Preservation Redefined

Development and innovative reuse make Seattle's Pike/Pine district the place to be

I'd never been stranded in my own story before. Writer's block? Sure. But becoming physically stranded while researching an article? Never. A few days after accepting an assignment to write about revitalization in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, a freak November snowstorm iced the city. Arctic air from Canada collided with a moisture-laden front from the Pacific. Between four and six p.m., the snowdrifts grew, the temperatures plummeted, and the city went into full winter lockdown, with street closings and traffic choking every artery in or out of town.

I had been on Capitol Hill speaking with owners of historic buildings in the Pike/Pine district. As cars slid down Pine Street or were simply abandoned on the roadways, I realized I wasn't getting back to my house four miles away any time soon. Luckily, a friend lives in the Trace Lofts building on 12th Avenue. Perfect. The Trace is a prime example of creative reuse among this neighborhood's early-20th-century buildings. A new loft complex integrating a 1918 warehouse, it opened in 2007, reviving a space that had variously served as an automotive center, a home to Tibetan monks, and an athletic equipment company. Intrigued? I was—plus it was warm inside the lobby. I stepped into my story.

Capitol Hill rises steeply from downtown Seattle. Interstate 5 acts as the neighborhood's western border, separating its low-slung brick and stone buildings from the downtown skyscraper district on the edge of Elliott Bay. Pike and Pine streets run parallel to each other, making up the heart of what was once the city's "auto row," a concentration of car manufacturer showrooms, repair centers, and supply shops from the early 1900s.

Walking along Pine Street in the snow, I gazed into the glowing windows, imagining warmth behind every pane of glass. I could read the neighborhood's automotive history in the wide door openings and ramps, and in the massive fir timbers that permitted builders to create expansive showrooms. The ice slowed my pace to a treacherous crawl, allowing time to appreciate the details of the buildings, which stood like rock cliffs revealing the geology of the neighborhood's past century.

Capitol Hill has the most personality, the most grit and individuality of any neighborhood in Seattle. It's partly due to the counter-culture residents who moved to the area decades ago, partly because of the district's ties to Seattle's industrial history. Lawrence Kreisman, program director for Historic Seattle, emphasizes that the district demonstrates the importance of protecting different types of structures. "Preserving those vestiges of early commercial economic life that built up the city reminds people it's not just beautiful buildings that need protecting, but the commercial centers, as well." The key to successful revitalization, he says, is occupancy: "If it's still useful, use it."

I looked into Blick Art Materials and recognized, beyond the aisles of acrylics and canvases, the bones of a 1926 Chrysler showroom with a central staircase leading up to the mezzanine office level. Michael Malone bought the building in 1983 (the neighborhood then "was not a particularly attractive place," he remembers) and gradually acquired other historic properties to house his growing music distribution company. "I bought nearby buildings that had housed the Seattle Automobile and Carriage Company [1911], the Ford Truck Service Center [1918], and the Ballou & Wright Auto Parts Distribution Company [1917]. They became our campus."

All of Malone's properties display their automotive past proudly. He recently enticed the Elliott Bay Book Company to move into the 34,000-square-foot Ford building, with its dramatically grained fir floors, brick walls, and high ceilings. Inside I found more than 150,000 books shelved there when the retailer relocated from Pioneer Square.

According to the bookstore's owner, Peter Aaron, the move to Pike/Pine proved an instant success. "We came to this neighborhood because of the population—residents here shop where they live—and because it's a safe and vital area. And as a result, our sales increased significantly." Aaron notes that the 93-year-old warehouse was itself a draw. "Our store first opened in 1973 in a historic building, so maintaining that character was important—otherwise we could not have retained customers."

Even on a snowy night, storefronts in Pike/Pine exude a sense of energy; there is no plastic perfection designed for tourists, nor any of the guarded reverence endemic to neighborhoods in the shadows of vast mansions. Capitol Hill's vibe is reflected in the residents' attire and through its architecture. Both appear to be slightly messy but are highly functional and subtly embellished.

One of the pioneers of Pike/Pine is Seattle native Anne Michelson, who came to Capitol Hill in 1969 and now runs her own clothing business. "I was a hippie then," she recalls with a laugh. "There were a few bars and one big REI outlet in the neighborhood, but no development—that's only happened in the last few years." She notes that it was an ideal time to purchase property: "I bought the Anderson Tool Supply building for a song."

She restored that 1905 building and transformed it into Café Paradiso in 1990, brewing coffee beneath a lofty two-story wood ceiling and skylights—reminders of the period when Seattle's electric supply was unreliable and natural light essential.

"I have to say, I've always been attracted to old, solid things," says Michelson, "things with embellishments that you don't get now … things with integrity." Indeed, the fir floors at the shop seem to have absorbed decades of commerce and voices in their rich amber grain.

She sold the coffee shop—it's now operated as Caffé Vita under a new, preservation-minded proprietor—having purchased a 36,000-square-foot automotive repair warehouse built in 1907. Two years later, she bought a 1907 apartment house, the Winston, that has 22 rental units. "The West Coast doesn't have that much that is really old, so my buildings are some of the oldest in this part of town," she says. "I think Cap Hill is very similar to New York in a way. The spaces, the windows, the heightened ceilings, the wood—it appeals to a certain aesthetic."

It certainly appealed to Liz Dunn, a lead cultivator in the most recent generation of Capitol Hill entrepreneurs and preservationists. She's a developer with a background in planning, policy, and urban design who came into the neighborhood with an interest in small-scale infill and rehabbing old buildings.

Five years ago, Dunn and others began working with the City of Seattle to create a conservation overlay for the neighborhood, prompted by a developer who tore down a block of old buildings, then ran out of money before he could build new structures. The block remains empty today.

Dunn notes that Seattle has an uneven track record of protecting historic buildings, apart from venerable structures at Pike Place and Pioneer Square: "Individually, places in the Pike/Pine district wouldn't be considered landmarks, so we had to offer incentives for keeping the existing buildings, in this case by encouraging developers to create additions on top of the original structures."

Dunn, who opened the Preservation Green Lab for the National Trust in 2009, says that "the conservation overlay doesn't prevent teardowns. It's not ‘purist preservation.' It gives incentives to add stories rather than tearing down historic buildings."

Dunn and Ted Schroth worked simultaneously to develop projects on 12th Avenue near East Pike. Schroth was transforming the Trace Building while Dunn was renovating the Pacific Supply Hardware Building and the Piston & Ring Building for new uses. Together, they got permission from the city to bury power lines and add sidewalk enhancements such as benches, lighting, and subtle overhangs outside retail and residential entrances to improve the pedestrian experience.

Now a resident of Pike/Pine, Dunn says, "This neighborhood is pretty successful, and most people agree it's because of the old buildings. Each year of economic success strengthens that argument."

Michael Malone, who lives in a 1901 National Register-listed house in the neighborhood, agrees. "Certain commercial groups and retail groups are attracted to the very natural quality and materials of early 1900s buildings. I've enjoyed that all my life—the emotion and romance of the old buildings—and now it's catching on with the younger 30- and 40-somethings. We're getting $25 to $28 per square foot from ad agencies and tech companies on these commercial buildings. That's more than some of the shiny new towers downtown."

There is plenty that's new on Capitol Hill as well. Dunn, Schroth, Malone, and Michelson have all constructed new residential or mixed-use buildings, but they've done so with the intention of enhancing the area and embracing its signature raw architecture. "We have to maintain the character of this urban village," Malone says, "and its social and economic diversity. If we lose that, we've lost the village."

Malone has maintained historic character by cladding his new Broadway Building with Wilkeson sandstone, the same local material found on a church that stands nearby. (He has set aside 20 percent of the apartments inside as affordable housing units to ensure economic diversity.) Dunn referenced the neighborhood's industrial past with her glass-and-steel Agnes Lofts, on 12th Avenue. Schroth added two floors to the Trace Lofts but recessed the additions so that they take on a secondary visual role from the sidewalk. Even Michelson acknowledged the history of auto row when she built a condo project on East Pike: The building is clad in panels inspired by 1950s automobile colors.

The blend of history and new construction in Pike/Pine just works. It is easily the best village to be stranded in. I found enough gourmet coffee shops to keep me latte'd throughout the day, plus boutique shopping, the city's best bookstore, and live music late into the night. Best of all, it seemed that each business I explored on my Seattle snow day was a witness to history—the kind of place where you're supposed to linger. And, through the huge old windows, there was the constant entertainment of people slip-sliding by on the icy sidewalks. Some things never get old.           

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