In Defense of South Lake Union (first of a two part series)

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