Walgreens Plans to Save "Landmark" SeaFirst Building

Even if such categorization is soft comfort in the post-Ballard Denny’s era.

As you cross out of the Denny Triangle into the area we call NoPi (North of the Pink Elephant Car Wash), you'll see just about every old building has been scraped to the ground for new construction. Bounded by Aurora Avenue, Denny Way, Fifth Avenue North, and the diagonal gash of Broad Street, this fast-changing hood still has one bit of history, though: an old SeaFirst branch (later converted to Bank of America). The branch closed its doors in 2006, and the building is now being shadowed by the 197-unit, L-shaped Taylor 28 apartment building rising nearby. Indeed, the poor old one-story brick structure (built in 1950) and its parking lot are presently being used as a staging area for Taylor 28's construction—cluttered with rebar, wooden pallets, and Honey Buckets. Is the bank likely to go the way of the Ballard Denny's? Apparently not. A sign barely clinging to the chain-link fencing promises a new Walgreens drug store at the site. Deerfield, Ill.–based Walgreens bought the old bank last year for $4.5 million. The seller was San Francisco–based BRE Properties, which is behind Taylor 28. As developers often do, BRE nominated the structure as a city landmark in order to get a determination from the city. "The whole landmark thing is kind of a land mine, so you want to step on it yourself," says Jim Bodoia of local architecture-planning firm Mithun, which is designing Taylor 28. "We nominated it ourselves, because we knew we would be at risk." The city's Landmarks Preservation Board determined that the building was indeed a landmark based on its modernist architecture and its embodiment of Sea-First's efforts to modernize and adapt to postwar car culture. So other than removing the BoA signs and exterior ATM machine, the new owners are obliged to keep the building site and exterior unchanged. But as readers will recall from the Ballard Denny's saga, landmarking is no guarantee of preservation. Essentially, if an owner can prove economic hardship, city rules go out the window. For now, through the construction fencing, you can discern the bank's original Jetsons-meets-Federalist brick architecture. It was designed to be car-friendly back when 99 was the only north-south highway and the Alaskan Way Viaduct wasn't yet completed. Motorists arriving in their giant Chryslers and DeSotos could stop to inspect their SeaFirst passbooks, maybe convert some traveler's checks, then spend a leisurely day shopping at Frederick & Nelson. Perhaps the tellers, wearing white gloves and green eyeshades, would offer tea and cookies. Easy parking, augmented by landscaping, was a requirement for the bank's clientele. Basically a copycat job by local architect John W. Maloney, the bank was inspired by another drive-up SeaFirst branch in Georgetown, designed by modernist J. Lister Holmes (responsible for Yesler Terrace, among other prominent Seattle projects). According to documents filed with the landmarks board, there are 20-foot ceilings inside the Taylor Street structure, "warm red terrazzo" floors, and "part of the basement was reportedly used as a bomb shelter and retains signage for this." This is where you want to be shopping for Kleenex during an A-bomb attack. Walgreens insists that it plans to maintain the homely little structure. "We are not going to demolish this building," says Walgreens spokeswoman Carol Hively. "We are in for historical permits, in addition to the permits for the building construction. We are working through the process." The city confirms that no plans have been filed—for renovation or to appeal landmark designation—and the drug store is projected to open after the apartments are done (next spring). Hively says the project has been delayed "due to work on a seismic review of the site." Preserving the one-story building as is would certainly be a benefit to the seller, BRE. "It keeps the light and air," Mithun's Bodoia explains, for those renters who'll look south. On the real-estate chessboard, the bank will remain at pawn height, instead of rising into a view-blocking queen. "It's not of huge architectural significance, but I'm glad it's not going away," says Bodoia. He predicts Walgreens won't incur any huge costs to bring the structure up to code: "It's a pretty stout little building, so I doubt they'll have to do any big seismic [work]. It'll be a little jewel box."

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