Living By the Lake – Epicenter of a Rapidly Changing Seattle

It has been years since I could go up on my apartment building’s upper deck overlooking Lake Union and not see multiple construction cranes, sometimes as close as a few blocks away. No surprise. Change is roaring through Seattle, nowhere more than around the lake, with the epicenter at its south end.

That area once occupied by car dealerships, wholesalers, warehouses, small shops and working-class housing has, as everyone around here knows, undergone astounding change. A new downtown has grown, fulfilling the vision of city engineer R.H. Thomson in flattening Denny Hill, albeit close to a century after Thomson expected. The area has become, in the words of the Urban Land Institute, “one of the world’s most dynamic urban technology hubs,” a mix of computing and biotech. Amazon, the world’s premier e-commerce retailer and leading web services company, has grown volcanically. From 5,000 Seattle employees in 2010 to 40,000 now, mostly in South Lake Union (SLU) and the Denny Regrade, those numbers are expected to reach 55,000 by 2020. Amazon has as much office space in Seattle as the next 43 organizations combined.

Facebook is in the area, and Google is building a major complex on Fairview at the north end of SLU. There’s a personal and indicative story in the latter that tells a lot of the story of the neighborhood. Back in 1995, I was living in Portland and playing in a political punk band. We came to Seattle for our last club date before we broke up, a play-for-beer gig at the Lake Union Pub, one of Seattle’s funkiest dive bars. The pub was torn down many years ago to become a parking lot. I used to pass it daily on the way to work. Now the new Google-plex is rising above the site. We played near what will be the building’s northeast corner.

Band playing at the Lake Union Pub (not the author’s) photo by Dan10things

Former site of the Lake Union Pub

 

One wonders about an alternative scenario in which Seattle voters approved the Commons in 1995. The large park would have stretched from the southern shore of Lake Union to Denny and been surrounded by an upscale urban village. It was opposed by people who wanted to keep the funky old neighborhood. But that neighborhood is gone, and a much more intense upscaling than was envisioned has swallowed the whole area. The South Lake Union Park that does exist is a jewel, but it does seem like a bet was missed. In any event, Amazon was determined to stay downtown. So the build-up that happened in SLU would have happened somewhere, perhaps in South Seattle, perhaps more into the old downtown.

The effects of growth are spilling across Seattle – rents rising fastest in the country in 2016, and still going up in 2017 though not quite as fast due to a boom in apartment building. A lot of that is taking place in surrounding neighborhoods including mine, Eastlake. It seems virtually impossible to walk down a street in the neighborhood without passing a construction site, usually where a single-family home has given way to multifamily housing. That and city moves to upzone densities have spurred a backlash in the neighborhoods, and lawsuits.

I’m of divided mind. As someone who works professionally on the critical issue of climate disruption, I’ve long opposed autocentric sprawl and supported growing up rather than out. Every gallon of gasoline burned represents 25 pounds of climate-twisting carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere, some of which will last longer than nuclear waste buried at Hanford. Making transit a practical alternative to cars takes a certain amount of density.

We are facing increasing climate impacts, from the fires that filled our air with smoke the last two summers to record storms that ravaged Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico, not to mention the Indian subcontinent and Africa. When low water levels were threatening to put houseboats on the lakebed and cut their utility lines in summer 2015, it was due to lack of mountain snowpack feeding rivers and streams, one of the major climate impacts forecast for the Northwest. As sea level rises, salt intrusion from the Ballard Locks into Salmon Bay and the lake will become an increasing problem. Climate disruption is coming home.

It is clear that the 20th century pattern of a single-family home with parking at the curb for the single-occupant vehicle must yield to 21st century realities, if we care about leaving a world to our children not completely ravaged by a disrupted climate. Replicating the current pattern with electric vehicles will still require tremendous natural resources and leave us in traffic jams. We need cities where people do not need to own a car, and that means density. It also means we must significantly build up transit and other alternatives to make it practical.

At the same time, the quality of much of the new development causes understandable backlash. Much of the architecture, and I can see it on my own block, is aptly described as “prison modern.” It presents a cold face to the street that lacks the soul and convivial feeling of the older houses it is replacing. Much is radically out of scale with surrounding buildings. Large mixed use buildings on main streets price out the funky old retail and restaurants, often replacing it with medical and other offices that don’t promote vibrant street life. In many cases dense development involves losing trees and greenspace as well as precious views. On top of all this, the bulk of new residential development is upscale apartments, while older, affordable housing is being lost. So displacement is an issue. I don’t have all the solutions for this, but we need to address these questions with better standards, and possibly have the city get into the housing development directly. We also need to accept there will be trade-offs for growth.

I have lived nearly 20 years now in Eastlake, nearly one-third of my life. When I first moved to the neighborhood in 1998, the precursors of today’s trends were already present. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute and ZymoGenetics were already on the ground toward the south end of the neighborhood. SLU high tech development was already in sight. Eastlake Avenue had begun to be lined with multi-story mixed-used buildings. The west slope of Queen Anne was already densified. The shape of what we see today was on arrival. It is today’s rapid rate and massive scale of change that is difficult and disturbing.

But change must come, and we must somehow adapt. If there is to be growth, better an Amazon downtown than on a campus on the metropolitan fringe, and better people living in dense, transit-friendly, multi-family neighborhoods than sprawling, auto-dependent suburban subdivisions. The question is not whether or not we will grow. In fact, as one of the least climate impacted areas of the U.S., we will have our own climate refugees. People will actually move to the Northwest for the weather! The question is how will we grow, whether we will preserve equity and amenable neighborhood environments. And nowhere is the question being put more vigorously than around Lake Union.

Do you have any stories or pictures of places around Lake Union come and gone? We’d love to get them and potentially share them on the blog. editors@lakeunionwatershed.com