November 07 2013

Zoning Changes Will Take Seattle to New Heights

All great cities are judged by their skyline – including Seattle. Postcards of Seattle will not look the same after newly approved zoning changes take effect all across the South Lake Union Neighborhood as building’s reach new heights. Almost all buildings are currently under 100 feet, but with the newly approved zoning changes this height will now rise to 240 feet, and up to 400 feet along Denny Way. The move is to realize the vision of the area as an “urban center;” but there is some contention surrounding the idea, as you might expect when a neighborhood takes on a new direction. 

Up until recently, the city has maintained relatively low building heights in the area, despite the wishes of developers. New zoning will put the neighborhood at the forefront of Seattle’s growth strategy. According to the city website, the plan could lead to 22,000 new jobs and 12,000 more housing units. The ambitious plan is full of economic promise but skeptics worry that major transformations to the skyline will have unintended consequences.

A crane with Vulcan's name stands above a construction site, South Lake Union, Seattle, Washington

Vulcan Real Estate, founded by co-founder of Microsoft Paul Allen, is leading the charge for rezoning in South Lake Union. The company owns about 30% of the neighborhood and calls the area “the opportunity of a lifetime.”  After initially favoring more modest proposals, the city now carries a more opportunistic tone, citing economic benefits and the need for greater capacity in the area. The new legislation, which creates a mix of residential and commercial space, was adopted in exchange for the necessary amenities to make South Lake Union one of Seattle’s premiere “urban centers.”

There are many potential benefits to increasing the density near Seattle’s downtown. It could absorb much of the impact of an increasing population; avoiding sprawl and pressure on outlying neighborhoods. Companies in the area such as Amazon, which employs 15,000 people in Seattle alone, believe the area can attract talented workers. A growing tax base could allow for investments of up to $28 million in parks and transportation. The city has also agreed to compliment the growth with affordable housing.

As per Seattle’s comprehensive plan, it seems as though South Lake Union will become the booming center for urbanites it was always destined to be. Some stakeholders, however, are not as at ease with the adopted legislation. Skyscrapers would limit iconic views from multiple neighborhoods. Some are worried that the neighborhood may no longer be viable to middle class families as affluent workers take residence and rents continue to rise. Traffic congestion, already notoriously bad in the area, would be a nightmare if it gets any worse. Overall, opponents are not convinced that Seattle could keep up with the growth.

One of many new building projects, South Lake Union, Seattle, Washington

South Lake Union has potential, and is poised to grow into a flourishing mixed-use area and economic hub. Increasing density downtown is an intelligent move for Seattle. However, in the long run, high growth is trumped by good urban planningTall buildings must be properly spaced, iconic views must be maintained, and the historic neighborhood must conserve character, affordability, and livability.

Do you think South Lake Union’s rezoning plan is a good idea, or would more modest changes be better in the long run? 

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, November 7th, 2013 at 9:31 am and is filed under Colin Poff, Community/Economic Development, Environmental Design, Land Use, 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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