By Jack Stubbs
In the current period of intense densification that downtown Seattle is experiencing, adaptive reuse projects are becoming increasingly prevalent as designers, developers and owners look to breathe life into old buildings. Block 41, a brick-and-timber 15,000 square foot multi-purpose event space in Belltown—located at 115 Bell St.—began its life in 1927 as an ice warehouse and experienced multiple renovations and modifications in the years since; the new building provides a contemporary event space in the heart of downtown while also celebrating the historic legacy of its industrial use.
“I think the project as a whole is really an example of taking an old building, upgrading it, adaptively reinventing its use, to create a viable economic model for it that doesn’t [require] tearing the old building down, but does inject a lot of people into the neighborhood,” said Jim Graham, design principal at Graham Baba Architects, who designed Block 41 in Seattle’s evolving Belltown neighborhood.
Along with Graham Baba, the project team also includes owner and developer Dan Temkin; Wilcox Construction (contractor); Stephen Hirt (courtyard wall and gate); Tom Sturge (lighting design); Knot & Burl Studios (leather column wrapping); Five Star Industries (metalwork and railings); and iron Design (stair).
One of the core features of the two-story adaptive reuse project is that its new use as a community event space also reflects its former use as a warehouse, according to Graham. “It’s a warehouse like the ubiquitous buildings that you find all over the inner city, especially in historic areas like Belltown and Capitol Hill. The warehouse spaces and their previous uses needed big clear-span spaces that were open, large-volume spaces, which are fantastic for event and gathering space,” he said.
The repurposed event space, which was begun in 2014 and completed in fall 2017, can accommodate anywhere from 100 to 800 guests for intimate or larger-scale corporate events. One of the goals with the programming of the building’s interior was to encourage social interaction between its occupants, for different events, according to Graham. “There are some stage-like qualities and some theatrical framing of how people can view each others coming into the building…it’s all part of the armature for the gathering of people.”
Block 41, which occupies an L-shaped site facing both 2nd Ave. and Bell St., comprises two stories that are connected by a large, wooden ramp that was originally used for horse-drawn ice carts—to preserve that historical element of the building, Graham Baba blew out the wall to connect the two floors, rebuilt the historic carriage doors and added a new metal stairway to connect the two distinct stories since the old ramp was not serviceable.
One of the primary objectives with the project was to successfully integrate the two floors with the new architectural infrastructure, according to Graham. “The vertical connectivity between the two floors is achieved with the ramp, the high-volume space and the cut-out floor that we opened between the two levels,” he said. The event space features a gallery on Bell St.—with a lighting installation by artist Steven Hirt—an event space on the second floor and a service/meeting space behind the art gallery. The first floor can be divided to host multiple events—such as parties, weddings, fundraisers, educational lectures and music performances—by virtue of a folding wall, while the second floor opens up to a 2,700 square foot courtyard.
One of the defining features of Block 41 is the diverse and wide-ranging demographic which it hopes to attract through its multifunctional uses, according to Graham. “We thought about how many people could interact with Block 41 as an event space versus if it had been repurposed as office or retail…in general, the building is meant to be somewhat philanthropic in that arts and non-profit users are discounted relative to corporate [prices],” he said. “It can also be a community gathering space for Belltown and the city at large.”
In terms of its architectural expression, the revitalization and revamping of the former warehouse was done with one eye on preserving the history of the structure as part of its neighborhood context, according to Graham. “The exterior of the building was [intended] to take it back to the legacy of older warehouse buildings that you would find in Belltown,” he said. “The exterior efforts were to clean it up, restore the windows, cleaned the carriage doors, which are there visually but aren’t active.” Both floors feature large-open spaces defined by massive old-growth timber leather-strapped columns, exposed brick walls and car decking floors and ceilings.
From the very beginning, one of the primary challenges of the adaptive reuse project was how to simultaneously revamp the space while also saving some of the historical elements that gave the structure character in the first place, according to Dan Temkin, owner and developer of the building. “We invested very heavily in this building, it’s exciting to breathe new life into an old building and to adapt it to a new, relevant use. There are great new buildings [in Belltown], but they don’t have soul…a lot of the vernacular elements of a building from 1927, like the giant firm timbers and textured walls, are cool today,” he said. The building was also retrofitted with HVAC, electrical, plumbing and state-of-the-art lighting and AV systems.
Inevitably a product of the current neighborhood context in Belltown, Block 41 also represents an intersection of the old and the new, according to Temkin. “The question is how to marry those two successfully in a neighborhood on a more macro scale. We’ve saved this building as lots of buildings are falling around us. This is a battle being waged I’m sure in cities all across the country and around the world: gentrification and the loss of interesting old buildings,” he said.
The growth and densification currently occurring in downtown Seattle—and throughout the rest of the city—means that the decision about how, specifically, to adaptively reuse older buildings is becoming harder to make, given the current economic context, especially around a distinct lack of affordable housing. “We saved one building, but the demolition of a lot of buildings in Belltown is inevitable because the economics are driving that, and there’s a need for housing, which is important. [But] if we save every building, we’re not going to be creating enough new housing, and it will become even more expensive,” Temkin said.
Over the last two decades or so, demand for housing throughout Belltown, in particular, meant that the neighborhood—which is just south of South Lake Union and north of the downtown core—took on a distinctly residential quality, according to Graham. “I think Belltown blew up in the late 1990s with the housing…housing supply surpassed…the [needs] of office users, and there was a lot of supported housing and services,” he said. In the broader picture, the emphasis on housing indicated a significant imbalance in the neighborhood. “The ‘death of Belltown’ that we talked about in the mid-2000s happened because things shifted so much to housing and condos that were only used in the evenings, and restaurants and bars that gave it life during the day or night only,” he said.
However, Graham also thinks that more contemporarily, from a demographic perspective, Belltown is a neighborhood in transition. “We’re starting to see more restaurants come in as we get adjacencies of office users a few blocks away…with the connection qualities of Bell Street, I think we’ll see more street-level activities that will balance the neighborhood’s residential uses.” Programmatically, the building was designed with an eye on activating the adjacent streetscape, with the outdoor courtyard, in particular, lending vibrancy and further activating the event space. And even though the warehouse was adaptively repurposed for new community-oriented uses, the ultimate aim is for the building to reflect the neighborhood of which it is a part, according to Graham. “There’s the street-level activity on 2nd Ave. where you engage with the street life, pedestrians and passerby, and the bar scene in the evening. So we aren’t shielding ourselves from the grittiness of Belltown, by any means; it’s an old building and neighborhood in all of its rawness.”
The emphasis on activating the streetscape was done with the aim of channeling the uniquely dynamic energy of Belltown as a neighborhood, according to Temkin. “It’s one of the few blocks in downtown Seattle where there are people outside milling about late on weekends.” But it remains a challenge for designers and developers to successfully program their projects given the economic considerations. “It’s both a design and an economic issue. Big new buildings with large retail spaces at street-level are coming in that have more expensive rents because of the larger price per square foot,” Temkin said. “It’s hard to create new buildings that are designed well at street level where the action is happening.”
Looking forward, these decisions about how to adaptively reuse older spaces throughout Belltown—and the city at large—will become more pronounced, especially as the city’s up-zoning changes continue to occur, according to Graham. “The Upzoning and height increases creates value in the land and surpasses the value of the existing building because density is important. But there’s also a value to historic structures and the legacy of what these buildings represented. We can’t just wipe all of these buildings clean, and how we keep them is a different [story] altogether,” he said.
Ultimately, adaptive reuse projects require a consideration not only of practical, financial, logistical or zoning concerns—they also invite another perspective on longitudinal changes that occur throughout a city across time, according to Graham. “Adaptive reuse in general speaks to not only preserving the time [period], but changing with the needs of the neighborhoods and city with changing density; it’s about how buildings learn and grow,” he said. “This is our swing at what [the building] means for now; we reach back to the history and site of the neighborhood and reach forward with the new use.”