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Wednesday, July 28, 2004 - Page updated at 04:20 P.M.
Will "quaint" survive?
By Lynn Thompson
Through the high front windows of Nan Wilson's interior-design shop at Fourth Avenue South and Main Street in downtown Edmonds, the owner looks out on a low row of facing businesses: a kitchenware shop, a photography studio and a teriyaki takeout restaurant.
To her, the scene is quintessential beach town small in scale, quaint in style. Eclectic and low-key.
"I wouldn't want a big, tall building across the street," Wilson said.
Bob Gregg, an Edmonds developer and a 24-year resident, looks at the same block of one-story businesses and sees underutilized, run-down buildings in need of redevelopment.
Downtown Edmonds "stinks," Gregg said, adding that he realized he was putting the matter bluntly. "I don't agree that it should be kept just the way it is."
There may not be a more contentious issue facing Edmonds than how to encourage downtown's vitality while preserving its small-town feel. The sales-tax revenue generated by businesses helps pay for parks, police and roads. Without that revenue, the burden of city services would fall more heavily on homeowners in the form of property taxes.
Downtown homes add to the city's vitality. Close-in residents can walk to a movie and eat at local restaurants. People greet their neighbors, know who waits on them at the grocery and dry-cleaning shop, and make downtown a safer place to be.
But a decade of condominium construction has left many residents wary of development that seems oversize and to lack any reference to the storefronts and residences that characterized the city before the 1960s and the first wave of suburban development.
Last week, the City Council heard from developers about problems they face in building downtown. Building heights weren't on the agenda, nor was the meeting advertised as a discussion about the future of downtown Edmonds. But with the city revising its 10-year-old comprehensive plan, which sets out the city's vision and lays the groundwork for zoning changes, reconsideration of downtown's character is under way.
"Citizens need to weigh in with the City Council and let the council know what they want to see downtown," Mayor Gary Haakenson said.
City code restricts buildings to 30 feet high in Edmonds' downtown commercial zone. It also requires ground-floor commercial space on all new buildings, even off the main shopping streets. Because of the high price of land downtown, developers say they need to build two floors of condominiums atop the commercial space to pay for land and construction, and to still make a profit.
That has resulted in ground-floor retail space that's 7½ to 8 feet in height so low, they say, that few shop owners are interested in locating new businesses there. In some new buildings, the retail floor is several feet below street level, to accommodate higher ceilings above.
Ground-floor commercial space at Fifth Avenue South and Holly Street has been vacant since the building was finished in 1995. A block away, in a condominium building developed by Gregg, three ground-floor storefronts have been vacant for a year.
"People don't like the feel of shopping in a hole," said David Arista, the owner of Arista Wine Cellars at Fifth and Main, and the president of the Greater Edmonds Chamber of Commerce. "We need to build viable retail space for new businesses to come in."
Downtown Edmonds has some tall buildings. The former art-deco-era high school, which is being renovated for a performing-arts center, is 47 feet tall. The former Carnegie Library, now the city historical museum, is 30 feet. Few would argue that they are out of place downtown. But the city also has its share of eyesores, including some four-story apartment buildings that resemble budget motels, as well as undistinguished boxes that double as office buildings.
In addition, there are a number of one-story buildings along Fifth and Main, downtown's chief shopping corridors, built 50 and 60 years ago with few architectural features to recommend them.
"The Princess Theatre or the Beeson Building [a historic stucco-and-tile building on Main] aren't going to be bulldozed," Haakenson said. "But when you see buildings that aren't being used, that's where you're going to see redevelopment and growth."
Some cities put emphasis on design compatibility
People who think about how cities grow and remain lively say there's more to planning for a vital downtown than drawing a line on building heights.
Mark Hinshaw, a Seattle architect and an architecture critic for The Seattle Times, has also served as a consultant to communities seeking to build on their historic assets. He has worked with Snohomish and Bozeman, Mont., on preserving historic districts while allowing economic development.
"All downtowns change over time, or they'll fall down," Hinshaw said on a recent walking tour of downtown Edmonds. A 30-foot height limit, Hinshaw said, is "essentially saying you don't want a downtown."
He said residents would be unlikely to notice an additional 5 feet of building heights, but they would notice what was at street level. That's why, he said, it's important that ground-floor retail be spacious, with high windows that allow light into the depths of shops and storefronts to create an inviting feel.
He said the Edmonds Architectural Design Board, which reviews new construction, needs to ensure that the detail of new buildings is in keeping with the surrounding neighborhood.
Snohomish and Bozeman, for instance, require development in their historic districts to be visually sensitive to their historic surroundings and to "carefully extend" aspects of the past in the details and design of new buildings. Snohomish and Bozeman have capitalized on historic districts that are both older and more intact than Edmonds, whose downtown represents buildings that span about a century of architectural styles.
Larry Bauman, the city manager of Snohomish, said residents, business owners and the city have agreed that the historic identity of downtown Snohomish is an asset worth preserving.
At 35 feet tall, the old brick buildings along Snohomish's First Street, the city's main row of antique stores, restaurants and boutiques, are taller than what's allowed in downtown Edmonds.
But the buildings encompass only two stories. The ground-floor businesses have high windows and broad display space that attract shoppers. New buildings are required to incorporate elements of the old, such as gabled roofs and brick or stucco facades.
Paul Turner, who owns an antique store and heads Historic Downtown Snohomish, said a condominium development wouldn't be built on First Street.
"Right downtown? No," he said, adding, "Lots of towns start remodeling and lose their character."
In addition to its historic district, Bozeman has adopted a conservation district that extends to several residential neighborhoods. New construction must be similar in size and scale to older homes. Designs and setbacks the distance buildings sit from streets and sidewalks also must be in keeping with established residences.
Alyson Bristor, a historic-preservation planner for Bozeman, said the key to preserving historic business and residential areas is for the community to agree upon what it wants to preserve. In Bozeman, she said, some buildings and homes only 50 years old are included in conservation efforts.
Edmonds got late start
Historic-preservation panel began work in '03
Edmonds has come late to the historic-preservation effort. The city only last year formed a historic-preservation commission and designated its first landmark, the former Carnegie Library.
The city also hired a consultant to take inventory of buildings between Ninth Avenue and the waterfront, and between Caspers and Pine streets. A public presentation of the results is expected in September. Once buildings are identified as having architectural, cultural or other historic significance, the owner can request historic designation and qualify for tax benefits and city building-code exemptions.
But what to one observer may be a charming, century-old cottage eminently worth preserving may to another be underutilized space ripe for redevelopment.
Take a little house on Fourth Avenue South, dwarfed now by the three-story Copperstone Condominiums next door. For the past 25 years, Joan Searle, the owner of the Weed Lady, has run the dried-flower and gift business from the 1906 cottage where worn wooden floors and double-hung windows seem in harmony with the dried arrangements of hydrangeas and roses picked from a garden outside.
With the store now blocked from the sight of passers-by on Dayton Street, Searle said, some customers are surprised the shop is still there.
"They think we've already been demolished. I haven't had one person say, 'Isn't that wonderful, another condo,' " Searle said.
Copperstone's developer, Brad Butterfield, who lives and works in Edmonds, calls his three-story development, which features Craftsman-style detailing such as wooden crossbeams, pitched roofs and a stone retaining wall, a "sensitive, nice addition" to downtown.
The interiors gleam with hardwood floors, stainless-steel appliances, granite countertops and plasma TVs. But the luxurious units, which sell for $350,000 to $974,000, present a towering blank wall to the Weed Lady's cottage.
"It seems like a monstrosity," said Cindy Doyle, a former Edmonds resident shopping recently at the Weed Lady's store. "This is a charming, quaint town. That [condo] just seems out of proportion to me."
The Weed Lady's house was built by Roger and Richard Hunt's grandparents. The Hunt brothers live in the Maplewood neighborhood of Edmonds and care for their 90-year-old father. Their business next door, a hobby shop in another tiny wooden-frame building, is, by their own admission, less than thriving.
The Hunts said Butterfield had offered them $340,000 for their property. They turned him down, Roger Hunt said, "because we didn't have any reason to sell."
Two other small houses were bulldozed to make way for the condominium, and Butterfield said those owners were grateful for the economic windfall.
"Why don't we keep these little houses?" Butterfield asked rhetorically. "A lot of owners are going to want to sell for as much as they can get."
Butterfield has built more than a dozen projects in Edmonds, including a popular Tully's building with two floors of commercial space. Butterfield said he didn't have to add condominiums to that building because the high-volume location ensures high-quality tenants willing to commit to long-term leases.
Butterfield argued that building condos downtown adds to the city's vitality and sense of community.
A majority of Edmonds City Council members seem willing to consider raising current building heights in order to ensure adequate ground-floor retail space.
Councilwoman Mauri Moore echoed several members when she said the city's small-town character locally owned stores and neighborly people is not a function of building height.
"Anybody who believes Edmonds will never change is grossly naive," Moore said. "I think we need to ask what we can do to encourage development that's healthy for Edmonds that still preserves the small-town feel."
But some residents worry that a small-town feel won't exist in a downtown full of three-story condominium buildings. Roger Hertrich, a former city councilman, said blocks of big buildings will shut out the light, the view and the feeling of being close to the water.
"They'll totally kill the feeling of being near the beach," he said.
When residents think of their city's character, it's typically not as a sprawling, populous suburb stretching along Highway 99 and encompassing arterials lined with apartments and parking lots. Rather, it's the corner flowers, local merchants and sidewalk strolling that make downtown a pleasant place to be.
Change may be inevitable, but many residents will watch closely to see how the city guides that change.
Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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