This week, Dave Amos over at City Beautiful does an excellent job discussing the history and pitfalls of historic districts. From their early application to preserve important landmarks to their recent use as another hurdle to prevent density, the video emphasizes the differences between saving historic buildings and backdoor rezoning through historic districts.

The Urbanist has covered historic district abuse around Seattle, from a cookie cutter drive-thru bank costing downtown housing to Ballard Avenue Landmark District’s attempts to decapitate the neighborhoods’ popular pergolas. Particularly ridiculous and egregious has been the use of historic designation to perpetuate segregation in Wallingford. While true reflection of history would reinstall a streetcar and build dense affordable housing, some Wallingford residents have instead pursued a very narrow definition of historic that freezes the neighborhood in carbonite by banning new residents. Last year, the neighborhood crossed one of its final hurdles to inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Most interesting in the video is the observation that historic designation attempts have boomed in California and Oregon after each state passed their respective laws to end single-family zoning. Following Oregon’s House Bill 2001 passage in 2019 and California’s Senate Bill 9 passage in 2021, each state saw neighborhoods rush to designate low density neighborhoods as historic. Now that Washington has passed HB 1110 legalizing missing middle housing, we can expect more Wallingfords.

Article Author

Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.