To get a sense of what an epic growth binge Seattle is on, consider this: In the past few weeks, developers proposed three 40-story apartment towers. Just within a block of my desk.
In the previous century-plus history of the city, Seattle has had only one apartment building that tall — the Aspira Apartments in the Denny Triangle area — though a few of similar height are currently under construction around the city.
Two of the new towers will consume the lot across the street from my office, where I park my car (a good motivation for me to vote yes on the Metro bus tax later this month). Right next to the two big towers will be two 24-story apartment towers, puny by comparison. All told, this complex will have 1,945 apartment units — making it, I believe, the largest residential development ever in the city (bigger than High Point in West Seattle, which was built on 120 acres).
Then there’s the other tower, planned for the site of the privately owned Denny Playfield, the last green stretch of what would have been the Seattle Commons. Remember in the ’90s when we voted down the idea of a grand central park? Well, it has finally been decided what we’re getting instead: a 400-foot skyscraper.
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Seattle is a city on steroids. Crane City, you could call it.
It isn’t just South Lake Union, though that’s Ground Zero. Ballard has added nearly 2,000 condo and apartment units since 2008, with 1,000 more in the pipeline. This means it has eclipsed its growth targets as set by city planners by threefold. For the year 2024!
I’m no Lesser Seattle type. Growth means jobs, and density means a vital city. But wasn’t it supposed to be managed growth, or smart growth? Plopping down the biggest development in city history on two blocks with little provision for infrastructure seems helter-skelter. Not smart.
In South Lake Union there are no major plans for parks or schools or mass transit to serve any of these thousands of residents or workers. One example: Five parks or spots of green dot the neighborhood. And the 40-story tower developments will pave over two of them (Denny Playfield, owned by Vulcan, and the old Seattle Times pocket park, which is now owned by Onni, the developer of the 1,945-unit mini-city).
The city has made developers pay for some affordable housing. But that’s being swamped by the scale of the boom. The real-estate website Trulia.com recently reported rents in South Lake Union now top $2,250 per bedroom — more than the Mission District in San Francisco.
Something’s got to give. In the past when this was going on in Seattle, citizens rose up and demanded moratoriums or other constraints (not that they necessarily got them). Back in 1989 city voters had such a visceral reaction to pell-mell growth they approved a height limit on residential buildings downtown of only 85 feet. That’s about one-fifth the size of these 40-story towers.
Ancient history, I know. But is old Seattle — small, neighborhood Seattle — so far gone that unfettered growth is as accepted as the rain?
One new group is saying no. It’s called Coalition for an Affordable, Livable Seattle, made up of 14 neighborhood groups that want to tap on the brakes. It’s calling for, among other things, impact fees on developments to help pay for transit, parks, schools and other systems strained by growth.
“We’re not saying no to growth,” says John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. “We’re asking: ‘Are we going to give ourselves over completely to the runaway forces of the market?’ There’s got to be some better planning so it doesn’t absolutely swamp us.”
Fox predicted growth will be the No. 1 issue in the next city elections.
We’ve had these debates before, and growth always wins. But I sense an agitation is rising, right along with these shiny new skyscraper villages.
We’re lucky to be in Seattle, it’s saying. But is anyone in charge?
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org