Seattle Post-Intelligencer architecture critic Lawrence Cheek makes some excellent observations about the new urban renaissance of residential high-rises in downtown Seattle, praising design qualities of the recently completed 5th and Madison Tower, one the first residential high-rises to be completed after the new downtown code was adopted by the city in 2006. "5th and Madison confirms that we're back in a healthy and agreeable phase of high-rise fashion," Cheek writes. But he also raises some very legitimate issues about tower spacing and separation:The more of these towers that sprout downtown (and likewise in Bellevue), the less view remains for each resident and office tenant. The Seattle skyline may look increasingly impressive from the deck of the Bainbridge ferry, but it's not so enchanting from inside the thicket. Nine new towers are under construction downtown, and there are 25 more undergoing permitting or design review. When the view consists mainly or entirely of other buildings, is there any point to it? Traditionally, yes – the fundamental rationale for the American skyscraper has always been to express power, wealth and urbanity. Seattle, though, is different – or at least it used to be. Our great value resides in the city's natural setting, not in its buildings. Here, density extracts a penalty that doesn't exist in, say, Minneapolis or Dallas.
In 2006, I led the City Council's legislative process to develop the Downtown Livability Plan and related zoning changes that have spawned many of these new residential high-rises. But even then, I raised the very same concerns as Cheek raises today about tower spacing – that over time, too many towers spaced too close together would create negative impacts of view blockage, shadowing, and privacy invasion.
I first proposed 85 feet minimum separation between towers, but over the course of the public debate, developers fought back hard, claiming that tower separation requirements would give first-in-the-door developers unfair advantage over latecomers and constitute some form of a property-taking (god forbid!). Well, that was enough to scare off my political support on the council, and tower spacing, while not scrapped, was diluted down to 65 feet and eliminated altogether in some areas such as the downtown office core. In true Seattle style, the Department of Planning and Development created a citizen task force subsequently to examine tower spacing, and I guess hindsight isn't always better than foresight – and certainly not in this case.
And what does all this say about quality of urban living in Seattle? Maybe it's a natural evolutionary process we're seeing – a ratcheting down of the "luxury factor" of downtown living. And is Seattle's downtown at risk of becoming, as Cheek says, "too dense, too crowded"? Developers quick to profit from the boom in urban living, take heed! These problems aren't going to go away and will likely get worse, unless something is done to strengthen the code.