Yesterday’s Seattle Times reports that Dick Wagner the founder of the Center for Wooden Boats died last Thursday, April 20, at the age of 84. He’ll be remembered notes the Times “as a fierce defender of water access for all.”
By Patrick Mazza
As the new century dawned, major changes were in store for South Lake Union. The low-slung light industrial district occupied by warehouses, supply shops and auto dealerships was set to become the epicenter of Seattle’s development boom.
In anticipation, the district’s major landowner and lead developer, Vulcan, commissioned the Urban Environment Institute and veteran green architect Bert Gregory to develop a framework and handbook that would make SLU a world-class green development model. The seminal sustainability plan published in 2002, Resource Guide for Sustainable Development in and Urban Area: A case study in South Lake Union, offered strategies for everything from water and energy efficiency to materials use. It was soup to nuts for limiting the impacts of buildings on local and global environments, and for making a compact urban district that would provide an alternative to suburban sprawl.
This is where solving the climate crisis comes home. The kind of sustainable urban development envisioned in the SLU study is central to reducing climate disrupting carbon emissions. Buildings alone are responsible for 45% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, while transportation emits another 34%. Creating compact, walkable urban districts served by transit and composed of efficient buildings is one of the most potent of climate solutions.
I visited with Bert at the Mithun architectural firm’s waterfront pier offices in downtown Seattle earlier this year. He is chair of the firm, one of the nation’s leading design firms and an innovator in the green building revolution that has broken out since he did the SLU handbook. With the emergence of a new downtown in the area, I wanted to find out now whether Bert thought SLU had lived up to the promise he saw when he was pulling together the document in 2001 and 2002. For the most part, in Bert’s view, SLU has fulfilled his vision, with one important exception that I will deal with later.
Bert noted his study focused on what can be done within the constraints of the market. SLU both reflects and has helped spur a major market transformation, he said. The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system “was still in its infancy” when he did the study. The certification standard sets criteria to limit environmental impacts and create buildings that are healthy for the people living and working in them. Today, “The market is transformed.”
Seattle was an early green building leader, he said. Now, “Green is the price of entry.” In SLU, “Almost every building is gold.” That is the second-highest rating. “There is an ambition for platinum.” That is the highest. “It is a pretty remarkable collection of green buildings in one neighborhood. Overall when you look at buildings in SLU all are pretty sophisticated in terms of ambition for green strategies.” This includes features such as green roofs to cut energy use and to capture and reuse of stormwater.
“There’s been a revolution in the investment community,” he added. “It’s a revolution in where they want to make their investments. Many investors require green building. It’s less risky. Every building we’re doing has some kind of certification. It’s very different from the old days. The excitement is the market has changed.”
The move is away from suburbs and back into cities. “Its responding to demographic and workplace living styles. It is driven by lower risk, higher value and market demands. You look at Amazon. What a fundamental decision for a corporation to decide to stay in the city! It is driven by competitive advantage to attract talent.”
SLU “reflects good long-term work by people to create place, to do all the things needed to keep sprawl from happening.”
Bert pointed out one way SLU is a cutting-edge sprawl buster. Also board chair of Forterra, a local nonprofit devoted to landscape preservation and urban sustainability, he noted that SLU is using a system promoted by Forterra and implemented by King County. That is Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). Forest and farm lands on the urban fringe are preserved when development rights are sold. Purchasers are urban developers. TDR lets them build taller buildings, and so make more money on a parcel of land.
“King County at leading edge,” Bert says. “Ultimately the rest of the US needs to be as forward thinking about urban development, placing people in walkable neighborhoods close to transit, rather than low-density development. Get population in urban centers. “
“We look at a couple of million more people coming here by 2040. We need a whole bunch of SLUs throughout our region that are green and walkable. Places like Lynnwood, Federal Way and Puyallup can learn a lot of good lessons from SLU.”
The SLU study not only looked at buildings, but at district systems that tie them together. District systems operate on a scale beyond individual buildings. They can provide services such as heat, cooling and electricity. For example, a heating plant can serve several buildings, as can a chilled water system or an electricity microgrid. A goal was to “enter into dialogue on systems beyond the individual building,” to line out opportunities for district-based solutions in energy, water and transportation. That is where success has been more mixed.
In terms of transportation, “The investment in the street car is really the key part, continuation of the street car downtown, and then slowly, linked across the city.”
SLU’s growth has come with increased traffic congestion, always a problem in an area long noted for the “Mercer mess.”
“SLU, like a lot of Seattle, is in the transportation ‘teenage years,” Bert notes. “We’re transitioning into a compact, global city that must have a convenient and enjoyable mass transit, biking, and walking system to get around. Using the car will never be convenient in Seattle again with our new long peak hours, especially as more cars are added to the system.”
And that is as it should be. Making car use less convenient may have its irritations. But for a sustainable planet it is necessary.
The SLU report also envisioned district energy systems powered by technologies such as solar, fuel cells and microturbines, as well as chilled water systems linking buildings. That is the element of the vision that has not played out.
“This is a very challenging situation for a wide variety of reasons. District energy is still an emerging topic, fraught with unbelievable complexities, such as infrastructure in public streets, property lines, and risk for investors,” Bert says. The region’s mild climate and cheap hydropower also militated against district energy.” SLU was “way too early for district systems.”
But technologies and systems are improving. “The exciting thing there is an emerging revolution in district-based systems. The policy and economics profile is significantly different than in 2001. There is greater viability. It is a topic in all projects of higher density.”
The SLU study pointed the way for the district. But, Bert noted, “its greatest success was its widespread impact beyond Seattle. We have received requests all over the world for copies. It is used in university curricula. Fundamentally the impact is much broader than SLU because it is a case study.”
Bert since has gone on to do other similar studies, including a more detailed plan for the Lloyd Crossing area in Portland that “took this to a different level.”
In Bert’s eyes, SLU has overall lived up to the sustainability concepts he lined out in 2002.
“These are things that takes vision, partnerships and 20 years of efforts,” he said. “Now we as a region have to be thinking about what’s next for 2040, for 2100.”
More people are coming to our region. How we grow will make all the difference for our region, our planet and our climate. Compact urban districts that are built green and served by transit are the way to go, and SLU provides an important model to guide growth throughout the region, nation and world.
by Patrick Mazza
I had to think long and hard about this story.
I started out many months ago with a simple concept. I would interview Bert Gregory of the Mithun architectural firm about a seminal sustainability plan he did for South Lake Union back in 2001 in anticipation of the building boom. Bert Gregory is one of the pioneering green architects, and was well positioned to create a plan that would make SLU a global sustainability model.
In early 2015 I visited Bert to ask him how well he thought the plan had been carried out. I’ll report on Bert’s comments in the second part of this series. But before I could write the story, I realized I had to flesh out my own thoughts about SLU, figure out what I really think about the neighborhood that is now a representation of Seattle’s explosive growth. Among Seattleites, there are a mix of feelings, always inevitable with such major transformations. Knute Berger captured this in a May Crosscut piece:
On the plus side, SLU is ground zero for Seattle’s job growth, boasts major institutional support (Amazon) and comes as close as anything in modern times to a planned urban neighborhood with parks, museums, traffic projects and street cars . . . On the downside, the neighborhood is a poster child for corporate welfare, receiving more attention and public benefits than some needier areas of the city. Its rapid development has displaced established businesses and overwhelmed older enclaves like Cascade . . . for many, the architecture of the neighborhood is cookie-cutter, view-blocking, phony (those facades) and often sterile – a little bit o’ Bellevue.
Tough stuff. And as an Eastlake resident I have my own mix of feelings. In 2012 I spent most of the year living and working in Portland. When I returned to work in downtown Seattle in early 2013, suddenly I found what had been my well-used but moderately filled 70 bus suddenly stretched to capacity, like a New York City subway at rush hour. Mystified, I asked what happened. “Amazon,” the bus driver told me. While I now work out of my home, I still catch the 70 for downtown meetings. The stuffing only seems to have worsened.
I also looked at the blocks of buildings and, while I’m not as down as the Berger quote, I found the district very much a 21st century neighborhood, very functional, but lacking the warmth of older urban districts. I needed to dig deeper. So I took walks around and through the neighborhood to further explore its new feel. What did the street life feel like? What is the potential for SLU taking on a more organic feel as it settles in?
Of course, the youthfulness of the street crowds is one of the first and most striking impressions. Young Amazon geeks and their equivalents in other firms. There is some effort to create a face to the street, with many restaurants, outdoor café patios, street furniture and trees. It isn’t Paris, but maybe it’s a start to a warmer urbanity.
There is some effort to vary the buildings and provide some interesting features. Nothing like the decorative ornamentation one finds on older buildings in downtown, or on some postmodern buildings. But something.
While the impression from beyond the neighborhood is a somewhat uniform block, for example looking at it from South Lake Union Park, when you delve into it a surprising number of the older buildings still stand, offering a needed variety. As Berger points out, it is important to save some of the old neighborhood.
A walking tour of South Lake Union is an eye-opener: It is far more than throw-away light industrial warehouses. A remarkable variety of architectural styles exist there, from 19th century row houses to turn-of-the-century bungalows, from mid-century modern commercial buildings to Deco structures, even some interesting Brutalist brutes.
SLU and its new downtown are facts on the ground. We live in a new Seattle that might discomfort us with change. But my conclusion is that, in a world of change, SLU is necessary. In part 2 of this series, I will delve into specifics about the district’s green buildings, and how they do indeed reflect the sustainable development envisioned by Gregory. For now, I will say that in terms of overall development patterns, we need SLU.
Ultimately, my conclusion about SLU is shaped by the work I do. For most of the last 17 years my work has focused on the massive challenges of global warming and resulting climate disruption. This is seen in our own state in the form of record drought and wildfires, huge and sometimes unseasonal storms, deadly landslides, massive salmon run deaths in overheated rivers and shellfish-industry killing ocean acidification. The greatest source of planetary heating and all its impacts is carbon pollution from fossil fuels including petroleum that runs almost all of our transportation system. In Washington state with its clean hydropower, transportation plays a disproportionate role in climate-twisting carbon emissions, 45% of the total.
Thus, while densification and growth come with some discomfort, and my Eastlake neighborhood is seeing its own share, if we are going to have growth, this is the way to do it. SLU’s creation of a dense, modern urban neighborhood is the kind of model we need. We cannot reduce auto dependence without moving to land use patterns that make car use less necessary – Neighborhoods that place work, shopping and residences close together. Amazon’s rapid expansion has its drawbacks, and one wishes rocket-ship-subsidizing billionaire owner Jeff Bezos might consider a greater contribution to ground transit. But for the climate and sustainability in general, the Amazon development is infinitely superior to Microsoft’s 1980s vintage campus in auto-centric Redmond.
We can quibble about the details of development. But overall, global sustainability requires dense, walkable urban development that can be served by transit. SLU meets that test.
In the next part, Bert Gregory tells us which pieces of his sustainable development model SLU fulfills, and which it doesn’t.
Image of South Lake Union is a combination of photograph and rendering of a potential future condition of the neighborhood. Courtesy: Studio216
UFO sightings, new geological formations, signs of the times, and holiday cheer; walking is when you really see things, despite the boring stretches (as one of our party complained).
Or maybe because of them.
Here are a few photos of things that caught our eye the day after Thanksgiving:
Seattle Department of Transportation held an open house last night about plans to replace the 65-year-old Fairview Trestle that runs beside the historic Lake Union Steam Plant building with a modern bridge. Construction of the new bridge is planned for spring 2017, and that’s when the detours would start.
SDOT had hoped to leave at least one lane open on the old bridge during construction, but that would have prolonged the project by at least six months, so they are opting for a quicker construction schedule of 15 to 18 months as opposed to 24. Quicker construction reduces costs and might be less inconvenient all around.
The most likely detour, said a SDOT representative, will be Aloha Street to Eastlake Avenune (but SDOT is also looking at Republican Street). If Aloha is chosen, the street will be resigned to allow for better traffic flow, signal priority and a left turn lane back onto Fairview south of construction site, where one is not currently allowed.
There is a stairway just north of Silver Could Inn that could be improved for pedestrian access, the SDOT official added.
The new bridge will exactly replace the old bridge in size, 65 feet wide, but will have wider car lanes and a two-way bicycle track, along with sidewalks on either side. To allow for the seeming expansions, the seven foot buffer lane is disappearing.
The floating walkway beside the bridge will also be removed and may be replaced if permitting allows. There are design plans for it.
The new bridge will have three lookout points and lots of new native plant vegetation and hardscaping (stones and pathways) on either end leading up to it.
It will be strong enough to hold a streetcar should the streetcar be extended to Eastlake and up Roosevelt, but that is not the reason for the trestle replacement. At 65 the trestle has outlived its useful life and is not earthquake sound.
For more information and to comment go to SDOT website.
It stands out on South Lake Union Park like some strange temporary construction structure, which it is, but it’s also an art installation that contains and recalls a time before there was any construction on the shores of Lake Union.
As its plaque explains, “Beach House is inspired by early Native American dwellings cross-pollinated by today’s frame-construction houses. The interior structure is made from sticks collected over the last eight years from a Puget Sound beach near my home. Its shadows cast upon the interior walls form negatives, like blueprints or x-rays of the sourced material’s origins.”
Although a Beach House seems perfect here, the lake was not its original site, wrote artist David W. Simpson in an email. “This piece was transported from Westlake Square (now one of the Pronto Bike locations) across from the Westin Hotel about a year ago.” It was intended as a temporary piece, he adds, for one or two months, but surprisingly has not been vandalized in the year or so it’s been at SLU, until recently when a small tag of graffiti appeared. But that may be expected as the house decays.
Says Simpson, “I intended for this to be an ephemeral project, and thus the natural decay of the interior walls (once a bright blue) and the decline of the stick structure inside seem quite appropriate.”
While Amazon is known for occupying a good part of the territory in South Lake Union, its corporate campus is expanding to the edge of downtown (Sixth and Blanchard to be exact). Check out GeekWire for the latest bird’s eye view of its construction.
Yesterday, the Egan House, that curious white, wedge-shaped building building on Lakeview Blvd. was open to the public. Historic Seattle owns the house, while the Seattle Parks Department owns the greenbelt. Every few years Historic Seattle will open the house to the public for tours and as a reminder of the building’s architectural significance to Seattle. The rest of the time the house is rented out to tenants to enjoy.
Egan House is a time capsule taking you back to what was breakthrough modern style, inside and out, over a half century ago. Original detailing remains, including a late fifties kitchen ordered from Sears, complete with a refrigerator in the cupboards and the facade of a once working washing machine. Customized pocket doors make efficient use of the modest space; a floating staircase made with Alaskan marble connects the floors.
When it was first build in 1958, the house caused people to stop and gawk. Today it is the youngest building Historic Seattle has preserved and put into reuse. As Historic Seattle notes in its brochure (folded in triangle) about the house, “The striking design represents a shift away from architectural traditionalism, and its preservation illustrates new views of what is worth saving. Part of what makes it so memorable is that the house is isolated from its neighbors by the site’s topography. Adding to the house’s notability is the unique approach to life taken by its designer: in the 1950’s, architect Robert Reichert was a unique character within Seattle’s design community. As other local architects embraced international modernism and helped develop a Pacific Northwest architectural style featuring strong horizontals, overhanging eaves, modular forms and clean lines, Reichert went his own way.”
“Dragons traditionally believed to be the rulers of rivers, lakes and seas” are coming to Lake Union in the form of an all-day festival of Dragon Boat racing. The races benefit Team Survivor Northwest. There will be food trucks, entertainment, and activities for kids. Head down to South Lake Union for the festivities between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Free admission.