Mayor Mike McGinn's office announced a new "zoning proposal for South Lake Union" yesterday in a press release that, strangely, didn't explain what that zoning proposal would be (or acknowledge that it will cause some neighbors to shit cinder blocks—which I'll explain in a bit). However, his office did boast that the plan would provide capacity for as many as 12,000 new housing units and office space for 22,000 new jobs. So I got a copy of the proposed zoning map, which would raise heights up to 400 feet high along Denny Way and 240 feet throughout most of the remaining neighborhood.
Here's an autumnal-hued diagram:
South Lake Union: Current height limits in the area range from 40 feet to 125 feet—as you can see in these maps here and here.
Brace yourself for renewed howls from residents on the western slope of Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods who could lose their views of the Space Needle. (I've written about this view controversy, the earlier proposals, the community board stacked with real-estate interests, and assorted outcry when the planning began more than four years ago under former mayor Greg Nickels.)
The inevitable howls can and should be ignored. There are three reasons why:
First: This proposal won't create a wall of buildings. It would limit development to two towers per block, and it would, in buildings over 160 feet, limit their floor size to 10,500 square feet. Furthermore, residential towers could not cover more than half the property. This is to say, taller buildings will be set back from the street with many bright, view-friendly gaps between them.
Second: Simply adding development capacity doesn't result in tall buildings being developed on every lot. Take downtown, where real estate is more valuable, transportation is better, and the location is just—well—more desirable: Lots of squat buildings still remain among the skyscrapers. Even though taller buildings are allowed downtown (even infinite heights!), no one has built the Burj Alki. In the Denny Triangle due north of downtown, many lots are still undeveloped even though the zoning capacity reaches 400 feet. So when the development financing market picks up again—pray!!—it won't concentrate new construction solely in one part of town. It will be dispersed, with a few (hopefully nice) tall new buildings in South Lake Union.
Third: Views of skyscrapers are awesome, as I've said before. In fact, that’s what you should see when you look out the window in the middle of the 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.
But the test for McGinn is in finishing what Nickels started by getting this legislation passed. Seattle City Council member Richard Conlin, who chairs the council's land-use committee, hasn't seen the mayor's proposal yet because the mayor hasn't yet transmitted it. (McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus says it's coming soon.) That said, Conlin say that rezoning is "essential" to making South Lake Union an urban center. "Briefings have presented an attractive set of ideas," says Conlin, "but I need to see which of those actually wound up in the legislation."
When the council does consider it, may the Force be with them overcoming the Dark Side of the NIMBYs. May they have the fortitude to withstand superficial complaints from those who don't want their city to look and function, you know, like a city.