On Oct. 14, the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (WA-ACHP) unanimously nominated a proposed historic district covering much of Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood to the National Register for Historic Places. Officially, the historic district is purely honorific, but housing advocates say that the designation will help reinforce exclusionary housing policies.
The nomination will now go to the National Parks Service for final review. The district will be composed of 643 properties in a five-block zone between 45th and 50th streets North, stretching west to Interlaken Avenue N and east to NE Fifth Avenue. Just north of the neighborhood’s commercial core, the area consists mainly of land zoned for single-family homes.
Volunteers from Historic Wallingford, the group behind the historic designation effort, wrote in an email that their goal is to amplify the voices of the community.
“A National Register historic district designation would raise the profile of Wallingford’s residences, increase pride in the neighborhood, illuminate the stories of those who shaped its history, raise awareness of the importance of building and neighborhood design features, and contribute to the maintenance of historic places,” they wrote.
Some Wallingford residents did not support the historic district designation. Bryan Kirschner, a resident and property owner in the proposed district, said that he helped start the group Wallingford for All because he wanted to advocate for positive changes instead of exclusion.
Kirschner said that although the historic district would not directly prevent changes to restrictive single-family zoning in the neighborhood, there is precedent for historical designations doing exactly that.
“We know for a fact that the Ravenna-Cowen historic district was excluded from the [mandatory affordable housing] rezones,” he said. “That happened. That is a fact, and that was the reason why it was excluded. So obviously, we’ve got a specific example, where this ostensibly symbolic designation at the federal level had an impact on rezoning at the city level.”
In 2019, the Seattle City Council voted to exclude historic districts near the Mount Baker and Roosevelt light rail stations from zoning reforms. The Montlake neighborhood, which also contains a historic district and is adjacent to the University of Washington station, has been shielded from zoning reform as well.
Architect and housing advocate Mike Eliason argues that these historic districts, which have gained traction from neighborhood groups over the past few years, could constitute a modern form of the racist housing covenants that prevented Black people and other minorities from living in most Seattle neighborhoods until 1968.
“In the last 10 years, as zoning reform has started to take effect, the utilization of historic districts has really kind of popped up as this proxy for maintaining the neighborhood quality, if you will, of single-family zoning,” Eliason said. “There aren’t always restrictions against development, per se, although it does become significantly more difficult.”
Eliason also said that the city’s approach to historical districts is inconsistent and that policymakers did not have qualms with upzoning neighborhoods of color, pushing new housing into districts with majority-minority populations such as the Central District and southeast Seattle.
“Meanwhile, Chinatown [International District] is a historic district; it does have some historic status,” he said. “And yet the city has no issue rezoning for towers in Chinatown.”
Both Eliason and Kirschner disagreed with the historical merit of the district, saying that most of the old bungalows in the area were unremarkable.
Community members also complained about the process being onerous and exclusive. While the nine volunteer WA-ACHP members have the ultimate say on the district, the National Parks Service also mandates that the designation cannot proceed if a majority of property owners object. They pointed to the fact that only a fraction of the 322 needed property owners wrote letters of support or objection and that renters’ objections are not considered under federal guidelines.
Despite this, Wallingford for All used the opportunity to spread awareness of Seattle’s history of restrictive and exclusionary housing policies, including organizing an open letter to the WA-ACHP with more than 350 signatories. Lincoln High School juniors also wrote letters to the council to express their opposition to the historic district.
Washington state Architectural Historian Michael Houser emphasized that the historic designation does not affect land use policies, which are dictated at the local level. He said that many buildings in historic districts have been renovated or demolished and that the purpose was to formally document historically significant places.
Critics pointed to a 2019 Powerpoint presentation made by Houser where he had written that listings on the National Register of Historic Places could “Spur zoning changes” and result in “Increased Resale Value.”
To Kirschner, the potential benefits of having a national historic designation did not outweigh the negative effects on housing affordability.
“You know, the risk of whether it interferes with rezoning, you look at the risk that it increases home prices — both of those are exclusionary,” he said. “And then you have to ask: If there’s that downside risk, where is the upside?”
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Oct. 19-25, 2022 issue.