Seattle City Hall (wikimedia)

Possibly the easiest way to improve land use is to repeal legal restrictions that prevent profit-maximizing developers from also doing desirable, urbanist designs. Parking minima are an obvious example of this.

What’s harder is encouraging good design when it’s not the profit-maximizing choice. Pedestrians suffer blank walls presented to the street all the time. There’s a solid case that narrow storefronts breed better walkable neighborhoods because it encourages diverse, low-capital startups and means that all that much more variety is within walking districts. However, wider storefronts are common in new construction.

It’s a genuinely difficult problem to encourage this kind of thing while not driving away the development the region so badly needs. However, there is no excuse for public buildings to suffer from these problems. Although costs matter, these buildings are hardly oriented towards maximizing the revenue they generate. More after the jump.

Consider Seattle’s new City Hall, pictured above. The Fourth Avenue entrance is a triumph of “public space” over commerce. The result is a bunker-like concrete mass, devoid of commerce, aside from a Noah’s Bagels just off the left edge of the picture. I’m told the plaza is fairly well utilized at lunchtime on a nice workday, but there’s still a whole lot of blank wall here.

Tamarack Place (by the author)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Seattle Housing Authority’s new Tamarack Place, just north of Columbia City Station, is pictured above. There are almost a dozen storefronts in this building.

After some discussions with people at City Hall, my understanding is that federal and county buildings go through the same design review process that commercial buildings, so those governments are under no obligation to exceed the standards that developers face.

Technically, city-owned buildings go through the Design Commission rather than the Design Review Board. In any case, the process is similar — reviewers work with architects to address problems early and reach compliance.

I’m no expert on design codes, but it would be nice if standards for public buildings were more demanding than for private ones, since the risk of losing the development altogether is minimal.

69 Replies to “The Low Hanging Fruit of Public Buildings”

    1. There is retail planned all along at least one (can’t remember if it was actually both) side of the square, plus it will include a grand entrance to the Transit Tunnel, and the fact that the building is made up of a mixture of office and residential means there will be people around there at all times of the day.

    2. It will still beat the old Public Safety building.

      As for Seattle’s City hall the plaza there is one of the more effective public spaces in the city. Sure it isn’t Westlake or the Pike Place Market but at the same time it is fairly well used for a random plaza in the middle of an office ghetto.

      True the space would be more used if there were more activity in the area outside of business hours, but you have a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Even if the space had been built with lots of small storefront retail there is nothing to say it would have leased or that any of the businesses would be open outside of standard office hours.

  1. I’m not sure I understand. Are you saying there should be “commerce” such as retail shops at City Hall? I think we should keep government buildings devoid of retail shops. There ought to be a delineation between such edifices as city, county and state government buildings and everything else. For those who remember the absolute atrocity that was the former city hall, the above view is anything but a bunker-line concrete mass. There is a sweeping, almost monumental staircase and a great plaza. When working–and this is one of my pet peeves about Seattle–waterworks frequently break down and are left high and dry–but when working, the water features of the plaza are a nice effect. I don’t see anything wrong with the Fourth Avenue facade–I don’t see blank walls. A Noah’s bagelry at City Hall? I think we can do better by our City Hall. And for what it’s worth, storefronts or no storefronts, Tamarack Place is one ugly building.

    1. There isn’t anything incompatible between a public building and incorporating storefronts into the streetscape. I prefer whatever design improves the pedestrian street experience, and the front of the new city hall is disappointing and unwelcoming for a pedestrian on Fourth Ave.

    2. Tamarack Place is one ugly building

      You got that right. Sort of like they went to McLendon Hardware and bought everything from the mismatched paint table and then slapped it on randomly. Makes me think urban camouflage. I know, it’s an attempt to give each cell block it’s own “character”… FAIL! The narrow store fronts will hold, if you’re lucky; a day spa, sandwich shop, dry cleaner, travel agent and real estate office in their very own island of nothingness.

      I don’t understand the criticism of Seattle City Hall and lauding Bellevue. To me they look like they came out of the same mold. Modern architecture can’t mimic the grandiose turn of the century style of San Francisco or Portland because of cost and code requirements. Even if it could there’s no connection between that and the “urban fabric”. I don’t see anything wrong with cathedrals, performing arts venues and public buildings being fundamentally different.

      1. And the tarmac outside Tamarack Place, is that for something from Boeing to taxi on, or was there a runoff collector award they were going for?

      2. The Bellevue City Hall is a reincarnation of a former Pacific Northwest Bell office building that was built in the 70’s or 80’s. I don’t think the footprint was changed much. The Seattle City Hall is a brand new building that should have had the benefit of current design ideas. While it is certainly better looking than the old city hall, it is no more engaging with pedestrians and the streetscape and it wasted an opportunity. I feel the same way about the new federal court building on Stewart.

    3. Tamarack Place (and lots of other newer buildings) have another flaw that’s not mentioned here: not only are individual store-fronts usually too wide, individual projects are too wide. In order for development costs to pay off, the scope of projects is often a single huge building per block, instead of several smaller buildings that can each evolve over time to create a varied look and varied uses to a neighborhood. The hodgepodge look of these buildings is an attempt to introduce some variety to an over-large project. The problem is that it’s still one building, and the separate parts will not be allowed to change separately over time, and will age at the same rate, and be less adaptable because of the fake variability built in at the beginning.

      All of that said, I still think it’s a successful building given the available constraints. The functionality of storefronts is a lot more important than the architectural style of the buildings. It will also look less generic with time. Buildings acquire character with age. The buildings that we’re putting up now that survive will settle in to become part of the background of the city, just like all of the old Craftsman homes that look great now but were generic and mass-produced for their time. Lots of them will be torn down but that’s always the case. Most buildings have a limited lifespan.

      1. Tamarack Place isn’t very wide… It only takes up about a third of the block. And the storefronts are relatively narrow in Tamarack Place compared to many other new buildings.

    4. I agree there is a difference between public buildings, like the city hall, which should not have store fronts, and commercial real estate which can or should. Public buildings should be inviting in any case. The picture of the city hall above does look fairly inviting.

      1. There are many public buildings worldwide which have all manner of commerce. Even hundreds of years ago it wasn’t unusual to have restaurants and shops built into the street exterior of a city hall. It’s more lively and useful than facades that provide no reason for anyone to interact who doesn’t have to go into the building.

    5. The Tamerack is just following the current architectural style. There are other buildings around with fake balconies and a hodgepodge of solid colors. I notice so many new buildings with similar silly latticeork at their corners. Sooner or later enough people will get tired of it and the style will change.

      One building I like is the recent one with dark red-brown bricks on Eastlake. It’s a block or two long, I think three stories, with hanging balconies like this but larger. It basically takes the new styles and makes them look elegant. I hope we get more buildings like that.

      1. There are quite a few nice/interesting looking buildings, at least here in the Capitol Hill area:


        Agnes Lofts

        1111 East Pike

        19th Ave Lofts

        And this isn’t counting the dozens of conversions of nice-looking older buildings (e.g. Belmont Lofts, Sanctuary, Packard).

        Around here, I’d say that nice buildings are at least as common as the cookie-cutter Joule-style ones. But maybe we’re the exception, since we had so many usable candidates for multi-family conversion.

  2. Fnarf’s post was a great read, but I think there was a great deal of sentimentality behind it. I too, enjoy small, narrow, unique retail spaces, but in this era of ADA regulations, it’s impossible to build small narrow spaces and pack the shelves high with interesting merchandise. Aisles and restrooms have to be designed for wheelchair access and that takes up a lot of floor space. Because landlords charge tenants by the square foot, small spaces are a thing of the past.

    Given the steep grade at City Hall, I’m not sure that a better design could have been possible. At least there’s a waterfall along the sidewalk. I also think that public open spaces are precious in downtown Seattle. I’d rather have a small open space available for non-commercial gatherings than walk by another line-up of Subway, Starbuck’s, McD, Phone Store and Frozen Yogurt.

  3. That city hall building is a complete embarrassment. If you’re going to make something so wasteful of space and real estate (a, what, five storey building on fourth and james?), at least make it beautiful. It’s expected we’d have a noticeably worse city hall than San Francisco, New York or Montreal, but how did we end up with one that much worse that Portland, Tacoma and *shudder* Bellevue?

    I wish I could find a better photo, but it appears the old city hall torn down in the early part of this century was significantly better than what’s there now.

    1. Bellevue? Have you checked your glasses prescription lately? Aesthetics aside, it’s funny that you should cite Bellevue’s city hall since it wasn’t built by the city, it was privately built and was previously owned by Qwest. That triumph of civic architecture was a result of the design requirements Martin seems to be against here.

      Also, Seattle City Hall is 7 storeys, which probably makes it taller than any of the other city halls that you reference, except for maybe Bellevue’s, which is 11. And the adjacent 62-storey Municipal Tower is also owned by the City, and the Civic Square tower, when completed, will be 40 storeys. And the old city hall wasted all of its 5th Ave half with a 4-storey 300-car garage.

      1. And the old city hall wasted all of its 5th Ave half with a 4-storey 300-car garage.

        Should have torn down that half and replaced it. Certainly cheaper than building a whole building from scratch.

    2. PS This is a shot of the old building from 5th Ave. So the old building had the plaza (the top of the 4-storey garage) on 5th, where it was level with the sidewalk; the new one has it on 4th, where it needs lots of stairs. I personally prefer the grandness of the new entrance, but either way, the old building was just as “wasteful” with its footprint.

    3. The old 1962 City Hall was a complete atrocity from an architectural, aesthetic, and urban design standpoint. I find its replacement a vast improvement. I’d rank the Seattle City hall as somewhat better done than the Bellevue City Hall. But Bellevue converted an old Pacific Northwest Bell office building and exchange so they were limited in what they could do.

      If you want a bad example of civic architecture that is still standing take a look at the King County Administration building. It tries to pretend it isn’t on a hill and presents a nice 4 story blank wall most of the length of 4th.

  4. Many new storefront retail spots are wide because they are so shallow. They need to be wide in order to provide enough square feet to prospective tenants.

    Why are they so shallow? Because behind them is often — you guessed it — parking! It’s much cheaper to build parking on the same first-floor level behind a thin veneer of retail, than it is to put it underground and allow full-depth retail.

    1. Well that and window space is valuable, especially for higher order retailers who want to try and catch shoppers by making sure that they see them. Moreover, it’s is easy to apply their shopping mall models to the High Street.

  5. Seattle’s municipal code is a big reason for all of this. For most uses in Downtown, 75% of the frontage must be retail or similar uses. This says nothing about depth, just frontage. (I’m basing this on a quick read of the code, not claiming expertise.)

    Meanwhile, except in the “destination” retail areas, 75% is more retail than our customer volume justifies. We require too much retail. (Many factors…one is having small blocks with lots of street frontage per acre.)

    Developers don’t want to maximize retail space where it’s not warranted. So they meet the frontage requirement but make it shallow.

    A similar principle applies to neighborhood business districts. Retail is required in places where it’s not justified. This is diluting the success of the main streets while creating half-empty retail on secondary streets. Developers know their retail won’t do well, so they build the cost into their assumptions before they build. Generally, the apartments subsidize the underused retail.

    1. Developers know their retail won’t do well, so they build the cost into their assumptions before they build. Generally, the apartments subsidize the underused retail.

      That seems really inefficient. With few exceptions, we’re not wanting for retail in most of the city. The goal should be decreasing the cost of housing construction, not increasing it.

    2. Matt has a good point. On side streets and other secondary streets in a neighborhood business districts, retail should be optional. Space can/should be built w/13-foot ceilings, allowing for future retail, for live/work suites, or just for outright residential. Let the market decide, what and when.

    3. That’s to break up the monotony of blank walls, isn’t it? It’s an attempt to prevent streets that people feel uncomfortable walking down.

      For large buildings with pedestals, allowing vision into the lobby would probably suffice. But for smaller buildings without lobbies, I’m not sure how you’d achieve the goal of activating the space.

    4. It seems like a lot of recent projects are creating live/work space in the required retail. This seems like a good compromise to me — is there some reason this is a problem?

      1. Kyle-

        Interesting. I’d have thought direct access to outside would be a good selling point, but maybe it’s not for a lot of people.

      2. Live/work spaces are different from apartments street access. But my informal impression is that live/work spaces are just not selling.

      3. The ones near me in Belltown have sold poorly.

        I suspect that one reason is that a neighborhood that feels “commercial” (or, frankly, has more than occasional icky people) isn’t a place where people want a front door on the street. I wouldn’t, despite some obvious conveniences.

        Also, the concept of mixing home and work is a niche, not terribly mainstream.

        Maybe it would work better on those side streets in Ballard and Admiral Junction that are a bit more residential.

      4. The live/work spaces I’ve seen in Roosevelt, Greenlake, and Columbia City have seemed to sell well.

        I think it depends a lot on the neighborhood and the particulars of the street frontage the live/work space opens out on.

    5. I’d imagine it takes a good number of apartments to subsidise that cost difference. I’m really suprised that this applies to other neighbourhood business districts. I mean, I see the rationale, but it’s seems a bit high unless retail includes other uses like services,cafés, and restaurants.

      1. retail does include services, cafes, and restaurants. Even then the requirement for 75% of the frontage to be retail is quite high. This is why you’ll see “mixed use” developments with lots of empty storefronts in many parts of town.

  6. Storefronts for City Hall? The Federal Courthouse? The Court of Appeals? The Central Library? And simply because it’s easier than changing or enforcing design requirements for private developers? I honestly can’t comprehend the logic at work here. Do you want to get rid of all grand civic buildings? Or just have them all come right up to the edge of the sidewalk? (Which, given how vulnerable that makes a building to explosions, is not likely to happen anyway.)

    I also might not get this argument simply because I see that not as a “bunker-like concrete mass”, but as one of the better building fronts downtown. It’s large-scale but not too large, imposing and welcoming at the same time. Precisely the sort of entrance a city hall should have. Not every public space should be built to encourage the spending of money or the flow of traffic.

  7. I noticed that the Federal Reserve building appears to be abandoned. What’s going on with it?

      1. There’s been a bit more since 2004. The Fed moved out in ’08, and sold the building, but a judge ruled that sale illegal a year ago. (It appears the new owner intended to raze the building.) Can’t find anything since then, though. I imagine the Fed’s just holding on to it until the market improves enough to sell it legally.

  8. I agree with one sentiment here: design codes should be better. We should be implementing form-based codes in Washington. But, I think Martin is largely wrong about public buildings. On the whole, public institutions are generally ahead of the curve in terms of design and green building. It’s interesting that this seems to be a circling firing squad on this topic despite all thing considering, the stuff just isn’t that bad. Do take a look at the suburbs some time or come out to Europe and I’ll take you to where modern development really is that bad. I’d be happy to.

      1. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t build up. We should. But apparently nobody can agree here what we should do with a city hall. Should it be a 5-story, sexy 19th century beauty like SFO? (Probably very unrealistic for a lot of reasons.) Should it have retail or is that not appropriate for government? Should it be one modern office building or a mix as it is? Etc.

        I’m sorry, but people don’t seem to know what they want other than this is “bad”. From a functional and form perspective, it’s at least decent to pretty great. Sure, it’s not fantastic or striking like other public buildings in the city, but it’s also not poorly designed or unimaginative either. What we want it to be and how it used is completely different than what this post and comments suggest. I just feel that people are needlessly whinging without actually admitting it’s not bad overall, but maybe there are some areas we could re-envision in the future. Particularly in the way of new city tower.

        But, to my most basic point, it’s a decent building and most recently built public buildings tend to be as well. I’d even say that on the whole, they tend to be better than most private sector development, particularly in areas other than downtown Bellevue, Seattle, or Tacoma.

      2. Governments routinely own property and rent them out to commercial/industrial tenants. And governments also routinely lease property from private landlords. We’re talking about City Hall, not the Pentagon… :)

  9. There are two agruments you’re making. I agree, the new Seattle City Hall is ugly, and you can argue about the aesthetics and efficiency of modern architecture in this city to death. Modern architecture is not necessarily perfect and does have to contend with ADA standards. Take for example, the Seattle Public Library. There are numerous little quirks that are incompatible with it’s usage. Off the top of my head, the bathrooms have low speed hand dryers that are not effective at drying hands and most people just wipe their hands clean on their pants. Unsanitary. The lack of flush urinals in the men’s room, while may conserve water usage, does not address the reality a significant disproportion of males use the Central library as compared to females. Need I say more? Further more, the concept from floors 7 – 9, with a continuously at ADA slope regulations, requires a series of railings around desk areas. This design, while intuitive to help find books, makes it difficult to find the quickest way out between floors, unless one is well familiar with the library’s design.

    I disagree civic buildings should have retail integrated in them. I believe there are other ways you can build community with public space. Have you visited the Burien City Hall/Libray? It’s also conveniently located also in the town square and most vibrant shopping district in Burien. The master plan for the entire four block redevlopment called for the exact type of development you’re promoting. Housing plus retail. The problem is that they’re having trouble filling the space and finishing the whole plan, which called for building “affordable apartments” and retail after building a giant condo block and retail underneath it. Unfortunately, only a handful have forked out the dough for the expensive condos. Still, the partnership between KCLS and the City of Burien worked well. It’s just a pity the rest of the plan didn’t materialize.

  10. I’m skeptical that any building, public or private, can’t be profitable for its owners, beautiful to look at, and above all enjoyable for its users, all at the same time. I wonder how much architectural ugliness isn’t mostly the product of laziness and lack of imagination.

    But I also wonder if somewhere in the core thinking of the key professions, there isn’t an abiding dislike for people, as sources of germs and garbage, but even worse, of disruption and disorder. The architects who served the old Captains of Industry and Robber Barons had one thing in common with their clients: they respected ordinary people enough to want to impress them with grandeur.

    Also: I’m still waiting for a mayor of Seattle to give some kind of ringing declamatory address from the top of the City Hall staircase to a huge gathering of enthusiastic supporters of something. Too bad Juan Peron and his wife will never be on the ballot.

    Mark Dublin

  11. The reason the City Hall plaza is a failure stems from the decision by Mayor Schell and the city council at the the time to build the new building before tearing down the old City Hall. They could have easily moved into the Muni building, but didn’t want to be inconvenienced. So, they left us with a nice staircase, an underused plaza, and a lack of interaction with the site.

  12. while the city hall building is nice to look at it does seem there is a bit much of stair and wall there. maybe more flat space and/or area for hot-dog cart vendors, etc to reduce lunchtime car trips.

    the tamarack paint scheme does look odd. i think if the right stores move in below it could be very conveinient. cooking spices, light hardware or something.

  13. City Hall is a good building, and our most important civic buildings should be free and clear from narrow commercial interests.

    Not to say that there aren’t more appropriate means of generating revenue from more appropriate public buildings.

    1. I should also add that City Hall is a very good and active public space throughout the workday, a place where people enjoy coffee, good weather, the farmers’ market, and the fountain (and in nice weather they’re actually _in_ the fountain). There is so much worthy of critique in downtown Seattle that it’s honestly bizarre to pick City Hall.

  14. Martin, can you publish more examples (pictures) of what you envision possible with public buildings, specifically the retail + government component which seems so divisive in the comments so far?

    Like you (and many others) I enjoy activated spaces much more than transient spaces (people just passing through or which are avoided). I think a lot of the reaction people have against retail integrated in public buildings is one of the gut. If more examples can be shown where this works it might cause people to second guess their initial reactions. I’m sure there are plenty of examples.

  15. Bellevue City Hall is a beautiful and remarkable facility. It really is.

    It has a couple of issues though:

    First it has only “one” public entrance (except for the jail via squad car) – and appears to the populace as a fortress upon on hill, surrounded by a moat, with drawbridge and castle gate. Very unwelcoming to the pedestrians approaching from any of the 360 degrees, but especially from the north, south, east and west. Just try to find the street entrance.

    Virtually no retail adjacent, now or planned. Concrete facings of the backs of tall buildings and meydenbauer center face the entrance. It is not a hub of retail / economic activity, and will never be. However, that “non-hub” may be accessable by light rail soon. Go figure.

    Second, the churchlike expanse of the main floors may be “green” on a cubic foot basis, but requires heating and servicing of mass empty / unusable common space cubic footage.

    And as mentioned earlier, water features that work for a while and then break.

    But worth a visit next time you want to attend a light rail forum.

    1. City Hall is conveniently located at 450 110th Ave. NE (Northeast Fourth Street and 110th Avenue Northeast) in downtown Bellevue, near the Bellevue Transit Center, a block west of Interstate 405.

      If you are walking, the pedestrian entrance (plaza) is located on 110th Avenue. When you enter the building, you will be on the second floor.

      If you are driving, the visitor parking entrance is located on 110th Avenue. After you park and enter the building, you will be on the first floor.

      But yeah, for the most part everyone uses the first floor entrance through the parking garage. I believe it is the only option after 5PM. And although you can walk out onto the balcony at the south east corner you can’t get back in (or off) if the door closes. Ask me how I know :=

      1. Yep, it works pretty well if you are coming from the Bellevue Transit Center on a Dry day before the drawbridge goes up at 5PM – but if the indians attack (I apologize in advance) on foot from any of the other 7 compass points, they will be repelled.

        But once you get inside, it’s marvelous, isn’t it.

        That is if you stay inside and don’t go out on the smoking porch. :-)

      2. And what is the story with that huge overgrown lot next to Bellevue’s city Hall? You’d think that being between Meydenbauer Center, City Hall and the Transit Center that it would be the most valuable piece of property downtown! Even during the 2007 Boom there was nothing there.

      3. Good question. The “tax payer” is still King County. According to the records the CENTRAL PUGET SOUND REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITY gave the property (Quit Claim Deed in 2007, assessed at $13.5M) to the City. My guess is that it’s ROW for East Link.

  16. We could have worse problems than arguing over how best to handle growth:

    Detroit’s Population Crashes

    If current trends persist Seattle will be larger than Detroit in a few years. Rather remarkable considering that in 1950 Detroit was “the fifth-largest city in America, behind New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and it was in the top 10 as recently as the 1990 Census.” It’s stories like this that are repeated in cities all over America that make me skeptical of the “yeah, but we’re building this for 100 years from now” arguements.

    1. I’m sorry but there aren’t enough black people to scare racist whites out of Seattle.

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