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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.




9 Responses leave one →
  1. Camino Cielo permalink
    November 14, 2012

    2.5 hours into the public hearing and about 60% in support of proposal (28% opposed and the rest mixed or ambiguous). A message in opposition is HDC’s concern about the transportation impacts. Where was HDC when Council was considering the SLU – Eastlake high-capacity transit budget item???

  2. Chris permalink
    November 15, 2012

    The three Vulcan towers on the lake seem questionable from an urban design perspective, despite the overall merit of the program. I’ve seen the renderings and I know private views are not protected, but it seems that the views of a lot of existing and planned units would be affected. We do have overarching city policies to step down height to water bodies. And yes, I get the land swap concept. Any argument as to why this deal is good urban design? Or is it an end that justifies the means, from a city planning perspective?

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      November 15, 2012

      1. You don’t own your view, and views are not forever. This is especially true in a city.

      2. It looks a whole lot like Seattle’s copying Vancouver’s approach in SLU. Compare the pictures: Seattle Vancouver. To me, that’s not a lot of view blocking. Each block has one fairly narrow tower surrounded by short ~7-story buildings.

      I do like the step-down approach, but I’d rather we build these and raise the heights to the south.

    • Morgan permalink
      November 15, 2012

      I think views are at least partly public property, and the public should have a say in how and where views are allocated. Views have a tremendous impact on human experience. If we wish to make communities desirable places to live, we need to keep an eye on many public considerations, and views are one. If we simply leave view ‘management’ to the private sector, individual, self-centered, short-term decisions will become the animating factor. Markets are simply not good tools for managing public goods.

  3. Morgan permalink
    November 15, 2012

    There’s no doubt that much of the resistence to very tall buildings comes from a long history of poor design of an around such buildings. I don’t see Seattle’s history and buildingscape as an exception.

    We definitley need a superlative project to ease public resistance.

  4. Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
    November 15, 2012

    Frankly I could care less either way about towers or views on a couple blocks. What I do want to see quick action on is the absurdity of the current underlying zoning. In the picture there is a 16-unit residential building built in 1905, but the parcel will remain zoned Industrial/Commercial until council takes action.

  5. Tracy Corley permalink
    November 25, 2012

    Great article, Dan. I have found that the fight between “human scale” and “urban” leads to the type of second-guessing and back-pedaling that is showing here. Urban buildings, when designed appropriately, can be human scale. They can be efficient, environmentally friendly, healthy, engaging, and beautiful. I hope that Seattle will continue to move forward and not lose its momentum by visions of 1950’s era provincialism that has other cities trapped in being little more than oversized, hip suburbs.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Today at 5:30: Ask City Council to Act! Approve Bold Vision for South Lake Union, a jewel in Seattle’s future : Great City
  2. Don’t Overburden Development In The South Lake Union Rezone | citytank

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