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S400: Can’t get used to something so right…

2011 October 31
by A-P Hurd

I was talking to a Seattle City Councilmember the other day about the politics of the South Lake Union rezone. Apparently, everyone on the Council has something they don’t particularly like about the new developments there, something that they wish was done differently, and this is making them cautious about moving forward.

I have to admit, I was aghast. This is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in our city, nay, in our country for crying out loud!  Other cities wonder how they could get some of our pixie dust and make a South Lake Union appear in a dilapidated industrial area at the fringe of their downtown. South Lake Union is full of the kind of goodies that city leaders covet like lots of mixed income housing, entrepreneurialism, job growth, economic diversity, and excellent places to eat and shop and walk around.

I was in the neighborhood for a meeting recently and took a couple of pictures of some things that I like on the big black 11-story building that has drawn its share of ire. How cool is that picture window (above) with the space needle in it?  Very cool.  Cooler, in fact, because you have to stand in just the right place to see it.  I don’t need a view corridor to the space needle from everywhere,  just in one perfect spot.  And check out those excellent floating light fixtures in that coffee shop on the left.

And look at these nifty doodles in a window on a weird grade where you can’t really put a retail entrance.  See the Oregon grapes in the foreground? Fun. Fun. I am delighted by this stuff compared to what used to be there.

Can I find some things I don’t like in South Lake Union? Sure.

Should they drive policy that effectively turns off the tap until 2013 on a thriving neighborhood that is bursting at the seams? Of course not.


A-P Hurd is a developer at Touchstone and a Fellow of the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington.


9 Responses leave one →
  1. Gabriel Grant permalink
    November 1, 2011

    Good piece. Most cities around the world would love to figure out how to create such a remarkable cluster of innovative and valuable organizations. We should be proud of the transformation that has taken place. It proves that we can still pull off big, great things here in Seattle. Additional jobs, more housing options, cultural institutions, and improved multi-modal transportation infrastructure (all coming) should only make it better in the years to come.

  2. james in the CD permalink
    November 1, 2011

    while the built environment of south lake union is something to be desired, my opinion of the place: it feels like a corporate campus full of socially inept amazon people.

    i try to like it – i have made a point of getting out of the central district/capitol hill on the bike to check out some of the places to eat/drink – and as i roll down the streets – the area just doesn’t feel alive. and on the weekdays the area just feels sort of awkward.

    has the land been put to better use – for sure – but i would like to know the criteria you are gauging the success of the neighborhood when you say “This is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in our city” ? uppen queen anne on a monday night at 11:00 PM seems more vibrant with urbanity than lake union.

  3. Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
    November 2, 2011

    Elected officials are “cautious” about just about everything, so I wouldn’t place too much of the blame on anything specific to SLU, and I really wish they could get a move on with the EIS next steps. However, as Roger Valdez said here in Seattle Mixed Feelings, “upzones by themselves don’t lead to the outcomes we want.”

    For the most part the new buildings in SLU are done right by being simple, boxy, and urban, unlike the Gates Foundation campus or Apple’s planned Spaceship Headquarters, which are closed to the public and hostile to their surroundings. Unfortunately Amazon pushes slightly in that direction with their employee-badge-required cafes.

    In all, it’s probably fair to call SLU “one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in our city, nay, in our country” but only in the sense that “vibrant” can mean bright, shiny, and new–a good synonym might be “sterile.” SLU does not yet have much vitality except in Cascade, but that will come with time and community work. For example, I think the permanent public art adds a lot, and the first 3rd Thursday ARTcade event last week was great (Romales Gypsy Jazz band stole the show).

  4. Jon Scholes permalink
    November 2, 2011

    I’ve heard similar grousing and experienced the same frustration. Sometimes we really over think urban planning and fuss about the details way too much. If you can figure out how to locate lots of jobs and lots of residents in one place, really good things usually happen – retail is able to flourish, tax revenues increase, more jobs and public infrastructure follow, the pedestrian realm is more exciting, etc.

  5. Morgan permalink
    November 2, 2011

    Yeah, material resources are being organized into structures that facilitate the creation of new technology and the circulation of money (aka economic growth), but that’s about it to me. I bike through SLU often and never am tempted to stop. There’s no culture. It feels very in-organic, sterile, a-cultural–everything I dislike about modern, mixed use development around the city.

  6. Matt the Engineer permalink
    November 2, 2011

    Considering this is effectively a clean-slate development, and considering Seattle’s far-from-perfect building codes, I think it’s come out reasonably well.

    The sterility comes from the clean-slate development – of course it doesn’t have any character yet, it’s brand new. I would have loved to see more narrow storefronts, more narrow buildings especially of varying design, and a dozen other features that make an interesting walkable city. But it’s impossible to have really interesting building variation, because there were no interesting buildings already there. Therefore all buildings are of the exact same vintage, which leads to similar styles.

    I’d give the area at least a B, given these constraints. They’ve kept parking hidden, given us a good street wall, and the blocks are generally interesting to walk on. And of course there’s the streetcar (which will become more frequent and therefore useful when it’s extended). Smaller storefronts and more storefronts on non-primary streets would have given us more interesting, less “corporate” stores to walk past. When apartments go in, hopefully they’ll make a lot of them small and affordable, and some of them with many rooms appropriate for families, which will lead to a varying set of residents.

  7. poseur permalink
    November 2, 2011

    Yes, it’s great compared to what was there before but that’s a bit of a straw man argument. It’s being utilized, but could it have been done better? Absolutely.

    I find the area sterile and bland, the architecture cold, dark, and monolithic, and the whole area uninviting. I’m just disappointed that this is the best they could do.

    But hey, we can just tear it down in 20 years and start over.

  8. Chris permalink
    November 3, 2011

    So its a bit of a bland corporate campus “poured into” a urban envelope. But its much better for accessibility and traffic than if they had upped and moved into a much lower density campus in a more remote location, and a major economic engine for the city. We need more of that.

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