Seattle Transit Blog commenter Nathaniel Williams put together a very detailed infographic of all downtown skyscrapers currently in the pipeline. While it shows just how strong our growth is, what jumps out is just how restrictive our zoning is. I don’t think it coincidence that almost half of all buildings will be 440 feet. What do we gain by limiting who can live or work downtown? Is it worth the damage caused by forcing people into the sprawling, polluting, inefficient and unproductive suburbs and exurbs?

Infographic_2014-09-29_680More information here.

53 Replies to “Skyscraper Infographic Highlights Growth and Zoning”

  1. Matthew,

    There are a LOT of “Proposed” buildings in that list. Maybe it would be a good idea not to count pullets before they pip.

    1. Not all of them will be built of course, but a good many will. I’d like to see them built to their full potential, not artificially cut down b/c Seattle is scared of being a city.

  2. Is there evidence that all of those “440s” are in places where such a height maxes out their zoning? Or does this more likely have to do with the maximum height you can reach before dealing with more expensive modes of construction and elaborate multi-stage elevator accommodations?

      1. Zoning height limits are often based in part on construction types. Wood framing up to a certain height is feasible for example, so you’ll see 65′ height limits in codes. Wouldn’t be unreasonable to find an economic inflection point at about 400′.

      2. Please provide some links. I think this applies to steel-frame buildings, but not to steel-reinforced concrete buildings which almost all residential buildings are. Aqua in Chicago is steel-reinforced concrete (like all of our 40 floor buildings) but is 82 floors.

      3. Aqua has hard divides between its three uses: 18 hotel floors, 34 rental floors (served express from a lobby at the base), and 29 condo floors (served from their own mid-tower grand lobby).

        The elevator thing really is immutable. Unless you want your lower floors to be 70% elevator, you have to organize such subdivisions. It’s really not worth building ultra-tall unless you have a good reason to indulge the additional costs and complexity of this.

      1. Okay, I guess perhaps the correlation is there. I hadn’t had a chance to inspect the siting patterns of the “440” list.

        Per Google, 420-ish (roof height) is the known cutoff for a significant shift in your economies of construction/space. You’re dealing with a wholly different category of project beyond that.

    1. d.p.

      I know you hate the streetcar and despise me, but dammit, look at all those buildings going up along Westlake!. They badly need high capacity transit and though your advocacy of an east-west line from LQA through Capitol Hill and the CD is excellent it is not going to happen for twenty years at the outside. The streetcar is there, let’s make it useful by giving it reservation and some signal priority, at least south of Denny Way. And, yes, extend it south on First Avenue to Pioneer Square to link to the First Hill line. That gives all the people living in those several thousand new residential units places to shop and play.

      1. I don’t despise you at all.

        I’ll certainly call you out when your short-hop-rail-biasing, contortionist attempts to make the useless seem useful grow too absurd, or when you pop up in national fora touting Seattle’s wheel-reinvention enterprise or claiming plans exist to do nonsensical things like pedestrianizing our least pedestrian-amenable streets. At the same time, I seem to recall us agreeing to a shocking degree that the electoral/budgetary math used to endorse STBART3 doesn’t actually make a lot of sense when looked at with an ounce of scrutiny.

        So we may often disagree, but you’re obviously not demented or delusional, like more than a few personalities I could name around here.

        I’m aware of the growth in SLU and (more intensely all of a sudden) in the much-closer-in Denny Triangle. I’m also aware that both areas are currently underserved by transit in any direction. I’m also aware that the SLUT has fuck-all to do with any of the above — because a dozen massive buildings and 19,000 new jobs cannot be credited to a thing that carries 1,500 round-trip-equivalents a day, most of them opportunistic/unnecessary.

        I continue to submit to you that almost no one will use this convoluted through-route as you envision it: the “shop and play” application is just as undermined by the 15-minute headway and the zig-zaggy routing as your prior applications (yes, I did notice that you just moved the goalposts again, dropping King Street commuters from your reasoning), and accomplishes the trip no more quickly or conveniently than the substandard walk+transit options that exist today.

        Meanwhile, have you seen the Lindblom piece that finally convinced me Metro and the City might use Prop 1 funds wisely? Sending every C Line bus henceforth through SLU will accomplish exactly the “shop and play” connectivity your crave, except faster and more directly, and for about $100 million less.

        We all know that the Connector plan only exists because the other two streetcars exist. Why is it so hard to admit that it makes no sense on its face, because it serves no exclusive-need movement patterns well enough to justify it?

      2. A C-D uncouple with the C-Line rerouted to SLU will be a huge improvement, and I completely support it; it makes a lot of sense. And I certainly don’t think that the streetcar as currently operated can make much of a difference in this high density area. But who says it has to run every fifteen minutes? The F Line in San Francisco, which many people pooh-pooh as a “tourist line” — yes, of course it is a huge tourist attractor — is also a major all-day and late into the evening people mover because it links several neighborhood attractors. And it has to compete with the Muni Metro thirty feet down for most of its route! It takes twelve or so minutes longer to go from Castro to Powell and at least fifteen more to Montgomery but people still make those trips in droves. And it runs every four minutes.

        No, South Lake Union is not Upper Market nor is it the Embarcadero, and it wouldn’t be free to lengthen the stations to accommodate the two car trains necessary for it to be a major contributor to mobility in the neighborhood, but there is the possibility that the thing can be made better than it is today for not a whole lot of money.

        Not no money obviously, but not a lot either. And I admit that I don’t know what that would do to the cost projections for the First Avenue cars; they may not fit in the relatively short blocks in the downtown grid.

        OK, I just checked. Downtown blocks are 360 feet in the north-south direction, so a two car train would fit comfortably.

        To the larger question of “why a streetcar?” well, they are better at placemaking than buses. That is just so; there’s really no question about it. Sure, the City of Portland subsidized the hell out of the first several buildings build in the Pearl District, but once the streetcar was in — and slower than walking or not it’s usually jam packed until fairly late into the evening — and the sizzle of “The Pearl” began, a lot more, bigger buildings followed. Over the next twenty years Portland will get its “investment” via tax preferments back six or seven times.

        And “No”, I don’t believe that the streetcar is responsible for the sizzle, but it provides some of the heat on the stove. People like it; people who just wouldn’t think of riding a bus if they didn’t have to.

        So, while I hope that the C-Line becomes a viable choice-rider option for SLU/Denny Triangle, I do doubt it will have the same impact. The fact that it serves Third Avenue will certainly make it more popular for commuters than the streetcar, because it stops directly adjacent to the University Street station for Link and directly or closely connects with nearly every Seattle CBD-bound bus. The streetcar is a bit peripheral and will continue to be with the Olive Way routing for the Connector. I’m disappointed about that, but I realize that even though a contra-flow lane would be possible on Pine, there is simply no way to get that one north-south block between Olive and Pine.

      3. You see, it’s this “placemaking” canard that always gets you into trouble, and blows all of your other constructed positions to smithereens. This is where you tip your hand that it isn’t really about believing the things as better for mobility or connectivity, that it’s all about how “streetcars look and feel neat”.

        Any number of finicky ingredients need to align for a location to coalesce into a “place”, You need just the right balance of activity and respite, of the designed and the organically-evolving, of lingering and moving through, of commerce and non-commerce. You need to be lucky with architecture and with proportions.

        You do not need trolleys. That doesn’t mean that “places” don’t exist that happen to have trolley, but it does mean that the vast majority exists without them. They are not a required ingredient. They “make” nothing of their own accord. And from the LLoyd District to Salt Lake City to dead Ukrainian industrial cities to my own hometown, your precious follies rumble through more non-“places” than one can possibly count.

        This half-mile of track is the very last vestige of streetcar-style running in the Boston area. All the rest has been, truncated, bustituted, given utilitarian center reservations (for speed, not for “place”), or undergrounded over the past century.

        The first thing you’ll notice is that, by Boston standards, this isn’t an especially nice place. In fact, it really isn’t a “place” at all. What it is, notoriously, is the last place you want to rent a “close to the T” apartment, in a city where in many areas those words can double the rent price. It is also a street that has stubbornly resisted the gentrification that has slowly conquered Mission Hill just a half-block behind it. Suffice to say that the rail experience here sucks, that these blocks are eternally jammed and unpleasant, and that this is all the refutation any non-delusional person should for the idea that trolleys = “placemaking”.

        When one of the few undisputable “transit cities” on this continent has gone out of its way to eradicate the folly of street rail, it seems baffling that someone in third-rate Seattle would have the gaul to claim an “inherent” effect of street rail on the urban scape that so entirely conflicts with the accumulation of lived experience.

        But let’s return closer to home.

        You bring up the Pearl District. Well the Pearl, immediately adjacent to downtown Portland, with existing anchors (Powell’s, etc), redevelopable warehouses and an existing restaurant row, complete urban grid-bones, and infill opportunities as well as a railyard to be developed from scratch, was destined for success well before any streetcar was proposed or ensured. That may not be your streetcar-shilling narrative, but it happens to be the truth.

        The South Waterfront, on the other hand, is not “a place” at all. Sterile, windswept, ugly, and dull as shit, it is a superlative example of how to be tall without being a city in the slightest. Supposedly, developers have lost any number of shirts on this place. No streetcar, nor streetcar bridge, nor aerial “wowee” tram will be able to fix this total misunderstanding of what a “place” needs to thrive.

        I could further explore the Eastern European experience, where decades-old streetcar networks, often decrepit and quite obsolute for current movement patterns, are as plentiful as pork sausages or people who hate Russians. These streetcars, which depending on the size and economic situation of the city, may or may not serve a significant role in daily mobility, ply good and bad “places” indiscriminately. The locals would simply laugh at you for suggesting that their presence or absence mattered in the slightest to the experiential quality or aesthetic coherence of any one place over another.

        Fundamentally, Anandakos, the streetcars/placemaking “correlation” is kind of total bullshit! If that’s the hill that your advocacy for them chooses to live or die on — the final pseudo-rational curtain behind which “I like things that go clang” reveals itself the only true belief at play — well… it’s not really a surprise that this little American fad is tanking so rapidly and with such aplomb.

      4. So many typos. It was just far too late at night to bother with editing.

        But really, Anandakos, you’ve had me all wrong. I do like you, just as I like Mike and Keith and Chris and any number of well-intentioned STB regulars who — this being an internet comment space — tend to stubbornly double down on ideas that simply have no basis in economic/geometric/experiential reality.

        The “placemaking” acumen of streetcars is a falsehood. It simply does not exist… not even with developers and politicians buying into that falsehood for a brief and unfortunate period. (Don’t tell the developers this, but they can’t “make places” all by their lonesomes either. You can’t $$$ true “places” into existence any more than you can will them into being with copious warm fuzzies.)

        You would really be wise to stop accepting and regurgitating this argument as uncritically as you do. Being able to cut through the bullshit will make you a far more capable advocate for projects that actually serve a tangible public good.

  3. 16,000 new parking spaces? Ugh… it’s not even so bad if it’s for hotels (who will gouge their customers because they can) or residences (where many of the cars are infrequently used). Abundance of office parking and the extremely peaky traffic associated with it are the cause of all the big livability problems downtown… noise, air quality, lousy transit reliability, cavernous streets that encourage speeding outside of congested peak hours, and other safety problems with driveway entrances.

    Most of the commercial buildings there have a parking space per 1,000 square feet of commercial floor space. That doesn’t feel like a win to me.

    1. New average per person for office uses is down around 150sf/person. That still leaves 5 of 6 workers not having a parking space in their building.

    2. Al:

      Despite the Chicken Little tone of the article, I love that this a thing.

      Meanwhile, unlike in Seattle, the preponderance of the comments seem to focus on the correct crux: “Sorry. There’s no room for more traffic, so there’s no room for more cars. Get to your meeting some other way.”

      1. Of course Boston has a far better mass transit infrastructure than Seattle does. (Which is an argument for making Seattle’s transit infrastructure better, not for trying to accommodate more driving — which Seattle’s overburdened street and freeway networks cannot accept.)

      2. Boston’s got a very different problem than we have — established transit infrastructure that’s over capacity at many times of day and decaying. The city has been struggling with transportation (of all modes) for some years now. Driving doesn’t work because of the inavailability and cost of parking, transit is good when you can get on it but in many cases is hopelessly overcrowded and much slower than it should be, and the biking infrastructure is regrettable. Fortunately it’s a very compact city and if you are anywhere near the center walking, in conjunction with short transit rides, actually works pretty well.

        Here, we have a city that is the furthest thing from compact, with plenty of parking that no one can access because the road network is at capacity, and with transit infrastructure that is very much in its infancy.

      3. Is Boston’s problem really so different? People are talking about not scheduling meetings with out-of-building visitors during times when parking is likely to be unavailable in the building, as if the thought that visitors might have to walk or even take a taxi is unthinkable. Are these the attitudes of people that work in a compact, walkable city?

      4. The primary distinction is that the attitude you describe, though highlighted by this business blogger (it is not the editorial stance of the Globe) finds itself in the extreme and mockable minority there.

        The vast, vast majority of the comments call out the unsavory correlation between increased parking availability and increasingly maxed-out roads. In Seattle, where each development proposal is met with shrieks of “not enough parking”, as arterial backups grow ever worse, that correlation is rarely so much as mentioned.

        Meanwhile, Boston City Hall shows no interest in backing away from its absolute caps on downtown parking supply, no matter how self-righteous the “business interests” become. Equally hard to imagine here.

        More of an aside, but for the record, no one in the article is talking about driving to and fro for “out-of-building” meetings. In a downtown where all-day parking is $40+, and where you can take a $20 ding for just an hour in a garage, even the most transit-phobic will walk everywhere downtown, or cab for meetings across the city.

        The consternation seems to be about appointments with those coming in from the extremities, and it is a genuine conundrum, especially with the (massive) garages at the best park-and-rides often boasting the same “full up” sandwich boards by 8:30 am. Those with a good working knowledge of the city know where to find cheaper short-term parking just a few T stops away from downtown, but at that point, the idea of staggering meetings away from the “middays between Tuesday and Thursday” crunch starts to seem the most rational way of managing demand.

    3. The “16,844” number indicates the number of new parking spaces being built, but it doesn’t take account of the old parking spaces being removed for these projects. Many of these buildings are replacing parking lots.

      The net amount of parking spaces added is lower than 16,844.

  4. This map suggests that a second subway line is more strategic if it is east of Third Agenue. That contrasts from a Second Avenue line suggested by some.

      1. Oh really, where exactly? I would have loved if the SLUT was really a cu-and-cover link trunk. Paul Allen could have pushed for that.

  5. This map suggests that a reoriented Connvention Place Station that exits north near Olive and Terry could serve an area that is seeing quite a bit of growth.

  6. “…. the sprawling, polluting, inefficient and unproductive suburbs …”

    STB, you are becoming a parody of yourself.

    1. I don’t think of Seattle suburbs as sprawling, inefficient and unproductive. Both Renton and Everett assemble Boeing aircraft, Redmond is a hub for Microsoft, Bellevue seems to be another tech hub.

      While Seattle contains Amazon, REI, Russell Financial, and soon Weyerhaeuser, to suggest that those of us that live and work in the suburbs are inefficient and unproductive should probably venture to other cities within the United States (and I’m not talking about SF, Boston or NYC).

      Back to the height issue…..weren’t there FAA height restrictions in some parts of downtown related to the aircraft flight paths?

      1. Just b/c some cities have worse suburbs and exurbs doesn’t make ours good. They are still more polluting, less efficient and less productive than the central city.

      2. Extreme CBD job concentration is pretty well correlated with longer commutes. It can also lead to more transit-oriented commutes.

        Of course, there’s a lot of stuff you just can’t do in the CBD. The “less productive” (by square-foot of land) land uses inevitably get pushed off of higher-value land, but remain very important — things that the “very productive” information workers downtown could not function without. Manufacturing, especially of big, complicated things like airplanes, isn’t always something you can plop down cleanly within a walkable public street network. Agriculture is interdependent with city markets and research that largely takes place at universities (little cities of their own).

        It’s more important that peripheral job centers are walkable and have a healthy use mixture nearby than that every new job is piled on top of downtown. One of the real frustrations of development patterns since the mid-20th century is that the walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and suburbs have resisted job growth and the jobs have gone to sprawling office parks. We will improve our land use situation by bringing more development downtown and near downtown. But we’ll also do it by continuing to grow all sorts of uses in walkable places clearly separated from downtown, and by transit-oriented infill “sprawl repair” in places like Northgate and Bellevue.

  7. 400′ downtown average is not necessarily a bad thing. The most critical shortage in Seattle is housing, and most housing was always goiing to be outside downtown anyway, so it’s not directly affected by this. What’s most needed is more consistent upzoning outside downtown; rectangular areas of 7-12 story buildings like other major cities have.

    When the World Trade Center collapsed, New York had a choice of replacing it with another 110-story building or two shorter buildings. There was a saying then that nobody really needs buildings higher than 40 stories, and I tend to believe it. The 110-story WTC and our 72-story Columbia Center were more about prestige than necessity. Above 40 stories you need another set of elevators, which takes space. Maybe a single elevator can go up to 50 but I’m not talking about the exact number, just the general principal. I suspect all of Manhattan’s existing offices could fit into 40-story buildings with only a minor enlargement of downtown. Likewise I don’t think Seattle needs so much office space that 60 or 70-story buildings are necessary. (Columbia Center is the absolute limit apparently, because reserved flight airspace is above it.)

    1. This is my reaction to people like Ben Schneidleman who argue that we need to convert Ballard to a sea of 200-foot Vancouverite spires.

      By sacrificing a little bit of developer profit, we can actually build a neighborhood people want to live in.

      1. I spent 5 years in Vancouver and would live in one of those 200-300 foot towers any day over a 6-floor Ballard bread loaf. Vancouver is consistently ranked in the top 3 in the world for livability, and while I thought that was bogus when I lived there, I completely understand it since I moved to Seattle. Seattle ranks somewhere in the area of 30th-50th… Don’t get offended, I love Seattle, but the things that make Vancouver great are the very things that many people here simply do not want to accept despite that they have been proven to improve livability time and time again. I’m tired of hearing, oh but the USA, or Seattle is different. It’s not different in any way. People are afraid of change and make up all kinds of explanations.

      2. Because Vancouver cares about sight lines, “200 foot Vancouverite spires” are actually pretty darn nice housing.

      3. Seattle does not presently build worthwhile mid-rise urban architecture. We just build the same bloated pedestals as in Belltown or SLU, minus the towers.

        Vancouver, meanwhile, works not because of its sightline calculations (though those are nice) but because it pays attention to precisely what happens at street level, regardless of the height of the building.

        At least, Vancouver proper does this. Burnaby and Richmond… not so much.

        If you think the choice is between a sterile glass tower (that may or may not have life at its base) and lazy crap like Mark24, then you really need to see more of the world.

      4. That’s due both to huge demand AND limited supply in Vancouver proper. The demand comes from Vancouver’s awesome livability and the speculative/2nd home nature of much of their condo market. The supply limitations are primarily due to all the multi-million dollar homes of Point Grey and Kerrisdale etc, encasing most of the city in single-family amber. Meanwhile, Surrey has abundant land that’s highly developable for both SkyTrain TOD and sprawl simultaneously. Surrey is Bailoland fully realized.

      5. Charles, that’s totally fine. Vancouver’s suburbs are denser than our inner cities. Surrey is zoned for 600 feet and is building a 54 floor residential building (amid a forest of ~30 floor ones). How many of those do we have in Washington State – 0!

      6. Just to be precise, obviously not all of Surrey is zoned for 600 feet, but you get the point. Downtown Redmond tops out at 6 floors – better than single family homes, but incomparable to downtown Surrey which sports a skyline…

    2. “Density” can work at several levels. including 40 story, 20 story, 12 story, 6 story, or even 4 story. The trick is just, if you don’t build up you have to build out. Chicago’s North Side would span from the U-District to Wallingford to Greenlake. It’s only 3-10 stories, and there are even some 1-story buildings sprinkled in, but because it’s so many square blocks it can fit a lot of people and has tons of walkable destinations. But here in Wallingford you have two streets that maybe, possibly, will allow a few 6-story buildings if pushed, but it drops off to single-family bungalows just one block away.

    3. Just to be precise, obviously not all of Surrey is zoned for 600 feet, but you get the point. Downtown Redmond tops out at 6 floors – better than single family homes, but incomparable to downtown Surrey which sports a skyline…

  8. Let’s please see some discussion of the quality of buildings and the life inside and surrounding them, rather than just measuring height.

    Without having been inside or trained to evaluate the structure, if Ballard could be populated with buildings similar to Stadium Place near King Street Station, or maybe somewhat thinner and more graceful, like many in Vancouver, I’d move back there as soon as I could afford the rent.

    Which I might be able to do if Ballard starts re-industrializing, as I’ve said before, trading an industry of heavy, and uglier than suburban sprawl, real estate. The training I’ve gotten to replace trolleybus driving doesn’t include boutique management or condominium sales.

    As it stands wouldn’t live in Ballard if I could afford the rent, for reasons that have nothing to do with height. Reason for trading my bus line from KC Metro 40 to Intercity Transit’s 44 and 603:

    Reason is that right now, Ballard isn’t much cheaper than the suburbs Sam likes, and working very hard to get just as ugly and boring, albeit vertically rather than sprawled. If I wanted to live in a crate I’d build one myself so I could use something besides cardboard.

    Also, very bad experience with rental management. Won’t single out, for as Scripture says, around Ballard his name is Legion- queue the demonic laughing…..

    So here’s my offer: I’ll join the campaign for taller denser buildings to degree they’re built on the pulverized rubble of my choice of the current crop.

    Starting with the one at NW corner of Market and 24th, followed closely by what used to be my home where the Route 44 turns left onto the transit free route of the former 17.

    Nothing against Ben’s subway either, just so it trains have human drivers. Being mainly underground, residential aesthetics won’t affect it much, but structural and design quality probably will.

    Meantime, watch it, Sam: every day the present trajectory of Ballard continues, chance increases I’ll end up in the suburbs- not only stuffing another ton of metal over a perfectly good parking space but possibly increasing real estate costs and property taxes. Be afraid. Be very afraid.


  9. Matthew, statements like

    “Is it worth the damage caused by forcing people into the sprawling, polluting, inefficient and unproductive suburbs and exurbs”

    do not help your cause. It alienates those whose support you need to achieve the goals of this blog.

    1. Are the suburbs more or less sprawling than Seattle? Are dense areas not less polluting, more efficient and more productive than less dense? Why should it be my job to protect people from an uncomfortable reality?

      1. Our suburbs are what they are, and sprawl has been contained by the Urban Growth Boundary. And the best way to manage growth within the UGB is to steer it into Urban Centers and Urban Villages.

        Note the plurals; we do not have and will not have a single Urban Center where every high-rise building can be accommodated. We are a multi-centered region, and some of those centers are located in cities not Seattle; yes, those horrible suburbs. Pay a visit to downtown Bellevue. It looks awfully urban to me.

        And consider the Microsoftee who wants to buy her own home. Does she buy a condo in Belltown and face a horrible commute every day, or does she buy one in Redmond and bicycle to work? I think the answer is obvious.

      2. Matthew, your statememt is so full of mass generalizations that none of them can be proven to be always true. These kind of statements make you seem like a radical and it alienates those moderates whose support you need.

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