In a public hearing before an obscure state council Friday, Wallingford homeowners praised the “special community” and “historic architecture” of their Seattle neighborhood.
Others on the call heard something else. “It’s as if people were dying of thirst,” one renter in the neighborhood said, “and we’re putting a fence around a body of water.”
The clash was the latest in an effort to get a swath of Wallingford listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which received the green light Friday from the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Final approval from the National Park Service is required next to designate the area as the Wallingford-Meridian Streetcar Historic District.
If approved, the designation will have little immediate effect: It won’t directly stop development in Wallingford or impose requirements on the appearance of new buildings in the area. Supporters say they’re looking to document the neighborhood’s architecture and preserve its “historic fabric.”
But opponents worry labeling a portion of the neighborhood historic could lay the groundwork to block denser housing as rents and home prices stretch out of reach for many.
What is a historic district, anyway?
Overseen by the NPS, the National Register of Historic Places is “the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation.” Yet, a place on the register alone does not limit what an owner can do to the property unless the changes involve federal funding.
Property owners can get a tax credit for rehab work on income-producing properties, like apartment buildings, listed on the register.
Otherwise, the designation is “totally honorary,” said state architectural historian Michael Houser.
In deciding whether to designate an area as a historic district, state and federal officials consider whether properties meet any of four criteria. Among them: whether they are associated with “events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history” and whether they represent “distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction.”
Advocates with the group Historic Wallingford argue a section of the neighborhood once served by Seattle’s streetcar network meets both.
The district is an “important collection of early 20th-century housing in Seattle” that “reflects the concentrations of suburban houses that were developed along streetcar lines for working-class and middle-income homebuyers at the turn of the 20th century,” supporters wrote in their application.
The proposed district includes 570 single-family homes in the north-central part of Wallingford surrounding Meridian Playground plus 66 multifamily buildings (including some converted houses) and the Good Shepherd Center. The center houses several nonprofits and is already on the national register. Roughly half the district has already been upzoned to allow for more than just single-family homes and backyard cottages.
Wallingford isn’t the first Seattle neighborhood to seek a historic designation. Mount Baker, Montlake, and Ravenna all have historic districts on the national register. (Seattle also has several locally designated historic areas, such as the International District and Pioneer Square, which have stricter rules.)
As the Seattle City Council upzoned neighborhood hubs across the city in 2019, council members exempted historic districts in Ravenna and Mount Baker and the council pledged to “conduct additional planning work in historic districts.”
As the city prepares for another round of zoning debate, density advocates say they worry the council could do the same for Wallingford.
“Designed to crystallize the neighborhood”
Adam Prairie moved to Wallingford because of its easy access to multiple bus lines, to the Burke Gilman trail and, when needed, to the interstate. He can easily get to work and good restaurants, all while trying to “rely on cars as little as possible.”
Prairie and his partner split ownership of their lot with another couple who now lives in a backyard house. The group wants “to be part of the solution,” Prairie said.
So, when he heard about the effort to create a historic district in Wallingford, Prairie was skeptical. Other neighborhood groups in Wallingford have resisted past upzones.
“I can see trying to go through the historical preservation process for a building or maybe a block,” he said. “But when you attempt to do it on a neighborhood-wide basis, it feels like that’s primarily designed to crystallize the neighborhood in one specific group’s vision.”
Opponents have also called the effort to seek a historic designation “classist” and pointed to racist practices like redlining, restrictive covenants and the exclusion of many Black homebuyers from the postwar GI Bill to argue that efforts to preserve single-family neighborhoods only extend patterns of exclusion.
“Whether they believe it or not, it is a racist act,” said Grace Kim, an architect who opposes the designation.
In a statement, Historic Wallingford said its supporters and volunteers “come from various backgrounds” and pointed out that the historic designation alone will not block development.
Opponents also question whether the architecture in Wallingford is all that special. Some of the houses in the neighborhood were kit homes, built using mass-produced plans.
“It’s a thing that was mass-produced, much like all of the townhouses or the apartments that are mass-produced today,” Kim said.
Several residents of the proposed district also raised concerns about the process for recognizing the district, in which only property owners, not renters, can object.
Owners who disagree must submit a formal objection and those who do not object are assumed to be supportive, Houser said. To stop a designation, a majority of property owners must object.
The state received 543 letters about the Wallingford effort. All but 29 of them were in opposition. Out of the total, only 30 letters were from property owners in the district, 20 of which were in opposition, Houser said.
“Old World charm”
Down the street from Prairie, Alison Drake said she was “not opposed to having different types of housing.”
“I just would like to maintain and preserve the historic pieces because we won’t ever be able to get them back,” said Drake, who supports designating the area a historic district.
Drake moved into her Wallingford Craftsman in 2005 specifically for “Old World charm.” During a major remodel, she worked to ensure the home maintained its design, she said.
Drake said she sees an increase of housing in the neighborhood as “inevitable,” but she hopes for a balance between the old and new.
“I think the fear is that it could all just get upzoned, and it could disappear,” Drake said.
People living in townhomes and apartments in the neighborhood still value the look of the old homes, Drake argued. “If you lived next to the Vatican in a multifamily home, I think you might appreciate the Vatican.”
Jeff Lindstrom, who lives in a remodeled home just outside the proposed district, compares his early 1900s house, including two upstairs apartments he rents out, with “massive rowhomes” next door “that kind of tower over the house.”
When upzoning the neighborhood, the city should have ensured “builders made homes look period or fit into the neighborhoods,” he said. While stricter design rules could make housing more expensive, “people would want to buy this, even at a slightly increased cost,” he said.
Historic Wallingford contends it is not holding out for the city to exempt the district from future upzones, similar to what happened in Ravenna, citing specific environmental review issues at that time.
“Historic Wallingford is not focused on zoning, and … this historic district initiative is not about zoning,” the group said in a statement.
The group said it hopes to document the neighborhood, raise the profile of old homes and increase “awareness of the importance of building and neighborhood design features.”
New development and older homes “can and should co-exist,” the group said. “We argue that without this expanded consciousness, the historic fabric of the neighborhood will slowly unravel as people renovate their property.”
The nomination now heads to the National Park Service for approval to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and more historic districts could be coming.
With the help of a local consulting company, Historic Wallingford also identified other areas of the neighborhood as possible historic districts and says it may undertake the same process for those.
Meanwhile, the Seattle City Council has begun early steps toward updating its comprehensive plan in 2024. That process is likely to include discussions of zoning changes.
“What does the next City Council [do] in 2024 when they’re carving out the boundaries of rezones? Do they take these historic boundaries into consideration or not?” asked Laura Loe, executive director of the nonprofit Share the Cities and an opponent of the historic district. “This is a step in the process.”
Leave a Reply