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Seattle’s Got The Transformational Moves (Like Jagger?*)

2012 March 21
by dan bertolet

One clue that something’s up in Seattle is the construction cranes, whose legions have reinvaded the City during the past year or so.  But the cranes only hint at the myriad transformational projects in the works that, all told, present an extraordinary opportunity to transform Seattle into a resilient city equipped to thrive in a challenging future.

Check it out:

< Rendering of the west half of the North Lot Development - click to enlarge >

Though one analyst is already eyeing the end of the apartment boom, there still seems to be no end in sight to new multifamily projects (REIT feeding frenzy anyone?). Two stand out as transformational: the North Lot and Yesler Terrace.

The North Lot development on the surface parking lot adjacent to CenturyLink Field will bring 700 units of new housing to the Pioneer Square neighborhood, which has suffered from a severe lack of market-rate housing for decades. The second phase of the project will add 420,000 square feet of office. And all of those new homes and jobs will be within a stone’s throw of King Street station, the Pacific Northwest’s most important transit hub.

< Rendering of the potential full buildout of Yesler Terrace >

Yesler Terrace, located on 30 acres on the southeast edge of downtown, will eventually transform about 600 units of aging low-income housing to as many as 5,000 low-income and market-rate units, along with significant commercial and office space (depending on the future market). With excellent access to transit and jobs, Yesler Terrace has the potential to become one of North America’s finest examples of an equitable, sustainable urban neighborhood.

< Model of NBBJ's early design concept for Amazon's new property in the Denny Triangle >

Then there’s the latest Amazon deal, involving plans for a trio of one-million-square-foot office towers in the Denny Triangle. Based on a typical office cube size, that’s nearly 9,000 new jobs. Some of those jobs may be sucked away from existing office space elsewhere, but any way you look at it, it’s a massive investment in Seattle’s future as a regional employment center. And it’s also an investment in the right place—a walkable, transit-rich urban center, as opposed to the car-dependent burbs where Microsoft set up shop in their early years.

Furthermore, all those new jobs will draw more people to Seattle, and most of those people will want nearby places to live, fueling a virtuous cycle of densification.  Seemingly prescient, right across from the future Amazon site on 6th Ave, construction is well underway on a 654-unit dual-tower apartment.

< Rendering of the proposed Insignia condo project in Belltown >

UPDATE: The SeattlePI is reporting a rumor that the Insignia 643-unit, 41-story, dual-tower condo project in Belltown (about two blocks south of the new Amazon property) will start construction as early as this May, making it the City’s first large-scale condo project to break ground since the housing bubble burst.


< Rendering of future University of Washington South Lake Union medical research campus - click to enlarge >

Meanwhile just next door to the Denny Triangle, the South Lake Union neighborhood continues its remarkable trend of successful urban redevelopment. An upzone is in the works to enable the increasing levels of density that the market now supports.

< Conversion of Mercer Street to a two-way boulevard - photo by Dan Bertolet; click to enlarge >

Near the southern end of South Lake Union, construction is currently underway to convert a section of Mercer Street into a two-way boulevard. The $190 million project will create a pedestrian and bike friendly “complete street” that will enhance urban livability and help reconnect the neighborhood to Lake Union.

Proposed future Mercer Street improvements to the west will integrate with a scheme to reconfigure the street grid around the north portal of the deep-bore tunnel. A section of the diagonal Broad Street will be removed, enabling a reconnection of the original east-west grid on Harrison and Thomas Streets that will help knit together South Lake Union and Seattle Center.

< Rendering by Seattle Center Urban Intervention finalist team Koning Eizenberg Architecture + ARUP >

Speaking of which, Seattle Center, now 50 years old, is in line for a serious makeover as envisioned in the recently completed $570 million, 20-year Master Plan. The new Chihuly Exhibit is currently under construction, and the Urban Intervention design competition is soliciting ideas for how to completely transform the 9-acre heart of the Center where Memorial Stadium now stands.

And speaking of sports arenas, Seattle has a deal for another one in the works, to be located just south of the two existing stadiums in South Downtown. According to the proposal, the project will be primarily funded through private investment—another example of the all-around bullish market for Seattle.

< Rendering of the James Corner Field Operations vision for Seattle's Central Waterfront >

A short walk from the stadium district brings you to the Central Waterfront, which will get a new lease on life after the Alaskan Way viaduct comes down in 2016 and is currently the focus of a high-profile design effort led by New York City’s James Corner Field Operations. In addition, WSDOT is planning a $210 million renovation of the Seattle Multimodal Terminal at Colman Dock, located near the south end of the waterfront.  CORRECTION: the Coleman Dock image originally shown below is out of date and has been replaced with the current plan.

< Rendering of the Seattle Multimodal Terminal at Colman Dock Project; click to enlarge >

The transformational potential of the Central Waterfront cannot be overstated, though there will be challenges: funding, of course, but also, in my view, the prevalent aversion to allowing redevelopment that would help fill in and activate that very wide linear space.


In the realm of transportation, two major freeway projects—the deep-bore tunnel and the SR-520 Bridge—will probably suck up upwards of $10 billion of public investment when all is said and done. Transformational, no doubt, though given likely future trends the wisdom of further transformation toward reliance on travel by car is questionable, to say the least. (That said, the new SR-520 bridge will improve transit service, and the newly enacted tolling is a major, paradigm-shifting, positive step for the region.)

As for transportation projects that can be expected to transform Seattle away from car dependence, Sound Transit light rail tops the list.  Right now there are three tunnel-boring machines chugging away on the University Link extension that will connect Westlake, Capitol Hill and the University District. The sites around Capitol Hill Station that will become available for redevelopment after station construction is finished represent one of the City’s best opportunities for transit-oriented development.

North Link will bring three more light rail stations to Seattle by 2020. And the $18 billion expansion funded by ST2 will extend Seattle’s light rail connectivity to numerous satellite cities to the north, east and south.

Seattle has also just formally given the green light to a new $132 million streetcar line running from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill light rail station via Yesler Terrace and First Hill. On Broadway the reconstructed street will include a separated two-way cycle track. The streetcar vehicles will be built in Seattle and feature regenerative braking.


Okay, so those are the big ones, but there are many more worthy of honorable mentions, a few a which are noted below:

< Construction of new student housing at the University of Washington >

  • The University of Washington has been on a student housing binge, with plans to add 3,000 new student beds over several development phases valued at close to half a billion dollars.
  • The City will soon be home to two new mid-rise office buildings that are targeting the Living Building Challenge: first, the Bullitt Center in the Central District, and second,  the new Brooks Sports HQ in Fremont. Though these  are isolated buildings, they are trailblazers that will help further establish Seattle as a center for green innovation.
  • Construction continues on the Seattle Housing Authority’s Rainier Vista, bringing more new low-income and market-rate housing in close proximity to the Columbia City light rail station.
  • King County Metro’s Rapid Ride bus rapid transit will begin serving West Seattle and Ballard in Fall 2012 and the north Aurora Ave corridor in 2013.
  • And lastly, one with powerful, long-term transformational potential for Seattle and the greater region:  The Puget Sound Regional Council’s Growing Transit Communities Partnership,  the region’s first and only comprehensive program for planning around our regional high-capacity transit investments. As the region goes, so goes the city.
  • (Etc, etc, let me know what I missed.)

In sum, all that action and investment is not too shabby for a single city in a country still suffering from economic doldrums. The fact is, Seattle’s prospects are great. As the above discussion makes clear, Seattle’s exceptional combination of intellectual, economic and natural capital is propelling the City into a dynamic future. And now’s the time to keep pushing, keep innovating, keep dreaming, so all that dynamism can be channeled to create a truly sustainable city for the 21st Century.


Dan Bertolet is an urban planner with VIA Architecture and creator of Citytank.


*PS:  Do you have the moves like Jagger?