Get your feet wet

Free Ballard

When Michael and I first turned up pregnant, we knew exactly where we wanted to set up house in Seattle: Ballard, land of Norwegians and Molly Maguires and the best high school in the city. Also, home to a majority of our friends and family, close enough to Golden Gardens to smell the sea, and elsewise a no-brainer. By then, in 2005, Ballard was already transforming from its sleepy commercial fishing port and lefse-and-lutefisk past to a distant-from-I-5 yet increasingly desirable nabe, its modest postwar homes and quaint shops being leveled in lieu of higher-density and more-affordable condos and townhouses.

In the three years since, development and several unfortunate and ill-timed zoning/transportation initiatives have changed the face of Ballard dramatically, to a degree that has many of us wondering what exactly defines a neighborhood, and how that squares with a greater societal good. As if to violently hammer home the point, two stories in the Times and P-I in the past two days could not have been more well-timed.

The first, that after three years in demolition limbo, the 24-hour Denny’s at the corner of 15th and Market — purchased in 2004 by the city as a crucial station for the monorail it would later short-sightedly decide against, then picked up by developers who would replace it with eight abominable stories of condo/retail — has been given a temporary reprieve. On Wednesday, the Landmark Preservation Board agreed 8-1 to move forward with granting the building landmark status, the first step to ensuring its survival.

Some board members cast their votes seeking more information about the building, but most seemed more decisive.

“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind (that) it’s a local visual landmark,” board member Stephen Lee said. “This is such a profound sculptural element in our community.”

Larry Johnson, the Seattle architect who prepared the nomination for the building’s owners, said it is an example of “Googie” style architecture, which got its name from a Sunset Strip coffee shop designed in 1949, and was notable for flamboyant elements designed to attract passing motorists. The building started in 1964 as Manning’s Cafeteria and then was a Denny’s from 1984 until September.

Johnson argued that many of the building’s original Googie elements were lost and, even if the building were in its original condition, it would not be distinctive enough to warrant landmark designation.

But other architects and Seattle residents say the building is an important work by a noted architect, Clarence Mayhew, a distinctive part of the community and a part of the history of Manning’s Cafeteria, which expanded to more than 40 franchises on the West Coast before folding in the 1970s.

“It was very much about pop culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s not significant,” said Eugenia Woo, a board member of Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement in Western Washington, which supported the landmark nomination.

The restaurant “is one of the best of perhaps a half-dozen Googie survivors in the region,” Alan Michelson, the head of the Architecture and Urban Planning Library at the University of Washington, wrote in a report to the board. “It remains an important artifact of the automobile era in the U.S., and its vibrant, space-age forms crystallized the era’s enthusiasm and faith in commerce and technology.”

In the past month or so, passing by the Denny’s building has become for me an exercise in melancholy — not for the departure of a crummy chain restaurant through whose doors I hadn’t once passed, though to the day it shuttered continued to do a brisk business — but for its quirky, distinctive architecture, sweeping up from Ballard’s busiest intersection like a Viking ship in keel-smashing storm. While other business along Market and Ballard Avenue might better speak to neighborhood origins, no sticks-and-bricks building itself seemed more an homage to Ballard’s Scandinavian, sea-brined forebears.

In an altogether unexpected turn, Rhapsody Partners, with its sugar-plum visions of leasable retail and 261 cookie-cutter condos, sees the building differently.

Louie Richmond, a spokesman for Rhapsody Partners, was more blunt in his assessment of the building.

“I find it very, very depressing,” he said outside of the meeting. “I find it very, very ugly.”

Only a day later, the Times reported that Sunset Bowl, the last 24-hour bowling alley in Seattle, had been sold by its owners to Avalon Ballard LLC for $13.6 million. Though Avalon has yet to announce its plans for the 1.6-acre site (condo-retail), its future (condo-retail) will doubtless mirror similar development here and throughout the city (condo-retail).

Just over two years ago, Sunset Bowling sold off the iconic Leilani Lanes bowling alley in Greenwood to an apartment developer for $6.25 million. At the time, the company said it was taking advantage of soaring land values, but that it had no plans to sell Sunset Bowl.

“Anything is for sale if the price is right,” said Verl Lowry, 61, a Sunset Bowl manager who’s worked there for three decades. “We’re a very successful bowling center. It’s real hard for [the employees] to understand.”

It’s the second time this week that a well-loved Ballard property has made headlines. The old Denny’s restaurant a block from Sunset Bowl is at the center of a dispute between preservationists and a condo developer over whether the city should grant it landmark status.

Like the Denny’s, some old-timers at Sunset Bowl see the bowling alley’s demise as part of a commercial boom sweeping their historic neighborhood.

“Ballard was always a small community, and now it’s becoming part of downtown Seattle,” Lowry said. “It’s too bad.”

Too true, Verl. Yet the development trends here are compounded by several timely market factors: the slipping-but-elsewise-solid Seattle real estate market, the lack of affordable housing throughout the region and the ensuing need to provide services to new residents. In response, Ballard has built it, and they have come: in the past year, some 20 major condo/retail developments have been started or completed within five blocks of downtown Ballard, most of them pre-sold and pre-appreciated, and adding as many as 2,500 households to Ballard’s 2200 single-family dwellings. And while I don’t bemoan high-density housing (nor even the new bodies required to fill it), and certainly enjoy the fruits of Ballard’s popularity (a fantastically renovated cinema and award-winning library, nationally recognized restaurants and thoughtful local retail), I can only despair at what’s being lost.

My children will never celebrate a birthday at Sunset Bowl, the disappointment of a gutter ball spared by soft bumpers. And if Rhapsody Partners has its way, the Viking ship will sink at last, unable to withstand this final man-made storm.

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