The Basic Recommendation

One of the more interesting discussions I think we have here is one of density. Where do we allow growth, and how much? What kind of public amenities should have to come with new density, how much affordable housing, what kind of investment in common space, and what kind of requirements should there be on design?

Personally, I’m interested in allowing a great deal, because I see the alternatives as worse for both affordability and the environment. If we don’t build enough new housing to keep up with the demand from new residents, it pushes costs up for all housing, all the way down to the poorest of us. If we don’t allow density, our growth will come at the edges, worsening congestion and pressure on our transportation system, and contributing to climate change.

South Lake Union is possibly the perfect place to allow large increases in density. It has very few existing residents outside of those who have come in very recent development, far fewer than any other neighborhood in the city, so change there has the lowest impact on existing communities. It is directly adjacent to downtown, meaning new residents are most likely to walk or take transit to work, and with expansion of the streetcar through downtown, that will only be a stronger argument.

Tomorrow evening, the city council will take public comments on approving the recommendations from the city’s Department of Planning and Development. These are, at the root, taller buildings, but there’s lots more in the full plan (PDF), which is really worth a look before being critical. It limits exactly where towers can be and how many.

Comments are at City Hall tomorrow in council chambers, run from 5:30 to probably 6:30, and you must sign up to comment before 5:30 to be called. I urge you to comment in favor of the recommendation – it protects the small part of South Lake Union with older residential, and makes more room for downtown to grow. It would help us be more prosperous and sustainable, and make all of our investments in transit infrastructure more efficient.

Public Hearing
South Lake Union Proposed Rezone Legislation

November 14, 2012
5:30 p.m.
City Council Chambers
2nd floor, Seattle City Hall
600 Fourth Avenue

View the public notice for hearing details.

35 Replies to “Tomorrow: Ask For Density in South Lake Union”

    1. SM stands for Seattle Mixed, a jargony Seattle zoning designation. The numbers are ranges of permissible height. When there is a large range, e.g. “SM 65-240” that usually means there is either an exception (such as protecting Kenmore Air flight paths) or that the developer can purchase additional height by adding “public benefits”.

  1. Besides the usual boogey-men (shadows, views, ‘neighborhood character’, the possibility that someone might make a buck, ect.) are there any specific arguments against this upzone?

    For the reasons you lay out, this seems like the perfect place to put as many jobs/people/activities as possible. To my mind SLU is the Northern District of Downtown already.

  2. The provided map of the proposal is even further evidence of why a Westlake streetcar alignment is a bad idea: there is no proposal of changing use or density on the east side of Westlake Ave, nor can any such proposal be reasonably considered given the fill upon which it’s built and the proximity to Kenmore Air. Meanwhile, Dexter will be SM-85 on both sides.

    We know the “Dexter is too steep” argument is a canard. If we’re going to send a streetcar to Fremont, it should be via Dexter.

    1. Also, while I wholeheartedly agree with increasing density within Seattle, I rarely see discussion of the price floor that large developments hit. It’s clear that demand isn’t the only thing keeping rents up in areas where there are lots of large 6-story megablock developments coming in, because even commercial rents are being kept high.

      Let’s face it: highrises in SLU are never going to be affordable. They will be luxury apartments or condos. Many people living in and moving to Seattle happen to be able to afford them, but that doesn’t help move people closer in to the city center who can’t.

      What is it about the rental market in Seattle that discourages or prevents the construction of simpler box-style apartment buildings with no ground-floor retail and no underground parking? How do we change that?

      1. Actually store front or retail on the ground floor is important for building community and creating a vibrant 24 city. We should want to encourage this…otherwise we end up with the drug trade etc taking over after 6 pm….

      2. Doug, if ground-floor retail were such a successful deterrent to the drug trade, 3rd and Pike would not be known as “the Thunderdome.”

        It’s perfectly okay to let residential sidewalks get quiet in the evening. Even major residential arterials.

        Matthew: quite literally anywhere, but particularly as infill in places such as central Ballard or 12th Avenue. Instead of these half-block lots with 12′ pedestals, why not two quarter-block buildings with ground-floor living? There are plenty of examples to be found all over Capitol Hill, and even a few left in Belltown.

      3. The building I live in right now was “unaffordable” a century ago. But now it’s super cheap. All buildings age.

      4. That’s fine, Ben, but that doesn’t address our needs now. We’re building a ton of rental units now, and they’re all coming in at the $1,000/mo+ mark. That doesn’t help move people into the city in the medium-term, which means vote-hungry politicians today mortgage the future by spending vast amounts of capital chasing them in their more-affordable suburbs.

        Also, I bet your building wasn’t built on a twenty-foot pedestal with code-mandated ground-floor retail.

      5. Well if the High Rollers move into the more expensive, swanky sort of places, won’t that free up the lower end housing for the blue collar slobs, like myself?

      6. FYI, here’s a box-style workforce going up in SLU now:
        Design review:

        That one’s not subsidized. There are also quite a few partly funded by housing levy, sorry I don’t have time for much more detail right now but check out Denny Park Apartments, Borealis, David Colwell, Bart Harvey, and John Williams Apartments. There are also a number of 80% AMI units in the “luxury” buildings under a separate program.

      7. Brian Campbell nails it. If we don’t let the market build more, the people getting paid to work for Amazon price us all out of our apartments. This is pretty simple!

      8. Not as a knock on that project, necessarily, but why isn’t it economically possible to build in half that footprint? That entire southern addition and empty—er, I’m sorry, “community”—space occupies land that could house another building of the same size as the main one, bringing diversity to the streetscape and a diversity of ownership interest in the neighborhood.

      9. Ben, Brian:

        You are presuming that people who can afford rents in these new luxury units are currently occupying units that would otherwise clear at a lower price. In reality, landlords set price floors and refuse to budge below them.

      10. Kyle, can you be more specific? Which lots do you think would be a good place to put them? What is on them currently, and how much would it require to purchase and clear the lot?

      11. Well with regard to floor prices, I’m a landlord and I do have a price I’m looking for for a given unit, but it only takes a month or two of a place sitting vacant before I’m ready to entertain lower offers.

      12. I’m trying to reply to Matthew Johnson’s comment, but it disappeared down the memory hole and now the system is complaining about a duplicate comment. Here’s my original post:

        Good lots to put what, smaller-scale buildings? I doubt there are many left in SLU proper, and given the scale of the construction that’s gone in there it probably wouldn’t make much visual sense to build at that scale in that neighborhood. SLU is going to be dominated by towers on pedestals; larger footprints for buildings make more sense there.

        I was thinking about neighborhoods like Ballard and Capitol Hill, where the existing and much-loved architecture is scaled much smaller horizontally.

        Imagine plopping something like the Veer Lofts into Ballard, with its block-long facade. We’re now seeing that happen with the megaprojects at 15th/Market and 24th/Market, and it’s been happening to Capitol Hill with projects like the Broadway Building and the Joule.

        My favorite apartment building on the Hill is probably the brick building directly north of the Capitol Hill Station site. I absolutely love its footprint. Why can’t we scale that vertically?

      13. Well, new construction might help in one way. I live in a rental condo that would have been way out of my price range, except that another building went up next door and blocked its water view, reducing its value. ;)

      14. Kyle S – there are new people moving here all the time. They outbid people who live here now.

        We NEED affordable housing. That’s one discussion. We also NEED not to make the situation worse – and preventing new development for the people who are moving here every day will make the situation much worse – so much worse that no matter how much affordable housing we build, we won’t even make a dent in our needs.

      15. Ben, I’m aware that there are two issues at work here. But they are inseparable as long as we have a building code.

      16. “It’s perfectly okay to let residential sidewalks get quiet in the evening. Even major residential arterials.”

        No, people on the sidewalks is what makes a vibrant neighborhood. We do need retail or other pedestrian-drawing uses on the ground floor of arterials. Maybe not every building, but at least one per block. Residential-only blocks were exacerbated by separation-of-use zoning policies over the past half century; we need to bring them more back into balance.

  3. At this point, I’m in favor of the rezone due to the fact that Vulcan was going to ruin the neighborhood anyway with ugly sterile buildings. They might as well pack more offices in get stuck with them when the bubble bursts.

  4. I don’t live in SLU, but I know what’s best for it. Yes to more density there!

    Wow, that felt good! Now I know why you guys are always playing God with other people’s neighborhoods. You kind of get a rush from pontificating and bloviating.

    1. Sam,

      Here’s a question. Why does the City have the right to limit development with zoning rules in the first place? And why do current residents have the right to special monopolistic policies enforced by the government?

    2. What is your operating principle here, Sam? It’s fine to tell people what they can and can’t do on their property only if you currently live in close proximity to that property? What would a coherent, principled defense of that position look like?

      1. Seems like Sam’s advocating for a situs test as a measure for standing. That’s no longer good law though.

      2. Sam’s operating principle is to embarrass urbanists, transit fans, and rail fans, and to show them to be hypocrites or elitists. He throws out every plausable or implausable argument to that end.

    3. Sam, if the people who are in the neighborhood are the ones who matter most, shouldn’t we be allowing them to do whatever they want to do with their property?

      1. STB had numerous posts regarding the Northgate Transit Center parking garage issue that gave great weight to the views of the Northgate community and their opposition to expanded parking. I’m actually for increased density in that area (I actually wish it was now The Commons Park, but that was voted down), but I think STB has an obligation to voice the concerns of neighbors, just like they did with Northgate.

      2. Bit simplistic don’t you think Sam?

        Sometimes neighborhood groups are correct, sometimes they aren’t (sometimes they are actually representative of the neighborhood, sometimes they are a self appointed clique). Their arguments should be judged on their own merits, not automatically accepted b/c of the source.

        When they are good arguments that forward the objectives of the people here we agree with them. When they are bad, we don’t. How is that hard to understand?

        And by ‘we’ I just mean the posters, I am not staff and speak only for myself.

        And I would interested to see

    4. Hey sam! I understand it can be really frustrating to hear others talk about changing something you love, especially when those other folks dont have the same emotional investment you do. It’s never an easy conversation to have.
      On the other hand, I think that the reason upzoning SLU is so popular amongst govmt and business is the perceived lack of neighborhood to begin with. Compared with trying to do a comparable upzone in Fremont say, SLU has next to no NIMBYs. Thats because SLU has never been many peoples backyard.
      I live in the Denny Triangle. It has been my back yard for 6 years. I live a 2 minute walk from SLU, and I am very happy with how the neighborhood has changed and look forward to more. I also make <30k, so I'm not some fat cat.
      SLU used to be a shithole. It's where I would go spraypainting with my friends as a teenager. We would walk around for hours and never see a soul. Ever. Now a hood of abandoned industrial buildings is becoming a vibrant home and office hood. In the urban core.
      As a neighbor, I say "Awesome! Lets do more!".

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