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Where ya going, South Lake Union?

South Lake Union is developing rapidly. Credit: Transit Nerds

Who would have thought that South Lake Union, an area once known for acres of mostly-empty parking lots, florist warehouses and commercial laundries, would become — almost overnight — just about the hottest new address in the city?

Think about the incredible transformation. When I first went to work in South Lake Union during the “Mad Men” era of the late 60s, it was a neighborhood long neglected by the city. It had few amenities, save Denny Park, the city’s oldest park and, not incidentally, a former graveyard.

Parts of South Lake Union were so low-lying and poorly drained that the streets flooded during rainstorms. I kept a pair of rubber boots in the back of the car. They were needed when I waded to work.

The old frame building, where I toiled as a part-time bookkeeper keeping track of ad agency finances, was occupied by a commercial printer, Gateway Printing. The agency rented unused offices on the third floor, reached by a set of well-grooved wooden stairs.

Our digs were so low rent that one of the agency artists was pressed into service vacuuming the dusty old floor. There were strange surprises. When we moved in, we discovered a mound of old U. S. Navy peacoats in a storage closet. There were pallets of old printed materials — dusty playbills for local movie houses, dating back to the teens.

One of our daily distractions — short of making mediocre coffee in an aluminum urn — was to peer out the seldom-washed windows toward Westlake North, where city crews were endlessly digging up the streets. One day they jackhammered the pavement. The next day they repaved and, the following day, the intersection flooded once again. It was like a public utilities training course.

I spent three years in South Lake Union before the agency finally found more convenient office space on Eastlake. But I returned some years later — the 1990s — to work at the Seattle Times.

The neighborhood was still a forgotten backwater, although it had gained a few amenities, most as the result of a proposal to turn the area into a new Central Park known as The Commons. Unfortunately, perhaps, the idea failed at the ballot, not once but twice. Opponents said that the park’s central green space would be a playground for well-heeled urban dwellers in high-rise condos.

When I joined the Times as a columnist, I was assigned a space in one of the outlying parking areas, a distance of about three blocks. We called them the “rape lots” for good reason: It was scary to walk there at the end of a dark winter day, passing an impromptu homeless encampment.

On the other hand, a real neighborhood flourished in the area between Fairview and Eastlake. Much is still there: the historic Emmanuel Lutheran Church, the onion-domed Greek Orthodox Church, the compact Cascade Park and an adjacent day care. There were also several brick apartment dwellings, what we now know as “affordable housing.” That’s essentially where we were in 2003 when I left the area to run for office.

In just a short decade, the area to the West of the Cascade neighborhood has morphed into a metropolis. Biotech buildings sprouted overnight. A waterfront park, a trolley and a fabled museum were born. Amazon established a beachhead. Vulcan — left with property surplussed when the Commons was abandoned — developed dazzling commercial buildings, elegant residential complexes and enough four-star restaurants to wow top chefs nationwide.

South Lake Union grew from warehouses to urban showcases in just over a dozen years. Without a doubt, it is the Seattle miracle of the 21st Century. Not since the Tons of Gold ship arrived from Alaska in the 1890s has anything that momentous occurred in Doc Maynard’s and Arthur Denny’s hometown.

And now we, the city officials, must decide what more we can or should do to preserve South Lake Union’s gains and, at the same time, not destroy the urban roots of one of the city’s oldest communities.

There are many questions that we have been mulling over since the beginning of the year. Although the South Lake Union rezone was been in the planning stages for the last eight years, it is only since the first of the year that the City Council and the citizens have been fully engaged in the critical land use planning.

Among the questions are: What heights should be allowed in the fan-shaped area abutting Lake Union? Ought there to be thin towers, a la Vancouver? Or should there be chunky bread-box shaped structures, allowing for maximum floor space? Should the park be overshadowed and towers be allowed to obscure views of the Space Needle and shadow the new expensively developed South Lake Union Park? And what will become of Cascade, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods?

Finally, there’s the matter of whether and how developers, who stand to reap millions in property values from a potential upzone, will share the benefits with the public. The customary way they can do this is through incentive zoning fees for the right to build increased height and bulk. Fees required a decade ago have not been adjusted for inflation and it seems likely the city will require an increase. How much? Difficult to say. To set fees too low would reduce the numbers of affordable units; to set them too high risks developers walking away from desirable projects.

What the city needs is more work-force housing to accommodate workers who will be employed in jobs in the South Lake Union area. It’s figured that many hundreds more affordable units will be needed to meet the city’s growth management goals.

However these questions are decided — and they will be in the next few weeks — they will set the scene for the region in the next few decades, maybe even the next hundred years. Seattle and South Lake Union are now magnets for the nation — a projected increase in jobs that will draw talented new residents to our city. It’s an astonishing turnaround after the dismal recession years. We welcome the prospects and hopefully will meet them with wise decisions about our legacy for the future.

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