Urbanologist and former Seattle resident Max Grinnell has found a few things that have come about over the past 100 years — and haven’t changed yet — that helped define and shape Seattle.

Share story

Nature first shaped Seattle. Thousands of years ago, glaciers piled up the hills and scoured out basins.

More than a century ago, humans began molding the land and channeling the water on a massive scale, allowing Seattle to become the busy, complex magnet for commerce and industry we encounter today.

Last year, urbanologist Max Grinnell wrote a piece lamenting the “soulless” makeover of the South Lake Union neighborhood. During the passionate public discussion that followed, he began to think about the most monumental moments in Seattle’s built environment, and how they shape what we do and see today.

About the author, Max Grinnell

I am an urbanologist, someone who explores, dissects, analyzes and also celebrates the urban condition.

If you’ve walked through Pioneer Square and wondered “How old is that building?” you’re an urbanologist. If you’ve ever driven down (or bravely walked) Aurora and thought “Why are there so many motels here?” you’re an urbanologist. Finally, if you’ve ever walked around Seattle Center’s grounds and thought “What used to be here?” you’re an urbanologist.

Professionally, I’ve made this my work over the past 15 years teaching urban studies in Chicago and Boston and through my writings for The Guardian, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and other publications large and small.

My journey began 30 years ago when I was a kid growing up at 2356 Franklin Ave. E. in Eastlake. Long walks down to Lake Union and across the University Bridge piqued my interest in the world beneath my feet and in all directions around me. It was an awakening that has animated what I do ever since.

There’s always something new, as successful cities, large and small, are constantly changing.

Here is the list he compiled. What would you include?

Pacific Science Center arches

When you walk close to the 110-foot arches that rise above the reflecting pools at the Pacific Science Center (christened the Federal Science Pavilion for the 1962 World’s Fair), you have a sense of Seattle and the nation’s midcentury ambitions for the future. Minoru Yamasaki’s articulate and nuanced designs make this the most stunning work on Seattle Center grounds (apologies to You Know What) and it reflects the belief that science leads the way to a better tomorrow. Over time, Seattle Center as a whole has remained a public gathering place that contains something for everyone, even if there have been a few misfires along the way, such as the proposed takeover by the Walt Disney Corp. in the 1980s. If anything, this science-forward complex foretold Seattle’s increasing dominance in the fields of biotechnology, medical innovation and aerospace engineering.

Terminal 107 Park

Located amid the seemingly mundane yet vital expanse of light-industrial activities off West Marginal Way sits Terminal 107 Park, a perfect vantage point to consider one of Seattle’s most vital land-making projects from the past century. As you look out over the Duwamish Waterway from this former tribal site, consider that everything in your line of sight to the north and east was once tide flats. The creation of Harbor Island (once the world’s largest artificial island) and the filling in of the surrounding area gave the Port of Seattle a significant boost as it allowed for tremendous growth for cargo terminals and ancillary business. What’s perhaps most remarkable is the sheer size of this tremendous project: All told, 35 million cubic yards of dirt were moved around in the creation of Harbor Island, the Duwamish Waterway and the nearby tide flats.

<strong>BURKE-GILMAN TRAIL:</strong> Rush hour on the route means plenty of cyclists and pedestrians. (DEAN RUTZ/The Seattle Times)
BURKE-GILMAN TRAIL: Rush hour on the route means plenty of cyclists and pedestrians. Created in 1968, it’s still a key part of the recreational identity of the city. (DEAN RUTZ/The Seattle Times)

Burke-Gilman Trail

Long before rails-to-trails projects became au courant in the rest of the U.S., the Burke-Gilman Trail created a long, winding path for bicyclists, walkers and other peripatetic types. Created as part of the Forward Thrust initiative passed in 1968 by King County voters, this 18-plus-mile trail remains a key part of the recreational fabric of the city. Thousands of people use the path each day as a form of communion with nature, commuting and/or a workout. It’s also an example of place-making that welcomes all members of the public, regardless of income, ethnicity and so on. In our own time, such places are increasingly under attack for a range of reasons, including apathy, creeping privatization and land-use pressures.

<strong>“SINKING SHIP” GARAGE:</strong> The Hotel Seattle in Pioneer Square gave way to a parking garage in 1961, sparking a movement to preserve the character of our built environment. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
“SINKING SHIP” GARAGE: The Hotel Seattle in Pioneer Square gave way to a parking garage in 1961, sparking a movement to preserve the character of our built environment. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

“Sinking ship” garage

Over time, all cities grow and change or else they die. As part of this process, buildings come and go. Standing at Yesler and James in Pioneer Square, the hulking “Sinking ship” parking garage is testimony to this process. In the spring of 1961, demolition started on the Hotel Seattle, which had graced this triangle of land for more than six decades. While this august hostelry was not a particularly unique architectural specimen, it did ignite a rallying cry for Seattle’s nascent preservation movement. Out of this furor came the Pioneer Square Preservation District, which was created in 1970 to preserve the texture and flavor of the area’s built environment. Concerns about the area’s character remain today as projects like Weyerhaeuser’s new headquarters and new condo projects threaten the scale and feel of the neighborhood.

Northgate Mall

Built partially on top of a modest cranberry bog, Northgate Mall offered a vision of Seattle that would accommodate the automobile by any means necessary for decades to come. Opened in 1950 and called Northgate Center by the Suburban Co. (appropriately named, as the site was outside city limits), this vision of a car-centered retail environment offered easy access to large grocers and boutiques. After being fully enclosed in 1974, it became a climate-controlled shopping court where the thermostat held steady at a balmy 68 degrees. Downtown merchants were understandably concerned as they could not compete with acres of free parking and the broader trends of suburbanization that affected every American city. In a curious way, the completion of Westlake Center and later Pacific Place signified a bit of an urban renaissance, stacked high with vertical retail, parking underground and “experiences” aplenty.

 

<strong>DENNY REGRADE:</strong> The Washington Hotel had a commanding perch on Denny Hill but stood in the way of the massive regrade project, which made once-steep hills navigable. (THE SEATTLE TIMES)
DENNY REGRADE: The Washington Hotel had a commanding perch on Denny Hill but stood in the way of the massive regrade project, which made once-steep hills navigable. The hills had been seen as an impediment to Seattle’s economic growth. (THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Denny Regrade

What’s a regrade, you ask? Go stand on the Lenora Street Bridge high above the ground and look into the heart of downtown, then over in the direction of Queen Anne. Along with the constant hum from Alaskan Way, you’re surrounded by the legacy of the regrading process that effectively made a number of troublesome hills navigable by man, beast, trolley and later automobiles, trucks and buses. Today these hills are but a minor inconvenience, but early arrivals, including Arthur Denny, felt they stood in the way of progress in terms of crafting an effective transportation system and economic growth. It’s impossible to imagine such a massive earth-moving and manipulation project taking place today without a raft of feasibility and environmental impact studies that would stretch from here to Humptulips and back. Of course, there is a similarity in the South Lake Union neighborhood’s makeover to speed the road for 21st-century growth industries, including online commerce and biotechnology. Then, as now, the question remains: Who will ultimately benefit from these massive infrastructure projects?

 

<strong>LAKE UNION</strong>: The blue jewel has been reborn from its days as the polluted dump of shipbuilders, sawmills and other water-bound industries. (BETTINA HANSEN/The Seattle Times)
LAKE UNION: The blue jewel has been reborn from its days as the polluted dump of shipbuilders, sawmills and other water-bound industries. Its treasure is Gas Works Park, repurposed after the Gas Light Co. plant closed. (BETTINA HANSEN/The Seattle Times)

Lake Union

Flying in a seaplane over Lake Union is the best way to see this lovely body of water with its arms reaching out toward Lake Washington and Elliott Bay. The reclamation of this field of blue from a putrid and toxic basin (hello, mercury) has taken place within just a few generations. Even before the Ship Canal was completed, Lake Union was dotted with myriad shipbuilders, sawmills and other water-bound industries that brought fame and fortune to local industrialists but left the water quality in shambles. With the closure of the Gas Light Co. plant in 1956, a unique opportunity arose as landscape architect Richard Haag reshaped and re-imagined the site as Gas Works Park, a place for young and old to climb over parts of the former structures, fly kites and enjoy the stunning vistas. This rusty rebirth is part of a broader trend during this period: the idea that cities would be less sites of production as they moved to sites of conspicuous consumption. Whether one was headed to the mall or to “consume” experiences in the form of leisure activities, places like Gas Works also challenge us to think about other former industrial spaces. We’ve already seen portents of change in Georgetown and the like, so can older buildings along the Duwamish and so on be next?

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.