Every week, Central District homeowner David Wright finds in his mailbox a note from a developer: "Do you know that your property is worth more than its current use?"
Yes, Wright knows. But he isn't selling. He's only just begun work on his home, a grand Victorian when first built in 1886, then a crack house a century later, and which only now might finally be restored to a measure of its original brilliance. Wright, who has an architecture degree and works in a commercial design firm downtown, has an appreciation for period style.
But he feels like the only one. For other homeowners in his neighborhood and on the adjacent Capitol Hill, developers' proposals are too good to pass up. They'll sell their older single-family homes to be razed and replaced with condominiums.
In this frenzied climate, there is danger that venerable homes near downtown will be bulldozed before their admirers even know to speak up. The historic Cooper House narrowly escaped demolition last fall, a close call that signals a need for preservation action.
The Central District and Capitol Hill are nearly as old as other city neighborhoods that have more designated landmarks—structures that cannot be destroyed or significantly altered without approval of the Landmark Preservation Board.
Pioneer Square gets special treatment, as does Pike Place Market, downtown Ballard, and Columbia City. Each is its own historical district, and each has its own city officer to scrutinize construction projects.
"We seem to cherish Pioneer Square," says Wright, "but we don't ever think about the neighborhoods where the people who worked in Pioneer Square [resided]."
Another Central District homeowner, Alex Zankich, believes the preservation board favors homes in more traditionally affluent neighborhoods such as Queen Anne. By doing so, says Zankich, "We're ignoring the blood and sweat of blue-collar workers who had so much to do with early Seattle. The houses they built represent the character of the original neighborhoods."
Though they don't know one another, Zankich and Wright were both incensed by the appearance of demolition notices outside the Cooper House, a neoclassical on 14th Avenue East near East Thomas Street. Its most distinguishing feature is a columned portico. Wright admires the intricate detailing over the arches and crown molding. He guesses the home dates to the turn of the last century. "If you had money and you wanted to show it, this is what you built."
Apparently, Zankich and Wright aren't alone in their appreciation: Another neighborhood activist, Paul Slane, convinced the city to designate the Cooper House a landmark.
It seems that these preservation-minded people in the Central District and Capitol Hill ought to organize. It worked in Queen Anne, which formed its own historical society in 1971.
Historic Seattle, the preservation nonprofit with the broadest approach in the region, conducted a survey for landmarks in the mid-'70s. There have been more city surveys since, and Historic Seattle's executive director, John Chaney, says activists need to be better about participating in that process, rather than taking action only after a demolition notice is posted. "By the time people get concerned, it's usually too late," he says.
But Wright and Zankich both have their doubts about city surveys. For one, surveys seemed to have overlooked the Cooper House, as well as a building on 18th Avenue between Union and Madison Streets that housed the Japanese consulate in the 1920s. That building was razed last week to make room for a six-unit condo, according to Capitol Hill Community Council member Gary Clark.
Nor has the survey process protected a home that according to Zankich belonged to Senator Cal Anderson. "We name parks after him," says Zankich, "at the same time as we tear down his old home. How does that make sense?"
Adds Wright: "I think whatever the oversight currently is, it's completely inadequate."
Both Wright and Zankich say they're in favor of high density and feel that it needn't come at the expense of preservation. "Europe has about the same square miles as the United States, but double the population" says Wright. "Somehow, they've managed not to tear down all their low-density housing."