Preservation groups: Seattle City Council making mistake with historic bank
The Seattle City Council will vote next week on a key piece of a historic designation for an old Sea-First Bank branch on Denny Way, and historic preservation advocates are worried the city is making a big mistake. .
The old bank branch at Denny Way and 6th Avenue has been home to a Walgreens for many years. It was originally built by Seattle-First National Bank in 1950, and Eugenia Woo of the preservation advocacy group Historic Seattle said it served as a prototype for many similar branches built around the state. It is a classic mid-century modern building and included one of the city’s earliest areas, an emblematic feature of the car-centric post-World War II era.
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In 2006, the building was designated a landmark by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board in recognition of its many architectural and historical factors. It was determined to be significant in four of the six possible categories that are part of Seattle’s point designations.
Somehow — for reasons that aren’t clear — Walgreens took their time coming to the table to take the final step of the historic process, which is agreeing to a series of “controls and incentives” to maintain specific elements of the building and provide public benefit by maintaining a structure that possesses attributes that contribute to the visual landscape.
These “checks and incentives” are the legal part of the landmark designation that most protects the historic building from future alteration or demolition because it legally requires the owner to comply with mutually agreed-upon conditions. After controls and incentives are negotiated between Landmarks Preservation Board staff and the building owner, a letter is signed by both parties. The entire landmark designation package then goes to a Seattle City Council committee — “Neighborhoods, Education, Civil Rights and Culture” — for their review and vote before going to the full City Council for approval. legal officer as an ordinance.
This process happens all the time with Seattle landmarks, so it’s usually just an administrative or ministerial function, Historic Seattle’s Woo said.
For reasons unknown, this usually routine process has played out very differently for the old Sea-First branch over the past few weeks.
On December 9, 2022, when the Neighborhoods, Education, Civil Rights and Culture Committee reviewed the ordinance (which included the controls and incentives agreement) before voting and sending it to the full council, members began talking about the importance of housing, and about how that neighborhood has changed since the landmark designation in 2006. None of these subjects are related to the landmark designation and what the owner had already agreed to do as part of reaching an agreement with Board staff. Seattle Landmarks.
The Dec. 9 discussion on the old bank’s merits as a historic landmark began with Councilwoman Tammy Morales, committee chairwoman.
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“Preserving this special bungalow [bank] it doesn’t make sense given the housing crisis we’re in,” said council member Morales. “And that the neighborhood has changed dramatically since 2006 before South Lake Union and the surrounding areas there changed dramatically.
“So I’ve given that a lot of consideration,” continued council member Morales. “I believe this building would be better served, we would be better served as a city if we were able to use this site differently. So I cannot support this project and I will vote ‘No’.
Afterwards, the three other committee members who were in attendance — Councilman Andrew Lewis (whose district includes the old bank), Councilwoman Sara Nelson and Councilman Dan Strauss — joined Councilman Morales to expressed their opposition to the ordinance based on their feelings that the bank building was not important enough to preserve, especially in an increasingly dense neighborhood in a city that needs more housing.
The committee then voted unanimously against the ordinance, effectively recommending that the full council reject the landmark designation and the controls and incentives already agreed upon — which would essentially render landmark status meaningless.
A council staff member called Lish Whitson was attending the meeting and had made a presentation before the discussion. Before they voted, Whitson diplomatically reminded the council what they were seeking to decide.
“Just to remind the council that your decision is about controls and incentives and not about setting the structure, which is the purview of the Landmarks Preservation Board,” Whitson said.
Whitson’s remarks did not appear to have any effect on council members to either change the nature of the discussion or, ultimately, the outcome of the 4-0 vote against the ordinance.
Since then, Seattle preservation groups, including the Queen Anne Historical Society and Historic Seattle preservation advocates, have tried to spread the word that the process has gone off the rails for the old Sea-First branch. They have sent letters to the Seattle City Council and are encouraging people who care about preservation and housing to let the council know they should vote in favor of landmarking the old bank on Denny Way and approving controls and incentives.
Woo told KIRO Newsradio that no one in the conservation community understands why the committee chose to vote the way it did and, in essence, ignore the legal process in place for important designations and controls and incentives. Woo says that sets a bad precedent for Seattle’s historic process, which has been in place for half a century.
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Regarding the need for housing and more density in Seattle, Woo agrees. But she says there are actually ways through something called a “Development Rights Transfer” where the old bank being designated a landmark through an ordinance (with “controls and incentives”) can facilitate more housing in that neighborhood.
Woo says the committee is doing a disservice to the full council — which will vote next week — by enacting anti-housing protections.
“We’ve always said it’s not either, it’s both, and conservation and shelter, they’re not mutually exclusive,” Woo said. “And it’s a false choice to have to choose between them.”
KIRO Newsradio reached out to Councilmember Lewis early Thursday evening – and Councilmember Morales and again to Councilmember Lewis early Friday morning – but neither has responded.
The full council will vote on the landmark designation and “checks and incentives” at the old Sea-First branch at their next meeting on Tuesday, January 10.
You can hear Felix every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to the Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Felix here.