University District - Seattle
U-District, photo by Brewbooks

The comment period on the U-District Urban design has been extended until Monday, and I strongly encourage STB readers to provide comment on the documents as whole and the three zoning “alternatives” in particular. I’ll briefly summarise the three options below, as well as give my personal opinions, but I recommend you have a look over some or all of the documents if you have the time. Either way, please send comment to dave.laclergue@seattle.gov endorsing either alternative 1 or alternative 2. Thanks!

Alternative 1. Image courtesy City of Seattle
Alternative 1. Image courtesy City of Seattle

In brief, the first alternative is a mid-rise option that rezones much of the U-District between 40th street and Ravenna. Much of the area immediately around the station formerly known as “Brooklyn”* would be increased to 160 feet, others to and to 125 feet and parts farther would be up-zoned to 65 and 85. The city has estimated this alternative would allow for 9,130 new dwelling units and new 16,435 jobs.

Alternative 2 - no change. Image courtesy City of Seattle
Alternative 2. Image courtesy City of Seattle

The second alternative is a high-rise option and would up-zone a smaller portion of the U-District, but would allow for much taller buildings. The area immediately around the station would be up-zoned to 340 feet, with a small section between 47th and 50th up-zoned to 240′. Less area overall would be up-zoned in this proposal, and the city has estimated this would allow for 9,802 new dwelling units and 17,832 new jobs.

Alternative 3 - no change. Image courtesy City of Seattle
Alternative 3 – no change. Image courtesy City of Seattle

The third “alternative” isn’t really an alternative to anything, other than I suppose to the previous two. It’s for no change to zoning, and would allow for 6,606 new housing units and 8,401 new jobs.

There are many more details in the report that I haven’t the time nor the space to regurgitate, especially when the document are there and nicely formatted. I do have a few thoughts:

  1. It’s a bit difficult to say whether alternative 1 is better than alternative 2, though both are better than alternative 3 (I’ll likely put the details in the comments rather than make this post overlong). I know many neighbourhood groups have already become quite incensed over the high-rise option, and it could have a difficult time. If you strongly support this option, you should make your opinion strongly known.
  2. The accuracy of the numbers is obviously extremely dubious. At first blush, we might remember back to middle school chemistry’s “significant digits” and have reason to doubt the numbers’ precision. I also couldn’t find the formulae used to generate these numbers. I suggest taking them with many large, industrial sacks of salt.
  3. Both alternatives 1 and 2 have much silliness around “green streets”, setbacks and new building “distances” that might harm walkability. Whatever happens, we should push back on these or at least suggest tempering them in favour of the sort of things that actually matter: sidewalk width, kerb cuts, pedestrian facilities, bike facilities, etc.

* University District Station, on Brooklyn between 43rd and 45th.

78 Replies to “Provide Feedback on U-District Urban Design”

    1. It’s just not in the rezone. Presumably east of 15th Ave NE is excluded to act as buffering to the single-family residential areas and not to bother with Greek Row. Keep in mind that zoning doesn’t exist on the University of Washington campus anyway.

  1. I wouldn’t be offering up Alternative 1 as a recommendation. It spoils density across all of the U District and leads to less dense development toward the core. That development would obviously remain for a very long time when we could have really gone denser. Alternative 2 is the better option by focusing development in core despite little to no change elsewhere.

    1. You also have the option of expanding the rezone later after the tall buildings go in.

      Option 2 is the winner as far as I am concerned. Let’s maximize the value of these train stations.

    2. To be totally honest, alternative 2 seems to have very little support, so it may not matter.

      Still, if you get to the details, alternative 2 is also worse for walkability by forcing large distances between the buildings. There’s more to this stuff than just the heights of the buildings.

      1. That is just the separation between towers. I see nothing demanding that space be parking lots or plazas.

      2. There’s tons of mentions of public space and open space in there. Did you read the documents?

        There’s an entire document entitled “open space”…

  2. I’d probably fall into the Alt 1 camp, but just because the total surface area of the upzone is larger.

    These maps can be misleading because inside any zoning area not all lots are developable. The 340′ zoning in Alt 2 might look better, but by the time you eliminate all the lots that already have newer construction, are locked down by old time “buy, hold, and bleed dry” Seattle type land owners, or that might get redeveloped to something short of the max height, you might not be left with much. Thus Alt 1 with its larger developable land area might actual result in more redevelopment even though it has a lower max zoning height.

    That said, my preference would really be Alt 1 with some increases. Change 160′ -> 240′ and 125′ -> 160′ and you’d have a real winner. Maybe call it “Alt 1b”.

    However, where does UDPA stand on this? Whatever UDPA wants, UDPA usually gets (witness the “U-Dist” station name). I know they have been talking about some sort of mid-block E-W pedestrian corridor which would blow a hole right through the 340′ zone of Alt 2, but I don’t know the land area details. I’d be curious where they fall on these two options, because that will probably be the winner.

    1. “locked down by old time “buy, hold, and bleed dry” Seattle type land owners”

      Boy, isn’t that right.

      Think of the old Sam Israel properties that were all over downtown when I first moved here. And Herr Sisley and his merry band of neonazi property managers ( not an ad hom. attack, this was actually the case ten years ago )

      1. Ya, people like to complain about Sisley, but nobody can beat Sam Israel. His properties might not have been as run down, but they were prime properties in the urban core. Why anyone would amass that financial fortune and then run it from a rundown shack outside of Ephrata is besides me. But things are beginning to change now that he is gone, and at least his neighbors won’t have to pour out that cheap wine he gave away every year for the holidays….

        And don’t forget the big hole at Green Lake. That landowner at least tried to do the right thing and redevelop the land, but he couldn’t get along with his anchor tenant and ended up driving everyone away. My understanding is that the current building only got built because the kids took over and are better at “playing well with others.”

      2. I never heard the story of the hole at Greenlake. I assumed it was related to the recession or financing problems. I hadn’t heard about the developer fighting with the anchor tenant.

      3. The Greenlake hole was the old Vitamilk Dairy site. The developer tore down the dairy buildings and started digging the foundation. Work stopped just as the Great Recession hit and didn’t resume until about 18 months ago.

        The site is now home to apartments and a new PCC.

    2. Yeah, the comments I submitted suggest a blend of both alternatives #1 and #2. I’d support the large (“highrise”) transit-oriented-development zoning (300’+) in the blocks immediately adjacent to the station site as described in Alternative #2; but I would also encourage the adoption of upzoning the surrounding area to mid-rise as shown in Alternative #1. This is especially true in the area west of the station area — currently zoned “lowrise”, yet dwarfed by the existing built environment (Interstate 5 and the Ship Canal Bridge) and not slated to change in Alt #2.

    3. There’s also a lot of historically protected buildings, so the amount that’s actually developable may be extremely small in any scenario.

      1. The number are actually far fewer than you might think. A lot of them (like mine), have been way too modified to be considered for historic preservation, and I live adjacent to a parcel that would be an excellent location for a high-rise.

      2. Which ones are we talking about? Many of the brick apartment buildings are historic. I think all of them should be.

      3. Andrew, that’s not how the landmarks commission and historic preservation guidelines work at all. Just because a building is brick and old, doesn’t make it a candidate for historic preservation. If that were case, sure, my building would be on the list and the property owner would have been prohibited from making the fire apparatus improvements (which were done cheaply) when they added more units. If you don’t believe me, read the rules for yourself. http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/preservation/landmarks.htm

      4. I’m not reading any of that, but all of those brick buildings could be added as a historic district.

  3. Generally speaking, I’m in favor of balancing density with preservation. Ideally the two get combined in ways that make for a very nice, very interesting city. There is only one stretch of land here that really needs preserving, in my opinion, and that is the Ave (i. e. University Way). Alternative 1 pretty much ignores it. You could easily mow down the block, then put up a boring six story building, or worse yet (from an aesthetic standpoint) a ten story office tower, complete with concrete all around. At best you would have a bit of retail on the ground floor, but you wouldn’t have this: http://goo.gl/maps/EfsIs

    Alternative 2 keeps a pretty narrow strip, and increases the density twenty feet (from what it is now). Personally I would just keep that strip at 65 feet (why bother fighting over twenty feet on a small strip of land). But in general, that puts me in the camp of Alternative 2.

    I wish we could mix and match these a bit. I would bump up the max heights as you get close to the freeway, but otherwise keep the general flow of alternative 2. Big office towers next to the freeway make a lot of sense (and won’t get opposition from anyone).

    1. We should start focusing more on preserving facades than preserving buildings. Facades are what contemporary architects rarely get right, so preserving the pre-WWII ones where they did get it right is important, and who cares if there’s ten stories above it. I was walking past the Garage on Broadway a couple days ago and thought, this would be a good case for a tall building that preserves the brick facade and art deco sign on the first floor.

      1. I wish they had done that throughout what is now the Pearl District in Portland. The old warehouses had far more ornate iron work and brick work on their exterior walls than these all-look-alike glass boxes they have put there.

        I know there is at least one building somewhere a few blocks south of the Space Needle where they did preserve the façade, as I remember seeing it from the bus and thought it was an excellent idea, and one that should be copied elsewhere.

    2. Although is there much worth preserving on the Ave? IAlmost all the faaces look either already mutilated or postwar tackiness.

      There’s a great photo exhibit in Bartell’s in the pharmacy waiting area in the back. Pictures of the Bartell’s storefront over the last century. The interesting thing is, the oldest storefront looks the best. Then each one gets steadily worse. Why doesn’t Bartell’s learn from its own history? What does Walgreen’s have on its outside walls? Early 1900s photos. Same for the Safeway on 15th & John. That’s what people like. So why not make a real storefront more like that.

    3. Yeah, I should have been more specific. I really don’t care about the architecture on the Ave — I care about the diversity of businesses. For what its worth, we have tried to preserve facades, and they tend to look silly (http://goo.gl/maps/pYWxb). But that misses the point. I don’t to see that street replaced by monolithic shops, each one taking up a block.

      It is possible that we could do both — have new, bigger buildings that maintain a diversity of places — but generally speaking, we’ve failed to do that in this city (which is why places like Pike Place are best left alone).

  4. I’m guessing the numbers for new dwelling units assume everyone builds to their maximum envelope at their maximum height, and used some (hopefully reasonable) number for average unit size. But the absurdity of using this process can be found in option 3. The do-nothing option won’t really add 6,600 units unless land prices get really, really high. It’s just too expensive to tear things down and start over to only add a few units per property.

    1. 6,600 new units might be an exaggeration, but if you’ve been to the area lately, you can see there is plenty of growth going on right now. Much of it is occurring on streets like 7th, where houses are replaced by small apartments. This can add a lot of units.

      With no zoning at all, unless land prices are really high, it probably doesn’t make sense to build much higher. It just becomes a lot more expensive to build really high (your per unit cost for construction go way up). That’s why changing the zoning will greatly increase the office space, not the number of apartments. People are willing to spend a lot more to work in a fancy tower, or in some cases, to have all the employees work in the same building (as Safeco did, back in the day). But there aren’t that many people who will pay extra just to live in a taller building. That’s why, in some ways you have it backwards. We won’t see a lot of really high residential towers unless rent prices go way up.

  5. Comments submitted. I asked to get more than a paltry 3,200 additional units than the do-nothing option.

  6. Rezone everything that isn’t industrial or MIO or the Ave to mixed use 340′. Impose a pedestrian overlay on University Way, Brooklyn, Ravenna, and 45th.

    I know I’m dreaming, but that is what we should be doing.

    Second choice would be to combine both alternatives and go with whatever the maximum up zone is.

    If forced to chose just what is in the alternatives then alternative 2.

      1. There is a short explanation in the DEIS. It basically mandates pedestrian oriented features along certain street fronts. IOW it encourages ground level retail and discourages curb cuts, garage entrances, loading docks, and blank walls.

    1. I am not sure what a pedestrian overlay is, but if 340 means we get more safeco buildings – a pedestrian nightmare – compared to more lothloriens, I’d rather have the Lothloriens.

      1. A pedestrian overlay discourages curb cuts, loading docks, and blank walls along designated pedestrian streets. It encourages ground level retail spaces. So more Lothlorien less Safeco tower,

        In fact I’m not sure you could build an office building as hostile to the street level as The Safeco building anywhere in Seattle under the current rules.

      2. Sure, but South Lake Union isn’t a lot better than Downtown Bellevue or the Safeco tower. That’s not what we want, or at least it’s not what we should want.

  7. The most important thing is the number of units around the light rail station, and Alternative 2 maximizes that. Transit utilization in the most distant blocks will be lower, so upzoning there would be less effective in meeting the city’s goals.

    Of course, additional density brings benefits regardless of the presence of rail. In a perfect world Seattle would create an alternative that was the most intensive of either alternative 1 or alternative 2 in any particular parcel.

    I agree with Andrew that it’s possible that Alternative 1 could work out better in terms of number of units, depending on what nonsense is attached to Alternative 2 zoning.

    1. There appears to be a lot of nonsense in both alternatives. I wish people would pay more attention to those details

      1. What specific nonsense? I would like to know so that I can add that to the comments (I downloaded the big document, but only skimmed it).

    2. I would also say preserving the pedestrian character of the ave is the most important thing, then units of housing and office space. It would be terrible to get tons of new housing but in something that looked like downtown Bellevue.

      1. I agree completely. Just to repeat:

        1) Pedestrian character
        2) More housing
        3) More office space

        Pretty simple.Let’s hope they get it right.

    3. Density should be a goal in and of itself.

      We should not fall into the trap of thinking density is only there to feed LR, or that LR is the only form of transit that benefits from increased density.

      Density is good — even if it isn’t immediately adjacent to a LR station.

      1. Density should be a goal in and of itself.

        I believe this shows you haven’t thought enough about the matter. Why is density good? There has to be a “why”. Is it because it’s green? Because you like tall buildings? Because of walkability, tax base, farmlands etc etc?

        If you actually look at why you like density, the picture because a lot more nuanced, and protecting things like walkable neighbourhoods because very important. You see that there are trade offs.

      2. Na, I stand by that statement. I don’t mean to imply that every square inch of Seattle should be zoned to 340′, or that park land should be converted to condos, but in areas like the U-dist we shouldn’t think of only those zoning changes which will benefit LR. We need to look at density throughout the entire neighborhood.

        But, yeah, greener, more diverse, more walkable/less car dependent, more vibrant/sociable, etc. All good things that come with increased density.

      3. You have no idea what you are saying. Walkable doesn’t necessarily come from density (see downtown bellevue), nor does diversity (see Tokyo), nor does “green” (see Beijing).

        Density isn’t the end to anything, it’s the means. It’s not a mantra, it’s a tool. You need to think more about what is good, rather than just mindlessly worshiping a God you don’t understand.

      4. Andrew, there are about a dozen reasons to maximize density. It’s ridiculous to restrict him to a few. Walkability is about 11th on the list.

        As your examples indicate, it’s certainly possible to screw up achievement of one or two goals while densifying, but it’s even harder to meet them when sprawling, and nearly impossible to botch more than a handful of them while dense.

      5. Andrew, could you critique what’s wrong with downtown Bellevue?

        Yeah, there are lots of surface parking lots in front of businesses between Main St., NE 8th, Bellevue Way and 110th Ave NE, but many of those areas haven’t been redeveloped yet. Pretty much all of Old Main is walkable, the NE 6th St. pedestiran corridor touches on many of those older areas but it’s a pleasant place to walk. How about the new Safeway? The area between Bellevue Way, 112th Ave NE, NE 8th and NE 12th has been totally transformed. The old Safeway site is being redeveloped now and the John Danz site will be at some point.

        What more would you want?

      6. Wide streets, long blocks, signals with long turn periods, etc. It’s better than it was, but the ave, for example, is much more walkable. It would be a shame if they destroyed the ave to put in somethinf like that or the Denny triangle or downtown bellevue, even if it were more dense.

        There’s a reason Paris and London are awesome despite few skyscrapers

      7. Mindlessly? Far from it. Ya, density doesn’t make up for bad design, but density does facilitate all the goodness great cities have. This city needs to step up to the plate and embrace it. And I think if you think it through you would agree. It’s time to stop fighting the enevitable and instead make it happen well, and with good design.

      8. What are your other 11? Very hand-wavey here. If you can’t actually name them, then you are proving me right that you haven’t thought enough about this.

        Density is great, but a walkable, liveable place like, say, Stockholm is better to me than an incredibly dense place like Mumbai. I think most people would agree with that.

      9. Good lord, I’ve written entire posts on this, but clearly anyone who even slightly disagrees you is walking around in a fog.

        Off the top of my head: more stuff within walking distance, more transit ridership, more jobs, more political representation, more tax revenue, economic efficiency from concentration, lower house prices, less energy usage per unit, less sprawl, greater consumer choice, better public health, activated public spaces.

      10. That does not match what he or lazarus have said here.

        Whatever, I obviously can’t teach others how to think in a complex world.

      11. You haven’t provided a causal link to anything, or even a logical argument for your anti change view. The u dist is going to change. Get used to the idea. We can either work with the demographic forces we know are in play, or we can deny their existence and get run over by market driven change. I don’t intend to get run over

      12. Increased density is a very good goal for various reasons, but there are other goals, and they should be considered, especially in an area that is fairly dense (one of the densest areas in the state). There are plenty of examples of cities that are plenty dense, but sacrifice skyscrapers so that they can retain walkable neighborhoods. Would you pave over Central Park to add more buildings? How about Paris, or Amsterdam? Both cities have a lot of low level buildings that I’m sure could be replaced with big skyscrapers. Even in Seattle, do you want to replace Pike Place Market with a skyscraper? It would be more dense (and would be built tomorrow if the city sold it).

        But no one wants that, and overall, preserving (or enhancing) walkability leads to not only a better city, but more density. Not too long ago, very few people lived downtown. But the city did a few things (chief among them preserve Pike Place, which lead to similar, really interesting businesses nearby) and next thing you know, people wanted to live downtown. They were willing to live in an expensive, small apartment, because of all the cool amenities nearby. Destroy the amenities, and you could very easily return the area (or in the case of the U-District, create an area) much like the “business end” of downtown — popular for businesses, but no one lives there.

        Finding the right path for developing an area like the U-District (which, as I said, is already very dense and very popular) is not obvious. To suggest that we simply need to adhere to one principle — higher buildings, which we hope will bring higher density — is an oversimplified way of looking at it. It’s not a bad starting point, but it ignores some other, very important factors.

  8. I’m undecided on these but in general I’ve been moving toward middle density over a larger area rather than high density over a small area. Having only a few highrise buildings means you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. Highrises are more expensive than midrises so it’ll be more likely you can’t afford them, so if you’re locked out of those there’s nowhere else to go except low density. And as I said yesterday, middle density in a two-dimensional area — several blocks by several blocks — makes its own contribution to walkability, vibrancy, and transit ridership.

    1. All things equal, more expensive buildings also means more cars.

      I question very much whether taller buildings will mean more units of housing or just more office space.

      1. I agree. Generally speaking, really tall buildings tend to lead to more office buildings. It costs more (per unit) to build beyond a certain height (unless property values are really high). Renters may not want to pay the extra cost, but businesses will. It is much cheaper (overall) for a business to have all the employees in one place (which is why Safeco used to be located in one building). But for an individual renter, there is no added value to living in a big building.

    2. I’ve decided on the Urbanist’s alternative 4, which is what I originally wanted but didn’t think was politically possible at this final-decision stage. And alternative 2 as a fallback, although I’m afraid that upzoning the fringes later may not happen because too many people might say “We consented to 340′ in the core only because we were promised the periphery wouldn’t change”. On the other hand, I believe that the next few decades will see a general shift toward more acceptance of density and pedestrianism, because the anti-densityites can’t keep out the practicality of Copenhagen forever, and living in low density will become increasingly more expensive and less practical. So maybe perhipheral upzones are inevitable. I hope.

      1. The tallest building in Copenhagen is 289 feet, which suggests that an alternative 4, with a little bit of down scaling in the core (from 340′ to 280′) would be just fine by me.

  9. I like the idea of keeping density in the 1/2 block on either side of the Ave lower in Alt 2 and then offsetting that with higher densities on either side of it.

    1. I agree. The Ave is special (it even has a nickname that makes no sense — it’s not even an avenue). I am in favor of preserving it as is, but letting other areas go bigger. The big thing is getting the details right, so that if they add big buildings, they have ground floor retail right to the edge of the sidewalk, not another monstrosity, like the Safeco building.

  10. Rezoning gives an opportunity for more affordable housing for students and rank-and-file staff to live close to campus. According to the Section 3.2, Alternative 2 provides about 30% more affordable housing units than Alternative 1 (410 vs 291). It seems like we should strive for even higher, but it’s something.

    Anyone that we can get close enough to walk/bike to campus takes pressure off our stressed transit system.

    1. Affordable housing is important, but remember that there’s a huge gap between the income limits for “affordable” and having an income three times the average rent of urban villages. We need to support affordable housing for the poor but also workforce housing for the working class/lower middle class.

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