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Conover Designation Fails on 3-3 split vote

Following last month's confidence inspiring 6-1 vote in favor of nomination, there didn't seem to be much concern for Conover House's chances of success going into the meeting yesterday. However, things changed rather quickly when at least 20 people were seen gathered outside the boardroom in animated conversation. Scattered among them were a few representatives of Jewish Family Services who were present at the last meeting. Meaning they had called in their cavalry. This did not bode well.

JFS reps started the meeting by speaking extensively about their mission and the financial burden landmark status would put on them. These are two factors which the Landmarks Board does not and cannot take into consideration during a designation hearing. A brief summary of some facts from the nomination presentation followed plus a few largely inconsequential pieces of information that were added.

Some clarifying questions followed. Of these the question of whether the original nomination report had been updated at all was particularly noteworthy. Then came public comment. You can read our statement in full here. After Jeff Murdock of Historic Seattle and I spoke, roughly 10 or so people spoke on behalf of JFS. Here were the highlights:

  • They focused largely on the organization's mission and financial issues.

  • One specifically criticized Conover's credit for developing the 30-year mortgage plan.

  • Several opposing statements were prefaced with a general support for historic preservation elsewhere.

  • One erroneously claimed the whole purpose of these proceedings were due to a personal dispute between the former owner and JFS.

  • Then the last statement came from Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle who reminded everyone that the origin of the nomination was due to SEPA review referring it to the Department of Neighborhoods. Not a personal dispute.

Then came board liberation.

Most, if not all, board members prefaced each of their statements by admonishing JFS and their supporters for spending the majority of their time focusing on their mission and financial impact reminding them that their mission is not a factor and that financial impact is not a factor at this point in the process. Rather the six criteria for designation are the only factors to be considered.

Another noteworthy criticism by one or two board member against JFS and their contractor, BOLA Architecture and Planning, was the incompleteness of the original nomination report, the enormous amount of footnoted (their emphasis) supplemental material provided by volunteers as public comment, and the difficulty this created in being able to make a proper determination. One board member even voted in favor based on criteria B just to give Conover House the benefit of the doubt. (Edit: I believe JFS is primarily at fault here. As a the property owner who opposes nomination they have no incentive to pay for an updated or more thorough nomination that goes against their interests. This is an unfortunate consequence of requiring property owners to prepare a nomination rather than say having a historian on city payroll or a fund to hire an independent contractor.

All that said, the crux of the issue was largely about whether Conover House still embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style (colonial revival) and whether it stands out in the neighborhood. Due to the lot being partially excavated to allow for a 5th basement unit with windows, the asbestos siding and missing (concealed?) pilasters, and other additions to the house, the board overall was not convinced that such was the case. Further, while acknowledging that the house stands out on its block, most of the board asserted in agreement with JFS that the house does not stand out in the area more broadly.

Therefore, the house's only real chance to pass was its significant association with Conover himself and this only lead to a split vote. Three board members felt that the long-term family connection to the house was significant, the other three wanted a larger connection than that. The other fact worth noting is that even if four board members had voted in support based on this criteria alone, the motion would still have failed. With 9 total board members (but only 6 in attendance) a true majority of the board is 5.

Though deeply saddened we are to lose this valuable piece of our neighborhood's heritage, we must now move forward with our mission. Many thanks to all those who dedicated their time and energy to supporting this effort. Among them Rob Ketcherside, CHHS vice-president; Jeff Murdock and Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle; Marvin Anderson, local architect and historian; the former owner Joan Zegree; to all our members and community who support our mission in general; to the landmarks board for volunteering their time to consider Conover House for landmark status, and finally to Mr. Charles Conover for his longstanding contributions to the city, state, and the neighborhood. Seeing the level of dedication and to have that honored by the board was truly moving and makes it all worthwhile.

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