CHS Schemata | Conserving authenticity in Capitol Hill’s buildings and streetscapes

This week, CHS told you about three community groups working to shape the tide of development on Capitol Hill. Among them is the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council. PPUNC’s chair is John Feit, contributor of our ongoing CHS Schemata series dedicated to exploring Capitol Hill’s architecture. While we’re dedicated to impartial coverage of the Hill’s development, we’re glad to be able to share John’s essays. Below, you’ll find his latest — a response, of sorts, to some of the challenges and opportunities we outlined for the community groups getting involved with the massive changes happening across Capitol Hill. PPUNC’s environment is a special subset of the Hill. Elsewhere, there are different problems to solve and opportunities to grasp. In the meantime, here is one vision for Pike/Pine. — jseattle

The ongoing debate on the Hill as to the value of conserving our so-called “character structures” (buildings over 75 years-old) is heating up. It is fueled in part by recent development proposals that choose to incorporate (or not) such buildings into their project. Much of this debate — and the value placed by developers on preserving any particular character structure — centers on the merits of a building’s architecture and whether or not the building in question is great, or even good. All too often, however, such a focused valuation of building-as-object ignores the real value embodied in everyday buildings, and dismisses the contributions these buildings make to the urban fabric. Those who focus on building-as-object overlook how neighborhood character is defined as much by the ordinary buildings one encounters as by the extraordinary ones, especially when those of ordinary qualities comprise an assembly that weaves a complete, cohesive, and convivial urban fabric.


While there are many impressive vintage structures on the Hill that deserve preservation outright — regardless of the surrounding urban fabric, such as the one at Pine and 11th pictured below — there are certainly many more buildings that actually contribute more to the character of Capitol Hill’s enviable streetscape, even if paling in comparison to our most beloved buildings as singular architectural objects. While a building’s particular architectural pedigree may be important, it is arguably more important to value the contribution a good collection of ordinary buildings makes in achieving neighborhood character.

11th and Pine, Capitol Hill (Image: John Feit)

Pictured below are some traditional streetscapes that are an absolutely first rate, despite of (or perhaps because of) their being defined by average buildings. In these European examples, the adjacent streets inevitably lead to piazzas surrounded by architecturally magnificent secular and religious buildings that are the standard fare in that part of the world. Yet, it is a neighborhood full of streets just like those pictured below, defined by their average and ordinary buildings, that fosters the qualities which make these cities great. And it is ultimately  this kind of street fabric that creates the quality spaces residents and visitors cherish just as much, and perhaps to a greater extent than, the grand buildings so often featured on the postcards we send back home.

Mantua, Italy

Bruges, Belgium

Back on Capitol Hill, let us suppose we have the same relative ratio of average buildings to grand buildings leading to a similar high quality built environment. With an understanding that the average does as much as the grand in creating our neighborhood character, there is no better representative assembly of such buildings on the Hill than those along 11th Avenue between Pike and Pine, pictured below. No individual building is particularly grand or distinguished, but taken together they form one of our great streetscapes. By paying attention to the cumulative effect created by such a collection of buildings, one is able see their value in establishing the kind of desirable character that many of us on the Hill cherish. Critical to our current debate, this character is fully compatible with new development. Conserving our character structures while simultaneously building new structures is the kind of balanced development approach that will continue to inject fresh ideas into our built realm, while paying due deference to the urban qualities that attracted us here in the first place. To foster the positive outcome of a balanced development approach it is incumbent on members of the Capitol Hill community to effectively communicate to developers that they must take time to understand the value we place on a successful blending of both the old and the new structures.

11th Avenue, Capitol Hill

One relatively close-by neighborhood that has achieved a very successful old-new balance on a neighborhood scale is Portland’s Pearl District. It took me some time to realize it, but it is the Pearl’s southern portion (where the character structures are, the northern portion was undeveloped rail yards) that is the most successful. The inclusion of both old and new is especially successful when the two are juxtaposed, as seen below. In this case, neither old nor new structures are exemplary as individual buildings, but taken together the streetscape they form achieves a balanced scale and creates a rich variety of experiences.

NW Glisan Street, Portland, OR

NW 11th Avenue, Portland, OR

Pursuing such a balanced development approach on the Hill presents one with several options. First, and as promised by the developer of the Bauhaus building site, there is a preservation strategy that includes the character structure’s original exterior design and the retention of its interior environme
nt. New development would occur above and be visually distinct in appearance from the retained character structure. In the particular case of the Bauhaus development the approach is certainly laudable, supportable, and easy to imagine as both the exterior and interior of the Bauhaus and adjacent Pineview Apartments are clearly something special. In the case of the Bauhaus/Pineview, we have a building that is fairly distressed requiring considerable resources and a financial commitment from the developer. Beyond leveraging the ambiance (and good will) of our neighborhood, one major incentive in favor of preservation of the Bauhaus is, of course, the extra floor the developer is awarded as an incentive for its preservation. This incentive is the means that the developer needs to offset the added costs of preserving the buildings instead of tearing them down, and was conceived and shepherded by members of the community, and adopted by the City in 2009.

The Bauhaus Building, Pine and Melrose

Bauhaus Building Interior

In addition to the straight forward preservation approach of the Bauhaus, one could pursue to adaptively re-use a building by restoring it to take on new uses its original developers may never have considered. This option can be attractive if the building in question is, say, a diamond in the rough and not such an obvious preservation candidate as is the Bauhaus. One thing making this approach attractive on Capitol Hill is that we have many of the old Auto Row buildings, buildings originally designed to support automotive uses. Automobiles, being rather large and heavy, required extra-stout structures and open floor plans. The upside to this is that a robust structure and open plan provide the most flexible floor plan of all, one that is well suited to provide for the diverse demands for tenant space on Capitol Hill that include retail, office, and restaurant. In our debate on the value of maintaining the granular streetscapes through preservation of the average and every day, goals for preservation certainly should include such Auto Row buildings as the Davis-Hoffman, pictured below. Davis-Hoffman is is a perfect candidate for conservation efforts, the extent of which are being discussed by members of the Capitol Hill community and the property’s  developer, and whose latest design fully integrates the Davis Hoffman and the adjacent Madison Park Greetings buildings into the project.

Davis Hoffman, Original Condition (Puget Sound Archives)

Davis Hoffman, Current Condition

Removing the layers of previous renovations would reveal that in its former life the Davis Hoffman was a much more handsome building than it is today, and, more importantly, has those average qualities that contribute to extraordinary streetscapes. Even today it has porosity — courtesy of a substantial collection of large windows — that distinguishes it from contemporary developments. Paired with the two adjacent Madison Park Greetings buildings around the corner (and part of the same proposed development), the Davis Hoffman creates the type of continuous street fabric that has made neighborhoods such as the Pearl District a great success, and holds great promise for ours. Fortunately, on Capitol Hill one needs not imagine the potential outcome of such conservation efforts, for we have many fine examples of adaptive re-use projects. Thanks to such forward thinking developers as Hunters Capital, Dunn and Hobbs, and Madrona Real Estate Services — to name but a few — we have not only the architectural proof of the viability of such a strategy (while often times starting with buildings in much greater distress than is Davis Hoffman), but of its financial merits as well. And this group of local developers is willing to share their experiences with others seeking to achieve similar results by in their own development projects.

Elliott Bay Book Company, Prior to Renovation (Image Michael Oaksmith)

Elliott Bay Book Company, Post Renovation

When Elliott Bay Book Company relocated from Pioneer Square, it was a significant victory for Capitol Hill. It was no easy achievement as its previous location in the Pioneer Square Historic District defined the character of the bookstore as much as the thoughtfully chosen volumes that graced its shelves. Such character was important to the book store owner, and was a prime driver during his search for a new space. Thanks to the adaptive restoration of the flexible Auto Row typology from automotive service to bookstore, we have a fine retail space whose character and authenticity is preserved. In addition to the code-required seismic upgrade, restoration strategies included restoring the wood trusses and skylights, which had been roofed over. On the facade, a historically accurate new window system was installed. This was done in addition to the more typical new bathrooms, modern telecommunications, lighting, and heating/cooling system upgrades. A fairly involved process, but with results that have created one of the best retail environments in all of Seattle. Yet the developer, Hunters Capital, could have easily demolished the building, and started afresh with a 6 story edifice. Besides a passion for old buildings, Hunters has found that such spaces create desirable and profitable retail spaces, which have a unique ability to attract discerning local retailers such as Elliott Bay Books.

Elliott Bay Book Company, Interior Prior to Renovation (Image Michael Oaksmith)

Elliott Bay Book Company, Post Renovation

In addition to the above success story, there is another project that perhaps required even greater vision and fortitude: taking the building pictured below and realizing what has become a model for small, local retail, and adaptive re-use projects — the nationally acclaimed Melrose Market. Quite frankly, it is hard to imagine anyone seeing the value in its pre-restoration condition. But someone did, and thanks to developers Dunn and Hobbes and Eagle Rock Ventures, we have a project that has literally re-defined the western edge of Pike Pine. What was formerly a forgettable street has been transformed into what many see as becoming one of Capitol Hill’s finest.  It provides the foundation for a great streetscape being embraced by current and future development projects such as the above mentioned Bauhaus project whose conservation efforts were inspired by those of Melrose Market.

Melrose Market, Prior to Renovation (Image Liz Dunn)

Melrose Market, Post Renovation

Melrose Market Interior, Post Renovation

Melrose Market is another good reminder (similar to Elliott Bay) that the conservation of the interior environment elicits as much consideration as the outside.  Another former Auto Row building, Melrose Market has long spanning trusses that prove to be well adapted to re-purposing. At Elliot Bay, which has a similar structure, the space provided is for one large retailer whereas at Melrose Market space provided is for almost a dozen, revealing the beauty and utility of the auto-row typology. In both cases the success of the project involved more than removing layers of paint, repairing rot, and bringing the building up to current standards of health and safety. Thoughtful tenanting of the spaces was essential, and to my mind, the successful results were almost a forgone conclusion. Larger national chains, with their standards of vending and for spaces they feel optimize the separation of shoppers from their money may not look twice at Melrose as it doesn’t fit within their conceptions of a successful retail environment. Yet, Elliott Bay Book Company and Melrose Market are of a culture that appreciates the unique qualities possessed by character structures, making the conservation of such spaces as appealing in attracting the types of businesses we desire on the Hill as are the spaces themselves. In a broader context, conserving our heritage buildings is one of the best a means we have in providing the type of spaces that locally-bases businesses crave, and many of us want to support.

Agnes Loft, Terrace Between Old and New Structures

Both old and new buildings are needed to create a cohesive urban fabric, and it is starting to emerge on small patches of Capitol Hill. New, modern buildings, with their clean lines and transparency are to be expected — and are most welcome — as they fill in parking lots, gas stations, and vacant lots.  However, we must not neglect those portions of our neighborhood where frontages of character buildings exist and ask developers to thoughtfully incorporate them into new developments while there still is an opportunity to do so. There should be little debate that such a conservation strategy is critical not only to maintaining the neighborhood identity many of us cherish, but to providing the kind of spaces others of like mind are looking for when searching for a new place to call home.

17 thoughts on “CHS Schemata | Conserving authenticity in Capitol Hill’s buildings and streetscapes

  1. Pretty rich puff piece coming from Mr. Feit, given that he’s demolishing an old institutional structure and replacing it with a living monstrosity that’s entirely out of character with the neighborhood.

  2. I rent 1 of these places I am trying to do my best to prevent corporations to move in I think our lovely Miss Hillary Clinton send it best it takes a village so stop your b******* and do something about it I’ve done my part

  3. John, thanks for another great article. I never fail to learn from them. I enjoy reading about how our buildings and streetscapes help weave the fabic of our urban neighborhoods. It is indeed a great recipe to blend the old with the new. CHS shares the stories of our social fabic that together make this a great urban neighborhood to live and work in.

  4. Thanks for the comment. You can pay attention to our project — 1720 12th Avenue. Design is about choices. In our case, while preserving the existing building was a strong desire on our part, that goal could not be balanced against our desire to achieve a highly sustainable one, which we beleive is at least as high a priortity. Preserving the exsiting building in our project, which is in very poor condition and would require a considerable investment, would not have allowed us the resources to achieve the sustainable goals we are shooting for. It’s unfortunate, but those are the facts. Additionaly, there are city policies in effect that reward building preservation to help mitigate the added costs of rehabilitating older buildings Our project is outside thosee bouderies (the Pike-Pine corrridor) where such rewards can be leveraged.

  5. Mr.Feit is not demolishing the existing single-story masonry building on 12th, but a group of primarily existing CH residents is, as part of their long-term vision for the 12-unit cohousing community where they will live.
    Regarding the “out of character” comment, I invite Lucky to visit 12th to view the closed and now pink-bombed CH grocery store next door, the three apartment buildings being built to the north, the apartments going up across the street, and the CHH apartment building about to begin construction to the south. The majority of these new buildings will also have street-level retail/commercial/even local theater, and I very much look forward to all the positive benefits that will come with more people living and working in the neighborhood.

  6. This building is being scheduled for demolition to put up a 4 story condo style building. This 19th century Mansion is an icon on the hill and will sorely missed. What can we do?
    Money speaks louder than esthetics, obviously.

  7. I know that is so sad! The house failed to be landmarked so there really is nothing the city can/will do now, however, I recommend writing to the City and telling them that the people want more protections for character structures. I have a pre-written letter that you just have to sign your name and address http://www.citizenspeak.org/campaign/seattleccp/protect-char
    or you can email the city yourself. Here are the email addresses for the City Council, the Mayor, and the Planning Director: council@seattle.gov, Diane.Sugimura@seattle.gov, Mike.Mcginn@seattle.gov

    If you are driven you can start a petition to send to the developer to tell them the neighborhood is upset about the demolition of the Weatherford House

    You can get involved with the three groups CHS and there are more. I started one myself to promote action.
    http://www.facebook.com/SeattleCCP

  8. (The picture “Melrose Market, Post Renovation” isn’t the Market, it’s Terra Plata.)

    Regardless, thank you for the interesting, quality article!

  9. One thing that European streets have going for them is they aren’t on a grid. You are always curious to see whats just around the bend. And a lot more mixed uses close to each other. Overall, a much more dynamic environment built up over many centuries.

  10. As a pedestrian, I do enjoy the fabric of the buildings on the hill, the diversity of styles and heights. After reading your article, I have a greater appreciation for the auto row structures. It is good news that more of these should be candidates for renovation because of their sturdy, open architecture. Thanks for an enlightening article.

  11. Thanks John. I appreciate your examination of what works and what doesn’t in your ongoing blogging. Capitol Hill, in all its parts, will continue to get development – the question is what kind. What will our built environment become as property changes hands – neighborhoods are living-breathing-growing-evolving organisms – we need to grapple with the changes and influence them to be great design and community-minded projects.

  12. I lived on Capitol Hill for most of 30 years in the late last century.
    One of the great things was that, with a few exceptions, very affluent people did not want to live there. The population was very diverse, eccentricity was rampant and inexpensive creativity with spaces and lifestyles was possible. Going there now just reminds me that everything changes. In this case, the real creativty in Seattle is fast moving to other neighborhoods, and even other cities, where it can afford to live! Whether you tear buildings down or remodel them into city yuppie restorations, character is not just about buildings. It’s about the people who live there. The character of Caitol Hill has changed dramtically and all the presevation you do won’t bring it back.

  13. It is the Pinevue at Pine and Bellevue, not the Pineview (although from the front it has a view of Pine).

    The Pike/Pine corridor has been commercial for nearly 100 years — not just auto row but also bicycle row, interspersed with other small businesses, many of the repair variety. This was not Capitol Hill, which was a planned and exclusive residential community. For a century it has had a citywide draw. I think citizens and planners alike, at this point, recognize the corridor as a developed street corridor quite distinct from adjacent neighborhoods. It was regraded, carried major streetcar traffic until 1940, and appears to have always been lively with people and trade. So that’s the character we are addressing, at least historically.

    It is also down in a valley topographically — at least most of it. What I’ve come to enjoy about living in the vicinity (and shopping on the corridor) is that the streetscape still allows some sky view. The corridor has not been a tree-ful place since it was logged off, so the views down the street corridors to the downtown waterfront, and the sky views and peeks up the surrounding hills, have made the corridor a pleasant liveliness rather than a claustrophobia-inducing one. Consequently, extra height is not, for me, a happy trade-off for restoration or conservation.

    Interesting article. Thank you.

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