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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

If Not South Lake Union, Then Where?

posted by on May 6 at 12:03 PM

[A] South Lake Union group is considering new proposals that would… seek zoning changes to allow 300- or 400-foot buildings in response to business interest in the growing area.

That has some residents, business owners and concerned citizens crying foul. They fear that if the new heights are ultimately approved, views from every neighborhood around Lake Union would be blocked, beloved parks and P-patches would lose sunlight to shade, and any vision for a walkable, “livable” South Lake Union would be destroyed.

“Any way you look at this, 400-foot height limits is very scary,” said [Diane] Masson, regional marketing director for Mirabella, a continuing retirement community run by Pacific Retirement Services.

“I favor a few, tall narrow towers. … It’s not true that 400-tall buildings will block views,” said [Queen Anne Community Council member John] Coney, who favors concentrating jobs, buildings and residential density in South Lake Union. “The principle behind urban centers is … that you provide people the opportunity to live near where they work.”

“Building 400 feet and out to the lot line could create a concrete jungle and blot out the sun,” [Masson] said.

Concerns about darkened sidewalks and unwalkable cities are understandable—nobody wants a dark, desolate city—but they’re unfounded.

Under this proposed zoning change, the rules that would apply to SLU would undoubtedly reflect the zoning regulations that apply the parts of Seattle where 400-foot construction is already permitted. Towers are restricted to around 11,000 square feet per floor, preserving view corridors and letting in light. The rest of the building that abuts the curb would be mostly limited to six-to-eight stories; that’s the same height as most buildings in Paris, where streets are walkable and bright. (Filling out lot lines with mixed-use buildings creates walkable, livable cities—not dark, unwalkable cities.) Even in the business district of downtown Seattle, where the towers are 500-900 feet tall, streets are still walkable and bright. Perhaps not bright enough for a vegetable garden, but it is downtown, and, really, SLU is destined to be part of downtown, too.

But even where the zoning allows it, not every block supports a skyscraper—some squat old buildings remain and developers choose not to fill out the zoning envelope for economic reasons at other sites. The market creates a mix of different heights.

And I’ve tried, but I cannot muster sympathy for the “I’m losing my sacred view” crowd. Views of skyscrapers are awesome. In fact, that’s what you should see when you look out the window in the middle of the fucking city. If you want to see the water or mountains, Seattle will always have plenty of those views—just not from the middle of downtown. Suck it up.

Here’s where I totally agree with the anti-density folks: 400-foot buildings shouldn’t be built right up to the shore of Lake Union. 85-foot zoning in the block-and-a-half back from the water’s edge (like what’s already being built around West Lake Union), provides density while leaving bright spaces and pedestrian-friendly boulevards. That’s an easy compromise.

In the next 32 years, 1.7 million people are expected to move to the Puget Sound region. Those people have to go somewhere. Sprawl is bad land use. Neighbors in single-family housing neighborhoods would have kittens if development one-third this density were proposed near their homes. If not South Lake Union, then where?

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I'd take a view of a skyscraper over a view of lake union, or the space needle, or the view I have right now, which is a view of two union square, which doesn't work, because when I leave my blinds open, everybody can see me from the waist up, and I'm usually naked when home, so that doesn't work.

Posted by Mr. Poe | May 6, 2008 12:15 PM

As long as one of those buildings has a fucking grocery store in the ground floor, count me in. I'm sick of having to go to the QFC on Broadway where all the cashiers hate everything ever.

Posted by T | May 6, 2008 12:18 PM

Of course the Queen Anne Com. Council member would not object to skyscrapers on SOUTH Lake Union, that won't block any Queen Anne views. Queen Anne has some of the strictest zoning in the city and residents oppose anything that would incrase density on Queen Anne.

Posted by inkweary | May 6, 2008 12:29 PM

I don't know - how bout Belltown like the City has been planning for the last 100 or so years?

400' buildings will largely be commercial, and will further exacerbate the jobs/housing imbalance that most planners with a lick of sense have identified as a real problem in SLU, not that inconvenient facts like that would make a dent in your "density at all costs" dogma.

Posted by Mr. X | May 6, 2008 12:34 PM

Mr. X, I don't believe in "density at all costs." A 400' tower shouldn't be built in the middle of Wallingford or right on the lake. We should be calculated about how we construct infill density in neighborhoods. But in the core of the city, close to bus lines, housing, nightlife, etc., that's where we should plan for peak density. That area is downtown, Belltown, the Denny Triangle, and South Lake Union. It's the middle of the city! Personally, I wish we had a COMMONS in SLU to preserve light and open space--since the expansion of downtown was inevitable--but the COMMONS didn't work out... Now we just have the dense development coming to SLU--nevertheless, that's where the city needs it.

Posted by Dominic Holden | May 6, 2008 12:43 PM

How about designing some of these buildings so they reflect light down onto the street level. Put a big diffusing mirror or something at the top, how hard can it be.

Posted by Super Jesse | May 6, 2008 12:44 PM

And I’ve tried, but I cannot muster sympathy for the “I’m losing my sacred view” crowd. Views of skyscrapers are awesome.

We don't have to take the word of the NIMBYs that buildings "destroy" views, or this take that skyscraper views are just as good as other views - there's already a dollar value of the view in any property appraisal. So perhaps an appraiser (I'm sure dozens of them read the Slog) can tell us just how better/worse a skyscraper view is relative to other types of views.

Posted by JMR | May 6, 2008 12:47 PM

Umm... how about nowhere? Why does Seattle HAVE to let itself grow too large? How about those of us who like the present size and would rather see growth happen somewhere nearby, but LEAVE SEATTLE ALONE!? Seriously Dominic I love your articles. It is fully half the reason I read SLOG is to learn of new developments. But do you or developers or the city have any kind of growth/height restraint within you?

Any growth of Seattle should start pushing south. Start building up SoDO and Duwamish, and down towards Boeing field. There is enough room there, high volume road capacity exists, and you have alot of older warehouses that can be mass planned for high capacity transit, and wide roads.

Not everything has to have a view of the Space Needle, the Sound, or SLU.

Seriously. That entire area of South Lake Union needs to remain lower density, and lower height. Too many areas of the city have succumbed to high towers and concrete. Green Grass open areas in downtown are a sad scarcity.

How about a vision of South Lake Union akin to something like Central Park in New York City? Can't we have a 1000 acre green(er) area of downtown with huge parks and public open space?

In my pipe dream, I'd love to see the entire South shores of SLU become a huge grass park.

That would serve the city of Seattle residents best.

Posted by Reality Check | May 6, 2008 12:50 PM

I refuse to post my obvious post about how we need to mandate green space (mini-parks) around very tall buildings, because today is National Don't Wake Up Fnarf From His Wikipedia Unreality Day.

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 6, 2008 12:56 PM

How 'bout up yer butt?

Posted by meks | May 6, 2008 1:03 PM

SLU is hideous. Tearing down most of those buildings and replacing them with skyscrapers would be an improvement. In other words, that kind of density in that neighborhood makes more sense and is much more acceptable than in Wallingford or Queen Anne.

Posted by keshmeshi | May 6, 2008 1:04 PM

So why force Seattle to become so completely dense? Can't we keep Seattle at it's present density and let additional density move further south like Reality Check suggests? How about Bellevue? Why does that type of forced density require it to happen within Seattle proper? Shouldn't the residents of Seattle have a say that they don't want any additional density to happen so fast? Smaller buildings means the density builds up slower, allowing for a decade of additional infrastructure and road/transit capacity to be built in.

Allowing Seattle to throw up these monstrosities so fast seriously compromises the livability of Seattle and the surrounding region.

Why not immediately design tax breaks and other initiatives to start building 400' towers in MLK/Rainier Ave, and/or over towards the International District and to the southwest ( South Jackson, 23rd Ave and between MLK and Rainier?? What is wrong with areas north of I 90 and east of I-5?

But Reality Check is correct. There is plenty of room all along 4th Ave South over to East Marginal Way for 3 miles to the south into Georgetown.

Posted by Bellevue anyone? | May 6, 2008 1:08 PM

Ahhh... Reality Check. This demonstrates the complete fallacy of your entire thesis.

If you had lived in Seattle more than a few years, you would remember "The Commons". It was a proposal to do just that: to turn much of the old rundown SLU area into a big park, a la Central Park. It was put before Seattle voters, and firmly voted down. Twice. So your park isn't going to happen.

This also proves you have moved here since 1996, or are too young to remember 1996. Just how do you propose we close the gates of Seattle and not allow anyone new to move here (now that you're here, of course). Or prevent people from having more than 2 kids (unless those kids move somewhere else when they move away from mom & dad).

Your plan to develop SODO or the Duwamish isn't any better. Those areas already serve a purpose. They are the major shipping and manufacturing area in Seattle. Rezone those areas, and you eliminate a big chunk of good paying middle income employment.

Posted by Reverse Polarity | May 6, 2008 1:16 PM

Another inconvenient fact, Seattle is capable of meeting all of its current PSRC housing and job growth goals without needing to upzone a single parcel. Of those 1.7 million people cited, only a fraction will locate in the City limits.

False choices, anyone?

Posted by Mr. X | May 6, 2008 1:32 PM

Yep you got me RP. I did move here since '96. Got me!

So because I failed to be "around" during a vote that happened 12 years ago, I don't qualify for an opinion? Or better yet... Seattle hasn't changed a lick since '96 right?

I wonder if all those citizens who voted down the "Commons" idea back then had any idea the type of metro Seattle would become today. You really think if that vote happened again this fall, given the political climate, the distate with His Highness Mayor McClown, all the ugly condo conversions, and especially the transit mess... that if ALL that crap were known back then, that citizens wouldn't have voted for a huge greenspace area?

Given the general public's (and not representative of SLOG bloggers opinions) distaste for all the condo conversions and the general hatred for developers, I think that vote if it were to happen today, would be a strong win for greenspace.

Posted by Reality Check | May 6, 2008 1:34 PM

Rathen than see SLU darkened, I'd like to see 85-125 foot buildings in many more neighborhoods centered around transit.

Northgate, U-District, Roosevelt, Greenwood, Ballard, Lower Queen Anne, Belltown, ALL of the light rail stops. The list goes on.

We don't need to ruin SLU. Maybe spots of 400 foot towers but certainly not the whole thing.

Posted by Cale | May 6, 2008 1:35 PM

Any chance of examining that "1.7 million people in next 32 years" trope? I mean, I know it's a popular think-tank wishful number, but the state's OFM reads the U.S. Census 2000 to 2006 for the whole damn county as showing an annual growth of just 7,130 households, a number that extrapolates over the next 32 years into 228,160 new housing units needed for all of King County, not just Seattle. This leads the careful reader to wonder if this "1.7 million new Seattleites" thing is just wishful on the part of developers and their friendly media friends. Why the panic in the face of a ho-hum statistical reality?

Who profits from the panic? Gee, that's a poser.

Posted by tomasyalba | May 6, 2008 1:38 PM

Reality Check is right. We need to stop building anything new within walking or transit distance of any of the downtown jobs. How else will the demand overtake the supply, raising housing prices even more and forcing all of those nasty blacks, hispanics and welfare mothers down south - where we've conveniently built them thousands of Cabrini Green-style apartments. And since we don't have those pesky poor people around anymore, we can tear down a few buildings and build the wonderful 1,000 acre park. Yes, let's get started on it today! Oh wait, we don't have to start anything... All we need to do is act in typical Seattle fashion and complain loudly when anyone else tries to do something productive.

Posted by 60's Child | May 6, 2008 1:45 PM

God, this is so fucking ridiculous. Why can't developers get to decide what to do with the land they bought and pay taxes on?


Seattle is so fucked with its NIMBYs, its Seattle Native Uber Alles, its Last Californian to Move In. Nothing productive will get done and we will wind up like L.A. or Phoenix, etc etc.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 6, 2008 1:45 PM


Dominic already addressed that. He made the accurate point that sprawl is bad land use.


No one's forcing Seattle to become dense. They're allowing developers to build dense developments if they so choose. Jebus. I can't believe there are opponents to density in that shithole known as South Lake Union. NIMBYs indeed.

Posted by keshmeshi | May 6, 2008 2:00 PM

If local developers had been granted free rein over the last thirty years to do whatever they wanted with "their" land, the landscape would look pretty bleak around here, and some people would never have found it so attractive to migrate thisaway. All in all we're doing alright.

Posted by tomasyalba | May 6, 2008 2:00 PM

@13 is correct, and obviously has been to Georgetown.

Which is a neat place to get comics and beer and cider.

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 6, 2008 2:02 PM

All this talk about ruining SLU is shite. Have you been there? As long as you keep the waterfront nice, there isn't much there to "ruin". And I think Dominic's proposal does that quite well.

I also love the "Whyyy do they have to come heeerrree?" whiners. The stupid SODO idea has been adequately disposed of already.

tomas, lets count the number of variables you changed.

Puget Sound region -> King County 4 million people -> 2 million people
people -> housing units persons per household ~ 2.5
6 years -> 32 years not taking into account exponential growth

Posted by F | May 6, 2008 2:12 PM


Because they bought the land with the existing zoning with open eyes - we don't owe anyone a rezone (let alone one of this incredible magnitude) to ensure that their business decisions are profitable. That is simply NOT how land use is supposed to work.

You are aware that spot rezones are technically illegal, yes?

Posted by Mr. X | May 6, 2008 2:15 PM

Increasing density is inevitable in the whole King/Pierce county area. No doubts there. The point that I think the NIMBY crowd doesn't understand is that if we don't plan to a degree for density, and continue to believe Seattle won't get bigger and that we can limit the growth, we'll end up as a mess of gridlock, bad neighberhoods and chaos eventually. We have to plan for increased growth, we have to do all of this because Seattle's population, along with everywhere else in King County is not goingt to be static. Afterall, the saying goes, "don't fight the ocean, you'll only drown" and I think that applies here too.

Posted by Insanity's Bipolar Twin | May 6, 2008 2:20 PM

Sorry F! Clearly I drank my lunch while typing numbers. Back to lurking.

Posted by tomasyalba | May 6, 2008 2:22 PM

When you can no longer see the Space Needle from the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge (or anywhere else), you'll know Our Town has arrived!

Posted by NapoleonXIV | May 6, 2008 2:49 PM

Any idea how much this would improve property values in SLU, and whose property values it would increase?

That’s basic journalism. Saying Paris is awesome is not.

Posted by BB | May 6, 2008 3:03 PM

@28 - Paul Allen and Bill Gates Jr, of course.

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 6, 2008 3:20 PM

yup, it's basic journalism to know numbers that even the real estate appraisers do not. but perhaps mr. holden will indulge us with the basic journalistic estimate of "how much this will improve property values".

if i were to venture a guess, i'd say $100.00.

ps--would the basic journalist please list all property holders in SLU? and in all neighborhoods considering zoning changes? thanks!

Posted by dpa | May 6, 2008 3:24 PM

Dominic wrote: Concerns about darkened sidewalks and unwalkable cities are understandable—nobody wants a dark, desolate city—but they’re unfounded.

Unfounded Dominic? I'm sorry but everytime I trust the city to do something good with a land use decision, they always fail. Always.

Simply put, the citizens do not trust their government to provide a voice for the common citizen to live downtown. We don't want huge buildings where we are crammed in for maximum capacity and developer profit.

If the city actually had a positive history to follow Vancouver's land use and architectural layout, it might be possible for the common Seattle citizen to rest assure that they were in good hands.

We need to mandate taller NARROWER buildings that have greenspace around them. Take a look at Vancouver's 5-15 story narrow residential buildings. They are all different, they all have character, they don't look like a condo or crammed 4 plex cookie cutter design.

Plus they have different heights on all of the buildings. You have a tall narrow residential apartment complex, next to other similar lower rise residentials buildings. In Seattle they ALL are built to maximum height limits on a given block, the sun is blocked out, and it is a concrete nightmare. It just stinks of no atmosphere.

Because of the city's lousy track record, we cannot open this Pandora's box for higher limits. The mayor and city council, and planning commission only see $$ everywhere they look to get bigger faster.

I for one want no part of it.

Posted by NIMBY is not always a bad mantra | May 6, 2008 3:27 PM

@ Mr.X
spot rezones might be illegal, but i'm not pushing for that; I'm pushing for complete neighborhood rezones and retracting of ridiculous limits not just for one developer but for all.

All the talk of doing the density thing in ANOTHER neighborhood is bullshit NIMBYism.

@21, how would you know? we don't know what seattle would be like without height limits. it could have been awesome. or not. but the point is, what is the value in keeping height limits on buildings? obviously the buildings are all going to be built TO the limit and growth within seattle will be stymied. people that fight growth with arbitrary NIMBY voting wind up spurring unintended consequences that bite them in the ass.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 6, 2008 3:42 PM

NIMBY is almost always a bad mantra because it isn't "well this is bad for the entire area", it is "this is just bad for me"

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 6, 2008 3:44 PM

Will these developments make Seattle a World Class City (TM)?

Posted by joykiller | May 6, 2008 4:45 PM

Well I guess all comes down to, do you want the area filled with 400' buildings full of million dollar condos or do you want ugly ass townhouses?

Posted by Sad Comment | May 6, 2008 7:27 PM

one of my friends has a money view of the sears towers in chicago. it almost sold me on moving in with him

Posted by mike | May 6, 2008 11:44 PM


Well, I'd prefer well-designed 5-6 story European-style multifamily housing with internal courtyards and ample street furniture and plantings, but given the more likely choices you present, I'll take the ugly-ass townhouses. At least some of the people I know might be able to afford those, and they won't throw shadows on the Cascade P-Patch and Playfield.

Posted by Mr. X | May 7, 2008 12:26 AM

Mmmm... That's a pretty cute assumption you're making there, that:

1. The new Seattle residents will have the money to get themselves an apartment in a high-rise.

2. They will actually **WANT** to live in a high-rise.

Housing market 101. Living spaces are not interchangable with one another on the market, because they are all different from one another. That means that it's absolutely possible - and pretty much inescapable - that certain sectors of the housing market will have an oversupply of living space, while other sectors remain undersupplied.

You can't just say, "oh, there's demand for so and so many apartments, so we'll build high-rises with that many apartments in them, and that will then be an appropriate supply."

The market doesn't work that way.

Posted by k | May 7, 2008 2:08 AM

As a Rainier Valley resident, I'd love to have some of that high-density development around here. Take advantage of that light rail station, and with all the added residents maybe we'd have a decent grocery store within walking distance.

And it's just good urban planning to have maximum density around high-capacity transit stations.

Posted by MHD | May 7, 2008 7:56 AM

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