Pioneer Square
Leave these buildings alone for you know not what you do. Photo by Laughing Squid

I recently read an article by Architect Lyz Dunn for AIA Seattle where she makes a great case for preserving old buildings during the densitification process. The paper is very good and I recommend everyone read it. In this post (with extensive footnotes!), I’d like to expound on a certain part of her argument, and explain why, at least in Seattle, there’s nearly no well-reasoned pro-urbanist argument for tearing down a single moderately dense old building, especially those of the pre-automobile sort (roughly anything Depression era or earlier, though I include any moderately-dense oldish building without parking).

I see three reasons you (or anyone) might want to replace old buildings with newer ones. First, you may not like old buildings, or you may prefer the look of new buildings. These are aesthetic arguments we can dismiss out of hand; everyone’s tastes differ[1]. Second, you may have support for a sense of property rights that entitle people to tear down old buildings they own if they want to. This is a philosophical argument that is outside the scope of this post, but as I have said before, I am wary of the actual intentions of most people who make these arguments. Finally, you may like to tear down old buildings and replace them with something more “dense” for standard urbanists reasons: walkability, sustainability, transit-use and economics. This is the argument I will address today.

As for sustainability, as Liz Dunn points out, the vast majority of the savings in green house gas emissions (nearly 96%), difference in vehicle-miles-travelled, and choice for alternate transportation are achieved by getting from standard single family home density to 50 units an acre. In fact, the VMT and driving reductions from going from 9 units an acre (typical 5,000 square-foot-lots) to 50 units an acre are 15 times the difference between 50 units an acre and 200 units an acre. Put another way, 94% on the VMT and transit benefits to extreme density are accomplished by getting to 50 units an acre. I’d further like to add that building a new building isn’t free environmentally, but leaving an existing building more or less is.

Moreover, urban form is as important to these same sustainable goals as is density. This comparison of density and travel distances in the US and the UK showed that land-use patterns had as much an impact on trip length and mode choice as density did. Old neighborhood forms with ten small shops per block are much better for walkability – and thus better for reducing car trips – than are monolithic buildings with just a few shops in them. Furthermore, no single factor has a larger impact on whether or not someone will choose to drive for his or her trip than the existence of a parking spot on either end. Most of our heritage buildings – both commercial and residental – have very little or no parking. In this regard, they truly don’t make them like the used to.

The Alps Hotel. This building has more units of housing and more storefronts than the majority of block-sized bread-loaf projects in Seattle. Photo by Machu Pichu.

Another factor most people overlook is the massive increase in housing unit size over the second half of the last century and the first decades of this one. As Matthew Yglesias pointed out in The Rent is Too Damn High, the average house in the US has more than doubled in size the last 60 years[2], and this census data shows the average apartment size has more than doubled in just the last forty years[3]. For most heritage buildings, even replacing them with a building twice as large wouldn’t result in an increase in net density. The new buildings would have to be even larger still to get an increase in units when parking is considered. And that’s what density is right? Units and people? It’s certainly not height, it’s also not square feet, and it sure as hell isn’t parking.

I believe the Seattle urbanist’s instinct to support destroying already moderately dense buildings in order to allow for new construction stems from a lazy borrowing of the arguments against over-used landmarking in places like San Francisco and New York. In those places, it really is the case that the only way to get new housing and commercial space is to remove already-present, moderately-dense buildings. However, this is clearly not the case in Seattle. The vast majority of housing in our region – including nearly half of the housing just in the city limits – is contained in very low-density construction and is completely unremarkable from both an aesthetic and a historical standpoint[4]. The same is true for commercial space; again the vast majority of retail space – even in the city limits – is contained in strip malls, big box retail stores and other auto-oriented, pedestrian-and-transit-unfriendly places.

We seem to have a problem of not providing enough incentives to create infill development that doesn’t destroy our heritage buildings[5]. But our problem isn’t that we’re overprotective of our small stock of heritage buildings; it’s that we are overprotective of the millions of unremarkable houses, strip malls and big-box retailers in our area. The problem isn’t that our heritage buildings aren’t dense or green enough – in fact they are probably much more dense and much more green than most realize – it’s that we have so few places we can build densely. Even in the places we can build densely the incentives aren’t large enough to make the new development happen fast enough. Our current system would have us canabalize the very best examples of walkability and urban form we have to get just a few more units. This is completely unacceptable and we shouldn’t support this. We certainly shouldn’t fight for it. Where we should be spending our energy is toward expanding where we can build densely and toward making it easier to do so where we already can. We can do this and still leave the old buildings alone, leaving future generations to make the choice for which walkable neighborhoods to canabalize, as they are forced to in New York and San Francisco.

[1] In fact, since we cannot build new old buildings, but there are lots of places we could put new new buildings, this argument has little merit.

[2] There’s more on that here, if you don’t have the book.

[3] This is usually how heritage buildings play into affordability. The apartments are usually smaller and lack parking, making them significantly less expensive than the larger, parking-provided apartments that replace them. A similar argument goes for heritage storefronts and office space.

[4] The number approaches 100% in most places outside of Seattle and Tacoma, and in most of these places there is virtually no up-zone movement.

[5] The Dunn piece in the first link gives many very easily accomplished ideas on how to encourage this.

[6] Thanks to Adam for linking me to this article. Yes, this endnote is not linked to anywhere in the text.

87 Replies to “We Need Old Buildings”

      1. This is a beautifully written and evidence-based article, Andrew Smith. Thank you for it.

  1. Andrew,

    I’ve been quite glib about this kind of thing in the past, but I find your argument fully persuasive. Thanks for making me a bit smarter.

    So what does your ideal historical preservation law look like? Is there a threshold of year of construction, minimum number of units, and/or maximum number of parking spaces that makes it valuable to preserve from a walkability perspective?

    1. Yes good piece. I’ve never connected the smaller unit size with density in that way before.

      One thing though, if older units are half the size of newer ones, and we leave all our older buildings, what does this mean for our ability to attract and keep families in our core. Will our historic neighborhoods be only for singles and young couples, with the middle aged banished out to the SFH wastelands?

      1. There are plenty of places to build in the core, even with leaving old buildings intact. You get even more places when you expand what the “core” is. This is more or less what Vancouver has done: place new highrises in other neighborhoods near but not quite in the core. Put new highrises in interbay, all along Aurora, up in Northgate, over in first hill, on dearborn near goodwill, etc. Then in Shoreline, Lynnwood, Tukwila, etc.

        There are tons of places to do this today even without messing with SFH. If we did go after SFH we would more or less never run out of places to build densely.

      2. Yeah but in Vancouver they didn’t have people trying to argue that 45 was more than tall enough right next to their Skytrain stations.

        Can’t really build new downtowns with NIMBYs being that unreasonable.

      3. There are still plenty of buildable lots in most historic neighborhoods. Just look for parking lots, garages, gas stations, strip malls, and crappy 1-story commercial structures. There is also the option to grow the dense part of the neighborhood outward where there is low-density residential nearby.

    2. I think it would be a lot like what Roger has been arguing for in terms of zoning: thinking about use, urban form, etc. I think all land-use decisions should include some reasoning and thinking around density, walkability and VMT, and that would help preserve these.

      Certainly aesthetics have to come into the picture once in a while. For example, the Space Needle isn’t the best building for density or urban form but it’s iconic.

    3. Martin, I’d include a construction quality measurement. Old buildings which were *well-built* deserve to be preserved more than ones which were not very structurally sound in the first place and require truly massive amounts of renovation to preserve.

      (Honestly, King St. Station seems to have been structurally weak, given all the earthquake-proofing being done, but it’s a special case as the city has only one historic train station for services to the north.)

    4. I think d.p. Had a good idea, make everything commercial or multifamily before, say 1940, a category 3 building and force a review. Then structure the review to include density and walkability along with prominence, etc.

  2. Andrew,

    I appreciate your clarity here that laissez faire isn’t the golden path to densification.

    As has been said here before, today’s new high-rise apartments is tomorrow’s affordable housing. And so it goes with the Alps and other apartments in the ID.

    We lost some good multi-story historic housing in South Lake Union when Vulcan bought the property, pre-demolished it from within while the City looked the other way, and then got permission to tear it down because the city discovered it was suddenly so dilapidated. John Fox and a few others chronicled what Vulcan pulled off there (not that John didn’t have other ulerior anti-urban-growth motives, but hey, nobody else was watching).

    And so we learned: Preserving affordable historic housing isn’t just a matter of protecting it by law, but also working with those on the inside who warn us that the landlord is getting away with severe violations. It may even become necessary to work with John Fox on occasion.

    1. As has been said here before, today’s new high-rise apartments is tomorrow’s affordable housing.

      Yes. There are tons of places to build new high-rises, as we’ve seen in Bellevue, etc. We don’t need to destroy today’s affordable housing to get those.

      Furthermore, a high-rise that doesn’t have more units can’t make things more affordable, even in the distant future. The Alps has something like 200 units on something like a sixth of an acre (7200 square feet is the lot size). No realistic (ie, not an imaginary high rise but something that could actually get built) will ever get to that level of density.

      1. Depends on how you define high rise; 24 stories, 40 stories, 100 stories? There are tons of projects (buildings are heavy ;-) scuttled or on hold from the real estate bust.

      2. In Belltown, for one. There are half-block parking lots zoned for 125 feet. And then there are the one-story buildings of no historical significance.

        There’s a reason they project our population to double over the next couple decades.

      3. Also the Denny Triangle allows up to 400′ I believe.

        First Hill and the University District also have some areas that allow over 100′

      4. If there were plenty of other places for high rises to be built that weren’t in place of historic buildings, then why are they tearing down historic buildings?

        Now if you are trying to say that there are potentially lots of other places where they could be built, that is another statement entirely.

      5. If there were plenty of other places for high rises to be built that weren’t in place of historic buildings, then why are they tearing down historic buildings?

        Lots of reasons, the top three being location location location. If you have a parking lot and need a bigger footprint for say a 24 story building you buy and demolish the 2-4 story next door. Lots of “historic” buildings in SLU. I don’t know that they’re the sort that support cheaper housing as what first comes to mind was an old car dealership. But that neighborhood’s a happening place so there’s a financial incentive to upscale. It’s hard to maximize profit with old buildings and a complete remodel can be just as expensive as starting from scratch. Carefully ripping everything apart is very time consuming and labor intensive. The PacMed building is a great example of “what do we do now”? The juvi court seemed like a great idea but that fell through I suspect largely because of neighborhood pressure.

      6. You’ve got a good point, one that Liz Dunn mentions in her piece. The problem is that developers are used to and comfortable doing whole-block smash-and-build construction. So they are very used to tearing down the 2-4 story next door because it’s what they’ve always done. We don’t give enough incentives for them to not do it, so we lose those buildings, even though they are like greener and maybe even more dense than what they are being replaced with.

        The car dealerships are “historical” in the same way the Ballard Denny’s was, but they’re not the sort of heritage buildings I’m arguing in favor of in this post. The problem is that the guidelines only look for things like history and/or prominence, rather than usefulness and/or walkability etc, which means they aren’t protecting most of the buildings I mention.

    2. Might as well say Good Bye to Pioneer Square historic buildings west of 2nd Ave between Jackson & Marion because the deep bore tunnel is guaranteed to undermine their foundations with the damage beyond repair forcing their demolition. Say Good Bye now to the Underground. Such damage to any building along the entire length of the DBT is guaranteed as massive sinkholes form over time with no way to know they’re forming and no way to fix them. God won’t save everyone inside a building that collapses suddenly in a major earthquake. Developers get to play a merciless God and blame Mother Nature.

  3. I’m in. I was originally a believer in our historic buildings process*, but this post and others shows me there are a whole lot of dense old buildings that need to be protected as well. It would definitely help to allow for growth elsewhere, but we also need some protection for what we have. Would expanding historic preservation be the way to achieve this? Should we form a committee to run around and snap pictures of every building worth saving? Or should we just outlaw tearing down buildings built before X date with less than Y sf per unit and less than Z parking spots per unit?

    *Eeew. I just found out our downtown post office has a category 3 protection (not technically protected, but you need to let them consider protecting the building before you touch it). It should be on some sort of “tear this down immediately” list. Now if only historic preservation could have saved this.

    1. There is a very good argument for protecting anything built before a certain date with “category 3” — thus mandating review before demolition or external alteration can even be considered.

      In cities with weak and negligent (Seattle) or bureaucratically bogged-down (New York) preservation boards, roperty owners with dollar signs in their eyes make a regular habit of destroying everything about their buildings that would justify protection just before their buildings are about to be reviewed.

      Then the preservation board meets, notes the absence of original detailing, and then throws up their hands and lets the destruction proceed, because they’re not allowed to protect that which has already been effaced. They’re not even allowed to punish such behavior with a fine!

      1. I have to agree with you, d.p. Put the cutoff date at, say, 40 years; most buildings don’t even last that long unless taken care of.

      2. They do that here occasionally too, I couldn’t find a link, but some bullding owners were jackhammering away terra cotta siding when the review board seemed to be in favor of keeping buildings with them.

      3. Okay, sorry I couldn’t follow the link (I have trouble with links on the ipad sometimes).

        The dakota stables certainly were beautiful. I’m not sure it’s the right land use for there, but it’s sad still.

      4. Yeah, I figured you were using an iSomething when the word “had” was capitalized for no reason after you typed my initials.

        The (second) Dakota Stables isn’t the ideal example, since it had been operating as an auto-garage for so long, but the article just uses it as the most recent example of the ongoing destroy-the-attributes-before-they-can-be-declared-worth-saving shenanigans. Property owners have been equally malicious with former department stores and Upper East Side brownstones. And the Dakota certainly could have been retrofitted for any number of uses.

  4. Thank you, Andrew for beginning a discussion with some balance free of the narrow point of view of taller is better, taller is the only density plan. Older structures are the enemy, newer are better. Tearing down also adds to the CO2. Many of the details of these older buildings are no longer available due to the cost in today’s market, not due to the lack of desirably. Livability has many pieces.

    Another note: Many of the single family lots in older parts of the city are actually much smaller than the 5,000 square feet.

    Just as a side note. Often these older buildings are better insulated and need a lot less energy to cool or even heat. I wonder at how much energy is wasted cooling the many tall buildings. Often during the summer or when I visit a warm climate, suddenly every one needs a jacket to stay warm due the amount of air conditioning used. I resent that we pay more in the winter just to stay moderately warm in our homes and these huge buildings burn it up at a cheap rate for their air-conditioning.

    1. Many of the single family lots in older parts of the city are actually much smaller than the 5,000 square feet

      I’m glad someone brought this up. Under Seattle’s current zoning, the densest single-family zone that can be created is 5000 sqft/unit. Large swaths of the CD could not be built under today’s zoning, because they are far too dense.

      So where does that leave us? Should we create a new, denser single family designation, an SF3000 or something, to match what we have in our denser single family neighborhoods from the pre-zoning era? It’s tempting, but I’d be worried about neighborhoods filling up with those terrible windowless boxcar houses that have been popping up out by city limits. With regards to “neighborhood character”, I’d rather just upzone all the way lowrise, and have 4-pack townhouses instead.

      But if the zoning was written right, a SF2500 or SF3000 could work.

      1. It may be 5,000 in some parts, less in others, but it’s mostly over that in our region, small parts of Seattle proper aside.

      2. and it’s really the oldest parts of the City that are that way, too. The farther out you get the bigger the lots are, generally speaking.

      3. Andrew: I’m speaking only of the city proper. Like JohnS says, it’s primarily the old close-in “streetcar suburbs”, like the CD and Queen Anne, which have been denser than the zoning allows since before the zoning was written.

        Once you get up into north Seattle and the SF7200 areas, or outside of city limits entirely, the situation is different. Building housing in those outlying zones on CD/QA sized lots would double their existing density, at a minimum.

  5. I would love to see Aurora re-created on the English High Street commerce, side street dense housing model. None of the architecture in most of the post-war North Seattle burbs is worth a damn, and cleaning up what should be a major urban transit corridor would do the whole region a ton of good.

  6. Good post, Andrew. A little perspective, though: when they were first built, doubtless many of my favorite old buildings opened to mixed reviews- some claims that valuable old norms were being violated, others that the modern year of 1921 didn’t need Corinthian columns forty stories in the air.

    I personally feel- which may be more pertinent than “think”- that today’s design profession, including both architecture and transit vehicles, has either forgotten or failed to learn important elements which the past considered essential. These things are what “classic” means.

    Chief among these considerations is proportion. Houses and streetcars alike, many things are not only too big, but shaped wrong for their purpose. Every transit driver reading this will think of drivers’ compartments that just don’t fit- as pleasant over eight hours as a shoe with the same problem.

    I’d like architects and engineers reading this to comment on how much “classical” education their professions require now. In the nineteenth century, I think a fair amount of both art and history were mandatory. I’ve read that Isambard Kingdom Brunel (look him up on Wikipedia, he built the steamship that laid the Transatlantic Cable) personally designed the lamps for every station on the English railroad he also built.

    To me, the main value of both the buildings and the streetcars of the past is the lessons they hold for present and future. I would like to see people today designing things that our descendants will consider worth preserving for all the reasons above.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Good points. I explicitly did not address aesthetics in this post, other than the one endnote because I was sort of trying to force people to think what density is, and that “density is good” cannot be a first principle we derive other arguments from.

    2. “I’d like architects and engineers reading this to comment on …”

      That question is really for the architects. Us engineers don’t deal with form, we just worry about function. The closest I ever come to anything an occupant can see would be an air diffuser, and even then I work with architects on the location and even the color. To answer your question about engineers anyway, typical undergrad work is required during college – a little art, a little history, a little philosophy, etc.

    3. When I was at architecture school at the UW, 15+ years ago, a full year of architectural history was required (in addition to theory, which touched heavily on the classics as well). Additionally, many of the elective classes also had a historical component; one of my grad-level class papers was on the history and design of New York’s first subway line and its stations.

      I’m not certain what the requirements are now, but I imagine the coursework is fairly similar. You do study human proportion, early on–but it should be remembered that every arch school grad I’ve run across seems to have a completely different background. Some schools focus on the “artistic/design” component, some more on the nuts-and-bolts aspects and little on design. UW (and WSU) seem to be somewhat in between.

      It should also be remembered that the ultimate decisions on various projects come down to what the client wants and is willing to pay for–you can try to educate as much as possible, but the final decision is theirs, and especially today it’s a rare designer who can just walk away. When you are talking about speculative development, that’s a huge reason why we get some of the crap we see today–those developers are often just building to flip the thing and don’t care about much more than the lowest possible price. Local design review boards don’t have a ton of teeth–and in a lot of cases, you wouldn’t want them to!

    4. My architectural education decried “decoration,” but revered proportion. Architectural history classes we based almost entirely upon these ideas, but our elective options (theory of urban design, philosophy or art, urban space design) all pushed these concepts as well. I remember a great many conversations that suggested that “classicism,” that is post Renaissance/Pre-World War architecture, used volume proportions correctly, and built structures specifically tailored to their purpose. Once this form was established, then the ornamentation could come into the picture. Modernism, at least in its original early 1900s form, could be argued as a strict/highly distilled version of this philosophy. Once the automobile came into the picture, how we engage (our do not engage) with each other and our environments meant that “all bets we off” effectively. My education sought to reverse some of these decades long “mistakes.”

      With relationship to this post, the main thing that stuck with me from architecture school is the value of Design at the scale of man. Most of our school projects addressed this in some fashion, and most of the time took issue with the automobile specifically, questioning why we build cities for them rather than ourselves. So many factors would come into play with this argument during design critiques (personal health, livability, economy, the environment), but the scale issue itself tended to solve many of these problems before they became too overwhelming to begin with.

      I’d agree that pre-Depression Era buildings are a good place to start, as many kept pedestrians at the forefront. Many recognized multimodal travel, developing along streetcar corridors for instance, complimenting neighborhoods of otherwise lower density. It’s these attribute of old architecture, the “walkability” and quality of the pedestrian environment that speaks to my education. The danger comes in when we try to evoke these attributes without committing to the lifestyles they demand. When architects or planners design new walking malls, human scaled store fronts, and entire transit systems without sacrificing some of the parking lots, back yards, and drivethrus, design become a thin plastic veneer, “decoration” built upon a system that will continue to fail our expectations.

      1. That’s very interesting, Jeremy. I am particularly interested in the veneer idea. I will try to find some further reading on that.

    5. Exactly right, Mark! “I would like to see people today designing things that our descendants will consider worth preserving…”

      I often tell developer clients to create buildings that will inspire the community to erupt in outrage in 2080 when someone proposes that the building should be razed and the site rebuilt. Of course, that requires an eye to the long-term for maintenance and durability too, which doesn’t always sit well with the short-term perspective that developers and their associated financing arms tend to have.

      I also really like a number of the comments here that acknowledge that just stuffing the landscape full of Sim City style mega highrises to create density isn’t necessarily such a great idea.

      And if anyone here hasn’t heard that there is to be a new version of Sim City out in 2013, well, now you have heard. The devs there are asking for feedback and suggestions in their modeling and since the handling of transit was a major part of the earlier game versions I imagine that will continue on in this iteration as well. Give them the Seattle Transit Blog gospel, folks!

      1. I think that if you were to go back to 90 to 100 years to when some of our “classic” old buildings were built, they were probally built with the same ideas of a shorter term investment rather than something that was designed to last 100 years, and the thought of having the building last that long probally dident even come to mind, let alone the reality of what happend.

      2. Mr. Z: As far as I’m aware, the concept of 30-year building depreciation is fairly recent. Before then, there was a natural incentive to build buildings that would last as long as was practical. Now, the tax code provides an incentive to build buildings that are not designed to last any longer than 30 years.

        Coming from New England, I have to admit that I find a lot of this hilarious. We have lots of houses and buildings that have been around since the 1700s. My parents used to live in a house which was built in the 50s, and that was pretty recent.

        Seriously: back then, buildings were built to last. Now, when the government pays you to write off your building over 30 years, of course they’re not built to last longer.

      3. Alek, please explain why a 30 year depreciaion schedule on property would result in someone building to only last 30 years? If you spend more on quality you have a larger write-off. Generally the shorter the depreciation schedule the more likely someone is to invest. Your more likely to buy a punch press if you can write off the entire capital expense over 2 years rather than 5 or 10 because of cash flow. But you’d be silly to buy an inferior pile of junk that’s worthless after 2 years. With property most investors aren’t looking at holding for the entire term so you they have every incentive to own and maintain something that will appreciate. In fact most people that sell a fully depreciated rental property will end up owning recovered depreciation at the time of sale.

      4. Bernie: Because after 30 years, you lose the tax write-off, and so it can be cheaper to knock it down and build anew (so you can get that tax benefit again).

        No, not all buildings are built that way, but planned obsolescence is definitely related to the tax code.

  7. There is a lot of old post-WWII housing around town, designed for returning soldiers. Most of it has been converted to low-rent (not subsidized) apartments. A big batch of it was bulldozed for the new townhouses around Columbia City Station. I wonder if the area around the station actually became more dense, or just taller and more expensive.

    Not all the dense affordable housing worth protecting in this town is worth protecting based on notions of classic architecture. A lot of it is merely functional, but nevertheless worthy of protection.

    1. Yes, that’s part of the problem: to a large extent the current historical landmark system only protects “lovely” buildings instead of useful ones.

      The Alps above would likely not get protection, even though it’s one of the top ten most dense residential buildings in Seattle.

      1. While I 100% agree with your opinion, Andrew, you are incorrect that buildings like The Alps would be ineligible under most good landmark-preservation systems currently in place.

        Most such protections are not about “lovely” buildings as an isolated criterion. They are devoted to recognizing the way architects and builders on another era solved spatial and aesthetic problems creatively. In the case of The Alps added a wealth of interesting yet inexpensive shapes and forms to the façade — the small-paned windows above the shop to match those in the hotel rooms, the decorative rectangles on the top floor, the horizontal striations and the two colors of brick, the various trapezoidal shapes — all basically to mask that they were building a bulky, basic rectangle.

        Preservation schemes also take into account a buildings prominence and place-making impact on a neighborhood. With its size, its many varied shops, and its centrality to the neighborhood, The Alps easily proves its worth here as well.

      2. [So many typos. As if I should lecture about proofing!]

        While I 100% agree with your views on the matter, Andrew, you are incorrect that buildings like The Alps would be ineligible under most good landmark-preservation systems.

        Most such protections are not about “lovely” buildings as an isolated criterion. They are devoted to recognizing the way architects and builders of another era solved spatial and aesthetic problems creatively. In the case of The Alps, they added a wealth of interesting yet inexpensive shapes and forms to the façade — the small-paned windows above the shops to match those of the hotel rooms, the decorative rectangles on the top floor, the horizontal striations and the two colors of brick, the various trapezoidal shapes — all to mask that they were building a bulky, basic rectangle.

        Preservation schemes also take into account a building’s prominence and place-making impact on a neighborhood. With its size, its many varied shops, and its centrality to the neighborhood, The Alps easily proves its worth here as well!

      3. Thanks!

        As a matter of subjective aesthetic taste, I think the bulky-block apartments of the I.D. do a lot better at mitigating their bulky-block forms than the slightly younger bulky-block apartments of Lower Queen Anne or the west slope of Capitol Hill. (Though none of them are as elegant as the actually less bulky forms in Pioneer Square and Old Ballard.)

        But I have no doubt that many individual LQA and CH structures offer assets to their environments that I’m not seeing, and that a true architectural historian would be able to make a case for their targeted preservation.

      4. I’ll also point out that buildings in both the ID and Pioneer Square have blanket protection thrown over them due to their respective historic districts

        BTW I found an interesting article on the history of the Alps and other SRO hotels in Seattle.

  8. Well-written, Andrew. Thanks for clarifying these issues and giving us lots to think about.

    From talking with low-income housing folks, one of the challenges to building something along the lines of the Alps today is the federal code requirements to qualify for their housing dollars. Not saying all small apartments should be built solely for low-income folks, but that’s the example I have. I think there are a lot of people who would trade less space for lower rent. Makes me wonder if there’s anything outside market forces (in the market-rent space) keeping smaller units from being built.

    1. There certainly is. For one, our city “process” works against them. The “apodments” that Calhoun has been building are only happening because of a loophole in the code to avoid design review. And even then, our codes require a minimum size for a housing unit no matter where and how you build it. I think it’s fairly small – like 300sf – but still, that’s much larger than my uncle’s apartment in NYC or my college dorm that I shared with a roomate.

      1. My god we have a lot of laws. I just found this, passed a few years ago. These laws apply not just to new housing, but to all of our existing housing stock. The good news is the minimum is 120sf*. The bad news is that The Man is watching out for you in every way possible. Unless you live in a single family home, your door is required to be self-closing and self-locking. If not, your home is uninhabitable and your landlord can be fined. You are required to have a kitchen with an approved sink, counter, and cabinets, or your home is uninhabitable.

        * though why we have to legislate this is beyond me – I guess people that can only afford a 100sf home are required to be homeless.

      2. “You are required to have a kitchen with an approved sink, counter, and cabinets, or your home is uninhabitable.” Or you could just move in to one of Sidely’s crawl spaces.

      3. I don’t get the bitterness toward small apartments and the people who inhabit them (either by choice or economic necessity).

        Heck, I don’t get why we’ve legislated away one of the most useful functions of an automobile: a dry place to lie down and sleep. Stupid legislation like this drives up rent for everyone, as well as the cost of a hotel room.

      4. Matt: I agree with you that legislating the minimum size seems silly when people are homeless. But the building code is far from superfluous. There’s a major issue of information asymmetry. When you rent an apartment, you know if it doesn’t have a kitchen, but you have no idea if it’s a fire risk, or has shoddy wiring or plumbing, or if the appliances are going to fail.

        There’s also the issue of public safety, and collateral damage in general. If your pipes burst, my downstairs apartment could get flooded. If you start an electrical fire, or have a gas leak, the whole building could burn down or explode. Yes, insurance covers that, but much better to avoid the problem in the first place.

        That said, I definitely agree with you that where there is no information asymmetry and no risk of collateral damage, I’d prefer to let the market sort things out. I can’t fathom a situation where developers all gang up and decide to abolish private bathrooms.

      5. Agree completely. I have no problem with fire and life safety codes, and many others. We just get a little rule crazy here, like the fact that I’m not allowed to build a deck on my garage within 12 feet of an alley.

        I’d actually like us to just use national model codes for almost everything, so every single developer, architect, and handy homeowner doesn’t have to figure out Seattle’s special brand of buearocracy.

      6. I don’t know the ins and outs of Seattle’s code but most municipalities have pretty much adopted code in line with the UBC. There’s probably some reason for the deck set-back. I suspect garages built right up to the property line are only legal today because they are grandfathered in. A new deck would be an accesory to you’re house and subject to the standard 10′ rear set-back. The green roof OTOH is a modification/repair to an existing structure.

      7. The green roof and deck were added at the same time as the garage, which was new. Check out the section on garages – specifying everything from maximum width for eaves to how to build an access bridge to your garage. The portion that applied to me was “The roof over a garage shall not be used as a balcony or deck in rear yards.”, with the rear yard being 12′ from the edge of the alley. Strangely, garages in front or side yards are allowed to have decks over their garages.

        The federal government realized decades ago that specifying everything to the inch ends up costing a fortune – hence the $1000 toilet seats back in the ’80s. Since then they’ve gone from “detail specifications” or MILSPECs (the paper clip shall be made of A29 steel wire of 3.13 inch length bent upon a single plane such that…) to “performance specs” (the paper clip shall be able to clip 30 sheets of paper together when dropped from 5 feet), costs have dropped to close to market rates, since vendors can sell them off-the-shelf items. We need city codes that are performance based, not detail based.

        And yes, Seattle’s building codes are based in UBC, but there are so many other codes that we’ve either built ourselves or copied from who-knows-where. Check out this list. That garage bit, for instance, comes from our municipal code, which seems to have been just built up over time.

  9. I notice that no one seems to point out the problems with old buildings. I love the look of old buildings, but modern standards in earthquake stability, fire suppression installation, and even electrical wiring requirements, are often hard to have retrofitted in old buildings.

    1. I’ve got a sprinkler system. And a gigantic steel crossbeam cemented into the wall in the 1980s that should keep the roof from collapsing in the event of an earthquake.

      (My front façade, and this computer sitting next to it, are probably both screwed in the event of a Wellington-style tremor, but I should be okay in a doorway. I am surely better off than all those building-on-toothpicks-over-carport things from the ’50s and ’60s.)

    2. Electrical wiring is *easy* in old buildings. Most masonry buildings which postdate the invention of electrical service have conduit, which is really easy to retrofit. Even most wood buildings are easy enough to run conduit in. Surface conduit is easy to run in any case.

      Sprinkler retrofits are more work, but it’s not really that hard.

      Earthquake stability is actually hard. However, many old buildings have pretty good seismic stability; and many don’t. It’s an interesting thing, it relates to various architectural choices made at the time.

  10. With so many surface parking lots and *ahem* gigantic holes in the ground (looking at you, Greenlake, and also you, 3rd and Cherry), why do we need to even consider knocking down old buildings?

      1. Nope. It’s where an building was demolished to make way for a new one that never materialized. It is just a vacant hole in the ground.

    1. Huh? Are NIMBYs the folks tearing down the old historic housing? I would think they’d be the first line of defense against such pointless destruction.

      1. Did you read the post, Brent? Nimbys restrict where dense construction is allowed and thus force old buildings to get torn down to get any more density.

      2. I have to side with Brent on this.

        We need incentives in order to level the playing field financially to compensate for the financial gap created by up-zones

        Not if they don’t get up-zoned in the first place. If out of scale 60-80′ zoning doesn’t get pushed through, problem solved. And in areas where there’s “character” a checkerboard mix of too skinny too tall buildings may even be worse than gut and start over. Columbia City may be saved because it is just far enough away from the blight rail station; Roosevelt not so lucky. Beacon Hill, who knows.

      3. WTF are you talking about, Bernie?

        Historic Columbia City is historic and therefore in no danger of being dismantled.

        But everybody would be better off if the less-than-1/2-mile of uninviting, underutilized, no-one-walking-around-makes-it-seem-sketchy low-density between the station and the historic neighborhood center got freaking built up.

        That people wait for the 7 bus at night, with the light rail a 5-minute walk away, is pathetic. There is no better example in Seattle of the good that densification could do!

      4. WTF are you talking about, Bernie?

        Historic Columbia City is historic

        Hard to argue with that. Good thing they didn’t get a light rail station because then the argument would be “we’ve” investeded so much we have to change zoning.

      5. Historic Columbia City is three blocks long and half a block wide. If Link had been built as a subway with a stop directly in the neighborhood center (as it should have been), there would have been no shortage of opportunities for upzoning and expanding the mixed-use neighborhood without touching any of the current thriving strip of buildings.

        Although Roosevelt lacks even a single commercial building of historic value, you nevertheless unlikely to see any wholesale change in its retail center — from the Whole Foods shopping center to its mixed-use apartments, much of what is there is quite new and not likely to be torn down anytime soon. Many of the smaller lots contain thriving and profitable businesses. Some might be sold for up-building, but it won’t happen overnight.

        No, upzoning in Roosevelt will most quickly affect the blighted properties, the gas stations, and the other underutilized space. How you can call the elimination of any of these things “unlucky” is beyond me.

        (Why do you suburbanites act like upzoning forces businesses and homeowners to sell, anyway? And why are you so threatened by any reduction in single-family homes anywhere?)

        (And it’s not like anyone was trying to tear down Roosevelt High School. The notion that Roosevelt High School must be visible from miles around for historic reasons was utterly asinine. It looks like half the high schools in the United States. Are NIMBYs really so unfamiliar with the outside world?)

      6. I had an very serious person very seriously try to convince people that tall buildings there were bad for the kids because they would not be able to have a nice view. I guess of the mountain.

        When I said I went there and never saw the mountain, she said that’s because I was too busy studying. This was real logic: Kids would be better off if there no buildings there, except if they are studying in which case it doesn’t matter.


        There’s no winning arguing with fools and liars.

  11. There’s good old and bad old. What we need to get rid of are the space-wasters. Pre-1940s buildings are often 3-4 stories, and the single-story units are on small lots, and have no setbacks or just a small setback. So they use their lots efficiently, and many units are within a one-block walk. Post-WWII buildings are often the opposite: a one-story building or strip mall with a sea of parking around it and/or a huge setback. These waste space, and deprive people of the units that could be there. Also, mid-century construction is not built to last in many cases, just like big-box stores are not built to outlast their initial 20-year tenant. Who cares after the construction-bondholders have been paid and the building is tax-depreciated? Often the developer doesn’t care as soon as he makes the sale. Pre-1940s builders did not think like that: they intended their buildings to last for generations, and that’s why they do.

    I strongly disagree with John Fox that we must preserve all old, cheap buildings. Does “old” in this case mean all the way up to 1990? Old, dense buildings should be preserved. But old space-wasters should be bulldozed. Yes, that loses a $600 apartment for somebody. But what about the one or three units that don’t exist because the building is hogging too much lot space? What about the people who have to walk further because there are fewer destinations within a half-mile? What about the lack of density that’s hindering transit? These factors are as important as that $600 unit.

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