What's the definition of a landmark?

Seattle has designated 450 individual buildings of national and local significance, but there is more to the title than first meets the eye.

Take, for instance, the latest designation which became official Tuesday: The "American Meter" building on Westlake. The Landmarks Preservation Board ruled "it embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style, or period, or method of construction," and "the exterior of the building" needs to be preserved.

It was a bit of surprise, given the three-story concrete building has been vacant and has been altered since it first opened in 1919.

"Officially it is a historic building," said Daniel Ederer, who owns the building along with his real estate partners. "We don't feel it meets the criteria to be a historic building, but it is by definition a historic building."

Ederer had planned to build a seven-story boutique hotel with a rooftop lounge overlooking Lake Union. Those plans appear to be on hold, based on the designation.

Sarah Sodt, who is the acting Seattle preservation officer, said the ruling was a 12-person decision. She noted that the ruling doesn't preclude development, but the board's decisions are "about managing change, not preventing change." For instance, she noted, storefronts are historically meant to be changed, and the "landmarks board doesn't regulate use."

The "American Meter" building is a 97-year-old commercial warehouse in South Lake Union.

In fact, the entire process is rather complicated Buildings can be nominated and designated or not based on a series of criteria:

- Location of or is associated in a significant way with an historic event with a significant affect upon the community
- It is associated in a significant way with the life of a person important in the history of the city, state, or nation
- It is associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage
- It embodies the distinctive style, period, or method of construction
- It is outstanding work of a designer or builder
- Because of its prominence of spatial location, contrasts of siting, age, or scale

The board can place a historic designation on the entire building, interior, or exterior, like it did with the American Meter building.

However, there is yet another process for controls and incentives on any construction.

Sodt says many developers will go through the process to try and reduce assessed value, seek tax credits or grants, or be part of a land swap. She noted the Museum of History and Industry and the Wing Luke Museum as examples of facilities which used historic credits to complete construction.

The Seattle Center has sought historic designation for seven buildings, including KeyArena, in a process which took months.

Ederer says there was no ulterior motive in his case, and that his group made the filing to clarify the building status and to help speed up the process.

"It passed through early design guidance, but we won't be building that here," he said. "We're evaluating a number of options at this point."