Future Of South Lake Union Up For Debate

Dec 13, 2012

The Seattle City Council is debating a plan that would transform a huge swath of the city’s center, and that for the first time would allow developers to build residential high rises just a block from Lake Union.

The Mayor’s Office has proposed re-zoning South Lake Union, a former light industrial and warehouse district north of downtown. It would dramatically raise building height limits to allow construction of thousands of housing units and the addition of tens of thousands of jobs.

The plan has broad support from developers, businesses, labor unions, and transit and housing advocates. But it is also raising serious concerns among some residents and is sparking a debate over what constitutes an acceptable level of density in the city.

“This 'growth on steroids' will ruin the neighborhood,” said former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck.

"If we don't grow here, where do we grow?" responded Seattle city planning director Marshall Foster.

Room To Grow

The city has long targeted South Lake Union for more growth and density. The district is close to downtown and Seattle Center. Current zoning caps building heights in most of the area to six stories or less.

The proposed new zoning would allow buildings of up to 24 stories in the center of South Lake Union and up to 40 stories in the areas closest to downtown.

The plan would also require developers to pay for the right to build higher.  The city projects it would collect about $45 million for affordable housing and $28 million for local street and infrastructure improvements.

The city wants to concentrate future growth in designated urban centers like South Lake Union “where we have infrastructure, and where we have parks and amenities,” according to planning director Marshall Foster. He said that concentration of growth would help protect the city’s single-family neighborhoods.

A Boon To Developers

Man stands behind counter at coffee shop
Andrea Florissi, owner of Caffe Torino, one of the slew of new businesses in South Lake Union.
Credit Deborah Wang/KUOW

One of the biggest proponents of a South Lake Union rezone is Vulcan, Inc., the company owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Allen first became involved in South Lake Union in the 1990s, when he helped purchase land for the Seattle Commons, an effort to build a huge park connecting Lake Union with downtown. When that effort failed, 11.5 acres of property reverted to Allen's ownership.

Allen continued to acquire property in South Lake Union and is now the majority landowner in the area.

In 2001, Allen hired Ada Healey to be the head of Vulcan’s real estate division. At that time, Healey says, South Lake Union was a full of empty parking lots, gas stations and falling-down warehouses, and few people wanted to be there.

Healey recalled one prospective tenant’s response to her standard pitch.

“After about 10 minutes, the gentleman turned to me and said, ‘why would I ever want to go down there? It is an absolute wasteland!’ And I didn’t have a great answer to that question. I said, 'but it’s going to change, and it’s going to be great when it changes.'”

Since then, South Lake Union has become one of the city’s hot neighborhoods. It’s now a hub for biotechnology and life science research. Internet giant Amazon now has its headquarters there, and it occupies 11 buildings recently developed by Vulcan. A slew of new shops and restaurants have opened.

“The energy on the street is fantastic,” said Vulcan’s Ada Healey.

Neighborhood Concerns

But some neighbors argue South Lake Union is growing so fast it doesn’t need a dramatic new rezone plan.

Christine Lea lives in the Cascade neighborhood on the eastern edge of South Lake Union. She calls the mayor’s proposal “overreach.”

Woman stands in front of brick building
Long-time South Lake Union resident Christine Lea argues the city's plan to allow towers in the district is 'overreach.'
Credit Deborah Wang/KUOW

Although the plan doesn’t change building heights in her neighborhood, towers will rise around it.

“There is a fortress-like impression. We feel like we’d be walled-in,” Lea said. “I just think it’s not good planning.”

Traffic in South Lake Union is already bad, and Lea said tall buildings and thousands of new residents will overwhelm the district’s narrow streets.

Neighbors are especially concerned about the proposal to allow three 24-story towers along Mercer Street, within a block of Lake Union. Right now, buildings there cannot exceed four stories.

That “flies in the face of established city policy,” according to former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck. He's working for a coalition of neighborhood residents who oppose the plan.

Throughout its history, Steinbrueck says, Seattle has always limited building heights near its waterfront to preserve water views.   

“This South Lake Union rezone absolutely is an affront to that principle and to the landscape that is, I think, far more beautiful and important than any buildings,” he said.

Vulcan is lobbying to build towers near the lake because “you need a certain critical mass of people” to make the new lakefront park successful, according to Ada Healey. Vulcan donated $10 million to build the park and is a major supporter of the Museum of History and Industry, which has just relocated there.

The supporters of the plan insist towers will not impede views of the water. Specific design criteria would require developers to build skinny towers that they say will allow light and air to reach the street.

What Will The City Council Do?

The mayor’s proposal, which is 271 pages long, is now before the City Council.

The plan is the result of years of discussion within the neighborhood. Mayor Mike McGinn says it tries to strike a balance.

“There are those who asked us to build much larger towers and provide more development capacity, and there are those who asked us to do less," he said. "We chose a middle path, and that is what we are proposing to the council."

Critics of the plan are asking the City Council to take its time to look at all the possible impacts. Supporters are pushing the council to move quickly. They say many development projects in the area are on hold, waiting for the new rules. The council is scheduled to debate the plan into early 2013.