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November 25, 2009

Opinion: Macy's garage: Making a silk purse into a sow's ear

By MARK HINSHAW
Special to the Journal

Hinshaw

Well OK, the old Bon Marche (now Macy's) parking garage was never exactly a silk purse. But it was an example of a form of “moderne” architecture, of which we in Seattle have precious few.

The structure's spare, horizontal lines, curved corner and exposed spiral ramp were simple, straightforward reflections of its principal function. The ground floor diner and flower shop were also a reminder of an earlier era when needed services were often tucked into odd nooks of downtown buildings.

But with the renovation, what we see resembles a suburban shopping mall — albeit in the “lifestyle center” mode. (Personally, I've never quite known what the heck that term is supposed to mean. Sounds like a word made-up by real estate brokers to aggrandize what is still a strip mall.)


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Columbia Sportswear is clad in silly, knotty, horizontal wood siding that is obviously tacked on like faux wood paneling in a basement rec room. The overhanging “beams” are a waste of good steel, since they do nothing but stick out from the building and vaguely suggest they are doing something structural. The multiple video screens in the display windows effectively block views of the merchandise and merely add to the already frenetic atmosphere of the street in that location.

This whole composition could sit nicely as a “storefront” in Alderwood Mall.

The white, translucent plastic sheeting that seems to have been stapled over portions of the facade looks cheap and flimsy. In places it is warped and buckled, adding to the paper-thin shallowness of this facelift gone awry.

But the most egregious aspect of this unfortunate morphing is the absence of a shelter for bus riders. Buildings elsewhere in downtown — even in the next block south — have recently been retrofitted with generous, elegant steel and glass canopies. These provide needed protection from the rain during inclement periods while admitting desired sunlight at other times.

This project could have made a similar gesture to the streetscape. It seems as if the people involved deliberately thumbed their noses at the bus patrons who use that corner.

The supreme irony is that leaning rails actually are provided. But none of them are located where the buses actually stop. Talk about adding insult to injury.

It would be difficult to find an example of recent development in the commercial core that has been so socially rude and visually clumsy as this architectural remake. One can only hope that a future, more enlightened owner will strip it all away.

And, perhaps, give us a nice place to wait for the bus.

Mark Hinshaw is the director of urban design for LMN Architects. He has served as president of the Washington chapter of the American Planning Association and as president of AIA Seattle.



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