Seattle is basically gaining a second downtown with the emergence of South Lake Union as a business and residential center where it seems new high rises sprout on a weekly basis. With its emerging second downtown, Seattle is becoming a multi-poled city and sadly it’s not dealing well with the challenges that ensue.
A burst of energy in developing South Lake Union, Denny Triangle and downtown is paired with a growing lethargy in many other neighborhoods and a profound sense of nostalgia and loss and a call for stasis while we process the changes around us. This is understandable, but it is unhealthy and counterproductive. We cannot freeze Seattle neighborhoods in amber if we’d like to Seattle grow holistically and maintain a real hope for a significant amount of lower and middle class housing.
Bargaining For Affordable Housing
Seattle is desperately clinging to its “neighborhood character” (read: suburban form) as its two downtowns boom, adding tens of thousands of jobs for people who may not be able to live in a predominantly suburban Seattle if they are not sufficiently rich, or will displace people the insufficiently rich if they are. Seattle’s massive gains in office space must be paired with an expansion of housing on a similar scale. Enshrining as is Seattle’s suburban outlying neighborhoods while we add ten of thousands of high paying jobs in our two downtowns is sure to turn the city over to a playground for the rich.
Below I detailed some of the towers planned or in construction. Almost invariably the residential buildings are 40-stories tall (give or take a floor) and cater to an upper class clientele. Essentially developers are maxing out zoned height limits and putting up 40-story towers wherever they can in South Lake Union and Denny Triangle. The drive to max out height limits is partially an expression of the great difficulty in building large multifamily projects in other parts of the city.
Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee recommended the city to ease zoning restrictions across the city, but is already seeing a huge backlash at its so-called “Grand Bargain“, even at this early juncture, thanks in part to Seattle Times stoking the flames with this muckraking style column. It’s unclear if the city council will run with the recommendations, or if Mayor Murray is even onboard with touching Seattle’s sacrosanct suburban neighborhoods. Council Member Licata doesn’t think the HALA plan goes far enough or has a fast enough time table and endorsed Council candidate Jon Grant’s bold alternative plan. As the former Executive Directer of the Seattle Tenant’s Union, Grant is an intriguing candidate for City Council. I encourage Seattleites to vote for Jon Grant! Most race handicappers think he’ll face an uphill battle against Council President Tim Burgess for the at-large Position-8 seat, but hey, with a city this topographically diverse, Seattlites are used to uphill climbs. It’s hard to imagine another candidate who will fight harder for affordable housing or who will draw from a deeper knowledge of the issue.
Bipolar Transportation Woes
The intensification of land use in South Lake Union will force Seattle, whether it likes it or not, to build out the transit network to handle the new demand. And that doesn’t appear to be happening. More buses alone would provide very poor service. The great misfortune for those neighborhoods is that Denny Way and Mercer Street, the major east-west thoroughfares for the area get very gridlocked as I-5 gets backed up during the city’s extended rush hours. More busses would still face the same rush hour delays, which will probably get worse as more giant parking ramps go in with these new towers. It ain’t called the Mercer Mess for nothing.
A Metro 8 Subway line would help alleviate east-west movements. Although Seattle Subway is promoting the Metro 8, Sound Transit hasn’t taken much interest and seemed to consider the Metro 8 beyond their scope of ST3. Perhaps a value added tax on all the swanky new towers would provide a funding alternative.
Metro 8 or not, Seattle’s transit network faces the challenge of serving two major job centers. Our present center and spoke design converges downtown, but has a much harder time serving South Lake Union where our second great job center is growing. The whole system may need to be re-calibrated and made more grid-like rather than spoke-like to offer better service to South Lake Union.
The Tower Bonanza In South Lake Union/Denny Triangle
Let’s start with Amazon. They largely unleashed this flurry of construction as they expand their corporate campus in a multi-phased plan that will eventually reach 10 million square feet in office space, enough for 71,500 employees. Residential units in towers neighboring the campus will market to Amazon employees, while neighboring office space will cater to companies wanting to take advantage of the tech incubator that has grown in Amazon’s shadow.
Under construction, Amazon has two 38-story office towers at Seventh and Lenora next door to an elaborate artsy complex consisting of three concentric 95-foot tall spheres, which will contain office and retail space. Amazon’s next phase will apparently include this 23-story office tower paired with an 8-story one at the Bell Street and Seventh Avenue block currently hosting the Hurricane Café.
Now enter the many projects popping up around the Amazon campus. Tilt49 is under construction by Touchstone at Boren Avenue and Stewart Street. Containing a 40-story residential tower and an 11-story office building, the megaproject replaces a Goodyear store and a surface parking lot. Touchstone is nearing completion on an 11-story hotel and office building across the street they’ve named Hill7. The hotel will contain 222 rooms and probably be a Hilton Gardens and the office will have 300,000 square feet of space.
Touchstone also has an 820,000 square-foot office complex with two 12-story towers at Boren Avenue North and Thomas Street. So far the project is called Troy Block for the laundry that formerly operated at the site. The name is obnoxious enough they just might keep it for good. Or replace it with a monosyllabic word with a number after it.
GID is wrapping up construction on a 40-story downtown residential tower at 2030 Eighth Avenue with 355 luxury units. It’s designed to achieve a Silver LEED rating and will include 3,000 square feet of retail.
Security Properties quietly launched construction in June on its own 40-story tower, Kinects, at 1823 Minor Avenue. The relatively unique project gets wider towards the top, like an inverted Transamerica Pyramid with the point buried in the ground. For geometricians out there, it’s roughly a trapezoidal prism. The 357-apartment tower claims to include the city’s only four-season rooftop pool. (The Four Seasons Hotel also included a rooftop pool, but ironically it’s not a “four-season” pool or so says the Kinects people.)
Towers of the Future
Clise Properties is set to break ground this fall on a 40-story apartment high rise at 2202 Eighth Avenue. The 435-apartment project is across the street from the new Amazon megacampus. It will contain nearly 390 underground parking stalls.
Clise Properties has two more 40-story towers in the works at 2301 Eighth Avenue. Puget Sound Business Journal’s Marc Stiles reports, “The project will have a total of nearly 750 housing units, 181,000 square feet of office on five floors and 21,000 square feet of retail. There will be 960 stalls of motor-vehicle parking and 400 spots for bicycles.” Clise also has an 11-story data center in the pipe at Bell Street and Sixth Avenue. The data center could provide heat and electricity to neighboring buildings if it gets built, but otherwise would be a pretty boring looking building. In May 2015, Miami-based developer Crescent Heights unveiled plans for a pair of 39 story towers at Stewart Street and Minor Avenue, which is presently occupied by a small office building and a surface parking lot. The towers would contain approximately 600 apartments and 440 parking stalls.
Holland Partner Group has a 400-foot high-rise of its own slated for 970 Denny Way. Nearly 460 apartments and 17,000 square feet of retail would replace the former site of Ducky’s Office Furniture.
Vancouver based Omni Group plans to build a four-tower complex at the former Seattle Times complex on Denny Way between Boren and Fairview Avenues. Two towers would be 400 feet tall (upwards of 40 stories) and two would be 240 feet tall for a total of around 1,945 apartments and 1,700 underground parking stalls.
Paul Allen’s Vulcan Group has plans for a 41-story residential tower and an 18-story office building at Denny Way and Westlake Avenue. The tower would replace the Denny Playfield and the office building would replace Vulcan’s Discovery Center “which gives an overview of real estate development in the area, will be dismantled and assembled at a new location. It was designed to be dismantled and moved when it was built about nine years ago,” Puget Sound Business Journal reports.
Vulcan also has a 12-story office in the works a few blocks south on Mercer Street and Westlake Avenue replacing a building currently occupied by Guitar Center and Uptown Espresso.
Going Beyond 40-stories?
The preponderance of 40-story tower projects in South Lake Union begs the question, why not 60- or 80-stories? The demand for housing is so high and the outlet for tall projects is so limited (the wider downtown community) that developers are gobbling up all the available space to height limits. Expanding the South Lake Union height limit would serve the purpose of giving developers the option to build higher and break up the monotony of all 40-story buildings.
Architecture critic James Russell criticized the towers of the Amazon campus: “Amazon wants the towers to fade into the downtown-edge background, but they are so lacking in character that they stick out embarrassingly,” according to SeattlePI.com. “Russell goes on to describe the towers as ‘leaden,’ with ‘dumb exteriors’ that ‘fail to evoke the authentic grit and variety of the slickly remodeled warehouse districts they imitate.'” The rest of the towers fall similarly into that category. Russell might be overly harsh, but the point is taken nonetheless that a wall of essentially undifferentiated 40-story towers could turn South Lake Union into a very bland urban space indeed.
Downtown Climbing Skyward, Too
Downtown also has a slough of projects on the way and not all are limited by height restrictions. The Mark at Fifth and Columbia is a pretty badass 43-story office tower complete with a so-called “living wall” of plants in a vertical plane. The tower will include an SLS hotel on the lower floors and 528,000 square feet of office space on the upper floors.
The 58-story Rainier Square is set to begin construction next year at Fourth and Union Street. The glass curtain tower has a distinctive vertical curve design housing its 780,000 square feet of office space, 71,000 square feet of retail, 180 “high end” housing units, 150 hotel rooms and 880 underground parking stalls.
The 36-story Madison Centre is under construction at 505 Madison Street with 740,000 square feet of office space, 8,000 square feet in retail and 480 underground parking stalls. The developer, Schnitzer West, expects Silver LEED certification.
Greg Smith’s Urban Visions is attempting to build an iconic 60-story skyscraper at the site of the Metropolitan Grill. Smith wants his tower to be the creative skyscraper he says Seattle is missing from its skyline. “Smith says a part of the base of the 60-story tower will be lifted 100 feet off the ground, allowing space for pedestrians to walk underneath” Seattle PI.com reports. “The core of the building will be hollowed out, allowing passers-by to look up through the structure and into the sky.” The open atrium design would also draw natural light into the interior the building. The 888-foot tower would be the second tallest in the city asked the 943-foot Columbia Center.
Timber giant Weyerhaeuser’s new 7-story corporate headquarters in Pioneer Square is under construction. Replacing a surface parking lot, the building will include 166,000 square feet of office space, street level retail, and a mere 68 underground parking spots (bravo!).
So you can see the Seattle skyline is changing and growing up. The question is whether Seattle will expand its infrastructure and city services to match the facelift. Will will simply look like a more mature and modern city or will we actually be one?