“Out of Scale”

If only there had been zoning laws in 1194, this out-of-scale monstrosity wouldn't have blocked views of the town. (medievalists.net)

If only Chartres had zoning laws in 1194, this out-of-scale building wouldn’t have blocked charming views of the town. (medievalists.net)

Right next to a charming story of NIMBYism harnessed in service of the environment, in Friday’s Times there was a more typical tale going on in South Lake Union.

[John Pehrson] said he lives on Mirabella’s third floor and views aren’t an issue for him…

Their concerns, according to Pehrson, are housing diversity, transportation and urban form. The council meeting Thursday focused on urban form, so Pehrson stuck mostly to that topic…

Pehrson argued that 400 feet is out of character for the neighborhood and would dwarf nearby buildings. He called for a 240-foot limit along the north side of Denny Way…

The towers would be surrounded by 65-foot buildings and out of scale, he said. They would also damage the neighborhood’s connection to the lake, he said, and cause “downwind turbulence” for floatplanes taking off and landing on Lake Union.

As always, “out of character” is a nebulous complaint, and if anything a plea for absolute conformity that sounds stifling to me. “Out of scale” at least means something. To which I’d say: the Seattle Space Needle is out of scale with its surroundings. The Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower and Chartres Cathedral and the Everett Boeing Plant and the Burj Khalifa dwarf everything around them.* In other words, I’m not sure why “out of scale” is even a criticism. Now Vulcan’s towers probably won’t become a world heritage site. Perhaps many will find the buildings quite ugly. That would at least register as an actual downside, as opposed to “bigger than everything around it.”

As for the views that no one in the article cops to worrying about, everyone is entitled to their own conception of beauty, but it’s not exactly bizarre in the real estate market to think that tall buildings are views. Manhattan isn’t exactly spilling over with spectacular natural vistas, but one will pay a substantial premium to live in a place that can see its skyline.

I don’t know what it is that the vacant lots that are mostly occupying these parcels are doing for “housing diversity”, nor what Pehrson knows about floatplane turbulence that the FAA doesn’t. But based on the arguments that are fleshed out here, I don’t think I want to find out.

*I’m pretty sure Yglesias made this point before, with similar phrasing. I can’t find the link.

Comments

  1. Ryan on Summit says

    Those of us advocating a less aggressive upzone certainly aren’t proposing leaving empty lots empty. No one expects Vulcan to do so, no matter the zone change.

    Its not that the buildings will be massive. It is that they will be massive and characterless. In my opinion Vulcan hasn’t shown they can build good enough buildings to be rewarded with the ability to make them this huge.

    • Martin H. Duke says

      Well then let’s use the design code to give buildings “character” (as long as “character” isn’t code for “small”) rather than prevent the land from being put to maximum use.

      • Nathanael says

        Indeed. How about requiring a public vote on the appearance of the building design? A bit crazy perhaps, but it would work for making sure we have pretty buildings.

      • Cinesea says

        Have the designers/architects/engineers take a look at the skyline of Singapore. Have them close their eyes and put their fingers on a building and then have them replicate it here.

      • onshay says

        We already have the Seattle Design Commission.

        We don’t need codes to tell us how to make beautiful buildings. Building Codes protect health and safety of occupants. Zoning Codes inform building massing with the intention of influencing a neighborhood or city’s character. How about allowing professionals (owners, architects, builders, engineers, landscape architects, interior designers, urban planners, etc…) to do their jobs without being hindered with codes like “you must have either Doric or Ionic capitals on the columns that you shall have flanking major entrances”? Enable creativity – don’t legislate it.

        It’s true in many cases that developers will provide minimum investment to maximize profit. However, we have safeguards against that killing neighborhoods – namely, the SDC (not a perfect system but it’s what we have). In addition to that, we have developers in Seattle who live here and have reputations here and are, in fact, making conscious decisions to invest in these communities. Why would I build a tower that is boring and ugly that no one would want to live (or lease space) in? Its good business to produce something beautiful.

        In addition, advocating for a public vote on design is ridiculous and I don’t think I have to expand on that sentiment at all.

      • was carless says

        You can’t legislate good design through codes – that would be like expecting to have a company design a beautiful sports car by legislating higher fuel efficiency. They are totally separate things. Bad designers will tend to create bad designs.

        I think Seattle is a good example of [i]this[/i] rule. You need a good architect and an enlightened client to achieve good architectural design.

        Now, an alternative would be to adopt Portland’s design review system, but it still doesn’t create “good design,” it just tends to prevent horrible dreck from being built… most of the time.

    • Mark Y says

      Ryan, wouldn’t your argument just lead to shorter character-less buildings? I don’t see how that’s much better.

      • Ryan on Summit says

        If the choice is between huge characterless buildings and smaller characterless buildings, wouldn’t you pick the smaller? Surely no one would say, “well, if it has to be characterless, it might as well be a huge as possible” right?

        Vulcan hasn’t shown any interest in making these buildings look any better. Why should we give them the green light to make them huge?

      • David L says

        No, I’d pick the bigger. A characterless building is characterless no matter what size it is, and, like Martin says, we might as well get the most use from it.

      • Martin H. Duke says

        The societal benefits of density are huge, so I’ll take a large ugly building over a small ugly one.

      • Ben Schiendelman says

        No, I’d pick the bigger. There are people coming here because of our job market who can afford new construction. We’re not building anywhere near enough new construction to house them. Limiting how much we build by fighting over building heights is directly screwing poor people by forcing them out of the city when the new residents rent whatever else is available, driving up rents for everyone.

    • Matthew Johnson says

      You know what’s not bland?

      The EMP. How about Vulcan hires Frank Gehry to design their new buildings, would you stop opposing progress then?

  2. jon says

    The Space Needle, cathedral and Empire State Building are unique buildings.

    Dont mix up height for density, it need not be a tower to achieve the highest use of the land, a lower squatter building can hold the same volume and when placed next to other lower squatter buildings can form a great street wall of varying facades and enclosing the street. The key should be creating great streets, so that the appeal is to look out the window at a vibrant bussling street with slow traffic instead of selling apts/condos on a distant view. I kind of agree with some off these views, if a neighborhood especially as young as SLU was built on a midrise model, already a very dense form, tothrow in towers now does greatly change the feel of the neighborhood. Towers get their views from other buildings being low, if every building was a tower there would be no views, a tragedy of the commons. Im not necessarily against towers, but I think they are not always the answer, the midrise needs to be considered more, build towers in a high rise neighborhood dont plunk them in a midrise neighborhood or at least keep them closer in height to the midrise building so there is not such a huge difference.

    • Martin H. Duke says

      Yes, the buildings are unique. That’s another word for “out of character” or “out of scale”, which density opponents will tell you are bad things. If you want to encourage unique buildings, then encourage unique buildings, don’t force blandness and then restrict height to make the blandness less imposing.

      I agree that we should maximize volume per square foot of land. If you can point to a plausible model where restricting height achieves that, than I might be convinced.

      I’m also for great streets, but that seems totally orthogonal to the argument.

      Manhattan and Chicago have lots of towers and great views. No “tragedy of the commons” there!

      • Martin H. Duke says

        d.p., I’m not arguing that it’s impossible to build dense but low. I’m arguing that given any code and a tall height limit and any given code and a low height limit, you’ll get more density with the former.

        All the crap that reduces building volume at large heights also exists at low heights.

      • David L says

        Ben, depends where you are. All the Swiss cities are 6 stories except in the very most core parts of their downtowns. Most French cities, including Paris, are mostly 6 stories. London varies from neighborhood to neighborhood.

      • d.p. says

        My experience aligns with David L’s. I was actually surprised to go back to the Barcelona link (after I hit “post”) and realize that particular block is 9 stories.

        Anywhere between 4 stories (Greenwich Village, much of Boston, most of London) and 9-10 stories (actually having trouble finding examples, Ben) is highly workable if done right.

        6 stories is often seen as the gold standard because, well… Paris is amazing!

      • d.p. says

        Martin, you mean ceteris paribus — i.e. with all of our “open space” b.s. remaining on the books?

        That “open space” obsession needs to be eradicated, period. You’ll never get workable street density with that hanging around, no matter how tall or short you go.

      • Andrew Smith says

        Manhattan and Chicago have lots of towers and great views. No “tragedy of the commons” there!

        Manhattan was also the first place in America to have zoning rules and design reviews.

      • John Bailo says

        Again, much of architecture is driven by combinations of technology and need. When the great corporations of the 19th century were being created, like Standard Oil, and Chrysler, they needed buildings to mass together experts to run them. That is why skyscrapers were built. At the same time new materials like steel reinforced concrete allowed their construction.

        Now, look at where we are now.

        We have a web which can let us live and work as widely spaced as we want…the whole Earth.

        We have transit that can travel from 30 mph to 300 mph.

        At the same time we have new energy technologies like solar that will soon let us live loosely coupled to a grid.

        So all these things would spell a drive towards decentralization, not the other way around and hence a dispersive 21st century architecture to go with it.

      • says

        “So all these things would spell a drive towards decentralization, not the other way around and hence a dispersive 21st century architecture to go with it.”

        And yet, the industries at the cutting edge of this are seemingly more centralized than ever.

      • Martin H. Duke says

        It’s going to be difficult to create aesthetic standards that will appease everyone. If someone can crack the code to make beautiful buildings that’s great. But responding to ugly buildings by reducing the size of everything is nonsensical.

      • d.p. says

        Same link/image as above. Mandate the fullest use of the best-proportioned urbanity (6 stories, multiple lots per block, built to the lot line) and then let people go nuts on the facades. The result is a vibrant streetscape, unbroken but never monotonous.

      • Martin H. Duke says

        I’m for any regulation that increases FAR over the status quo, regardless of height. But I’m not for arbitrary height limits without the other changes you mention.

      • Ben Schiendelman says

        If we relax height limits across the board, developers will have to compete with each other. That’s how design gets unique in the first place – it’s not regulated, it’s market.

      • Martin H. Duke says


        If developers could be trusted to make engaging streetscapes, we wouldn’t have a code.

        Hah! As if that were the only motivation.

        Do you think the code is doing a good job of creating good streetscapes? Because I don’t.

      • Kyle S. says

        No, I’m not, but that’s one of the purposes it’s supposed to serve.

        I don’t understand the assumption that what serves the rational self-interest of the developer would also result in an attractive streetscape.

        Just because good streetscapes are beneficial in some way to the developer does not mean they are as beneficial as other decisions that result in a poor streetscape.

      • Matthew Johnson says

        Did developers build better streetscapes before or after we stifled development with our code?

      • d.p. says

        Matt, you can’t seriously compare the personalities, biases, and real and perceived market forces involved in the small-scale-financed developments of 100 years ago to those behind the corporate-structure-financed megaprojects of today.

        Just for starters, the developers of old tended to live near where they built, tended to see themselves as civic leaders, and made much of their devotion to aesthetic concerns. The developers of today are by and large business school-educated, profit-maximizing purists. Regulate the street-level experience or it won’t happen.

      • Mike Orr says

        Also, the builders a century ago intended to keep the building forever and pass it to their descendants, so they made them high-quality and lasting. Developers now intend to sell the building as soon as it’s built, or in any case lose interest in it after the investors are paid off in twenty years. And for big-box stores and warehouses, even the store does not expect to keep the building after its 30-year lifespan, because consumer tastes will have changed or a better location will have opened up by then. All this leads to a culture of disposable buildings. Which is just fine for the developers and construction workers because it means repeated work for them.

        The bright side is that the disposable strip malls and big-box stores are the same ones that most need replacing with walkable/transit-oriented/greater housing capacity alternatives.

      • Andrew Smith says

        That’s how design gets unique in the first place – it’s not regulated, it’s market.

        That’s not how any of the famous buildings that have been cited here were built. Certainly not the building in the photo (which was built under a semi-slave feudal system), not most of the famous skyscrapers in New York (Rockefeller center was a charity project, as was the Empire State Building, which itself isn’t that architecturally amazing, just really big), the Space Needle and the Eiffel tower were built for world fairs, etc.

        Anyway, not saying it can’t happen, but it rarely happens because of market forces.

      • Andrew Smith says

        But responding to ugly buildings by reducing the size of everything is nonsensical.

        Why do you think that’s nonsensical? I don’t think it’s non sensical per se.

      • Nathanael says

        “Also, the builders a century ago intended to keep the building forever and pass it to their descendants, so they made them high-quality and lasting. Developers now intend to sell the building as soon as it’s built, or in any case lose interest in it after the investors are paid off in twenty years”

        This is a real incentives problem and a difficult one. It’s tied up with the reason why our corporations are run by looters and scammers — it’s all about the short term.

      • Matthew Johnson says

        Okay, so since everyone seems to be avoiding the question I guess we can all agree that buildings were built better then. So reducing our overburdonsome regulations won’t necessarily result in worse design, as history shows it is quite possible to get BETTER designs that way.

        I will also point out a perfect example of how over regulating zoning guarenteed (thankfully we changed it) worse streetscaping in regards to Seattle townhomes:
        http://seattleurbanism.blogspot.com/2009/10/townhouses-part-2-problem.html

        And then I would close by pointing out that Paul Allen has more money than god, and is more concerned with legacy than profits so most of the explanations for why modern buildings suck so bad don’t really apply.

      • aw says

        Paul Allen’s legacy has nothing to do with Vulcan, except as an agent of change in SLU. They’re in business to make money so they can build more.

        Paul Allen’s legacy is EMP.

      • d.p. says

        Seriously, Matt, your claim that eliminating all zoning/regulation will *poof* us back to the way buildings were developed 70, 90, 110 years ago — that’s how far you have to go for your pre-reg paradigm — contains so many forms of argumentative fallacy that it’s virtually impossible to respond to it.

      • d.p. says

        I do love that “anatomy of an awful four-pack” link, though. I sent it to my dad (a Boston architect) a couple of years ago, and his head almost exploded.

        I think we can all agree to hold that up as the gold standard of how design and regulation should NOT interact.

    • alexjonlin says

      I can kind of understand (even if I don’t fully agree with) the argument that towers don’t fit in mid-rise neighborhoods, but SLU isn’t a mid-rise neighborhood. The area immediately across Denny from where the 400′ tall buildings are allowed is already zoned for high-rises, with a couple there already. The rest of SLU ten or fifteen years ago was low-rise industrial. Now it’s partially mid-rise but mostly parking lots/vacant low-rise buildings.

    • was carless says

      Some of the densest cities on Earth – Tokyo, Manila, and Barcelona – are well known for their lowrise nature of their built environment. Most buildings are in the 2-3 story range, but the blocks are fully built out, with little land used for personal backyards, car storage, or other such non-dwelling uses.

      Really, New York City and Hong Kong as examples of density are really unique, although there are some South American cities that have large numbers of highrises, such as Rio and Buenos Aires.

      The upside of building comparatively shorter buildings with high density is that the buildings are much less expensive to build, as the structural requirements are far, far less expensive, and there is much less material needed to build the facade and building envelope than a taller, skinnier building.

      Sounds like many of you have Vancouver envy.

      • Martin H. Duke says

        I would be happy with a code that restricted height but generated Tokyo-like densities. But taking our existing code with its height limits isn’t going to do that.

  3. Charles says

    In the neighborhood of my youth (Broadview) they had something called “Covenants that run with the land” which codified specific prohibitions on blocking views and building out of character homes. It also btw, codified a prohibition on selling to non-white persons. Oops, I guess my family broke that one ;-) Covenants like this are enforceable as long as they don’t run counter to public policy.

    • David L says

      Many neighborhoods in the north end of Seattle have those racially restrictive covenants or their equivalents floating around. It’s one of many reminders that Seattle was one of the worst cities for racial segregation in housing. Innis Arden, for example, restricted the race of purchasers indirectly, through a covenant that you had to follow HOA requirements and an HOA requirement… which, although it was unenforceable from the late ’60s onward, did not actually get removed from the HOA bylaws until very recently.

    • Mike Orr says

      My family had some property in Lakewood which we sold in the 1960s with a covenant restricting the kind of buildings. It was intended to create a permanent amenity (sports and grassy field) as the neighborhood changed from rural to suburban, and we gave the buyer a price concession for it. Forty years later, the owner wanted to build condos on the undeveloped part. They asked us to lift the covenant and we refused. They sued us, we won, but it was overturned on appeal. The court said we couldn’t enforce the covenant because we no longer had property in the immediate neighborhood that would be harmed by the change. But there was no precedent for this kind of case in Washington so we might have won at the supreme court, but we decided not to undergo the expense of pursuing it. So that’s one covenant that was broken.

    • Bernie says

      Covenants also have to be uniformly enforced. If a neighborhood covenant says you can only paint the exterior of the structure from a set of approved colors as soon as one person is allowed to get away with an unapproved shade of gray enforcement of the covenant goes out the window. That’s why some condos/developments become super anal about enforcement. For example if there is a prohibition on outdoor structures and someone gets away with building an arbor the next person builds a shed and claims the prohibition on outdoor structures hasn’t been uniformly enforced.

  4. says

    “Out of character” and “out of scale” = “I may live in an urban apartment building, but I still want the comforting, safe, predictable, perfect suburban experience.”

    “As for the views that no one in the article cops to worrying about, everyone is entitled to their own conception of beauty, but it’s not exactly bizarre in the real estate market to think that tall buildings are views. Manhattan isn’t exactly spilling over with spectacular natural vistas, but one will pay a substantial premium to live in a place that can see its skyline.”

    Translation: “What! You’re taking away MY views! Now someone ELSE is going to have MY views! People who might live all the way on Capitol Hill even!”

  5. Seattleite says

    “Out of character for the neighborhood” is especially absurd for SLU. Go to Westlake and ask 100 people to describe SLU. I GUARANTEE you’ll get 10x as many “new/growing/improving” “Amazon” “SLUT” responses than you will get “lowrise/short buildings/5 stories” “lake views” or “Cascades.”

    The character of that neighborhood IS growth and improvement.

    • David L says

      This. Plus, the “character” that the growth and improvement is displacing consisted almost entirely of dilapidated, mostly unused warehouses, with a few scraggly, small, falling-apart flophouses thrown in.

      There was nothing to save there, and those who insist that the new development or the upzone will destroy neighborhood “character” just sound absurd.

    • Andrew Smith says

      This is probably the best argument. “Out of character” can be a valid concern, but these buildings are exactly the character there.

  6. Bellinghammer says

    Some perspective:
    (1. The 400′ ft maximum height adjacent to Denny is 62′ shorter than the Smith Tower, which is only the 17th tallest building in Seattle these days.
    (2. There are 400′ buildings less than 1/5 mile from Mirabella already (Aspira etc.)
    (3. The 240′ maximum that would prevail in the rest of the rezone is 6 feet shorter than the King Street Station clock tower.

    This is a good plan to extend downtown northward and reclaim the parking lot/light industrial blight that prevailed before. The allowance made for the remnants of the Cascade neighborhood is generous. The stairstep down to the lake is thoughtful and appropriate. If growing your state’s largest urban center by rezoning *adjacent land* is ‘out of character’, nowhere is in character.

  7. Andrew smith says

    I don’t know why the Seattle times lets quotes like that “downward turbulence” one go uncheked

    • says

      The least the *Seattle Times Company* is quoted as being in favor of the rezone. Of course, they own some land that could increase in value. Even anti-urbanists can support urbanism when they see how they can benefit.

  8. Wes says

    Not only are there 400′ tall buildings 1/5 of a mile away, there are several under construction or nearing construction that are even closer. To the people complaining about the design of vulcans buildings; I think most of them are just calling anything that’s not bungalow or rambler style housing bland and out of character. No the amazon campus isn’t amazing, but it has good open space and lots of restaurants. My parents live in the neighborhood, them and most of their neighbors really like the amazon campus. It’s walkable and aesthetically pleasing from the street level. I’d like to say screw you to the people in Queen Anne, Capitol Hill and mirabella, your views are in no way more important than the needs and desires of the people who actually live in the neighborhood.

  9. says

    Scenario … You live on Somerset in a view house. You’re pro-density, and hate it when people use the “out of character” argument. Bellevue zoning has been changed to allow multi-family buildings on your block. I’m a developer, and want to build a large, dense, container condo building (built from old shipping containers) right across the street from your house.

    Will you support my condo project or object to it?

    • RossB says

      What is there to support or object to? Is it going to block my view? Then I will probably object to it just like I would object to a house or any structure that blocks my view (is Somerset the neighborhood where the ex-ball player got in a fight over a tree that was blocking a view?). Is the building ugly? Again, I won’t like it, but I won’t like an ugly house going up either (and most new houses are ugly). Generally speaking, though, I’ve got other things to worry about. I mean, sure, I’ll whine about it, but I whine about lots of things. As my mom always said, if that it is the worse thing to happen you have to complain about, you live a charmed life.

      Generally speaking, the “out of character” argument is rarely effective, nor should it be. I live in a neighborhood, Pinehurst, that used to be very working class country (some might call it “white-trashy” but that is somewhat offensive). There used to be lots of cars on lawns, run down houses, etc. Now, as prices have risen, people have fixed up their houses. Are these new, refurbished houses out of character? Absolutely. They have a lot of nerve cleaning up their lawn and painting their house. The make the rest of us look bad. Now, of course, people build really big houses. Are they ugly and out of character? Absolutely. The refurbished small houses are a lot more appealing to me. But it is perfectly legal to build one of these big houses because the zoning allows it. It somehow fits “the character of the neighborhood” (according to the zoning laws). But build three little houses on the same lot? No. Build an apartment building? No. Zoning is a crude tool, and quite often it gets it wrong. The “out of character” argument is just one example of this.

      • Bernie says

        (is Somerset the neighborhood where the ex-ball player got in a fight over a tree that was blocking a view?).

        No, you are thinking of John Olerud in Clyde Hill; Oleruds’ appraisal: Tree cuts value of house by $255,000. In Somerset the issue is people planting trees that will grow to obscure a view. In the case of the Olerud’s the tree predates any view ordinances and the house was sighted after the tree was fully mature. Doesn’t matter though; apply enough money and you get what you want.

    • Martin H. Duke says

      If the hypothetical person is going to defend their own perceived property values, then good for them. But the Bellevue City Council should not let it dictate their policy.

      Whether or not the owner is “pro-density” is irrelevant.

    • Wes says

      Sam, when I buy a house, town home or condo views will not be a major consideration for me, location will be the deciding factor. Of course a good view is a plus, but I realize that I only own that small piece of property and not everything I can see from my deck. Personally I love an in city view with several highrises within just a couple hundred feet. If i do buy a single family house it will be as close to an urban district as i can find, and i’d actually prefer my block be mixed with single family, townhomes and small apartment buildings. My parents own a condo in SLU in a six story building. they’ve been told that a developer wants to build a mixed use development that is several hundred feet tall across the street. They will probably lose at least a portion of their view dependinging on tower placement. They are dissapointed that they will lose their view, but they realize that the ammeinities that are coming with the increased densities in the neighborhood are actually more valuable and beneficiary to them.

  10. RossB says

    As folks mentioned, the biggest problem is bland ugliness, not size. Much of South Lake Union has ugly cooky cutter buildings. Bigger buildings are likely to be more interesting (I think) just because they want to stand out. If you say you work at the Smith Tower, it sounds cool. Businesses like this.

    Then again, they might just make big ugly buildings as well. I’m not sure how to get them to build interesting buildings. You might just walk around the UW campus and point to the various buildings. Even the ugly ones (built during the 60s and 70s) look interesting because they are next to some very pretty ones. The newer ones are quite nice (in my opinion) because they tend to use so much brick. Sometimes, just an interesting facade makes all the difference, like the building at Pontius and John that has a bunch of wood paneling.

    Maybe you could allow tall buildings, but only if they look good and allow for a good pedestrian experience. I know that is subjective, but maybe have a small citizens committee (three people) approve the plans with the architect. Obviously the committee could approve some ugly stuff, but then we could replace the committee. If the committee members are bozos, and can’t get along with the builders, then they should be replaced as well. I don’t think this would be too much of a burden on the building process and would be much better than what we have now (which is stupid restrictions on height and ugly buildings).

    • Martin H. Duke says

      “small citizens committee”

      We already have a design review process to do exactly this. They in general, do a crappy job, trending everyone towards conformity.

      • RossB says

        Ha! Good point. I forgot about them. Sound like that would be a good blog post. I think in general, it has transit ramifications because ugly buildings lead to opposition to density. This happens with ugly apartment buildings, bland townhouses and ugly duplexes. The worst was the ugly duplexes and quads that permeated Ballard in the 80’s. Not only were the buildings ugly, but they had horrible landscaping. They had lots of concrete (of course) because they needed the parking. That is one of my pet peeves (that parking requirement leading to ugly buildings). I think in general those types of buildings (town houses) are better now, but a lot of the six story buildings suffer from the same sort of bland conformity.

        I would like to hear more about the design review process and how it could lead to better, nicer looking buildings.

      • Martin H. Duke says

        Sure, pretty buildings are good. However: I would not propose restrictions on density to avoid a backlash demanding restrictions on density.

    • Mike Orr says

      “I’m not sure how to get them to build interesting buildings. You might just walk around the UW campus and point to the various buildings”

      The problem is architects like modernism too much, and clients go along with it. And now that modernism has been established as the default choice, it’s like the old saying, “Nobody gets fired for choosing IBM.”

  11. Cascadian says

    I think when people say “out of scale,” they are consciously thinking of large buildings, but subconsciously motivated by their experience of tall buildings that often have a very poor experience at the pedestrian level. Monumental buildings don’t have to be bad for pedestrians, but they often are. Frequently you have windowless concrete walls (with parking on the other side) or windswept plazas with bland lobbies, destroying the entire character of a block. Smaller buildings can also be bad at the pedestrian level, but there’s something about tall buildings that seems to encourage it.

    I’m all for tall buildings in neighborhoods in or near downtown, and South Lake Union qualifies as one of those neighborhoods. (In most of the rest of the city, I’d prefer moderate density of say eight floors of mixed use or less and towers only near major transit stations.) But please, no suburban-style plazas. No big walls because of parking. Get pedestrian-oriented storefronts and sidewalk amenities at the base of big buildings, and no one will notice how massive they are above that point.

    Most cathedrals, while monumental and designed to emotionally overpower someone standing beneath them, are much better at the pedestrian level than the typical Seattle tower. The Space Needle, on the other hand, is crummy at pedestrian level, but I think a city is entitled to one or two structures of that type if they provide other benefits, as the Needle clearly does.

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      If they actually fought windswept plazas, they wouldn’t have windswept plazas. As long as we’re having this argument over height, that one won’t go anywhere.

    • RossB says

      I agree. It is probably the case that with big buildings, you don’t have to worry about the ground floor that much (you have dozens of other floors to use). But with a six story building, you better have a good ground floor (that you can lease) or you will be in big trouble.

      I think the general consensus on this blog, if not the city is that big buildings are OK, as long as:

      1) The street level experience is a good one
      2) The buildings have character (bonus points if they are actually attractive)

      Some will object to the shadows (lack of sunshine) or blocking views, but generally speaking, if these two areas are addressed, people will come to love it. Especially since there are plenty of areas where these buildings can be viewed. One of the reasons that the New York and Chicago skyline are so popular is that they can be admired from so many places. In my opinion, the Chicago skyline is the nicest from a pedestrian standpoint. You can walk through a nice series of parks a good long ways and continually see a huge range of great buildings. It reminds me of the Tetons viewed from the plains or Olympics viewed from our waterfront. You don’t have to be underneath it or in one to see them.

      • says

        The Seattle skyline actually sort of reminds me of the Chicago skyline in that it has different distinctive buildings that stand out from different viewpoints. It’s just a little easier to get between these viewpoints in Chicago. I could take a visitor on a quick tour of the great viewing angles of downtown Chicago in an afternoon — that would be hard in Seattle.

    • Orv says

      I’d cite the UW Tower (formerly the Safeco Tower) as an example of a bad out-of-character building. It’s not that it’s ugly; but it does create a basically dead block for pedestrians, and walking around it is very unpleasant because its height brings strong wind gusts down to street level.

      • David L says

        That building is actually a very good lesson for those of us considering the SLU rezone. It’s ugly from far away, but the real problem with it is at street level. Within the neighborhood, no one would care about the ugliness if only it contributed to a good city block rather than creating a dead one. In general, we need to focus less on the large-scale aesthetics of buildings and more on making sure they have functional street-level design.

  12. Zed says

    When I read that article on Friday, I found it quite amusing and kind of ironic since everyone in the neighborhood complained about the Mirabella being ugly and out-of-scale when it was being built.

  13. says

    As far as “floatplane turbulance” goes, I can’t think of much that’s less important to the future of Seattle than landing airplanes in Lake Union.

  14. Mike Orr says

    The size of a building is less important than the pedestrian experience around it. It’s a long boring walk around the Metropolitan Park triplex to get to 24 Hour Fitness because there are few things in between: grassy open space, one entrance, a building wall, and one fast-food place. It’s all automobile scale, although I do like the fact that they incorporated a gym and a fast-food place into the building. What if instead of the grassy open space and wall, there were several walk-up storefronts, or even a supermarket. Then people could walk shorter distances to their destinations and it would be a more pleasant walk. So the problem isn’t so much wide or tall buildings, but the lack of human scale at the bottom of them.

    • David L says

      Should have read to the bottom of the thread before posting my 2:24 p.m. response saying exactly the same thing!

  15. Andrew Smith says

    Personally, I think this post is extremely poorly reasoned. Of course I want density, but this is the classic “fallacy of incomplete evidence”, or at very least confirmation bias. You pick famous buildings as your “out of character” ones you won’t pick any bad ones, but of course there are tons of hideously ugly out of character buildings, and people have some reasonable right to say they don’t want to look at those.

    This billionaire’s house in Bombay succeeds in being 1) out of character, 2) hideously ugly, and 3) and extremely un-dense (one family lives there).

    This Television Tower in Prague is hideous and out of character.

    Here’s one in Mecca.

    Here’s one in North Korea.

    I could do this for ages. For a nearer example, have a look at the EMP, Seattle’s most out of character building. Mercifully it’s tiny. Imagine a 240 foot tall version of that? People rightly wouldn’t want to look at that, and it’s not unreasonable to have some laws preventing it.

    Now, this isn’t to say that is what would happen in SLU, but that’s really the more salient point: these buildings won’t be out of character. The fact that some out of character buildings on planet earth are good or okay hasn’t got a thing to do with it.

    • Matt says

      Interesting choices of “ugly” buildings since I don’t mind any of those you liked to.

      In all seriousness, your post highlights (probably unintentionally) the true problem at hand: what’s ugly to one person is beautiful to another.

      I think Picasso’s work is horrendous and wouldn’t put one up in my home if you gave it to me. (Well, maybe I’d take it and sell it so I can retire in the South Pacific.) But, quite obviously, many people think Picasso’s art is fantastic.

      Discussing what’s “ugly” or “pretty” is futile and a complete waste of time. We can debate height, width and every other measured feature, but a debate over “prettiness” is never going to find a proper resolution.

      • Andrew Smith says

        Discussing what’s “ugly” or “pretty” is futile and a complete waste of time.

        My point is that they are ugly (or tacky, or whatever) precisely because they are out of scale. That’s the whole point of the EMP mention. The EMP thing is one thing at its size. If it were the size of Safeco field, it would be something else entirely.

      • Mike Orr says

        Picasso’s art is valued not because it’s beautiful (which it’s not), but because it challenges the viewer in an innovative way. He probes the boundaries of how far you can slice-and-rearrange forms and people still recognize them as “humans” or even “humans in a certain emotional state”. UW Tower can not claim to do anything of the sort. It just follows in the modernist tradition of throwing away all the accumulated wisdom of aesthetics from before 1900. Picasso does that and still connects with humanness. UW Tower does that and just looks alien and abstract and not a place for humans to be.

    • Martin H. Duke says

      You’re proving my point. It’s not that a building is out of scale, it’s that it’s ugly. So let’s legislate that instead of setting arbitrary limits on density.

      • Andrew Smith says

        You’re proving my point. It’s not that a building is out of scale, it’s that it’s ugly.

        No, you missed my point. The reason those buildings are ugly is because they are out of scale. Such a thing exists! The Mecca one is a great example of that. It’s the only thing you can even see in that picture and that photo has the holiest site in Islam in it. Completely out of scale. Not even close.

        The space needle and the Eiffel tower are beautiful to a large extent because of their scale. It’s because they are so much taller than what’s around them.

        My point is that scale is a part of the aesthetics. The Freedom tower would look horrible in SLU, but looks fine great in Downtown Manhattan.

      • d.p. says

        I’ve seen the Freedom Tower from uptown, from across the river, and from the entrance to the PATH station directly at its feet.

        It looks awful from anywhere. It would BE awful anywhere.

        It looks like the Monolith from 2001. It looks like a monument to corporate phallusy. It looks nothing like “pride” or “freedom”.

        A very good example to prove Martin’s point.

      • d.p. says

        As for Mecca… [OT]

        So, you know, there’s that.

        One of these days, you’ll be able to stand 1,833 in the air and watch tens of thousands make ṭawāf around Kaaba 2.0, which will contain an automobile showroom.

        Mecca’s problemss seem to go way beyond “failure to adhere to appropriateness of scale”.

      • Andrew Smith says

        Mecca’s problemss seem to go way beyond “failure to adhere to appropriateness of scale”.

        I couldn’t care any less about Mecca’s problems. I am just illustrating that a over-large building can be out of scale, which is precisely what the post is saying is not impossible.

        It looks like the Monolith from 2001. It looks like a monument to corporate phallusy. It looks nothing like “pride” or “freedom”.

        I think you didn’t even bother to try to understand what I said. Martin’s point is that the entire concept of “out of scale” is nonsensical. The Freedom tower wound’t be monolithic if it were the same height as the buildings around it. The fact that it is “out of scale” is what makes it ugly. It’s possible to make a very tall building attractive, but it’s harder than it is to make a building that matches its environs, a la Vancouver.

      • d.p. says

        Actually, you said the Freedom Tower works just fine because it’s in Manhattan.

        In fact, the original 2002 concept was majestic. The 2013 result is crap.

        Sure, the crap is more noticeable thanks to scale. But that’s a symptom, not the problem. The problem is that a gorgeous plan was permitted by those holding the purse-strings to be reduced to crap. This can happen (and does, in Seattle especially) at any scale.

        The point of the text about Wahhabism’s destruction of historic Mecca is that, as a result of that destruction, the Abraj Al-Bait Towers are not particularly inappropriate.

        They’re ugly, they’re awkward, they replaced a centuries-old historic structure… but in that sense they’re 100% “in character” with everything else you see in Mecca today!

    • Bernie says

      EMP is weird at ground level. It looks cool from above (Space Needle). It’s built on the grounds of the Worlds Fair that was supposed to be a look into the future so it’s not out of place. It would actually meld well with a restaurant/bar that used to be on the north edge of Seattle Center but was unfortunately, in my opinion, torn down many years ago thereby stripping the neighborhood of one of it’s buildings with the most character. What was the name(s) of that place?

  16. David B. says

    I noticed another instance of “out of character” development recently. In most single-family neighborhoods in Seattle, it’s not hard to find grossly out-of-character houses that just don’t fit in well with their neighbors. Typically these are hatchet-job “remodelings” which destroyed the historical integrity of the structure, or modernist structures which just don’t fit in well with their neighbors.

    Yet, because they’re single-family detached homes built one to a lot, they’re completely legal. Meanwhile, any change to the single-family-detached norm, no matter how sensitive its design, is flat-out illegal and probably doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hades of being granted a zoning variance.

    • Nathanael says

      Another argument for a “planning permission” system, where no particular construction is privileged. Some local governments might demand bland conformity, but at least they’d do that because people voted for it; people could also vote for a local government which demanded pretty facades.

  17. Mike the Moron says

    I think everyone will agree that the downtown Seattle Greyhound bus station is a classic. Both in function and architecture. We should emulate that.

    • Mike Orr says

      That’s like the people who wanted to preserve the Monorail’s stanchions when the new monorail was built, as an example of Brutalism. Yes, I guess we’d better preserve some Brutalism somewhere in the world case future generations value it more than we do, but that doesn’t mean we have to preserve the Monorail stanchions in Seattle. Why not just preserve one stanchion?

    • Kyle S. says

      I’m confused. That building is exactly the kind of infill development we should be seeing throughout the entire city. I’d much sooner label the sea of single-family housing surrounding it a “monstrosity.”

      • Matthew Johnson says

        Can’t you see how it just towers over the openspace though? The way in which it stands out like a sore thumb amid all the single family homes surrounding it?

        How does your blood not boil just looking at it? There is a reason the entire neighborhood is pushing for it to be leveled and replaced with something much more ‘in character’ for that neighborhood.

    • David L says

      Looks appropriate to me. I’ve never had a problem with it. It’s bland, but inoffensive, and it’s very accessible at street level. If anything is “towering” in that immediate area, it’s the trees!

    • David B. says

      I disagree. That newer building is in scale with lots of older brick neighborhood-commercial buildings that one sees in older residential areas.

      That building furnishes apartments on its upper floors (a way for those who cannot afford or do not want a single-family home an option for living in the Mt. Baker neighborhood), and provides a place to house businesses that everyone in the neighborhood (whatever sort of dwelling they live in) can walk to. It create the sort of fine-grained, walkable mix that makes traditional neighborhoods a nicer place to live than sprawl.

  18. says

    Can we all agree that people who live in SLU know what’s better for their neighborhood than people who don’t there?

    • Schuyler says

      Can we all agree that black people should be restricted to living in the CD and RV?

      Same logic.

      • says

        Schuyler, I have a question for you. Let’s say I’ve taken a class on child rearing, and you haven’t. You and your wife have a couple of children. Who knows best how to raise your kids?

      • Seattleite says

        If we are going down that path, why not go a step further and say ‘Who knows what’s better for a piece of property than the property owner?’

      • says

        Um, Sam, that line of reasoning proves the exact opposite of your point. You, who have taken the child rearing class, are the person who has become educated on the matter, whether by taking a class or reading STB. I, who have not taken a class and had kids anyway, am likely to chafe when you tell me what to do, much like the residents of the neighborhood. You seem to be implying that you know best how to raise my kids, which by analogy, would mean STB bloggers know what’s better for an area than its residents. I don’t see what reasoning you would use to argue the opposite answer to your rhetorical question…

    • Brett says

      Sam, I would certainly agree that the people who live in SLU are more motivated than anyone else to maintain the status quo.

  19. Bernie says

    March start for 40-story apartment tower in Denny Triangle

    Boston-based developer GID Development plans to break ground in March on a 40-story apartment tower at Eighth Avenue and Lenora Street in Seattle’s Denny Triangle

    I don’t think anyone is morning the loss of the two-story Cosmopolitan Motors building (1925) but Westlake is not South Lake Union. The question amongst most reasonable parties seems to be how fast the buildings should step down toward Lake Union. 250′ north of Westlake seems reasonable. That provides a diversity of housing and will likely accelerate the rate at which the property is developed. What strikes me about this project is how much it is able to fit into just a 0.35-acre site.

    The apartment tower will have 355 units and 3,900 square feet of ground-floor retail space,

    With “More apartments are under construction in Seattle than at any time in at least 20 years” it doesn’t seem like only 250′ is really putting a big crimp into the market keeping in mind that the shorter the building the less expensive per square foot the condos/apartments are likely to be. Tempered of course by the fact that apartments on the north side with a view of the lake will command a premium.

    • d.p. says

      Actually, the Cosmopolitan Motors building possessed a unique and utterly wonderful terra cotta moulding and was a fantastic example of an adaptable showroom building of its time.

      It was precisely the kind of historic structure that should have been preserved and built around to create the kind of mixed-age, mixed-height vibrancy that allows real cities to thrive. As you point out yourself, its footprint was quite small — up-building around it would have been easy!

      Unfortunately, its greedy owners took advantage of the lethargy and incompetence of Seattle’s preservation board by jackhammering all of the noteworthy architectural details off the building before it could be re-assessed for preservation (a prior vote had deadlocked, with multiple board members M.I.A. at the time of the vote).

      What’s the best street in South Lake Union? It’s Westlake Ave N itself, where a mix of heights, ages, and uses — new mid-rises shoulder-to-shoulder with rehab projects — keep the streetscape lively and interesting. The Cosmopolitan Motors corner could have been that; instead, it will be awful and unremarkable.

      This is stuff you legislate with frontage requirements, design reviews, and at least a whiff of deference (for crying out loud) to Seattle’s limited remaining architectural artifacts of any value. You get nothing inherently good out of legislating “step-down” roof heights and ignoring everything else.

      • Bernie says

        Incorporating parts of the facade of old buildings has been tried. A notable example would be the Jackson Federal Building. I know that tower had an all star cast of architects but I still find it ugly. Preserving a workable district like Pioneer Square I’m all for. There was an outcry to save the old Ballard Dennys too but I couldn’t get real excited about that. This site in Westlake couldn’t be developed hirise without massive foundation work and building all around it and leaving an old auto dealership in the shadows of a concrete canyon makes no sense. Saving the armory building and some of the low rise buildings actually next to Lake Union makes sense. If you want to gaze upon architectural examples of the Cosmopolitan Motors building there are lots of them in Tacoma, Everett, Issaquah, Enumclaw, etc.

      • d.p. says

        I wasn’t talking about façadism. Façadism yields terrible results 98% of the time.

        I’m talking about building adjacent to and around preserved and re-purposed older structures of value.

        Such limits force creativity and elegance into the taller structures, and preserve variation and multiple entrances on the sidewalk by avoiding the scourge of clean-slate megablocks.

        Anti-historicism is basically why downtown Seattle sucks. Even Manhattan has tiny structures (interesting or not) breaking up the large-scale monotony. San Francisco is hardly starving for vertical expansion.

        But why emulate those cities when you can build a city with all the nuance of Dubai?

        If you want to gaze upon architectural examples of the Cosmopolitan Motors building there are lots of them in Tacoma, Everett, Issaquah, Enumclaw, etc.

        “New and old, separated by only a few dozen miles!” Now that’s zoning!

  20. poseur says

    More monolithic boxes with no character please! And have them take up entire city blocks! Awesome.

    Sorry, but South Lake Union – while bustling and growing – is a gray, austere, and soul-less place to be.

    Seattle architecture is awful, although I’m not sure I’d even refer to making concrete boxes with glass boxes on top – neither with any deviation in shape, texture, or depth – as architecture.

  21. STBPolice says

    What you don’t understand is that the large buildings of the prior millennium were machines build for the purpose of massing together humans into bureaucracies.

    What didn’t they have that we now have? Yes, you’re looking at it.

    The reason for not creating massive buildings is that there is absolutely no reason to do so! We have one great eBuilding. The Web. And we live in it happily. Our exterior physical shelters can now be light, cheap, low and sparsely built. We don’t have to crawl on top of one another to say “How are ya?”

    • says

      Are we sure this isn’t another Bailo sockpuppet?

      “Our exterior physical shelters can now be light, cheap, low and sparsely built.”

      Except, you know, physical things still have to be moved to place to place.

      And you still have to physically come into contact with other people to reproduce – never mind that a computer screen will never completely replace meeting someone in person.

      And you have to generate the electricity that runs the Web and distribute it to all those “sparsely built” homes.

      And you still need large tracts of land to produce the food to feed all these people.

      And if you live in a desert like Los Angeles you need to provide enough water for everybody.

      And all those “exterior physical shelters” are taking up space where trees aren’t, and probably where no trees exist for miles around, meaning a lot less CO2 being sucked from the atmosphere.

      Yep, we can sprawl to our heart’s content now that we have the Web! So why is the growth of the Web correlated with the growth of the urbanist movement and backlash against sprawl?

  22. Bernie says

    Well, if you’re going to delete the spam you should delete my reply. Hopefully “the faithful” archive the feed. It was a classic!

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