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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Awkward Moments in South Lake Union Planning

posted by on May 7 at 13:17 PM

A meeting of the South Lake Union Friends and Neighbors group (SLUFAN), a community group loyal to the mayor’s and Vulcan’s development agenda, last night was supposed to accomplish, among other things, two goals: to hold an “urban form discussion” about its rezoning proposals for neighborhood growth, and to choose between two candidates tied for a board seat in a neighborhood-wide election. Easier said than done.

PART ONE—A room in the South Lake Union Armory building was stuffed with people who had read an article about SLUFAN considering recommendations to allow 400-foot-tall buildings in the neighborhood. The topic was allotted 50 minutes on the agenda; a gigantic portfolio that contained diagrams of the proposals leaned in the corner. But after a quick announcement that two future meetings would be held to discuss the plans, the board President, Dawn Oliver, noting the large turnout, simply asked if anyone had any comments. “What’s this I read about 400-foot buildings?” asked a man in the audience. The board members began to debate—was this or was this not the appropriate time to present the plans? Jim Holmes of the city’s Department of Planning and Development inched toward the diagrams—which he’d obviously brought to show the group. Each time a board member voiced support for showing the proposals, Holmes reached to open the portfolio, but then, as another member would oppose the presentation, Holmes would retract his hand. The board exchanged furtive glances; the crowd looked expectant. Vulcan’s Phil Fujii, one the SLUFAN’s board members, finally took a stand in favor of showing the drawings. And out they came.

Three rezoning proposals are on the table (all still in flux) for the roughly 66 blocks of the South Lake Union neighborhood.

1. This would be the highest-density scheme, containing about 25 blocks where commercial buildings could reach up to 240 feet and residential buildings up to 400 feet. The remaining blocks would allow mostly 125- to 300-foot-tall buildings (a few blocks would be unchanged). In effect, downtown would stretch from the northern border of the International District to the southern shores of Lake Union. I know, right.

2. This would be the lowest-density upzone, with heights peaking out around 160 feet (catching up with the recent zoning accommodations for the planned Amazon complex), but many of the blocks would maintain the existing height limits between 65 and 85 feet.

3. The final proposal is a compromise between the height limits of number one and number three.

The notion that 400-foot towers could blanket a traditionally low-density area—predictably—raised hackles in the audience. “Just because you have that height limit to the south [of Denny Way] is not justification to do that to the north,” said a white-haired woman. She complained the buildings would block views: “It is going to depreciate the value of that property [with a blocked view].”

A tense moment after the jump.

In an attempt to assuage those fears, the board explained that the same zoning rules which currently apply to other 400-foot residential buildings in Seattle would also apply to new construction in SLU—which I write about over here—to prevent dark bulky choad-like monoliths. For instance, residential buildings that are 400 feet tall would have skinny towers, only allowing maximum floor plates of around 11,000 square feet.

The rezoning proposals are being drafted for the DPD as part of the SLU urban-center plan. SLUFAN will pass its recommendations on to the mayor’s office, and eventually the proposal will reach the council. The upshot: By the end of 2009, expect an SLU rezone to allow taller buildings. How much taller after it goes through the City Hall sausage grinder? That’s anyone’s guess.

PART TWO—In the middle of the presentation, a woman stomped into the crowded room, threw her coat at the feet of Oliver, the board president, and plopped herself down at the big table. This, it turned out, was Noel Franklin—the challenger for the board’s open seat. At the other end of the table was incumbent board member Diane Masson. But when the two were asked to introduce themselves—basically to give a stump speech about what swell board members they would make—each launched into tirades. Masson, of the Mirabella retirement community, was furious at the board for failing to announce positions to be reappointed at the same time she sought to be reelected. “Why was I singled out—why was the decision made, and why was it not brought to the full board?” she asked. The error did violate the bylaws, conceded one board member. But, replied board member Jill Mackie of the Seattle Times, “You’re making accusations that are unfair and sad.” The crowd hung on every word and squirmed. Then Franklin, of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, voiced outrage that she had been mentioned but wasn’t quoted in the PI article, specifically believing the story had cast her as supporting skyscrapers. Then she asked the stunned board, “Why wasn’t I interviewed?” (The updated Web version of the article now includes quotes from Franklin and clarifies her neutrality on zoning issues). “I got broadsided so hard core today, I don’t even know what to say,” Franklin told the room. The unexpected turbulence clearly shook the board, which agreed, at Masson’s request, to delay the tie-breaking vote until June. Should be a tough call.

RSS icon Comments


greater density creates other views and increases the value of nearby property. it's more sustainable and makes for a more walkable city. a bigger downtown makes it easier for people to live and work .....downtown. the alternative is to channel more of the growth out in the burbs. our current downtown is pretty small as it is and & not befitting for a downtown of a region encompassing several million folks.

Posted by PC | May 7, 2008 1:53 PM

sugar, if you build tall buildings in a VALLEY it can't block views from the hills.

Posted by max solomon | May 7, 2008 1:54 PM

This sure doesn't sound anything like what I was proposing ...

(as he personally thanks Paul Allen for listening to him and looking around last time he went to Vancouver BC ...)

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 7, 2008 2:19 PM

This area got redesignated as an Urban Center and should therefore take a significant amount of projected residential and job growth. 400 foot limits seems like an appropriate height to consider in some areas of SLU. Those heights are allowed right across the street in the Downtown Office Core which begins on the other side of Denny right?

Posted by Urban Girl | May 7, 2008 2:39 PM

Thanks for reminding way neighborhood groups are waste of a good meeting space.

Posted by Giffy | May 7, 2008 2:52 PM

We can only pray that the least density is the plan going forward.

They should modify the plan to have a requirement for less height the closer you are to the lake, with nothing over 3 stories within a block of it.

Posted by Reality Check | May 7, 2008 3:47 PM

property values wouldnt decrease necessarily as the opportunity cost of retaining the low profile viewless building would increase. you could actually attain a higher price for your property.

also, why the fuck are people so concerned about property values when it doesnt seem like they are likely to sell

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 7, 2008 3:49 PM


You don't need to upzone beyond the current limit to turn SLU into an urban center and/or meet the job/housing growth goals there.

However, allowing 400' buildings will ensure that little or none of the housing is affordable, and that a lot more commercial buildings are built that will attract commuters from distant locales.

Kind of the worst of both worlds - even before you start blocking views and casting shadows over P-Patches and playfields.

Paul Allen and other speculators bought these properties with the existing zoning, and in addition to making close to $1.5 billion in infrastructure demands they now want us to give (and this is a public gift of value to the detriment of existing properties) them a massive upzone and increase in value for essentially nothing.

Oh, and Will, in B.C. they can make real demands of property owners who want to build higher (not least of which is requiring that a significant number of units be set aside at truly affordable rates along with the luxury condos in a way that cannot be imposed here), so please spare me that analogy.

Posted by Mr. X | May 7, 2008 5:41 PM

Requiem for a view...

I live about halfway up Queen Anne with a view of Lake Union and, for a few more weeks (maybe), Mt. Rainier. The latter view is about to disappear behind a mass of new development in the Stewart/Virginia area between downtown and Capital Hill. The future is now. Fuck it. Might as well build it up. At the very least SLU should become an even more walkable neighborhood that it has already. The kicker won't be views but traffic, because it is pretty much guaranteed that Seattle won't come up with a truly intelligent solution to the problem.

Posted by Pomme Fritz | May 7, 2008 9:46 PM

@8 - bull.

You and I both know that Paul Allen and Bill Gates say "I want to build THIS high" and it happens.

Now, come back to reality and enjoy the view.

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 7, 2008 10:22 PM

Hi all. Just wanted to add some clarity to the record here.

Three comments down is my official statement.

I still don't believe it was an accident that an article hit the PI quoting only Masson and her company the scheduled day of the re-vote on the SLUFAN election.

I won't worry about the factual inaccuracies of the SLOG (my jacket was actually hung on the back of my chair, and you might want to double-check the name of the SLUFAN board president.) as I am more interested in letting folks know where I stand.

Posted by Noel | May 8, 2008 12:04 AM

So, where are the drawings?

And can somebody, anybody get the word out that skyscrapers do not actually equal urban density?

Posted by k | May 8, 2008 4:31 AM

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