Placemaking & Seattle

Eric Becker, the filmmaker behind the Stone 34 video mentioned last year, released a video of architects, developers and others talking about South Lake Union and its potential futures. The video is called “Placemaking & Seattle”. It’s curious to me when people spend so much time debating heights, parking and floor-area-ratios, so little time is spent on form, function and character. It’s a video worth watching.

Placemaking & Seattle from eric becker on Vimeo.




Comments

  1. LWC says

    Great video! It’s interesting that the woman who speaks around 4:00 decries the building code requiring buildings to directly abut the sidewalk. I’ve also heard the opposite design principal attacked within urban design circles (and on this blog!).

    • Kevin R says

      I thought that stuck out as well. She seems to be a fan of the old “building surrounded by plaza” idea that has been widely discredited. If the problem is that the sidewalks are too narrow it seems like a better idea is to widen the sidewalks and shrink the roadway (and the parking).

      It’s a well done video but after his Stone 34 one I’m curious about who’s paying for it (although the close up at the end might explain it). It seems like a warm and fuzzy endorsement of the South Lake Union rezoning. It might work better if he just came out and said that he thought it was a good idea and why.

      • Andrew Smith says

        Yes, I agree that seemed confused. The types of buildings she’s talking about are exactly what we don’t want.

      • d.p. says

        Oh, it’s Jesse Israel.

        Yeah, she’s well-meaning, but frequently spouts off about things she clearly does not understand in the least.

        We don’t require building to the sidewalk edge, and we frequently require setbacks and indents that amount to dead, wasted space. We have far too little full-fledged frontage in this city; she’s flat-out wrong to say we have too much.

        As the guy before her says, impermeable frontage is the problem.

      • d.p. says

        You’ll notice, BTW, that all of the “pocket plazas” shown while she spoke practically had tumbleweeds rolling across them.

        A once-a-year art fair (3:56) is an infill use, and not one for which you should design gobs of year-round open space.

      • aw says

        It struck me that she was not talking about empty plazas. She and many of the other folks were talking about the interactivity of the space. So build a recessed area back from the sidewalk and put your sidewalk cafe there instead of crowding the pedestrian space. If the architect builds a plaza and then fails to activate the plaza, then it’s a desert, but if they can activate it, they’ve suceceded.

      • d.p. says

        Holy moly! I just got to 5:13, and Kevin wasn’t kidding!

        She literally, explicitly argues for “stretching” a building taller to build more of that universally discredited “building surrounded by plaza” design (the one that makes Seattle’s financial district so gosh-darn appealing!).

        Yikes! She really can’t be allowed to have anything to do with the future of this city’s street-level space.

        I particularly love the juxtaposition between her words and images of the High Line — which winds its way over, under, through, and between a thousand other uses, never leaving an inch of the “open space” she seems to advocate. That’s exactly why it works!

      • d.p. says

        We live in a rainy city more than half the year, aw.

        Again, the last thing you want to do is create gobs of full-time empty space for barely part-time usage.

        The summer sidewalk cafes throughout the narrow streets of Paris just make that city so pedestrian-hostile, don’t they?

  2. Ryan on Summit says

    I’m curious: does anyone actually think South Lake Union has character, or will with the direction we’re headed?

    • David L says

      I’ll put my hand up.

      Character ultimately doesn’t come from the buildings we plan, but from the people we add to the neighborhood. No neighborhood really has character immediately upon being built. We are doing the right thing by adding people to the neighborhood in large numbers… once the initial wave of development happens, with people around 24 hours a day, the neighborhood will start to evolve in good directions.

      I can’t think of any established neighborhood (that’s been there, say, 20 years or more) in any center city that does have 24-hour activity and doesn’t have character.

      Also, even in the short term, what was there before redevelopment started was a wasteland. There were very few people, especially outside of business hours, and no neighborhood character to speak of. Even a dreadfully bland but well-used neighborhood, which is what SLU will be for the next 5-10 years, will be a huge improvement.

      • Elder says

        Just out of curiosity, is there anything in the upzone changes that mandates that buildings be visually interesting, at least at the sidewalk level? One of the things that gives so many older neighborhoods (e.g. Pioneer Square) character is the inclusion of nice, decorative touches in brick and stone.

      • Ryan on Summit says

        You don’t stop to consider that using the term “wasteland” is offensive and doesn’t get people on your side who lived and worked there before “South Lake Union” was born? Tell that to the people at St. Spiridon. At the Cascade People’s Center. At Emmanuel Lutheran.

        It’s convenient to say that we might as well start over, but it’s too easy. Why not try and win people over?

      • Schuyler says

        Ryan, west of fairview != east of fairview. West of Fairview was basically industry during the day and a homeless hangout at night.

      • Jon Cracolici says

        I dont think its offensive to say that SLU used to be a wasteland. Ive lived in the neighborhood for about 6 years. To my recollection, 6 years ago a building in use and with intact windows seemed “out of character”. I actually enjoyed to dystopian wasteland vibe of it and it was an excellent place to spraypaint. But to suggest that the city is railroading development over residents objects and destroying a neighborhood is silly. Ryan, im sorry you dont like your new neighbors. That is not a civic problem though.

      • Ryan on Summit says

        What do you mean?? Of COURSE Cascade is SLU. SLU is scrubbing OUT the Cascade. It’s labeled as the same thing on maps.

        And what we’re talking about is Character. You can’t say everything west of Fairview doesn’t impact character east of it. That’s idiotic.

      • David L says

        If everything west of Fairview imparted character east of Fairview, then east of Fairview would have been a wasteland too. Fortunately, it doesn’t. They really feel like two entirely separate neighborhoods.

        There is just no way to defend what the area centered around Westlake and 9th had become before Vulcan started redevelopment. It was a canonical example of a badly blighted industrial neighborhood. There was no significant housing. At least half the industrial land was underused. The area was best known for being where Seattle’s prostitutes went whenever the cops tried to clean up Aurora. That’s not “character,” that’s blight and decay.

      • Mike Orr says

        “is there anything in the upzone changes that mandates that buildings be visually interesting, at least at the sidewalk level?”

        Not enough to be effective. The establishment now understands mixed-use and streetcar-suburb layouts and blank wall blight, but it still doesn’t understand what has been lost in automobile-era architectural styles and decoration styles. The styles that matured before cars became dominant (Art Deco, City Beautiful, Beaux Arts, all classical types, and “Seattle 1920s”) were human-scaled. Everything had a top border and bottom border, and decorations were more-or-less small and intricate for somebody standing in front of them or walking past them.

        In automobile-era styles like Goodgie, decorations became huge and gross-scaled so they could be seen from highways. The human scale didn’t matter because by the time the person was close enough to the building to see it, they had already decided to enter it. People didn’t walk casually past buildings as much as they used to, since they now drove everywhere. Developers found they could save a lot of money by making decorations gross-scaled and neglecting the inches and feed in the pedestrians’ gaze. This was at the same time as the rise in investor-financed buildings and Wall Street real estate, so the developer didn’t have as much stake in the neighborhood. And the International style banished decorations completely, thinking that plain was “in”.

        When decorations came back in the postmodern era, they didn’t go down to the small intricate scale of pre-automobile styles. They went to an intermediate scale, which still seems pretty plain to pedestrians. Again, this saves developers a lot of money, which pleases investors. But it’s why no new “Seattle 1920s” storefronts have been built. This won’t change until the establishment understands the vital importance of human-scale designing in architectural styles and decorations, not just in the placement of windows and doors and bus stops.

        The additions to the UW’s Suzzalo library illustrate all of this. The original part was in a Beaux Arts style that pleases everybody. The 1960s part was in a godawful inhuman modern style. The 1990s part was in an intermediate postmodern style. At the time, the UW and architects said they would have made it as intricate as the original style, but material and labor costs were so much higher now that it was impossible. That’s undoubtedly true, but at the same time it wouldn’t cost that much to scale down postmodern styles further and make them a bit more intricate. They don’t have to be as intricate as the old styles, just closer in that direction.

      • d.p. says

        FYI: some of the “classical” styles we’ve come to adore were actually themselves driven by the move to auto-oriented development:

        “[A.W.] Ross ordered that all building facades along Wilshire be engineered so as to be best seen through a windshield. This meant larger, bolder, simpler signage; longer buildings in a larger scale, oriented toward the boulevard; and architectural ornament and massing perceptible at 30 MPH (50 km/h) instead of at walking speed. These simplified building forms were driven by practical requirements but contributed to the stylistic language of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne.”

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle_Mile,_Los_Angeles#History

      • Andrew Smith says

        Mike and d.p. are spot-on here. Sadly, no one cares about this. They fight endless over height, FAR, etc. but making a useful pedestrian street-scape is given nothing more than passing thought and some lip-service.

      • d.p. says

        UW’s Suzzalo library

        Hmm… A quick glance at the mid-century section suggests that it’s either a Minoru Yamasaki design or a carbon copy thereof.

        The use of geometry and juxtapositions of “open” and “closed” space in his low- and medium-rise work tends to be quite interesting and pleasing to my eye, even at walking speeds.

        His high-rise work was awful.

      • Elder says

        Mike Orr: Thanks for the explanation. Do you know what kind of advocacy might be necessary or possible to get this on the menu, so to speak, of things required for increased height or other zoning benefits? I can’t imagine that it would cost all that much in the scope of a $100 million+ building to make the first two or three stories beautified.

      • aw says

        d.p., I kinda like the Rainier Tower just for the audacity of its base. From the street, I hardly see the upper parts. It does have one of those evil plazas, but the part below the plaza is interesting too.

      • d.p. says

        A roof plaza is not exactly a winter waste the way a ground plaza can be.

        As for Rainier Square (the mall levels): the problem with that megablock is the paucity of entrances, leaving a fairly big and undifferentiated mass to circumnavigate.

        This drawback is pretty well divorced from the primarily aesthetic undoing the tower above.

      • Mike Orr says

        “Do you know what kind of advocacy might be necessary or possible to get this on the menu, so to speak, of things required for increased height or other zoning benefits?”

        There are two problems. One is awareness of the issue. The only place I’ve seen it discussed is one book, maybe Christopher Leinberger’s “The Option of Urbanism”. (My most-recommended book on land use.) So few people realize it’s possible. But if developers can restore old buildings, then they can build new buildings in a similar style. Everybody says the Smith Tower is the most beautiful building downtown, so why don’t we have more Smith Towers? Architects can spend their creative energy figuring out how to evolve classic styles and wisdom for the 21st century, rather than insisting everything be either totally new (downtown library) or conventional postmodern (abstract geometrical lines and discs).

        The other problem is articulating what you want. We probably shouldn’t put specific styles into zoning laws, because that would be too limiting over a long term. But if we could articulate the principles we want to see into a page that activists could agree on in terms relevant to developers, it would be a starting point. It would require an architect or professional designer who wants to do this, to advise the activists and write up the document. Then maybe make a pool of suggestions for developers, examples of things we’d like to see. Then get the neighborhood associations and planning departments to buy into it.

        I don’t think every new building has to be like this. All you need is several per street to anchor the tone. The rest of the buildings between them can be whatever. With this approach, we can try to get developers and neighborhoods to do this voluntarily, on a “some buildings rather than all buildings” basis.

      • says

        Mike,

        Thanks for the articulation of what is lacking with so many developments these days. You should write up a blog post about it and flesh it out the background, problem, and a plan for action. This could come in handy: http://www.pps.org/reference/toward-an-architecture-of-place-moving-beyond-iconic-to-extraordinary/

        I’m not a professional architect, but would love to see a push for beautiful buildings either in classical styles or place-rich northwest modernist style. Northwest modernist style can be just as boring and ugly as other modernist buildings, but if done right can be fulfilling for pedestrians AND really help articulate a regional sense of place.

        Here is a free documentary on Northwest Modernism (which often seems to trend towards single family homes, and not often in the most interesting of ways): http://www.seattlechannel.org/schedule/programDetails.asp?title=9001103

        Density is critically important, but density that few find attractive is a missed opportunity and will ultimately be held up as an example of why more density is bad for community x…

        Would love to keep the discussion going on twitter: @GordonOfSeattle

    • barman says

      I guess SLU will have as much ‘character’ as the Pearl District or the Meatpacking or Williamsburg… in other words, not much. Much better than the industrial wasteland these neighborhoods were before obviously, but the pompousness of these architects is amazing.

      • David L says

        Give those neighborhoods a few years. It takes time to develop character. In the meantime, adding lots of people and activity is a very good thing.

      • Andrew Smith says

        I think the Pearl district has nearly as much character as anything in Portland does, and a lot more than, say, DT Bellevue.

      • Kevin R says

        To me the Pearl District can seem like a slightly grittier University Village. Hopefully that will change over time.

      • JohnS says

        I’m always curious if the same people who resent telling developers how high they can go or how much parking they can or can’t build would be for or against telling developers they have to do things to create a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape. There would seem to be a middle ground there.

        And frankly I have to agree – there is essentially no character in much of what has been built in South Lake Union (west of Fairview) in the last five years, especially at ground level. There are a few exceptions…and honestly I don’t see a lot of creative reuse happening with the new commercial spaces 20 years from now. If the original building’s profile was blah, it takes an awful lot of work to make it less than blah. I suspect we’ll be stuck with blah for a long time.

      • Mike Orr says

        Last time I was in Portland I took the streetcar through this newfangled Pearl District I’d been hearing so much about, and I kept wondering when I’d get to something really interesting, and then the streetcar terminated and I realized that was it. Well, I guess it was exciting compared to not having a lot of housing in that district at all, but that was about it. Was there anything I missed or didn’t notice?

  3. David L says

    And frankly I have to agree – there is essentially no character in much of what has been built in South Lake Union (west of Fairview) in the last five years, especially at ground level. There are a few exceptions…and honestly I don’t see a lot of creative reuse happening with the new commercial spaces 20 years from now. If the original building’s profile was blah, it takes an awful lot of work to make it less than blah. I suspect we’ll be stuck with blah for a long time.

    Your post demonstrates a fallacy which I think lurks under the surface of a lot of arguments about “character.”

    People assume “character” is about how things look.

    That’s true to a very minor extent. But the truth is that “character” is about who is in the neighborhood and how the spaces in the neighborhood are used.

    Some of the most beautiful housing stock in the city is in neighborhoods with zero character: McGilvra, the northwest part of Upper Queen Anne, the older parts of Windermere.

    Yet we have an architectural dump like most of the Pike/Pine corridor, mostly made up of cheap old buildings that were ramshackle and makeshift when they were first built and haven’t improved since, that is absolutely filled with character.

    When newly developed neighborhoods first start to function, they cater mostly toward corporate uses. That changes over time as spaces become not-as-well optimized for their intended uses. Over time, you may have the same drab buildings in South Lake Union, but you won’t really be looking at them. You’ll be looking instead at the occupants of the street-level space and the people on the sidewalk. I’m confident the scene down there will be a good deal more interesting in 2028 or 2033 than it is today.

    • David L says

      Somehow failed to click the reply link. This post was intended to be a reply to JohnS at 5:09 p.m.

    • says

      While not necessary for character, interesting buildings can definitely help define a sense of place. Pike/Pine may not be a haven of Beaux Arts Classical or Renaissance Revival buildings, but it’s certainly not an “architectural dump.” A lot of the resistance to development (that I’ve observed from the outside) in the Pike/Pine area has been due to:

      1) Displacing small local businesses that generate character of use and
      2) The replacement of old character rich buildings with metal and concrete siding “Anywhere USA” buildings

      Conversely, when developers are able to retain these uses and the character of the buildings, the neighborhood has been supportive of developers see the praise for one recent example http://www.capitolhillseattle.com/2012/12/27/415-million-later-capitol-hills-colman-automotive-building-restored-to-1916-glory

      Architects seem to think that the only thing that matters to a building is form (and experimental form at that it seems…) and urban planners and density advocates seem to think function always trumps form.

      Isn’t there a middle ground to be had, where we create buildings with a rich visual character that also provide flexible space for small local businesses and other functions that help give the neighborhood character?

      Thoughts?

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