The Belltown faithful pull off a landmarking coup, but is there anything certain Seattleites are willing to let go?
Last week’s meeting of the Landmark Preservation Board left me wondering: Is there anything — a bar or restaurant, a Honey Bucket in the Pike Place Market — so insignificant that sentimental Seattle won’t bemoan its loss?
At issue was protecting the Wayne Apartments in Belltown. Turns out the rundown stack of rooms was one of the few buildings in that part of town that survived the Denny Regrade Project.
Board member Nick Carter voted against it
“I think the building has changed too much,” he told me. “You can’t rely on the fact that it will be brought back to its former glory.”
Other members disagreed, and by a vote of 6-3 the structure was granted landmark status.
“The regrade of Denny Hill was monumental and catastrophic,” said board member Robert Ketcherside, who voted for landmark status. “And it’s the sole building that can really tell the story.”
That may be true, but it’s not even the Wayne I’m questioning. The story isn’t the building’s past glory, but its current dinge: the low-slung stretch of storefronts below the Wayne includes Shorty’s, Rocco’s and The Lava Lounge. The Wayne’s preservation would stall (or thwart, as some locals hope) a plan to eventually build a 124-unit apartment building on that spot and the two adjacent parcels.
So, in a turn of historical irony befitting Seattle today, a significant building from 1891 was used to save a row of late-model dives by denizens afraid of a glass-and-steel yuppy-tower three years from now.
But the board didn’t care about the bars.
As Carter explained, the preservation board has six “standards for designation.”
“It all comes down to, ‘Do things meet the criteria?’ and if they do, they become nominated and possibly designated,” Carter said. “It doesn’t matter what happens in the future or what happened in the past.”
By “the past,” here he meant the recent past invoked by those who came to the meeting to express their love for the bars in question.
So, it was great, Carter said, hearing the stories from the people who love the Lava Lounge and Shorty’s. The guy who met his wife playing pinball. The woman who said the bars “have shaped the lives of every person in this room.” The man who said that without the building “There’s no Belltown” and the other who proclaimed, “If this goes, it’s all coming down.”
It was that the Wayne met more than one of the six criteria, in the opinion of the board’s majority, that saved the bars. The building is “associated in a significant way with a historic event with a significant effect upon the community,” meaning the Regrade. And it “embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style or period,” for its rowhouse design.
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Maybe, but it’s unlikely the board would have been brought the case were it not for the Belltown faithful.
I suspect there is a sort of civic PTSD happening, in which we are losing so much, so fast, that there is an overreaction to the demise of certain places that stand in for the general, ongoing change in the city.
The fight for the Wayne Apartments gave hope that Seattle’s future may not always involve demolition and a deep hole in the ground, followed by a boxy building that breeds resentment — toward newcomers, tech workers, high salaries and the developers who have been scrubbing Seattle of its character and history, one gauzily named apartment or condo tower at a time (Escala, Insignia, Aspira, et al).
With little discernible intervention by city planners, the two factors that push and pull on change like this are the sentiments of longtime locals and interests of developers — with the latter generally winning out. And serving as mediator in this case is the Landmark Preservation Board.
Carter was hesitant to characterize the board’s role at this time in the city’s history. But as much as things are changing, he did point out things are being saved.
“There are certainly more designations and nominations than I was expecting,” Carter said. “But I certainly don’t feel like I am in the hot seat.”
“Cities grow,” he added. Change is “inevitable.”
Indeed. And even the board’s decision may be fleeting. Developers can dispute a preservation vote by claiming there would be an economic hardship by leaving the building there, Carter said.
“Then we can allow them to tear it down or keep portions of it and build around it,” Carter said.
And since the plan is to develop the three neighboring parcels, having a rundown, landmarked building on one of them would most certainly constitute an economic hardship, in the mind of the developer. In other words, expect such an appeal.
So, while the crowd is celebrating at Shorty’s, the party may not last as long as they think. And that may be the hardest part of all this change: Our memories may be gold in our minds and hearts, but lately they’re just not worth much on the street.