Galbraith House as of January 26, 2018. Photo by Tom Heuser.
When I saw the headlines last month that Galbraith House, a protected landmark would be demolished, my heart sank and I had to do a double take. How does a landmark get cleared for demolition? The whole point of the landmarks ordinance is to prevent demolition not to enable it. I read the articles and the comments, and asked around thinking I had missed something, but only found misconceptions, half-truths, and dead ends (quite literally in one case). So I went straight to the source.
I scoured the Landmarks Preservation ordinance and the past 12 years of board meeting minutes, spoke extensively with city staff and other preservation advocates, and put all the pieces together. What I learned is a serious one-two punch to preservation that deserves our immediate attention. Now for those not familiar with the whole process, let’s start by taking a tour of the city’s landmarks ordinance. I will only cover the most salient points. Consider this a quick crash course.
Landmarks designation is a four-step process and the city's website lists and summarizes each very clearly.
Negotiation for controls and incentives
Note well: a building is effectively a city landmark and fully protected from nomination onward per the ordinance even though the process isn't complete (25.12.670).
However, that last part is crucial. Even though the building is a protected landmark with any proposed changes needing board approval during the process, negotiations can go one of many ways and this is where we start to get into trouble with Galbraith House.
As most of you probably recall, the landmarks board approved Galbraith's designation in 2005. And as we all know, the controls & incentives agreement signed last December contained no controls whatsoever allowing Sound, the owner, to demolish it. So the question to both is why?
First, why did it take 12 years to complete negotiations? It shouldn't have, because the landmarks ordinance states clearly that negotiations must begin “promptly” (25.12.490), “may run for a maximum of 75 days, [and] shall terminate if either party (board staff or owner) concludes that an impasse has been reached and so notifies the other party in writing” (25.12.500). Further, in the event of an impasse, “the Board shall file its recommendation on controls and incentives with the Hearing Examiner and the City Clerk” (25.12.520).
Second, why did the negotiations ultimately yield no controls on Galbraith House? Well remember the claim "that demolition was necessary to generate a reasonable economic return on the property... specifically to generate a rate of return necessary to attract capital for investment"? That comes straight out of the Landmarks ordinance (25.12.590).
An owner can theoretically get all controls lifted if they prove and convince the board that designation deprives them of reasonable economic use. And this isn't the first time it has happened either.
So what exactly happened then? Unfortunately we can’t ask the previous Landmarks Coordinator as she has since passed away. So I stitched all the available info together in a handy timeline of every event and action. You may read it in full, but if you prefer, you may jump to my conclusion in the following section to save time.
Galbraith House Timeline
June 28th, 2005 - Landmarks Board designates Galbraith House a landmark.
July, 2005 - Board staff starts negotiations with owner for a controls and incentives agreement. Deadline: September 11.
September 7, 2005 - Sound, the building owner, requests a 30-day delay to negotiations as allowed by the ordinance (25.12.850). Board unanimously approves.
October 9, 2005 - Sound requests another 30-day delay to negotiations. Board unanimously approves.
November 9, 2005 - Extended deadline expires without consequence. Board staff and Sound continue to exchange draft agreements for the next three years.
January 2009 – Sound requests that no controls be imposed, stating that demolition is necessary to generate a reasonable economic return on the property. Board staff rejects Sound’s claim and continues negotiations, despite the extended deadline having been expired for over three years.
December 2, 2009 – Sound requests a six-month extension with a promise to propose development options to the Architectural Review Committee (ARC) in January 2010. Board unanimously approves.
January 2010 – Sound presents 5 options to the ARC. ARC supports the proposal.
Courtesy City of Seattle Historic Preservation Office
April 2010 – Sound presents refinements to their preferred option to the ARC. Board members deem proposal reasonable to pursue, but nothing happens.
June 2, 2010 – Six-month extension expires. Sound requests an additional six months. Board unanimously approves.
December 1, 2010 – Sound requests a 90-day extension. Board unanimously approves. It is their last request.
March 1, 2010 – 90-day extension expires without consequence. No action taken.
April 2014 – Sound notifies the Board that it met with Board staff and that Board staff encouraged Sound to re-engage the ARC with updates to development options. No action taken.
June 2015 – Sound notifies Board staff that it does not intend to preserve Galbraith House citing a lack of reasonable economic return. Board staff asks Sound to submit research and data to support the figures presented.
February 2016 – Sound presents research and data prepared by CBRE to Board staff and Board who, upon review, prepared questions to clarify.
October 2016 – Board staff concluded there was insufficient information to make a determination. Additional studies were conducted over the following year.
December 20, 2017 – Based on additional studies, Board staff recommended that no controls be placed on Galbraith House, citing it was difficult to conclude preserving the house could generate a rate of return necessary to attract capital for investment.
Summary and Conclusion
The most important issue in all of this is the economic factor. Sound tried to make the economic argument in 2009, but failed. They came back with development options in 2010 that included surrounding property, but never pursued them because they learned that they weren't legally required to include their surrounding property when considering reasonable economic use of the house itself.
Then when economic conditions improved, they revisited the argument and finally convinced the Board and Board staff last December that demolition was necessary for reasonable economic use, specifically for generating “a rate of return necessary to attract capital investment”. It wasn’t a difficult case to make either given the enormously high rate of return in Seattle’s real estate market today.
And this means that as long as these economic conditions persist, any future landmark designations or current ones still in the negotiation process can effectively get thrown out going forward. This is currently the greatest threat to preservation right now.
However, what made the case of Galbraith House even worse, even if it doesn’t change the more glaring economic issue above, was the process of negotiation extensions running amuck. Sound simply drew out the process by requesting several extensions to the 75-day deadline as allowed by the landmarks ordinance (25.12.850).
Twice, Board and Board staff fell out of compliance with the ordinance by allowing these extensions to expire (without consequence) and allowing negotiations to continue beyond the deadline for a period of over four years each time.
And if you recall above, the ordinance gives Board staff the power to declare an impasse and to submit their own recommendations for Controls and Incentives, but oddly they did not. And had either the Board and Board staff adhered to the ordinance by enforcing the deadline, Galbraith House might still be standing.
So what did we learn from all of this?
Galbraith House teaches us that humans aren’t perfect (something we already knew). Yes, the Board and Board staff were technically out of compliance, but to their credit, the ordinance does not provide guidance on what to do when a negotiation deadline passes, though it absolutely should. Furthermore, it does not appear there was any sustained public effort to check on Galbraith House’s progress, but it is not a civic duty and there doesn’t appear to be an easy way to check that progress.
And this leads up to the more important point: that the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance is not the gold standard of preservation. We can hope and expect it to do what we believe it’s supposed to, and get upset when it doesn’t, but that won’t get us very far. The ordinance has its shortcomings and we need to address them. So, rather than looking at this only as a failure, I choose to see this also as an opportunity. An opportunity to learn about the landmarks process and find ways to improve it. It is also an opportunity for us to become more active in the process and we need to be. Now more than ever.
With this in mind, I urge you to join me and the Capitol Hill Historical Society on February 25 at 2 pm at the Capitol Hill Library to discuss strategies for moving forward.
Due to last minute revisions, the views presented in this article should be treated as my own and not necessarily as those of CHHS as a whole unless otherwise stated. Even though some board members did review and contribute to it.
Furthermore, CHHS Vice President Rob Ketcherside was on the landmarks board at the time the board voted to lift controls on Galbraith House. I consulted him for this article, but do not know how he voted nor have I asked.