A proposal: Combine South Lake Union with the University District

Amazon and Vulcan are ensnared in a familiar mayor-City Council tussle over developer concessions. One way to resolve these problems would be to enlarge South Lake Union and the University District into a large, vibrant, research-based area with its own distinctive flavor and zoning rules.
Crosscut archive image.

One of Paul Allen's buildings in South Lake Union.

Amazon and Vulcan are ensnared in a familiar mayor-City Council tussle over developer concessions. One way to resolve these problems would be to enlarge South Lake Union and the University District into a large, vibrant, research-based area with its own distinctive flavor and zoning rules.

What's been holding up the expected announcement that Amazon is going to build a new campus for itself in South Lake Union? This mega-deal, reported earlier by Crosscut, has turned into a tug of war between Peter Steinbrueck on the City Council and the mayor's office over how much money the developer, Vulcan, should be required to contribute for affordable housing, in exchange for permission to move forward with the large, multi-block project. Steinbrueck also wants to turn the screws a bit more for green-building aspects of the project. "It's the single biggest project by Vulcan," Steinbrueck says. "It will set a precedent for the rest of the area."

This project has been bedeviled by the Vulcan factor. The Paul Allen real estate development company is so big, and Allen is so awkward publicly, that Vulcan has become an all-purpose pinata for populists and various people uneasy about the way great wealth is transforming the Seattle region, for good and ill. Yet from what I can glean, Amazon and Vulcan have been quite responsive to city suggestions for good urban design, lots of streetlife along the streetcar route on Terry Avenue North, and using three architectural firms to create a less monolithic feel to the multi-block development. It's the worst-kept secret in town that Amazon would be the tenant, even though the company still has not signed the deal with Vulcan, according to a well-placed source.

Mayor Greg Nickels and Vulcan chose to negotiate in super-stealth mode, keeping the council out of negotiations and breeding more suspicion and opposition. Nickels' method is not surprising, given the potential for leaks from the council, a chaos of different proposals, and scaring off big tenants. (Eek! The Commons!) Now the negotiations are at endgame, with Steinbrueck and the developer playing brinksmanship, as detailed in an excellent Seattle Times story by Bob Young.

The underlying problem is that the city has declared that South Lake Union is to take large amounts of housing and commercial growth, yet the industrial zoning in the area has still not been changed. That means ad hoc solutions to allow serious density, which critics then define as "spot zoning" or special favors to the mighty. Meanwhile, construction costs keep going up, and even Amazon is probably not willing to just watch the rents soar. Early next month, Steinbrueck retires from his key land use committee chair (Sally Clark is his likely successor), so if the final deal is put off from this week, it gets bucked over to a newly organized City Council, which could mean considerably more delay.

Vulcan says it needs to get started on design work in early 2008 if it's going to have the buildings ready for an Amazon move in 2011. The key City Council meeting is Wednesday, Dec. 12, at 2 p.m., when Steinbrueck's committee will try to work out the final deal. Given the high stakes, a deal seems likely.

Is there a better way to handle the explosive growth in South Lake Union? Here's my proposal. Treat the South Lake Union district, with its mix of biotech, plain tech, University of Washington research overflow, and funky reminders of yore as an enlargement of the University District. In effect, join the two, with Eastlake as the linkage corridor, into a new kind of university-research district. The result is a big sub-city within Seattle, with its own kind of zoning guidelines. Call it SLU-Dub.

An obvious model is Cambridge, Mass. Like my hypothetical SLU-Dub, Cambridge has two nodes, Harvard to the west and MIT to the east. It has a body of water providing some linkage (the Charles River Basin), just as Lake Union does for SLU-Dub. Stanford has an adjoining Stanford Research Park. Philadelphia has a large district around the University of Pennsylvania. Southern Cal in Los Angeles and Arizona State in Phoenix are two other examples of blending universities with urban zones.

Unlike Seattle's present University District, SLU-Dub would be large enough that it is not overwhelmed by one monoculture, the university. It could sustain a rich blend of residences, non-university businesses, and culture – the works. Most university districts are so dominated by a large university that they are mostly just good places for students and university staff. But great university districts, particularly in Europe, are desirable places to live, good places to work (even if not for the UW), and places to consume culture, off campus. They are anchored by a mighty U, but they have a whole lot more. And of course they are economic dynamos in the research economy.

A distinct advantage of an enlarged University District is that it could become a very desirable urban neighborhood. (Everybody in Boston wants to live in Cambridge, with its good schools and vibrant community life, but when was the last time you heard someone in Seattle say how much they wanted to live in the U District?)

Being fairly compact and with lots of jobs and attractions sprinkled all over, these districts become tremendous bicycle and pedestrian zones. Old homes and smaller office buildings are preserved by having special zoning that allows them to be converted into small institutes, with room for cars to park in the back yard and other incentives to save them. Arts groups move into the area, packed with culture-vultures. Nightlife is a given. New businesses seek out the funky buildings to start out, following the Jane Jacobs dictum: "New ideas need old buildings." The place reeks of synergy.

Such an extensive zone can have a different kind of zoning and incentives that work in this zone but would not work in other, quieter Seattle neighborhoods. Politics would still be contentious, of course (think of Berkeley and Cambridge!). But there is a chance for more consensus within SLU-Dub than in the city at large, since it has a very clear model of what it wants to be, what belongs, and what doesn't. Clearing the way for Amazon, for instance, would be a no-brainer. So would saving the University Heights school for all its community uses. As would extending the new South Lake Union Trolley (or SLUT) to The Ave. It might create an affordable housing zone or two, with special incentives for developers who can build to a moderate-income market.

SLU-Dub could also become a testing zone for trying out some more advanced ideas for urbanism. The Complete Streets movement is advocating for streets with narrower traffic lanes, median "refuges," and widened sidewalks for pedestrians, and safely marked bike lanes.

One would think it's a lot easier to introduce advanced ideas like these in a hospitable zone, rather than fighting the whole city over them. Even in Seattle.


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