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November 9, 2017
Blame it on the epiphany.
That's what Mark Hinshaw, an influential Seattle architect, urban planner and writer, said prompted him to leave the Emerald City after 40 years and move to a small hilltown in Italy.
Hinshaw resigned as a principal at Walker|Macy and as an urban planner at Seattle Housing Authority. He and his wife, Sunny Bertollini, recently sold their Pioneer Square condo and headed for the postcard-perfect town of Santa Vittoria in Matenano along the Adriatic Coast.
Hinshaw, 70, said they discovered the region — Le Marche — four years ago, and kept going back. They came upon the town a year ago and hired a real estate agent, who found them a 4,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, two-bath house, with an architectural pedigree dating to about 1600. Parts of the structure once formed a guardhouse used to block foreign invaders.
Hinshaw grew up in the Midwest, and lived in New York City and Alaska before landing in Seattle. But he said his family has deep roots in Washington: His great-grandparents helped start a commune in the late 1890s near La Conner.
Leaving Seattle brought bittersweet last moments, saying goodbye to the bay, the mountains, the lakes — and the friends.
“I spent most of my life here and have roots here,” he said. But he's up for a new adventure: “Instead of ratcheting down, why not ratchet up and do something different?”
Hinshaw has helped to shape this area as principal urban designer for the city of Bellevue and director of urban design for LMN, as well as a Seattle Times architecture critic. He has helped plan downtowns, transportation corridors and town centers, and designed civic centers and urban parks.
Hinshaw was lead urban designer on Mercer East in Seattle, Waterfront Esplanade in Port Angeles and Pacific Street, an “outdoor room” in Tacoma. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and the American Institute of Certified Planners.
In Italy, he will blog about culture, history, people, the town and his house. He also has a deal to write a book about design review.
Hinshaw is not shy about voicing his opinion. In 2010, writing for Crosscut, he dissed a plan to have light rail cross a protected wetland in Bellevue. “If someone were intent on preventing the Eastside from getting light rail, few proposals would be more entirely effective than the so-called Vision Line,” he wrote.
In the same publication in 2011, he called for some serious editing of Seattle's waterfront plan: “Sometimes the best solution is nothing at all, or at least very little.”
He has lamented Seattle's “often uninspiring” new low- and mid-rise buildings, and wrote in Crosscut that Amazon's Spheres are something out of a dystopian nightmare.
But he also praises good design when he sees it. He likes architects who use bright colors to enliven new buildings, and is a fan of MarketFront at Pike Place Market and Weyerhaeuser's new headquarters in Pioneer Square.
While Hinshaw is an urbanist, he realizes not everyone wants to or can live in a high-rise city, and has commended smaller cities like Shoreline, Kent and Federal Way for investing in civic infrastructure, parks and trails that make them more livable.
Alan Michelson, head of the Built Environments Library at the University of Washington, said Hinshaw has had an impact nationally and locally as a theorist, writer and urban planner. His writing is engaging, witty and understandable to the public, Michelson said, and he has agitated for design that meets the social needs of people — like sidewalk cafes and active streets.
“Hinshaw is very much about the conviviality of the street,” he said.
Sometimes, he said, Hinshaw even bites the hand that feeds him.
“Architects everywhere cannot generally take controversial stands — stands based on principle because, let's face it, they do not want to irritate developers,” he said. “This is why there aren't many Mark Hinshaws around. Architecture itself is hard enough to make a living at because of the general boom or bust nature of it. A guy like Mark is a very principled person.”
Marcia Wagoner, a principal with 3 Square Blocks in Seattle, has worked with Hinshaw and known him for years. “I think Mark really viewed the city as his living space so he is an excellent person to figure out how that works for people,” she said.
In Seattle, Hinshaw worked on urban design for redeveloping SHA's Yesler Terrace on First Hill, which he said is moving faster than anyone imagined and generally fulfilling the vision for mixed-income housing with a central park and other public spaces.
He called Downtown Park “the most brilliant thing Bellevue did,” and said Seattle needs to build a lot more parks and also high density housing — including backyard cottages — or it will get even more difficult for people to live here.
He's encouraged that Bellevue is becoming more diverse and more dense, and says it has new energy: “It's terrific. It seems closer to Vancouver (B.C.) in some parts of downtown than Seattle is.”
In Italy, Hinshaw hopes to work with an organization to fulfill his dream of providing space in his house for artists, scholars or writers in residence.
So about that epiphany. It came when he and Bertollini visited an archaeological dig near a 2,000-year-old town in Le Marche. The town was dedicated to a deity called Salus, which is envoked when we raise a glass and say salute, but it was buried by the Catholic Church to stamp out signs of paganism, Hinshaw said.
The couple were affected by the emotional impact of this ancient energy. Also, uncovering the past encouraged Bertollini, who is half Italian, to get back to her roots. So they decided to move.
Hinshaw has spent much of his life studying, observing and commenting on cities and towns. So he appreciates the irony of his current situation: an urbanist living in a big house in a small town. “I suppose. Sure. It's kind of a counterpoint,” he said.
But, he responds that the town is about the size of Pioneer Square and is, in its own way, an urban place, “just on the small end of the scale” — and with affable people and a sociable way of living.
The house, he notes, will be shared with friends, colleagues and hopefully the in-residence folks, with views of farms, rolling hills and the Adriatic.
Which is to say the Midwestern boy-cum-city dweller has arrived.
Lynn Porter can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.