On "scale" issue, a battle between neighborhoods and City Hall
This is the story of two buildings. Both are unloved by many of their neighbors, both share the same address. Given Seattle’s rapid growth, with blocks razed and remade within years, they've come to represent a pivot point in the city’s transformation. Because of these buildings, preservationists and opponents of deep changes in neighborhoods – particularly historic ones – are realizing they may have fewer tools at their disposal.
Along Seattle’s once and future waterfront, a clash has emerged between the city’s heritage and its path forward, centered around 316 Alaskan Way South.
Enshrined in the city’s municipal code is a bit of vague language, meant to prevent neighborhoods from becoming a schizophrenic mishmash of building styles and heights: “Exterior building facades shall be of a scale compatible with surrounding structures.” This can refer to a number of concerns, from window width to how “bulky” the building looks. But its central issue is the stature of a proposed building compared with its surroundings.
The Pioneer Square Preservation Board has referenced this idea of scale throughout the past year, as they considered a proposed 120-foot-tall residential building on the corner of Alaskan Way South and South Jackson Street. As its name implies, the board was created to preserve “Seattle’s First Neighborhood," which is on the National Register of Historic Places. After numerous meetings and considerable back-and-forth with developers, the board voted 7-1 to nix the proposal, declaring it a poor fit with the surrounding area, given that nearby structures are only about half its size or less.
“I think what people are responding to when they say ‘out-of-scale’ is that you’re losing some of the finer grain, deeper experiences of pedestrians as they’re walking through a block,” says Dean Kralios, vice-chair of the preservation board and architect at Seattle-based SMR Architects. “I think when you have a historic district, you have to look at compatibility on a broad scale.”
Two weeks after their July 15 vote, however, the board received an extremely rare smackdown. Seattle’s newly appointed Department of Neighborhoods director, Kathy Nyland – a former policy advisor to Mayor Ed Murray – overturned their decision, giving developers the green light despite the board’s near-complete objection.
In an article on Nyland’s move, Seattle Weekly reported that she refused to respond to emails and phone calls asking for an explanation. Nyland calls this a mischaracterization, and describes herself as an open book on this issue.
The preservation board’s vote simply represented a non-binding opinion, she explains. The section of Seattle’s building code referring to “scale” is vague to the point of meaninglessness.
“I think the issue of scale is all subjective and how people interpret it,” says Nyland. Pressed multiple times on whether a building can be out-of-scale while within height limits for its zone, she says scale isn’t a worthy consideration to her, given how “fuzzy” its definition is. There are defined height limits in the city’s code. The approval of buildings “will go to what’s allowable under height limits. That’s the bottom line.”
“There’s always that tension between what you look at and see as the current use, versus the current zoning,” Nyland says. “In my neighborhood this happens pretty frequently. People see a little bungalow being replaced by a triplex, or three condos or townhouses, but the zone allows for that.”
Nyland notes the preservation board only serves in an advisory capacity to the city: “They make recommendations, and we consider them.” Near-unanimous decisions of such boards have been overturned in the past, she says, though she can’t cite any such instances off the top of her head.
In the two weeks between the board’s vote and her overruling of it, Nyland says she consulted with board leaders, read meeting hours, and met with representatives of the proposed building’s developers, Portland-based Gerding Elden. The developers made concessions, she says. These included making “setbacks” to the building’s glassy upper section, which are meant to minimize its appearance of dwarfing nearby buildings.
As far as Nyland sees it, the neighborhood’s maximum height was decided in 2011, when areas of Pioneer Square were up-zoned. That can’t be re-litigated through a preservation board. Stopping a development that’s within height limits is “outside their purview,” she says.
Beyond municipal codes and neighborhood boards, the fight over 316 Alaskan comes down to the two buildings in question, and what they represent to neighborhood residents. The first – slated for destruction – is a dumpy-looking parking structure. Located directly beside the city’s elevated viaduct highway, it’s hidden from view for most locals. That’s a good thing. Splotchy, dark green paint covers the majority of its exterior, which is punctuated by graffiti, chips and cracks in the facade, and old metal.
Opponents of the new Alaskan Way South project usually skirt how decrepit this original building looks, and how little purpose it serves – it’s an old, low-density parking lot. But as mentioned, Pioneer Square is a nationally recognized historic district. The second building in the equation, its replacement, is essentially a huge box made of brick and glass. It is decidedly non-historic looking.
“If something this visually jarring isn’t enough to raise an eyebrow, what is our standard (for being out-of-scale)?” asks Greg Aden, who lives next to the proposed development. “What is the bar? Who will make this determination? And furthermore, who will protect us from the natural overreach of greed, or the misguided belief that all density is green, and all green is good?... We need to focus on the value of history, the value of aesthetics, and what these things mean to society as a whole.”
In its wide expanses of brick and glass, there is actually one nearby structure the proposed building resembles quite a bit: the new headquarters for lumber-chopping corporation Weyerhaeuser. That is currently being built in the heart of Pioneer Square three blocks away, directly beside Occidental Park.
The Weyerhaeuser building is arguably a greater affront to the neighborhood’s historic vibe, given its prominence, block-long size, and the fact it’ll turn the neighborhood’s primary park into its front yard. But few of those opposing the residential tower at 316 Alaskan Way South have expressed a problem with Weyerhaeuser’s new development.
Jen Kelly is the owner of Pioneer Square restaurant Sprout, and a board member of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, which supports the new Alaskan Way development. In her opinion, the city too often sees the neighborhood as a place to work, eat, take historic tours, and traverse on the way to sporting events. But there is little appetite for making it an inviting place to live.
“People aren’t aware that a good amount of residents live here, and that things have been getting worse in Pioneer Square,” she says. “There have been two gun incidents in space of three days recently. One in the middle of the day. With the issues this area faces, we need more people willing and able to move here and take ownership of this neighborhood.”
Kelly largely characterizes opponents of the new development as residents of nearby condo units, who will be losing their views with the new building. She says low-level buildings aren’t necessary to maintain the neighborhood’s character, pointing to the development of Portland’s historic Pearl District as a potential guide.
“I get that people are concerned about height, especially when you own properties and are going to lose your sightlines,” Kelly says. “But you see that sort of concern all over city. That shouldn’t stand in the way of creating new places for people to live… New restaurants aren’t going to change the neighborhood, and the lack of attention we get from politicians and police. We need new residents for that.”
But not all opponents of the 316 Alaskan Way South project fall into the NIMBY category, worried about their views and housing values. The proposal taps into a deeper concern for people throughout Seattle.
Outside of a city Trader Joe’s a few months back, a man stood gathering signatures for a ballot initiative. “Stop the waterfront from being turned into rich people’s condos!” he urged everyone passing by. He was gathering signatures for Initiative 123, which proposes to convert the viaduct highway into an elevated park like New York City’s High Line, rather than destroy it as planned. Numerous people passing the man told him he was wrong, that the waterfront would be turned into a beautiful park once the viaduct was gone, not a row of expensive condos. He scoffed, and asked how they could trust the city’s assurances.
He received a lot of signatures over a short period of time. The initiative made it onto this November’s ballot, likely on the back of such messaging.
As condos, apartments, and townhouses pop up all over town to accommodate the city’s rapid population growth, a view has taken hold among some longtime residents: the local government is not making good aesthetic decisions, and will offer only token pushback to the proposals of developers. This is one reason that recent plans to increase density across the city met such fierce resistance, and were eventually scuttled.
The fact the city’s neighborhood director just overruled a neighborhood board, and claims scale doesn’t matter, likely won’t inspire confidence among this set. Asked whether this Alaskan Way South development is the shape of things of things to come, she doesn't exactly knock the idea down.
“So future developments can go up to a certain height based on our code, so that could happen,” says Nyland. “Because (Pioneer Square) is an historic district, it has requirements, like building materials. Those things aren’t going away. But recommendations are made, and decisions are made, and you do due diligence.”
Supporters of the 316 Alaskan Way project will point out there are less than a dozen buildings in Pioneer Square deemed “non-contributing”, and therefore available to be destroyed for taller residential developments. But to opponents, the project is the precursor of grungy Pioneer Square being made into something slicker, buildings being made more oversized and modern. The destruction of the viaduct will only expedite the process, and make it more enticing for developers to build water view high-rises.
After months of debate, the matter will likely be settled soon. A formal appeal of the city’s decision on this project has been filed, with a hearing scheduled for September 29.
The look and feel of a city has a daily impact on everyone in it. Seattle by Design is a regular series that presents public aesthetics as an issue worthy of real thought and debate, providing a forum for individuals and organizations with ideas for a better-looking future.
Project photos courtesy Weber Thompson GBD.