A former Seattle resident, now living in Chicago, weighs in about how the old neighborhood is shaping up.
Growing up in Eastlake, walking down to South Lake Union was a type of perambulatory therapy, a form of urban meditation as I watched seaplanes zoom away and unfortunate souls honk their way through the Mercer Mess.
A change was in the air those 20 years ago, as the old Seattle City Light steam plant building was set to become a high-tech hive of biotechnology (ZymoGenetics) and some questioned the aesthetic value of having a Burger King as one of the more prominent landmarks on the southern side of Lake Union.
On a recent trip back home, I decided to get out and down on the ground to see what Vulcan and other major stakeholders had wrought as they continue to remake this neighborhood of modest homes, light-industrial holdovers, maritime activity and more. The first thing that caught my eye was the dominant presence of art: in the Mercer median, placed in quasi-public plazas, over by the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, and the curious “Wood Pile” by Jenny Heishman, which looks like it would be more at home in Sequim.
As I continued my journey, I was struck by the repeated architectural forms that seemed elegant, but a bit soulless. The standard pattern of glimmering glass facades punctuated by brick and or shiny metals became a bit dull, as 307 Westlake looked a bit like the Westlake/Terry building, which looked a bit like Amazon Phase IV and so on. There’s nothing wrong with utilizing simpatico materials, forms and massings, but at the end of the day, the modest differences seemed to make little difference overall.
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I paused and thought of where else I had such a similar sameness. Yes, that was it: the Seaport District in Boston. In the past 10 years, a veritable building boom aided by the Boston Redevelopment Authority and private investors had created a shiny set of grand hotels, luxury apartment buildings and an “Innovation District” that had been promoted as the greatest thing to happen in Massachusetts since Paul Revere’s ride. And Boston is not alone, as these types of megaprojects continue to dominate the conversation among policymakers, planners, boosters and those who wish to keep their cities au courant in the 21st century.
And on I walked, searching for a palimpsest of the past, writ in brick, stone or other. It was with much bemusement that I encountered the former Troy Laundry building. It was but a mere facade. While the building had been landmarked in 1996, that did not save the guts of the Troy. This was clear as I peered into a deep pit where construction workers worked furiously to build out the two L-shaped office towers that will rise over the coming months. Tech firms will fill in the spaces where a once-mighty industrial laundry worked to clothe hotel workers and other laborers. All fine and good, but why even bother to save this mere fragment? I had seen plenty of other cruel “facadectomies” (such as the 16-story McGraw Hill building in Chicago, dissembled into thousands of pieces and reassembled as part of a retail complex) and this one struck me as equally heinous. One parting thought as I walked away: Would there be a dry cleaners in the new shiny Troy Building? That might be the best homage to the past.
The waves of change around South Lake Union in the past decade are a manifestation of a basic tenet of urban planning in the United States: The highest and best use will prevail. It’s not so shocking to see this at work in the area, as a range of marginal uses (Burger King, exhibit A) and low-rent apartment buildings are demolished for the bright future of biomed and tech. This is the way of cities everywhere that want to escape becoming the next Detroit and stay relevant in this century.
What could have been done differently in South Lake Union? For starters, the footprints of the buildings might have been reduced to incorporate a bit more variety in each city block. They are not gargantuan in the Dubai sense, but they do all have a similar boxy appearance that feels a bit repetitive. Variety adds playfulness for the pedestrian and it is the type of environment that is celebrated by folks like urban activist Jane Jacobs and her ilk. And I’m not the one to decry mere newness, because unlike other preservation battles I saw play out in Seattle in my youth, I don’t feel much was lost in the area.
Taken as a whole, the area feels soulless, despite all attempts to create a vibrant sense of place and community. Of course, it is a work in progress, and I’m hopeful for the future. But for now, my two favorite institutions in the area remain those that embody a certain communion with Seattle’s past and present: MOHAI and the Center for Wooden Boats.