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For more on the project discussed here, see Design proposals revealed for Hugo House, Piecora’s developments
By Will Hershman
I would like to begin by disclosing that I am an owner of a condominium unit in a building adjacent to the proposed construction site where the organization now known as Richard Hugo House is harbored.
Here, however, I discuss my public concerns – which I hope reflect the concerns of our community – about demolishing the 1902 Colonial Revival House which, since 1997, has been known as Hugo House, and replacing it with an expansive, 69-foot-high, six-story, mixed-use structure with 80-100 market-rate apartments and underground parking for 90-100 cars. All of this would be right across from the southeastern part of Cal Anderson Park and right across from its main entrance, on what is now on a quieter, residential street.
The benefit is obvious: Richard Hugo House would be permitted to remain exactly where it is. But is that worth all of the costs? Is it worth forever losing part of our history and culture? Is it worth closing in even more of Cal Anderson Park? Is it worth ruining yet another chunk of the park’s quiet, quaint surroundings? Is it worth the gentrification that would accompany the 80-100 market-rate apartments, especially in a prime location right across from the park?
It is crucial to understand up front what this is not. It is not an attempt to in any way denigrate Richard Hugo House. Instead, it is an attempt to advocate for the preservation of what, if lost, can never be regained. It is an attempt to keep big development from using the community’s well-deserved love and respect for Richard Hugo House as a pretext to creep into a quieter, residential area of Capitol Hill – right across from Cal Anderson Park – where most would hopefully agree that it does not belong.
The relationship between Hugo House, the owners of the property and house in which it resides, and the team responsible for the current development plans is a bit confusing at first glance. Richard Hugo House is a non-profit corporation, whose director is Tree Swenson. That non-profit is not playing any part in the design or development of the proposed new structure. Hugo Properties, LLC owns the land and the property, and is a for-profit corporation. They have hired Meriwether Partners, LLC to spearhead development of the proposed project.
(“Swenson is quick to point out that ‘Hugo House is not doing this project’ — that they’re only the beneficiaries of the decisions of the ownership group. She has no idea at this early stage what the new Hugo House will look like.” The Stranger Online, Sept. 29, 2014, “A Hopefully Great New Home (in the Same Spot) for Hugo House,”)
Meriwether, LLC, the developer, is a for-profit real estate investment firm whose website brags that the firm has already acquired, in the Seattle and Portland metro areas, “more than 2 million square feet of commercial real estate, valued at over $330 million[,]” and that it invests in “well-located properties….” See Meriwether Partners, LLC Website, About Us. See also Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Sept. 29, 2014, “Capitol Hill’s Hugo House Makes Mixed-Use Plans to Stay on 11th Avenue” (“We asked Swenson about her thoughts on being part of the Hill’s continuing wave of mixed-use development and Hugo House’s part in planning what comes next for the parcel… The big decisions, she said, belong to the developers and the landowner.”) (Emphasis added).
Call it what you will, but the effect of having a for-profit corporation hiring a for-profit real estate investment firm, to develop a new building to take Hugo House’s place, seems to have resulted in plans for the type of big development to which the community would typically express significantly stronger objections.
(12th Avenue Arts is a perfect example of responsibly fostering the arts in a mixed-use building on a much busier street, 12th Avenue. The non-profit organization that developed the 12th Avenue Arts project included 88 affordable residential apartments on a much busier street, while this project is seeking 80-100 market-rate apartments on a quieter, residential street (which would likely be quite expensive given their prime location immediately across from Cal Anderson Park). Also, in stark contrast to the 1902 historical building which would be demolished and replaced here, 12th Avenue Arts was responsibly built on a site which was being used by the East Precinct of the Seattle Police Department for refueling and surface parking. 12th Avenue Arts even provided replacement parking for the SPD as part of its plan.)
Should the community give the developer carte blanche vis-à-vis that development? Well, here are the results of doing just that.
If the project moves forward as proposed, the Colonial Revival house which now resides there, and has constituted a part of Capitol Hill’s culture and history since 1902, will be demolished and lost forever. “This large Colonial Revival house, built in 1902, was once used as mortuary. The large south addition was designed in 1957 by architect John Maloney. It is now used as a theater and writers’ center.” See Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Website, Seattle Historical Places.
An expansive, 69-foot, six-story building would take its place and irrevocably alter the site, neighborhood, park, and city. The community should carefully consider whether that is the best thing for the neighborhood, for Cal Anderson Park, and for Capitol Hill. Cal Anderson is a city landmark, and was “[r]ecognized by Forbes.com as one of the nation’s best parks[,]” Seattle Parks and Recreation website.
If the project moves forward as proposed, Cal Anderson’s main entrance will no longer be across from the Colonial Revival house and the charming, quaint building housing the Central Lutheran Church. Instead, all three sets of plans submitted to the Department of Planning and Development call for fully building-out the northwest corner of the building, and in fact, its whole northern side. The “preferred plan” and the first alternate plan also include a fully built-out western side facing the park.
If the project moves forward as proposed, what will happen to the neighborhood along 11th Avenue, across from Cal Anderson Park, and between East Pine Street and East Denny Way? Right now, it has a quintessentially residential feel, with old, religious buildings and single family homes immediately to the north of Hugo House, and low-rise development immediately to the north of those buildings.
Would the proposed project add to that residential atmosphere? An expansive, six-story, 69-foot-high building, with a fully built-out north side and northwest corner, would not provide a smooth transition between it and the much smaller religious buildings and single-family homes immediately to its north. Instead, it would wall-off that corner of the block from those other smaller, quaint buildings.
If the project moves forward as proposed, Cal Anderson Park will be surrounded by yet another large building. Imagine walking down East Olive Street, crossing 11th Avenue into the park’s main entrance, and continuing on the walking path with things as they are now. Now, imagine that walk with a charming church on your right and a six-story, 69-foot-high, fully-built-out wall, spanning nearly 128 feet along the left-hand side of East Olive Street.
Alternatively, imagine playing sports or lounging in the south end of the park. You look to the east, and where the 1902 Colonial Revival House used to be, now sits a six-story, 69-foot-high, fully-built-out wall spanning 150-feet along 11th Avenue, immediately across from Cal Anderson’s southeast side. The proposed building simply does not “fit in.”
The park is already being closed in. It is fortified by tall buildings to its west. Tennis players, basketball players, and others who used the park’s paved areas already experience the shadowing effects of these buildings because they block the sunlight long before the sun “goes down.” To the park’s south is the very busy East Pine Street. Adjacent to northeast corner will be part of the Capitol Hill Station for the Sound Transit Light Rail. There is very little left of the areas surrounding the park to preserve. The proposed project would swallow up yet another chunk of that area.
Notice the shadowing that already occurs from the existing, smaller building that currently houses Richard Hugo House. This photo was taken at 7:27 a.m. on 5/21/2015. Imagine the shadowing caused by a 6-story, 69-foot high, 150-foot wide building in its place. Now imagine that shadow during Seattle’s shorter, colder months when the sun does not sit as high and when it casts bigger shadows. Also, notice the wall of buildings to the park’s west, which already shadow the park on its west side way too early.
Richard Hugo House is an organization for writers which existed before it occupied the 1902 structure. (It was originally housed in a mansion on the north end of Capitol Hill). A six-story, 69-foot-high, mixed-use building can be built elsewhere in Capitol Hill, while still preserving the art fostered and created by Hugo House. Moving where that art occurs would not destroy it. On the other hand, demolishing the 1902 historical building would result in Capitol Hill irrevocably losing an important part of its history and culture.
The quaint, residential character of a street and a neighborhood can be lost forever. The open character of a park can be ruined. The expansive, 69-foot, six-story mixed-use building, which is slated to take the place of the 1902 structure that currently sits across from Cal Anderson’s main entrance, has the potential to do just that.
Some might say that we owe it to Richard Hugo House to acquiesce to allowing big development to uproot one of the Seattle’s important historical buildings, to replace it with 80-100 market-rate apartments which would surely exacerbate the gentrification that many complain about in Capitol Hill, to irrevocably change the part of Capitol Hill adjacent to Cal Anderson Park’s southeast portion, and to irrevocably change the “feel” of the park itself. Perhaps, we should find a different solution which protects these important elements of Seattle’s culture, and at the same time, allows Richard Hugo House’s important work to continue. If we fail to preserve these things, they will be lost to us forever.