Despite the challenges, 2007 was a banner year for historic preservation. I say that not because of the successes, but because the issues surrounding preserving our built heritage...

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A country without a past has the emptiness of a barren continent; and a city without old buildings is like a man without a memory.

— British architect and planner Graeme Shankland

A year ago in this magazine (“Saving Ourselves,” Jan. 14), I stepped outside my official role as program director for Historic Seattle to get personal. I put together my own list of buildings that were both worthy of our attention and in danger of disappearing, some to demolition. I also talked about some building types that, for one reason or another, would be challenging to preserve in light of everything from zoning issues to urban-growth pressures. The cost to restore and rehabilitate is often seen as a higher risk than less expensive options that don’t take into account the intrinsic value these structures have in shaping our community’s sense of itself.

A year later, it is wonderful to report that two of those endangered buildings — First United Methodist Church in the central business district and Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist on Queen Anne Hill — are no longer threatened. Good stewards have stepped forward to buy them, aware of the importance of preserving them and excited about repairing and opening them to a new audience.

In the first case, President Kevin Daniels of Nitze-Stagen real-estate investors led a team effort that included national, state and local preservation groups. Daniels assembled property north of downtown so the congregation could relocate and he’s proposed an office tower that fills only part of the downtown site so the historic building can remain. In the second case, Seattle Church of Christ, a congregation without a permanent home, has found an elegant, affordable home at the Seventh Church to establish roots without having to start from scratch and build something less substantial.

A commercial building at Ninth Avenue and Pine Street was not so lucky. It has been torn down. And while the building may not have met city of Seattle landmarks criteria, it did signal the urgency of reviewing other buildings in our city and making decisions fairly rapidly about which ones should be protected as downtown-area developers jump to take advantage of increased height limits to complete expensive condominium towers.

Despite the challenges, 2007 was a banner year for historic preservation. I say that not because of the successes, but because the issues surrounding preserving our built heritage made headlines more often than I can remember in the recent past. There were appeals to the city of Seattle questioning the designation of the Harry Whitney Treat residence on Queen Anne Avenue and whether a demolition permit for the Seventh Church had been properly issued. There were disagreements about whether it was appropriate to add four floors to the Seattle Plumbing Building at the south end of the Pioneer Square Historic District. The Pioneer Square Review Board ruled that it was, and adjoining property owners appealed the decision to the city hearing examiner. A settlement allows the project to move forward as proposed.

A variety of other community organizations and government agencies tried to figure out whether old, decaying buildings, such as Washington Hall, and ships, such as the 1897 three-masted schooner Wawona, were past the point of preserving or could somehow find a savior or two. In the first case, Historic Seattle is considering buying Washington Hall from the Sons of Haiti Masonic organization in order to begin restoration, following up on its award-winning revitalization of the earthquake-damaged Cadillac Hotel. Through an agreement between Northwest Seaport and the city of Seattle, the Wawona will be preserved and displayed on land at South Lake Union.

The major conversation in the media has been around the completion, after years of thoughtful work, of a city-initiated survey and inventory and the release of a report that pinpoints a number of buildings in central downtown that are eligible for landmarks consideration. The goal is to protect buildings that are valuable to the city while eliminating the ambiguity that surrounds the much larger body of structures in this dense urban core. By doing so, property owners and developers needn’t concern themselves that at the last moment, someone will propose that an old building on a development site might be a landmark.

Considering the intent of the survey, the scope of the inventory and the fact that it was developed in the public arena, it is ironic that as soon as the survey results were published, property owners panicked and accused the city of negotiating secretly, discriminating against them and devaluing their nest eggs. It also was unsettling — though not totally surprising — that a well-orchestrated protest emerged to question the value of the process and insist that landmark designation be by owner consent only.

But here’s the catch to that line of thinking: If Seattle’s 1973 Landmarks Preservation Ordinance had included owner consent, the city would have faced what other major cities experienced: Some of the most important vestiges of city life were demolished because the roles of boards and commissions were advisory rather than regulatory. They could stay a demolition for a short time, but they had no authority to stop it.

Had owner consent been required in Seattle, few significant downtown commercial buildings would be protected today, because most of them, no taller than 25 floors, do not constitute the highest and best use for the quarter- or half- blocks that they use. Say goodbye to the Exchange Building, the Arctic and Alaska buildings, the former Frederick & Nelson and Bon Marché department stores, the Coliseum and Paramount theaters, and hundreds of other designated landmarks in the city. For that matter, Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market and the International District would likely not have been established over the naysaying of individual property owners.

The foundation of Seattle’s preservation program evolved from local citizens’ pride in their surroundings, their concern for hanging on to significant physical aspects of Northwest heritage, and their interest in maintaining historic continuity downtown and in the surrounding neighborhoods. These concerns were amplified when important pieces of that heritage were threatened with destruction in the 1970s for proposed parking garages, roads and high-rises. Many of these threats came from within city government itself, under the guise of economic improvement. Sound familiar?

Perhaps it might help to understand the landmarks process and what it can do for property owners rather than what it takes away.

Seattle’s 1973 ordinance was the result of many conferences and community meetings. Modeled after a similar program in New York City, it established a citywide landmark-preservation program with a review board of independent, impartial experts and professionals to act on nominations and process applications for changes to designated properties. It offered a public forum for discussing criteria and a process for supporting and disputing designation.

Whether a building is designated or not, that dialogue can help preserve significant features of historic buildings and even bring about much more satisfying new construction. The law also offers a variety of incentives, including tax freezes and variances from building codes to encourage appropriate renovations for designated properties.

At a 25th-anniversary celebration for the law, the Rev. Michael Ryan of St. James Cathedral spoke eloquently of the role that preservation can have in shaping projects for the better:

“There are those who see a preservation ordinance as an unfortunate encumbrance and even unwarranted restriction on ownership rights. For us, I believe it worked the opposite way. Were it not for the fact that St. James was listed on the landmark registry, I honestly believe we would never have received the enormously helpful cooperation we routinely received with city planning officials . . . . We were not only well-served by the stipulations of the ordinance. We were also inspired and challenged by its underlying wisdom.”

There is also evidence that restoring historic properties rather than razing them is an economic plus. In the fall 2007 newsletter of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, executive director Jennifer Meisner cites a report by the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation showing that rehabilitation of historic buildings in King County from 2000 to 2004 generated $106 million a year in product and service sales, supported 1,230 jobs and added $43 million in wages to the economy. The same study indicated that, in 2004, heritage tourists, who visit a place because of its historic resources, spent $307 million in King County, which supported 8,470 jobs and generated $510 million in wages. These figures call into question the idea that historic properties are worth less in the marketplace and are a drain on the local economy.

While all the current attention seems to be on downtown properties, people really should be thinking about the much more fragile streetcar suburbs that developed in Seattle in the first quarter of the 20th century. Land-use changes there have been as dramatic as they have been downtown. It makes sense to build in the most developed centers of our neighborhoods where access to transit and shopping make life without a car possible. But hardly a week passes without an old apartment building, a small retail building or a row of old bungalows being razed for multifamily housing and retail in our ongoing urban-village push.

Since few of these early business districts have designated landmark buildings, this is where the most damage can happen with little oversight. Any development of more than 4,000 square feet that would require demolition of a potentially eligible building must now go through the landmarks-designation process. But buildings are known to fall through the bureaucratic cracks. Few preservationists will forget that a demolition permit was granted for the H.C. Black residence on West Highland Drive by an owner who claimed it was beyond repair and he was replacing it with another single-family home. In fact, he was planning several houses on the site. A chain-link fence continues to surround the weed-covered property across from one of the city’s most famous viewpoints, Kerry Park.

This only goes to show that the “common good” as an important civic value — the basis for our landmarks law — is in danger of being put aside for the good of immediate returns on investments. An open forum can encourage broader thinking about the long-term benefits of retaining buildings that contribute to the city’s well-being and appeal. We can grow and change without sacrificing all the virtues that have made the region a mecca for a new generation.

That brings me back to my comment that this has been a banner year for historic preservation. It is exciting to be in the city as people who might never have thought at all about these buildings begin to consider what makes this place important to them, and start to weigh whether another new high-rise is as crucial as preserving our most character-defining streetscapes. Suddenly, buildings are really being looked at and appreciated. At the opposite extreme, property owners who are justifiably concerned about the impact of designation are making assumptions — often false — about what it really means. The city has proved itself to be a cooperative partner in providing everything from structural-engineering expertise to tax credits.

Property owners might follow the example of Michael Malone, who owns several designated properties, including 1005 E. Roy St., one of Fred Anhalt’s distinctive late-1920s brick apartment buildings. “We all have to be more aware and more sensitive to saving our physical heritage,” he says. “There is no second chance!”

Lawrence Kreisman is author of “Made To Last: Historic Preservation in Seattle and King County.” Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.