Our legacy will not be judged based on how many skyscrapers we’ve built, but on what happens to Seattle’s soul.
ARCHITECTURE critic Lawrence Cheek makes some good observations about Seattle’s skyscraper boom, [“Very Vertical Seattle,” Pacific NW magazine, Sept. 10], but as downtown residents we believe that he misses the mark when he talks about how “to keep the city feeling more Seattle than Singapore or Manhattan.”
As Cheek wrote, “In the so-called Golden Age of the skyscraper … the prevailing aesthetic dictated a tower that stepped back and slimmed down as it rose. The 1929 Seattle Tower at Third Avenue and University Street does this elegantly … its geometry gave the early skyscraper a graceful form and helped lure snatches of sunlight down to street level.” Unfortunately this kind of design sensitivity is not demonstrated in many of Seattle’s newer high-rise towers.
For example, two 500-foot, oversized, boxy and inelegant skyscrapers are proposed in the half block along Fifth Avenue between Virginia and Stewart streets, property line to property line, straight up, and “cheek to cheek,” just 18 feet across the alley from the existing 31-story Escala condominiums. The overcrowding effect would result in a hostile street condition, loss of sunlight, no privacy and no sense of neighborliness. We don’t get a “do-over” once these ill-conceived projects are built.
Anyone who lives downtown, or cares about the future of Seattle, should be concerned about this lack of development control, which is due largely to the city’s flawed design standards. Even in Manhattan, there are better design controls over tower development to prevent this kind of oppressive overcrowding.
We support growth and density, but it must be responsible and in proper context to the neighborhood. As Cheek says, “A good building is responsible to its context … and that leads to a different facade on each side. Each side is responding to a different geography, climate and urban format.” We as downtown residents couldn’t agree more — a great city is a livable city.
Unfortunately, the city’s land-use code does not require 60-foot tower spacing between towers in many areas of downtown and part of the Belltown neighborhood. The downtown zoning code runs contrary to the better development standards found in the rest of Belltown, intended to support livable residential densities.
Cheek does recognize that “even a 60-foot tower-spacing requirement might not be enough to preserve emotional breathing space in Seattle’s core.” But he is skeptical about what the solution might be. Well, here’s a two-step solution:
• In areas of downtown where existing zoning “holes” allow unbridled overcrowding of towers, delay new permitting until new development standards can be crafted.
• Revise development standards in all of downtown to require reasonable tower spacing to ensure light and air, privacy and encourage more elegant urban design — similar to what exists in Vancouver, B.C., where “pencil towers” are the predominate form, and lot coverage is restricted in order to have adequate air, light, sun and privacy without sacrificing development capacity.
Our city’s legacy will not be judged based on how many skyscrapers we’ve built, but on what happens to Seattle’s soul. Does downtown Seattle become a concrete jungle or a model of urban livability? Right now we are headed for the former because some developers are determined to exploit acknowledged flaws in our development standards for maximum profits while we have to live with the consequences.
Look around the country. Residents and businesses can flee a downtown as fast as they move to one; if the current “anything goes, build ’em cheek to cheek” mentality persists, that’s exactly what will happen in Seattle. We can do better.