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Capitol Hill property owner takes Sullivan House landmark decision to court

Lawyers are asking the King County Superior Court to reject a well-worn, dilapidated 120-year-old Capitol Hill mansion recently approved as a Seattle historic landmark.

Saying that the decision has “prejudiced” their client by “causing the loss of a sale” and “substantially destroying the economic value of the property,” lawyers for the estate that owns the Sullivan House at 15th Ave and E Olive St. filed the lawsuit last month after the old mansion became one of the city’s most unlikely properties to go forward in the designation process that sets up controls and incentives on certain properties deemed worthy of preservation by a city convened board.

In the suit, lawyers for Elaine Thorson, the retired schoolteacher they say moved from California and plunged her life’s savings into buying out other heirs to her deceased aunt’s unique Capitol Hill apartment property, are asking the court to reverse the land use decision on the house and send the mansion back to Seattle Landmarks Board with direction to “reject the landmark nomination based on the severe economic impact such a designation will have (and has had) on the petitioners.”

Thorson stands to inherit 52% of any proceeds from the sale, her lawyers say.

According to court documents and as reported earlier by CHS, Thorson had a buyer lined up for the $2.4 million property before the landmarks designation process began. 

According to a filing with King County for the property, Thorson had a “memorandum of agreement” with developer Michael Nelson of MRN Homes for the property. Nelson, according to the MRN website, has been “involved in purchasing, land development and remodeling of homes in Seattle since 1992.” Of the 11 upcoming projects listed on the MRN site, eight are for townhome projects. Nelson has not responded to CHS inquiries about the agreement.

Unlike the majority of landmarks proposals for Capitol Hill properties that are undertaken as part of a development process as developers lock down any preservation requirements or incentive opportunities before undertaking a project, the Sullivan House nomination was a much different affair.

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A neighboring architect banded together with others interested in preservation in the area to mount the successful — and seemingly grassroots — effort to win designation for the house. As he started the quest, architect and neighbor Jim Castanes acknowledged to CHS that his effort was probably a long shot and told us he was paying for and pushing the effort forward himself after watching other houses in the neighborhood demolished to make way for new multifamily housing. “There’s lot of houses that we wished we could act on,” Castanes said.

In their argument, Thorson’s lawyers say the city’s landmarks ordinance prohibits designation should not deprive any owner “improvement or object of a reasonable economic use” —

For precedent and a very local example, the court might only need to look a few blocks away where the Galbraith House has been demolished despite its landmarks status. The Capitol Hill Historical Society explored the process by which the landmarks board okayed the demolition of the Sound mental health-owned property at 17th and Howell.

As for 15th and E Olive St, lawyers for the plaintiff say their client has been left “destitute” by the landmarks decision:

Beyond the court proceedings, the property must also be approved by the Seattle City Council for its final protections. That process usually takes around a year before a council vote.


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13 thoughts on “Capitol Hill property owner takes Sullivan House landmark decision to court

    • I blame her representation, assuming she had any, for not warning her of the consequences of failure. Oh I suppose they could have warned her and she didn’t listen. In any event, yeah, this was a very ill advised move. Never bet your own money.

  1. There is room to put three to four townhouses that will sell for $1million each in the backyard, and the house generates income from multiple apartments. Hopefully somebody with vision and a love of Seattle history will throw her a line and she can head back to California with a million dollar check. I am skeptical of her claim. She is just upset that she won’t be able to maximize profit for the site by bulldozing the beautiful house and putting up 8 townhouses, which would net her more profit with less hassle. Hopefully she loses in court. It would be a very bad precedent for Seattle landmarks if she wins. In part this seems like a response to the precedent of the destruction of Galbraith House by Sound Mental Health. That should never have been allowed.

  2. If the preservation law allows for “….unless they can make more money by bulldozing…”, there are really no teeth to it all, are there? If you could always make more money by preserving, you wouldn’t need the law to make you do it.

    • If the test is just economic, then it’s going to be bulldozed. She probably had to get it past kicked out of landmarks before the developers would buy it.

    • someone should just GIVE you their $2.4M property? wow!

      how about the people who nominated the property for historic designation pool their funds and buy this woman out? then she’s no longer stressed and the house gets saved.

    • i think the community should compensate her for the economic loss. She acted in good faith. If we think these properties are woth saving we should be willing to compensate the owner for their substantial loss. C’mon Max, give me a “I second that!”

  3. I wish people understood that preservation costs shit tons of money that only wealthy people can afford. Just the air leakage alone in these houses means thousands of dollars more per year on heat alone. Easy for that neighborhood group to file that paper work…but harder for them to pay for the ongoing repairs and maintenance.

  4. I absolutely agree with the community funding. I’m a little iffy on requiring specific people to fund it because being poor shouldn’t reduce your voice in the neighborhood, but heritage designation is explicitly an argument that your property rights are being restricted for the benefit of the greater community, and there should be compensation/subsidy for that. Probably some sort of fund that covered/was contributed to across the same geographical area as the landmarks council would be best.

  5. I would make an exception for Castanes though – he ought to have bought and restored the property himself, using his own million dollar house as collateral if he had to. Instead he took the cheap option of being a jerk and getting to pull cost estimates out of nowhere to say that it wasn’t going to be that hard.

  6. This house is in terrible condition, an eyesore and a blight on the neighborhood. No reasonable person would buy it and try to restore it in its completely broken-down state. While I am all for preservation of bona-fide landmarks, the designation by the Landmark Board in this case is ridiculous. I read the entire Board report, and there is zero consideration of the economic impact on the owner and the loss of the chance for new housing for several people in our housing-short city. I have no interest except living at the other end of the block and wishing that this tear-down were gone and replaced by something in decent condition.