With more landmarks set to fall, some Belltown residents worry their neighborhood may already be history.
Steve Hall is trying to save historic Belltown. But sometimes the buildings themselves are getting in the way.
“How do you save funkiness? Can you save the historic business in a building that’s not so architecturally grand?” says Hall, of the group Friends of Historic Belltown. (Fretting motto: “Is Belltown history?”)
“We’re finding Seattle has no answers to these questions.”
The questions have suddenly leapt to the forefront due to the case of the Showbox theater. People want to spare the club from becoming yet another glass tower with ground level retail. But the old building was judged to have no historical value in a city survey of about 400 downtown properties.
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When I cited that survey in a recent column, many readers were alarmed at what else was on the “no historical value” list. The Elephant car wash, whose vintage pink sign, at least, seems like the very definition of “landmark.” The Edgewater Hotel, where the Beatles fished out the window. And the Crocodile club in Belltown, a grunge temple when Seattle ruled the music world.
All three were judged to be of so little historical value that anyone developing those sites could skip the historic review process.
Belltown in particular seems stuffed with rich history that happens to come in plain wrappings. The buildings often don’t impress the architectural judges of what makes something “historic.”
Example: The ongoing fight to save the 125-year-old Wayne Apartments, better known as the block containing Shorty’s, the “clown bar.” Residents rallied for the building because it forms a sort of funky heart to the core of Belltown. They had seemed to win three years ago when it was granted historic protection on the grounds that it predated the regrading of the city in the early 1900s.
But the landmarks board recently voted to relax that protection, because the building is in such a poor state the owner said he couldn’t do anything with it.
“Dirt is more valuable than this building,” one of the landmarks board members said, expressing frustration with how the superheated real-estate market is overwhelming any intangible value like culture or community wishes.
Or take another example, two blocks over. The 2200 block of 4th Avenue in Belltown is a row of modified former garages, built in 1924 and now mostly closed in. But behind the nondescript front is a treasure trove of Seattle music lore.
For 46 years, the old garages have been home to recording studios that formed the heart of the Seattle music business. First as Kaye-Smith studios, then Bad Animals and Studio X, they’ve played host to recording sessions by everyone from Steve Miller and Tower of Power to local grunge kings Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden.
Developers filed last year to demolish the studios and replace them with … wait for it … “a 307-unit residential tower with on-site ground-floor retail.” The music studios have to move out by the end of October, but do plan to relocate within Seattle.
“There’s not much you can do about historic businesses, especially when they’re in buildings that the landmarks system doesn’t view as special,” summed up Hall, of Friends of Historic Belltown.
Ironically they’re already a landmark of sorts to the public, as they’re often part of sightseeing tours. Behind those drab walls, some of the biggest records in rock were made, the Duck boat guides will say. The anonymity of the buildings is part of the appeal, as it contrasts so intriguingly with the celebrity inside.
“People love that kind of history, because it’s like a speakeasy, it’s secret,” Hall said.
He said he hopes the story of what went down behind those drab walls gets told, before yet another glass tower fills in the spot.
What Seattle needs, Hall says, is “a comprehensive historic plan” that explores how to better value qualities besides a building’s cornices or period architectural style. In other words, how do you save funkiness? Or, in this development mania, is funky a Seattle lost cause.
When they came for the music, they finally pushed the limit. Maybe we’ll snap when they come for the pink Elephant.