Sinking the Admiral

A development threatens to torpedo West Seattle's most treasured landmark.

The proposed Westcare senior residence hardly looks like the end of the world. It fits the template of most buildings constructed under the city's neighborhood commercial zoning code—ground-floor commercial space topped by three floors of apartments.

But residents of West Seattle's Admiral neighborhood see Westcare as a potentially crippling blow to their fragile business district. The lot at 2326 California Avenue SW now holds a vacant bank branch and 60 parking spaces. For years, the lot has functioned as a key source of parking for nearby businesses—including the historic Admiral Theater across the street.

Other neighborhood-impact controversies aside, the Admiral's proximity to the project almost infinitely heightens the emotional stakes in the debate. The theater, built in 1942 and still incorporating part of the Portola Theater, the neighborhood's original movie house, is a powerful symbol of "small town" Seattle. The nautical-themed building was a minor creation of famous theater architect B. Marcus Priteca, who lived long enough to see many of his early-century movie palaces demolished. (His surviving downtown Seattle creation, the Coliseum, is now a Banana Republic store.)

Thus the land use file for the application (which weighs several pounds) includes dozens of letters and petitions protesting the Westcare application. Most of them echo the fear that the loss of parking will sink the Admiral—and take neighborhood businesses along with it. "The theater itself is the catalyst for that business district," says Clay Eals, former editor of the West Seattle Herald and a leader in the 1989 effort to designate the Admiral an historic landmark.

The Admiral was not the only direct beneficiary of the former bank's largesse. "The parking lot was a gift to the whole business district," notes Eals. The managers of the bank branch, whose operations required only a fraction of the available spaces, allowed customers of neighboring businesses to use the lot even during banking hours.

Neighborhood residents, who packed a recent public hearing on the project, say their concerns over the business district are based on experience. When then-owner Cineplex Odeon closed the Admiral from 1989 to 1992, the district lost much of its pedestrian traffic, and several businesses closed. Now, with the theater landmarked and purchased by West Seattle owners, "it's like a bustling place again," says Eals.

Unfortunately for project opponents, Seattle's Department of Construction and Land Use (DCLU) can only gauge whether a given proposal meets the zoning code. The law does not allow it to consider such issues as whether a property owner should be required to provide parking for nearby businesses. The project is currently negotiating the city's design review process—a final hearing is set for January 28—which will result largely in recommendations affecting the new building's relationship with the surrounding streetscape.

The two major concessions made thus far by the developer reflect these issues. The building will include commercial space along its entire street frontage and a pedestrian path across the midblock property that would allow access to another nearby parking lot belonging to the Admiral's current owners. (Alas, that lot is also slated for future development.)

Dee McGonigle, project manager for the John Stone Co., says the Spokane-based developer plans to own and operate the 76-unit senior residence along with similar Stone projects in California, Idaho, and Eastern Washington. At full capacity, the Westcare facility would house about 100 people and employ a staff of 22. A total of 38 parking spaces would be provided on-site, well over the city requirement of 22 for assisted-living facilities of this size. McGonigle, noting that very few residents will own cars, says, "We'll have plenty of parking for our needs." He also says that the Stone Co. is discussing possible ways to address the loss of business district parking, including allowing some of its spaces to be used by shoppers.

The city could slow the project by requiring the compilation of a full environmental impact statement (possible, but unlikely), or accepting the recommendation of neighborhood groups that developers prepare a parking/traffic study of the immediate area.

Some local officials, including state Rep. Dow Constantine and City Council member Richard Conlin, favor trying to find an alternate site for the Westcare facility. Although informal talks have been held between neighborhood leaders and the developer, Conlin says that once the project completes design review and enters the formal permit process, such a compromise is unlikely. Therefore, he adds, "I think something probably needs to happen within the next month."

Centralized neighborhood parking facilities functioning much like the former bank lot have been on the wish lists of many neighborhood planning groups, but Conlin doesn't see much hope that the city could step in and buy the Westcare property. Although there is money included in this year's budget for neighborhood plan-related projects, the West Seattle plans have not yet been approved by the council.

Meanwhile, if the Admiral takes enough of an economic hit from loss of its parking, ownership might be forced to redesign its operation. A former manager told the West Seattle Herald that economic considerations might force the Admiral to consider switching to a regular-price first-run movie house. Theater owner Marc Gartin did not return calls from Seattle Weekly.

Neighborhood residents stress that they are not opposed to senior housing or even new development in general. "I think we're realistic enough to know that something's going to get built on that site," says Donald Geddes, co-owner of ZATZ A Better Bagel. "What we need to do is focus on what can be done to help out the whole neighborhood." Beginning with the landmark that serves as its heart and soul—both spiritually and economically speaking.

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