I have two thoughts about density I’d like to share, both more responses than anything* to ideas that I hear and read repeated frequently. I have made both of these points a few times in round-about ways in various posts and in the comments, but I would like to write a first-class post about them this time. The first point is a response to the oft-repeated notion that tall buildings and density are essentially the same thing, and the second is a response to the idea that what’s good for developers is perforce good for density and/or urbanism. Both below the fold.
The “tall buildings are density” refrain is so common that Matt Yglesias, a serious proponent of density, often uses “tall buildings” as a verbal substitute for density. Of course there is a correlation: for any given building square footage and plot square footage, there’s a minimum building height that is required. Something I think many people don’t realize is that very tall buildings are often not much more dense than shorter buildings, especially older buildings, when you compare floor-area-ratio (this is a pretty good visual explainer for FAR, if you are unfamiliar). I’ve made a chart of several historic buildings compared against the tallest** buildings in Seattle by both height and floor area ratio – the data is from King County assessors. I look forward to learning if anything is wrong with it in the comments (I mean that earnestly, no sarcasm).
|Building||Height (ft)||Lot Size (sq ft)||Total Building Area sq ft||FAR|
|Medical Dental building||261||24,820||292,038||11.77|
|Washington Athletic Club||232||21,000||274,070||13.005|
|1201 Third Avenue||772||56,400||1,114,847||19.77|
|Two Union Square||740||89,950||1,137,666||12.65|
|Russell Investments Center||600||54,021||940,000||17.40|
|US Bank Centre||580||57770||931243||16.12|
|Wells Fargo Center||573||56,400||940,648||16.68|
|Bank of America Fifth Avenue Plaza||543||61,440||904,784||14.73|
|Union Bank of California Center||536||49,755||558,595||11.13|
Certainly all of these “old” buildings are tall buildings, even the Olympic Tower. But none of them are what people think of as tall when they think of downtown, they think of the buildings on the second half of the list which is my point. I doubt anyone would have guessed the squat Dexter Horton building was as dense as the Bank of California tower (that shocked even me), or that the Hoge building is more dense than all but the most dense of the tallest buildings downtown, but that is the case. If you want more density you don’t want taller buildings per se, you want more generous FAR. This distinction becomes pretty marked when you consider that more people live and nearly as many people work in South Lake Union compared to Downtown Bellevue, even though SLU doesn’t have a single “skyscraper” and is half the geographic area.
Of course developers want to build taller buildings, but it’s not just because of density: higher floors with better views are worth more money. Developers will take height without density as a matter of course, which is one reason height is so contentious in “South Downtown”. Many of the proposed taller buildings will not have higher floor-area-ratios than existing historic structures after the upzone. Without historic protections (different from character protections, but these get lumped together usually), these taller buildings may still be built on the sites of older ones because a new, 15-story building with parking is worth more than an old, 7 story building without it. Still, if they both have a 6 FAR, that’s not more density (in fact it could be less because of the parking).
Which goes to my second point: we shouldn’t take as a given that what is good developers is good for density. This was basically the premise of Martin’s post about the waterfront, at least as I read it, of course I hear it a lot and read it from other people as well. Why should we trust developers as the arbiters of urbanism or density? At one point a developer in Seattle tore out this to build a parking lot. Just recently a developer started building this, though admittedly that was a parking lot before the construction. Developers’ primary concern is to make money, sometimes that means building more density, sometimes that means building a parking lot. Why should we make “redevelopment” an urbanist goal in and of itself and fight for legal changes that may not add density on their behalf?
One last (bonus!) point. I work in a building in Pioneer Square that has a FAR of 5.8, which would be near the max allowed in the South Downtown upzone (at least as I read it). The building used to house some Microsoft offices, but they moved them out of the building to Bellevue because the building didn’t meet Microsoft’s parking and conference room standards. Because of this, now seven start ups occupy the 6 story building, and that’s after another moved out. When all eight were in the building, it housed about 440 workers in 33,000 square feet. When Microsoft was in the building it was 140 workers in the same space***. I imagine a developer would love to develop a building that would meet class A criteria and attract Microsoft or the like to the site. But would that be more dense? Where would the 11-person companies like mine go to?
We all love tall buildings, but there’s a lot more to think about than just height and what developers want when you are considering density. More height doesn’t necessarily mean more square feet, and more square feet doesn’t even necessarily mean more people. And that’s what we mean when we are talking about density, isn’t it? If we don’t pay attention, we might end up fighting on the wrong side of the issue.
* I would have written this in November, but I spent the month doing NaNoWriMo, and didn’t have the time or the appetite to write a lot at the time.
** I could not find records for the Municipal Tower. Maybe the city doesn’t pay property taxes on it?
*** 140pp/33,000 sqft is actually significantly more dense in a worker/sq feet sense than the Redmond campus. I worked in a building that had 67,000 sq ft of office space (not including the massive parking garage) and had just 108 people working in it.