Center nominated as historic district

The King County Landmarks Commission is considering a proposal to declare Center — the four-corner intersection two miles south of town — a historic district, a move that would make it the first such district on Vashon.

If approved, the district would recognize eight structures at or near the intersection as historically significant, a move, proponents say, that would help to ensure the buildings remain protected and intact over time.

Duane Dietz, an Islander who has spent months researching the properties at Center, made the nomination. According to his 45-page report, which he submitted in February, Center “contains Vashon’s largest surviving concentration of vernacular wood-frame commercial buildings pre-dating 1947.”

“For me, it’s an aesthetic issue,” he said Monday. “It’s one of the last remnants of the rural-agricultural experiences that we have left in Western Washington. If you want to get a sense of what farming was like, of what the scale of buildings was like, you can see that at Center.”

A public hearing on the proposal was initially scheduled for Aug. 23 but just this week was postponed to Sept. 27 for technical reasons. It’s likely that the nine-person Landmarks Commission will make a decision about the nomination at that September meeting, according to Julie Koler, who heads the county’s historic preservation program.

Her office will make a staff recommendation, either in favor of the nomination or not, she said. “We welcome letters from the community,” she added.

The nomination comes at a critical time for Vashon Allied Arts, which has proposed tearing down two of the buildings at the intersection and constructing a 20,000-square-foot performing arts center in their place.

Were the district to win approval, it would not affect VAA’s plans, since the arts organization has already applied for its building permit. At the same time, however, some Islanders and county officials have voiced concern about the project’s impact on the historic nature of Center, and the nomination process could add fodder to the debate.

“It comes at a complicated time,” said Holly Taylor, a historic preservation expert on Vashon and a strong proponent of the Center nomination.

The nomination, she said, “should be considered on its own merits. But because of the VAA project, it all gets sort of knotted up together.”

Molly Reed, VAA’s executive director, called a meeting last week with some of the landowners in the proposed district. Even though the arts organization won’t be affected by the designation, she said, she suggested the meeting because “it seemed we should be discussing it.”

At that meeting, she said, several landowners voiced concern about the designation. Reed said she, too, has concerns, based on her experience operating an arts program out of the Blue Heron Arts Center, a 100-year-old structure protected as a county historic landmark.

“We want to take care of our buildings, but we might not want the county telling us how to do it,” she said.

“It’s kind of like a property rights thing,” she added. “People have had such bad experiences with building things on the Island.”

Jim Stewart, who owns the building that houses Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie and Minglement, attended last week’s meeting and said the issues raised gave him pause about the designation. Dietz, who talked to him about it several months ago, said Stewart supported the nomination at the time. But Stewart said he now has qualms about it.

“I like the idea of preserving history, but I’m not as excited about the nomination,” he said. “I think it might be a little too late for such a monumental activity, when you look at how much the buildings have already changed.”

Bob Seibold, who owns the small blue-gray garage just south of the intersection, said he, too, initially supported the nomination; he heard from Dietz and others that a designation could result in low-interest loans and tax benefits, he said.

But after last week’s meeting, where he heard Reed talk about her struggle to get the Blue Heron’s roof replaced, he’s beginning to question the nomination, he said. He also talked to two real estate agents, both of whom told him a designation would hurt his property values.

“It makes me nervous,” Seibold said. “We don’t have a lot of money. … To have a potential resale affected by the cloud of what could be done to the property in the future — that’s a big negative to me.”

But Roy McMakin, who owns the Old Fuller Store, another historic structure at the intersection, supports the nomination and took issue with what he called Reed’s effort to  “galvanize support against it.”

He said he and his partner purchased the store, built in 1884, “because of its specialness, which is intrinsically tied to the fact that it’s a historically compelling structure.”

Protecting the corner as a landmark, he said, is akin to property owners protecting a wetland. “Preserving some of the remnants of the past is of great benefit to those who are here now or in the future,” he said.

The county has several historic districts, including commercial neighborhoods in Falls City, Snoqualmie and North Bend. According to the county, properties within a historic district don’t face onerous regulations; when a property owner wants to make a change that affects the exterior look of the building, he or she needs to call the historic preservation office and explain the change. “If it’s minor, they can go ahead and do it,” Koler said.

More significant changes have to be reviewed by the Landmark Commission, which meets monthly. “Anything proposed by property owners is reviewed within a month,” she added.

According to a two-page document by the county’s historic preservation program, there are several incentives for landowners who have a landmarked site, including property tax breaks, tax credits and grant programs.

“To frame it as a bureaucracy is a stretch. … We’re more of an advocate than an adversary,” Koler said.

Those in the historic preservation community say they’re hopeful Center can win a designation.

“It’s one of the few existing intact historic intersections in King County,” said Bruce Haulman, who also supports VAA’s project. “I don’t think it’ll restrain what’s being done by VAA. But what it will do is help preserve the other parts of the corner that are already there and should be preserved.”

McFeeds, built in 1926 as Zarth’s Island Garage, would not be preserved if the historic district were established, Haulman noted, since it is already slated to be demolished as part of VAA’s construction plan. Haulman, a well-known Island historian, said he thinks that’s fine. “You want to preserve what’s preservable. And McFeeds has been changed so much, … it’s hardly recognizable.”

But much else at the corner is worthy of protection, he said. “It’ll help to maintain the historic character of that corner,” he said.

Taylor concurred. “It recognizes what a lot of people have been saying for a long time — that that conglomeration of buildings is special and has a lot of character. If it’s designated, there’s some added protection for those buildings.”

But others say they don’t trust the county or the process. Loren Sinner, who owns LS Cedar, a business at Center, also attended last week’s meeting. His property is not considered historic and would not be affected by a designation. Even so, he said, he opposes the district.

“Everyone likes the idea, but nobody wants another government agency telling us what we can do,” he said.


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