Herschensohn
Herschensohn

The administrators of the city’s historic preservation program, exercising their police power issued on Oct. 22, 2018 a Preliminary Certificate of Approval for the alterations to the Century 21 Coliseum (AKA the Key Arena) and surrounding landmarks.

I cringe using the words “police power” when it comes to historic preservation, yet they describe a key factor in protecting the designated landmarks in our community. Interestingly, the power to control what happens to designated structures increases significantly the more local the jurisdiction.

Federal law does not prohibit owners from tearing down registered properties or altering them in any way the owner sees fit. Listing on the National Register of Historic Places only means that when federal dollars are to be spent on a project such as a new highway, the historic landmark must be evaluated and preferably protected. State law tends to mimic federal law when it comes to historic landmarks. At both the federal and state levels, environmental impact statements are the usual tool for evaluating whether to demolish or alter registered buildings or, in the case of historic districts, entire neighborhoods.

Locally, historic landmarks have lots of protection, but the “police” need our help. Once the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board (a terribly overworked 12-person board of volunteers) designates a building a landmark, its owner negotiates an agreement with the city for its preservation. Called ‘Controls and Incentives,’ the agreement specifically calls out those features of a landmark that cannot be altered and those that can. Each building or historic district designated by the LPB must be approved by an ordinance voted by the city council and signed by the mayor. The ordinance includes the Incentives and Controls agreement. In other words, the landmark designation of a building is in fact a law, and violating it is a crime (of sorts). That means protected buildings cannot be changed without permission from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board or, for minor changes, its staff. 

In a nutshell, the seven people on the staff serving the LPB, all employees of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, have the power to issue a stop-work notice if a building owner attempts to violate the terms of the ordinance protecting their building. They are in fact the historic preservation police. Of those seven people, only two people split oversight of the more than 400 buildings designated as individual landmarks, and that is not the limit of their responsibility. The city’s historic districts each have a staff member watching over them. In fact, one of the people in charge of individual landmarks also administers the Sand Point Historic District while the other also serves as the City Historic Preservation Officer. 

The Oct. 22 Preliminary Certificate of Approval gives Oak View Group (OVG) permission to change the Coliseum, and this is where you and the Queen Anne Historical Society come in. We must be the watchdogs who help the “police” —the staff of the LPB— make sure the certificate is followed to the letter. The Certificate of Approval for the Coliseum is very clear. It concludes, “Work must occur exactly according to approved plans and specifications. ANY revisions, omissions, and/or additions to plans and specifications must be reviewed and approved by the Landmarks Preservation Board prior to implementation.”

Underlining and capitalization are in the certificate.

It is our mutual responsibility to learn exactly what changes have been approved and to assure all the work complies with the certificate. The Queen Anne Historical Society pays attention to every landmarked building in our neighborhood, calling out to the staff of the LPB alterations that have not been previously approved. The society knows what has been approved since it attends LPB meetings and reviews the Incentives and Controls for every newly designated building. Now, you will know what has been approved for the Coliseum and be able to help the city “police” OVG’s work on the most iconic historic building in Uptown.

The Preliminary Certificate of Approval is limited to the proposed height, bulk and scale of the proposed additions and alterations to the building exteriors and surrounding buildings and spaces. Although the certificate does not approve details, it does call out and allow the following:

• Removal of the nonhistoric west, south and east plazas of the arena.

• Removal of nondesignated buildings and structures directly south of the arena and north of Thomas Street.

• New above-grade perimeter buildings to accommodate arena egress, ticketing and garage elevator, including an addition to the south end of the Northwest Rooms and the deconstruction/reconstruction of the south end of the International Fountain Pavilion.

• Selective removal, storage and reinstallation of the arena’s west, north and east curtain wall framing and glazing.

• Selective removal, storage and reinstallation of precast-concrete architectural panels from the south end of the International Fountain Pavilion and the upper north plaza.

• Selective removal, storage and reinstallation of artwork in the upper and lower north plazas.

• Removal of two legacy trees from the lower north plaza, and selective removal of small trees and plantings with the arena project boundary. 

The certificate does not give approval for the tunnel planned under the Bressi Garage (Pottery Northwest building), but that work must ensure that landmark’s total integrity is preserved.

For now, we can only watch and make sure OVG follows exactly the preservation of features as called out in the certificate. Later, once the final certificate is issued and we know more details about what is being allowed, the Queen Anne Historical Society will reach out to the community to help it and the LPB staff monitor OVG’s work. We know the person overseeing hundreds of city landmarks can’t attend to every detail, but by getting informed and keeping our eyes on this project, we can help protect this important neighborhood icon.