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Seattle: If this is a bust, what will a boom look like?

During the economic downturn, the city and region have been setting the stage for the next boom.

The original grand scheme, with conceptual "folds" at the Ferry terminal and south.

The original grand scheme, with conceptual "folds" at the Ferry terminal and south. City of Seattle/James Corner Field Operations

A construction crew poured a slab of the new First Avenue S. sidewalk at Railroad Way S. in Seattle's SODO neighborhood.

A construction crew poured a slab of the new First Avenue S. sidewalk at Railroad Way S. in Seattle's SODO neighborhood. Washington State Department of Transportation

In announcing the proposal for a new "self-funding" SuperSonics arena in SoDo last week, Mayor Mike McGinn and King county Executive Dow Constantine were careful to couch it in recession terms: this project could bring thousands of good-paying jobs to Seattle, helping to lift us out of the worst economic times since the Great Depression.

Seattle is no stranger to boom and bust cycles; from timber to the Klondike to Boeing's ups and downs to the dot-com bubble, we've been riding rainy roller coasters for decades. We're also familiar with slow recoveries and malaise. In the late 1950s when the Logan and Norton buildings were erected they were the first major private downtown office buildings built since the Depression. The World's Fair was an attempt to boost the growth rocket after 20 years in the doldrums.

For growth and economic boosters, good signs were in abundance last week. Amazon is buying three blocks of Clise property in the Denny Triangle with the idea of putting up three high-rise office towers with 1 million square feet of space each, plus options to buy more lots in the area. This just as Bezos & Co. are settling into their new South Lake Union headquarters nearby. Boeing orders are strong, and the 737 production has been assured for the region due to an innovative labor agreement that commits to place. The possibilities of getting a National Basketball Association franchise back in the city and the potential of attracting a new National Hockey League franchise into a new venue are just frosting on the cake. Yes, there were grumbles —there always are —but you could almost feel a spring in the city's step.

That's not all, of course. During this bust we've also approved a massively expensive tunnel project under downtown. The state is also moving ahead with its plan for a bigger 520 corridor and bridge. The seawall project looms, as does an unprecedented re-visioning of the city's face to the world, the waterfront. A huge new development for the North Lot at the football stadium has been approved that will bring thousands of new residents to Pioneer Square, SoDo, and the stadium district, capitalizing, it is hoped, on the rewired transportation corridor. And progress on light rail to the north and east is being made.

In the meantime, Seattle Center is still headed for a makeover. The Chihuly Garden and Glass project is slated to open this spring. The "Next 50" marking of the world's fair hasn't jelled as initially hoped (there's been little success in raising public or private funds for it), but the prospective basketball arena project could advance ideas for what to do with the Sonics-less Key Arena, and the Seattle branch of the American Institute of Architects is running a Next 50 urban design competition that has invited architects from all over the world to come up with ideas for what to do with the nine acres at "heart" of the Center adjacent to and occupied by Memorial Stadium. What will the next generation of public space look like? Finalists will be presented and exhibited in May. And don't forget the renovations to the Pacific Science Center, which will be hosting a potential blockbuster King Tut exhibit this summer, harkening back to a previous Center revitalization in the summer of '78.

On top of that, plans are being laid to grease the skids for a real-estate revival. The city's tax base is heavily dependent on growth and development. In Olympia, legislators are looking at "streamlining" the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), which looks at the environmental and heritage impacts of projects. Developers want fewer rules, a shorter checklist, and more speed to the process. Slow economic times give them some leverage to try and wriggle out of regulations.

Seattle has undertaken a re-evaluation of its development rules with the idea of making them more flexible and, from the developer's perspective, less onerous. Pushing height limits is also on the agenda, not just for neighborhoods like Roosevelt but also South Lake Union where Paul Allen's Vulcan wants to go higher. The city is considering allowing residential high-rises to go up to 400 feet, about two-thirds the height of the Space Needle.*


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Feb 21, 10:56 a.m. Inappropriate

I think the more important question is what will things look like if the EU collapses and/or the U.S./Israel attack Iran.

mikemc

Posted Tue, Feb 21, 11:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Also what will the city look like when gasoline hits $9/gal? Will we be looking at that tunnel wondering what else we could have bought with $2.3Billion? (Or when it goes over budget like it will.)

Except for the new office towers, Basketball, 520 bridge, the downtown tunnel are all solutions for problems of the past. Not much is being done to solve the problems of the future, higher energy costs, rising oceans etc.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Feb 21, 12:27 p.m. Inappropriate

"In the late 1950s when the Logan and Norton buildings were erected they were the first major private downtown office buildings built since the Depression."

Now the Norton building, dear Mossback, is a root that I'd be happy to revisit. Thanks for the reminder.

afreeman

Posted Tue, Feb 21, 1:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Also what will the city look like when gasoline hits $9/gal?

There'll be much less economic activity in this region. Commercial airline orders will evaporate, meaning a spike in unemployment due to Boeing-related layoffs. The costs of marine shipping will explode, meaning far less activity between the Port of Seattle and Asia. It's possible the shipping costs associated with purchasing products on Amazon may make that retail model far less successful. The western economies overall will take a big hit. One manifestation of that here will be far less discretionary vacation dollars being spent by tourists vising Seattle and using hotels and restaurants downtown. The Class A office glut here will worsen. Home and condo prices -- not at the bottom yet -- will head further south.

Oh, and all those rosy ridership projections Sound Transit put out will be proven to be grossly inflated, while the massive local and regressive tax costs it imposes will be impacting the region unabated for decades.

Not much is being done to solve the problems of the future, higher energy costs,

True enough. What could the local government heads do, short of upsetting their base by backing off the grandiose tax and spend schemes that have provided them with careers?

crossrip

Posted Tue, Feb 21, 1:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Making environmental regulations more efficient for small projects is a good thing, when it comes to larger projects perhaps not. This is a subject worthy of at least an article unto itself, cursory treatment such as this is only revisionist history for public mega-projects, specifically the complete avoidance of environmental considerations prior to making that decision.

The Urban Villages density/development strategy was, conceptually, a good idea. However Seattle's record at implementing even the best of good ideas of late is abysmal. I will be interested to see the local feed back to development changes, but with the passing of Kent Kammerer I have to wonder if there is a civic voice in your city worth listening to that has not yet been killed, or bought, off.

Posted Tue, Feb 21, 2:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Amen, Brother Tooley. SEPA was streamlined back in the 90s when compliance with GMA regulations was deemed presumptively satisfactory for environmental review purposes. I doubt that SEPA can survive a further round of recession-induced "regulatory reform". An in-depth analysis of the current developer push to gut SEPA would be a useful project a journal that envisions itself as providing essential information on critical local issues.

woofer

Posted Tue, Feb 21, 10:52 p.m. Inappropriate

With the amount of money now being printed, it might not be too long before gasoline reaches that $9 per gallon level in today's money. In tomorrow's money who knows what it will be? I don't think many people are very aware of just what thin ice we are on regarding the value of the dollar, and the future willingness of the rest of the world to keep on exchanging real, valuable things like oil, for dollars which can be and are being created in unlimited quantities.

Since just about everything depends on oil, and little to nothing is being done to change that, I wonder if we will ever have the luxury of worrying about how to handle the "next" boom.

Posted Sun, Feb 26, 4:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Several incentives to encourage building, especially residential towers, have been put in place during the recession, for example on First Hill. The city's Department of Planning and Development has been hard hit by the loss of permit fees, so they can be expected to be pro-growth as they rebuild their staff. And we now have a significant part of the environmental community, the density- and transit-huggers, who are the developers' best friends on these issues.

What worries me is the continuing weakness of our city's planning department, extending back at least until the 1970s, when urban design issues were melded into social-service concerns. In recent years, the big planning issues, such as the Amazon campus, were deemed too important for the planners and taken into the mayor's office.

Let me add one other big planning opportunity on the table, albeit quietly: that's the University of Washington's desire to take a more active role in reshaping the downtown Metropolitan Tract, raising more money and showing more Husky flags. That project, along with the Clise property in the Regrade that Knute references, could have a big impact.

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