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Best of 2011: How Seattle grew itself a new 'downtown'

Seattle's Central Business District(CBD) is increasingly spelled SLU. Here's an account of the remarkable, somewhat accidental rise of a hot commercial and residential zone called South Lake Union.

The courtyard outside the Van Vorst Center on Terry Avenue N. offers seating for Amazon employees and the public.

The courtyard outside the Van Vorst Center on Terry Avenue N. offers seating for Amazon employees and the public. Courtesy of Amazon.com

The boomerang-shaped buildings of the Gates Foundation's new campus sit at the northeastern edge of the Seattle Center.

The boomerang-shaped buildings of the Gates Foundation's new campus sit at the northeastern edge of the Seattle Center. George White

Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we are looking at coverage of the changing Northwest. This story, by Crosscut Editor-in-Chief David Brewster, first appeared August 29.

One of the recurrent trends in Seattle history is the way its downtown business district keeps migrating northward. This leapfrogging has happened three times now, the most recent being the creation of a whole new downtown at South Lake Union. As Danny Westneat notes in a column in The Seattle Times, this spectacular success story has been little noted or celebrated. Maybe that's because we're not sure we like what we got?

Short history. Downtown began as Pioneer Square, which had drainage problems and got built out in the early 1890s with buildings that were pretty stubby. Next stop: Second Avenue around Columbia, where we built a financial district in boom period before World War I. Then came the big leapfrog by the department stores, led by Frederick & Nelson in 1918, looking for cheaper land to expand their offerings, and so our downtown crossroads became Fourth and Pine.

The new hot zone is South Lake Union, with iconic companies and their campuses such as the Hutch, Amazon, a whole research complex of the University of Washington, and the Gates Foundation.

Three factors made this happen, though I'm not sure we knew what we were doing. The first was the 1989 initiative (called CAP, for citizens' alternative plan) to cap the height of tall office buildings in the heart of the central business district. People like former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck were wary of dark, windy canyons, and those who had built the new towers were desirous of protecting their views and high lease rates. So the cap was installed and the safety valve of much higher buildings to the northeast, the Denny Triangle, was given as compensation. Up went the new buildings, mostly condos, in that northerly direction.

The second factor was the Seattle Commons proposal in 1995 for a 61-acre park south of Lake Union, as a magnet for upscale residences and commercial development. The public rejected the plans (twice), but the high-profile battles put the region into play, though the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center and REI had already discovered it. The Commons battles also brought Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen into the game. Allen had given the Commons $20 million to be able to buy key properties before land values zoomed upward, and the land thus purchased reverted to him when the voters nixed the Commons. Suddenly we had an inadvertent developer named Vulcan, loaded with cash and ideas, on the scene.

The third factor, less publicized, was the desire of the University of Washington to develop a kind of research campus and technology incubator along the lines of the Stanford Research Park. South Lake Union, with the Hutch already there and fairly easy to get to from the UW, became the place, with the initial focus on biomedical companies. That gave Vulcan a big, well-heeled tenant, and up went more buildings.

Mayor Greg Nickels, who had studied at the UW, was an eager partner, probably more to help UW and the technology transfers it was stimulating than to help Vulcan. A kind of deal was worked out, or stumbled upon, where Vulcan was the lightning rod for criticism while the UW moved quietly into the neighborhood.

Nickels also accelerated the rise of SLU by refusing to allow such new-economy development in two other competing areas, Interbay (between Queen Anne and Magnolia) and SoDo (south of Downtown and the stadiums). Previously, Mayor Paul Schell had cleared out the traffic patterns around the defunct Bay Freeway, helping rationalizs the scattered Vulcan holdings and prepare the way for Lake Union Park.

Eventually all these forces, along with the real estate bubble of 2002-08, combined into a kind of chain reaction. Amazon committed to the area, as did the Gates Foundation. Vulcan found its stride and was dominant enough to provide a kind of master plan for the area. You know you have a new hot zone when Tom Douglas begins opening new restaurants every block!


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Dec 31, 8:21 a.m. Inappropriate

The fourth factor that made SLU "happen" is the stunning architectural mediocrity of the vast majority of its new buildings. SLU could have been a showcase for architectural creativeity (think Zona Diagonal Sur in Barcelona and buildings such as Torre Agbar, ZeroZero), but instead we got stuck with a cluster of monotonous beige or grey boxes that are only one step up from tilt-up concrete warehouses, many of which have still high vacancy rates. And as much as its boosters hype SLU, the fact is it's a ghost town at night.

Mud Baby

Posted Sun, Jan 1, 9:14 a.m. Inappropriate

The irony is that whatever was in South Lake Union that made it at all cool will get pushed out when their buildings are demolished for re-development or their rents exceed their cash flow.

Think of what's down there that you like, and say good-bye to it. Whole Foods will be there, but it's less clear if small locally-owned businesses will survive.

coolpapa

Posted Mon, Jan 2, 1:38 p.m. Inappropriate

coolpapa,
Those unhappy with the ever-advancing tentacles of Shock and Awe might wish to resolve this new year to personally no matter how small, transform Occupy's free floating grouchiness into understandable and effective rejection of any one of the many unacknowledged negative consequences of the steady advance of corporatism.

Other choices? 1) learn to love the neocon-neoliberal occupiers and keep your nose clean or 2) make do with membership in Brewster's menagerie of "grumps." ORIGIN early 18th cent.: imitating inarticulate sounds expressing displeasure. http://crosscut.com/2011/12/24/politics-government/21717/12-good-things-that-happened-the-past-year/

afreeman

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