South Lake Union: Making an urban sustainability model (second of a two part series)

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.”

The Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Patient House at 207 Pontius Ave. North is a LEED Gold Building that offers 80 units of housing as well as amenities, offices and retail. It has won numerous awards including American Institute of Architects Northwest & Pacific Region 2011 Honor Award, and a 2010 Gold Medal from The Building of America Network, 2010

The Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Patient House at 207 Pontius Ave. North is a LEED Gold Building that offers 80 units of housing as well as amenities, offices and retail. It has won numerous awards including American Institute of Architects Northwest & Pacific Region 2011 Honor Award, and a 2010 Gold Medal from The Building of America Network, 2010

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.”

Distinguished by its unusual window design, the tall building at 400 Fairview North is also a standout for green architecture beneath the skin. The Skanska building aims at the top green building rank, LEED Platinum. Compared to a comparable, conventional building, 400 Fairview is designed for reductions of at least 25% in energy use and 40% reduction in potable water use. It employs beams for heating and cooling that are quieter and more comfortable than the standard HVAC systems and use 30% less energy. The building captures and reuses storm water.

Distinguished by its unusual window design, the tall building at 400 Fairview North is also a standout for green architecture beneath the skin. The Skanska building aims at the top green building rank, LEED Platinum. Compared to a comparable, conventional building, 400 Fairview is designed for reductions of at least 25% in energy use and 40% reduction in potable water use. It employs beams for heating and cooling that are quieter and more comfortable than the standard HVAC systems and use 30% less energy. The building captures and reuses storm water.

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.

The Amazon Phase VI building at 515 Westlake Ave. North and 500 9th Ave. North is a LEED Gold building that exemplifies a high performance, energy-saving skin, cross block/mid-block connections, public people spaces and a high quality of landscape architecture.

The Amazon Phase VI building at 515 Westlake Ave. North and 500 9th Ave. North is a LEED Gold building that exemplifies a high performance, energy-saving skin, cross block/mid-block connections, public people spaces and a high quality of landscape architecture.

“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.