Events Calendar

SAH Seattle Seminar: Equity, Affordability and the Preservation of Seattle’s Older Neighborhoods

Saturday, May 2
8:30 am - 12:00 pm
Olson Kundig
149 South Jackson Street
Seattle, WA 98104
Free and open to the public.

While Seattle is a relatively young American city, today it faces a complex intersection of challenges of historic preservation, climate change, and a growing city that is increasingly expensive. Since 2010, Seattle has led the country with the fastest growth rate of the largest 50 cities in the U.S. It is quickly becoming an inequitable city, with widening income disparity and housing insecurity. Currently, much of the city’s affordable housing lies in older brick buildings constructed of unreinforced masonry (URM), such as middle-size apartment buildings and historic single room occupancy (SRO) hotels. These buildings are unique, and well-constructed, and are often receptors of small businesses and affordable housing. However, zoning changes and upcoming mandatory seismic retrofitting codes are making them more vulnerable to transformation or demolition. In the midst of all of this, Seattle is also investing heavily in major infrastructure and improvements in the public realm, particularly in the light rail system, with the goal of increasing density in city neighborhoods to increase housing and improve resiliency in a time of climate change. And yet the same transformations are impacting the vernacular historic fabric in different neighborhoods that are often not protected by historic preservation legislation. Such changes are considered at the root of gentrification of the historically Asian, black and gay neighborhoods. In response Seattle neighborhoods have catalyzed grassroots efforts at resistance against displacement of existing communities and coordinated efforts to create a more equitable city.

Panel 1: Unreinforced Masonry Buildings (URMs) in Pioneer Square and Chinatown-International District: Retrofitting for Equity, Affordability, and Preservation

8:45–10:00 a.m.

Kathryn Rogers Merlino, University of Washington, USA, Moderator

Seattle’s location on the Cascadia Subduction Zone fault makes it exceedingly vulnerable to earthquakes and is the only city in the nation to have experienced three major earthquakes that resulted in building damage in the past 70 years: in 1949, 1965, and 2001. Seattle has 1,145 confirmed unreinforced masonry buildings, the majority of them clustered in the heart of our oldest neighborhoods. They not only represent significant historic and cultural assets of our city’s past; they also pose a significant life and safety risk during a seismic event. As a result, in 2012 the City of Seattle established an Unreinforced Masonry (URM) Policy Committee to develop recommendations for Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) on a mandatory URM seismic retrofit program. The committee provided recommendations to SDCI in 2017, though they have yet to be enacted. This panel will discuss the challenges of historic and vernacular URMs in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown International District, in terms of displacement, equity, and preservation.


  • Maiko Winkler Chin, Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDPDA), USA
  • Matthew Davis, Architectural Resources Group (ARG), USA
  • Nick Vann, Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, USA
  • Marie R. (Bai Mei Gui) Wong, Seattle University, USA

Panel 2: Gentrification, Resistance and Preservation in the Central District and Capitol Hill

10:15–11:30 a.m.

Manish Chalana, University of Washington, USA, Moderator

In accordance with Washington State’s Growth Management Plan and Sustainable Seattle Masterplan 2030, Seattle leadership has been envisioning a spatial transformation that increases mixed-use and high density across the urban landscape. They are approaching this goal by planning for light rail projects and zoning changes spread across the city. Planners have touted this as a form of sustainable practice as it has been successful in bringing attention and investment into once neglected city neighborhoods. The ensuing “revitalization,” however, has come at a social cost that is dismantling and disrupting places and practices of long-term residents facing displacement and dispossession. However, there have been signs of resistance against gentrification that have taken multiple forms, from graffiti art to coordinated efforts at ensuring a more equitable outcome of such transformations. These include preventing displacement and preserving the built environment through preservation, adaptive reuse, and contextual design.


  • Donald King, University of Washington; Mimar Studio, USA
  • Ruby Holland, Habitat in Place, Central District, USA
  • Azzura Cox, GGN, USA
  • Eugenia Woo, Historic Seattle, USA

Combined Panel Discussion led by Kathryn Rogers Merlino and Manish Chalana

11:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m.

Related tours Saturday afternoon and Sunday:

Sponsored by the University of Washington College of Built Environments and Urban@UW.

SAH thanks The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation
for its operating support.
Society of Architectural Historians
1365 N. Astor Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610
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