Two weeks from today is the 4th of July, the day the Southwest Seattle Historical Society plans a rally of sorts outside the Alki Homestead to take a group photo to publicize how many people are concerned about the landmark’s future. Its owner Tom Lin, meantime, says concern is great, but contends nobody’s contacting him directly to help save it from sitting, idle, indefinitely, as it has for a year and a half since the electrical fire that charred its interior and closed the restaurant. As noted in our original report on the Historical Society’s plan, we asked him for comment – to respond, he sat down with us this past week at an Alki coffee shop:
First, to recap what’s happened over the year and a half: The fire was ruled accidental within hours, blamed on Christmas lights (see our original story from the day it happened). Days later, Lin told WSB he expected it to be closed at least six months, but also hoped to move ahead with a purchase he said was in progress at the time. Two months later, the Historical Society issued a public statement of concern about the building’s condition and future; we subsequently published Lin’s response, and some cleanup/repairs followed.
In May of last year, the Washington Trust for Historic Properties put Alki Homestead on its “most endangered” list. Then in September, Lin showed the Alki Community Council a proposal for the site – the first time it was unveiled in public – including a new Homestead restaurant along with a bar/lounge, spa, and bed/breakfast. The consultants who accompanied him described the project as “reconstruction.”
That’s where the city Landmarks Preservation Board comes in, since the Homestead has been a landmark for more than a decade. If you are a longtime WSB’er, you know we cover the board fairly often (most recently, last Wednesday, as the Bloss House became West Seattle’s newest landmark); as the birthplace of Seattle, West Seattle has a bountiful share of local history. The board comes under the purview of the city Department of Neighborhoods, and its role and processes are unique, and intricate.
If changes are proposed to any city landmark, the Landmarks Board must give its approval, depending on what aspects of a structure and/or site are landmarked. If dramatic changes are proposed to a landmark – which this project would be, whether it’s “reconstruction” or not – the owner/developer typically first goes before its Architectural Review Committee (ARC) to work out possible points of concern before the project gets to a full board vote. (For context’s sake – testimony in the longrunning Satterlee House case, recently rejected for Washington Supreme Court review, indicated that its owner did not take the advice of the ARC before bringing a proposal to the full board, which turned it down, with a 2 1/2-year battle ensuing.)
Two months after the Alki CC presentation, Lin and project consultants brought the Homestead proposal to the ARC in November (WSB coverage here). The committee did not voice a final opinion on the project, leaving the door open to reviewing it again before it goes to the full board, though nothing is on the schedule before either panel. Several weeks later, on the one-year anniversary of the fire, we noted that the city Department of Planning and Development page for the site had two new entries, for the potential reconstruction project.
Since then, those entries have remained in the “initial information collected” stage. Fast-forward to our conversation with Tom Lin this past week: “The project has stopped until I get more funding,” Lin told us, saying that the Homestead building, and the business it held, were under-insured.
Insuring a historic building alone was difficult, he said: “I had to go to Lloyd’s of London.” But he says he didn’t have “code-upgrade insurance,” explaining that meant insurance to cover not just repairs/rebuilding, but also bringing a building/business up to code requirements, such as accessibility required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, “fire sprinklers, mechanical, all that.”
A month ago, he says, he found out that he wouldn’t get money to cover the business, because it wasn’t covered. He had been hoping for $407,000. “They said, ‘we’re not giving you anything’ – there’s no way to fight that.”
He has received some insurance money, he says, but it’s gone into paying the mortgage, and costs of trying to plan the project he’s hoping for. Additional money, he says, is in “holdback” – no payout until and unless he rebuilds.
He reiterates what he has said before – he believes he has the best possible consultants to evaluate whether the building could be repaired instead of having to be rebuilt: Log-home builder Mark Fritch (who commented extensively here just a few weeks ago), and Todd Perbix, “who used to be on the Preservation Board … he’s done a lot of work for Historic Seattle. … I can’t find anybody more qualified. … I do the best i can to carry the project, do the best to find the best engineer and the right contractor. (But) if you want to get a second opinion and pay for it, be my guest, (just) find the right person, that’s what i have done.”
But what he says he needs to find now is an investor; Lin says one “pulled out” a few weeks ago, because of the attention the Homestead has drawn. “I’ve had some interested people who didn’t want to stick their neck out and get involved with a hot potato … so I’m shouldering everything by myself right now, 100 percent. … It’s getting pretty close to a time when I can’t go any further, it has turned into a black hole, nobody is really supporting the project, (nobody si) willing to step up to the plate and say ‘we can help you … support you .. push this through’.”
And he says the project has to offer something more than the site held before: “This is a tradeoff we have.
For a restaurant, if you bring it back as-is, personally, I don’t think any business can afford to pay enough rent to pay for the building.”
He said he’s read public expressions of support, on WSB and elsewhere, but “where is (that support)?” — specifically, financial support: “Not even one single dime.” And he can’t just get financing, he says, not only because the commercial market remains tight – “in this economy, banks won’t even look at you” – but also because there’s no cash flow right now. And, “I can’t go to the public and ask for donations, because it is a private enterprise … not that anybody has offered.”
So what will he do?
“I haven’t decided yet … I hate to give up.” But – “It’s discouraging.”
As for why he hasn’t given up already, “You always want to keep hoping. You spend it and hope to get some more in
and maybe hope to get people invested in it.”
What about the demonstration planned in two weeks? “Everyone can write letters and protest … it’s not positive and not productive … .” He also notes, “I wasn’t invited … I don’t want to be painted as the person who is trying to destroy (the Homestead). I’ve been beat down so far already, I’m not even in the mood to defend myself. I just think the energy could be better spent finding a way (to make this work). If the historical society wants to buy it, we should sit down and talk. I’d be more than happy (to).”
Meantime, he says, walk a mile in his shoes. “It’s easy to be a back-seat driver. Step to the plate and bat if you really want to have something happen.”
His message also goes to at least one of the elected officials who the Historical Society says will be present for the Fourth of July event. Explaining that the site’s assessed value has remained unchanged despite its fire-damaged status, meaning higher property tax, Lin says, “If Dow (Constantine) wants to come and say something about (the Homestead), maybe he can lower my property tax.”
(You can see the site’s property-tax history on this county webpage. Its assessed value of $1,466,500 has not changed in three years, but almost all of it is assigned to the land, not the building – “improvements,” in assessor terminology – which has been given a taxable assessed value of just $1,000 for more than a decade.)
Otherwise, he says yet again before we take our leave, “I’ve held onto it for a year and a half and done the best I can. … I’ve been spending, spending, spending, but I’ve got a burned building and no cash flow.” He says he does not have a timetable for deciding what to do if no investor is found.
ADDED 3:55 PM: Some additional information from Homestead owner Tom Lin on the insurance situation, via e-mail after he read this article this morning: First, he elaborates that the building itself was insured through Lloyd’s of London because that’s the only company that would insure a 100-year-old log structure, but there was no code-upgrade insurance because no one, not even Lloyd’s, would do that. Regarding the business insurance, he explains, “Business loss is determined by how much profit you would have received if the business was ongoing. Because Homestead was only breaking even, (we) actually did not suffer any profit loss. The insurance did not deny payment. they just determined that there was not enough profit generated by the business to trigger business loss coverage. In conclusion, if I were making more than $407,000 a year from Homestead, they would pay me up to $407,000. But Homestead was only breaking even.”
Previous WSB coverage of the Alki Homestead is archived here, newest to oldest.