If you look hard you can see it....

It started off as these things usually do, with a lot of pointing and gesturing at a roll up screen at projected images of various images and sketches. There was talk of “massing” and “features” and “treatments” and other designy language. But what was otherwise a relatively mundane design review meeting might have planted the seeds of a neighborhood revolution. OK, maybe I am a little bit too excited, but when considered in context, the review of a proposed mixed use project on Beacon Hill bodes very well for those of us who want to see more density around transit.

First, a quick report of what happened. The Southeast Design Review Committee was meeting to consider a mixed-use project on the corner of 17th and McClellan, a corner lot which sits, vacant on the same block as the Beacon Hill light rail station. The proponents presented their project and said they are asking for a review of the project at both 40 feet and 65 feet.  There is a proposal on the table now to upzone the corner to 65 feet but it is currently zoned for 40. The project would vary from 30 to 45 units depending on height.

I’m not a big fan of design review, so I’ll spare you my snarky recapitulation of the questions board members had of the proponents. Let’s just say they were the kinds of questions design review board members ask. What has given me some real hope about the shape things might take in Beacon Hill was the public comments after the presentation and questions. More after the jump.

Now, make no mistake, one could sense some Concern Trolling going on. There were some straight up statements by some that “we really wanted a park there, so I hope it only gets built at 40 feet.” There were also a fair number of comments suggesting “big setbacks” above the second story of the project to better fit with adjacent single-family homes. One neighbor said asked whether “parking is 1 spot per resident.” The answer is no, since this is a transit area, the proposal includes only 14 -17 spaces. “And the rest will park where?” the neighbor asked. The planner from the City said they “won’t have cars, but I won’t try to convince you of that.“

Transit Oriented .... Parks?

I waited for the guffaws and eye rolling. It didn’t happen. Instead I heard this.

I think this great. This project will be a huge asset for the neighborhood. 65 feet is a good height. I disagree with heavy setbacks and I’m not worried about increased traffic. If there is more traffic, then cars are moving slower, which makes it better for pedestrians.

Holy density, Batman! Things sure have changed in Beacon Hill. Neighbors offered even more positive comments and suggestions, including a call for more commercial and retail space on the ground floor of the project. About three dozen neighbors attended the meeting, a number that was, according to the chair of the committee, “the greatest turn out for a project in my 3 years on the committee.”

What’s changed since 1998 when the Seattle Weekly wrote a feature story about Beacon Hill called “Yellers and Screamers?” What’s making this project slide along so easily in a neighborhood that just over a decade ago needed a federal mediator just to get through a community council meeting?

First, I think there are lots of new people who’ve lived in density and want it for Beacon Hill. My personal story features a move from Beacon to Capitol Hill, but I suspect many have made the opposite trip. Many new Beacon Hill residents are used to living in dense urban neighborhoods in Seattle or elsewhere and want the same for their new home.

Second, there is no evil property owner. One of the things that truly poisoned the Roosevelt discussion was the galling idea that a bad actor would profit at the expense of the neighborhood by getting an upzone. While that seems silly in the vast scheme of things, it is a powerful, visceral, and understandable reaction to somebody getting something they don’t seem to deserve. That’s absent on Beacon Hill and from this project.

Third, El Centro De La Raza is no longer allied with a long-standing cadre of NIMBYs in the neighborhood who have fought new development over Beacon Hill and who formed the spark plug of the conflict in the 1990s. That group preferred parks to buildings, and always argued that, somehow, new development represented racism and exploitation. El Centro is now looking at their own development project and they have a much more progressive view about development these days, with El Centro’s Estella Ortega an active participant in Leadership for Great Neighborhoods.

I could be wrong about all that, but from what I heard I am really encouraged by my old neighborhood and even more convinced they could lead the region in density around transit. In fact, tonight, they already did.

...it's called 'leadership.'

33 Replies to “Beacon Hill Starts to Lead on Density Around Transit”

  1. As a fan of setbacks, I sure wish more buildings were that way. Go ahead and put another story or two on it as long as it is pushed back from the sidewalk. Anyone who’s been to the residential towers in Vancouver will know what I mean. Greenery, benches, water displays, etc between the sidewalk and the edge of the building can make the pedestrian experience so much better. But, here in Seattle, we seem to want the buildings to go all the way to the edge of the sidewalks and enable a sense of claustrophobia while walking down the streets.

    1. I can’t decide if this is joke, trolling, or just a very strange opinion. I consider the widely-setback towers in Yaletown to be some of the worst design in Vancouver.

      In Seattle, wide setbacks are what get us godawful urban design like the Fred Hutchinson center: several meters of perfectly-manicured nothingness that make it feel like you’re walking through a suburban office park. The only people who ever occupy that space are the landscapers. Buildings with street walls — particularly with ground-floor retail — get us vibrant places like Capitol Hill, Downtown, Belltown etc, and up-and-coming places like SLU.

      Parks, open spaces, greenways, transit, libraries etc. are all vital parts of well-designed urban density. By and large, Seattle does not lack those things; instead we lack the residential units for people to live near them.

      1. Really? When I walk around SLU, I see wind tunnels and blocks of buildings, like some giant baby playing with basic Duplo blocks, no style or originality to the apartments/condos/offices. Give me some curves to the buildings–anything!–that will make walking down the street a visually pleasant experience. A few water displays, some greenery. How about you walk around the outside of Westlake Center; along 5th Avenue it is dark, cold, and bland. Along Pine it is vibrant and sunny with that open area. As I’ve said before, it is the problem of bad designers why we get such ugly buildings. A small, vibrant plaza, even if it is just on the corner of a full-block condo/office building can add so much to a positive environment.

      2. Right, that is not a setback, that is a public plaza.

        Having public plazas mixed in with a street wall is fantastic (in moderation). A setback is generally too small to be useful. It almost always ends up being grass.

        SLU is not as pleasant and engaging a place Downtown yet because the economy is an the crapper and it’s hard to lease retail space. The monoculture of Vulcan buildings is already diversifying — see the old building that’s being rehabbed on Westlake at Thomas.

      3. I actually like walking 5th Avenue between Westlake and the Central Library, more so than 3rd or 2nd Avenues. The street is narrow and the traffic slower. There are shops and restaurants along the way. There is a regular row of trees.

        A few office buildings downtown have plazas that sit empty and lifeless most of the time. What makes them vibrant is something to do, activities, not prettiness.

      4. I guess I don’t know all the proper terms then. But, when I walk around SLU, it sure isn’t as pleasant as say, walking around Pioneer Square. Maybe we’re basically saying the same thing? Just stop building these pieces-of-crap boring buildings and create something with a bit of pizazz, something that we can look at and say, “Damn, that is a fine looking structure. Someone sure spent a bit of extra time designing it.”

        Heck, I’d even love it if just the corners would be inverted/pushed in instead of going all the way to the corner of the block. And, if it has to be build all the way to the edge of the sidewalk, then how about the second or third story be setback a bit so as to allow a bit of sunshine to come in?

      5. I suspect we are mostly in agreement, although I don’t think daylight is a problem in SLU.

        Regardless, to see what a real setback looks like, ride the SLUT out to Fred Hutch. I promise you, it’s not what you want.

        And yes, regarding the comment below, I think Seattle’s diversity of building styles and ages is a tremendous asset, very pleasing to the eye.

      6. For what it’s worth, if I remember correctly the Hutch campus was designed in the mid-90s basically as a suburban campus that just happened to be in a city. It originally had a tall black fence around the perimeter too.

        Recently they’ve been working to open it up better now, for example there are coffee shops open to the public in several spots (though only open weekdays).

      7. For those that had to look it up (like me): here’s a picture. Eeew. Yep, that’s a suburban campus – the setbacks remove the possibility of not only a street wall but also storefronts. I agree that this is one of the more boring places to walk in the city.

      8. Cinesea, what you’re seeing in SLU that’s making things feel “wind-swept” is the unbroken glass facade of the first floor retail. We don’t break up the facade with angles the way we did a hundred years ago, and it makes places unfriendly. That has nothing to do with building height – it’s that the first floor design isn’t drawing you to the space you should be drawn to, so you’re looking up.

      9. Um, do any of you WORK at FHCRC or just pass by it? I spend at least 8 hours a day there and let me tell you it’s NICE to have those green areas so people can get outside and have a good walk around when the weather is decent. It makes the visuals more pleasant and we have somewhere to go eat lunch that’s not stuck inside a cafeteria or our lunch room or desk in warmer weather. It’s a campus with lots of people working odd hours and weekends, not a standard office park. You also likely don’t know how extensive the areas are underneath those “open areas” are. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not used. You also forget it was the only major business in the area until just recently. There was no where to go. The Amazon buildings are stark and I don’t see any green space, even walking through the major entrances. There’s lots of cement to sit on…

      10. It’s also nice to stroll along Summit & Mercer, the Mt Baker island east of Rainier, Broadway, University Way, and other places that were built in the 1920s without setbacks. It’s pedestrian-scaled, the windows are right on the sidewak, and some restaurants have sidewalk seating. There may be good setbacks, but the bad setbacks are in Magnolia on the 24. The front yard is twice as deep as normal, and it’s just a little-used lawn. You could put an entire house in the space. If it were the back yard, the kids would play there or you could have a vegetable garden. But instead the valuable land remains underused. I’m all for plants in front yards, but it should be pulled back just enough to accommodate a row of plants and a small open space, not pulled back further due to a zoning requirement. And outdoor plazas should be designed so that people will use them, not just look at their emptiness.

    2. I agree with Bruce.

      Setbacks ruin the street wall which contributes to the urban feel of an area. Imagine Paris with setbacks. Awful.

      The claustrophobia isn’t caused by buildings on the edge of sidewalks. It’s caused by buildings whose height and mass is out of proportion with the width of the street, like San Francisco’s Market Street, and insufficient sidewalk width.

      1. That is a good example of the wind tunnel. At least it is interesting to look at instead of the bland walls and windows we get in SLU. I love walking around Pioneer Square because, even with the buildings up to the edge of the sidewalks, at least they give us something interesting to look at, and while looking down the street, the various heights give a sense of depth to the neighborhood. All I see in SLU is the same boring 4-6 story block-y buildings that look like some first-year architecture student designed them.

      2. Walking down 1st Avenue from Pike Place Market to Pioneer Square is very enjoyable mostly due to the various styles of the buildings. And, thanks to Harbor Steps, there’s a nice break from the wall to give us a view(goodbye Viaduct!).

      3. “The claustrophobia isn’t caused by buildings on the edge of sidewalks. It’s caused by buildings whose height and mass is out of proportion with the width of the street, like San Francisco’s Market Street, and insufficient sidewalk width.”

        Right, and I’d add, by a lack of doorways and windows that go anywhere.

        Some of my favorite streets while traveling have been streets like this one (Linzergasse, in Salzburg, Austria). It is narrow, pedestrian (human!) scaled, and walking on it never feels like a long walk, because there are so many different buildings, with different shops and restaurants at retail level, and different colors and finishes. It’s comfortable and fun. (The street is pedestrianized; the only reason you see a car in the picture is because they do allow cabs to drop people off, and other drop-offs and deliveries occasionally. But the majority of the time there are no cars on Linzergasse, and when they do show up, they crawl along, because it is a pedestrian zone.)

        I think these buildings are about 65′ tall, yes? Interesting. ;) (If you browse through that photo set you’ll see several other narrow streets that are wonderful, including the Getreidegasse shopping street, and the Steingasse, the old Roman road through Salzburg, which is lined with fascinating 15th century buildings, and is barely wide enough for a car to get through. None of these streets felt oppressive to me — on the contrary, they felt human-scale.

        Anyway, buildings right up to the sidewalk are a classic component of many beautiful old cities. I do not understand the “setback” think. Modulation is great, pocket parks and plazas and courtyards are wonderful. But in general, it’s a good thing to have buildings to the sidewalk.

      4. Just to clarify, the way the sentence is written in the OP reads as though attendees were requesting an aerial setback, not the ground-level setbacks being debated here in the comments section (my emphasis):

        “There were also a fair number of comments suggesting “big setbacks” above the second story of the project to better fit with adjacent single-family homes.”

        Perhaps Roger can chime in?

    3. I like a mix…downtown I enjoy the canyons of 2nd and 5th aves, but I also enjoy the openness of other areas where it makes sense.

  2. “First, I think there are lots of new people who’ve lived in density and want it for Beacon Hill. My personal story features a move from Beacon to Capitol Hill, but I suspect many have made the opposite trip. Many new Beacon Hill residents are used to living in dense urban neighborhoods in Seattle or elsewhere and want the same for their new home.”

    This is 100% true. Most of the people that I know who live on Beacon Hill are former Capitol Hill residents, who moved there in large part because of light rail.

    1. And then there are those of us who have lived mostly in single-family neighborhoods, because we had to, and relish being able to walk to basic amenities. Beacon Hill, lower the draw bridge.

      1. lilnemo,

        I’m too old, and my schedule too odd, to be living in group houses.

        And I really meant by the station. Sorry.

    2. Well, geez, I guess I count too. I lived in Capitol Hill and loved it. Moved away for a while (to Queen Anne, then Wallingford) and then could afford a place on Beacon Hill, so that’s where I ended up.

      1. While I have never lived in (on?) Capitol Hill, I have lived in walkable density (Heidelberg Germany) and spent most of my live in drivable sprawl.

        I know which I prefer, and would love to have more options (and the lower prices that come from it!) to choose from in Seattle, especially along Link. My wife and I have looked at some of the townhouses off of Lander but they were just too expensive for the size. The only other options near the station (all of the places we are looking at are along Link) were SFHs, which while a couple were in our price/size range, my wife is totally DONE with yardwork. All she wants is enough concrete for my grill, a couple of pots (we’ve got a Pond in a Pot on our patio) and a table and chairs. She barely leaves our back patio which is about 5mx4m.

  3. Nice article Roger. Reminds me of “Very Gradual CHANGE We Can Believe In”

    Also awesome that they’re actually developing with fewer parking spots. While those rules apply in any station area or urban center, often developers build a lot of parking anyway. In SLU, Vulcan typically does a bit over 1:1, and Touchstone’s proposal for the Troy Laundry block has 1100 parking spots (DPD 3012675).

  4. This is excellent – as a Beacon Hill land owner and resident I wish I could have attended this hearing. I moved to the neighborhood within the last 5 years (from Capitol Hill) and I’m pro-density, pro-transit, and I have high hopes for this neighborhood in the long run.

  5. Is it just me, or does Roger tend to take the STB readership on a proverbial roller coaster ride with his normal miniseries of postings? He starts off by getting us all some readers offended and generally fired up, then comes around in subsequent articles to reveal more of how he really sees things? Its kind of fun…

  6. It’s nice to argue about setbacks, plazas, what happens at the first 30 feet of the building and how to ‘activate the public realm’ (streets/sidewalks rather than having the typical freak out about heighth. Much more productive conversation. Yippee for Seattle!

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