(2012 WSB photo of Alki Homestead, with part of parking lot visible at left)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
If you own a city landmark, what you do with it is subject to a set of rules that can delve into details as minute as window trim.
And you usually have to go before the city Landmarks Preservation Board to get approval before renovations/changes. If they’re significant enough, before you ever get to the full board, you’ll need to deal first with a subset of the board, its Architectural Review Committee.
This morning on the 40th floor of the city Municipal Tower downtown, that committee met with someone who isn’t even a landmark owner yet: Prospective Alki Homestead (Fir Lodge) purchaser Dennis Schilling, who, as reported here earlier this week, has to decide soon whether to go ahead with a deal to buy the 111-year-old log structure, vacant since an electrical fire six years ago. He made it clear he is seeking reassurance that he won’t be buying himself a long-drawn-out process; toward the end of the discussion, he asked flat out, “How do I get to ‘yes’?”
He didn’t get a specific answer on that, but he did get positive feedback on the part of the proposal that had to be evaluated first:
That would be the idea of building a three-story, six-unit apartment building on what is currently the Homestead’s parking lot, south of the building at 2717 61st SW. That’s not the main appeal of the purchase, for him, he explained: “I didn’t buy this to put the 6-unit apartment building in the lot … there’s a lot of easier ways to build apartments.”
But the apartments would play a major role in the rest of the renovation, as architect Jeffrey Hamlett (below center, at Schilling’s left) noted toward the start of the meeting:
“Basically what we’re trying to do is to put a small apartment building on the south parking lot” to bring in income to finance the rest of the Homestead renovation. He and Schilling discussed several variations they had looked at, mostly working around the issues of entry – the current parking lot has a curb cut on 61st SW, but the city generally encourages parking to be accessed off alleys, and there’s one running along the west side of this property.
Parking is the point that has to be worked out here. It’s not the sort of situation that has arisen with projects in other neighborhoods – Alki has a “parking overlay” requiring 1.5 spaces for every residential unit – “highest in the city,” Schilling pointed out, while adding that he’s been told the Homestead itself would not necessarily require parking.
“No parking” is not an option, however, because of a unique condition of the property – an easement granted to the Southwest Seattle Historical Society/Log House Museum for part-time use of the Homestead’s existing 20+ parking spaces. So Schilling’s plans are to work in some parking to address that as well as the required parking for the residential proposal. He’s suggesting underground parking for the apartments and 16 parking spaces off the alley. To make room for those spaces, the apartment building would have to be fairly close to the property line fronting 61st, and that could affect the view of the Homestead from one direction.
Committee members asked about the city criteria by which the Homestead was designated a landmark in 1996, to see if that view is protected. One member said it doesn’t appear the proposed apartments “would overpower” the Homestead in terms of scale, overall. Another member noted that seeing a building south of the Homestead would be preferable to the current parking lot.
In public comment, Clay Eals from the Southwest Seattle Historical Society spoke, describing the Homestead as “our mother ship” – the Log House Museum was the carriage house for the Fir Lodge (it has long since been moved south). “Since the fire that closed the Homestead, we have been working on preserving (it) … and we are thrilled” at the prospect of Schilling purchasing and renovating the building. Eals said he and other SWSHS leaders have been meeting with him and “are very encouraged by this plan. … It’s fair to summarize our position that we have to keep our eye on the prize and the prize is the Homestead building and its front lawn … The easement (we have) is in perpetuity, with the owner of the building, and that transfers” with purchase, covering up to six hours a day, and was made when the Homestead as a restaurant did not open until 4 pm. When the LHM went from private residence to public museum, it had to have parking, Eals explained.
He said they are “willing to modify (the) easement, conditioned on restoration .. of the Homestead building.” He said they’d settle for fewer than the 23 spaces to which they currently have access, as “a statement of good faith on our part.” The Homestead, he reiterated, is his organization’s “top preservation priority.”
Rick Sever from the board of Historic Seattle, a former West Seattleite who said he’s been following the situation since the fire, called this the “closest thing I’ve seen that’s viable” since the 2009 fire. He too basically said that the prospect of saving the Homestead would outweigh the impact of the apartments Schilling wants to put on the lot.
Eugenia Woo, also from Historic Seattle, said she wanted to thank Schilling for his interest in doing this. Her group also considers saving the Homestead “a key advocacy issue … it’s been a saga.” (Part of that saga included the “This Place Matters” group-photo event in front of the Homestead on July 4, 2010.)
Eals took pains to ensure the committee understood that Schilling must make a decision soon on whether to go ahead. Schilling underscored that: “At some point I need confidence on whether this is something you’d approve.” It was reiterated that this part of the process is to indicate the committee’s level of comfort with moving forward. Schilling said he would like to “get parallel tracks going” for approvals so this doesn’t “take forever.”
Board members indicated they’d rather see the “compatible building” in the lot than parking and wouldn’t be opposed if some of the latter were lost. If there’s any way to move that future building back a bit from 61st, it would be ideal, but not mandatory, they said. The apartment building’s design shouldn’t be mega-modern, they added.
And then came the reminder that the board “will be more interested in what you plan to do with the historic building,” the Homestead itself, which had barely been discussed in the preceding hour. Schilling and Hamlett did say a new, smaller kitchen, possibly “dropped down,” would be part of the plan. Otherwise, Schilling mentioned his pre-submittal meeting with the city Department of Planning and Development last week – the Landmarks Board is under a different department, Neighborhoods. He brought up what seemed to be a conflict between DPD suggesting the Homestead will need seismic upgrades and the fact its interior is landmarked, posing a dilemma for how to seismically reinforce its log walls.
As for the Landmarks Board, Schilling asked the committee again, “How do I get to ‘yes’?”
Committee members said they were giving positive feedback on the concept of the apartment building next door, but they’ll have to hear about the rest of the project before it could go before the full Landmarks Board for a vote on yay or nay. Landmarks Board coordinator Erin Doherty promised she would work with Schilling in the meantime to help clarify how the rest of the process would go.
That assumes he’ll proceed with the purchase – a decision he told us earlier this week that he’d have to make within a month and a half or so.
BACKSTORY: The Homestead was a restaurant with a decades-long legacy until the January 2009 electrical fire that closed it and left its interior charred. Owner Tom Lin pursued restoration plans, including one that went to the Architectural Review Committee four times in 2011; its potential features had included an accessory structure on the west side and a third-floor view deck. He later canceled the project, and put the Homestead up for sale in 2013. Dennis Schilling, a Mercer Island real-estate investor/developer known best here for buying and fixing up the once-facing-demolition Shoremont Apartments on Alki, is the first publicly disclosed prospective buyer since then.
ARCHIVES: WSB coverage of the Homestead can be found here, newest-to-oldest.