South Lake Union
Photo by flickr user Mozzer

Andrew already wrote about the City Council’s decision not to extract more taxes, but instead to simply ban outright construction above 160′ along Lake Union. The Times had a breakdown of who stood where:

Joining Bagshaw in supporting 160-foot limits were Sally Clark, Jean Godden, Bruce Harrell, Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen. Richard Conlin said “240 feet makes a whole lot of sense” but added he was prepared to support 160 feet…

Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Mike O’Brien said Monday they favored the concept of 24-story towers in exchange for extraordinary public benefits. Although they had balked at the mayor’s proposal for so-called Block 59, they said other options might have made added height more appealing.

I think reasonable density advocates can disagree about the extent that various development taxes deter developers from building as many units as they otherwise might. I therefore at least understand the views of Burgess and O’Brien. And Mr. Conlin is clearly taking the most density he can get. In an email exchange with me he confirmed he was “fine with 240 feet” and spoke well the “compromise” that gets  “as much residential as possible.”  As far as I’m concerned he’s the hero of this sorry episode.

But the six councilmembers that pushed a strict height limit were clearly pursuing a different objective altogether.  Curious as to what considerations overcame the enormous moral imperative for as much density as possible, I emailed all six of the 160′ faction. Responses are below the jump.

A Licata staffer pointed me to his blog entry on the subject, where he argues for “greater public views of Lake Union and less shadowing on Lake Union Park,” as well that the shorter buildings “will be more in scale.”

Rasmussen also cited the shadowing effect, and that he wants relatively short buildings along all our waterfronts. He also said he supported higher density than the draft plan suggests in the Cascade neighborhood and in the “panhandle” along Westlake west of Lake Union Park. (If the unit counts are indeed the same, this would be exactly what I asked height skeptics to do.)

A Godden staffer also mentioned shadows and gently declining heights toward the waterline.

Bagshaw, Clark, and Harrell did not respond.

57 Replies to “Where Seattle’s Council Stands on South Lake Union”

  1. It’s amazing the lengths we go to to protect something that only occurs 3 months out of the year.
    9 months out of the year, who cares about shadows? The whole city is in a shadow.

    1. And even for those 3 months the difference in shadows is small for most places around the building for most hours of the day. There are sunny sides of streets even in Manhattan.

    2. For that matter, who would move to Seattle for the mountain views, when for nine months of the year, those views are blocked by clouds?

  2. More Licata, posted minutes before this piece. He wants to strongly increase the fees to developers and use it to build affordable housing. I’m not a fan of the idea, as it fails at several concepts of basic economics (don’t tax the thing you want more of, and rent control reduced the incentive to build more units). But if it gets more from the anti-density side to the pro-density side, it may be a reasonable compromise.

  3. Looking on the bright side, at least this adds a lot of density compared to the current zoning. A lot will depend upon the near-term and medium-term demand for office space in the Seattle metro region. If the demand is moderate, 160′ in SLU might be enough that Seattle will get most of it. On the other hand, I fear this could turn out like the earlier cap on building heights in the city, which drove high-rise development to Bellevue. Maybe it goes to Lynnwood this time, given the relatively liberal zoning in the “downtown” it’s trying to create out of nothing? At least that would help justify the Link station.

    1. I really don’t see how Lynnwood takes it unless they turn Everett into a second international airport. A lot of the office space is going to want to be near those flights to Shanghai or Taipei or New Songdo City. What’s the travel time on Link from Lynnwood to Sea-Tac going to be? 90 minutes? Two hours?

      1. Lynnwood has zoned its core for 9 million square feet of development by the end of this decade, including 4.5 million square feet of commercial and 1.5 million square feet of retail, and 3000 new residents (http://www.ci.lynnwood.wa.us/Assets/Departments/Community+Development/City+Center/Plans/City+Center+Subarea+Plan.pdf). That compares to the existing SLU plan (this is before the current upzone) that was projected to add 8 million square feet of development between 2004 and 2024 (and 8000 residents). Similar, except that Lynnwood’s core is smaller but has a zoned height of 15-34 stories. That doesn’t include the surrounding neighborhoods around Lynnwood’s core area, which are zoned to 5-13 stories; similar to SLU now.

        So either Lynnwood’s planners are on serious drugs, or they’ve done the analysis and it’s a plausible outcome. But essentially they are now a market for every 160-350′ tower built in the Seattle metro area, and SLU isn’t. They don’t seem to have any less going for them than Bellevue did before the boom there. And Snohomish County is a growth area. So really the distance to the airport that you mention is really the only clear disadvantage they have.

        So maybe Lynnwood is dreaming when it thinks it can be the next Bellevue, but should Seattle be betting its economic future on that, or at least the future of SLU? I don’t think so.

      2. They don’t seem to have any less going for them than Bellevue did before the boom there… distance to the airport that you mention is really the only clear disadvantage

        Let me point out a few more. Lynwood is not on the shores of Lake Washington and therefore doesn’t have neighborhoods like Medina, the Points, etc. to prop up a high end retail core as Bellevue Square and now Bravern rival DT in shopping experience. Lynnwood has no “old town” or corporate headquarters to leverage from (DT Bellevue had Kennworth), Boeing Computer Services and Hewlett Packard are in Factoria. Microsoft isn’t 5 mintes away. Before Microsoft there was Sunstrand and other defense contractors in Overlake along 148th. Bellevue had a population in excess of 60,000 in 1970. Today’s population of Lynnwood is only 36,000. Lynnwood has no Kemper Freeman with the money and drive to create a homegrown environment that breeds success. Every time an outside developer has made a big gamble and lost Kemper has stepped in and rescued the project for pennies on the dollar and prevented any huge unfinished projects from dragging down the entire DT.

      3. The American landscape is littered with the corpses of ill-conceived civic-transformation projects, proposed by those bursting with civic pride who thought that if they just believed enough, they could shoehorn their own location and circumstances into agreement with desirable recent precedents elsewhere.

        It’s “if you press-release it, $$ will come” daydreaming.

        Mark my words: Lynnwood will not be the new Bellevue.

        The only question is whether a few greedy developer types will lose their shirts on class-A office space nobody wants, or whether nothing will change on the ground at all.

    2. “the earlier cap on building heights in the city, which drove high-rise development to Bellevue”

      And thus downtown Bellevue is so much bigger and taller than downtown Seattle. Not.

      1. Which has seen the biggest growth in high-rise development over the past twenty years? Downtown Bellevue used to be 90% single-story buildings surrounded by parking lots (or just parking lots without even the single-story building in the middle). Even Bellevue Square used to be a single-story open-air mall with no garage. It’s not as big as downtown Seattle, but it’s a hell of a lot closer than it used to be.

        The percentage of area office space that’s located downtown has been shrinking rapidly for decades.

      2. And Centralia and Camas are the fastest-growing cities in Washington state. The smallest things are always the fastest-growing because it doesn’t take much to double, but it’s just a trick of the numbers. Bellevue grew because it was allowed to and because it upzoned right at the beginning of a regional growth wave. I suppose developers build wherever there’s opportunity and maybe that’s what Cascadia meant that Bellevue was offering opportunities and Seattle wasn’t. But I don’t think downtown Bellevue’s growth “took” from downtown Seattle or that downtown Seattle diminished; it just didn’t grow as much as it could have. Downtown Bellevue’s growth was a response to general office expansion, and to give a place for companies that preferred the suburbs.

    3. If it’s within walking distance of the Lynnwood Link station, why does it matter if the building is in downtown Seattle or Bellevue or Lynnwood? People will still be able to take transit to it, and it’ll attract people who want less cars in their lives and demand more local tansit in Lynnwood’s current and future Swift corridors. The enemy is not downtown Lynnwood or Bellevue, it’s Factoria and Issaquah sprawl, where it’s a long lonely walk to a bus that doesn’t even come weekends/evenings. And Woodinvile and Kent Valley sprawl.

      If we could hurry up and get Link to Bothell and Issaquah and Kent, they could be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, but that’s not going to happen for decades, so in the meantime we need to encourage growth in downtown Bellevue and Lynnwood, which will better have the non-automobile infrastructure and compact zoning to deal with it.

      1. Nothing is within walking distance of the Lynnwood Transit Mall. You drive there, and park, and ride. Nothing will change with Link.

      2. I’m talking about the future. At least a few of the buildings will be there in nine years when Link opens.

        As for parking and riding, that’s one of the disadvantages of a P&R at a transit center; it displaces pedestrian destinations. It would be better to have the P&R at a separate station outside downtown, as Bellevue has done.

      3. why does it matter if the building is in downtown Seattle or Bellevue or Lynnwood?

        It doesn’t matter how fast or frequent (or laden with bells and whistles) you make the transit. Unless the transit is a teleporter, you’re still putting your vertical office park where nothing else useful or desirable is convenient. And 98% of everyone will drive to it, because the transit that does exist is hard to access and anything but comprehensive.*

        Just like it matters if your business is in San Francisco, Richmond, or Union City, it will continue to matter if your business is in Seattle or in the quasi-connected sprawl.

        It pains me to see you subscribe to this fallacy over and over again. Contiguous, interconnected urbanity is a game-changer. A single stop on a sprawl-oriented commuter train is not.

        New Lynnwood will fail. Those who desire sterile vertical office parks will find room in Bellevue for the forseeable future. Those who desire urban access will hopefully find room in Seattle. Lynnwood’s sea change is DOA.

        *(Just like 98% are expected to drive into downtown Bellevue, even after East Link is complete. Stamford, Connecticut is built entirely atop multi-story parking garages.)

      4. At first glance, Mike, I thought your argument had a lot of merit. Especially when you consider just adding new housing, not new offices (once you add offices in the suburbs things get messier and I would argue, causes more sprawl). However, after thinking about this some more, and doing a bit of research, I agree with d.p.

        Earlier in the week, the Seattle Times ran a great article about commuting habits. The data was probably available elsewhere, but here is a nice chart: http://blogs.seattletimes.com/fyi-guy/2013/04/03/green-commuting-how-does-your-neighborhood-stack-up/
        I actually like the print version better, even though this version has exact numbers. One of the things that jumps out at me is how meaningless Sound Transit is. If you didn’t know where the rail went, you sure couldn’t guess by looking at the numbers. For example, Columbia City, which is really well served by Link, has much worse numbers than the University District or Capital Hill (which is still waiting). The best places are Central Downtown, First Hill and the University District. South Lake Union and Pioneer Square are not to far behind. The places close to the rail line aren’t very special. Fremont is much better and Ballard is significantly better than Columbia City, despite the fact that the transit system is piss poor in comparison.

        These numbers are only for Seattle. I’m sure if you looked at the suburbs, you would find similar numbers. Just being close to a park and ride (with express buses to downtown or the U-District) doesn’t mean that folks in the area will take the bus everywhere. Quite the opposite. The obvious conclusion to be made by these charts is that density and being close to density is way more of a factor. Lots of folks in the city are walking to work. A few are riding their bike. Some take transit. The more people we allow to live where they want to live (in the city) the less people will drive overall.

        Keep in mind, this is just commuting numbers. My guess is if you looked at the actual amount of overall driving, the numbers would increase even more dramatically. Someone in Lynnwood might take the train (or the express bus) to work, but more than likely she will drive to the store, the restaurant, visit a friend, etc.

      5. Do you guys have any positive suggestions for Snohomish County, or is it all just “Doom, doom, you’re gonna fail, self-fulfilling prophecy, nobody should live in Snoho, let them die in their automobile dependency.” For years we’ve said they need to turn away from the ultra-low density downtown Lynnwood and severely isolated office parks in Canyon Park etc, and build a more robust city like Bellevue. Now they’re finally doing it. Two decades late, and maybe too late to catch another boom wave, but at least they’re trying. Bellevue’s densification was already successful before the Bravern, Microsoft’s outpost downtown, Lincoln Square, etc. Lynnwood does not have to reach the heights of Bellevue to be successful, and to give an alternative to Snoho residents. Nor does it have to eliminate parking minimums or raise transit to 50% of trips, which even Seattle is having trouble doing. Obviously those are long-term goals, and we need to take one step at a time.

        So what is your main concern? The “billions of dollars” spent on Lynnwood Link’s construction? That’s no more wasteful than the Deeply Boring Tunnel or 520 widening. Even if its ridership is mainly peak commute and 98% of Snohomans still drive, it will make it easier for those who want to take transit to get around all day than ST Express is. And all those buses will vanish from downtown Seattle and U-District streets. I don’t care if it’s mostly empty off-peak, at least it will be available to those who want to use it. In any case, Lynnwood Link is already approved and has regional consensus, so let’s make the best of the situation rather than trying to detract from it.

        Seattle’s density patterns have been established for a century. Of course more people take transit on Capitol Hill, the U-District, Fremont, Ballard, Uptown, and Jackson than other places. That’s not going to change in the five years since Link rolled out; it takes decades for trip patterns and density to equalize. An ideal subway should have gone to all those transit-ready places first, perhaps in a ring. But that was never going to happen because not enough people were willing to approve capital funds until ST came along.

      6. I’m talking about the future. At least a few of the buildings will be there in nine years when Link opens.

        As for parking and riding, that’s one of the disadvantages of a P&R at a transit center; it displaces pedestrian destinations. It would be better to have the P&R at a separate station outside downtown, as Bellevue has done.

        So, now I’m thinking this through. There’s a lot of wasted space around what is now the Lynnwood Transit Center/Park & Ride. There’s also a lot of underused, old, single-story retail space that could be put to a much higher use. And I’m sure that someone has noticed that.

        So my first question: Do we move the Transit Center to a new location up or down the line, or do we move the Park & Ride to another place up or down the line???

  4. Exciting neighborhoods with shadows > dull neighborhoods with sun and views, by a factor of at least a thousand.

    Of course, the likelihood that SLU was going to be developed with excitement in mind is nil, whether the heights were going to be four hundred feet or four.

    But then, all the people living there are going to be Amazonians, anyways, who wouldn’t know what to do with neighborhood amenities if they had them. They’re going to eat all their meals in the cafeteria, and do all their shopping online. So they can just fill the new nabe with ripoff joints selling $15 cocktails off of bars made of barn wood (or fake barn wood that’s been 3-D printed, I suppose).

    1. who wouldn’t know what to do with neighborhood amenities if they had them. They’re going to eat all their meals in the cafeteria

      Ha. You’ve clearly haven’t been to SLU recently. There’s more food trucks there than anywhere in the city.

      1. Yes, it’s been a while. I’ve had enough “experiences” down there for a while. But that’s a positive development. I’m shocked; I was under the impression the city was terrified that food trucks would spread “visible economic activity”, which normally the city is terrified of. Are they allowed to have signs?

        What would be cool is if they could have shops and restaurants IN THE BUILDINGS, but no one knows how to do that anymore.

      2. There are many restaurants in the buildings. I do wish they’d make storefronts narrow and deep so you could fit more on the block. But other than that it’s been done fairly well.

      3. They have those too :)

        I know when I was last in Seattle, there was a Top Pot, Specialties, Cal’s, Jimmie Johns, Yellow Dot, Cactus and more.

        The food trucks can have signs also.

      4. Yeah, one per block. And it’s a Jimmy John’s. That’s not what I meant. I’ll take a food truck over that — preferably a food truck that is ten miles away from there. That is, in fact, the kind of thing that keeps me from going there. In Paddy Coyne’s, I don’t think there’s seat in the place that’s more than ten feet from the glass.

      5. Fnarf, I work above the Jimmy John’s. Why don’t you email me and we have lunch at a food truck in SLU together and talk about how the neighborhood’s changing?

        -Bensch@gmail.com

      6. I do not love Veggie Grill. I don’t really love the food trucks much, either (too often too greasy, too often not tasty, too often too expensive).

        I do like the berliner spot, the Nollies place and I walk to Chipotle (3rd and Union) once a week.

  5. “Bagshaw, Clark, and Harrell did not respond.”

    I’m noticing a pattern; from today’s Seattle Times:

    “Bruce Harrell, a Seattle City Council member and candidate for mayor who chairs the Seattle Firefighters Pension Board, did not return calls seeking comment. Reached on his cellphone, he declined to talk and abruptly ended a call with an AP reporter.”

    http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2020737830_pensiondisabilityxml.html

    Does this guy have a stance on anything besides the fact that he wants to be mayor?

  6. “disagree about the extent that various development taxes deter developers from building as many units as they otherwise might”

    When has Vulcan ever said it prefers a shorter building, or that it wouldn’t pay whatever taxes to build the tallest building possible? What Vulcan did say was that it would have to reconsider the project in light of the shorter limit. In other words, low zoning is a threat to the viability of projects.

    Broadway is the quintessential example in a more residential neighborhood. The zoning was four stories, and empty supermarket lots languished for years. The city debated raising the zoning to six stories, and NIMBYs complained it would ruin the neighborhood. Never mind that six-story buildings already existed on Bellevue Avenue and had not ruined the neighborhood. The city did raise the zoning, and immediately the next year the supermarket lots were replaced with six-story buildings. The buildings are mixed-use with no setbacks, and definitely enhance the neighborhood.

    We should turn from the question of lakefront heights to the question of heights in the remaining ordinary blocks. I’m not as concerned about short buildings alongside Lake Union as about short buildings in the remaining parcels of SLU, the Denny Triangle, Capitol Hill station, Mt Baker station, U-District station, etc. We were promised that Capitol Hill stn, U-District stn, and the Denny Triangle would be tall in exchange for compromises in more outlying neighborhoods. Mt Baker was also designated as a larger commercial center than Othello or Rainier Beach. If these are all stunted (U-District station park, short Capitol Hill, short Denny Triangle), we’ll have lost our best opportunities for density.

    1. The city debated raising the zoning to six stories, and NIMBYs complained it would ruin the neighborhood. Never mind that six-story buildings already existed on Bellevue Avenue and had not ruined the neighborhood. The city did raise the zoning, and immediately the next year the supermarket lots were replaced with six-story buildings. The buildings are mixed-use with no setbacks, and definitely enhance the neighborhood.

      Amen.

  7. How many people can actually afford (in the literal sense of the word) to take views into account as a primary factor for choosing where they live? For that matter, by arbitrarily limiting housing in such a way, how many fewer people can afford to take that into account? For councilmembers who purport to care about preserving affordable housing and extracting maximum benefits from developers, they certainly seem to be adopting an incredibly pro-wealthy viewpoint here. No pun intended.

    This isn’t a question of views and sunlight versus fewer views and more shade, it’s a question of views and sunlight versus the myriad benefits of more housing and greater density where there’s demand for it (with slightly fewer views and slightly more shading). Maybe if they want to step down gradually to the waterfront they should just increase height limits south of this zoning area, including downtown, right?

    1. How many people can actually afford (in the literal sense of the word) to take views into account as a primary factor for choosing where they live?

      Among the general population, not that many. Among the population of people likely to fund the campaigns of City Council members, most.

    2. Yes, of course they should do that. It makes the most sense for the greatest density to be added closer to the greatest existing density, rather than farther from it.

      And, from a “views” perspective, it gives the top three or four floors of the stepped up buildings a relatively unimpeded panorama.

      But the most important thing is not to squeeze things too closely. Go higher but leave gaps between the towers. Follow Vancouver BC’s example and preserve sight lines. Each building then becomes an artwork, rather than just another block in a collection.

      1. Vancouver BC’s example includes streets half as wide as ours. If you want public space, take it from the cars, not from the people.

      2. For once he and I agree.

        “Open space everywhere and gaps between everything” is exactly why this city is grossly inconvenient and unpleasant to use without a car.

      3. There is nothing I agree with either of you on. :)

        Except this, we need less space for cars as a civic priority. It’s a truism that cars and pedestrians basically cannot share the same space and have both be happy.

      4. But no “pedestrianization zones”. As a rule, those are civic death unless the block is as busy as Pike Place or the building-to-building width is as skinny as a medieval alleyway (preferably both).

        Less width, less space for cars, less chance for cars to go fast, but no misguided artificial eliminations.

      1. Only a part-time Seattle resident, unfortunately (stupid job). The council in my other city is far worse in many ways, but if anyone actually wanted to build anything here, they’d bend over backwards for them.

  8. Another aspect to this debate was who knows best for a neighborhood? The people who actually live there, or density advocates from elsewhere, who claim they know what’s best for everyone.

    1. I can imagine that argument for the Roosevelt debate, but SLU? That neighborhood didn’t exist five years ago.

      Plus I’d reframe your question:
      Who knows best for a neighborhood? The selfish land owners that want to keep everyone else out to protect their own views, or the people who will actually live in these new homes?

      1. So now people on Queen Anne, downtown, and Capitol Hill, who didn’t want a 240 foot tall Berlin Wall of glass and and steel encircling Lake Union and throwing the area into a post-apocalyptic nightmare of perpetually oppressive darkness and shadows are selfish land owners? Just because people don’t want to Manhattanize SLU, doesn’t mean they want to “keep people out.”

      2. a post-apocalyptic nightmare of perpetually oppressive darkness and shadows

        Ratcheting up the hyperbole in place of an argument.

      3. Wait, 8 extra stories on THREE blocks = “Berlin Wall of glass and and steel encircling Lake Union” and an “apocalyptic nightmare of perpetually oppressive darkness and shadows”.

        In no world does 240′ buildings “Manhattanize” anything. Have you ever been to Manhattan? Or even seen a picture? If anything we are turning SLU into Boise (actually Boise has a 270′ building).

      4. So the people on Capitol Hill didn’t want the building because it would impede on their view of Queen Anne? Seriously? Somehow I doubt they even cared. Most of what they view are buildings. Some they like (Space Needle, apparently) some they don’t (ummm, the Opera House is kind of ugly) but so what? Maybe these new buildings might be as pretty as the Space Needle. I’m sympathetic to arguments about ugly (or boring) architecture, so lets critique this on that ground. If these buildings are going to stand out, then let’s make sure they look interesting.

        As to Queen Anne residents, I’m not sure if I understand your math. Queen Anne is 456 feet high (thanks Wikipedia). If you build 240 foot high buildings, that gives you 216 feet to play around with. Obviously, they are not being built at sea level, so let’s assume that you lose 100 feet (to be generous). That still gives you 116 feet from the top of the hill.

        In other words, I’m pretty sure that the eastern edge of the top of the hill is well above that. So, basically, what I’m saying is that if these buildings do block your view, just walk up the hill a bit higher. More to the point, is there any park anywhere on Queen Anne where these buildings will block the view? If so, I could see your point. But I just don’t think these will be that tall. These buildings will block views of other buildings. If you are standing in a park on Queen Anne, they won’t block your view of Capitol Hill or the Cascades. If you are standing on Capitol Hill, they won’t block your view of Queen Anne (they will be part of it) or the Olympics. Whining about your view in this case is like whining about the fact that your neighbor painted his house orange.

    2. You could rephrase that as:

      “Whose interests are we running the city for? Existing residential property owners, or all of the current and future residents?”

      Allowing existing property owners to be the only voice in neighborhood planning shafts everyone else by driving up housing prices and choking off economic growth.

      1. I agree. The really sad part is that folks don’t even admit it. There are tradeoffs. But for the most part people aren’t admitting (or they simply won’t accept) the fact that restrictions on development hurt renters. They do help owners, though (or at least owners who aren’t involved). I would respect a politician in the city who admitted the tradeoff (“sorry, renters will have to pay more to guarantee good parking or fewer shadows”) but they don’t even bring it up. It’s not such a crazy argument to make, by the way. You could easily claim that we need to shore up property values by putting these restrictions on growth. It is not one I agree with, but at least it is an honest tradeoff. As it is, the politicians are either ignorant or avoiding the effect on renters. Since renters are generally poor, this is a rather sad state of affairs for a city with nothing but Democratic politicians.

        I can’t help but think that this whole mess just makes McGinn look a lot better. This is one of those rare instances when The Stranger and Seattle Times editorial staff agree: they should build it. McGinn wants it, but just about everyone else who is running for his job doesn’t. If I was the mayor’s campaign chairman, I would be feeling pretty good right now.

  9. I bet the land will just sit in limbo another year or two while Vulcan waits for the next city council election results. The obsessive opposition to densification in any part of Seattle has got to stop.

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