How to save a historic Seattle building from condo fate

Dec 10, 2014, 6:29 PM | Updated: Jan 9, 2015, 1:39 pm
A before & after of the Supply Laundry Building in South Lake Union, a Seattle landmark. Photo by Michael Walmsley Photography.

When it comes to the charm of Seattle’s old brick buildings and cobblestone streets, I am a sentimental fool. Quirky Craftsmans and Tudors always trump modern cement and glass and I have been generally grumpy about all the architectural change our city’s going through. And it doesn’t just seem like we’re losing a lot of old, cool buildings.

“It’s been a much more accelerated demolition of buildings, probably, in the last four years than I’d seen in the 25 before that,” said Karen Gordon, a historic preservation officer for the City of Seattle.

Karen participates in the process of making a building, boat or item an official historical landmark. I met with her to find out what someone can do if they want to preserve an old building, to ultimately save it from becoming just another new condo.

The first step is to nominate the building. It has to be at least 25 years old and have structural integrity. Oh, and anyone can nominate, you don’t have to be the owner.

“Included in that nomination is a physical description of the building, its architectural significance, its historical significance,” says Karen. “We actually have six criteria that the Landmarks Board uses to evaluate whether buildings, objects or sites are eligible for landmark designation.”

If the building meets the initial criteria it will go through a process that includes many meetings, board considerations and will eventually go to a city council vote. But the one criteria they are not looking for is your sentimentality.

“The board has to weigh the nomination in accordance with their criteria. We generally advise people who put nominations in to use their criteria, not the emotion.”

But I think emotion and nostalgia go hand-in-hand with the physical criteria. I mean, why else would you want to save an inanimate object?

“There’s a lot of passion. People feel very strongly about their environment. Sometimes it’s nostalgic, but most of the time it really is based on the historical fact and the relationship to the community and the association with the architect or of a particular style. There certainly are emotions on the part of the owners who perhaps didn’t see anything of value to a building they planned to demolish. So we spend a lot of time doing some problem solving.”

Karen says they also spend time teaching owners about the various tax breaks and incentives that come with owning a historical landmark. Right now, Seattle has 400 individual landmarks.

“We have eight historic districts so there are probably another couple thousand buildings that are included in those districts. Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market, the International District, Columbia City, Ballard Avenue, Harvard-Belmont, Sand Point Naval Air Station and Fort Lawton.”

That list includes The Harvard Exit, the Capitol Hill movie theater slated to close in January. Karen says you can save a building, but you can’t guarantee it will be used in the same way.

And for those of you who think people like Karen and I simply can’t handle change, “I always describe what we do as ‘managing change.’ People always say, ‘Oh, preservation, you’re the old building people, you don’t want anything to change.’ That’s not true. We have a high level of permit activity, people are always making changes. That’s what we want. We want those buildings to continue to be able to be used, in an economically viable way, without really damaging the character of the landmark.”

Click here if you’d like to start the process, or get more information on how to designate a Seattle building as a landmark.

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How to save a historic Seattle building from condo fate