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Tuesday, June 19, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nicole Brodeur

Money trumps history

Seattle Times staff columnist

We know what we are: Well-read. Tech-savvy. And generally cool with naked people on bikes.

But are we still a community of preservationists? Do we value what came before us, or are we too willing to lose the Seattle that was, in the name of economic vitality? Those questions are hanging over the Seattle Plumbing Company Building, a trapezoidal structure on First Avenue. You've passed it on your way to Safeco or Qwest fields. You would recognize it.

But you may not for long. The Pioneer Square Historic Preservation Board has allowed developer Nitze-Stagen to build three stories of condos on top of the building. On Wednesday, it will likely approve a fourth.

"It gives me the shivers," said Bob Weaver, of the Environmental History Co. He worries that the guidelines that preserve our past are being ignored in the name of new money.

Preservation boards have tossed out proposals because of paint colors. This one could approve another floor as easily as most people order lunch.

Weaver recalled a time in the early 70s, when Pioneer Square was threatened by urban renewal. It was spared by preservationists, he said, "But we've tended to rest on our laurels since then."

I don't have a problem with updating what time has let fall behind. But I also have felt regret for things lost in the name of newer and better.

Preservation Board member Sara Jane Bellanca isn't worried. She moved to Pioneer Square 20 years ago.

"But we are a neighborhood in name only," Bellanca said. "We don't have any clout with the city because we don't have the residents to make it so."

If there's a chance to change that with the Plumbing Building, the board should take it.

"The project needs to happen, and one more floor is not going to destroy it for me."

I pointed out a section in the Preservation District Rules that states: "Additional stories to existing buildings are discouraged unless they were original to the structure."

Bellanca pointed to the word "discouraged," and said we need to weigh history against viability.

"Yes, you run the risk of losing the value of our history," she said. "But this is the most viable project that I have seen for that building."

John Chaney of Historic Seattle is partnered with Nitze-Stagen on the project, and assured me: "The existing historic building is being treated better than it has been in all of my memory."

Added Kevin Daniels of Nitze-Stagen: "It's not about losing Seattle. We're all in this together."

I'll take their word for it.

But while we're all together in celebrating Pike Place Market's centennial, let's not forget that there were people who, not long ago, were pushing to turn it to condos.

Preservationists prevailed, and now we show off the Market like Our Son the Doctor who struggled with life for years but is now a viable, working member of the community, keeping Seattle alive, well and unique.

Historic neighborhoods take time and the wisdom of years to develop. Let's be sure we use the same to preserve them.

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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