Hello, new, tall U-District! Goodbye, parking lots
Development in Seattle is slowing down. But in the U-District, there's little sign of that.
In the post-war boom, the neighborhood exploded with parking lots and gas stations. But now, the U-District is reversing its car-centric history. With zoning that lifts the lid on residential development, developers are paving over parking lots for a future more focused on pedestrians and transit.
The area around the future U-District light rail station in particular is poised for massive change.
Don Schulze owns Shultzy’s Bar and Grill on The Ave. And as a member of the University District Parking Associates, he's also part owner of several parking lots in the area. Right now he has two jobs: selling sausages to students and soccer fans, and managing offers on his land. I found him working on a laptop in a booth at Shultzy's, glancing periodically at the World Cup game whenever the crowd groaned or cheered.
He shared one story about a group of Chinese investors who approached him with a high offer to put a residential tower on one of his parking lots.
"They all just march into our office and throw down this paper that had a shockingly high number on it," he said.
But Schulze and the UDPA turned down the offer. His group wanted an office building at that location to bring in more jobs.
"It’s crazy out there," Schulze said. "We get people just, ‘We want this, we want this.’ So we're being very careful about what we want on our properties."
Schulze and his colleagues accepted a different offer for a different parking lot near the freeway. Where there used to be 120 surface parking spaces for commuters, there are now about 300 apartments with permanent residents.
Schulze says those residents are good for U-District businesses. "They live here, which means they’re going to spend more money here," he said.
In a way, this marks a return to the roots of the U-District. Eighty years ago, the neighborhood was teeming with pedestrians and families. They supported a rich variety of businesses, catering to all different kinds of people.
But in more recent decades, the neighborhood was redefined by new freeways, gas stations and parking lots. More than 500 U-District homes were lost over the last century to create infrastructure for cars.
But then came light rail. That, architecture firm NBBJ partner David Yuan said, was "the game changer for the neighborhood.”
Yuan led the design of a 24-story residential tower called "The M." The city is currently reviewing the design. The building will replace a gas station.
"Which is sort of ironic, right?" said Yuan. "Because we’re building a model that is currently not about the car. It’s really about walking and light rail and bikes and things like that."
Yuan said the city also accelerated the change by adopting new zoning rules about what developers can build in the U-district. Parking is no longer required for building apartments, and residential towers can now be really tall.
But in exchange for that extra height, developers now have to include things the U-District has lost over the years to parking lots. A pocket of open space. Apartments large enough for a family. And they have to contribute money towards affordable housing, too.
In other parts of the city, residential development may be slowing down. But the U-District continues to churn forward, said Tim McKay, an executive at real estate and investment group Colliers International. People are still investing money here because the University of Washington helps insulate investments from recessions, McKay said. Students and Faculty will still need housing, whatever the economy, he explained.
And the neighborhood’s access to light rail really helps.