Battle to Preserve Seattle's Old Auto Row

There is an effort underway to preserve one corner of Seattle even as a wave of construction threatens to wipe away some of the city's character with high rises.

Back in 2009, Seattle created a historical preservation district in the Capitol Hill area. The neighborhood marked by the Pike and Pine Streets and tucked roughly between I-5 and 15th Avenue, makes up Seattle's old Auto Row.

The city decided to preserve as much of the buildings' original character, marked by brick, ornate designs and heavy beams, as possible, at the urging of residents like Chip Ragen.

"It's the gritty auto row history and the buildings that were built to support that," Ragen said. "If you swipe them away, you lose something special you aren't going to get it back."

Ragen has ran his garden business, Ragen & Associates out of the neighborhood for more than two decades.

Recently, dozens of new businesses have joined him, among them Tim Wisner and his search marketing agency, Add3.

"We like this because it has a lot of character, a lot of history, just a unique building to move our staff into," Wisner said.

The city said there are 27 construction projects underway or recently completed in this preservation district.

Developers, who preserve the facades of these buildings, get incentives, like building seven stories up, one floor higher than city code allows.

Michael Oaksmith, with Hunter's Capital, is one of the developers preserving several of the buildings in the neighborhood.

Oaksmith has refurbished the old Greenus Building at 500 E Pike Street and the old Ford Building now Elliott Bay Book Company on 10th Avenue.

His latest project, at the old Dunn Motors Building at 501 E Pike Street, is a divergence from past projects which kept most of the original structures intact.

"This is the stuff I really have fun with" Oaksmith said referencing the sense of history apparent in the newly finished Greenus Building.

At Dunn Motors, only the facade will survive. In this case, Oaksmith is taking advantage of the extra floor offered by the city for preservation to build a seven story retail, office and housing space.

However, Oaksmith said the original building wasn't strong enough to support the added floors. So, he is gutting the building and planning to recreate as much of the old structure as he can with the new design.

"It's certainly better than the alternative which is total demolition," Oaksmith said. "It's something where 50 years from now the building is going to be intact and people are going to see what a pre 1940s, what we call a 1920s character structure, looked like in Capital Hill."

Preservation enthusiasts like Ragen have been disappointed to see only the shells of buildings maintained.

Developers have also gutted the old BMW and Mercedes dealerships.

Ragen said preserving only the facades is not ideal but he prefers that to a total loss.

"We could have something or we could have nothing, and I would rather have something, I would rather have something," Ragen said.

The goal is to keep that unique character alive in these buildings that draws crowds to the area looking for an experience they can't find anywhere else.


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