Why everywhere is “The next South Lake Union"

By Knute Berger
Crosscut archive image.

South Lake Union has become the development model to replicate. But why?

By Knute Berger

South Lake Union is an urbanist bright spot, a soulless scourge and a popular meme.

Seattleites have mixed feeling about what has been wrought there. On the plus side, SLU is ground zero for Seattle’s job growth, boasts major institutional support (Amazon) and comes as close as anything in modern times to a planned urban neighborhood with parks, museums, traffic projects and street cars all built to remake a low-rise, light-industrial neighborhood into an expansion of downtown.

On the downside, the neighborhood is a poster child for corporate welfare, receiving more attention and public benefits than some needier areas of the city. Its rapid development has displaced established businesses and overwhelmed older enclaves like Cascade. The male-dominated Amazon incursion isn’t always viewed as a cultural positive (especially by club owners in Pike-Pine), and for many, the architecture of the neighborhood is cookie-cutter, view-blocking, phony (those facades) and often sterile — a little bit o’ Bellevue. The most organic thing about SLU is the produce section of Whole Foods.

But South Lake Union is also a term that crops up everywhere to describe Seattle’s response to growth and its prospects.

In recent months, you might have heard this from KING-TV: “Sweeping changes are coming to Seattle's University District. The transformation could be similar to the high-tech build-up in South Lake Union.”

Or read Stephen H. Dunphy’s recent story in Crosscut: “Is Ballard The New South Lake Union?” (Answer: Yes, but Ballard hopes to keep a bit of its soul, they say.)

The Puget Sound Business Journal quoted an executive at Paul Allen’s Vulcan corporation earlier this year predicting that in 10 years the former low-income development Yesler Terrace "is going to be kind of like South Lake Union."  The Journal quoted Vulcan exec Ada Healey, saying that “Vulcan made a pitch for Yesler Terrace because it is somewhat similar to what South Lake Union was like 15 years ago. ‘You drove through it, not to it.’" Only Yesler Terrace has better views.

The Biz Journal also reported that South Lake Union buzz is being heard about that notch between Queen Anne Hill and Magnolia Bluff called Interbay: “Expedia’s big move will forever change Interbay, which some see as the next South Lake Union” reported PSBJ, referring to the high-tech company’s relocation from Bellevue to the Amgen campus.

For Ballard, becoming South Lake Union might be a step down. For Interbay, a step up. For the U-District it’s shorthand for the University of Washington’s desire to create The Silicon Ave by turning the university neighborhood into a high-tech start-up 'hood.

For Yesler Terrace, Healey's comments confirm the worst fears about the impact of the redevelopment partnership between Vulcan and Seattle Housing. Critics worry that the ethnically and racially diverse low-income population will be marginalized in its new incarnation.

These are just some of the “next South Lake Union” candidates. Lots of Seattle neighborhoods are facing big changes: high-rise development, tear-downs of working class housing and old warehouses, conversion of properties into their “highest and best use” in a denser urban setting.

A short list of neighborhood makeovers on the boards includes SoDo (a possible new arena and expanded sports entertainment district); Mount Baker (the old Sick’s Stadium/Lowe’s site, adjacent to light rail); Little Saigon around 12th and Jackson (replace bustling Asian strip malls with slicker retail and housing); Uptown (poised to get downtown overflow from SLU); a possible overhaul of Seattle Center; and the James Corner planned downtown waterfront park and development zone. And look for more of the same in West Seattle's Junction, Bitter Lake, Lake City, Othello and Beacon Hill.

You can begin to get a sense of the scale and pace of the expected changes by looking at the new Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the city’s new Comp Plan, which lays out alternative growth plans and zoning strategies for the next 20 years (to 2035). The plan assumes 120,000 net new residents in Seattle in the next two decades, 70,000 new housing units and 115,000 net new jobs. This will edge the city’s population towards 800,000 from its 640,000 mark in 2014.

At this stage there are four growth alternatives outlined:

  1. keep developing as we have been with no major changes;
  2. concentrate development into designated big urban centers (Downtown, South Lake Union, First Hill and Capitol Hill) and larger urban villages (like Ballard);
  3. funnel growth along transit corridors;
  4. focus it, intensely, along current and planned light rail lines.

The underlying questions are do we disperse growth across a broader swath of the city; rely mainly on transit-oriented development; or ask our already existing dense, urban neighborhoods to absorb even more? The market, of course, will have the biggest say.

One way to decide on a strategy is by measuring displacement (of current residents, minority groups, the poor or established businesses). City council member Nick Licata has looked at the alternatives laid out in the DEIS. He argues that none of the four gets it right yet, and that a fifth option, one that minimizes displacement, should be developed.

Licata’s concerns get at one of the problems of going big with the South Lake Union model, which is this: Not only does the SLU approach not work everywhere, it comes with significant impacts on minority and working-class communities. Affordable housing plans (more low income units, more transit) often lag substantially behind the new development and the introduction of rent-reduction strategies. In other words, South Lake Unionism that displaces lots of current residents and existing businesses risks makes affordability much worse for years before — theoretically — it gets better.

Why then is the South Lake Union model the one to replicate?

Ten years ago or so, the urban models all the planners and marketers talked about were Vancouver (let’s pack-in skinny towers and build elevated rail); Portland (the Pearl District!); and Brooklyn. In 2007, just about everywhere in the Puget Sound region was being touted as “the new Brooklyn?” In the late '90s everyone aspired to be the next bio-tech hub. Today it’s the high-tech hub, with South Lake Union, the U-District, Pioneer Square, Interbay and Fremont all vying to be the Redmond of the 21st century.

So when we say, “the next South Lake Union,” what exactly do we mean?

We mean density, rapid planned growth, tech jobs, mass scale development and a neighborhood that is designed to serve both large public and wealthy private interests — often at the expense of smaller, more diverse and eclectic businesses and property owners.

The "next South lake Union" model is synonymous with a major real-estate play. It means “upscaling the city” and increasing the subsidies of such growth through new amenities and services — if we can afford them. One problem with the old Comp Plan over the last 20 years is that we didn't fund many of the amenities we promised. The parks, transit, pedestrian improvements and other enhancements that were supposed to make the urban villages of the 1990s work, never materialized. It seems clear in 21st-century Seattle the market will drive growth, and where it occurs, the city will play catch-up and people in the way will have to move aside.

The next South lake Union model also frames a dilemma: Do we pour resources into a relatively few urban spaces that become the next South Lake Unions and spare other urban villages, especially residential ones, from the big transformation process? Or do we downscale the growth by spreading it around? Do we grow in rich and poor neighborhoods alike, risking more displacement but keeping solutions in the hands of more developers, including small ones, and making the impacts of growth, if possible, more democratic?

Unfortunately, South Lake Unionism implies bigness, newness and growth for-our-own-good delivered by people with clout; a top-down community, not a bottom-up neighborhood. Some cite South Lake Union as an ideal to reach for; others cite it as an approach to accommodate lest it — or something worse — be imposed by city planners.

If many new South Lake Unions are what we want, that’s what we’ll get. Whether it’s a meme, a trend, a code word or a true, replicable model is something we’re going to find out soon enough.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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