At its January 18 meeting, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted unanimously to designate Belltown’s iconic Mama’s Mexican Kitchen building (2234 Second Avenue) as a Seattle Landmark. David Peterson of NK Architects, who prepared the landmark nomination on behalf of the property owner, gave a presentation about the building’s history and design. He stated that it was “typical” of the low-scale commercial structures in the neighborhood from the early 20th century and didn’t rise to the level of landmark status. However, the Department of Neighborhood’s (DON’s) Historic Resources Survey describes the Bell Street storefront as “one of downtown’s most intact examples of an auto repair garage.”
The owner’s consultant next addressed changes to the building’s three facades and interior spaces, arguing that when taken together, the alterations have impacted the overall physical integrity. Jack McCullough, the owner’s legal counsel, argued against designation, downplaying any significance and focusing on integrity issues. McCullough made the statement that “the bar for integrity needs to be higher” for these more utilitarian buildings.
After several questions from the Board, public comments were taken. Historic Seattle joined representatives from various community groups including Friends of Historic Belltown (FOHB), Belltown Community Council, and Project Belltown. Everyone in attendance spoke in support of designation with the overall consensus that Belltown doesn’t have a lot of high-style buildings, but more humble buildings for “the common man” that embody the neighborhood’s heritage.
Steve Hall, a community organizer and spokesman for FOHB, said that Mama’s is already an unofficial landmark, “If you say, ‘Meet me at Mama’s,’ kind of like the pig at the Market, it’s just one of those places that is known in the community, and important to the community character.” He also stated that it’s “not a contest” – for example, it doesn’t have to be the best and most intact example – and the structure needs to be looked at in its entirety.
Historic Seattle’s Eugenia Woo addressed McCullough’s assertion about a higher bar for integrity, making the point that the Landmarks Ordinance does not have different levels of integrity for high-style versus vernacular buildings and that the Mama’s building should not be held to a higher standard.
The Board then deliberated for over 30 minutes before making a motion and voting 6-0 to approve the designation, based on Criterion D and F. Board Chair Jeffrey Murdock clarified that the language in the designation standards does not require a property to be “exceptional;” Criterion D states that a property needs to embody “the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style, or period, or a method of construction.” Steven Treffers, a newly-appointed Board member, said that the Mama’s building “tells a story about a community, period of development,” adding that it retains a “remarkable degree of integrity” to convey the qualities and characteristics of a 1920s auto building.
FOHB said that the Board’s vote comes at a critical time for Belltown as it “faces stupefying change, as Amazon and other tech businesses continue their meteoric transformation of the South Lake Union area.” Hall wishes these types of advocacy efforts weren’t so adversarial: “I would like it if developers would see these iconic and historic buildings as an asset, too, which is great for their business, rather than a liability to be dealt with.”
The community group refers to this decision as the “Mama’s Superbowl” since its designation would represent the second landmarked building on the key block at the corner of Second and Bell. The Wayne Apartments, situated to the south, was recently designated a City landmark.
The property owner, Minglian Realty LLC of Vancouver, BC, acquired the site in 2015 with plans to construct an eight-story apartment building. We do not know if Minglian Realty has a “Plan B” since the building is now designated.
The next step is for the Board staff to negotiate a Controls and Incentives Agreement with the property owner that defines how historic features should be preserved, along with preservation incentives (i.e., special tax valuation and zoning/building code relief). The Board designated the building exterior; no interior spaces and/or features were included in the designation.
Even though Mama’s is designated as a landmark, it doesn’t guarantee that it won’t get altered and/or demolished. Although it’s a complicated process, the owner can still tear down a landmark if they can demonstrate that operating it within the constraints of the landmark designation does not deprive them of “reasonable economic use” of the property.
Photos: East and north facades of the Mama’s Mexican Kitchen Building; and happy members of Friends of Historic Belltown after the designation hearing (images courtesy of Friends of Historic Belltown)