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Kevin Daniels: Developer and Preservationist

The man behind Seattle’s newest and largest transit-oriented development is also on the board for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, balancing the importance of the past with radical, data-driven ideas about density, energy, and waste

 

After leaving his Idaho hometown for a university in Spokane, Washington, Kevin Daniels headed for Seattle and spent eight years as a certified public accountant before moving into real estate. Now running a sister company of Nitze-Stagen & Co. called Daniels Real Estate, he approaches each project with two simple criteria. One: Be a capitalist, i.e. earn a return. Two: Be a very patient capitalist, judging a project based on the value it will bring to the community in the long term.

Although he’s better known for innovative preservation projects—including the 1912 warehouse now known as the Starbucks Center and the historic church sanctuary transformed into Daniels Recital Hall—Daniels is currently developing the largest transit-oriented project on the West Coast. Stadium Place is 1.5 million square feet worth of new construction that will infuse Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood with new life. Here, he explains how.

gb&d: You’ve said that the greenest building of America is “one that already exists.”

Kevin Daniels: It’s our motto, “Sustainability begins with preservation.”

gb&d: You’re on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so this is clearly a huge value for you.

Daniels: By any quantification—and we’ve published studies of this through the Preservation Green Lab, which is part of the National Trust—it’s more green to preserve a building. If you tear down a building, because of what it costs to tear it down and dispose of these materials, which are embodied energy, you are actually wasting thousands of BTUs of energy. I’m not against new buildings, but I think the scientific evidence clearly shows that if you can reuse any building and it’s appropriate for the community, then that should be the preferred option.

Stadium Place, a transit-oriented development with an urban farm, will bring 1,500 new residents to Pioneer Square in Seattle.

gb&d: In terms of preservation, what is Seattle’s legacy?

Daniels: Well, like any major city facing substantial growth, Seattle faces those kinds of questions every day. We’ve had victories. We’ve had huge defeats. The city does have the first national certified historic district, Pioneer Square-Skid Road, which has one of the best collections of later 19th-century brick buildings anywhere in the country, all kept together and preserved since the 1970s.

gb&d: And Stadium Place is located within Pioneer Square.

Daniels: It’s in the historic district’s boundaries. However, [this location has] never had any historic buildings on it. It was a surface parking lot since the early ’70s.

gb&d: Will you walk me through what the Pioneer Square District was like before? Basically, where was the need, and how are you filling it?

Daniels: Here are the dynamics of the Pioneer Square neighborhood: In the late ’70s, when the US bicentennial came around, you’re probably aware there was this huge push for preservation to celebrate the country’s 200th birthday. And Pioneer Square was caught up in that, but in Seattle, the market at that time was office use. So all of these old, run-down warehouse buildings were converted into office space, and people who were living there at that time were pretty much pushed out. When we started this project, there were just about 1,000 people living in all of Pioneer Square. Over 70 percent of them were earning below the poverty line and living in affordable housing. So that’s not an economic model that could be successful for a neighborhood to function on its own in the long-term.

Then from 2007 to 2009, the neighborhood went through this community process where we came up with objectives and how we would get there, and a major priority was to redevelop the north parking lot of KingDome, which is now CenturyLink Field, into mixed-income, mixed-use housing. The neighborhood itself has access to public transit, art galleries, museums, the stadium, and a national historical park called the Klondike. There’s lots to do, there just weren’t any people living there. This project changes that dynamic. We’ll be adding about 1,500 new residents into that mix.

gb&d: Let’s talk a little bit about the design of the project, which brings in elements of historic design on the north side of the lot—the area nearest to Pioneer Square—and then changes to a more modern design as you move away toward the south side, where CenturyLink Field and the rest of the stadium district is.

Daniels: After the 1889 fire completely wiped out Seattle’s core, Pioneer Square was rebuilt in brick. So in the neighborhood there are beautiful, Romanesque-type buildings, all about 65 to 70 feet tall, with five to seven stories. They’re all the same height because that brick-exterior, timber-interior structure at that time could only go that high. So if you look at [Stadium Place] from north-facing King Street, we go up about 65 feet and then we step back the towers. We also use natural materials, whether it’s granite, marble, or brick, in each of the segments, hand-laid by brick- and stonemasons. So as you’re walking along the street, you kind of feel like you’re still in the old part of the city. But if you look above in the setback, it becomes very modern. That’s how we decided to design these buildings, in agreement with the residents.

gb&d: What did the meetings with residents and the Pioneer Square Preservation Board look like? From everything I’ve read, it sounds like everyone was really on board with these designs. I’m curious about some of the concerns, if there were any, and the things that people got excited about.

Daniels: Well, there were lots of concerns—although they started out clearly excited, given my background in preservation, which was a plus. But that also puts huge expectations on your shoulders. We had, in six years, over 100 various community participation meetings on various topics, not just the design. We were very inclusive.

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gb&d: I also wanted to talk about the South Tower, which, as opposed to the historic influences of the buildings nearest to Pioneer Square, is your funky, boxy, modern—

Daniels: —iconic building.

gb&d: Yes, by ZGF Architects. Tell me a little bit about it.

Daniels: When we were talking to the neighborhood [residents], one of the things that I mentioned to them was if we were going to go up that high—about 250 feet, or 26 stories—and be facing the stadium, then the South Tower would be on national TV during Seahawks and Sounders games. It would be a big addition to the skyline. My partner on this project, the R. D. Merrill Company, was one of the investors in the Space Needle when it was built. They’re quite prominent in town with a long family legacy beginning in 1890, and their name is on a variety of public buildings, performance halls, and civic plaques across the city. And while their patriarch died last year, his son loved the notion that I presented to him when I said, “Look. Here’s an opportunity to do another iconic building which will anchor the south part of Seattle while the Space Needle anchors the north part, which is just as dramatic architecturally, and could really move the expectations of the community as to what great architecture is here in Seattle.” He loved that idea, and we came up with a variety of designs. He chose this one, which we originally nicknamed the Bento Box.

gb&d: As in the Japanese lunchbox?

Daniels: It’s been called other things, more derogatory and more flattering both—I actually like the ‘Borg Spaceship’—but we didn’t want to have the normal up-and-down. We wanted to have this textured context of these little neighborhoods coming out. It makes you want to move between places and get to know people so that you can see what the differences are. You now have a reason to see the people on the 20th floor. In a building that goes straight up and down like most do, the 20th floor’s no different from the 26th or the 3rd, other than the view.

gb&d: That does totally defy the idea of a high-rise being sort of prefabricated, where everything’s the same.

Daniels: Every three or four stories there’s a different floor plate, a different way of moving. I’ve always been really impressed with Santiago Calatrava or Renzo Piano and other great architects that do exactly that. What we wanted to do was use a local architect and give them the same challenge. This is more expensive than a straight-up-and-down building but not significantly more, and it’s something that lasts a lifetime—or many lifetimes, for that matter. Not everybody’s going to like it, but that’s part of the fun.

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gb&d: The Fifth and Columbia Tower is a big addition to the skyline as well. Can you tell me about that project?

Daniels: The only reason I got involved with that was to save the historic church next door. It is the oldest Byzantine-style church in America, built between 1906 and 1910, and the interior space is stunning. In fact, the first time I saw it, I walked through it and said, “Wow, this is great. We have to save this.” We’re not building to sell; we’re building to last. And there are two different philosophies there. It’s like comparing Saks or Nieman Marcus or Nordstrom service to Walmart’s service. We never want to be the commodity broker. Fifth and Columbia will be the most expensive building built in Seattle ever, and it will be the most expensive to rent, but it will be the address.

gb&d: When it’s finished in 2015, Stadium Place is going to be the biggest transit-oriented development (TOD) on the West Coast. That’s a phrase we’re hearing more and more lately. Why?

Daniels: The closer you are to a transit hub, whether it’s a local one or a regional one, the more density you should allow. But that density has to be thought out. I’ll give you an example of one that wasn’t. San Jose had a light rail system that went from downtown out to a business mart near Santa Clara. There’s hardly any housing on that route. They couldn’t figure out why anybody wasn’t riding it. Well, why are you going to drive your car to one end and get on the train, and go into town, when you can just take your car the rest of the way in and parking is really cheap? Then as they started expanding that out into the mode of residential, it started to work. Atlanta has the same issue.

gb&d: How transit-friendly is Seattle?

Daniels: Here in the West, we’re among the top ranked. The number of people taking transit is growing every year. Tens of thousands [of people] go through Union Station and King Street Station, which are adjacent to Stadium Place, every day. Whether it’s light rail, heavy rail, bus, or ferry, they’re all within one walking block from Stadium Place. We’re a true TOD.

gb&d: And there are also plans for an urban farm?

Daniels: Yes, in our common area. The restaurants will have a farmer who is growing lettuce and things that are conducive to our environment out here year-round and allows them to save on the transportation from the farms and all of that. If you’re going to have plants up in the common area anyway, why not have a garden?

gb&d: Can you tell me a little about the district energy plans you’re considering for the future of Stadium Place?

Daniels: The most radical plans we had were for this huge pipe which collects all the sewage in the city, runs by right in front of Stadium Place, and sends the sewage to a plant just north of us on Elliot Bay before it’s processed. The sewage comes through at millions of gallons an hour—embodied energy being wasted—and yet it has all kinds of properties that can be used from a sustainability standpoint. We spent two years trying to figure it out, and the technology’s just not there yet. But it will be; it’s getting really close. So we put taps into the project for later.

gb&d: What are some things you’ve learned from your travels and former projects that you incorporated into Stadium Place?

Daniels: Well, one is that we’re a communal society. If you live downtown, you don’t want to be locked in a building without anything to do. You want to be in a neighborhood, and you want to have gathering places, whether that be your Cheers pub, restaurant, or, in our case, Stadium Place, which has many, many different types of amenities spread throughout the project, from health clubs to spas to party rooms to gathering rooms to barbecues and pizza ovens. All places where people can gather [that can] become the “third place.” Another example, from my National Trust experience, is how to be sensitive to your neighbors. You can’t just put something that overwhelms the neighborhood without deference to the people who are there. They need to be partners in it. Whether they call themselves preservationists or not, everyone loves history and loves where things come from, and they want to make sure you’re appreciative of that. In our case, I think we’ve done a really good job.

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