1. A city council committee declined to impose restrictions on a one-story former bank in South Lake Union Friday, arguing that the building, which now houses a drive-through Walgreen’s, is not historic enough to merit long-term preservation. The proposed restrictions, which were approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board, would have given the landmarks board veto power over any changes to the interior or exterior of the building. The city has repeatedly increased allowed building heights in the area around the building, which is now surrounded by towers as tall as 160 feet.
The landmark designation for the 1950 building says the structure epitomizes mid-century banking architecture, which focused on convenience for middle-class consumers with cars, and says it also constitutes the outstanding work of a single designer. In fact (as the landmarks board also noted) the bank was just one of many similar structures in Seattle based on a prototype for a drive-through bank. Walgreen’s, which owns the building, had hoped to sell off the development rights for the property, keeping the building as-is but enabling another developer to build densely in a “receiving site” elsewhere in the city.
Neighborhoods committee chair Tammy Morales, who set the Walgreen’s building aside for further discussion back in April, said she saw no reason to prevent future development of the Walgreen’s site, given that there are four other similar buildings in Seattle. “Preserving this particular one-story building doesn’t make sense, given the housing crisis that we’re in and that the neighborhood has changed dramatically since 2006,” when the building got its landmark status.
The committee’s unanimous (four-member) vote against preserving the building also marks a dramatic change, as elected officials (and even the landmarks board) increasingly acknowledge that the need for housing often outweighs preservationists’ desire to see every old (and not-so-old) building protected.
2. In another sign of the times, another council committee agreed to extend the city’s “cafe streets” program, which allowed restaurants to create outdoor dining spaces during COVID, and impose new fees on businesses that take advantage of the program. (Originally, the permits were free).
Advocates for the proposal were concerned about an amendment by Northeast Seattle Councilmember Alex Pedersen to reinstate a rule that banned food trucks within 50 feet of any brick-and-mortar restaurant. Before COVID, this rule effectively prohibited food trucks in business districts all around the city—basically all the areas where people might actually be around to patronize a food truck.
Although the legislation that passed gets rid of this protectionist provision, it still subjects food trucks to extra scrutiny, requiring the Seattle Department of Transportation to report back on any “potential impacts from food trucks or other vending activity occurring in close proximity to brick-and-mortar businesses.”
Pedersen, who sponsored the amendment imposing this extra scrutiny on food truck operators, said the intent of the original 50-foot rule was “to mitigate the potential effects to small existing businesses that take on the risk of additional expenses, of capital improvements, inventory, and wages for workers to keep their brick-and-mortar operations afloat.”
Morales responded that by applying special scrutiny to food trucks, the council would be saying that food trucks—which are often run by immigrants and people of color—have a negative impact on other businesses. “The presumption with this amendment seems to be that we should protect existing businesses from competition,” Morales said, yet “we don’t ask anything of the corporations in this city that regularly squeeze out independent businesses through mergers and acquisitions.” The amendment passed, with Morales voting no, Dan Strauss abstaining, and Pedersen and Kshama Sawant voting yes.
3. Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, announced on Thursday that the extension of its existing Tacoma light rail line, which runs between downtown Tacoma and the Tacomadome, will be delayed for an unknown period due to “quality and safety issues” with the project. In a blog post, agency CEO Julie Timm said Sound Transit has already addressed multiple previous “quality issues” with the project, adding that the latest problem, which involves “track geometry,” will push the opening date until later in 2023.
This isn’t the first time Sound Transit has identified shoddy work by its contractors since the pandemic began. Earlier this year, the agency announced it would have to delay the opening of the East Link line connecting Seattle to Bellevue because of multiple quality issues with the light rail extension across I-90. Those problems included problems with “nearly all” the concrete plinths and fasteners that affix the rails to the bridge, cracking concrete supports, missing rebar, and other structural and safety issues.
Because of those significant delays, Sound Transit has proposed changing the order in which it will open new light rail extensions. Under the new proposed schedule, the extension of the existing 1 line to Lynnwood would open in 2024, and the new line to Bellevue and downtown Redmond would open in 2025. Sound Transit doesn’t have a new opening date for a southern extension to Federal Way, which was delayed after a 200-foot section of embankment along the route slid nine feet earlier this year.
Prompted by a request from King County Councilmember and Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci, Sound Transit staff drafted a plan to open an eight-station, Eastside-only “starter line” connecting downtown Bellevue and Redmond that will provide Eastside residents with some rail transit starting next year while Sound Transit works out the problems with the I-90 crossing.