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Behind The Facade: Landmark Status Could Save Auto Row-Era Buildings From Developers

It seems not a week goes by when a beloved building is torn down on the Hill and a new, sleeker one put in its place. Some defend these types of developments as a modern solution to meet the need of a booming population in the densest neighborhood in Seattle, whereas others vilify it as the latest in gentrification that pushes out the people that make the hood what it is (or was, depending on who you ask).

The latest example of this trend is the Kelly-Springfield Motor Truck Company building, the current home of Value Village on 11th Avenue, between Pike and Pine Streets.

Preservation Starts with the People

The building was constructed in 1917 and was part of the Auto-row era of Capitol Hill, but if a developer has their way it will be home to a 75-foot tall office building, though the facade will be kept intact. A group of concerned citizens are attempting to put a stop to the development by seeking landmark preservation status for the Kelly-Springfield building.

Andrew Haas is one of those concerned citizens. Haas has lived on the Hill for more than two decades and has seen it change during that time. Previously having experience in natural resource conservation, Haas decided to use those skills to build a coalition to preserve the Kelly-Springfield building, and the neighboring White Motor Company building — home to the Stranger and the Rhino Room — which would also be part of the 75-foot office building design.

Value Village: original windows. Photo courtesy of Andrew Haas

“There are many parallels between natural resource conservation and historic preservation,” Haas said. “Healthy salmon runs require forests, wetlands, free-flowing streams, and estuaries to thrive. Likewise, urban ecosystems are sustained by parks, public transit, affordable housing and historic buildings. Historic buildings create a sense of place and a connection to the roots of the City. They are the old growth trees of the urban landscape.”

Really the only way to save the “old growth trees of the urban landscape” like the auto row buildings is to have them awarded landmark status by the Landmarks Preservation Board division of the City government. In order to be awarded landmark status a building must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Be the location of, or significantly associated with, a historical event that had an effect on the community, city, state, or nation
  • Be associated with the life of a person who had a significant effect on the community, city, state, or nation
  • Be associated with a significant part of the cultural, political or economic heritage of the community, city, state, or nation
  • Embodies a distinctive architectural style, period in architecture, or a notable method of construction
  • Be associated with a notable architect or builder
  • It is linked to the distinctive visual identity of the neighborhood

Haas said that both the Kelly-Springfield and White Motor Company buildings meet several of the criteria for landmark status: the buildings were once home to the first REI store; the first employee at REI was Jim Whittaker (who later became CEO), the first American to climb Mt. Everest; the buildings are also prime examples of the auto row-style of architecture, and were designed by notable Seattle architect Julian Everett.

Chris Moore, the executive director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, said the two buildings meet the criteria for landmark status. The trust is a statewide non-profit group that advocates for preservation issues.

The subject building in 1937. (Tax assessor photo)

“The bar is high to get landmark status,” Moore said. “And rightfully so. But, the process put in place [to get the status] is tried and true. It’s important to note that a building only has to meet one of six criteria points to be granted the status, and in this instance there’s a good case for it.”

To date, the only reason the two buildings have not been designated as landmarks is simply because no one has tried before, or even needed to since the buildings had not been in the oncoming path of a bulldozer before. Bellevue-based Legacy Commercial, the proposers of the office building development, have stated that they do not want the buildings to get landmark status, as that would foil the whole development plan.

The City’s Efforts and Learning from the Past

In order to curb the community’s concerns over gentrification, the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District was created by the City Council in 2009. The point of the district is to provide incentives to developers to keep existing structures intact. An example of this is the former home of Bauhaus, as the facade is still intact, but the rest of the building has been demolished to make way for a seven-story mixed-use development that is currently under construction. The Bauhaus building was nominated for landmark status in 2013, and despite outrage from the community, it was not granted.

Despite the demise of the Bauhaus building, Moore said that the community plays a large role in determining whether landmark status is granted or not: “There needs to be a strong local effort to raise awareness, and in this case there is,” he said. “It’s important that the local community lets the City and the developers know that they care how their neighborhood looks.”

In the case of Bauhaus, it was too little, too late, but Moore and Haas are confident the timing is right to save the Kelly-Springfield and White Motor Company buildings. Haas said he hopes the landmark status for these buildings will set a precedent in the Pike/Pine corridor and set forth the beginning of the end of the gentrification of the Hill.

“I fear much of the neighborhood will become a movie set of false storefronts in a few short years, unless the community demands better,” Haas said. “We need [to keep] the heart of the neighborhood intact, not just the facades, for us and for future generations to enjoy. It is possible to have both density and history, but right now Seattle is on the wrong track.”

The Landmarks Preservation Board will consider this nomination at its meeting on Wednesday, December 17, 2014, at 3:30 pm in the Seattle Municipal Tower, 700 5th Avenue, 40th Floor, Room 4060. Comment letters will be accepted until 5 pm Tuesday. Send to Sarah.sodt@seattle.gov.

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