Story Summary

Seattle’s high-rises going higher?

On Monday, May 6, 2013, the Seattle City Council has given the go-ahead for high rises in South Lake Union. It unanimously approved 16-story residential towers along the lake and 400-foot towers near Denny Way. That’s much taller than what’s allowed now, which is between six and eight stories.

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SEATTLE — The Seattle City Council has given the go-ahead for high rises in South Lake Union.

Today it unanimously approved 16-story residential towers along the lake and 400-foot towers near Denny Way.

That’s much taller than what’s allowed now, which is between six and eight stories.

Opponents are concerned the taller limits will ruin some valuable views, and that the neighborhood will cater to the rich.

But council members say part of the bill will make five percent of the new units affordable enough that people making less than $45,000 a year will be able to live there.

Council Bill 117603 is a package of land use changes designed to increase development capacity in South Lake Union and make way for future job growth and housing demands.

The city expects that by 2031, South Lake Union will have to absorb some 12,000 households and 22,000 jobs to continue to meet its share of future growth.

In addition to allowing greater building heights, the new zoning also imposes development standards and incentives to encourage a more open space and an improved streetscape.

The new zoning allows only one tower per block on lakefront blocks.   Other blocks can have two towers but they must be more widely spaced than anywhere else in the city.

There are also requirements for strong street-level design standards and retail businesses at ground level.  The zoning is also designed to maintain the character of specific communities through by preserving landmark properties and existing open spaces.


Local News

South Lake Union plan moves forward

SEATTLE — After months of debate, the Seattle City Council took a key vote Monday to rezone the South Lake Union neighborhood.

It was the last big milestone in the makeover plan for South Lake Union, including 16-story residential towers at the lake that stair-step up to 40-story towers near Denny Way.

Before the vote, City Council members heard from a number of people in the community who wanted to make sure that with all that new height, the neighborhood doesn’t just become a place for the rich.

“Increasing the building heights, zoning in that area, is essentially a windfall profit to landowners,” said Michael Goldman, who recently received his master’s degree in urban planning. “That’s unearned wealth. The public should capture some of that wealth for affordable housing.”

In recent weeks, lawmakers have come to agree on the increased heights, but have disagreed about how much to require of those who want to build to that new level.

“We are asking developers to say, hey, set aside some housing units for workforce people making these entry level wages at some of these jobs here so they can be part of this neighborhood, too,” said City Councilman Mike O’Brien.

O’Brien successfully pushed a plan Monday to mandate that 5 percent of new units be affordable to those making 80 percent of median income or below, which is $45,000 per year.

Developers would also have the choice to pay into an affordable-housing pool at the rate of $22 a square foot for any new height for which they take advantage.

“At $22, we think that price is high enough that they won’t want to pay the city to build;  they will just provide the housing themselves,” O’Brien said.

As the council finalized the details of the overall South Lake Union plan, there was some continued frustration at the scale of what is being proposed.

“On really some key issues we’re disappointed in their performance,” said   John Pehrson, a resident of South Lake Union. “Putting 400-foot towers between Denny and John is just out of scale totally. It’s on a street that’s dead end and that is 40 feet wide. I don’t know how they will get in and out.”

There is a final pro forma vote on the entire South Lake Union plan in a couple weeks.  But for all intents and purposes, the overhaul is now law and development in the neighborhood will soon begin under the new rules.

SEATTLE — The Space Needle is the symbol of Seattle, but new development in South Lake Union threatens to block its view by some residents.

Some are now asking the City Council to protect the vista of the Space Needle before Seattle’s newest neighborhood really takes off.

It’s not all views that are in question; it’s just the views from South Lake Union, where the city has put in a lot of money and where Seattle’s big Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) opened in December.

“The Space Needle is something that is unique to Seattle,” said Ron Sever, chief executive officer of the privately owned Space Needle. His corporation is pushing to have the corridor between South Lake Union Park and the Needle protected from high-rise development.

“From this place we think it’s worth protecting,” Severt said outside the new MOHAI building. “I don’t want people to look at our skyline and think it’s some other city.”

Severt and the Space Needle owners are pushing to have South Lake Union Park added to a 2001 city ordinance that makes sure you can see the Needle from a number of public places all over town, including Myrtle Edwards Park along the waterfront and Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill.

“This park here, Lake Union Park, actually wasn’t on that list, because it wasn’t the park back then that it is today,” Severt said.

But others worry about placing too much importance on views of the Needle.

“We can live without the views from this particular vantage point and still have a great park and a great public space,” said Roger Valdez, a local writer and advocate for urban density who doesn’t believe saving the views of the Needle are worth the cost.

“Certainly views are important, but they are small in scale compared to the jobs, housing, and economic benefit from building here,” said Valdez.

Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin is the lead sponsor of added height in the South Lake Union neighborhood, but does want to give some consideration to views.  “You will undoubtedly not see the entire Space Needle from certain places, and I think that’s OK,” said Conlin.

He added that the Space Needle will still be visible from places in South Lake Union Park because the width of the towers will be limited to guarantee there is a least a partial view between buildings.

“There will be lots of space between the block,” said Conlin.  “And, of course, the Space Needle is 602 feet high, so you are going to see a lot of the Space Needle regardless of how the towers come out.”

Jeffrey Ochsner, professor of architecture at the University of Washington, favors banning all towers in the corridor, especially considering that would only affect a relatively few number of blocks.

If you don’t protect the views, once they’re gone, they are gone forever,” said Ochsner.

Ochsner believes there is a social equity component to the building height fight.

“Private individuals with sufficient wealth are always going to be able to buy condominiums or buy houses on Highland Drive or other locations where they will be able to have their private views of the Space Needle,” he said. “But we need to be concerned about all citizens of this city and that means protecting views from public places that all citizens can share.”

The City Council will be voting on the upzone Monday, when they will be considering language to protect the view corridor.

towerSEATTLE — The Seattle Times reported a specific plan to build three 24-story towers near Lake Union has been shelved.

According to the Times, the proposal to let Vulcan, Paul Allen’s real estate firm, build three towers in South Lake Union was not a priority for any council members. That planned was shelved to allow more time to push specific proposal made by Mayor Mike McGinn late last year that would include a complete rezone of the area.

Under the proposed plan, Vulcan would donate land for buildings and pay for a prescribed amount of money for public benefits. Currently, owners of buildings in South Lake Union can give money to nonprofits in order to go over the proposed limit.

Vulcan could still get the towers, the Times reported, but it will have to go through a different process than the “complicated deal” the real estate group and nonprofits were rallying for. Councilmember Tim Burgess told the Times the deal, known as the Block 59 Deal, was “dead and off the table.”

Many present at previous meetings to discuss the towers said 24-story buildings would drastically change the character of a classic Seattle neighborhood.

Vulcan real estate group owns much of the property in South Lake Union.

LakeunionSEATTLE — Debate is increasing over Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s plans to change the city’s shoreline near Lake Union.

McGinn wants to allow three towers, all 24-stories high, along the south edge of Lake Union. He said the towers will stimulate growth in an already thriving neighborhood.

On Thursday, the mayor, the public and the city council met to discuss the South Lake Union development proposal. McGinn is proposing a rezone to the South Lake Union area that would allow for more residential and commercial development, including the three towers. The plan would increase allowable heights in buildings throughout South Lake Union, raising restrictions from four stories all the way up to 24.

Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate owns the blocks near the lake that where the new towers would be built.

Many present at the meeting said 24-story towers will drastically change the character of a classic Seattle neighborhood. Brian Rainey, a local resident, said a rezone of South Lake Union could make the area a not-so-pretty place.

“By putting those towers on the lake like we are doing, we are making it a very unfriendly place,” Rainey said.

Former city councilmember Peter Steinbrueck is one of the area residents fighting the proposed upzone. He is working as a paid consultant for the neighborhood group opposed to the plan.

“We’re getting carried away with this notion that density is the cure all for everything,” Steinbrueck said.

Proponents of the rezone said if the city doesn’t allow more growth along South Lake Union, the growth will move somewhere else.

“We have a commitment under the growth management act to take additional population, additional jobs,” said Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin. “If it’s not in South Lake Union, which is our urban center, then it has to go somewhere else.”

Lori Mason of Vulcan Real Estate  said as part of the deal for lakefront towers, Vulcan Development will provide a public benefits package including affordable housing and social services.  But Steinbrueck and others said Vulcan’s primary concern is profit.

“This is a Vulcan-driven rezone,” Steinbrueck said. “And it has been all along, and they have been very effective.”

Some Seattle City Councilmembers, including Tim Burgess, are calling for an independent study of the plan before it moves forward.