Seattle has a long and storied history with private developers similar to many other cities on the West Coast. In fact, the founders of Washington and other states in the region were so worried about private railroad developers using the public’s credit to finance their projects, they wrote a prohibition against the use of public credit to benefit private projects into their state constitutions. Cities had fallen all over themselves hoping to be part of the next expansion of the railroad system and they lent their credit to projects that ultimately failed. The founders were determined that it never happen again.
Fast forward to the recent past and you’ll find a similar saga playing itself out in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle. A billionaire from Microsoft, Paul Allen, buys up acres of property in the funky industrial dead-zone of South Lake Union with an eye toward developing the Seattle Commons, a massive redevelopment of the area centered on new open space. The local citizenry are asked, twice, to contribute to the plan but reject it twice, largely on the grounds that somehow, even with all the public benefits of the Commons Project, a billionaire would profit at the public’s expense.
Today, Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate is trying to develop the 11.5 acres in the portfolio left over from the Commons project. And today the same battle lines are drawn. Somehow, the argument goes, Allen is going to make scads more money with the zoning changes Vulcan is seeking for the South Lake Union properties they own. Why should the City grant rezones or allow the massive shift of traffic now underway on Mercer to benefit a billionaire?
I have a book that has been sitting on my shelf for a long time called, “The Contested City,” by John H. Mollenkopf. Mollenkopf’s book takes a hard look at the political shifts that happened in the 1960s and 1970s and how they dramatically impacted local land use politics. The “progrowth coalition” that had developed after World War Two was being challenged by local community groups who no longer wanted to be planned into obsolescence. Mollenkopf writes:
Though the neighborhood activism during the 1960s and 1970s did not halt the postindustrial transformation of US cities, it did undermine the local progrowth coalitions, built under Democratic auspices, which had set that transformation in motion. Neighborhood activism ended large-scale clearance projects, drastically revised traditional planning practices by creating citizen review and participation procedures, and created new policy emphasis on preservation and rehabilitation. In the process, neighborhood activism led to the demise of urban renewal agencies as power engines of physical change. It sensitized public opinion to the defects of the “growth at any cost” mentality and the planners’ assumption that physical development can solve social problems. As Marshall Berman has observed, “Neighborhood people did not even have the vocabulary to defend their neighborhoods because, until the Sixties, that vocabulary simply did not exist.” Today, it does.
And Mollenkopf would find that vocabulary being used to great effect in South Lake Union, first by casting long shadows of doubt over the Commons Project which, in retrospect, would have brought great benefit to the city, and then by battling against rezones of Vulcan owned properties left over from the Commons effort.
First, I should disclose that I am not up late at night worrying that Paul Allen is going to make some extra money from having his properties rezoned. I honestly could care less. My worry is about whether the City is acting fast enough there and throughout Seattle to welcome and accommodate growth. Color me progrowth. Or you can call me what one embittered commenter has: “a density pimp.” Guilty as charged. I think the only thing that ought to limit growth in Seattle are the market forces of supply and demand and our ability to accommodate new people sustainably and in livable, walkable neighborhoods.
That brings us to the next stop on my journey through Seattle’s Land Use Code: Seattle Mixed. Seattle Mixed, I think, is largely a product of the land use battles Mollenkopf described when he wrote his book almost 30 years ago. And he presaged that the old progrowth coalition would have to reconstitute itself in a different form. And Vulcan has done that, focusing on community benefits, working to support local neighborhood groups, and working to make their developments showcase examples of energy efficiency and even affordability.
This section of the code cuts to the standards chase faster than most sections, jumping right into height after outlining what’s permitted outright:
A. Maximum Height. Maximum structure height is 40 feet, 55 feet, 65 feet, 75 feet, 85 feet, or feet as designated on the Official Land Use Map, Chapter 23.32, except as provided in this Section or in Section 23.48.016, or in Section 23.48.017.
B. Within the South Lake Union Urban Center, the maximum structure height in zones with sixty-five (65) foot and seventy-five (75) foot height limits may be increased to eighty-five (85) feet; and the maximum structure height in zones with an eighty-five (85) foot height limit may be increased to one hundred and five (105) feet
Seattle is a city with a Napoleon complex. Everything becomes about height. It’s one thing to be obsessed with standards, as the code is, but another thing all together when verticality becomes the “vocabulary” described by Mollenkopf. Floor Area Ratio, as I have described already, has become the currency with which the City now barters with developers. Height, bulk, and scale can increase as long as certain conditions are met, especially rather arbitrary price targets for housing units. That doesn’t make any sense. Nevertheless, we have Seattle Mixed which has lots of strings attached including affordable housing performance requirements.
What I like about what’s going on in South Lake Union is an emerging “thereness” missing before. While construction was underway on many of the new buildings it was hard to find a sense of place. Now it feels a lot more like that oft touted miracle of redevelopment, the Pearl District in Portland. But there is something emerging that isn’t so great. Have you ever been to Microsoft Headquarters in Redmond?
Here’s the other side of Westlake Avenue to the east, 401 Terry Avenue.
And here is the camera eye set up in front of the building.
And what suburban high tech campus would be complete without an empty (at lunchtime) windswept plaza.
Now to be fair, this block, on the other side of the SM zone, is Industrial Commercial at least according to my version of the Land Use Map. I haven’t gotten to the Industrial designations yet. But it is a bit strange to have this kind of barren campus feel in the middle of what is supposed to be an emerging neighborhood. It’s a real problem. Campus style developments are closed and Orwellian (see The Camera Eye above). We don’t want this, I think, in our dream of a dense, vibrant, and walkable city.
High tech use is important. And, as with all my posts, there may be something I am missing. I am not laying anything at Vulcan’s feet or with the City. I can’t even blame the opponents of the redevelopment of South Lake Union. I just know that this block doesn’t seem to be working like other parts of South Lake Union. The Seattle Mixed along with the Industrial Commercial might be addressing some underlying challenge not easily visible. It could also be that the standards set here were driven by pressures from opponents of development. Or maybe things are still sorting themselves out. Or maybe I was just there on a bad day.
South Lake Union is getting better. But I worry that what’s happening there is being driven too much by development standards and not enough by use. And standards tend to be about preventing what we’re afraid of rather than promoting what we dream of. I think more experimentation with form based and use based land use is needed in South Lake Union. I know that’s what’s actually being tried. But we need to let the market and innovation drive new development there, not assuaging the anxieties of people who are worried about change–or someone getting rich. Ultimately that’s about changing our politics, our politicians, and who our politicians listen to. Here’s Mollenkopf again:
If there is a final lesson to be learned from the rise and fall of urban liberalism as a guiding force in American urban development, it is this: we are not captives of history and social structure. The political balance of power, the forms of government intervention, and the courage of political leadership have had a vast and demonstrable impact on the course of urban development. We may well fail the challenge which the demise of traditional urban liberalism has set before us. Certainly, we face many forbidding obstacles in rising to this challenge. Yet, others faced similar obstacles in the past and found ways to overcome them. With the courage to take risks and seek change, those who strive to improve our cities, and through them our politics, can do so as well.
This post originally appeared on Citytank, a new urbanist concept by Hugeasscity star Dan Bertolet.