By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
After four public reviews in six months, there’ve been none in the past 10 months for the plan to fix/rebuild the city-landmarked Alki Homestead. But the site is back under scrutiny because of tree-cutting that has drawn a complaint to the city, which subsequently posted a “stop work” order so it could investigate.
We learned about this Tuesday afternoon, when a nearby resident called to tell us a tree crew was at the Homestead site (2717 61st SW). She wondered why, asking whether work was finally beginning on the rehabilitation/reconstruction of the site. We went over to investigate; the crew was gone, but in subsequent hours, running late into the night, we obtained information from the city, from a representative of the coalition of historical-preservation groups that’s been watching the site, and from Homestead owner Tom Lin, who also provided photos of the trees before they were cut, and spoke with us about where the project stands, 3 years and 4 months after the electrical fire that closed the Homestead, a historic lodge open for decades as a popular restaurant.
After our first visit to the site yesterday afternoon to try to find out what was happening, our original tipster told us a “cease and desist” order had appeared. We went back to look; we didn’t find it but we did find evidence on the city Department of Planning and Development website that a complaint had been filed and was being investigated.
So we contacted DPD, whose spokesperson Bryan Stevens replied:
We sent an inspector out (Tuesday) after we received the complaint. It appears that four trees on site were removed. We posted a “stop work” order and required them to leave the remaining timber on site and provide us with an arborist report. At this point we haven’t determined whether the trees were considered exceptional, but we should know soon. On sites not undergoing redevelopment, exceptional trees cannot be removed unless they are deemed a hazard (via permit review process).
The city’s definition of “exceptional trees,” a six-page document, can be read here.
Homestead owner Tom Lin, with whom we spoke by phone late last night, says the trees that were cut were either dead or were in danger of falling into the building. He sent “before” photos. For context, we have a series of photos below, starting with two views from the apartment building across the street – the group photo organized by the aforementioned coalition of preservation groups in July 2010, with the Homestead’s then-existing trees clearly visible behind the posing group, and a photo we took from the same angle early Tuesday evening:
(WSB photo, July 4, 2010)
(WSB photo, May 22, 2012)
Here are photos provided by Lin, from right on the Homestead grounds, before he hired the tree crew:
Lin says a concern was raised in April by Clay Eals from the Southwest Seattle Historical Society, headquartered less than a block from the Homestead in its old carriage house, on behalf of the 4-group coalition concerned about the former Fir Lodge. We had spoken to Eals earlier in the evening; he shared the e-mail he had sent Lin on April 9:
On behalf of our coalition of four local heritage organizations, I am checking in to see if you are aware of the fallen tree and power lines on the south side of the front lawn of the Alki Homestead. Apparently, the tree fell about a week ago. We are concerned about the safety of the situation. Please let us know of any action that is under way on this front. Thanks.
Eals says Lin didn’t reply. But then, while he says he doesn’t pass the Homestead site every day, he did become aware of this round of tree-cutting. Eals believes that it may raise a larger issue: “The trees on the Homestead property obviously were part of what was to be protected in the 1996 city ordinance regarding controls and incentives for the Homestead. While trees are not specifically mentioned, the ordinance mentions ‘the site, excluding minor plantings’. … You will notice that the ordinance also states that ‘in-kind maintenance or repairs of the (protected) features” is allowed without the landmarks board’s approval. Whether the cutting of the trees falls under this provision is a matter of interpretation’. In part, that interpretation requires information about the condition of the trees that we do not have and have not been given.”
That’s the ordinance that officially made the Homestead/Fir Lodge a city landmark in 1996; you can read it in its entirety here.
And that ordinance is why Lin cannot proceed with restoration/reconstruction work at the Homestead without approval from the city Landmarks Board; any owner of a landmarked property needs approval to make changes to its landmarked features. The Homestead project has not been scheduled for a formal hearing or vote; Lin and the architects he hired for the project, Alloy Design Group, have done what most project teams do before officially going before the board – they have taken it to the board’s informal Architectural Review Committee, meeting with them four times last year to seek guidance on what the board ultimately would allow to be done, with key issues including how much, if any, of the original logs can be salvaged. Lin takes issue with the process, saying that and other issues have been gone over time and time again, and that even without rehash, there is not enough time to consult with the board, with a half-hour scheduled for any project on the agenda, even a complex one like this.
Their last voluntary review with the ARC was in July 2011 (WSB coverage here). But Lin says the project has not been idle; he told us that he had just talked again hours earlier with consultant Mark Fritch, a log-home expert whose great-grandfather helped build the Homestead, has continued to do research, including a trip to Sweden last year. Lin said he and Fritch had also looked at a timber parcel that might have yielded the logs they expect to need for the project, but that the price wasn’t right.
Back to the tree-cutting that the city is investigating now. Lin tells WSB he is done with that work and that no additional cutting is planned; he said the evergreen on the northeast corner of the property was only to have limbs removed, not being prepared for removal. The other trees, he said, died months after the fire – he says they all died during the same month, but were now posing a safety risk – one was on the ground, one was causing problems with utility wires, one was in danger of falling into the Homestead structure itself, as he says is shown by the photos he provided (above). At the time they were discovered to be dead, he said, he “didn’t want to chop them down” – but now, with one having come down and the others in danger of tipping into wires or the structure, he felt he had no choice.
And as for the ongoing process – he says he hasn’t given up, but adds that he doesn’t have “infinite” time or money to devote to it. Yet it is not for sale, he says, while mentioning getting three inquiries this week as to whether it might be.
Meantime, in communication regarding the treecutting, Eals expressed optimism regarding the Homestead’s future: “Our coalition maintains its confidence that the Homestead, including its site, can be preserved and restored and our optimism that it will be. We also maintain our long-stated offer to meet with the owner of the property to offer support and assistance in guiding the preservation and restoration project through the city landmarks process to a successful outcome.”
Lin summarizes, “It has become a very lengthy process, but the goal is to still to bring the Homestead back … I haven’t deviated from that point. … We need to bring it back, one way or another. All I can do is figure out how.”