Design board irked by Ericksen project

Some say razing a historic home would set a precedent for other development.

Though the tension has increased, the tug-of-war on Ericksen Avenue remains a stalemate.

At one side of the rope sweats a piece of Winslow’s history – a row of seven historical houses, built at the dawn of the 20th century and thus far impervious to the changing landscape around them.

At the other, modernity – in the form of Seattle developer Brian Regan, who said he recognizes and respects the neighborhood’s history, but nonetheless plans to raze one of the homes there to make way for a new mixed-use development.

With both pro-history and pro-development camps well-entrenched, the showdown already stretched across the timeline.

But when liveaboard Dave Ullin offered Regan some unsolicited advice at last week’s Design Review Board meeting at City Hall, things turned interplanetary.

“There’s something wrong with the culture when money becomes more important than history,” Ullin intoned to Regan. Then, after a lengthy pause: “So I think you should move to another planet.”

Regan remained on this planet, but left the meeting without a decision from the DRB regarding his planned mixed-use development at 292 Ericksen. Dubbed Peach Place, the project would include 3,800 square feet of commercial space and four residential units on the east side of the street.

For now, though, Peach Place is stuck in limbo, so much so that Regan is trying to sell his land.

Not only is the future of the property at stake; some board members say the precedent on which future disputes about historical property on Ericksen might be based, hinges on the outcome of Peach Place.

“If we don’t think about this now, this building will be torn down,” said board member John Green. “Developers in the future will use this as a reason to tear down another historic building.”

Green said he would like any DRB recommendation to include a note urging preservation of the structure, even if the project ultimately meets the aesthetic requirements the board is tasked with measuring.

Discussion about that possibility and the specifics of the Peach Place will continue at next Monday’s DRB meeting.

The dispute has gained momentum since the Historic Preservation Commission – created by the city to preserve historic structures on the island – raised concerns about the loss of the historical house at 292 Ericksen.

Both sides have complained that ambiguity in the code has made it difficult for projects, or preservation, to move ahead.

The house is in the Ericksen Overlay District, a zoning designation that allows for residential and small scale nonresidential development, but also aims to preserve the history of the neighborhood, according to the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

There are incentives for preservation, but nothing in the city code prevent developers from demolishing historical – pre-1920s – structures on Ericksen, most of which aren’t on any historical registry.

The code does stipulate that new development match the character of the neighborhood. Structures near the street must maintain traditional building forms and roof shapes, and must have yards. Additions must be added to the rear of the property.

At the last DRB meeting, after more than an hour of discussion that included public pleas to preserve the house – something that the board itself admitted it doesn’t have the power to do – Regan and architect Ronald Lacey were directed to revisit plans for the property’s yard, which some board members didn’t find compatible with the neighborhood.

No decisions were made about whether the DRB would weigh in on preservation, in part because the board hasn’t yet dealt with a situation like this.

“Philosophically we’re trying to define what the Design Review Board does,” said board co-Chair Mack Pearl. “We’re trying to come up with better buildings.”

What that means to historical structures remains to be seen.

City officials have said they will review the code in the coming year, but that doesn’t simplify things for those embroiled in the current dispute, many of whom are struggling to interpret what’s already on the books.

“I believe the Comprehensive Plan is clear with its intent,” said City Councillor Debbie Vancil. “So is the code. They are not in conflict. It’s not what’s in the code that is a problem, it’s what isn’t.”

At last week’s City Council meeting, and again at Monday’s Community Relations Committee meeting, Vancil asked the Historic Commission to review their ordinance and make it more regulatory to save historical homes.

In an email to Vancil, Planning Director Greg Byrne wrote that the Comprehensive Plan guides the language in the code, “but leaves the decision to retain or demolish in the hands of the property owner.”

Discussion among Regan and the DRB veered to the code’s underlying intent.

“I do understand historic preservation,” Regan said. “But as a developer I can’t be expected to read the minds of people who intended something. I can only be expected to read what’s there. To write a bunch of ambiguous documents and ask someone to interpret them is wrong.”

Other owners of historic property on Ericksen agree with Regan. Ericksen resident John Alpaugh said that his historic home, like many in the neighborhood, wasn’t built to last as long as it has, a fact that makes it expensive to maintain. He also said he wouldn’t want someone standing in his way, should he decide to develop his property.

“I fully support the developer’s right to develop his property as he sees fit,” Alpaugh said. “We live there. We don’t need people to save us from ourselves.”

Alpaugh said people should be willing to pay developers market rate if they expect them to consider preservation a viable option.

“Let’s see if you’re still interested (in preservation) if it’s your money,” he said.

Lacey, who normally co-chairs the DRB but is acting on behalf of the developer in this case, said the debate is a healthy one, despite the confusion.

“It’s worthwhile for the community to have input,” he said. “The board’s task is to review projects based on the existing guidelines – I’m not sure if there are enough of them in there.”

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