1. The era when Seattle leaders routinely rubber-stamped requests to protect old buildings from development without regard to context (is it in an area where new housing is needed and allowed?) or uniqueness (are there many examples of similar buildings elsewhere?) may have come to an end.
Exhibit A: Councilmember Tammy Morales’ amendment to legislation that would otherwise have made it difficult or impossible to build housing at the site of a former drive-through bank building in South Lake Union that the city’s landmarks preservation board designated as a historic landmark in 2006. The building is now a drive-through Walgreen’s store.
Last month, a council committee voted unanimously (with Councilmember Kshama Sawant absent) against imposing “controls and incentives”—restrictions on alterations or demolition and tax breaks or other financial incentives, respectively—on the building.. However, Morales said, that vote may not have gone far enough to ensure that Walgreen’s wouldn’t have to go back to the landmarks board to renegotiate a new agreement.
To prevent that, Morales’ amended legislation says explicitly that there will be “no” controls or incentives on the building.
“[S]nce the original designation of the Building, the Uptown Urban Center has been rezoned, and the area that the Building is located in has been rezoned to allow significantly larger buildings, including residential development,” the amended legislation reads, and “the benefits of allowing development on this site outweigh the preservation of the Building.”
The 1950 structure —which now houses a Walgreen’s—is one of several copies of a prototype that can still be seen around Seattle drive-through concept, which was new at the time, helped usher in 1950s car culture, which is one of the arguments preservationists have made for saving it.
The building will retain its landmark status. “The role of council in this whole process is not to modify the landmark designation itself,” Morales said. “Our role is to decide whether to accept the controls and incentives agreement, given the disagreement over whether this [building] is significant at all.”
The full council will take up Morales’ legislation on Monday.
2. Also this week, members of the council’s public assets committee raised questions about another landmarked property, a 95-year-old, six-unit apartment complex in the University District that was landmarked in 2018. The owner is seeking a property tax exemption that would reduce the assessed value of the undeveloped half of his property by 50 percent in exchange for preserving the “open space resource” at the site. The open space in question: A small strip of lawn around the building.
The law granting this kind of tax exemption is fairly obscure. Basically, it provides a property tax reduction for open space buffers around landmarked buildings by taxing these areas at their “current use”—undeveloped open space—rather than the “highest and best use” for the property. The point of the program, according to King County, is to “encourage the conservation of natural resources in King County by conserving its land and water resources, which include important wildlife habitat, wetland and streams, working forests and productive farmlands.”
Council members questioned how a small, grassy private yard in the middle of the city qualified as open space. ” This just feels like a slippery slope to be offering these reductions for something that isn’t really contributing to public space,” Morales said. A council staffer said the grass served as a kind of “visual buffer” between the building and the street, prompting Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda to note that many apartment buildings, including buildings with far more housing, include strips of grass and shrubs.
I just want to make sure that when we’re thinking about promoting and preserving public space, that we really are creating accessible public space that can be used and enjoyed by members of the public in the area, especially if there’s a tax benefit argument tied to this,” Mosqueda said.
Despite those concerns, the committee approved the application unanimously, along with another open-space application for a (non-landmarked) house in Wedgewood that backs up onto a ravine.