Old buildings, beautiful buildings, redevelopment, and density

I love historic buildings – the beauty, the details, the brick, the unique features, way the building makes me feel.  It’s hard for me to explain, but looking at the middle building in the picture below, I almost get shivers.


One of the things I loved about living in Washington, D.C. was the beautiful, old buildings.  I was so happy they were still around and hadn’t all been torn down.  Thank goodness for the historic preservation movement!  But once I started thinking about the buildings I loved and about the idea of historic preservation, I realized that these were not necessarily the same concepts.  I loved buildings that were built in a certain time period because of the way they look, not because of their age.  After all, if we were to start preserving all buildings over a certain age (say 50 years), then a bunch of ugly, post-World War II buildings would have to be preserved.  (“Save the strip malls?”)  For example, the soul-crushing buildings (and plazas) that make up “L’Enfant Plaza” in central D.C. were finished in 1968 – they could be considered historic, but by no means should we preserve these:

Lenfant Plaza

So, what principles are historic preservation based on?  Is it just a coincidence that a lot of older buildings also happen to be beautiful?  Should I instead be part of a “Save the beautiful buildings” movement?

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation website, historic preservation: “champions and protects places that tell the stories of our past.  It enhances our sense of community and brings us closer together: saving the places where we take our children to school, buy our groceries, and stop for coffee – preserving the stories of ancient cultures found in landmarks and landscapes we visit – protecting the memories of people, places, and events honored in our national monuments.”

But don’t all old buildings tell a story of the past?  Yet we may not value them all.  So how do we set policy for what to keep?

I decided to take a quick look at how historic preservation policy works in Seattle.  In Seattle, anyone may nominate a building, object, or site for landmark status.  To be designated, the building must be at least 25 years old and meet one of several criteria, such as being the location of a historic event or embodying a distinctive architectural style.  (More details here.)  The designation is voted on by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board and must also be approved by the City Council.  Once a property is designated, an agreement with the property owner is negotiated to preserve certain features; incentives may be part of the agreement. Seattle has over 400 designated historic sites.

The criteria seem very broad to me, and I am wondering how this impacts goals for compact neighborhoods and density.  Last week the Seattle Times reported on the nomination of an empty building in the Central District which once housed the first Seattle bank serving blacks.  The community member who made the nomination is apparently motivated by a desire to prevent gentrification in the area.  The nonprofit developer Capitol Hill Housing was in the process of purchasing the property for a mixed-use development, but the Times reports that a landmark designation could delay construction and add significant costs.  This report of the situation seems like a very unfortunate consequence of the landmark policy.

Even when very worthy and beautiful buildings are preserved, it’s worth considering the impact on density and housing goals in Seattle.   For example, Liz Dunn feels that a successful neighborhood with three to six story buildings should be preserved because it’s already denser than an average urban neighborhood.  That might make sense if all neighborhoods in a city like Seattle were the same density, but they are not and are not designed to be.  The “urban villages” of Seattle need a lot more housing supply to absorb growth and in-migration.  Furthermore, density is particularly needed in neighborhoods hosting a light rail station, like Capitol Hill will soon.  The enormous investment in light rail becomes worth it when large numbers of people have easy access to it  by living or working nearby.


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