Center for Preservation and Adaptive Reuse

August 7, 2016

An Interview with Mimi Sheridan

mimi_sheridanThis summer, CPAR spoke with Mimi Sheridan, Historic Preservation Consultant at Sheridan Consulting Group, to discuss her thirty years in historic preservation and current work on the UW Campus Survey Project. 

July 21, 2016

Can you tell me about how you got started in preservation?  What drew you to the field and what exactly you do?

I was doing planning well before I had gotten my Masters, then I got my AICP credentials around the same time I graduated, and fulfilled all my requirements for that.  When the Growth Management Act was passed, I started working right away on comprehensive plans and also again doing public involvement.  I worked a lot on Seattle neighborhood plans.

I’d been a consultant since 1981, and I’ve actually been self-employed since 1994.  So I just started doing consulting and I have a particular niche in where I combine historic preservation knowledge, the knowledge of regulations, the knowledge of planning issues and also facilitation.  I do workshops, design guidelines, things like that.  I’ve done needs assessments for King County, Centralia, and Olympia – like what are their problems with preservation and commissions.  That’s what I do.  

I work on a lot of big projects.  It’s sort of a joke.  I worked on the Alaskan Way Viaduct for 11 years, and the Seawall, and now I’m working on the Waterfront Park.  I’ve also worked on a lot of Light Rail projects.

What brought you, as a preservationist to UW?

I went to graduate school here.  I’m from California, and now I’m going back to California.  People are usually surprised because they don’t realize I’m from California.  It’s a big shock.  But anyway, I came here to UW because I’d been living here a long time.

So what made you decide to go back to California?

I need something new, I want something new.  I like California, and I’ve been here a long time.  Forty years.  I moved here in 1973, and I had a  career before preservation.  I’ve only been in preservation for 22 years.  I want something new, and I don’t enjoy being in Seattle right now. Not that everything is bad about changes in Seattle, I’m not an anti-change person.

What’s annoying to me is that I learned about planning and urban design and preservation.  We know how to do things right and I don’t really see the city doing things in the right way.  And again, I’m not against change, I’m not against growth, and certainly not everything is bad.  But it’s just not for me.

Seattle seems to have a lot of contradictory ideas coming together and duking it out.

There doesn’t seem to be a good way to duke them out, if you want to say that.  One thing I didn’t mention, was that years ago, in the eighties, I was on the King County Mental Health Board for eight years.  I was chair of the King County Mental Health Board which distributes money for mental health programs.  I was on a lot of task forces.  I was actually on the first mayor’s taskforce for homelessness.  It was a long time ago.  But I have that background as well. I was also on the Seattle Planning Commission for six years.  And I did design review for six years.  I was on the Monorail design review panel.  I did review on light rail stations as well.  I feel I’ve paid my dues. 

Well I think, obviously, growth is always a challenge because it involves demolition but I think that right now the biggest challenge is that there seems to be a general lack of interest in preservation.

So you been a part of every major change within the city from transportation to city planning.  That’s really amazing. How do you think the Northwest Preservation Industry differs, if at all, from the rest of the country?

I can’t judge that really, because I haven’t been that involved elsewhere.  I have observed other areas but I have not lived anywhere else doing preservation.  Ask me next year.

With the rapid growth of Seattle right now, what do you think biggest challenges are in preservation?

Well I think, obviously, growth is always a challenge because it involves demolition but I think that right now the biggest challenge is that there seems to be a general lack of interest in preservation.

There’s a really interesting dynamic within the Capitol Hill area: The Pike-Pine Triangle.

I might be an  expert on Pike-Pine.  I developed the list in the ordinance of the buildings that get special treatment.  The city council hired me to develop the list.

We need for people at the neighborhood level, not the city level, but the neighborhoods to promote historic districts.  It has to come from the bottom up.

Ok, so I’m guessing you’ll have very strong opinions about what’s going on there.  Let’s talk about what’s going on with the reuse of older historic buildings – such as Chophouse Row, for example, versus the blatant facadism where they demolish everything on the inside, keep the four exterior walls, and just build a high-rise tower or another five over two.  What are your thoughts on that? Is there a preference?

Well the thing about Pike-Pine is that it’s not a historic district.  Going back a step: I think we need more historic districts.  We need for people at the neighborhood level, not the city level, but the neighborhoods to promote historic districts.  It has to come from the bottom up.  We need more residential historic districts.  We need others [historic districts] and also conservation districts.  There needs to be a better understanding of the difference between historic districts and conservation districts and the flexibility you can get in a conservation district.  

So Pike-Pine is not an historic district.  Perhaps it should be, but that ship sailed quite a while ago.  They are saving some good buildings and maybe they’re saving the most important ones.  But with the  little ones, those are not likely to have been designated as landmarks – we get some very strange looking things.

Yes.

That is probably an issue with design review as much as anything.  But I guess my big point is it’s not a historic district and we shouldn’t pretend it is. We need to pursue landmarking the buildings that are eligible, like the REI buildings.  I forget how many have been landmarked but a number of them have been–the larger ones.  The landmarked ones tend to be ok.  I think the point was that people wanted to preserve the character of the one to two story buildings.  And maybe that’s being done.  I can’t really judge that; I haven’t looked at that carefully enough.  I guess in the long term it’d be interesting to do an evaluation of the two different approaches.  I don’t know what the answer is, because so much depends on the quality of the design.

Do you have a preference? Or is good design, good design?

I did design review for a long time and I think we don’t see a lot of good design. So I guess I don’t have a preference.  It’s’ probably not realistic to retain a lot of one and two story buildings in a high growth area.  We need to prioritize.  That’s a unique area because there were so many one and two story buildings, and so many of them are unique building types.  We need more effort to preserve the one to two story auto dealerships.  The Starbucks Roastery is not landmarked, and that should be landmarked for sure.  And the one right across the street from the community college, that should be a priority.

But I don’t know, I mean, I think that’s a hard.  Again, it’s better if the new buildings/additions are well designed.

 


 

Hear Mimi and CPAR speak about the Campus Survey Project in the second half of the interview.