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C200: A Tale Of Two Downtown Neighborhoods

2011 March 22
by Jon Scholes

< Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood >

Today, two important downtown Seattle neighborhoods are currently assessing their futures – at least by way of land use rezones – which will have significant implications on their growth, vibrancy and livability in the years to come. Would it be easier on everyone if the neighborhoods of South Lake Union and Pioneer Square just simply traded places in Seattle? Would both neighborhoods be better for it twenty years from now?

Now, I recognize that this would likely have goofed up some of our history and the trajectory of our city’s economy, culture, etc. if these neighborhoods were in different places 100 + years ago, but stick with me here and imagine if today we could pack up the historic buildings of Pioneer Square and relocate them to the shores of Lake Union. And consider for a moment if we could sprinkle the dozens of global health and life sciences organizations that call SLU home today, around King Street and Union Stations – the largest transit hub west of Chicago – just south of the Downtown office core.

In Pioneer Square, familiar arguments are being made against new density in the neighborhood, for fear it would erode the historic integrity of the neighborhood (even though today the neighborhood has a retail vacancy rate twice that of Downtown). In South Lake Union, similar concerns regarding height have been raised, but for different reasons – the need to protect views of the Space Needle and preserve view corridors to the Lake are some of the reasons people have argued against significant new height.

Perhaps everyone’s interests would be better served if the two neighborhoods switched places and just maybe we’d wind up with better urban neighborhoods and come closer to meeting our local and regional goals for transit oriented development and density.

The low slung historic buildings of Pioneer Square moved a few miles north would protect views of the Space Needle and Lake Union. Moved south, the red hot global health and life sciences sector and the even hotter Amazon campus would have tremendous access to transit, something they lack today
in SLU. The friction between more density and historical preservation in the “new Pioneer Square” would be a thing of the past and more density around the transit stations in South Downtown would be cheered and embraced, for it would provide places for all those young lab workers and software engineers to live near their jobs. We’d finally maximize and leverage the hundreds of millions of dollars in public investment that has been made in transit infrastructure and service at King Street and Union Stations.

Yes, this suggestion absurd, but it raises the question of whether as a community we’re up to the task of redefining the conversations about growth in urban neighborhoods. To get it right for both neighborhoods, we need to broaden the conservation and consider the positive outcomes we are trying to achieve through neighborhood rezones and excite people around those visions. Consider that we spend thousands of dollars on consultants focused on the “impacts” of growth and density, but rarely the benefits. Perhaps we’re challenged here in Seattle since so much of our neighborhood building has been focused around single family zones and their business districts and we haven’t demonstrated success yet near major transit hubs and downtown.

But that shouldn’t hold us back. We need to adopt a “Yes We Can” attitude when it comes to creating great urban neighborhoods in Seattle. Right now we have a “We think we might be able to, but oh dear what about (fill in the blank),” which holds us back and slows us down.

We can’t move these neighborhoods, but we can take deliberate and informed steps to realize our values and goals when it comes to creating great urban neighborhoods in downtown, and we can start talking about the benefits of high quality urban neighborhoods, not just the perceived impacts.


Jon Scholes is the V.P. of Advocacy and Economic Development at the Downtown Seattle Association.

16 Responses leave one →
  1. Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
    March 22, 2011

    Duh, the obvious answer is to move the Space Needle not all the buildings! Maybe we could set it atop the sinking ship parking garage.

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      April 1, 2011


      But the sinking ship’s too small. I say we build a little island in the Sound for it.

  2. Zef Wagner permalink
    March 22, 2011

    One thing I don’t understand about the push to allow high-rises in South Lake Union is the fact that Denny Triangle (a more natural place for an extension of downtown) is zoned for high-rise but yet remains mostly surface parking. Maybe we need to fix the issues in the Denny Triangle first before pushing high-rises into South Lake Union.

    I also remain unconvinced that high-rises are needed for high density. Paris is extremely dense and yet they have a height limit of 10 stories or so. They do this by getting really high coverage of land area (almost no surface parking, less obsession with open space) and by focusing on residential space. Seattle seems to be looking too much to Vancouver for advice on how to develop. Vancouver has done a good job with density, building high-rise apartment and condo buildings, but at the expense of a vibrant street experience and affordability. High-rises are great for developers because they can get really high rents for the upper floors, but they are not so great for residents. They are expensive and energy-intensive.

    I’ve heard some complaints about Amazon’s new HQ in South Lake Union, but I don’t really see what the problem is. They have built functional but fairly attractive buildings in an area that was full of warehouses until recently. Terry is a really nice street to walk along now, with the streetcar running between busy new buildings. They are at a more human scale than if they were skyscrapers, that’s for sure.

    • Matthew 'Anc' Johnson permalink
      March 23, 2011

      Wait, are you saying we should look at Paris and not Vancouver and then bring up affordability?!?!

      Yes Paris has done a great job of getting density without height, but at the expense of making it one of the most expensive cities in the world to actually live in. Oh well, there are always the banlieues.

      • Tony the Economist permalink
        April 23, 2011

        Eye roll. Paris and Vancouver are expensive for different reasons. Vancouver is expensive because highrise development is expensive to build, thus the cost of construction becomes the limiting factor that restricts supply. Paris is expensive because it is the most beautiful city on earth, and it is so, at least in part, because the restrictions on development keep it that way. If Paris were to allow tall buildings, prices would fall not because of the increased in supply, but because that new development would ruin Paris and kill demand.

        The solution to affordability in Paris is not to ruin it, but to replicate it, and that is actually easier to do than one might think because midrise development is much, much cheaper to build. Vancouver could rezone every square foot of its land area to highrise and it wouldn’t ease the affordability issue. This is because the cost of construction would limit supply well before development bumped up against the zoning limit. Now, if Vancouver rezoned a sizable swath of its land area to midrise (90%+ of Vancouver is zoned single-family), THAT would make Vancouver much denser and more affordable.

        Likewise, if people care about making Seattle dense and affordable, Seattle should be looking to rezone Capitol Hill, 12th Ave, Uptown, and the University District (all designated “urban centers”, like SLU) from lowrise to midrise. That would give you a much larger marginal increase in zoned capacity and a much, much larger increase in actual built density and affordability.

        Seattle urbanist types seem to fail to grasp the concept that zoned density and built density are not the same thing. First Hill has been zoned for decades for densities 3 times that of Vancouver’s West End neighborhood (FAR of 8 vs FAR of 2.75), yet the West End is 3 times the built density of First Hill (60 dwelling units per acre vs 20). Why is that? Because Vancouver understands that there is more to building density than permissive zoning. You also have to sustain demand, and that means having development regulations and making public investments that protect quality of life.

    • Matthew 'Anc' Johnson permalink
      March 23, 2011

      Oh, and I agree that we should try and figure out what is keeping Denny from sharing in the growth, and try to fix it. I just don’t think that it requires restricting growth in SLU or Pioneer Square to do so.

      I believe it was Matt the Engineer who brought up the point that by selectively and slowly upzoning, we pretty much force all growth into that one area. If we were to open up much more area to growth, new developements will be sprinkled around the core instead of a massive blitz on one neighborhood. Growth as whole will likely be larger, but less than if it were all funneled into one neighborhood. It will also be much more organic and the neighborhoods won’t be defined by the architecture of one developement cycle.

    • Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
      March 23, 2011

      Zef, in my understanding at least the Denny Triangle problem is because Clise, the major landowner, does not have the money to redevelop the properties themselves and is waiting for someone to offer “the right deal” so they can cash in.

      Vulcan, as you note, has redeveloped roughly half of their properties in SLU, mostly at midrise heights, but they own less than a third of the total private land. Personally I’d like to see owners of other parking lots in SLU like Blume to do some residential development.

  3. Wells permalink
    March 23, 2011

    John Scholes’ focus is more on development than transit. Yes, Seattle can (develop), but does so with a ‘factious’ disregard for transit design options. One faction favors streetcars, whether viable and productive or not. Another faction favors less expensive options whether they achieve goals or not. One faction favors no transit; the head in the sand, no-build option. There isn’t a better transit mode to navigate Seattle’s steep hills than trolleybus, quietly and emission-free. However, to save money, they’ll be scrapped, their overhead wires pulled down, adding ‘scenic value’ to proposed development; ignoring the incidental costs of dirty air, noise pollution and downtown Seattle’s desperate need to install viable transit options for aggravated motorists and foot-sore, stranded pedestrians. The trolleybus faction has good argument in its favor, but it is a minority within factious planning bureaus and development interests whose narrow focus disregards transit-oriented development and placates its advocates with empty promises.

  4. JoshMahar permalink
    March 23, 2011

    “We need to adopt a “Yes We Can” attitude when it comes to creating great urban neighborhoods in Seattle. Right now we have a “We think we might be able to, but oh dear what about (fill in the blank),” which holds us back and slows us down.”

    Fantastic line. This sums up so much of planning and development in Seattle. The simple fact is no matter what direction we take, there will always be missed opportunities. Instead of focusing on these we need to rally around the positives, gaining excitement and traction when and where it is most needed.

  5. P Eugene Allen permalink
    March 26, 2011

    Face it, Seattle. The opportunity to preserve a “view corridor” to Lake Union was killed by Seattle voters, when we voted down the Seattle Commons – twice! It was our choice (well, not mine) to have buildings rise between downtown and Lake Union instead of a much-needed expansive park in which to escape the concrete canyons of downtown Seattle. It’s too late now to quibble about how tall those buildings will be. We ceded that land to development long ago.

    I disagree with Mr. Scholes that Seattle needs to focus more on “positive outcomes” of development. Developers are always good at pointing out possible positive outcomes, and politicians funded by developers are even better at it. In reality, though, the general public often suffers more negative outcomes than positive from those projects, so they’ve become skeptical. (Sinking ship garage, anyone? How about a light rail link that almost reaches the airport terminal?) The concept of positive outcomes must be broadened to mean “positive outcomes for the most number of people possible” if one expects the public to “buy in” to any major development or zoning changes.

    I do agree with Mr. Scholes that it is necessary to “excite people around those visions”, but if those visions are coming just from the top-down (or developer-down), then no one will get very excited, no matter how visionary. There must be solid and meaningful input from the people most impacted, who should also be among the people most benefitted.

    Seattleites are not good visionaries. We voted down light rail in the ’60s. A complete system could have been up and running for the past 30 years – the entire system at a fraction of the cost of today’s airport link alone.

    Transit in the Cascade Neighborhood ( er…South Lake Union) was entirely an afterthought after development began. A great opportunity was missed to place a transit center there to improve traffic issues, and allow the neighborhood to grow organically around that.

    These are only a couple of examples. The point is, there are consequences to decisions made or not made. The consequence of voting down the Seattle Commons is the loss of an important view corridor. It’s too late to change that, so accept the consequences of your terrible choices in the past, but please be wiser about your choices in the future. Please! I plan to move back there in a few years and I’d like to find it even better there than when I moved away.

    • Tony the Economist permalink
      April 23, 2011

      Dear Mr. Allen,

      I agree that the citizens of Seattle were foolish and short-sighted when they rejected multiple opportunities to build the Seattle Commons. However, your implied assertion that green space and skyscrapers are the only two options is simply false. Current building heights (and even a modest upzone on the order of 125′ west of Fairview), would protect most key view corridors of the Space Needle and Olympic Mountains from Capitol Hill, Eastlake, I-5, and many places in Cascade, view corridors that are enjoyed by tens of thousands of people today.

      Furthermore, current zoning (with a few sensible and sorely-needed modifications), allows for the possibility of creating a gorgeous, extremely dense, Parisian-style midrise neighborhood, one that would not only generate much more tax revenue than a park, but could also serve as an example of density done right, and that Seattlites might support replicating in their own neighborhoods. Whereas, if we get this wrong, South Lake Union will serve as just one more example of why the citizens can’t trust developers or their representatives in City Hall.

      The city needs to start building dense developments that people actually like. That is the only way to regain the trust of the citizens and overcome this decades long civil war, of which the Seattle Commons and Forward Thrust were both casualties. Skyscrapers in South Lake Union will widen this rift, not heal it.

      • dan bertolet permalink*
        April 24, 2011

        Tony, what are your examples of Seattle density that people don’t like? Yes, there are some obvious examples of individual buildings that are pretty lame, but I don’t know of anywhere in Seattle where “bad density” has caused the downfall of a neighborhood or anything close to that.

        Belltown is a favorite object of anti-density scorn, but last I checked, housing there commands some of the highest rents in the City. Though some of us may believe Belltown has it faults, apparently there are plenty of people who want to live there.

        Likewise, in five or ten years all the new mid-rise buildings in Ballard some people have freaked out about will just be part of the everyday fabric, and the neighborhood, city, and region will all be better off for the density.

      • Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
        April 24, 2011

        Tony, generally new skyscrapers today are defined as at least 500 ft tall; the upper limit in the draft EIS for South Lake Union is 300 ft (and, in Alt 1, up to 400 ft for residential along Denny Way). The most likely scenario in my opinion is buildings much like the hotel and condos above Whole Foods at 2200 Westlake today, which I believe is much like the midrise you propose. More like Vancouver Olympic Village or Pearl District than skyscrapers. There will also hopefully be requirements such as view setbacks as detailed in the Urban Design Framework, assuming city council adopts it as recommended along with any rezone of South Lake Union. I might as well also point out that even 125 ft development would impact many of these same west views “enjoyed” by people on I-5, and for the record the Space Needle is over 600 ft tall.

        I don’t think your comparison of Capitol Hill (meaning the Urban Center border I assume) and First Hill is fair. First Hill has a larger number of jobs, and a problem of hospitals landbanking property, often using it for surface parking. Denny Triangle has a similar issue leading to little development despite zoning. And on the other side, Capitol Hill has many established amenities like parks, public schools and library, and local businesses that have long made it a more attractive location for residential development.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. The New Pioneer Square – What if South Lake Union + Pioneer Square… traded places?
  2. The New Pioneer Square – Pioneer Square in the News
  3. Pioneer Square Zoning Changes: Citywide TDR for historic buildings would help | Seattle's Land Use Code

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