How to craft a better Seattle

The Future Shack awards suggest some design principles that could help us shape the city and region for the better.
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Boulders at Green Lake

The Future Shack awards suggest some design principles that could help us shape the city and region for the better.

Most people would argue that Seattle has lots of rules for builders and developers, but what about guiding principles? The details of the former and the need for the latter are front-burner because of a variety of changes in the offing.

City Councilmember Sally Clark is leading a review of the city's multifamily code, looking at everything from backyard cottages to parking requirements. She's hoping to have some reforms implemented by the end of the year. It might be a bit like President Obama's health care reform: not a wholesale reinvention, but significant tweaking. But it will shape the rules for those developers who survive bankruptcy and dormancy and emerge to capitalize on the next boom.

The city has two mayoral candidates who are both "pro development." Mike McGinn favors high-rises in neighborhoods, massive density increases citywide, and mass transit. The civic group he founded, Great City, has received lots of developer support from 900-pound gorilla entities like Vulcan. Joe Mallahan thinks that some downtown high-rises aren't high enough (he says they've been built to "sub-optimal" heights) and his campaign donors include many establishment developers including Martin Smith and Martin Selig.

The bottom line is that while there's a construction lull because of the Great Recession and an inability to finance projects, plans are being laid, rules re-made, and the shape of the future will be guided by some new hands.

Looking to that future, by way of what's happening in the present, the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects sponsored a Future Shack competition to recognize projects that reflected in some way the direction things ought to be going. The competition finalists were featured in the Sept. 13 Seattle Times Sunday magazine, Pacific Northwest, and members of the two juries (one professional panel, one a panel of citizens that I served on) that selected the winners presented their findings to a packed house of 350 or so people at Fisher Pavilion.

In the process of reviewing Future Shack entrants and in debating their pros and cons, I felt that some general guidelines and principles emerged. With so many interesting projects to choose from, a defining element in the selection process became, what problem do they solve? There are many ways to increase density, for example. A Soviet-style block of apartments at South Lake Union, neighborhood townhouses, cottage clusters. So, what works better? What are the ideas you'd like to see repeated? Sustainability is a constant buzzword, but how is it defined? In the Future Shack, striving for sustainability wasn't a criteria, it was simply assumed. Of course you're sustainable, but what else?

So here are a few general principles that emerged that shaped my thinking:

Variety: Kent Kammerer, of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition and a member of the citizen's panel, argued passionately for variety. Zoning and building rules, market forces, and planning ideology often drive designers toward a few solutions that can drive, or zone, out creative ideas.

Seattle shouldn't be a city of single-family homes, high-rises, and six-pack townhouses. Planners and designers should accommodate and work creatively in more genres: live/work spaces, boarding houses, residential hotels and motels, mini-houses, trailer parks, etc. The principle is to preserve and expand housing choices, not lessen diversity. In the name of variety, let's cultivate rules that give flexibility to designers and developers, while holding them accountable on design.

One example both juries loved was Sky Ranch, a single 800-square-foot apartment built on top of a warehouse in Ballard. The intriguing idea is that this could be to industrial and commercial areas what the backyard cottages are in residential neighborhoods. It's a way to homestead acres and acres of available rooftops with small units that have great views and lighting, and that take advantage of space that is underutilized without changing the use and character of neighborhoods (Seattle's industrial neighborhoods are among the least dense). Currently, such units are only allowed for building owners or caretakers, but why not experiment with allowing them for other citizens, not just on warehouse roofs, but atop other commercial buildings, even public ones like schools?

Home improvement: There's a dogma that suburbs are inherently bad and that we should focus only on denser, multifamily, mixed-use projects. But 90 percent of our regional growth is outside Seattle, so what about making suburban homes better, smaller, and less isolating, instead of assuming that we should do away with the 'burbs entirely? Future Shack looked at projects throughout the region, and the citizen's panel recognized Danielson Grove, a cottage cluster in Kirkland. Instead of 10 2,200 square-foot homes on two acres, they built 16 homes of 1,500 square feet or less around a village commons that preserves green areas and mature trees. The development is family-friendly, for all ages, and evokes tradition in a place where developments sometimes feel like residential strip malls. Cottage developments like this are popping up throughout the region, from Shoreline to Bainbridge to Port Townsend, and while the most ardent Sierra Clubber might not defend them, they're a step in the right direction in terms of restraining single-family excess and cultivating a sense of community.

Auto immunity: Kevin Cavenaugh, an architect and developer in Portland, served on the professional jury. He said that architects are taught in school that form follows function, but that's wrong. "Form follows parking," he said. Indeed, in Seattle, parking requirements are responsible for ugly, car-centric town home designs that have produced projects that seem to be more about housing BMWs than people. Cavenaugh argued, as many in Seattle have, for what Portland has done: Waive requirements for parking if a development is within 500 feet of a transit stop. This way you get more square-footage for people and offer more choice for those who don't think their cars are a priority, if they have one.

Citizen juror Bob Melvey of Windermere Real Estate warned that architects don't like six-pack townhouses, but buyers do. Even in the recession, they sell, says Melvey. So don't expect them to disappear even if developers are immune from parking requirements. But new types of developments should sprout for those who want a car-free lifestyle or don't mind the Darwinian competition for street parking. The principle here is, don't let cars drive design. The six-pack is definitely on Sally Clark's to-do list of stuff to fix.

Adaptation, not destruction: Angela Brooks, a Los Angeles architect on the professional jury, noted that between the two panels, half of the projects selected had one thing in common: They adapted to the existing cityscape in some way, either by being built on existing footprints, preserving a historic structure, or incorporating an older building into a new, revitalized or denser use.

The 5th and Madison high-rise downtown was built on the site of a drive-thru bank and parking garage which was converted into an attractive tower and public green space that relates to some of the modern landmarks nearby, including the Columbia Tower and the Rem Koolhaas library. The Pantages Apartments on Capitol Hill created dense housing for people with HIV/AIDS, yet incorporated into the project a wonderful turn-of-the-century home. A project called Mambo Palazzo linked an existing 1910 mixed-use structure with a new-mixed use building that marries the old and the new. An important Beaux Arts medical/dental office building, The Cobb, was converted into downtown residential and is an excellent example of adaptive re-use.

Seattle is not a blank slate, and is a city with an important, historic, and (in many parts) a carefully crafted built environment. But there's a tendency not to see it that way. Because of our relative youth and American mobility, and also because greed and Utopianism can be a heady mixture, it's tempting to see the city as a blank slate ripe for erasure. But if we ever want to be the kind of city with old-world charm and richness of a Paris or Prague, if we ever want two-, three-, or four-hundred year-old buildings to carry our collective memory, heritage and culture, the built environment needs to both adapt and age (you can't make it to 400 if you don't first make it to 50 or 100). Future Shack encouraged entrants that blended the new with the old.

It's incredibly important environmentally as well. As Kevin Cavenaugh pointed out, if you took into account embodied energy, The Cobb Building would be LEED Platinum at least. Not only is there a strong cultural argument, but an environmental one too, and a basic principle in shaping the future of design should be encouraging the adaptation of the old and existing to new ideas and needs, especially for structures and forms that aren't historic landmarks per se, but nevertheless an integral part of the urban fabric. We can innovate without using the wrecking ball so often.

Integration: Adaptation is also related to integration, the shaping of streets and neighborhoods in ways that make them work as a whole, as well as in their parts. One project the professional jury liked that the citizen's jury passed on was the Envelope House, a modern, multifamily structure that replaced an old bungalow. The professionals saw it as a beautiful in-fill solution, for others of us it seemed a bit sterile and crowded. However, one thing they did right was making it look great from the street, especially by surrounding it with trees. Trees and glass are among the hallmarks of our regional modernist tradition.

No one is arguing that all new construction should look like the old. The Craftsman-style bungalow clusters get a wee bit twee with nostalgia, and modern structures like the Envelope House absolutely have their place. Drive through Seattle's single-family neighborhoods and you'll see streets of housing from many eras, turn-of-the-century Victorians side by side with 1930s brick Tudors, '50s ramblers, cedar-sided '70s do-it-yourselfers, and '90s skinny houses. This eclectic quality is part of the charm and function of many neighborhoods.

But new development needs to be sensitive to scale, and is more successful if it tries to be a good neighbor rather than telling the community to "screw off." Some architects like to "challenge" neighborhoods, but if projects are in-your-face or out of scale, they can be destructive as well as ugly. They can even sabotage the orthodoxies that created them. I think the huge new high-rise development in the Northgate parking lot is a case in point, likely to spread skepticism about density. Want one of these in your neighborhood, Roosevelt? Or what about those new apartment/condo complexes near Denny and Aurora? Some look like minimum security prisons, unpleasant even for that woe-begotten area.

Integration also has racial and cultural overtones. Seattle has many neighborhoods that once excluded blacks and Jews with covenants. We're also the city that tried to forcibly expel Native Americans and the Chinese. The city is more diverse and integrated now than ever, but all the more reason to be concerned about development's impact on affordability and to pursue strategies that help maintain diversity. Integrating new work into neighborhoods means pursuing policies and designs that don't drive people out of places where they're rooted, it means projects that have egalitarian qualities that make neighborhoods more attractive to a wide range of residents. You might not be able to afford the new condo or townhouse on the block, but if the project provides truly useful open space, or if it cultivates "front porch" culture that makes the street more neighborly, or results in better-designed alleyways for everyone, it's making a positive mark the benefits everyone around it.

Respecting the urban forest: The argument, made by people like Mike McGinn or City Council candidates Mike O'Brien and Jesse Israel, is that you have to build dense in the city, and that sacrificing trees in Seattle is better than cutting a suburban tree. This quickly accelerates into a "density at any cost" type of ideology that will encourage further cutting of the urban forest, even while city policy is trying to re-grow tree canopy. Seattle, of course, logged its old growth forest long ago, but also has a long history of attempting to adapt to and cultivate its ties with nature. KUOW host Steve Scher half-joked the other day on the radio that we ought to let cougars roam the city (as one was prowling Magnolia) instead of trapping them. Why? Because we ought to live with nature, not banish it from the city limits. We should choose cougars over house cats, coyotes over dogs, raccoons over rats. Why can't some of our urban edge be provided by wildlife?

Projects that integrate with nature should be favored over ones that don't. Projects that preserve or enhance animal habitat, native species and tree canopy, for example. It's not enough just to build dense; can you build dense in an ecosystem that acknowledges and nurtures plants and animals? Some of the Future Shack projects nodded in this direction, and deserved encouragement. The Boulders at Green Lake is a multifamily complex that clusters nine, tall homes on a site that had two. It has a backyard commons, and man-made creek, and a mature pine that is a kind of axis point for the development. It's very urban, denser than Seattle average, but it also tries to embrace a more nature-centric view of urban living.

I think design works better if it treats us as if we're part of nature rather than people destined to pave it over. My Ballard ancestors treated trees as grass to be mowed (old growth was "grass" fit for Thor!). That's one reason Ballard to this day is relatively denuded. But I think a Seattle principle should view the human environment more in ecosystem terms, both literally and figuratively. If we can daylight creeks and restore salmon runs, it acts as a measure for how well we're living otherwise, a measure of environmental health. If we're cultivating more tree canopy and saving our older stands, it means we're enhancing air quality, reducing runoff, and respecting Seattle's non-human inhabitants, from slugs to songbirds. Perhaps next year's Future Shack could invite landscape designers to show us ways to deal with habitat. Our design principles should take into account all who live here, not just people.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.