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Industry Professionals Take a Closer Look at Challenges Faced With Adaptive Reuse Projects in Seattle

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By Jack Stubbs

“Maybe it’s recent zoning changes, reflecting the amazing growth in the area; maybe it’s the need for more sustainable development to minimize our footprint and impact in the city; and maybe we want to preserve some of these older buildings that have important cultural aspects,” said moderator Norma Miller, formerly of the City of Seattle, Starbucks and the Gates Foundation.

On Thursday, October 12th, at an event co-hosted by CREW Seattle & Sound and CoreNet Global in Seattle, four industry professionals discussed their adaptive reuse projects currently underway throughout the city. Yet the tone of the event quickly shifted toward the primary challenge and obstacles that their companies had faced as they navigated the city’s approval process—there is room for improvement, and the challenges may be counterproductive.

The panelists included Kate Freels, associate partner at ZGF Architects, who discussed Seattle Children’s Hospital’s decision to adaptively reuse a 37,000 square foot commercial space in Federal Way; Josh Khanna, senior manager of real estate services at Expedia, and Elizabeth Grace, associate partner at ZGF, who provided an overview of Expedia’s transformation of old lab facilities into corporate office spaces in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood; and Brett Phillips, director of sustainability at Unico Properties, who touched on the Grand Central project in Pioneer Square, the adaptive reuse of three buildings in the neighborhood.

Miller also asked the panelists about some of the challenges involved in envisioning potential adaptive reuse projects, asking “How did you get your client, your principals, to let their imaginations go when a big box or big site or old building [becomes available]?” According to Phillips, the highest and best use for the property in its neighborhood context is paramount, however, each project has its limits, usually defined by geography and spatial limitations.

Chief among the project challenges is the process that involves the city and its various agencies, which can be a hurdle to the developers and their economic goals. One of main obstacles is the actual physical challenges that the renovation of historic buildings presents, according to Phillips, especially considering the city’s Landmark Preservation Board process.

“The process is there for a very good reason…to preserve our history, which is key. But the way that the [process] is set up prohibits economic considerations and financial realities of buildings that need to be seismically upgraded,” Phillips said. A consideration of the economic context is needed in tandem with the Preservation Board’s main goal of landmark preservation, he said. “There has to be financial acknowledgements that we need some help through the entitlement review process, to allow these buildings to be rehabilitated so that they can last for 100 more years,” he added.

The infrastructure of older historic buildings also presented a significant logistical challenge when Expedia was considering adaptive reuse, according to Grace. “The laboratory buildings were very seismically sensitive. There was very different architectural infrastructure that we needed to plan for,” she said.

Freels offered a similar perspective regarding Seattle Children’s reuse of the commercial space in Federal Way. “The existing structure certainly offered a lot of flexibility with the open floor plates…which was great from a planning perspective…but we had to create a new structural system within the shell of the building and had to invest in the building’s structure,” she said.

Adaptive reuse projects can also be influenced by larger market dynamics. In certain cases, city-wide and government regulations play a major role in how a project is received and what types of objections it may face.

According to Phillips, political and legislative stability at the city level is a key concern. “The current situation notwithstanding, we still love to hate our mayors…after four years, we’re ready to get them out. I think as a community, we need to understand how disruptive and unstable that is to moving our system and city forward,” he said. “A disrupted administration is very difficult, especially in a business and building environment, with new directors, priorities and agendas, which upsets the apple cart,” Phillips added.

At the logistical level, great financial considerations and accommodations need to be made for adaptive reuse projects. “When it comes to adaptive reuse of historic and non-historic, we need better policies in the city to give developers and investors the opportunity to afford and pay for the required upgrades,” he said. And these financial sacrifices are ultimately worth the price, according to Phillips: “there’s a way to both preserve our history and to upgrade and modernize our buildings with enough creative thought,” he said.

According to Khanna, Expedia’s experience with the city has been largely positive. “The entitlement process took a lot of work and heavy lifting all around…what is great is that the city allows us to have dialogue,” she said. Adaptive reuse project also require a certain amount of spontaneity and improvisation in terms of how they are conceptualized. “In our experience that it’s been good to come in without having a preconceived judgment; coming in with an idea and strategizing with the city…adaptive reuse doesn’t fit into very clear categories, and that’s what makes it so interesting and complicated,” Khanna added.

Looking ahead, the future for industry professionals’ adaptive reuse projects looks bright—but the process needs to begin sooner, with some of the necessary infrastructure already in place, according to Phillips. “The conversation needs to start earlier…the School of Architecture at University of Washington has recently started the Center for Preservation and Adaptive Reuse. It starts with the training that comes up through the ranks,” he said. Adding into this, Khanna articulated how with Seattle continuing to densify, creative thinking and planning will be critical. “We need to think outside of the box more as urban centers continue to become more densified. Not everything is as historic as [the Pioneer Square project],” she said.

Developing a sustained relationship with the city is also a crucial element as well, according to Grace. Adaptive reuse projects have implications that raise the stakes in the longer term.

“Finding partners with the city to start to clarify along with design professionals the value of keeping the fabric of our existing buildings is vital. With so many projects, we run the risk of creating a city that is built [homogeneously]. Unless we are really serious about adaptive reuse, we run the risk of taking away from the character of the city,” she said.