Downtown: Seattle’s land use battleground

You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares and go Downtown

One more warm up post before getting into Downtown Zoning, SMC 23.49. I was just reviewing the proposed rezones to south downtown and I realized that downtown zoning is easily the most controversial area of land use in the city, even more so than urban villages. Downtown is kind of the front yard for the whole city and the part of the city that can reflect our essence to the world. Maybe that’s why the downtown section of the code is so complex. Two fights from the past, the Citizens Alternative Plan (CAP) and the battle over Pine Street, are illustrative of the way downtown land use fights play out in Seattle.

The CAP initiative was sparked by the arrival of some large office buildings downtown that transformed the skyline of the city. Buildings like the Columbia Seafirst Tower were seen by some as Darth Vader buildings, too large and out of scale with Seattle’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. The CAP initiative was intended to lid the height and density of downtown office building and imposed design review requirements to give citizens a voice in the design and permitting of new buildings.

The vertical Death Star


It was a pitched and ugly fight by most accounts. Here’s part of the HistoryLink entry for CAP:

The pro-CAP campaign was also fueled by frustration over the failure to preserve Westlake Park as open space under a plan, ironically, endorsed by Victor Steinbrueck (Peter’s father) shortly before his death in 1984 . . . Most developers (but not, notably, Martin Selig, who had built the city’s tallest building) and downtown retailers opposed the initiative. Opponents formed Citizens for a Better Downtown (CBD) and organized beyond the Downtown Seattle Association by obtaining the support of labor unions, minority community groups, many architects, and almost all of Seattle’s elected officials, who opposed the CAP measure as a threat to downtown economic health and employment and as a potential spur for suburban sprawl. The CBD campaign was led by Jon Bridge and Dorothy Bullitt, and staffed by Gogerty Stark consultants.

It’s hard not to see the wraith of the CBD in today’s pro-tunnel coalition, composed of many of the same players and interests. Substitute “tunnel referendum” for “CAP measure” and I think you’ll see what I mean.

And speaking of Westlake Park, that fight unfolded about five years later. The “Open Pine Street” battle was one I can remember unfolding shortly after I got involved in local politics. It didn’t make much sense to me at the time. But it pitted the same folks against one another again.

Westlake Plaza today

Sometime in the late eighties or early nineties Pine street between 4th and 5th was closed to through traffic. Big planters were set up and west and east bound traffic on Pine was forced to turn left onto 5th or 6th respectively. This closure was intended to create a plaza that lots of people had dreamed about. Again here’s part of HistoryLink’s entry on Westlake:

The idea of developing Westlake — an area between 4th and 5th avenues and Olive Way and Pine Street in downtown Seattle — into an urban park with commercial and retail outlets was first suggested in the 1960s as an idea to breathe new life into Seattle’s downtown. In 1964 plans for Seattle’s central business district included plans for a pedestrian mall at Westlake, and another proposal in 1968 called for commercial and retail space as well as a park. The proposals continued through the 1970s. In 1972 Mayor Wes Uhlman . . . appointed a Westlake Advisory Committee to sort out the ideas that were being presented.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? A big proposal for urban renewal, lots of debate and controversy, followed by decades of inaction. It wasn’t until 1988 that the Westlake we now know and love (or hate) came online. And, as the HistoryLink article points out, it was not without lots of fighting and law suits. Then came the fight to open Pine Street. Here’s the what issue centered on (from a Seattle Times article written at the time):

The Westlake issue has come to a head, after lying dormant for only a few years, as a result of Mayor Norm Rice’s announcement last week that he would support Nordstrom’s request to reopen Pine Street to vehicular traffic. Nordstrom has been considering moving from Fifth and Pine, where its main entrance fronts the closed block of Pine Street, to the former Frederick & Nelson building as part of a $300 million redevelopment of Seattle’s downtown retail core.

But the retailer now insists it won’t move unless Pine Street is reopened [emphasis is mine].

It’s all coming back to me. Big corporation demands Pine Street opens or else. Mayor and Council want to comply. Neighborhood preservationists, urbanists, progressives, and lefties organize to stop the corporate take over of “our park.” Ugly.

In true Seattle style, there wasn’t a clear decision made by the City Council. I mean seriously, they could have taken a vote to open the thing and be done with it. After all, we didn’t want to lose Nordstrom’s flagship store (which was part of a garage deal down the street. Don’t get me started on that one!)

But wouldn’t we rather just punt and ask the voters? Yes, a vote of the people is always preferable. So the Seattle voters were subjected to an odd campaign along similar lines to the CAP and Commons campaign, and to today’s tunnel battle: would Seattle cave to big financial interests or uphold the principles of good urban planning?

What’s fascinating to me is the nature of these debates and the various players. Many of the same folks fighting to keep Pine Street closed were also opposed to the Commons. But many of the Commons backers were on the Open Pine Street side of the fight.

When looking back at CAP and Pine, it’s easy to see the strange but unique fault lines in our city’s land use battles downtown. The players–downtown businesses, labor, urbanists, neighborhoods folks, progressives–all stay mostly the same. But the stands they take aren’t easy to predict. Opening Pine Street represented a cave to corporate greed to some and to others a step toward a revitalized, economically healthy downtown. The CAP initiative was, for some, an effort to preserve Seattle’s character, and to others a head-in-the-sand approach to the future.

Class, worries about neighborhood character, economic development, and worries about change are the common denominators in downtown land use battles. The same will be true of the discussion and decision about proposed rezones in South Downtown. Let’s get ready to rumble!

Photo credits: Columbia Tower,  Leonardo Stabile’s photostream (33) on Flickr.
Westlake Plaza, theslowlane’s photostream on Flickr.

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4 Responses to Downtown: Seattle’s land use battleground

  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    The main thing I hate about the Columbia Tower is all of the dead space at street level. That should all be retail, not wide stairs and bland plantings leading to the building. The food court is ok, but it looks inward rather than opening itself to the street. This, along with the nearby freeway, makes the street around the tower dead. But that’s not too much different from many other buildings downtown.

    What I like about the Columbia Tower is the height and pure square footage it brought to downtown. Plus the 2-level Columbia Tower Club at the top was a great idea.

  2. Roger Valdez says:

    I’m probably about the same on the building. The food circus in the downstairs seems to work, but it’s not a warm place. And it’s deserted by 3pm.

    I think, on the outside, the building suffers from what many big buildings suffer from: it looks good in a rendering from the top down to 3 or 4 then it just kind of disappears into little sketched trees and stick people.

    Ground floors need improvement. One of the worst is the King County Building. One of the best is …. Well, I can’t think of one.

  3. Pingback: SMC 23.49 Downtown Zoning: “they built their gods a brazen pillar high as the sky” | Seattle's Land Use Code

  4. Matt the Engineer says:

    The SAM / WaMu building isn’t bad. SAM has a restaurant and gift shop along 1st and I think there’s retail along 2nd. I’d much rather have 20′ or even 10′ storefronts on retail, but at least the building comes right up to the sidewalk.

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