Landmarks Commission postpones decision on Center nomination

Rick Wallace raises his hand to make a comment at the King County Landmarks Commission
Rick Wallace raises his hand to make a comment at the King County Landmarks Commission's hearing on Thursday.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

A hearing to get Center declared a historic district drew a standing-room-only crowd of Islanders Thursday night, many of whom said they feared the designation could impede Vashon Allied Arts’ plans for a new performing arts center at the storied intersection.

Others said it was unnecessary, contending landowners have already demonstrated an ability to care for their historic buildings and that a designation would stand in the way of their rights as property owners.

“What you want us to preserve is what the property owners have already preserved,” Jim Stewart, the coffee magnate who owns the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie building, told the King County Landmarks Commission. “Vashon Islanders are different,” he added to applause. “It’s not like the rest of King County.”

Jeanne Dougherty, another Islander, said the designation nomination lacked community support and “kind of stinks of a monkey wrench thrown at VAA.”

“We all love Center. We all love historic buildings. We all drive past it a couple times a day,” she said. “The point is how this is being done.”

The spirited, two-and-a-half hour gathering before six members of the nine-member panel ended with the commission saying it would continue the hearing in two months. The commission also announced that it would turn to the county prosecutor for a legal interpretation of the code that governs historic designations, after a lawyer hired by VAA said she believed the commissioners were failing to apply it correctly.

“We’d like to postpone our decision until we get a clarification,” said commission Chair Lauren McCroskey.

The proposed designation would make Center the second historic district on Vashon and one of only a handful in King County — a designation that would govern changes property owners could make to certain properties within the boundaries while also providing them access to grants and tax incentives, according to King County’s historic preservation office.

In a presentation at the beginning of the hearing, county staff strongly endorsed a historic district at Center, calling it a rare and largely intact crossroads in a county that has seen most of its historic intersections lost to growth and development.

“It’s the only crossroads that maintains any integrity,” Julie Koler, who heads the county’s small historic preservation office, told the commission. “It’s a rare, rare historic crossroads.”

Charlie Sundberg, a planner in the county’s historic preservation office, displayed historic and current photographs of the seven buildings within the proposed boundaries, showing how some had changed over time while others retained many of the same features. The buildings, along with the open setting and the simple roadway bisecting it, “contribute to the rural character of this place,” he said.

“There’s a story there still to be told,” he said.

But the crowd sometimes snickered during his presentation, especially when he mentioned McFeeds — a building, he said, that wouldn’t “win a beauty contest … but still belongs in the family.” Later, when he said the buildings that would make up the historic district had “some integrity issues,” someone in the audience could be heard saying, “Some?” while others laughed.

McCroskey, reached Friday, the day after the hearing, said she was surprised by the degree of opposition. “I’d say it was not typical of our landmark meetings,” she said.

Duane Dietz, an Islander with a keen interest in historic preservation, nominated the district earlier this year after months of research and conversations with some of the landowners within the proposed boundary. Initially, the landowners he talked to were supportive, he said, but in the last few months their support has eroded.

“I never would have done this without the support of the property owners,” he said Friday.

He didn’t attend Thursday night’s hearing — an issue that drew comments from many of those there — because he was nervous about what he saw as mounting opposition and felt increasingly anxious, he said.

“It’s been pretty stressful getting to this point,” he said. “I just felt like I was doing this all by myself.”

A question before the commission Thursday night was the impact the designation could have on VAA, which is halfway through an ambitious fundraising campaign in an effort to build a state-of-the-arts performance center that many on Vashon have been seeking for years. VAA has raised $6.6 million and has another $6.9 million to raise before it can break ground on the 20,000-square-foot structure, according to VAA executive director Molly Reed.

Koler, the head of the preservation office, told the landmarks commission that the designation would not affect VAA because it has already filed for a building permit.

“That project is vested,” she told the commissioners. “You would not have any authority to regulate what goes on there.”

But several at the meeting suggested that the designation nomination was meant as a none-too-subtle effort to derail VAA’s project. Rick Wallace, for instance, warned the commission that if it went along with the nomination, it would stand to undermine a remarkable and widely embraced opportunity on Vashon.

“I would suggest the opponents would like to use your good name as a cudgel,” he said.

Reed, for her part, said she realized the project to build a performing arts center is vested under county law but still was worried about what a historic designation could mean for VAA, once it builds the new center. “We are not interested in having any future limitations placed on that building,” she said.

Meanwhile, Kristine Wilson, a lawyer from Perkins Coie, said she believed the landmarks commission was misreading its own code — which says a structure or neighborhood can be designated if it “possesses integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.” “You need to find integrity for all of these factors,” she said.

The commission has viewed the code differently, considering the seven items as “aspects” of integrity that should be considered, but not “criteria” that every project has to possess, McCroskey said. The code, modeled after the federal law that created the National Register of Historic Places, was crafted in 1980; this is the first time this issue has come up, she said.

“I can honestly say this issue has never been questioned, to my knowledge, anytime a National Register nomination has been reviewed in this state,” McCroskey, who used to coordinate National Register programs in Washington, added in an interview Friday.

The commission will try to get a legal interpretation from the county prosecutor’s office within 30 days and return to the Island for its November meeting, she said. Meanwhile, some of the commissioners said they wanted to meet with the landowners in the proposed district.

“I think that’s why we want to delay it,” said Rick Chouinard, a commissioner. “It’s great to hear feedback. I don’t think you want us to rush into a decision.”

Dietz, meanwhile, said he sought the historic designation not to block VAA’s project. “It’s a given that that building is going to happen,” he said. Rather, he added, he’s concerned about the impact a large performing arts center could have on the rest of Center after the structure is built.

While in graduate school, studying historic preservation, he learned that a new building like VAA’s can drive up the values of the properties surrounding it, forcing owners of those properties to look for ways to pay their higher property taxes — an escalation that often leads to wholesale changes in an area.

“Because the taxes go up, (property owners) will want more rent. And at some point, you just rebuild,” he said.

A nearby resident of Center, he says he deeply appreciates the intersection. “Twenty years from now, that whole intersection will probably be different,” he said.

But Reed, reached Friday, said she believes a designation could hurt VAA’s ongoing efforts to raise the funds it needs to build the new center. Even though VAA is vested, its permit — once it gets it later this year or early next — will only last one year, with only another year’s extension readily available. What’s more, the arts center hopes to build a sculpture park, a second phase of the project not yet vested, she said.

“We’re concerned (a designation) would place a time limit on our ability to raise funds,” she said.


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