council that your decision is on the controls and incentives and not the designation of the structure, which is the purview of the Landmarks Preservation Board,” Whitson said.

Whitson’s remarks didn’t appear to have any effect on the council members or to change the nature of the discussion or, ultimately, the outcome of the 4-0 vote against the ordinance.

Since then, Seattle preservation groups, including the Queen Anne Historical Society and preservation advocates Historic Seattle, have been trying to spread the word that the process has gone off the rails for the old Sea-First branch. They’ve sent letters to the Seattle City Council and are encouraging people who care about preservation and about housing to let the council know they should vote in favor of landmarking the old bank on Denny Way and adopting the controls and incentives.

Woo told KIRO Newsradio that nobody in the preservation community understands why the committee chose to vote the way they did and, essentially, ignore the legal process in place for landmark designations and controls and incentives. Woo says this sets a bad precedent for Seattle’s landmark process, which has been in place for half a century.

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Regarding the need for housing and more density in Seattle, Woo agrees. But, she says there are actually ways through something called “Transfer of Development Rights” where the old bank being designated a landmark through an ordinance (with the “controls and incentives”) can actually facilitate more housing in that neighborhood.

Woo says the committee is doing a disservice to the full council – who will vote next week – by pitting preservation against housing.

“We’ve always said that it’s not either-or, it’s both, and preservation and housing, they’re not mutually exclusive,” Woo said. “And it’s a false choice to have to choose between them.”

KIRO Newsradio reached out to Councilmember Lewis early Thursday evening – and to Councilmember Morales and again to Councilmember Lewis early Friday morning – but neither has responded.

The full council will vote on the landmark designation and the “controls and incentives” on the old Sea-First branch at their next meeting Tuesday, Jan. 10.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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