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Friday, October 24, 2008

Warehouse Alchemy

posted by on October 24 at 13:24 PM

While the city considers ways to preserve the historic buildings in the Pike-Pine neighborhood, current rules promote knocking those buildings down and holding back developers from restoring them.

But Scott Shapiro and Liz Dunn aren’t waiting for the city to act. Over the past few years, the developers have gutted drab warehouses on 12th Avenue and renovated them into neighborhood icons. Café Press, Osteria La Spiga, Retrofit Home, and others are in their portfolio. Now they’ve set their sites down the barrel of Pike-Pine.


Two adjacent warehouses on Melrose Avenue lay low, an unmemorable olive green. But in February, Shapiro and Dunn will begin renovating them into restaurants and stores—injecting life into a historically dead wedge of the neighborhood.

“It’s a serious investment, but it’s worth it for us,” says Shapiro. “As long-term local owners, we believe we are creating something unique to a neighborhood that values creative and unusual spaces.”


These sorts of projects are labors of sacrifice. Choosing to limit a building to one or two stories represents potentially passing on millions of dollars in revenue because zoning rules through most of the Pike-Pine neighborhood allow developers to build up to 65 feet. Moreover, renovating these spaces—sandblasting the massive fir beams and bringing century-old buildings up to modern standards for retail spaces—costs even more.


“Some other developers are tearing down buildings that housed some really great places that people on Capitol Hill and the rest of Seattle value,” says Shapiro.

But existing city regulations work at odds this sort of renovation and restoration. Shapiro says the code requires many upgrades that may be unnecessary, such as throwing out old windows and purchasing new ones. While the new materials are more energy efficient, discarding the old material in a landfill and manufacturing new material is a net environmental and financial burden, he says. “That makes a new development cheaper because a developer doesn’t have to deal with the hassle and cost of the restrictive land-use code,” he says. “It would be great if there were more flexibility to allow a building to keep its existing character.”

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Old windows are generally single-pane, which means the heat leaks right out through them. Why would you want to keep those? And why can't you just recycle the glass?

Posted by Greg | October 24, 2008 1:51 PM

I like the spirit, but really, is this the right building in the right location to save?

Posted by CP | October 24, 2008 2:21 PM

YES, it's the right building to save. Those difficult triangular spaces are hard to fill, but are hugely valuable to interesting cityscapes. It is PRECISELY odd little orphan buildings like this that are essential for urban street life. You may see just a sliver of boring and useless concrete block, but that building is a precious jewel. The worst thing you could possibly do with that space is tear it down and put a gas-huffer park on it. Shapiro and Dunn are doing a FANTASTIC thing here.

Posted by Fnarf | October 24, 2008 2:25 PM

I'm really glad Shapiro and Dunn's business model has always forced them toward renovation rather than the more lucrative but risky teardown/rebuild model. The one big project they've aimed at so far, in Columbia City--proposed as condos but likely to finish as apartments if they do break ground--is on a vacant lot, with no teardown needed. Few developers have been smart enough to stay relatively focused on what they're good at when that means doing more modest projects. The Melrose permits they applied for last year do prove they're now prepared to do the necessary retrofits, though it does seem Shapiro may be laying media groundwork here for requesting a variance.

Posted by tomasyalba | October 24, 2008 2:32 PM

Right on @3. It's precisely these interesting old buildings that preserve the character of Capitol Hill. As much as I like the densification that comes with all the apartment buildings popping up here and there, but it'll take 30-40 years before those new buildings develop their own character. How long did it take this old building to go past the ugly duckling phase?

Posted by bassam on the hill | October 24, 2008 3:16 PM

do you have any information on the historic Cooper house, the neoclasical duplex behind the safeway on 15th? work was put off for a year while they sought a change in use from residence to office. The got that months ago, but the work is at a standstill. I am wondering if they are letting it rot in the weather so that they can tear it down and build appartments as they originally wanted to,.

Posted by Jeff | October 24, 2008 3:37 PM

w00t! Liz Dunn is my developer hero. I live in an awesome triangle-lot development on Melrose that would be totally impossible to build these days (violations of height, facade modulation, commercial space requirements, even waste/recycling bin location). But it's a beautiful building that serves a specific function and market that no new-construction could ever come close to.

Until this idiot city populace/government (but not /market; the market could never understand) demands a change to the rules and regulations of development, they will continue to get the same old shit. One or two floors of underground parking, one floor of Subway/Desert Sun Tanning/Wireless phone store, five floors of modulated (but still uninteresting) barf and juliet "balconies."

Sadder still is that even if this city wakes up and realizes the need to change the zoning code, it'll take one year too many of process before any changes actually happen. Ugh, I'm drunk and I'm THIS CLOSE to calling Portland cooler than Seattle. (Apologies for the threat; I am hopped up on Elysian's Night Owl beer.)

Posted by Hey Wait | October 24, 2008 6:48 PM

I vaguely remember someone being interested in tearing these buildings down to build apartments, but, but only if they could turn Minor into a pedestrian street there, which I think the city denied. I worried at the time that they'd say vacant and useless forever.

So anyway, this is great news -- @3 is right that these are precisely the kind of buildings that give neighborhoods character. Also, while housing over retail is good, there are some kinds of businesses you want in a neighborhood but nobody really wants to live above (e.g. live music venues), so keeping some interesting, older one-story spaces is definitely good.

Posted by Steve | October 25, 2008 1:59 AM

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