Design Standards Ordinance FAIL

Take a minute to admire the adorable tacked-on faux balcony in the photo above. And now thank the genius code writers of Leavenworth, WA. Cause apparently, if you want to put up a commercial building more than one story tall in Leavenworth, a nordic-style balcony it must have. Not that it has to be usable.

Back in the 1960s when Leavenworth was in decline, the town opted for Extreme Makeover: Mock Bavarian Village Edition. The historic brick downtown was stuccoed, balconied, and gabled. And amazingly, it succeeded brilliantly. The blatant cheesiness of fake balconies and such only seem to add to the kitschy charm of the place.

Another striking result of the Leavenworth design standards is a gaping lack of the gigantic, brightly colored, in-your-face corporate signage that dominates the look of most U.S. downtowns. That “M” is all that the global superpower of fast food could get. There’s a Bank of America, but without the usual array of glowing red and blue signs yelling at you. The reduction of visual pollution is palpable.

Now admire the screaming yellows, reds, and whites of the Shell station located in the heart of the Pike/Pike Conservation Overlay District in Seattle (photo below). This gas station is by far the most out of character structure in the entire district. And it’s no accident—those painful colors are specifically chosen to grab the eyeballs of the rapidly passing motorist.

Note also that the gas station use is completely inappropriate for one of Seattle’s most pedestrian-oriented neighborhood centers—all the more so because it’s located on the corner of a prominent intersection. It would be great to see some of the neighborhood activists’ take on that Shell station as public enemy number one.

As ridiculous as Leavenworth may be, perhaps Seattle could learn something from how they successfully implemented design standards that trump the entrenched habits of corporate America. Why do we put up with loathsome scars like that Shell station?

13 Responses to “Design Standards Ordinance FAIL”

  1. keith

    as much as i’m opposed to driving and eyesores in general, i must admit that shell station is where we refuel our car…

    i will, though, join any campaign to slay the shell station.

  2. jonathan

    Interesting! I am on this corner a lot, but it never occurred to me to hate the gas station.

    At least there are open sight lines over the site, providing a feeling of space and a view of the nice old buildings on Pike Street. If it were redeveloped they would probably build a big cube that goes right to the sidewalk.

    Also, there is a lot of car traffic at that corner, and I suppose we do need gas stations somewhere.

  3. Max J

    This is a great post, Dan. That McDonald’s is cheesy, certainly, but the shell station is abhorrent. It can’t be that hard to make a gas station attractive, can it?

    Oh wait… nevermind I answered my own question.

  4. City Comforts

    I like Jonathan’s perspective: learn to love the Shell Station by seeing it as open space.

    As to Dan’s plaintive “Why do we put up with loathsome scars like that Shell station?” — What do you have in mind? What would you have the City do? Force the owner to tear it down and build something you like? I assume that City would provide financing for the project?

  5. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Lies! Leavenworth is an authentic Bavarian village imported in 1873! Check out the Union 76 photo on that page.

    They could add planters like the Propel station in South Lake Union (which was also a local company until recently.

  6. Geordie Romer | Leavenworth WA

    Are you sure that fake balconies are required? My understanding is that all new commercial buildings and any commercial remodels in the commercial zones of Leavenworth must have a Bavarian design that is approved by the design review board. When I first moved to town I couldn’t find the post office because it was hiding so well behind a Bavarian backdrop.

  7. Finish Tag

    That Shell Station parcel sold on August 18, 2009 for $1,351,116

    Lot of cash for a shell station.

  8. serial catowner

    It has to do with a sense of community- which the Shell company obviously has not got.

    Watch a video like “Swiss Rail Travels”. Even areas that are well built up are free from the mind-numbing stupidity of our wretched individualism. Even industrial areas are as soothing to look at as a city park, although the buildings are obviously industrial and meant for business.

    The whole country looks like a park because they care what it looks like.

  9. dan cortland

    If only the gas stations looked like trees, we’d have no need for trees.

    The Seattle building community wants to diss Leavenworth’s design standards, and chooses the functionality of balconies as it’s point of contrast? Right.

    The Shell lot is free of litter, the building’s exterior is not plastered with posters of golden bimbos astride silver cans of malt liquor (maybe it should be?), the corporate signage is modest for a gas station, though that’s probably by Code. The design is functional: it does not pretend to be something it is not.

    But don’t worry, friends, out of Seattle’s superior design minds some cheaply grandiose, monotonously block-long, corner-celebrating addition to our own Leavenworth will eventually congeal on the site. Rumor has it that choice retail–Juliette’s Balcony Boutique–has already committed to moving up from South Lake Union when the project is ready for occupancy.

  10. Chuck Wolfe

    The story goes that the Leavenworth kitsch developed from consultations with UW Planning faculty in the early 60’s. I know from childhood memories, the town was advised to go in a different direction/theme than Bavaria, yet it arguably saved the town. Skip Berger wrote a piece in Crosscut earlier in the Fall about Leavenworth ( and I’ve been nudging at this as well with some ultimate Las Vegas of late.

    Good job as always, Dan. Keep it up…

  11. Elvia Skovira

    Howdy are using WordPress for your blog platform? I’m new to the blog world but I’m trying to get started and create my own. Do you need any html coding knowledge to make your own blog? Any help would be really appreciated!

  12. festival

    You have some honest ideas here. I done a study around the issue and discovered most peoples will accept your site.

  13. Florida Trip

    Heya i am the very first time here. I discovered this board and i also think it is really useful & it helped me out much. I hope to give something back and aid others as if you helped me.