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Chapter 23.48 Seattle Mixed Feelings

2011 April 6
by Roger Valdez

< Seattle Mixed on the Land Use Map >

Seattle has a long and storied history with private developers similar to many other cities on the West Coast. In fact, the founders of Washington and other states in the region were so worried about private railroad developers using the public’s credit to finance their projects, they wrote a prohibition against the use of public credit to benefit private projects into their state constitutions. Cities had fallen all over themselves hoping to be part of the next expansion of the railroad system and they lent their credit to projects that ultimately failed. The founders were determined that it never happen again.

Fast forward to the recent past and you’ll find a similar saga playing itself out in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle. A billionaire from Microsoft, Paul Allen, buys up acres of property in the funky industrial dead-zone of South Lake Union with an eye toward developing the Seattle Commons, a massive redevelopment of the area centered on new open space. The local citizenry are asked, twice, to contribute to the plan but reject it twice, largely on the grounds that somehow, even with all the public benefits of the Commons Project, a billionaire would profit at the public’s expense.

Today, Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate, is trying to develop the 11.5 acres in the portfolio left over from the Commons project. And today the same battle lines are drawn. Somehow, the argument goes, Allen is going to make scads more money with the zoning changes Vulcan is seeking for the South Lake Union properties they own. Why should the City grant rezones or allow the massive shift of traffic now underway on Mercer to benefit a billionaire?

I have a book that has been sitting on my shelf for a long time called, “The Contested City,” by John H. Mollenkopf. Mollenkopf’s book takes a hard look at the political shifts that happened in the 1960s and 1970s and how they dramatically impacted local land use politics. The “progrowth coalition” that had developed after World War Two was being challenged by local community groups who no longer wanted to be planned into obsolescence. Mollenkopf writes:

Though the neighborhood activism during the 1960s and 1970s did not halt the postindustrial transformation of US cities, it did undermine the local progrowth coalitions, built under Democratic auspices, which had set that transformation in motion. Neighborhood activism ended large-scale clearance projects, drastically revised traditional planning practices by creating citizen review and participation procedures, and created new policy emphasis on preservation and rehabilitation. In the process, neighborhood activism led to the demise of urban renewal agencies as power engines of physical change. It sensitized public opinion to the defects of the “growth at any cost” mentality and the planners’ assumption that physical development can solve social problems. As Marshall Berman has observed, “Neighborhood people did not even have the vocabulary to defend their neighborhoods because, until the Sixties, that vocabulary simply did not exist.” Today, it does.

And Mollenkopf would find that vocabulary being used to great effect in South Lake Union, first by casting long shadows of doubt over the Commons Project, which, in retrospect, would have brought great benefit to the city, and then by battling against rezones of Vulcan owned properties left over from the Commons effort.

First, I should disclose that I am not up late at night worrying that Paul Allen is going to make some extra money from having his properties rezoned. I honestly could care less. My worry is about whether the City is acting fast enough there and throughout Seattle, to welcome and accommodate growth. Color me progrowth. Or you can call me what one embittered commenter has: “a density pimp.” Guilty as charged. I think the only thing that ought to limit growth in Seattle are the market forces of supply and demand and our ability to accommodate new people sustainably and in livable, walkable neighborhoods.

That brings us to my next stop on my journey through Seattle’s Land Use Code: Seattle Mixed.  Seattle Mixed, I think, is largely a product of the land use battles Mollenkopf described when he wrote his book almost 30 years ago. And he presaged that the old progrowth coalition would have to reconstitute itself in a different form. And Vulcan has done that, focusing on community benefits, working to support local neighborhood groups, and working to make their developments showcase examples of energy efficiency and even affordability.

This section of the code cuts to the standards chase faster than most sections, jumping right into height after outlining what’s permitted outright:

A. Maximum Height. Maximum structure height is 40 feet, 55 feet, 65 feet, 75
feet, 85 feet, or feet as designated on the Official Land Use Map, Chapter
23.32, except as provided in this Section or in Section 23.48.016, or in
Section 23.48.017.
B. Within the South Lake Union Urban Center, the maximum structure height in
zones with sixty-five (65) foot and seventy-five (75) foot height limits may
be increased to eighty-five (85) feet; and the maximum structure height in
zones with an eighty-five (85) foot height limit may be increased to one
hundred and five (105) feet

Seattle is a city with a Napoleon complex. Everything becomes about height. It’s one thing to be obsessed with standards, as the code is, but another thing all together when verticality becomes the “vocabulary” described by Mollenkopf. Floor Area Ratio, as I have described already, has become the currency with which the City now barters with developers.  Height, bulk, and scale can increase as long as certain conditions are met, especially rather arbitrary price targets for housing units. That doesn’t make any sense. Nevertheless, we have Seattle Mixed which has lots of strings attached including affordable housing performance requirements.

< SM at Republican and Westlake >

What I like about what’s going on in South Lake Union is an emerging “thereness” missing before. While construction was underway on many of the new buildings it was hard to find a sense of place. Now it feels a lot more like that oft touted miracle of redevelopment, the Pearl District in Portland. But there is something emerging that isn’t so great. Have you ever been to Microsoft Headquarters in Redmond?

< Microsoft Building front door >

Here’s the other side of Westlake Avenue to the east, 401 Terry Avenue.

< IC 401 Terry Avenue >

And here is the camera eye set up in front of the building.

< IC 401 Terry Avenue >

And what suburban high tech campus would be complete without an empty (at lunchtime) windswept plaza.

< Windswept Plaza >

Now to be fair, this block, on the other side of the SM zone, is Industrial Commercial at least according to my version of the Land Use Map. I haven’t gotten to the Industrial designations yet. But it is a bit strange to have this kind of barren campus feel in the middle of what is supposed to be an emerging neighborhood. It’s a real problem. Campus style developments are closed and Orwellian (see The Camera Eye above). We don’t want this, I think, in our dream of a dense, vibrant, and walkable city.

High tech use is important. And, as with all my posts, there may be something I am missing. I am not laying anything at Vulcan’s feet or with the City. I can’t even blame the opponents of the redevelopment of South Lake Union. I just know that this block doesn’t seem to be working like other parts of South Lake Union. The Seattle Mixed along with the Industrial Commercial might be addressing some underlying challenge not easily visible. It could also be that the standards set here were driven by pressures from opponents of development. Or maybe things are still sorting themselves out. Or maybe I was just there on a bad day.

South Lake Union is getting better. But I worry that what’s happening there is being driven too much by development standards and not enough by use. And standards tend to be about preventing what we’re afraid of rather than promoting what we dream of. I think more experimentation with form based and use based land use is needed in South Lake Union. I know that’s what’s actually being tried. But we need to let the market and innovation drive new development there, not assuaging the anxieties of people who are worried about change–or someone getting rich. Ultimately that’s about changing our politics, our politicians, and who our politicians listen to. Here’s Mollenkopf again:

If there is a final lesson to be learned from the rise and fall of urban liberalism as a guiding force in American urban development, it is this: we are not captives of history and social structure. The political balance of power, the forms of government inervention, and the courage of poltical leadership have had a vast and demonstrable impact on the course of urban developement. We may well fail the challenge which the demise of traditional urban liberalism has set before us. Certainly, we face many forbidding obstacles in rising to this challenge. Yet, others faced similar obstacles in the past and found ways to overcome them. With the courage to take risks and seek change, those who strive to improve our cities, and through them our politics, can do so as well.



Roger Valdez is a writer who has a special interest in land use. He’s currently reading through and revising Seattle’s land use code with an eye toward making it line up more with the City’s stated interest in becoming more sustainable.



5 Responses leave one →
  1. Cascadian permalink
    April 6, 2011

    In dense neighborhoods, we really need to discourage block-long buildings and encourage street-level retail. Monolithic commercial buildings simply kill activity on the street. Isn’t form-based zoning supposed to accomplish this?

    I can see that we don’t want to scare away big employers who want all their people in one place, so some compromises are OK. But would it really have been so hard to allow this building with modifications to create storefronts on the ground level, and architectural features that make the single building look less singular? The lost square footage could be compensated by allowing an extra floor or two of building height. And if adding that floor is that much expensive, it’s worth considering cutting a short-term deal on lower taxes to make up for the additional cost. The benefit in creating better neighborhoods would more than compensate the city for the lost revenue in the long run.

  2. Thanks permalink
    April 6, 2011

    It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in my thinking about SLU’s new development. I hope that it can become something more than a collection of bland breadloaf buildings devoid of life.

    I’m not sure that there is a single solution. Perhaps a mix of FAR-based code, allowing massive residential development (with no parking minimums) on top of these offices, participation by other developers (it’s easy to build the whole block bland when you own the whole block), more tourists to the SLU Park, street vending, stronger non-vehicle connections (across 99, I-5), the passage of time, etc etc.

  3. Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
    April 6, 2011

    Mostly I think the vitality will take time. The 401 Terry building is actually one of the first that Vulcan did, but it’s being renovated right now for ISB (Institute for Systems Biology) so it’s empty. A better example is the Group Health buildings (320 Westlake and 321 Terry Ave N), which have nearly full retail spots, albeit largely with corporate places like banks and yes, Starbucks.

    The Amazon phase 1 plaza you picture actually was well-used last summer, and a hot dog vendor sets up sometimes. However, it has two big problems right now other than the weather: the Terry Ave storefront spaces are still empty (a year after the buildings opened), but more damning is the fact that Amazon has retail spaces on the Boren Ave side that are not open to the public (the Garage Café by Bon Appetit and a Café Vita coffee shop in the brick Van Vorst building). I’ve actually been in as a guest and I see absolutely no reason for a badge-required suburban campus in the city (the food was great too), and I think it has more to do with large corporation mentality than zoning.

    Kudos to Tom Douglas for breaking that mold with his new restaurants in the brick Terry Ave building. I don’t know if he had to push back to allow the public, but Bon Appetit is crazy for turning away customers and hurting neighborhood vitality.

    Lastly, the other thing of course is 24 hour activity, i.e. more residential in this part of SLU. One cool thing about the NYTimes census 2010 map is that they did occupied housing units by block, which shows the problem. Housing in South Lake Union is nearly all at the edges: up Dexter Ave N, along Denny Way, and across Fairview Ave N in Cascade.

    • Roger permalink
      April 7, 2011

      “more damning is the fact that Amazon has retail spaces on the Boren Ave side that are not open to the public (the Garage Café by Bon Appetit and a Café Vita coffee shop in the brick Van Vorst building). I’ve actually been in as a guest and I see absolutely no reason for a badge-required suburban campus in the city (the food was great too), and I think it has more to do with large corporation mentality than zoning.”

      Thank you JDF. Exactly right. I should have drawn that distinction more clearly. What’s with all the badgieness. Skip it. I’m not sure who wants to sneak into these buildings anyway (don’t answer if you know. I don’t care.)

      I think the SM and IC can and will work. And part of what wasn’t effetively drawn is that although I am an upzone cheerleader, upzones by themselves don’t lead to the outcomes we want. And great design doesn’t always lead there either.

      But our process doesn’t make any of this easier. I suspect, over time, someone will figure out how to make it work.

  4. Robert permalink
    June 15, 2011

    Just received a notice of application. It looks like the two large lots IC-65 & IC-85 along Boren Ave south of Harrison are being rezoned SM-65 & SM-85 respectfully. These are currently occupied by the Seattle Times and old brick ‘Troy’ building.

    It will be sad to see them go. Although the ‘Troy’ building was only being used a warehouse for the Seattle Times it had a nice charm to it. I always though it would be nice if someone converted it to a bookstore, some shops and a brewpub/restaurant.

    I do not know what they have in mind, but it is sad to see some of these older buildings be replace by large city block sized unimaginative structures.

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