We're enthusiastically pro-density here at The Stranger. Seattle is becoming a big city—and it will become a bigger city—so accepting reality and helping to plan for urban density is the best way to keep Seattle from becoming a sprawling mess like LA or Phoenix. But not all taller buildings should be reflexively approved by the city, particularly when the developers employ underhanded tactics to demolish Seattle's dwindling stock of historic buildings.
You may remember back in August that I reported on the the defacement—the obliteration—of some beautiful terra cotta frieze work on an 80-year-old building downtown. A few years ago, the building had been nominated as a historic site. But several members of the historic preservation board missed a meeting where they could have voted to protect the building, so the board didn't have enough votes to save it. Then, lo and behold, this happened:
Stephen Dooley heard a jackhammer gouging into the side of the 1925 building where he works on Eighth Avenue and Lenora Street on a Saturday afternoon in mid-July. High above the sidewalk, a man on a cherry picker aimed the tool's tip at the ornate terra-cotta frieze that wraps around the two-story structure, then dug into the brittle tiles. "You'd have to be deaf not to hear it. The jackhammer was against the tiles, and they were smashing on the ground," Dooley says.
- Garett McCulloch
- In 2006, a historic survey reported, "The very striking terra-cotta cladding skin is surprisingly intact."
Was the owner smashing off all the building's historic components to avoid the site from being declared a landmark—it's up for nomination every four years—so they could develop the site in the future? Here's what the owner said this summer:
Evan McMullen, the agent of the building on Eighth Avenue, which is owned by Cascadia Holdings, says the tiles were removed because some were loose and the owners wanted to see if they could be "recycled" (even though according to a witness they were smashed to fragments on the sidewalk). When asked if the building was being defaced to avoid future historic designation, he said, "Not to my knowledge."
That was four months ago when McMullen had no knowledge—zero, zip, nada—of a plans to develop the site. But now, what do you know? McMullen has plans for a 38-story tower on the site. According to the DJC:
Three area businessmen plan a high-rise apartment tower targeting Generation Y renters on a Denny Triangle site where the 1925 Cosmopolitan Motors Building now sits [here's a pop-up image]. The 2030 Eighth Ave. structure, which over the years has housed auto dealerships, will be demolished to make way for the 38-story, 354-unit project, those involved said.
The owner of the site is Cascadia Holdings LLC, whose members are Evan McMullen, owner of Cosmopolitan Motors collector car dealership; Ian Eisenberg, principal with a firm which markets Zevia, a natural zero calorie soda; and Shawn Dougherty, who works at the Weyerhaeuser Co.
This project should be stopped either by the mayor or the city council. Not because the building is worth saving—it isn't now—but because we need to send a message to every property owner in Seattle that they can't buy gorgeous and historically valuable old buildings, vandalize them to avoid a historic designation, and then demolish these buildings to build new towers. Downtown still has acres upon acres of parking lots. Build on those. There are also plenty of flimsy buildings from the '50s and '60s that will never be historically significant. Demolish those buildings. At some point, Seattle needs to put its foot down to save the old buildings—with lofty spaces, big windows, and history that new buildings lack—and this is the building to do it. The city needs to punish the owners of this building.
The problem is systemic. At least two other downtown buildings have been defaced, stripped of their historic architectural details, in recent years. (The Ames Building, a 1914 building on Second Avenue and Stewart Street, was stripped of its white moldings last October and replaced with beige fake stucco. And the ornate tile work of another building, the Pande Cameron store at Ninth Avenue and Pine Street, was removed several years ago before the building was demolished.) All three are sites where owners submitted plans or drafted plans for new buildings.
Again, we're all for density—The Stranger is not knee-jerk in its opposition to new construction and we don't think developers are evil. But we're not in favor of developers abusing a loophole in the historic preservation rules to make a quick buck. And the city is currently giving incentive to the owner of every historic building in town that hasn't received its official designation to deface the building.