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From Grit to Glam: A Look at Belltown's Evolution

[Photos courtesy of Paul Dorpat]

Belltown is one of Seattle's most dense and urban neighborhoods, with a reputation of being shady or trendy depending with whom you speak. There is no one adjective that can accurately encapsulate the feeling of the area. Lively, rambunctious, and yuppified could be used to describe one street, while decrepit, sketchy, and dark could be used to describe streets just a block away. A walk through Belltown today reveals hints of an artsy and working-class past intermingled with flashy modern aspirations where upscale condominiums, fancy bars, restaurants, art galleries and theaters exist alongside a marked homeless population, drug dealers, and a heightened police presence.

The area where Belltown exists today includes the former land claim of William Bell (who, although leaving Seattle in 1855, provides the area's namesake) and what was once the steep Denny Hill. In the early 20th century, Seattle engineer Reginald Heber Thomson initiated efforts to flatten Denny Hill, following his passion for gridded streets, boulevards and even terrain. Before the Denny Regrade started in 1897, Belltown existed only in the few blocks between Elliott Bay and Denny Hill - which served to isolate the neighborhood from Downtown. During the regrade, some property owners refused to relocate their homes, giving relentless municipal engineers no choice but to dig into the hillside around their property - leaving houses seemingly floating in the air.

[Photo courtesy of the Seattle PI]

Virgil Bogue, hired by the City of Seattle in 1910 to create a new vision for the city, aspired to transform Belltown into a civic center with Beaux-Arts architecture. The intention of the Denny Regrade was to extend the Downtown core out to Belltown. However, the opposite of Bogue's intentions occurred, as Belltown became a working-class area synonymous with warehouses and car dealerships - not much different from what South Lake Union was before its Amazonification.

In the 1920s, Belltown emerged as home to Seattle's Film Row, with several cinemas showing the newest films. The McGraw-Kittenger-Case building, located on the corner of Second and Battery Street, housed MGM studios. Today, the building is home to the restaurant Buckley's in Belltown.

Next door is what was once the Lorraine Hotel, built in 1925 by modernist architect J. Lister Holmes. After changing its name to the William Tell Hotel, the building was converted into an affordable housing complex. Today it is home to the City Hostel.

[Photo courtesy of Seattle Viaduct History]

The William Tell / Lorraine Hotel then and now

The modern Belltown we know today can trace its origins to the 1970s when the City upzoned the neighborhood as a high-rise residential district. However, reality did not play out in accordance with the City's plans. Instead of at-first attracting young urban professionals, cheap rents encouraged artists, students, and the creative types to take over the area who established several art galleries, cafes, and clubs - giving Belltown its reputation as Seattle's art district. By the 1980s, investment in new office buildings and condominiums began to change the feel of the area as Belltown attracted more and more young professionals.

Although the City has attempted to rid Belltown of certain unwanted residents, e.g. the homeless, it has been unable to erase their presence. In 2011, former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn launched a task force, the Neighborhood Action Team Seattle, to brainstorm ways to make Belltown a safer neighborhood. However, one-large problem Belltown faces is the transience of its residents, who, according to certain longer-term residents, treat Belltown "more like a hotel than a home."

Bell Street Park, opened in 2014, is an example of urban design tactics used to give Belltown a more clean and livable feel. However, the tables and chairs aligning the more pedestrian friendly Bell Street go largely unused by most residents and instead have provided a public space for homeless people to congregate.

Bell Street Park between 2nd and 3rd Avenues

If any one block could depict Belltown's history in one image, it would be Cottage Park - a place where Belltown's working-class past and modern future collide. Located on Elliott Avenue between Vine and Wall Streets, Cottage Park is home to Seattle's last wood-framed single family houses. The original six cottages, of which only three remain, were built by local architect William Hainesworth for use by shore workers. Since 2005, the area has been a municipal park and a community pea-patch. Within the past year, construction on a condo building just East of the park began, overshadowing the garden. While the cottages represent Belltown's working-class past, the homeless people who frequent the gardens at night is evidence of gentrification's inability to completely remove certain types of people unwanted by developers.

[Photo courtesy of the Friends of Belltown Pea-patch]

The Belltown P-Patch in 1916 and today, with a new condominium tower being built in the foreground.

Belltown in 1916, before there was even proper sewage infrastructure in place and the cottages today.

Belltown P-Patch, where the modern clashes with the old, and where the homeless frequent at night.

This building, constructed in 1937, was home to Paramount Pictures during Belltown's film era. It is now home to the upscale Sarajevo Restaurant and Lounge.

[Historic photo courtesy of Viaduct History]

Built in 1911, this building used to be home to the Marine Cafe and Tavern, frequented by dock workers, when Belltown was in its industrial era. It is now a residential apartment building with a rooftop garden.

Located at the 2226 3rd Avenue, the Seville Building was constructed in 1929 by architect George Wellington Stoddard who designed buildings throughout Seattle, such as the Memorial Stadium and the Green Lake Aqua Theatre. It was originally built as an advertising agency and in its time has been home to a warehouse, classrooms, a computer supply store and a restaurant - all telling of Belltown's versatility over the years.

Written by Alyssa Campbell
- All Curbed Coverage of Belltown
- Belltown History [History Link]