August 2002: Preservation and the University District
By Heather MacIntosh

Over the past several years, the University District's complex social and economic issues have been painted in the news media with broad, dark strokes. Though the neighborhood has problems, as do many urban neighborhoods centered around transient student populations, the built fabric and community spirit that underlies the place is more than the silver lining of a dark troubled cloud. During the last 35 years, contention, debate, counterculture, and dialogue between the local business community, the University's administration, and "alternative" voices have defined the character of the place. As the number of neighborhoods affordable to low income wage earners, artists, musicians, and students dwindles, the importance of preserving the economic and social diversity of the historic University District becomes greater than ever.

Skin Deep

University Way, a.k.a. "The Ave," is the commercial artery of the district. Like the main drags of many college towns, it is chock-a-block with cheap eats, coffee shops, used record and clothing stores, and discount travel services. Many outsiders walking along The Ave try to avoid making eye contact with panhandlers, many of them in their teens and early 20s, who sit or lie along the sidewalk. The pedestrian's eye is distracted by maintenance and social issues, but the historic fabric of the almost century-old district remain testament to its development as a "city within a city."

Street improvements are a common denominator between factions of the University District community. John Fox, long time affordable housing advocate, is now primary staff for the Seattle Displacement Coalition housed in the University Baptist Church. He calls the street improvements, which are part of the $8 million Ave Street Project, "a unifying force." The city is about to begin work on a project that will widen the sidewalks, create in-lane bus stops, add art and landscaping, and fix streetlights. The effort is conceived as an economic stimulus.

The University of Washington is interested in seeing dense, multi-use development grow along the primary thoroughfare.

With all this focus on the economic health of The Ave, and by extension, the district, the area is poised for development pressures that could significantly alter or eradicate both its social and historic character. Fears of the former have already surfaced. With all these improvements, the ways and means of "relocating" the homeless now occupying The Ave's sidewalks, and maintaining the district's affordability and "funkiness" have surfaced within media accounts and public speculations.

Though the preservation issues stemming from all this activity have not been directly addressed publicly, efforts have been taken to identify what the District is truly made of. Preservation efforts and ethics may provide a collectively beneficial, mediating force amidst the "Sturm und Drang" of community debate.

Remains of the Day

The historic resource inventory is a mainstay of preservation planning. Without a close understanding of the buildings, structures, landscape features, and objects that make up the built memory of a place, it is difficult to understand the relative value of vernacular architecture. A 1910 bungalow in one neighborhood might be much more significant than the same bungalow in another neighborhood, depending on the number of buildings of its age in a given area, and its place within the neighborhood's unique community history.

The City of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods is in the second year of a six-year neighborhood-by-neighborhood inventory that will help Seattle better understand its assets as it grows in the future. The University District was a test case for a volunteer-supported survey, which makes use of Neighborhood Matching Grant funds. Professional preservation specialists worked in concert with neighborhood activists and volunteers to document and evaluate the range of historic buildings within the district. The results of this survey are due out soon, but the well-timed, short-term benefits of the survey are already evident to those who participated.

According to Patty Whisler, University District activist, and volunteer leader in the survey effort, "the survey is a way to give the City a signal that this is a community that has a great deal to offer. This is still a community that has a great deal of pride. This is a whole different picture than what the media would have you believe."

Historic preservation activity helps demonstrate the complexity of the district as a place that has developed over time and has a high concentration of residential and commercial buildings over 40 years old that evidence this history. The recent social history of the District is integral to the development of the whole, but the remains of its deep history provide context and character to the neighborhood today.

Mirror Image

With improvements planned and development already underway evident in the massive construction sites throughout the District, preservation planning is extremely valuable. Without understanding and protecting the historic physical environment, much can be lost in small actions with large cumulative impact.

Fremont is a useful point of comparison. The character of Fremont is not completely identical to the University District, but there are similarities, including a social and economic environment supportive of countercultures with non-mainstream taste and low incomes. The built environment is also somewhat similar, although the commercial district along The Ave was formed in response to the University-driven community around it, versus the working class industrial history that shaped Fremont's commercial core. Fremont has seen an enormous amount of change over the past five years and a virtually complete transformation of the historic built environment near the ship canal.

Fremont has a handful of protected landmarks, including B. F. Day School, the Fremont Library, the Fremont Bridge, the Fremont Hotel, and the Fremont Trolley Barn- currently the Red Hook Ale Brewery. If Fremont had a commercial landmark district, or a conservation district that acknowledged the historic character of the neighborhood as a whole, the community might have had a lot more leverage against perceived "big development." Without preservation planning, developers are only beholding to zoning rules and regulations, and general design review.

Fremont also has a more stable population than the University District. This more than perhaps anything else, affects the dynamic of community activism, and the fight for maintaining community character.

Patty Whisler noted, "Our best hope is to build a firm residential neighborhood that values its diverse architectural and social heritage. Preservation efforts will help us do just that. The more residents who feel a pride of ownership and investment in the community, the closer we'll come to resolving development, security, and "image" issues."

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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