Kyle Johnson
“Once those buildings are gone, you have really ripped out a piece of the fabric of Pine Street.” Kyle Johnson

On April 6, a rumor began spreading across Capitol Hill that a block of East Pine Street was being sold to developers. Word spread fast because it's an extraordinary block. Comprising two brick buildings, the short stretch between Melrose and Bellevue Avenues contains an uncommon density of local businesses. There you'll find a vintage clothing store, a bookstore, a record store, another vintage store, a local pet food shop, a law firm, and the iconic coffee shop Bauhaus. If you've never been, Bauhaus is a cultural anchor—a sort of neighborhood living room. On a recent sunny afternoon, there were exactly a dozen people sitting outside, most of them reading, one man handing out flyers for a concert, a black pug, a liver-spotted dalmatian, and, up by the pet food place, a yellow Labrador mix named Molly drinking water from a dish set out for dogs.

The block also contains the offices of M&P Partnership, which manages the properties. The firm owns six contiguous parcels of land, including these two brick buildings (one of the buildings has two stories of apartments above) and four lots behind them, which include an old house, an unremarkable wooden apartment building, an auto shop, and an art gallery. When I called M&P about the rumor, a woman referred me to a developer, whose PR lady confirmed that they had just signed a contract to buy the land. Construction for a seven-story building will begin by June 2013, she said, and every tenant and business must move out.

Understandably, people went apeshit.

They went apeshit not just because the lots are being sold, but because M&P Partners sold the property to Kirkland-based Madison Development Group. The development firm specializes in new buildings that—to put it mildly—are out of character with the Pike/Pine neighborhood's stock of converted warehouses, brick apartment buildings, nightclubs, and homes for businesses that serve a dense urban corridor. As the company's website ballyhoos, Madison Development Group is particularly proud of its "success in the Northwest" building an LA Fitness, a 24 Hour Fitness Express, a Safeway, another Safeway, a Home Depot, a medical facility, a strip mall, a Costco, and a handful more projects of that ilk.

In other words, two of the most beloved, useful buildings inside one of the city's most vital neighborhoods are being taken over—with the intent to be gutted or destroyed—by a company that builds big box chain stores.

"Those two buildings are the gateway to Pike/Pine when you come up from downtown," says Cathy Hillenbrand, a member of the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council and a board member of Capitol Hill Housing. "I would call it iconic in the context of the neighborhood—that block of retail. Once those buildings are gone, you have really ripped out a piece of the fabric of Pine Street."

The Seattle City Council recognized those two buildings—called the Melrose Building and the Timken Roller Bearing Co. Building, built respectively in 1915 and 1916—when it passed an ordinance creating the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District in 2009. Pike/Pine was Seattle's original auto row, establishing an architectural rhythm of masonry buildings defined by horizontal swaths of massive windows. In acknowledging both the neighborhood's and the block's vital role, Council Member Sally Clark said last week, "That string of small buildings exemplified the scale and interest that make Pike/Pine unique."

After identifying 165 buildings over 85 years old, the council set out to promote new construction in the district while trying to "save old buildings as a way to maintain space that is affordable and conducive to small business uses," according to a 2008 city report. But despite the city's subsequent legislation to preserve spaces like these, now that the economy is picking up, these two buildings are among the first on the chopping block.

Within the last month, five more development proposals have begun moving forward in the Pike/Pine conservation district. Each of them would replace brick buildings or warehouses characteristic of the neighborhood with "mixed use" buildings containing residences and street-level retail. Other plots of land set for new development include one on 14th Avenue between Pike and Pine (home of Porchlight Coffee) and two across the street from each other on Boylston and Pike (the Phil Smart car dealership and a former BMW dealership). As for the last one, rumors are circulating that the development will also consume and displace the brick Bill's Off Broadway pizza place and the HG Lodge nightclub.

"I am flabbergasted by the size and momentum of the development in the last couple of months," says Chip Wall, who sits on the city's Capitol Hill Design Review Board, which signs off on architectural plans for large new construction projects. "We're seeing all these apartments coming out of nowhere." They're not small, new projects, either, Wall notes, "but huge blocks of property in the middle of Pike/Pine."

Liz Dunn, who has retrofitted and remodeled several old buildings in the neighborhood, describes opportunistic investors "coming into a place they've heard is 'hot' to earn a quick return." She points out that they make that money "on the backs of the careful rehab and infill and local creative tenants who created value here in the first place."

To be clear, Hillenbrand, Dunn, Wall, and others like them support new construction in the neighborhood and increasing density. People who howl that they are opposing density miss the point. For example, one recent brick building torn down, at 10th Avenue and East Union Street, was a dilapidated warehouse that wasn't the sort of cultural petri dish we see on the Bauhaus block, and it will be replaced with a 270-unit apartment building—a gain for the neighborhood. And there are parking lots in the neighborhood that density advocates would love to see developed where no development plans are moving forward.

The concern shared by Hillenbrand, Dunn, and others is that once you rip out the limited stock of unique blocks, like the Bauhaus block, small businesses and character may never return. These sorts of rental spaces, with tightly packed storefronts on pedestrian thoroughfares, are rarely replaced by new construction. Whereas these old buildings, like the one that houses Bauhaus, provide deep retail spaces, new buildings tend to have shallow, expensive storefronts—and fewer rental spaces per block—that tend to house chain stores or businesses like banks, tanning salons, and cell phone stores. The important thing in Pike/Pine is maintaining a mixture of uses from high end to low end (fancy new condos, affordable lofts, upscale restaurants, cheap cafes, etc.). But as developers home in on Pike/Pine, they threaten to displace the very things that make the neighborhood so attractive to renters in the first place.

Developers like Madison Development Group and Murray Franklyn (which is just finishing a massive development one block north) that have historically invested in the suburbs are now turning their attention to the western slope of Capitol Hill because it's near downtown and can be an economic boon—and people like Dunn say they are welcome, depending on what their construction does for the neighborhood.

As a purely unscientific exercise, let's look at other recent large-scale developments on Capitol Hill to see what sort of businesses they contain. Per city rules, the QFC on East Pike Street was required to include retail facing the street. But the spaces are shallow (less than 30 feet in some places) and the block face contains a generic collection of shops: an AT&T store, a Subway, a teriyaki place, and a nail salon. About a half mile north on Broadway, another contemporary block-long development called the Joule Apartments opened in 2010. Three retail spaces remain vacant, and the remaining eight spaces are national chain stores (Umpqua Bank, UPS Store, GNC Nutrition, Zoomcare) and local chains (Qdoba Mexican Grill, MOD Pizza, Blue Moon Burgers). The Joule block is nearly twice as long as the Bauhaus block, but only one tenant in the Joule is a single, independent business: Saizen Sushi. (In fairness, no one block is perfectly comparable to any other—for example, the Joule replaced a QFC and chain stores, so it's still a net gain to the streetscape. But the sort of tenants that occupy new buildings, as a rule, are not independent businesses.)

Bauhaus is just down the road from a former string of independent businesses and bars along East Pine Street that was razed in 2008. Four years later, that Eastside developer, Murray Franklyn, has yet to open its new building, so we don't know what sort of businesses it will contain. Just like we don't know what will replace Bauhaus.

In all fairness, Madison Development Group doesn't plan to build a Costco or a Safeway on the Bauhaus site; zoning doesn't allow it. Its project would locate storefronts on the street and six stories of apartments above that. The developer may even retain the brick facades, says spokeswoman Natalie Price, but she cautioned repeatedly, "We cannot commit to anything yet."

What matters isn't the facade, though, but the contents—whether it accommodates the sort of uses that the block currently provides. Will the interior space have the lofty, bright spaces that make coffee shops like Bauhaus a community hub? Or the dense retail storefronts that small businesses can afford?

The city has now passed three ordinances to preserve neighborhood character (in 2009, 2010, and 2011), all part of the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District. The district was created by Council Member Tom Rasmussen and passed by the rest of the council, but given that the Bauhaus building and the building next to it are going to be demolished or gutted, the question is: Is the conservation district working?

"The conservation overlay isn't working, because, really, they could tear down the building for a six-story structure," Hillenbrand says. While she acknowledges that the intent was never to stop construction altogether, she points out, "There is no incentive for keeping a full building. There is only an incentive for keeping a facade. In that respect, it's not going to save the building. As for the Bauhaus block, it seems more important to save those buildings and rehab them and build a really modern insertion [in the four lots] behind and around them."

As for Rasmussen, he has repeatedly declined to answer questions about the conservation district since March.

So what can be done?

And how did we get to a place where old "character buildings" can continue to be razed or gutted when residents and elected officials are so concerned with preserving the neighborhood? One reason is that the council declined to make the Pike/Pine neighborhood a historic district or declare the character buildings as landmarks. That would have been a drastic step, essentially freezing the neighborhood. Back in 2008, Rasmussen concluded that landmarking buildings would anger developers. "There could be so much push-back from property owners," he told me at the time, "it may not be worth it."

Another reason is that the Pike/Pine conservation district doesn't provide any incentive to save a whole building, just the facade. This means that a building's shell can be left intact but its contents can be just like any other new building. This doesn't necessarily preserve the neighborhood character, just a superficial appearance of the old neighborhood. In 2008, there was warning that it may not be effective. "It won't be successful in preserving character, which is the whole point," Dunn said.

A third reason is that the city has limited authority to impose rules on developers. In the council's defense, Washington State has some of the friendliest laws for property owners in the country. Both the state constitution and a bouquet of statutes limit a city's ability to impose onerous or arbitrary zoning restrictions. Moreover, a city cannot "take" a property owner's value away (for instance, by preventing them from building taller unless there's a good reason). If a city oversteps its bounds, it risks having the zoning rules thrown out in court and being forced to pay huge sums to an aggrieved property owner.

The fourth reason is that the boards that oversee building design have no real authority. They advise developers based on so-called design guidelines. But it's a gutless system. The boards are stacked with industry insiders (the Capitol Hill board has only one member, Chip Wall, who isn't an architect or developer). If a building fails to meet design guidelines, the board can slow down the process but it can't mandate changes. When the review board approved the Murray Franklyn building on Pine and Belmont—the block famously demolished in 2008—a challenge in court failed even though the new building is obviously out of character for the neighborhood and has little adherence to the design guidelines. But the boards approved these buildings and the judges have upheld those decisions.

So, again, what can do you?

In fairness, there is still hope for the Bauhaus block and blocks like it. By city guidelines, any building over 50 years old that may be demolished or gutted is automatically going to be considered by our Landmarks Preservation Board as a possible historic site. That sort of historic designation is unlikely, but it's possible. Meanwhile, the Pike/Pine conservation district rules are new: The developer could hew to the city's intent and produce something wonderful. Hillenbrand asks the public to be involved. "We need bodies at design review meetings," she says. "We need bodies if there is a landmark nomination. If there is support for stronger conservation, we need your support for that."

As for the developers, they want to assuage public fears. "I would say don't judge Madison Development Group on what they have built in other areas, which might have been right for what they were building there," says Price. "I would say give them some room to come to Capitol Hill and work with leaders there to figure out what is right for that property." recommended