Neighborhood activists are crusading to rescue a one-story, black wooden building at East Olive Way and Boylston Avenue East—home to B & O Espresso for 33 years—from being demolished for a new apartment building. Tonight they will amass an army at a meeting in Seattle Central Community College, where the developer will unveil his plans for the site. “I called the college and requested a larger room,” says Mike Bush, who lives a half-block east of the threatened building and is an organizer of the Capitol Hill Organization Insuring Cultural Equity. Using its website, the group has gathered over 1,400 petition letters to present to the city’s Department of Planning and development (DPD), pleading to preserve the 1923 structure. “I would like to see the building remain as a permanent fixture in the neighborhood,” he says.
But the building lacks architectural zing. “It’s part of the culture of the neighborhood,” Bush explains. He wants to save it as a charming neighborhood anchor. Moreover, he dreads whatever would replace it. “It is just going to be another huge monolithic ugly structure.”
However, the strategy to save the building through petition and outcry is flawed: DPD couldn’t block the project even if it wanted to. The department doesn’t designate landmarks; the landmark preservation board does that. And, Bush acknowledges, the building lacks the architectural prominence or historical significance to quality as a landmark. “We really don’t have a lot of leg to stand on,” he says. And despite the web-generated petitions collected by Bush, Bruce Rips, a DPD planner who oversees the proposed building for the city, says only one person has called him about the project.
Meanwhile, Bush’s wife and member of CHOICE, Sally Knodell, suggests the city needs a “new type of landmark designation that allows for architecture that has significant socio-cultural value.”
I agree with Knodell—we should designate certain buildings as landmarks if they fall short of architectural phenomena but do provide something especially unique. For instance, some of the masonry warehouses in the Pike-Pine neighborhood would be ideal: They contain uncommonly large spaces and together they form a district of historical arts and nightlife uses. But the B & O building is extremely average, houses a bland restaurant, and designwise stands alone.
The same compulsion that drives the notion that we have the right to paint our houses with rainbows and pink triangles—and neighbors have to suck it up—also grants a building’s owner to cover up those rainbows: or even tear down the building. There must be compelling public interest to supercede a person’s right to do what they want with their own stuff. The B & O building—despite the fact that the B & O has been lovely—doesn’t meet that bar, nor should it.
John Stoner, who bought the property 12 years ago, plans to build a six-story, 75-unit apartment building on the site. In a drawing submitted to the city, he even uses the "B & O" name on the building. “I think that it currently isn’t used for its highest and best use, and I think the proposed development will improve the quality of the neighborhood,” he says. He hopes to begin construction within two or three years, and he wants B & O to return when the new building is complete.
But that may not be possible, says B & O Espresso’s owner, Majed Lukatah. While going on hiatus during construction, he says, “I don’t know if my customers would wait for me to come back.” Lukatah is also skeptical that he can still open a second location on Broadway—which could serve as a substitute location while the B & O is closed—even though he has already obtained the permits. Banks won’t offer him a loan to remodel the space, he says. Moving into the new building would be cost prohibitive, as market rates for new buildings are typically double what he pays now.
Stoner says that, while he hopes B & O could return to the new building, he won't offer any rent control to ensure the B & O's return. “I don’t think we ever have over the years made the assurance that it would be anything other than market rate after [a tenant's] current lease has expired,” he says.
The meeting begins at 8:00 p.m. tonight in room 4106 at Seattle Central Community College.