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Originally published July 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 20, 2007 at 9:58 AM

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Guest columnist

Pioneer Square: history vs. renewal

It takes decades for a building to attain historical significance. But in Pioneer Square, we've seen that it can take just hours to alter...

Special to The Times

IT takes decades for a building to attain historical significance. But in Pioneer Square, we've seen that it can take just hours to alter that history. The latest battle in the ongoing tug of war between development and preservation recently took place before the Pioneer Square Preservation Board — and preservation lost.

On July 3, the preservation board considered the fate of the Seattle Plumbing Building. The big, brick, 104-year-old triangle sits west of Qwest Field at Occidental and Railroad avenues. The developer applied for three new floors above the historic structure, and received board approval for this modern development in November 2006.

Yet, last month, the developer came back for more. A request was made for another floor — 21 additional feet for loft condominiums. This is a 42 percent increase in modern construction atop a historic building. Why? The developer was candid: money.

It truly cannot be justified on the basis that more modern construction would enhance the building's historical significance. So, the justification was to create more housing. But the new floor adds just 16 units to the 69 already approved — and a great deal more bulk to a structure that frankly looks like a cheap motel. That is, a motel with corrugated metal siding and minimal setbacks resting atop a stout building from which one would imagine horse-drawn wagons emerging in 1903. This, for 16 more units?

Let's hope that those with power to override the board's decision have better appreciation for the appropriate balance between historic preservation and economics. Even the developer conceded publicly that this new floor "pushes the boundaries." In truth, it obliterates the boundaries.

The loss of buildings contributing to Pioneer Square's history is real. Slightly more than 100 such structures remain. The state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation reported to the preservation board that the proposed alterations for the Seattle Plumbing Building do not meet the secretary of interior's standards of rehabilitation, which the board is mandated to follow, and that the building will likely lose its important historical status. Board members ignored this report.

The Seattle Plumbing Building stands adjacent to the Triangle Saloon, one of two rare triangle buildings sitting at the southern gateway to the Pioneer Square Historic District. Both buildings are unique. They weren't designed to be glamorous or ornate — they were buildings in service to early railroad operations. With the impending Alaskan Way Viaduct removal, they could again return to their former prominence on the city's southern edge.

The preservation board undoubtedly faces pressure to increase residential properties in Pioneer Square. Attracting more residents is important but shouldn't be the primary factor in board decisions. Board members should focus on their core mission: preserving the existing character of the neighborhood.

Pioneer Square can't afford to lose another historically contributing building to the pull of profit, and it shouldn't have to. Other proposals to renovate the Seattle Plumbing Building for housing did so within the confines of the existing building envelope. There also exist numerous nonsignificant buildings and parking lots ripe for housing development. Why not focus on these properties for housing and offer incentives?

In the past decade, housing supply in Pioneer Square has increased by nearly 36 percent to the current total of 1,268 units. Even this dramatic increase in supply pales in comparison to what's to come. In the next five years, an estimated 941 rental and condo units will be added to the area — nearly a 75 percent jump — with a minimum of 400 in the Qwest Field north parking lot alone.

So, housing is here and more is coming, whether the Seattle Plumbing Building has 69 or 85 units. But, this doesn't preclude preserving the architecture and historical character of Seattle. As someone who has restored and protected the history of numerous buildings in downtown Seattle, I feel strongly about being a steward, about moving forward without erasing the past. And I'm concerned that stewardship of our city's first neighborhood is under the control of people who feel great pressure to produce quick fixes.

As the fate of the Seattle Plumbing Building is decided in the coming weeks, those interested in historic preservation must now hope that decision-makers at City Hall want to maintain the uniqueness of Pioneer Square, not reinforce the board's decision that housing now trumps historic preservation in a national historic district.

No one expects this history to be lost in an instant; the board will not approve the leveling of Pioneer Square to permit more profitable development. Our history is lost incrementally — floor by floor.

Jeff Roush, a former city planner in Pennsylvania, has owned, renovated and/or managed more than 15 historic buildings in downtown Seattle.

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