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Why Seattle needs a new urban environmentalism

The Joule on Capitol Hill: How not to build a city. Credit: Don Fels and Patricia Tusa Fels

Nearly all talk of the environment in and around Seattle is about the mountains and the sound, rivers and hiking trails. Yet most of us spend a big portion of our time in the urban environment, which has an effect on all of us: our wellbeing, our outlook, our family life, and prospects for our work and leisure. There is a serious disconnect between our collective reverence for the outward “environment,” and our willingness to let the city’s own environment be shaped by developers.

It is especially ironic that Seattle, situated amidst glorious and gloriously complicated ecosystems, leaves the guidance and stewardship of its experiential environment to private developers and their tendencies towards monoculture. It is naïve and irresponsible that we assume their focus is on the overall vitality of the streets and neighborhoods in which their buildings sit.

Instead, the city should be looking creatively and deeply at the land use rules on the books, with an eye towards eliminating or modifying those that don’t foster the complexity of the place. Diversity by design is the key to creating a city that can be seen, experienced, worked and lived in by more of its citizens and visitors.

For a variety of reasons and despite the economic slowdown, Seattle has for some time been experiencing a slew of new mid-rise buildings. Many are poorly designed and built, subtracting more than they add to the environment of the city. This is puzzling.

Seattle has an intelligent, informed citizenry, talented designers, people with wealth to invest, and a compelling and intriguing topography on which to build. Yet we aren’t seeing the importance of how the city is experienced reflected in its new buildings. This tendency toward the uninspired reflects a serious blindside on the part of Seattle’s city planners, politicos, and citizenry. We simply aren’t seeing the importance of shaping how we experience our city; of how and why that matters. The bar has been placed outrageously low, and developers, most of whom are focused on maximizing profits, are simply responding to what is required of them.

We put up with a lousy climate to live here, over which we obviously have no control. It’s baffling why on the other hand we put up with the continued cheapening and selling off of our urban environment. That doesn’t have to be a given.

As many have written over the past century, cities thrive on diversity — not just in the racial or ethnic sense, but also in terms of maintaining a building stock of differing sizes, age, scale, and material. A healthy and diverse collection of buildings means there will be all sorts of people living and working within them; people of decidedly different means and abilities, talents, skills, and desires. It means that people will find widely different goods and services on offer — even within the same block.

The health of a city is linked directly to its density. When the city is attractive and brimming over with diverse possibilities, many come to live and work there; to share in and further generate that plethora of opportunity.

According to the dictates of the Growth Management Act Seattle must make room for increased density. That needn’t be a problem. In fact it could certainly be a good thing, if handled well. But instead Seattle has seen poorly thought-through and poorly executed mid-rise buildings in the name of density, making neighborhoods less interesting and less cohesive throughout the city.

It’s not that these buildings house too many people. It’s that the vast majority do so on an inappropriate scale, without imagination, without finesse, and usually without even a nod to what else already exists there. They look like people warehouses with a few extra touches tacked on.

Replacing all the buildings on a city block with one giant complex created by one developer, though profit-making, is not the wisest way to grow our urban fabric. Just look at The Joule on Broadway, which takes up an entire city block. A six-story apartment complex, The Joule includes large retail spaces on the ground floor facing Broadway. The designers articulated the façade and changed surfacing material to create the illusion of distinct retail spaces, but no one is fooled into thinking that this is anything other than one enormous building.

Directly across the street sits another mixed use six-story apartment complex. The only difference: This structure takes up only a portion of the block. Thanks to the differing scales of buildings on the block, the historic rhythm of the facades on Broadway is preserved. And in turn, different-sized storefronts have attracted a wider assortment of retailers.

The block of Pine between 11th and 12th is another example of successful integration. Here an older brick structure anchors the west end, neighboring a new six-story building, which flanks an original two-story building.  On the east end is another new four-story. Turning the corner to 12th, a series of one-story original buildings have been renovated. The entire ensemble reflects different times, different styles, and adds to the great diversity of Capitol Hill. It’s a popular meeting place, a place where people want to be.

As a populace, we seem disengaged from preserving the complexity of the urban environment as compared to those of our wetlands orthe Cascades. Seattle could use up-front development requirements to make sure that the city gets more than just copy-cat new buildings. Yet we hear that the hands of the regulators are tied, that the city cannot take away the sacrosanct rights of those who own and/or wish to develop their property. This makes no sense.

The city legislates all sorts of proscriptive laws and codes, but it seems that very little effort has been made to legislate and enforce the quality of the community environment. When we face a problem with set constraints, the solution is almost always more interesting and creative than when faced with a blank slate.

Still, even when we fully accept its importance, the ‘quality of the urban environment’ is a vague and relative term. How could it actually be considered in guidelines for construction or land use? For a start, let’s get rid of some of the inherent inconsistencies extant in the way the city approaches buildings. On paper, the city of Seattle favors green building practices and gives credits to builders that employ them. Why then do neither the city’s land-use code nor certification schemes like LEED buildings give demerits when a building is torn down?

According to a recent report from the Preservation Green Lab, it takes between 10 and 80 years for a new building, even an energy-efficient one, to recoup the outlay of carbon required to build it. Since most of the mid-rise buildings going up in Seattle are being built of materials with only a 20-year life expectancy, few if any will in fact become carbon-neutral in their lifetime. Compare this with an older building that has long since outlived the expenditure of energy necessary for its construction. Why aren’t builders required to offset new carbon outlays when tearing down an existing building and replacing it with a new one?

The city could also offer builders wanting to avoid the cost of carbon offsets another choice: building structures with variations in height, set backs, income level, retail size, and rental rate. Re-habing or re-using buildings would have the extra benefit of providing a variety of scale, massing, and materials, putting to shame the articulated block-sized buildings that pretend to be what they are not.

There are other deterrents to variety and reuse that should be adjusted too: Developers looking to add to an existing building must provide parking (with some exceptions for historic buildings and special transit zones), which means they’re often forced to demolish the building in order to meet parking requirements.

The Growth Management Act seeks to maximize the existing investment in such things as utilities, roads and sewers by adding growth where those services already exist. Currently about 65 percent of Seattle is zoned for single-family use. Surely there is capacity for growth in neighborhoods that already have these facilities, but it has taken decades for the city to begrudgingly accept accessory dwelling units (ADUs) like cottages and apartments in some neighborhoods. Today it agrees to do so only when the owner of the house lives there and builds a mother-in-law apartment.

This rule is supposed to protect neighborhoods from out of control numbers of renters, but in practice it means that other neighborhoods — almost always those that house people of lesser income and influence — take it in the shins. Enormous, block-long complexes take out big swaths of existing smaller homes. Wouldn’t it be better for Seattle’s overall quality of life to spread increased density more equitably throughout the city?

The city’s strict reliance on its ever-thickening land use code makes it very difficult for a property owner to respond to unique conditions and/or come up with a looser, more creative approach. If, on the other hand, the developers follow the book, the city gets out of the way, believing that they’ll naturally come up with what’s best. Having left these decisions to the building department for decades, who have in turn bequeathed them to the developers, the present approach has a decidedly mixed record.

Though a serious reappraisal of the land use code would be a fine idea, it may well not be sufficient. The code is a blunt instrument, and does little to uphold and deliver a broad urban vision. Perhaps it’s time to try something completely different, some sort of organized, binding, community-based approach that allows neighborhood representatives and developers to make difficult choices alongside one another.

At worst, this kind of experimentation would lead to the construction of more uninspiring structures. Or, with luck, thought, goodwill, and an eye on the big picture, Seattle could begin to foster the kind of architecture and streetscapes worthy of its spectacular setting.

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