South Lake Union is supposed to offer car-free living. So why are they building so many huge parking garages?

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The promise of South Lake Union, a high-tech neighborhood being built effectively from scratch, is that it will be clean, green and above all, no longer wedded to the automobile.

Says Vulcan, Paul Allen’s development arm and the largest landowner in the neighborhood: “We’re working to create a pedestrian-oriented urban environment where residents, tenants and visitors can experience a car-free sustainable lifestyle.”

So what’s with all the parking garages?

Walking around the bustling Amazon jungle, you can’t help but be wowed at the sheer size of the parking structures being gouged into the earth beneath much of the new construction.

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For one new office building, at the old Troy Laundry building across the street from Amazon, the pit just to hold all the cars was dug 60 feet deep. When it’s done, this 13-story office complex will have parking for 1,100 cars — half the size of the Safeco Field parking garage.

There’s development like this planned on practically every block, and most of it’s billed as low-impact, in-city living or working. But is it really?

Using city development records, I looked up the projects in the pipeline for the 5-block by 7-block heart of South Lake Union. I picked the area bounded by Aurora on the west and Fairview on the east, with Mercer to the north and Denny to the south. It makes up a square of only 160 acres, but it’s one of the most active development sites in America.

There are currently 34 projects in the works, from office buildings to residential towers to hotels. Grand total of new parking spaces planned in 31 underground structures: 11,835.

South lake Union is billed as offering a car-free lifestyle, but 31 of the 34 projects under way will add nearly 12,000 parking stalls in underground garages. Source: Seattle Planning & Development (Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times)
South lake Union is billed as offering a car-free lifestyle, but 31 of the 34 projects under way will add nearly 12,000 parking stalls in underground garages. Source: Seattle Planning & Development (Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times)

That’s six Safeco Field garages. Three of the garages clock in at more than 1,000 stalls each.

These are not distant plans — they are part of active developments that are either in permitting or under construction. In the past year, developments were finished adding another 1,964 parking spaces in underground garages.

Why are we building so much parking in a neighborhood that’s supposed to be the model for weaning the city off the car? More pressing: How are all those cars going to get to and from all those parking spaces?

Typically a parking space in an office building can generate from two to four car trips per day. So if all 12,000 of those new spaces fill up, we’re looking at 24,000 to 48,000 more daily car trips in this 160-acre area than we’ve got already.

Denny Way, aka the Denny Disaster, carries about 22,000 cars daily. Mercer Street, aka the Mercer Mess, carries 49,000. So where are all those new car trips going to go?

I asked this of Seattle transportation chief Scott Kubly.

“I think we have reached saturation point with the traffic we have right now in South Lake Union,” he said.

But Kubly says parking garages across downtown are only 60 percent full, so he believes parking in Seattle is being overbuilt. The same may be happening in South Lake Union.

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“We have conversations all the time with developers where we urge them not to build so much parking,” Kubly said. “They’re of the opinion that that’s what they need to do to lease the space up.”

There is no parking requirement in much of the area. (Three of the 34 projects, including two hotels, have decided to risk going without any parking.) But transit to the neighborhood is so uneven and overwhelmed that developers apparently concluded people have few good options besides driving.

Kubly said the city over the next year will ramp up its South Lake Union efforts, including extending rapid bus transit to the neighborhood. He also said drivers should feel some relief when all the construction eases.

In the long run, though, the share of commuters driving to South Lake Union will simply have to drop, big parking garages or no.

“There just isn’t road and highway capacity to get them all there in cars,” Kubly said.

All of this seems in hindsight like terrible planning. (Not necessarily on Kubly’s part — he’s only been here a year.)

We’ve known South Lake Union was going to pop since, what, 2000? But in 15 years we do next to nothing to boost transit there, all the while talking a big game about sustainability yet pipelining big parking garages that we know the road network already can’t handle.

We say in Seattle we’re trying to move beyond cars, or even that the city is waging a war on cars. But come down to South Lake Union and you’ll see we’re actually building them giant shrines beneath the ground.