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Reflections on an exciting start to 2023: The Seattle First National Bank building

Preservation is a Public Benefit

In the past month and a half, preservation supporters in Seattle came together to advocate for maintaining the integrity of the landmark designation process. Since 1973, the City of Seattle has designated approximately 450 landmarks that are subject to protection by the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO). Ostensibly, the recent controversy revolved around the landmarked Seattle-First National Bank Building (SFNB), located at 566 Denny Way in Uptown, but it became much bigger than that one landmark.

Background

The Seattle-First National Bank Building was designated a Seattle landmark in 2006 under four (out of six) designation standards, a strong statement by the Landmarks Preservation Board (LPB) in recognizing the significance of the building. The exterior and the site were included in the designation. Walgreens purchased the property in 2007 (one year after the designation), adapted the former bank into a retail store, and worked with the Landmarks Preservation Board to reach a Controls and Incentives (C&I) agreement in November 2021 that would apply to the site and exterior of the building. (Controls help to protect a landmark and economic incentives can help an owner maintain a landmark.) The final step in the landmark designation process is City Council approval of the designating ordinance and adoption of the C&I agreement.

Because the SFNB is located in the Uptown neighborhood of Queen Anne, it is eligible as a landmark sending site for Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). This is an important financial incentive that became available for Uptown only in the last few years. The owner can sell TDRs and use the money to maintain the landmark building. A developer who owns a property in Uptown that qualifies as a receiving site can purchase the TDRs to benefit their housing project by increasing FAR (and therefore, additional units). This is a win-win for preservation AND housing. It’s both/and, not either/or.

The Issue

OK, great! So, what was the problem? On December 9, 2022, the City Council’s Neighborhoods, Education, Civil Rights, and Culture Committee met to review Council Bill 120312 (an ordinance relating to historic preservation; imposing controls upon the Seattle-First National Bank Building). At that meeting, four members of the Committee questioned why the Seattle-First National Bank Building was landmarked (they did not believe it was significant), wondered what public benefit the landmark offered, and cited the need for more housing in Uptown, a dense urban neighborhood. Essentially, the Committee believed this landmark was getting in the way of more housing and they wanted to dictate the use on this privately owned property. However, the LPO does not give the LPB nor the Council authority to control use in a landmark building or site. The property is not for sale and there are no redevelopment plans for the site. Uses other than housing are also allowed on the parcel.

The Council Committee recommended to the full City Council that they reject the designating ordinance. We saw this recommendation as a major threat to preservation in Seattle and the City’s preservation program. Removing C&I would leave the landmark vulnerable to demolition and set a bad precedent that could undermine the landmark designation process for any designated landmark that does not have controls and possibly any future designated landmarks.

The Call-to-Action

CB 120312 was scheduled for the January 3, 2023 City Council meeting and then postponed for another week to January 10, 2023. Historic Seattle, the Queen Anne Historical Society, West Seattle-based advocates, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, and many individuals jumped into action in December and January to urge Councilmembers to honor the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance and designation process by passing the designating ordinance and adopting controls and incentives for the Seattle-First National Bank Building. A key message was that preservation and housing are not mutually exclusive—this is a false choice. It’s both/and, not either/or. We also supported a compromise that would place no controls on the parking lot north of the landmark building—making it easier for potential development. Council Central Staff provided an analysis of housing development potential on the parcel. It turns out that retaining the landmark could potentially yield more housing units on the site by using a combination of incentives, bonuses, and creative design of new construction. Detractors argued the parking lot is too small for a high-rise. We beg to differ given the many examples of high-rise residential construction on smaller or similar-size lots in this city.

The road to the January 10 City Council meeting was a wild one! There were three amendments to the original bill. The Council realized it could not de-list or “unlandmark” the building so the designation would remain. It is the role of Council to adopt, modify, or reject controls and incentives for a landmark. The Walgreens lawyer suggested to Council that they pass the designating ordinance but remove controls and incentives. So it became the battle of the amendments. Amendment A (proposed by Councilmember Tammy Morales) was to pass the designating ordinance but place no controls and incentives on the building and site (worst-case scenario in our minds). Amendment B (proposed by Councilmember Lisa Herbold) was to pass the designating ordinance and place controls on the exterior of the building and specific character-defining features on the site, but remove controls on the parking lot. Amendment C (proposed by Councilmember Andrew Lewis) supported Amendment B but would also remove the character-defining features on the site, effectively placing controls on the building, the site between the building and Denny Way, and the site between the building and 6th Avenue N. Are you still with us? Crazy, we know!

Historic Seattle supported Amendment B. And ultimately, we supported Amendment C. The result was City Council voted 9-0 for Amendment C which places controls on the landmark building’s exterior and the portion of the site between the building and Denny Way and between the building and 6th Avenue North.

Ultimately, Historic Seattle is happy with the outcome because City Council’s unanimous vote confirmed the longstanding landmark designation process. The Council’s role is not to “rubber stamp” but to confirm and respect the process. Historic preservation is a public benefit in and of itself and should not be pitted against other public policies. Only 0.5% of parcels in Seattle are designated landmarks or in historic districts. That is a minuscule amount in the grand scheme of the built environment.

A big thank you to all who contacted City Councilmembers advocating for the preservation of this modern landmark and for respecting the designation process. Every communication in support was important. Your voices were heard! Council President Debora Juarez’s recent weekly newsletter shows that Council received 124 letters in support of CB 120312 and the compromise amendments and 32 letters in opposition—four times more in support! Finally, we thank City Council for its final decision and particularly Councilmembers Herbold and Lewis for seeking a compromise solution that supports preservation of the landmark and maximizes housing potential.

Learn more:

Materials related to CB 120312 

Feliks Banel, KIRO Newsradio, “Preservation groups: Seattle City Council making mistake with historic bank.” Click here to read or listen to this story!

Emma Hinchliffe, Daily Journal of Commerce, “Compromise reached in debate over future of landmarked Uptown bank building.”

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