September 2003: How Initiatives Have Funded Preservation in Seattle

By Heather MacIntosh

Over the past year, the City of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods, which houses the city's Landmarks regulatory function, has seen budget cuts just like most other city agencies, and is poised for more. Dedicated funding for historic preservation in this city is relatively low; the 2001-2002 allocation of $170,000 for the first part of a city-wide survey has been cut back substantially. Though volunteer effort was a part of this survey's initial plan, now more than ever, volunteers in Seattle's neighborhoods will need to get trained, and dedicate some serious time to documenting what's left of the city's historic fabric.

The city-wide survey is helpful for a number of reasons, and is the best first step for protecting one of Seattle's most beloved building types -- it's houses. Outright funding (that is, grants) for historic home protection, in general, is practically nonexistent at local, state, and federal levels.

What is generally overlooked by the vast majority of Seattle voters is the amount of public funds spent on preservation and rehabilitation projects included within comprehensive plans growing out of ballot initiatives.

The most recent iteration of this trend, the Fire and Emergency Levy, demonstrates the close relationship between the city's historic resources and its general capital needs. The City of Seattle owns more historic properties than any other property owner in the city. In a survey of its own holdings, conducted in 2000-2001, a consultant identified hundreds of historic city-owned resources stewarded by the Parks Department, Seattle Center, City Light, the Fire Department, and Public Utilities.

Seattle's "Golden Age" of public spending, from the latter part of the 1990s to the latter part of 2001 (a gross estimation) equaled about $2.5 billion for comprehensive transportation and civic improvements including multi-million dollar packages for our schools, libraries, and parks, and substantial public subsidy of new civic icons like City Hall/Civic Campus, Benaroya Hall, and McGraw Hall (the Opera House).

Systemic packages, that is, the Pro Parks Levy (2000), Libraries for All bond initiative (1998) and the reinvigorated schools Building Excellence program (1998) have all had a significant impact on historic resources. Maintenance, alterations, and additions to landmarks and collections of historic resources were a part of these capital programs, all of them subject to public oversight.

Building Excellence

Of the recent slate of ballot measures approved by voters since the late 1990s, the school district's Building Excellence capital package has arguably had the most visible impact on landmark and potential landmark buildings. In 1998, when the school district went back to the voters to continue what it had begun in 1995 with the first iteration of its long-term improvement program, a few community members balked. Some were fearful that the school district would not honor its many historic assets if given more funds.

Seattle's historic schools are some of its most cherished and distinctive building types. Dozens of Seattle's neighborhoods have them. In the late 1980s, the school district was faced with a dilemma, as were those interested in their preservation. Many Seattle schools were in bad shape, and the numbers of school age children living within the district were steadily declining. (Note: As of 2000, Seattle is second after San Franscisco for least school-aged children per capita in the nation, at 15.1%)

Acute concern about academic standards, school staffs' frustration with poor maintenance, and changing views about how spaces of learning effect the school district's perception of its resources. But so does public interest in preservation.

In 1989, Historic Seattle produced a survey of Seattle's historic school buildings that outlined existing and potential landmarks. At that time, the School District was much less set on preservation as a key priority than today. What made the difference? Part of the transformation of stewardship ethics had to do with the tenacity of our city's preservation officer, and her efforts to build a positive relationship with the school district. Public concern about the potential loss of valuable community assets also played a significant part in this shift in values.

If the School District had not received public funding for its Building Excellence program, its comprehensive goals, including capital improvements, would have stagnated. The district tried several times to get voter approved funding in the 1990s, but failed. The relationship between the school district's track record, its values and vision, and the public's willingness to tax itself to support those values and vision, is integral. The school district honed its vision (hiring John Stanford was a good move), and promised to fix up its wonderful but needy historic buildings. Mayor Paul Schell validated this promise in the 1998 King County Voter Handbook. After four failed ballot measures, this one passed.

As a result, a number of historic school buildings are proceeding through landmarks review for designation, and for certificates of approval for changes related to additions and upgrades. Stewardship of Seattle's historic schools has entered a new phase. The district, the Landmarks Board and the community are working through solutions based on a general agreement that Seattle's schools are worth preserving for the future.

Libraries for All Bond Initiative

Seattle also has its fair share of landmark libraries. Many of these are new to Seattle's landmarks roster thanks to the Libraries for All bond initiative approved by voters in 1998. Though the initiative is generally associated with the downtown library and the construction of new neighborhood branch libraries, Seattle's existing branch libraries have received a great deal of funding from this ballot measure.

When the city's head librarian Deborah Jacobs visited neighborhoods to "take their temperature" on the initiative back in 1998, she got a clear message. Neighborhood libraries were extremely important. For the measure to pass, much emphasis needed to be placed on neighborhood libraries, not just the central library. She adjusted the draft idea accordingly, and the bond initiative passed with great success.

Though Rem Koolhaas' design for the central library has gained much more publicity than the construction of new neighborhood libraries, or rehabilitation and expansion efforts at landmark branch libraries, the system has followed through with its promise to take care of its neighborhood assets.

The library system increased its budget for the Douglass Truth Library from its original plan because it chose to honor the community's desire to avoid, as much as possible, negative impacts on that architectural and community jewel.

Alterations to historic libraries and schools, and other public buildings, tend to garner more community feedback than private resources. Mediating between historic preservation and practical concerns is more complex than commercial, private projects because economic feasibility is only one part of the equation. Evolving standards (of academic excellence, library technologies, and emergency preparedness) are a part of this mix of issues. Because these buildings are public, many people have experienced them first hand, feel connected, and are more protective of them than a private building.

Pro Parks Levy

The 2000 Pro Parks Levy will pump $198.2 million into improvements and maintenance of city parks and toward acquisition for future parks development. What does this have to do with landmarks?

Seattle loves its parks. This is integral to its civic identity. The centennial celebration of the Olmstead plan of 1903, which sketched out a constellation of neighborhood parks testifies to the depth of city investment in its green spaces. Some of these cultural landscapesare official landmarks. While the school district stewards many high style historic buildings, the parks department oversees the maintenance and preservation of Seattle's signature public spaces.

Like the school district, the parks departments' stewardship of historic places has significantly increased over the years. Citizens sketched out a 2000 comprehensive plan that accompanied the voter-approved parks levy lid. This is very attuned to the historic importance of most Seattle parks. The department is now figuring out how to implement this plan.

What's at stake? Long-neglected Fort Lawton is included. Sand Point, adjacent to Magnussen Park is included. Gas Works is included. As are Seattle's Olmsted parks, some of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. And the list goes on.

While parks maintenance is ongoing, the comprehensive plan, and other big ideas like light rail, will have a tremendous and intense impact on legacy parks. This impact can be exceptionally beneficial to the historic environment. Or not.

Whether or not the majority of voters realize it, voting for capital improvement packages begins a chain of activities that could lead to preservation, demolition, or significant alteration of historic buildings. Decisions do not end on election day. There is plenty of time to weigh in on how public funds are spent on public buildings and spaces, and timelines for public input and oversight are longer than commercial projects and are published on the web in most cases.

Though a few citizens groups occasionally rise up occasionally to watch dog preservation activity enabled by these plans, there are far too few of them relative to the impact public dollars make on legacy public works projects. Less than six individuals have regularly show up to landmarks meetings reviewing public spending on public works in the last two years. Considering the billions spent by Seattle tax payers on public works over the last five years, one would expect slightly better turn out.

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