The Towne Apartments, the latest and largest addition to the Queen Anne urban village. Photo by Michael Herschensohn
The Towne Apartments, the latest and largest addition to the Queen Anne urban village. Photo by Michael Herschensohn
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Even Queen Anne old-timers don’t think of Queen Anne Avenue between Galer and McGraw streets as a village. But in Seattle’s land-use vocabulary, that stretch of the avenue is a “residential urban village,” a planning concept and overlay to the zoning code introduced in the city’s 1994 Comprehensive Plan. (Its boundaries are shown on the map).

A dictionary definition of “village” — “a settlement usually larger than a hamlet and smaller than a town” — doesn’t come close to its meaning in the city’s land-use vocabulary. There, it is defined as, “the areas where conditions can support [the] increased density needed to house and employ the city’s newest residents.”

A residential urban village, like upper Queen Anne, may not “provide a concentration of employment,” but it does provide “a focus of goods and services for residents and surrounding communities.”

Except for what developer Joe Geivitt calls “The Queen Anne Collection” (Sweetbriar, Eden Hill, 7 Hills, Towne) between Howe and Boston streets on Queen Anne Avenue, not much of our urban village has been redeveloped as foreseen in the Queen Anne neighborhood portion of the Comprehensive Plan. A few, new multi-family buildings have filled in bits of the southern “bulb,” while big projects have occurred in the block where Queen Anne Avenue jogs at Garfield Street. Otherwise, the narrow village along Queen Anne that stretches from alley to alley and the strip of Garfield that ends at Fourth Avenue West retain their early 20th-century, one-story character.

In fact, our urban village was defined by the streetcar lines that ran up from downtown embracing the hill between Taylor and Fifth avenues North and Sixth Avenue West. All along the car lines on Galer Street and Queen Anne Avenue, one-story shops popped up with two- and three-story, brick-veneer apartment buildings anchoring key intersections.

An urban village

The Comprehensive Plan is basically open-ended, so there is still plenty of time to demolish all the historic buildings and replace them with buildings of the same scale as The Queen Anne Collection. On the other hand, part of the genius in Seattle’s plan is that nothing prevents examining the impact of our new “village” and reconsidering what we would like it to look like in the future.

In 1994, in response to Washington’s Growth Management Act (Chapter 36.70A RCW), the county undertook a comprehensive look at land use in the county and how to best prevent sprawl while creating opportunities for growth in population and employment.

Under Mayor Norm Rice, Seattle voluntarily undertook defining a logical plan for future development of the city, identifying areas for intensive redevelopment and protecting single-family neighborhoods. The radical idea in Seattle’s voluntary plan was the center concept, which drew boundaries within where heavy manufacturing, office buildings and multi-family housing would be concentrated.

The Urban Residential Village concept was one of four redevelopment schemes and the only exclusively residential one. It is a concept that has been subsequently modeled nationally.

Now that The Towne, the Queen Anne Collection’s largest project, is complete, it is time to assess the impact of Queen Anne’s urban village and consider ways to improve the implementation of the concept in the remaining historically sensitive zones that still express the density and scale that marked the entire strip south from McGraw to Galer streets.

Historic districts

A number of ideas have surfaced to protect the historic character of the neighborhood. Among them, people have mentioned a historic district, such as the wildly successful one that protects Ballard Avenue. New construction must be approved by the district’s board, which has wide discretion over what is permissible. Scale, massing and colors, along with every visible feature of new and old construction, are subject to oversight.

But the trouble with historic districts in Seattle is their cumbersome and expensive administrative structure. Even if we had a cohesive cluster of buildings from the same period lining our streets, a historic district would be a nearly impossible sell.

What we may need is an overlay district similar to what has been created to protect the Pike/Pine corridor. On Queen Anne, we’d look to duplicate its administrative model, with new rules that fully protect the vitality of our historic commercial core, while still encouraging appropriate new construction.

The Pike/Pine solution is, unfortunately, the architectural equivalent of a lobotomy, for all along the two streets, only historic facades have been saved. Of all the new construction, only Hewitt Architects’ solution at the corner of Melrose Avenue and Pine Street seems to be right. There, entire buildings are retained to express the historic scale and massing of the streetscape.

Elsewhere in the corridor, final judgment is still out, but preservationists have enough experience around the country to know that saving facades does not protect a neighborhood’s historic character. We will need to devise rules that allow for tall, densely used buildings, set back behind the historic, one-story buildings that hug the curb.

Upcoming panel discussion

Data collected in the recent OlderSmallerBetter study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab (headquartered in Seattle) verifies the important role that older, smaller buildings play in fostering social, economic and cultural vitality in mixed-use and commercial areas.

In response to it and to the new construction in Queen Anne’s urban village, the Queen Anne Historical Society will convene a panel at our Sept. 25 meeting to explore how we can best preserve the historic character and vitality of our neighborhood’s urban village.

Already, David Hewitt of Hewitt Architects, Eugenia Woo of Historic Seattle and Mary McCumber, one of the leaders of the comprehensive planning movement in Seattle and the state, will be on the panel.

Check out meeting details later this summer at www.qahistory.org, and look for a notice here in the Queen Anne & Magnolia News.

MICHAEL HERSCHENSOHN is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society (qahistory.org).

To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.