June 2002: Preservation in the Cascade Neighborhood
By Heather MacIntosh

Cascade is poised for change. Bordered on the north by Eastlake and South Lake Union, on the west by the Denny Triangle, and on the south by the northern edge of downtown, the self-described "Heart of Seattle" has faced a steady stream of preservation challenges for the last several decades. The demographic shift of affordable housing out of the downtown core into surrounding neighborhoods has arguably had more impact on Cascade than any other urban neighborhood. This impact began with the demolition of expansive swathes of historic affordable housing for the construction of I-5 in the 1960s.

Historically Affordable

Historically, Cascade has been an affordable neighborhood, and home to wage laborers who worked in local industries. Cascade was ethnically diverse in its early days, and a little of this character remains with the presence of St. Spiridon Cathedral, built in the 1930s by its Russian Orthodox congregation. Much other built evidence, like St. Demetrios Church once located at the intersection of Yale and Thomas Streets, has been demolished and replaced by new development.

What remains of the historic neighborhood is a somewhat disconnected series of understated older wooden and brick apartment buildings, low-density commercial blocks, a few historic laundries, warehouses, and religious buildings like St. Spiridon and Immanuel Lutheran Church. Several factors, including parcel size, zoning, transportation improvements, increased light industrial activity, and class have all confounded preservation-minded residents who would like to see what remains of Cascade's past preserved.

Zoned Out

A few planning issues have significantly affected the neighborhood's historic resources. In 1957 the area was zoned for manufacturing and forbade the construction of new housing. This and parcel size, which encourages mega-block development, have helped eat away at the visual integrity of the whole.

A recent example of zoning working against preservation in Cascade occurred last year, on the parcel immediately north of St. Spiridon. Plans for a market-rate housing complex that maximized its envelope and rose only 5 feet away from the landmark cathedral were proposed for the site. The new construction would have been several stories higher than anything on the adjacent lots, or on the facing street, but the design was permissible within the zoning code, and the design review program reluctantly approved the plans. Several Cascade community advocates spoke out against the new development, but did not win their appeal. Fortunately for these activists, the project fell through.

The cumulative impact of such new developments on Cascade is a critical preservation issue that bears careful consideration. Zoning that encourages density is, in the big scheme of things, positive for the community as a whole, for denser urban development arguably reduces sprawl. Many preservationists, including this one and many of my professional cohorts, support increased density in urban neighborhoods. Zoning for density should be balanced by preservation plans that identify significant buildings within these urban neighborhoods - this is happening now, but ideally would have happened before the 1990s building boom.

For neighborhoods with wealthy and middle class residents armed with knowledge of the appeal process (or the resources to hire attorneys), insensitive or unwanted development can be successfully fought, often early in the process, without fanfare. The adjacent Eastlake neighborhood is a great example of a local community chock-full of land use attorneys, architects, and other professionals equipped with the background to predict and block undesirable new development. Eastlake also has smaller parcels, which restricts new development to relatively small lots.

Cascade Activism

The persistent pressure to shape and reshape Cascade has produced a number of highly engaged community activists. One of my favorite citizen-advocates, Colleen Dooley, sits on the board of the Cascade Neighborhood Council. She was a primary opponent of the housing project proposed next to St. Spiridon, and was involved in the landmarking efforts for the New Richmond Laundry.

Affordable housing issues in Cascade even further expand the network of local citizens interested in preserving the community's character for its historic residents. In the late 1960s, resident's successfully blocked plans for a connector from I-5 to Seattle Center that would have vivisected the neighborhood. Cascade called it "The Chinese Wall." It did not pass the vote. Unfortunately, Cascade lost hundreds of affordable housing units to I-5, arguably more devastating to the community than the proposed overpass.

Plans for the Seattle Commons brought activists together in the early 1990s. The plan was not approved by voters twice, first in 1995 and again the following year. Activism geared toward defeating the Commons plan produced plans for a South Lake Union historic district. This idea did not materialize. A number of community activists hold onto apprehensions raised during the Commons debate.

Preservation Plan for the Future

Cascade, given its many historic resources and active citizen base, would benefit from a comprehensive preservation plan that identifies which buildings, of those remaining, contribute to the historic and social character of the neighborhood. Such a plan would provide common ground and for residents, activists, and developers alike and would also address the existing neighborhood plan. In this scenario, historic preservation ethics and planning help bridge and balance multiple interests.

View last month's Neighborhoods article

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