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Let The City Builders Do Their Thing

2012 November 14
by dan bertolet

City building is messy. No great city ever arose from timidity. Like any transformative endeavor, creating a city that advances humanity requires innovation and risk.

Unfortunately, here in Seattle those truths are not widely appreciated. And the ongoing debate over rezoning South Lake Union is just the latest example of unrealistic expectations that the process of city building must be all neat and tidy, should please everyone, ruffle no feather.

City building has always caused conspicuous change. Every new building covers land, blocks views, and brings more people and activity. Residents react. Life goes on.

But now, stressed natural systems, resource depletion, and climate change have seriously upped the ante. We know that putting more jobs and people in underutilized, centrally located neighborhoods like South Lake Union is a strategy that has the potential to not only reduce our environmental footprint, but also provide significant social and economic benefits (see the South Lake Union Environmental Benefits Statement for the full story).

The proposed South Lake Union rezone is the product of over five years of public meetings, citizen engagement, planning, analysis, environmental review, and painstaking revision, and is now finally in front of City Council. But for some, that exceedingly thoughtful process is still not enough, the typical, overblown fear tactics of the naysayers well exemplified in former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck’s recent “REZONE-ON-STEROIDS” Facebook barrage.

Much of this sort of opposition seems to be driven by an underlying presumption that bigger buildings are necessarily a bad thing, and so allowing them is a public sacrifice that ought to avoided—or if not avoided, then compensated for by the developer. It’s stale thinking left over from our culture’s long-held anti-city bias. Because the reality of today is that high-density cities are a critical solution for a resilient, sustainable future. And it follows that a rezone enabling more development is a public benefit in itself.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the wonderfully messy business of city building, there will always be naysayers. The question at hand is, will our electeds let them sabotage one of the best opportunities for sustainable urban development in the Pacific Northwest?


Seattle City Council will hold a public hearing the South Lake Union Rezone tonight, Wednesday, November 14 at 5:30 p.m.the City Council Chambers, on the 2nd floor of City Hall at 600 4thAvenue, between Cherry and James.

Photo of messy mix of new and old near Republican and Boren in South Lake Union by the author.