December 19 2013

How Hidden Architectural History Shapes Seattle’s Downtown

Louis Sullivan famously stated “Form follows function.” One of the main functions of a downtown building should be to be usable to the public. In Seattle, this is done through privately-owned public spaces and architectural nuances. Sometimes this is obvious; but often the best public spaces are in hidden places.

Public Space near the Seattle Art Museum

The Seattle Architecture Foundation leads a tour called “Hidden Spaces/Public Places.” This tour opens up the city in new ways that may otherwise go unnoticed. It showcases a variety of privately-owned public spaces, or “POPS” for short, that are connecting buildings with people. A Privately-Owned Public Space includes things such as public restrooms, retail space, and subsidized housing. It also could include a small sitting area or a large plaza, such as the popular Two Union Square (pictured below) where summer concerts are often held.

The tour started at the 580 foot City Centre, a commercial office building that coexists with public use. The impressive postmodern lobby connects with the outside through large windows (urban designers refer to this as porosity). Once inside, the building offers amenities such as magnificent Chihuly glass artwork, comfortable sofas, a shopping mall, and three Starbucks stores.

A popular summer venue at Two Union Square Seattle

My favorite, however, are the places that get overlooked. A bench in a well-landscaped area, hidden behind a nondescript building and removed from crowds, can be an ideal place to relax. This experience is made possible by privately-owned public space.

Often, the public use of private space is created through monetary incentives and bonuses. The tallest building in Seattle, the Columbia Center, was originally zoned for fifty stories; but it eventually reached seventy-six stories. Sitting on a slope, the building provides street accessed retail on the first three floors, a loophole responsible for the bonus height. Fortunately, the seventy-sixth floor is an observation tower, so everyone can enjoy the view.

Generous bonuses from the city in exchange for public amenities, however, prompted some action from critics. In 1989, shortly after the Columbia Center was built, Citizen’s Alternative Plan was initiated which put growth limits on Seattle’s skyscrapers. Today, it is more common that land-use planning will require public amenities with new development, without the bonus. Still, a strong partnership between the city and private developers is an effective tool for creating more inclusive places.

A small relaxation area near the Seattle Public Library

The incorporation of private ownership with public goods is an important aspect of urban planning. When public parks aren’t enough, private developers should be incentivized to include small pockets of public places. The only challenge is you may have to search to find your favorite spot. Are there enough public spaces in your downtown?

Credits: Images by Colin Poff. Data linked to sources.

Colin Poff

Colin Poff is a recent graduate from Western Washington University where he studied Political Science and Economics. He currently interns at the City of Redmond, where he is providing research and analysis for the long-range planning department. While traveling in Europe and in China Colin became a critical observer of modern cities, and curious about how policies can be crafted to facilitate economic development with community values in mind. In his career, he would like to make cities more dynamic and livable by encouraging mixed-use areas and people-focused design. Next fall, Colin intends to pursue a Masters in Urban Planning. When he is not in the city, you can find him in the mountains, skiing with his friends.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, December 19th, 2013 at 9:04 am and is filed under Architecture, Colin Poff, Community/Economic Development, Environmental Design, Government/Politics, History/Preservation, Land Use, Landscape Architecture, Urban Development/Real Estate, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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