Preservation South of the Stadiums
By Heather MacIntosh

In February of 2003, a number of major south downtown property owners presented a grand vision for nearly 100 acres of surplused Port of Seattle real estate. Their 15-year plan would transform an expanse of asphalt surrounding Terminals 46 and 37 into a neighborhood including 4,000 apartment units, 2.6 million square feet of office space, and a large central park. The adaptive reuse of the existing industrial waterfront into a lively community tracks with a steady trend, now decades in the making. Preservation in Seattle's industrial district tests the relationship between the past and future visions, while at the same time points to preservation practice acutely attuned to Seattle's evolving economies.

The First South Downtown Revision

For over a century, making something out of nothing has been the engine of south downtown development, but what constitutes nothing has changed over the years.

Before downtown's south end became the city's industrial heartland in the twentieth century, the area was mostly underwater. Seattle's tide flats were but one of many geographic causalities of city-wide efforts to shape a business-friendly urban environment. Hills, squiggly rivers, uneven shorelines, urban creeks and rills, and pointy trees all stood in the way of commerce in Seattle's earliest days. Comprehensive engineering efforts smoothed the city's underlying rough edges into a place where business and population growth could really take off.

Filling in the tide flats began slowly and sporadically after 1895. Workers built up developable land in a patchwork of square islands, mostly clustered around the railroad tracks that formed the spines of the development.

Railroad activity and infrastructure dominated the early history of the newly created industrial region. Speculators hung their hopes on the development of trackage and railroad related support buildings south of the piers and depots downtown. In 1907 and 1910, when major transcontinental railroads completed their grand union stations along Jackson Street, property values in the tide flats rose sharply. Once the railroads' intentions were known, however, land values plateaued and would not rise much in subsequent decades.

Seattle's boosters expended much energy courting Northern Pacific into making the city its northwest terminus in the nineteenth century, but by the time the railroads made their emphatic architectural mark downtown, the force of transcontinental railroads to economic development and settlement patterns was already losing steam.

Within a few decades, roads and automobile travel would supercede the popularity of trains, and begin the relatively rapid shift away from passenger rail traffic, and funding for the maintenance of rail infrastructure.

Industry and freight, however, still needed (and needs) railroads, and the business of the industrial district required easy access to the Port of Seattle's terminals and the many rail lines that passed through the area. The relationship between transportation and the district's politics and geography continues today, and has sparked controversy both within the community and outside of it. The district's proximity to downtown, and its expansive, low-rise acreage and superficial shabbiness sparked redevelopment interest in the 1980s as Seattle dug its way out of the 1970s recession and the demoralizing fall out of the Boeing Bust.

Revitalization and Recreation

The reinvention of the neighborhood arguably began with the redevelopment of a few key properties around 1990, and the publication of an influential article in the Seattle Weekly. In the summer of 1989, Seattle Weekly writer Eric Scigliano penned a story that helped name the place, and characterized the pioneering spirit embodied in the few artists and developers who took a chance there. The industrial district was quickly becoming a bonafide neighborhood. Titled "SoDo Renaissance," Scigliano's article brought attention to the few signs of new life pointing to a fullscale revitalization similar to that in other warehouse districts around the country.

SoDo's building stock is and was not like others in older industrial districts around the country. The few stylish warehouse buildings that could be converted into loft-style housing lined the upper end of First Avenue South, and are officially an extension of the Pioneer Square Preservation District. Many buildings that might have been converted to housing were demolished in the 1930s. What remains are a number of vernacular low rise buildings, many of them expansive, with open plans that would not easily adapt to new residential use.

David Sabey was among the few intrepid developers engaged in the district's late 1980s, early 90s revival. The Fourth and Royal Brougham Building was renovated for office and retail use around the same time Holgate Center was developed as a new office park at Seventh and Holgate. Nitze Stagen purchased the old Sears catalogue store in 1990 further south, which has figured largely into the economics of the area since Starbucks tenancy began in the mid-1990s.

For the most part, preservation has occurred in SoDo because historic use has continued over time. Buildings constructed for one use back in the 1920s serve a very similar use today. There was no need to examine economically feasible preservation solutions as in other industrial districts around the country. Rents have stayed relatively low, which encourages few architectural revisions.

Starbucks Center is the notable exception; Nitze Stagen, the property owner, has invested much in the building's rehabilitation and upkeep. Before its reinvention as Starbucks Center, the building, Seattle's largest at nearly 2 million square feet, was imagined to be an ideal storage space. Not until Starbucks took on temporary tenancy did office use figure largely into the building's management and planning. The company grew fast, and soon became the building's primary tenant and brought many new white collar workers to the area who affected the local economy and the transportation infrastructure. Upgrading such a significant, iconic building, and developing Home Depot next door, suggested a new chapter in the life and work of the area.

Some local, vocal individuals and groups, many of them representing manufacturing and industry, grew wary of 1990s renewal. What did it mean for family-wage jobs? How would new uses fit in with the historic infrastructure that continued to support industrial activity in the area? The district's neighborhood plan, one of 37 developed by Seattle's neighborhooods in the late 1990s, outlined the community's fears. Zoning caps stemming from these concerns put a stop to diverse new development inconsistent with the preservation of existing manufacturing and industrial economies.

Currently, SoDo, or the Duwamish industrial area as it is locally known, provides approximately 25% of Seattle's business and operations tax base and is the largest industrial and commercial area in the Pacific Northwest.

New Visions and Persistent Realities

The SoDo Business Association, comprised of a number of stakeholders, is currently seeking to open itself up to more diverse economies. Michael Peringer, president of the association, explained that the neighborhood hopes to use the new South Downtown vision to its best advantage.

District business owners previously peeved by perceived encroachments have been brought into the association to work toward a collective revision of ideas set out in the neighborhood plan. One of the primary issues, said Peringer, was how individuals defined "industrial." Industry, like preservation, means very different things to different people. Industry today is very different than industry only 20 years ago.

Regardless of new uses and new economies, the industrial district's historic roots still influence the preservation of past and future building stock.

The February 2001 earthquake hit SoDo worse than virtually any other region. Thanks to its tidal flat beginnings and underlying geology, most of the area is a liquifaction zone. The area's masonry buildings were damaged substantially by the quake. Starbucks Center was protected to some degree by retrofits, but the building still suffered considerable damage. The building's rehabilitation began immediately after the quake, and was completed in September of 2002. After the repairs, the building's new, towered fašade looked better than it had in decades, and more like its original 1915 design. Other buildings did not fare so well. The one story brick Seattle Chocolates building suffered catastrophic damage, and was demolished.

Regardless what happens in the next stage of development south of downtown, seismic sensitivity will have to figure into planning.

The new stadiums have had limited immediate impact on preservation in the industrial district. Adjacent buildings, especially those west of the stadiums fronting First Avenue South, have seen some reuse, but this is generally associated with Pioneer Square redevelopment, not a SoDo revival. The possible removal of the viaduct has many SoDo businesses and industries fearful for the loss of one of the primary entrances to the district. The viaduct is removed in the new South Downtown vision.

The new vision, however, has many advocates. It is exciting, bold, and unlike most big ideas here, generally liked by most Seattlites. Reusing surplused Port property long enisled by its singular and utilitarian use is much like creating something out of nothing. Even better, this something fronts the water.

The dramatic reuse of seismicly sensitive manmade land presents a host of compelling practical problems. How new visions relate to the existing character of the industrial district will no doubt play a part in the plan's success (the plan's potential impact on Pioneer Square will be much greater). The major property owners responsible for the plan made sure to engage SoDo early and often, but historic preservation has not played a part in official or unofficial planning. This likely stems from a general reluctance to restrict future opportunities with landmark regulations.

If historic preservation is to figure in this mix of big ideas, advocates have to pay close attention to the evolving stream of possible new economies shaping the district's future. Reuse of older industrial buildings may occur without preservation ethics, but how the character of the place fits in with existing preservation planning tools and incentives bares consideration. How preservation and future visioning might come together in SoDo could present innovative strategies much needed by preservation advocates nationwide.

... yet another idea for the mix.

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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