Genuflecting to the high rises

Let's not get too giddy and forget to examine these supposed architectural marvels – before they're built.
Crosscut archive image.

The twin condo towers planned for Fifth Avenue, across from the Westin Hotel. (Ishmael Leyva Architects)

Let's not get too giddy and forget to examine these supposed architectural marvels – before they're built.

We've been treated, if that's the word, to two recent examples of architectural hype. That's when a developer gives a newspaper an exclusive about a socko new project, complete with handsome drawings that obscure what the project will really look like. The newspaper obligingly cheers right along.

The public, later when it's too late, gets upset.

A classic example appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which on Tuesday, Feb. 12, fronted the business section with announcement of two hotel-condo towers planned for across Fifth Avenue from the Westin's two "corn-cob" towers. We get a shower of superlatives: $900 million, according to the New York financiers, 550 feet tall, 200 hotel rooms, and 400-500 condos.

But not to worry: These massive buildings will be "designed for neighborhood," meaning shops along the streetfront. The developers, with the engaging name of Hummingbird Advisors, are going to take a pretty dead block and "make it into a vital, vibrant pedestrian area." Of course, much of the lower level will be a blank wall concealing hotel ballrooms, but that's OK because the Monorail already blocks those views. (The architects' drawing artfully turns the Monorail into gossamer.)

Feeling patronized? There's more. Ishmael Leyva Architects of New York was chosen as architect "not because we don't like Seattle designers, but becasue we feel Seattle is ready for something that's more edgy, more 'out there,'" according to Alec Carlin, who appears to be chief Hummingbird. Leyva is a Mexican-born celebrity architect who specializes in high-end work, such as Meryl Streep's Tribeca apartment, and outsized amenities. This is going to be a very New York kind of project, like much of downtown Seattle.

The other example, in The Seattle Times on Monday, Feb. 11, was the slightly less breathless announcement of a faceted glass office tower at Fifth Avenue and Columbia Street, looming over the rescued United Methodist Church. A lovely drawing makes the tower look slender and almost transparent.

In fact, it's huge, at 660 feet, far taller than the 33-story building the church once proposed for the site or the 450-foot zoning allows. But not to worry: It's slender at the bottom and all that reflective glass is said to be "genuflecting" to the old church. A pretty intimate genuflection, it would appear, since the building widens out and hangs over the adjoining old church and nearby Rainier Club. The article says it comes within four feet of touching the top of the sanctuary roof. Architects in this case are the respected Portland firm of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, and Nitze Stagin is the local developer.

The developer deserves credit for coming up with a scheme to save the old sanctuary (no uses have yet been found), but one wonders at the tradeoffs. A few years hence, if not already, we are going to wonder why downtown Seattle has become such a lightless, windswept, glassy canyonlands. But more vibrant? The office tower will be mighty quiet evenings and weekends. And the amenities of the new condo-hotel towers (open-air arboretum, lots of recreation space) may turn these abodes of "urban aspirationals" into self-contained zones.

Few questions are asked, at least in time to change things. The reason for all this genuflecting is the alliance of environmentalists, enchanted by the density created; developers eager to cash in on Seattle's "underpriced" real estate market; low-income housing advocates, who get millions in mitigation payments from these luxury towers; and City Hall, salivating over the tax receipts.

But now there is some sign that the ecodensity coalition is beginning to feel some internal splits. A good illustration is Vancouver, B.C., where residents are grumbling that the amenities supposed to make all this density tolerable (libraries, transit, affordable apartments) are just not showing up.

Now they tell us!


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