Landmark Lawyer

Melody McCutcheon worked on the Bullitt Center and helped the Sorrento Hotel achieve historic status

Published in 2015 Washington Super Lawyers Magazine

Melody McCutcheon often finds herself with one foot in the future and one in the past.

The Seattle land-use and environmental attorney works on paradigm-altering projects such as the Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill. Billed as the world’s greenest office building, it showcases cutting-edge methods of conserving resources. She also helps secure landmark status for historic buildings, like the 1909 Italian Renaissance-style Sorrento Hotel on First Hill.

“Everyone was saying, ‘You mean that’s not a landmark already?’” she recounts. “So working with the owners in support of landmark status for the building, including some of its interior spaces that are very special, that was very gratifying.” Just as important as recognizing landmark-worthy buildings, she says, is not recognizing ones that aren’t: “Designating lots of buildings that don’t meet the landmark criteria weakens the overall objectives of historic preservation and creates more controversy than necessary.”

McCutcheon, who represents both private and public clients at Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson, played a central role in creating new land-use and environmental regulations for the sweeping redevelopment of Yesler Terrace public housing community, owned by the Seattle Housing Authority.

“I consider that a crowning achievement of my career,” she says. A comprehensive environmental study allowed great flexibility in height and density for building placement in the unique redesigned community. Such opportunities for large-scale, single-owner planning are rare, she says.

McCutcheon became interested in how cities organize themselves while taking a class in urban social history at Stanford University, where she majored in political science. That led to a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Washington. She then went to work as a senior planner for what is now Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development, and that’s where a longtime idea of pursuing a law degree solidified. So it was back to the UW, this time to get her J.D.

The experience McCutcheon has gained on both sides of land-use projects has proven useful. Her projects have included helping the Seattle Mariners work through the permitting process on Safeco Field and representing multiple South Lake Union developers in the first application of the King County Development Credits program, which allows extra floor area in exchange for the purchase of forestland for preservation. McCutcheon insists her strength is as a team player, and her background gives her respect for the public employees who review development proposals and have to reconcile varying points of view.

Those differences pose one of the greatest challenges in urban planning, McCutcheon says. Another obstacle is the region’s significant population growth and increasing economic activity. “We have competing visions for how street capacity is to be allocated between cars, transit, bicycles, pedestrians; so we have increasing growth but a rather finite street system,” she says. “So it’s very difficult.”

In her scant leisure time, McCutcheon’s passion is travel. Perhaps not surprisingly, she likes to get away from the city. She’s gone on safaris, seen wild chimpanzees in forests and mountain gorillas in Rwanda. “I just got back from Borneo, where we saw orangutans in sanctuaries and in the semi-wild,” she says. Occasionally, however, there’s a city on her itinerary. A few years ago, she visited Damascus, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

To McCutcheon, community-building always matters. “One trend in the last 10 years is the importance of the pedestrian experience—how does the sidewalk environment or public spaces at the base of the building relate to the pedestrian experience?” she says. “Are there interesting storefronts? Sidewalks that are wide enough and have street furniture, benches, gathering spots, landscaping, bike infrastructure? … Well-designed spaces really foster interaction and a sense of community.”

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