By Guest Contributor Carl Goodman
On Jan. 18 and 19, 2008, the South Lake Union Friends and Neighbors Community Council (SLUFAN), held a design charrette — an intense collaborative session among various civic, corporate and community stakeholders — to craft proposals to accommodate at least 16,000 additional employees and 8,000 additional households in the SLU neighborhood.
SLUFAN will incorporate some of the suggestions raised at the charrette in its recommendations to the City, which will then issue an Environmental Impact Statement on the future look of SLU.
Key organizers of the charrette included various corporate members of SLUFAN such as Paul Allen’s real-estate development corporation, Vulcan; the architectural firms NBBJ and Mithun; and the construction-management company, Olympic Associates. Staff from the City’s Department of Planning and Development and the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Management also played central roles in planning the event.
The organizers invited neighborhood representatives from groups in Cascade, Capitol Hill, and Queen Anne to participate. In my capacity as the representative of POWHAT (Pine Olive Way Harvard Area Triangle), I served as one of the 30 charrette participants.
The charrette’s objective was to evaluate what “urban form” makes the most sense for SLU. Current zoning in the area permits six-story buildings (ranging from 65- to 85-feet), which typically take the form of a “bread loaf,” or a long, blocky edifice. The Vulcan development at Westlake and Republican that serves as the HQ for the fashion retailer Tommy Bahama is a typical example.
The proposals that Vulcan and the architectural firms presented included evaluating four major upzones: 125 feet; 160 feet; 240 feet; and 400 feet. These taller buildings could take the form of “wedding cakes,” such as the newly completed Mithun condo development Mosler Lofts, with its slight setbacks at the upper floors. Or, they could be “pencil towers,” such as Vancouver-style tall and thin highrises built on block-long lowrise pedestals.
Another key proposal is to change the industrial/commercial zoning of much of SLU so that more residential construction is permitted.
As part of the sweetener to endorse building taller, the charrette organizers emphasized the city’s program to assess developers a fee of about $22.00 per square foot when they build in excess of a predetermined Floor Area Ratio (the ratio of the total floor area of a building to the size of the land parcel). The monies raised go towards affordable housing and childcare programs.
Charrette participants spent time discussing such existing SLU features as geography; mobility; open space; street character; and heritage buildings — as well as the flight paths of the Kenmore Air seaplanes.
Given SLU’s location in the middle of such difficult-to-penetrate roads as Denny, Aurora, Mercer and I-5, some of us described the current SLU as an enclave that’s surprisingly peaceful and isolated. Its bowl-like or swale setting and its increasingly abandoned light industrial streetscapes also form what I think of as SLU’s essence. I’d like to see these qualities incorporated into a robust new SLU.
From my perspective, the charrette organizers seemed to be chomping at the bit to build taller. Mere lip service was given to incorporating great design, cultural amenities, or a significant number of affordable housing units in the new SLU. While the few true historic structures in SLU may be protected from overdevelopment pressures, other buildings and businesses that add neighborhood luster, like the classic terracotta Firestone dealership and the Antique Liquidators warehouse, both on Westlake, would seem unlikely candidates to survive a major upzone. Charrette organizers repeatedly referred to the proposed highrise residential structures as luxury dwellings, ignoring the successes of cities such as New York that provide tax incentives to developers to construct integrated affordable and fair-market housing.
Many of the charrette participants seemed to think that the transportation mess along Denny and Mercer would not be exacerbated by the influx of thousands of new residents and workers in the neighborhood, but I’m skeptical that the new streetcar line alone provides the solution.
My preference for the new SLU would be a dense, vibrant lowrise neighborhood, that conserves the existing industrial character even while it changes the use to residential and hightech. If Vulcan really wanted to get innovative with the 60-plus acres of SLU land that it controls, it would help spawn a Greenwich Village-like arts neighborhood and integrate housing units for both the rich and the working class, including families with kids. Now that would be a new SLU worth celebrating.