Developer’s Pioneer Square Project Shot Down, Then Saved by the City

What the hell happened? The strange story of 316 Alaskan Way South.

It isn’t often during these times of relentless growth in Seattle that a big-time property developer gets kicked squarely in the ass.

But it happened on July 15 when the Pioneer Square Preservation Board appeared to have upended a Portland developer’s plan to build an 11-story, 120-foot-tall residential tower at the northeast corner of South Jackson Street and Alaskan Way South.

More than a half-dozen meetings were held before the Preservation Board in no uncertain terms told Gerding Elden and their Weber Thompson GBD architectural team to forget it.

The vote was 7-1 in opposition to the project that sought to construct 200 market-rate housing units rising above nearly 5,000 square feet of street-level retail space. In essence, the Board concluded that the building was too bulky, visually jarring, and grossly out-of-scale and not compatible with the surrounding historic Pioneer Square neighborhood. No deal, no development, they said.

Then, something odd occurred. Two weeks later, on July 30, the city’s Director of the Department of Neighborhoods, Kathy Nyland, overturned the Preservation Board’s recommendation and gave the developer the green light to proceed. It is not known at this time what may have transpired behind the scenes during those two weeks.

Nyland declined to return phone calls and e-mails from Seattle Weekly seeking comment on why she chose to disregard the Board’s near-unanimous determination that the residential undertaking—which the developer has spent more than a year working on—was a bad fit for Pioneer Square, the city’s oldest neighborhood.

Instead, she referred the disputatious matter to department spokeswoman Lois Maag. Last Thursday, Maag told the Weekly that Nyland, before making her decision to go ahead with the project, pored through the meeting minutes, revisited the architectural renderings of the building, reviewed city codes pertaining to height, and met with Board chairman Ryan Hester, who, according to the minutes of a January 21, 2015 meeting, agreed with fellow Board member Mark Astor that the building was “too massive.”

Maag said that the Director then concluded that “the 120-foot height is allowed by city code,” and so she gave approval. Though she set some conditions—ordering the developer to revise the building’s cornice and increase by four feet the setback of the rooftop, in hopes of making the structure “look less massive” and blend in better with other historic buildings.

Former longtime City Council member Jan Drago, who with her husband lives in the Florentine Condominiums in Pioneer Square and sits on the board of Alliance for Pioneer Square, a neighborhood advocacy group that is supportive of the tower project, said, “It would seem that a recommendation from the [Preservation] Board would be upheld by the City, so I don’t know what’s going on. But I have been told by people within the city, who I trust, that director Nyland made the right decision. I can’t say who told me that.”

Drago quickly added, “Still, I personally think the building is totally out-of-scale.”

In late December of 2014, Gerding Elden, an active multifamily developer in the Puget Sound region and owner of the historic Dexter Horton Building in downtown Seattle, paid $12 million for the existing property at 316 Alaskan Way South, the current site of the three-story Old Seattle Garage. The company plans to tear down the garage to make room for its residential tower, which includes a “rooftop enclosed recreation area” and will provide unrestricted views of Elliott Bay, if and when the Alaskan Way Viaduct is finally brought to its knees.

Before the Great Fire of 1889, the St. Charles Hotel resided here. Later, there was a warehouse, then a service station. For the past 50 years, it has been the garage, today providing parking for 226 cars for $18 a day. Gerding’s acquisition is one of a number of examples of how developers are banking on lucrative profits from the transformation of the waterfront. Most assuredly, the so-called upzone approved in April 2011 by the Seattle City Council that increased heights to 120 feet on the perimeter of the Pioneer Square Historic District, has made development opportunities much more enticing.

The Portland firm offered no comment on the Preservation Board’s rejection of their development plan or the reprieve they received from the relatively new neighborhood director Nyland, who assumed the mayor-appointed post on June 2.

“You’ll just have to ask them about it,” said Natalie Quick, who, as she put it, provided “outreach efforts” on behalf of the developer. (Drago said Quick “lobbied her” since June to attend the Preservation Board’s twice-monthly meetings and speak out in support of the project. Drago declined to do so.)

From the get-go, the proposed tower was a fraught with controversy. Residents living in the area were adamantly against it and began to attend Preservation Board meetings to have their say.

The 10-member Board—there are currently two vacancies—is charged with reviewing façade alterations, signage, new construction, and land-use changes, and submits its recommendations to the Department of Neighborhoods for all properties within the Pioneer Square Preservation District. It is rare for its recommendation—especially when the vote is as convincing as it was in shunning the 11-story complex—to be overturned by the department’s director. The board is currently composed of two district property owners, two architects, the owner of a Seattle fitness studio, an attorney, a historian, and the director of the Bread for Life Mission. All members are appointed by the Mayor and subject to City Council confirmation.

The Weekly reached out to five board members who voted against the project. All of them were reluctant to comment. “I have nothing to say. You’ll just have to wait for the minutes [of the July 15] meeting to come out,” said member Willie Parish, executive director of the Bread of Life Mission. The minutes have not yet been made available. “I don’t want to talk to you,” said member Mark Astor, a property manager at Martin Smith Inc.

The 80 South Jackson building, located next to the Old Seattle Parking Garage, just east of it, became ground-zero for the opposition to the project.

Leading the charges were Greg and Cindy Aden, who own a condo in the building, along with York Wong, a retired academic dean at Evergreen State College, who also lives in the Jackson Street dwelling and is quite proud of the colorful flowers he tends to in planters that decorate his balcony.

“The Board kept telling the developer that the building didn’t fit into the historical neighborhood,” the 78-year-old Wong, who decades ago served as an economic consultant to New York’s charismatic Mayor John Lindsay, recounted from the many hours he has spent monitoring the meetings held in the basement of City Hall.

“And so the architect kept putting more lipstick on the pig, but it was still a pig,” Wong said last week over coffee in Pioneer Square. Wong, joined by Cindy Aden, added, “Putting up this building would be like planting a giant cactus in a bed of roses.”

Aden, a curly-blonde-haired former journalist and an impassioned community activist, said Seattle has been bending over backwards to satisfy developers’ interests for years now and that the project at 316 Alaskan Way is emblematic of this unfortunate trend. “This whole thing is a Trojan horse. If this one tall building goes up here, there will be others.”

Determined to convince the Board that the project needed to be derailed, the Adens and Wong showed members pictures of other modest-sized buildings nearby, such as the Crown Hotel, the C&H Building and the Bread of Life Mission, to demonstrate just how out-of-scale the proposal was.

“That really impressed them,” Wong recalled.

The day after Nyland overturned the Board’s recommendation, an outraged Greg Aden fired off a venting letter to Geena Nashem, the city’s Preservation Board Coordinator and to the full Board itself.

After thanking them for their efforts to try and kill the project, he wrote, “At this point, I must ask you where we all go from here. Is the existence of the Pioneer Square Preservation Board justified when it seem it only has purview over signage, lights, and sidewalks? Does it make sense that you only speak for buildings that already contribute to the district, but you have no power over the structures that do not contribute, or the new structures supported by developers back by the City Council, City Attorney, and Mayor?

“Frankly, I wouldn’t begrudge any of you if you resigned in protest to this decision. I would applaud it.”

The battle is not over yet. Cindy Aden says an appeal will likely be filed next week against the Department of Neighborhoods’ decision to ignore the Preservation Board’s recommendation.

Also, said Aden, “We are going to form a non-profit group to collect all the people in Pioneer Square, and everywhere else, who are concerned about this building. We hope to have a petition they can sign, a website for more information and a way for them to contribute to our legal fund.”

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