Boom Excitement, Trepidation in Columbia City
posted by February 18 at 18:53 PMon
Last Friday, the city’s landmarks preservation board met to discuss a new mixed-used development in Columbia City, currently the site of the Columbia Plaza shopping center and its sea of parking spaces. As it turns out, Columbia Plaza sits smack in the middle of the Columbia City Historic District… although you’d never guess it from looking at the site:
Because of the landmark designation (of the site, not the building), the redevelopment is subject to landmark review; as such, it has to follow the landmark preservation board’s criteria. Among them: Maintaining the “self-contained, small-town quality” of downtown Columbia City; encouraging a mix of uses; and being a size “consistent with the massing of existing historic buildings.”
That last one is where the project could run into problems. The massing plans presented by Dana Behar of HAL Real Estate Investments and Ed Weinstein of architecture firm Weinstein EU showed one or more six-story residential buildings with retail on the ground level facing Rainier and Edmonds—a smaller street that runs perpendicular to Rainier down to the planned light rail station at MLK. The buildings would probably cluster around a central courtyard.
Residents of the neighborhood have expressed alarm at the scale of the developments planned for the area, several of them similar in size and scale to the Columbia Plaza proposal. “The neighborhood does hope and pray that you’ll build to a 40-foot height limit,” resident Chris Osborne said. Residents have been similarly perturbed over plans by developer Harbor Properties (which did the Harbor Steps project downtown) to redevelop an old plastics warehouse at the corner of Rainier and Hudson, on the south end of the historic district, into a 375-unit condo complex six stories high.
While I’m sympathetic to concerns about preserving the historic district (as my coworkers know, I even think they should preserve the Ballard Denny’s), that isn’t what’s at stake here. What is at stake is an ugly plastics warehouse and an uglier parking lot that fronts on a small mall selling hip-hop clothes and cigarettes—both of which are available at many other places in the neighborhood. Both sites are underutilized (Columbia Plaza turns its back on a park that’s a crime hot spot for the area) and would benefit tremendously from new housing. What’s more, the teams associated with both the projects have a history of making developments fit in with the neighborhoods where they’re located. For example, Weinstein AU designed the Agnes Lofts at 12th and Pike…
… the award-winning downtown Banner Building:
… and a bunch of proposed developments around the city, images of which you can find at their insanely over-Flash-enhanced web site.
As Weinstein told the landmarks board, “We’re looking to do authentic buildings that are appropriate only for their sites and their circumstances.” That ought to be exciting news for Columbia City residents—not cause for chagrin.
And speaking of exciting news… Weinstein mentioned something I was not aware of: The city has preliminary plans to put Rainier Ave. South between Rainier Beach and Alaska Street on a “road diet,” reducing traffic to one lane in each direction. Given that the city’s action on accident-prone Rainier (1,743 collisions between 2002 and 2004 alone) has so far consisted of billboards (because what better way to improve driver safety than encouraging drivers to take their eyes off the road?), that’s a promising rumor indeed.