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The Developer Strikes Back

March 19, 2008 Guest, History/Preservation 8 Comments

– guest editorial by Richard Kenney, AIA

As Jim Zavist noted in his guest editorial, the building known as the Ballard Denny’s in Seattle, WA (formerly Manning’s Cafeteria, constructed in 1964) was recently declared a Landmark by the Seattle Landmark Preservation Board (in a 6 to 3 vote) and saved from the bulldozer in its last moments. This was a surprise as the property had been recently owned by the Seattle Monorail Authority (before its unfortunate voter-declared demise) and would have been torn down to make way for a monorail station to serve the Ballard neighborhood. When Seattle voters made the unfortunate decision to kill the expansion of the monorail, the properties that had been acquired by the monorail authority were sold off, including this one which was sold to the Benaroya Company. It was fair for Benaroya to assume that demolition would not be an issue when they purchased the property for $12.5 million last May. They partnered with another company for a proposed 8-story mixed-use development which would include 260 living units.

As reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, ironically it was Benaroya who nominated the building for Landmark status. They did so only to head off what they felt was an inevitable discussion and would result in a delay to the project. Assuming it would be declined, they wanted to get that obstacle out of the way. But unfortunately for them it gained momentum and backfired, as Landmark status was obtained after the local community got involved.

The Developer struck back on March 12th and filed a lawsuit in Superior Court against the City for improperly declaring the Ballard Denny’s Building a landmark. According to the Seattle Times, the Developer stated, “The [Landmark] Board’s decision … was sentimental and capricious, but not legal”, and with the burden of this building now being a landmark, that it is essentially impossible to create any sort of feasible development for the property. They are claiming that the criteria for Landmark designation is unconstitutionally vague.
It does seem true that the saving of this building has more to do with local sentimentality than with actual Landmark’s criteria. One often-mentioned requirement for landmark status is that the building must be of a defined architectural style. Most people have used the general term “Googie” architecture, which is the catch-all bucket into which some very unique styles of the 1950’s and ‘60’s are relegated. Larry Johnson, the architect who was responsible for preparing the paperwork for this building’s Landmark designation, called it “Scandigooginesian”, short for Scandinavian and Polynesian with the obligatory word Googie thrown in for good measure. This new word is ten times more irritating than the original term Googie, so I suggest we simply refer to it as “mid-century architecture” (and forever dispose of those other terms please).
Another often-discussed criteria for landmark status is age. Most people feel that the 44-year-old Ballard Denny’s is simply too young for such an important status. But age should not be an absolute determinant. Seattle’s beloved Space Needle received its designation as a Historic Landmark in 1999 when it was only 37 years of age. The Space Needle was constructed for the 1962 Seattle Worlds Fair, and when you look at it, there’s no denying that it’s a product of its time. When I first moved to Seattle in 1993, I was not a fan of the Space Needle. It seemed so dated to me, and whenever I looked up at it, the lyrics to the Jetson’s would enter my head (…”daughter Judy….Jane, his wife….”). But after a few years I grew to love it, and now I can’t imagine Seattle without it. I see it every day, and I no longer think of it as a dusty dated mid-century relic. I think of it as a unique work of art. Granted, the Space Needle and the Ballard Denny’s are two very different creatures: one is a destination, and the other one is where you stop for pancakes before driving to that destination. But perhaps small scale and daily use is not a detriment to the Denny’s importance. It’s probably safe to say that a long-time Ballard neighborhood resident has been to the Denny’s much more frequently through the decades than to the Space Needle.

I remember a trip to St. Louis where Steve Patterson and I went to LaClede’s Landing (which is something we rarely do). He explained to me that LaClede’s is virtually a tiny remnant of what used to be there, and one that surely would have also been demolished had the budget allowed. He explained that some 40 city blocks – truly the original city of St. Louis – were demolished to make way for the Jefferson Expansion Memorial. This will always be a staggering loss for the city of St. Louis, but certainly at the time, the buildings they demolished were considered obsolete, outdated and unwanted. Urban renewal and grand ideas for a park and a shiny steel arch took precedence over the classic old buildings that many people considered to be a barrier to that progress. In a microscopic way, isn’t the Ballard Denny’s in a similar predicament? While many people consider it to be useless and disposable architecture, will we perceive it the same way in another 50 years?

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Our world promises to be so very different in another 50 years. When our cheap oil supply is substantially gone and the great American automobile society is a faded memory, won’t the mid-20th century architecture be a stunning reminder of that culture we once had where you could park your big car a mere 20 feet from the booth where you ate your Grand Slam breakfast? I’ll be 90 years old by then, but I personally hope to still see great examples of mid-20th century architecture here and there, lovingly preserved as part of the urban fabric.
The City of Seattle has 20 days from March 12th to respond to the new lawsuit. Stay tuned.

Richard is a Seattle architect.  rich took yhe image of the space needle  — his stunning balcony view.


Currently there are "8 comments" on this Article:

  1. Jim Zavist says:

    Too many lawyers!

  2. middle way says:

    For the most part with maybe one or two exceptions, the building cleared for the Arch were by no means the “orginal city of St. Louis”. Much of our original riverfront area was destroyed by a fire, which in turn led to the romantic cast iron storefront buildings preservationists love so much today….

    In 1849, a major fire, started by an explosion of the steamboat White Cloud on the levee, destroyed much of the riverfront commercial area as well as much of downtown itself. That tragedy brought the ornate cast iron fronts and walls of brick that are found in the Landing today as the buildings were rebuilt to resist future fires.

    Indeed, everything is a matter of perspective, which is one of the things which saddens me so much about today’s urbanists: In large part they seem so much to prefer buildings over people and the communities they represent.

    Buildings come and go, but it is up to us to preserve our sense of community.

    Ironically, the anti-spam word for this post is “riverfront”.

    [slp — the riverfront had buildings of various ages.  the street grid was people scaled.]   

  3. Matt says:

    Your post on here is a great, reflective piece and wonderfully written. The way your pull Seattle’s current-day issue together with St. Louis’, all be it failed, efforts of urban renewal is intriguing.

  4. Richard Kenney says:

    What’s that expression…don’t miss the forest through the trees? Whether St. Louis tore down buildings that were 150 years old, or “replacement” buildings after the fire that were 100 years old, it still chose to tear down 40 city blocks of its original city fabric which can never be restored. That was indeed a finite decision and one that can be lamented. So the same issue applies: do we value mid-century architecture and want to maintain it, or do we consider it disposable?

  5. westnotbest says:

    In St. Louis, people make the forest, the buildings are the trees. Don’t know about Seattle. From what I’ve read about the west, it seems like the forest is the forest and the people are the trees.

  6. Jim Zavist says:

    Since every city is different, what are the consequences of an historic designation in Seattle? Demolition delayed? More hoops to jump thru? As we saw here, demolition never seems to be completely prohobited, just delayed . . .

  7. westnotbest says:

    One thing I’m pretty certain of is that a national register historic designation in Washington state won’t get you a dime in state historic tax credits.

  8. Jim Zavist says:

    Update – demolition has been approved: http://governing.typepad.com/13thfloor/


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