Why Seattle's future depends on low-rise, older neighborhoods

A new report says diverse, low-rise districts beat new, high-rise ones at fostering creativity and attracting young residents.
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Georgetown Pharmacy

A new report says diverse, low-rise districts beat new, high-rise ones at fostering creativity and attracting young residents.

Urban advocates have been questioning whether historic preservation is a good thing for cities. Some argue that anything other than maximum densities hurts the environment and makes cities less affordable. You want low rents? Be like Singapore.

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has argued that preservationists have gone too far, saying that historic districts "freeze" cities and that older, smaller buildings need to be replaced by high-rises. "No living city’s future should become a prisoner to its past," he has written.

But the idea that older parts of the city are "frozen" is challenged by a new study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Green Lab. In a just-released report called "Older, Smaller, Better," the Green Lab researchers looked at the very kinds of districts Glaeser and others would like to redevelop and found that they were in fact the most vibrant, diverse parts of their respective cities.

Preservationists have made such arguments for years, and have pointed to the vitality of historic Main Streets around the country as examples. In Seattle, we have the Pike Place Market Historic District. The market survived due to citizen pushback against urban renewal orthodoxy of the '60s. In fact, Friends of the Market, the grassroots group that spearheaded the effort is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

There is empirical data to defend preservation. Green Lab has been making the argument that building rehabilitation and conservation can and does plays a huge role in sustainability. They've been working with Vulcan on a demonstration project to that end in South Lake Union, the landmark Supply Laundry Building, a part of the Stack House project. The Supply Laundry Building recently won recognition from Historic Seattle for is data-driven eco-innovations. But often much of the defense of preservation has to do with the "feel" of places, or hard to define neighborhood character.

Few people disagree with the idea of saving particular historic landmarks, but the question is, What about commercial districts that can be dramatically redeveloped with greater densities for transit? What about neighborhoods with lots of retail activity which are low-rise, bustling and often full of buildings that are charming and/or useful, but not historic on their own? You see this all over Seattle, from Columbia City to the U District, from Broadway to Ballard.

So, the Green Lab study pushes back with new data — they boast using more than 40 metrics — to attempt to quantify comparisons between largely new development zones and mixed or old-style lower-rise commercial areas. They've analyzed three cities in depth: San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Seattle because they are robust real estate markets and have the kinds of districts — commercial and historic — that are at the center of urban debate.

The Green Lab laid grids over the cities and collected detailed data on the age and scale of buildings, the number of jobs in each area and the kinds of businesses there. They looked at walkability and transit use, business ownership, the use of social media, nightlife, etc. They even have one that measure’s a district’s “granularity” (the number of separate buildings in a given area).

What they found is that older districts — take Pike-Pine on Capitol Hill — have fewer chain retailers and restaurants, are more active around the clock (e.g. greater numbers of people using Flicker or making cell phone calls after 10 p.m. on Fridays), have more jobs per commercial square foot than newer development, and have more new businesses than average in the city. A key element is not just old vs. new but having a built environment with variety. Pike-Pine is growing up, but there's a lively mix and the slate isn’t being wiped clean to make way for maximum deveopment. Pike-Pine and its counterparts are the neighborhoods where people like to sit in outdoor cafes; these are the places with the strongest street life; these are the neighborhood that attract the most creative folks.

The report found in all three cities that the median age of residents in such districts is lower than the city at large, and conclude that "young people love old buildings." The older districts tend to attract more creative start-ups — older buildings have more new businesses and more minority and women-owned businesses than areas that are concentrations of new development, which makes sense when you look at what's been happening in South Lake Union, the Denny Triangle or SoDo vs., say Georgetown.

Many of Seattle's low-rise commercial corridors still follow the routes of the old streetcar lines that were in place during the city's early 20th century urban boom. They were the original transit-oriented developments. That legacy can be built on, but doesn't necessarily require wholesale makeovers. Such neighborhoods have proved to be very resilient over time, in part because the mix of residential and the retail has been so diverse.

The report does contain some warnings for Seattle. In looking at the International District, it notes a couple of major worries. One is the impact of new city requirements for seismic upgrading of so many of the brick buildings there. Another is a new law that will require a stricter vetting of rental units that might be pressure on building owners to upgrade — including family and community associations that might be hard-pressed to fund improvements.

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Seattle's Historic Chinatown Gate. Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons

Another concern is the development pressure that could come from the Yesler Terrace makeover where some 500 low-rise, low-income housing units will eventually be replaced by 5,000 high-rise ones. There will also be pressure on the ID from nearby SoDo and Stadium District development. "It seems clear that the neighborhood is on the cusp of major changes," it concludes in regard to the Chinatown/International District. The Green Lab study authors recommend that the city work with owners to reinvest in the neighborhood, or otherwise face the possibility of a significant number of demolitions.

Reports like this could have an impact on the thinking of urban planners. It won't be so much a matter of saving architecture for its own sake, but more about nurturing built environments that help people flourish— and cultivating districts that don’t have too much of that new car smell.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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