Chapter 2–The Consequences of “Process”: Building Height Limitations in Seattle, WA

Stand on the grassy shore of Lake Union Park and look out over the body of water in front, and you’ll see why Seattle has earned a reputation for its natural features. Because from this shore you’ll find a lake that, with seagulls all around, might sooner pass for a poor man’s ocean. The lake, called Lake Union, spans well over a mile north and a ways east and west, exposing an 180 degree vista of the city’s northern hills. Visit the park on a cloudy day and you’ll find that the lake turns, over this stretch, into a dark expanse that’s little different from the sky above. But visit it, as I did that Saturday in June, on a rare sunny day and it will gleam back up with a shiny tint of greenish-blue. That a mighty lake like this happens to sit, as if plopped from nowhere, right outside downtown Seattle will make it seem all the more significant; a natural gem in the heart of the city.

But turn south from this spot in the park and you will be hit in the face, this time from above, with another of the city’s assets—the downtown skyline, mere blocks away. This vista is stunning in a different sense, full of skyscrapers that stand together like an elevated rainforest of glass and steel—and that also gleam when meeting the sun. But because these skyscrapers are commercial rather than natural assets, they’re perhaps not as celebrated, in a place like Seattle, as would be an enormous public lake. And this distinction, between natural and commercial, has caused ambiguity regarding the future of the sleepy area that lies between.

That area, bordered by the skyscrapers to the south and the park to the north, is a warehouse district called South Lake Union (SLU). When much of the area’s industry left over the half-century following World War II, it became somewhat obscure, but has revived with the infusion of recent downtown growth, and now has its feet stuck in both eras. Aiding this transition has been numerous city investments, which were particularly notable that day as I went south along Lake Union Park’s rolling carpet of green. Aside from new landscaping, the city has built in the park a new boat center, and is relocating a museum there. It has built a streetcar that links the park to downtown via Westlake Avenue, SLU’s main arterial. And it is converting two neighborhood thruways, which now cut through like blankets of grey, into tree-lined boulevards.

But these public expenditures would not have transpired if not for private ones, which in SLU are largely from one man, local tycoon Paul Allen. In the past two decades, Allen’s real estate firm, Vulcan Inc., has bought 60 acres here, and contributed millions more for this infrastructure. Then the firm has developed the area, not only by attracting Amazon and some medical labs, but by building new condos, particularly along Westlake. When I walked an hour later down the avenue, it became apparent how these condos were aiding neighborhood transition. The first few blocks south of the park were incomplete, full of warehouses and parking lots, a throwback to the days of industrial flight. But as I walked further the atmosphere picked up, primarily because of restaurants welcoming me at ground level. Two blocks later I finally reached the crowded Denny Way intersection, where a Whole Foods sits across from Vulcan’s info center. The market, which has filled a commercial void in the area, is in another of the firm’s developments, and serves as a gateway to downtown.

It may seem obvious, given both SLU’s location, and the investments that have already been made there, that the city would want all this growth to go up as vertically as possible. But for years this has been resisted, because of the ambiguity, mentioned before, over whether downtown skyscrapers are indeed appropriate for SLU—or whether a quieter vibe should be preserved instead. What this has led to is a policy tug of war, there and in nearby neighborhoods, in which growth is incentivized on one hand with gobs of public financing, only to be constrained by regulations.

These regulations include the city’s Incentive Zoning program, which at the time of writing was being considered for SLU. The program allows developers to exceed existing height limits if they provide public benefits, under a “bonus system”. To participate, developers must first construct buildings using LEED standards. They garner most of the bonus either by providing affordable units or contributing to a housing fund; by subsidizing neighborhood child care; and by making improvements to surrounding infrastructure—all of which adds substantial expense.

But the main regulations imposed by Seattle are the height limitations themselves, which are restrictive to start, and not properly loosened even by bonuses. Where bonuses are granted, heights generally begin at 85’, and after fees go a bit higher, with some subareas reaching 400′. This is the case for SLU and other neighborhoods around downtown, and becomes even more restrictive further out. In comparison, two dozen skyscrapers in the central business district exceed 400’, and the tallest reach nearly 1,000’—although this area too is now heavily regulated.

Unlike Incentive Zoning, which is meant to prevent displacement of the poor, these height limitations do not address equitable goals. Rather they are based on subjective criteria of what will make Seattle a desirable place to live, based on hazy notions of “neighborhood scale”. They’ve been imposed by the city at the demands of locals, who remain hostile to urban density even as they live up against it, and enjoy its benefits. And they have caused neighborhoods like SLU, where density would be most sensible, to get built not by market demands, or even basic standards of vitality; but to remain the squat, rather sterile hubs that they are now.

*

Seattle’s height limitations are rooted in the city’s longtime reticence towards growth, and change in general. The city began as a 19th-century logging hotbed for timber shipped south to accommodate the San Francisco building boom. While this created steady growth the next few decades, the city’s population didn’t explode until the 1880’s, when it became a thoroughfare both for the gold rush and Asian immigration, and thirty years later was one of America’s major metropolises.

The first referendum on this big city status came in 1912, when voters rejected the Bogue Plan, which called for grade changes around downtown to enable a number of grand civic projects. While the plan merely imitated City Beautiful principles being applied elsewhere, it was opposed by businessmen who didn’t want public money redirected from downtown, and by citizens who found the plan overambitious.

Another boom came in the two decades after World War II, with the emergence of Boeing and other industries, only to hit up against the failed Forward Thrust referendum of 1970. One part of that referendum would’ve funded a comprehensive light rail system, which may have seemed premature then, but is now sorely needed here. Because it failed, the city lost a $900 million federal earmark, which was redirected to build MARTA, the rail-to-nowhere system in Atlanta.

During this period a phrase emerged called the “Seattle Process”, which referenced the dithering that the city partakes in when faced with change. It was meant then to explain the failed Forward Thrust referendum, and today is simply called “process” by the locals. While it’s been blamed for extending debates on major projects like the Alaska Way Viaduct, it sooner defines the extensive feedback required, at the grassroots level, for each small change in the city. On different occasions it has prevented concerts in a prominent park, the removal of aging water towers, and the renewal of key retail strips. I’d witnessed the process myself at a Planning Committee meeting weeks before, when a proposal to allow light commercial uses, like B&B’s, inside residential homes, got shouted down by protesters from the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Roger Valdez, a former city planner, and writer on local issues, said that the Seattle Process derives from the city’s egalitarian mentality, which places citizen input above all else. What this has created is an atmosphere, both in city hall and in local meetings, where groups that basically agree on something—the example he used was light rail—can still get bogged down in details, and proceed with “planning and planning”, rather than making concessions.

“Finally what happens,” Valdez explained, in what could be an echo of the ‘processes’ in other cities, “is that nothing gets done.”

Fundamental to this process is the debate about growth. The dividing line Valdez drew was between the theoretical “Forward Thrusters”, who want Seattle to go global; and groups unfavorable to this, like “Lesser Seattle”. This latter group was created, tongue-in-cheek, by famed local columnist Emmett Watson, who in the 1960s mocked notions that the city was “progressing” merely by increasing its population. But more serious groups who favor slow growth include the preservation group Allied Arts, which opposed the city’s Olympic bid; and the Seattle Displacement Coalition, which opposes redevelopment on the premise that it hurts the poor. The sentiment also arises, said Valdez, from people who moved to the city in the 1980s, became dissatisfied with its fast growth rate, and now “want to shut the door behind them”.

Buildings heights are a huge part of this debate, and no more does the battle play out than downtown, and in surrounding areas like SLU, where growth spills over. The reactions are only predictable, given recent changes in the city. Even into the 1960s, after all, downtown Seattle was not particularly imposing. Until 1962 the tallest building here, and in the west, was the Smith Tower, at 489’. It was surpassed that year by the Space Needle, which was seen as a sign of progress, and by other buildings in the 1970s. But real growth didn’t begin until the 1980s, when a downtown plan was written that deregulated building heights. Soon new skyscrapers began popping up, most notably the Columbia Center. A modernist and rather stolid black box, the building is the city’s tallest, and sticks out ostentatiously from its skyline—for the worse, to some people. This inspired passage of the CAP Initiative, which was endorsed by preservation groups, and local architect Peter Steinbrueck (Peter is son of late Seattle architect Victor Steinbrueck, who himself became renowned for saving Pike Place Market in the 1960s). The initiative put a cap on heights, and limited new square footage downtown to 500,000 a year.

As if this tension over growth weren’t enough, a new layer was added in 1990, when the state of Washington passed the Growth Management Act, which required localities to work together towards comprehensive plans that increased density and mitigated sprawl. In response Seattle, under then-Mayor Norman Rice, wrote one designed to transform neighborhoods into “urban villages”. According to the plan such neighborhoods would be upzoned, and receive enhancements like parks and schools and bus circulators, so residents could be nearer their daily needs. The plan focused specifically on five growth centers, some of which were near downtown, and included SLU.

While much of the plan was considered controversial because it favored growth, Rice told me that he hadn’t seen it that way at the time. He claimed that height limits and other restrictions had already been established, and that the purpose of the plan was not to overturn them, but to allow decisions on growth to be made by the neighborhoods. Thus plans for several were drawn by the city with tentative suggestions for growth, and presented at public meetings. Although the mayor admitted this strategy was destined for resistance, given the present political climate, this hadn’t bothered him, since “density and taller buildings…wasn’t in anybody’s high priority.”

But according to Valdez, who worked on a few of these plans, the city had in fact sought more density, only to see its agenda fall through during public hearings, as one proposed rezoning after another became casualties of process. This was particularly so in SLU, where plans for a park that would connect downtown to Lake Union were voted down in 1995. Significant density increases were also resisted, not only by neighbors, said Valdez, but by anti-capitalists across the city who didn’t like that a billionaire was transforming the area, and selling to other rich people. This sentiment, in hand, was not adequately countered by the city council, which “chickened out” rather than persisting with increases.

During my second interview with Mayor Rice, I relayed this quote back to him.

“If you want a growth management plan that does not have public involvement, and you arbitrarily want to [allow tall buildings], you can do that,” he responded. “But I don’t think in the end you’re going to get public support.”

I asked the mayor if, in hindsight, he thought leaving decisions to the neighborhoods had been a practical way to plan for growth; or a bow to parochialism that ignored population pressures. He decisively chose the former.

“When you really talk about civic engagement…sometimes [less density] is the consequence…It’s not necessarily the ideal, but it is what it is…I’m not just going to sit up and say [to Seattle citizens] they were all wrong.” Rather, “I would prefer that the community come together and plan together where density could occur,” than have the government “mandating that they have to take so much.”

The debate was revisited in 2002 when Greg Nickels was elected mayor. According to veteran Seattle Times journalist Bob Young, the mayor formed a pro-density coalition of developers, environmentalists, and unions, and staking his future on SLU, spent hundreds of millions in tax money on infrastructure, expecting this to pay for itself with increased revenue. But it was a bad gamble politically for Nickels, who suffered low ratings during his administration, and was defeated in 2009 by Mike McGinn, a champion of slower growth.

In the meantime, buildings heights in SLU have not significantly changed. At the time of writing, these heights were again being reviewed by the city, which may explain why the info department at Vulcan had only nice things to say about existing policies. But one company spokeswoman, Christina Siderius, did admit that with the area’s 85’ buildings, “you end up getting these short, kind of wide buildings that go all the way to the end of the lot…[and] don’t leave a lot of room for public areas.”

She also added that “taller buildings really can be a part of this graceful solution to the growth that we are seeing,” which is perhaps unfortunate, since after negotiations, the rezoning will still not allow heights of over 400’, but will only increase lots that are now excessively low. I guess when a neighborhood goes by the moniker “urban village”, after all, the mentality from everyone involved will be that it should never become anything more than that—a village.

*

Building height limitations are not a new concept, even inside big city downtowns. They’re particularly notorious in Washington, D.C., where buildings can’t rise above the Washington Monument. Although enforced in 1910, these limits were really inspired by L’Enfant, who envisioned D.C. as an American Paris, with monuments unsullied by commercialism. But a century later, they’ve produced a squat, somewhat desolate, and highly unaffordable city.

Limits have also existed in L.A., and in Austin, to protect views of the Capitol from Congress Avenue. They once did in Philadelphia not by law, but through a “gentlemen’s agreement” between developers never to overshadow the statue of William Penn, atop City Hall. This agreement was broken in 1986, and is now but a memory in an increasingly vertical city.

Today building heights are restricted less by clear limitations, per se, than complex zoning regulations that are hashed out between developers and the government, inevitably heaping power onto the latter. In Portland—which is more restrictive than Seattle by virtue of viewing itself as more “laid back”—tall buildings are basically disallowed, except near the streetcar mall. Buildings there get shorter the nearer they are to the river, to preserve waterfront views—which is ironic, since skyscrapers would actually maximize views for more people, rather than just preserving them for a privileged few.

While Austin abolished its height limits, it still imposes a FAR of 8:1 for downtown buildings, loosening this only through insider deals. Miami’s “Century 21” code isolates tall buildings to certain lots, stripping the city of its historic dynamism. Even in New York City, where such buildings are most sensible, they’re still discouraged both by zoning and by preservation overlays. When they are allowed, often through the complex process of transferring air rights, they’re still rather hard to get built. First they undergo environmental reviews—a process that can take years and cost millions. Then they’re reviewed by city planning, the community board, and the borough president, with extractions made along the way for public benefits. Finally they go before city council, where they can be subject to hostile public hearings, or get voted down altogether. This regulatory climate, writes William Stern, has made construction costs in the city more expensive than elsewhere, and had a “chilling effect” on builders.

Seattle’s regulations, while less convoluted, are just as imposing on the built fabric. Not only do they burden the local economy; but from an atmospheric standpoint, prevent neighborhoods like SLU from becoming truly walkable, or “urban”, like in downtown.

*

Before exploring this latter problem—about atmosphere—I want to elaborate on the economic problems presented by height limitations, since these too are important.

To begin with such limitations don’t align, in respect to density, with other investments the city is making on infrastructure. In the last 20 years—and for decades into the future—Seattle has planned measures that befit a global metropolis. It has already built a streetcar and light rail line, and looks to build more. It has an underground tunnel for this rail, and for express buses, which is being extended. It has built new stadiums, a sculpture park, a city hall, several museums, and a central library that is the toast of town. It has also built a new westbound bridge to alleviate port traffic, and is working on another heading east. Most importantly, it’s now boring holes for the Alaska Way Viaduct, which will transform two miles of downtown overpass into a tunnel. Locals are already encouraging the city to construct, in place of the overpass, a waterfront park, full of bikeways and promenades.

Indeed the improvements in SLU are just a microcosm of what’s occurring region-wide. But for the city to get returns on these investments, it is necessary that a critical mass exist around them. Seattle’s less likely to achieve this mass if it limits, through zoning, the number of people who can live nearby.

Nor will the city, without density, be as likely to produce basic necessities of urban living, like jobs, sustainable growth, and affordable housing. The reason for this, according to Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, is because by capping building heights, it artificially reduces available real estate, which propels sprawl and makes housing more expensive.

“The relationship between housing supply and affordability isn’t just a matter of economic theory,” writes Glaeser. “A great deal of evidence links the supply of space with the cost of real estate…Growth, not height restrictions and a fixed building stock, keeps space affordable and ensures that poorer people and less profitable firms can stay.”

That Seattle limits this growth is concerning in a state that already has a Growth Management Act; and in a region that neared 9% unemployment during the recession. It is also concerning in a nation facing economic decline. Cities like Seattle are precisely the engines that can stave off such decline, but their role is mitigated if major companies like Amazon and Vulcan can’t expand in them as they see fit.

But to repeat: urban villages are mainly impractical because they are not as vibrant, around the clock, as neighborhoods with skyscrapers.

I understood this intuitively after walking a bit later through an area adjacent to SLU called Belltown. The area has received much publicity for its transition from a place where you buy heroin, to where you buy craft beer. But its revitalization has still been undermined by a city that confines much of this growth into 8-10 story buildings. What this has created is an area with decent amenities, but little foot traffic—and in an ode to Jane Jacobs, one that still doesn’t feel particularly safe. This was echoed by a visitor I met here, who described her walk from downtown to a neighborhood hostel.

“I had gotten off the light rail downtown late at night, and from there began walking to the hostel on 2nd,” she elaborated. “And I’ll tell you, the atmosphere changed quick! One second I’m in the city center; the next I’m on these dark streets, and pass this shady park [Regrade Park]…The only people around looked real suspect…[and] I actually saw a guy with a syringe in his arm, who seemed mad at me for noticing him.”

Belltown indeed has a number of “suspect” characters, because of its persistent illegal drug market—but no more than downtown. These characters are only more noticeable—and feel more threatening—because they linger on streets with fewer pedestrians. Such an atmosphere, which exists elsewhere in the city, is but one negative consequence of restrictive zoning.

*

After eating in Belltown that evening, I headed into Pike Place Market, on the western edge of downtown, to find it crowded as usual. It has been well-documented how the market was slated for demolition in the 1960s by developers, under the guise of urban renewal, only to be saved by preservationists. The moral taken from this story by some is that high-rise growth, even downtown, is at odds not only with historic preservation, but the character of Seattle.

The point often missed by such people, though, is that growth, if not used excessively to devour historical sights, can actually save them, when normally they might suffer disrepair. Such disrepair has become the fate for many historic districts, in declining cities, and could have been the fate for Pike Place. But today the market is as diverse as any in the nation.

The role of preservationists here, while important, is not the whole story. Had Pike Place not remained economically viable, it may’ve been demolished anyhow, in spite of them. But it remained viable not only because of its historical value, but from surrounding growth—which filled the market with more tourists and locals; and with tax revenue that funded $73 million in renovations. Nowadays it’s the type of multifaceted amenity that could only exist in an extremely dense area.

This same logic applied to other amenities I passed, while heading east from the market through downtown—a new multi-story Target; a concert hall with an enormous line up the sidewalk; a shopping mall with a Macy’s and Nordstrom’s; and several street performers. Finally I got to Westlake Park, a public square that is considered the heart of the city. At the moment it had probably two hundred people, on half a block, who were listening to music and socializing. It would remain this way well into nightfall, as would much of downtown.

*

It’s not surprising, given his history, that Peter Steinbrueck is so skeptical towards the idea of more skyscrapers in Seattle. Not only was his father instrumental in saving Pike Place, but he too has been a voice for preservation, amidst various speculative frenzies. After helping pass the CAP initiative, Steinbrueck served ten years on city council, where he advocated for incentive zoning, a rejection of the viaduct project, and other causes typically championed by local progressives. Since then he’s launched a consulting firm, and through all this has become, like his father, one of the de facto mouthpieces for the “Lesser Seattle” mentality.

This is not to say he dislikes growth, but has long encouraged the kind that better fits his standards of livability, wherein account is taken for view corridors, street facades, sunlight, and open spaces. To him, once buildings transcend certain heights, they not only evade these standards, but cause excessive traffic and damage neighborhood scale.

When I interviewed Steinbrueck by phone weeks after leaving Seattle, I had him defend his stances, and the call quickly got spirited, thanks to the passion for which he is famous.

I began the interview by positing a scenario: pretend that Seattle developed SLU following my own strategy for growth. It would begin by preserving historic structures. Then it would build necessary infrastructure and amenities, much as it’s already doing. Then, for redevelopment lots, it would simply allow developers to build as high as they wanted, without demanding extractions from them. Were this to happen, I theorized, SLU would quickly become an extension of downtown, from the pent-up demand now pressuring the area. It would get several skyscrapers, and these would increase foot traffic. The traffic would create vibrant new public spaces and corridors, and make the area even more of a hub for innovation. But because of present regulations, I continued, SLU is now mostly a mid-rise industrial zone, which feels empty in some places, and dangerous in others.

Steinbrueck disagreed with my whole thesis.

“I don’t agree that you would get all those things,” he began. “The Central Business District allowed the Columbia Center to be built. It did not get all the things you suggested. It did not get housing…So we had to incentivize housing…

“People do not like to live amidst dense office cores, with very tall buildings, which block sunlight and views—especially in a city like Seattle, which has some of the fewest sunny days of any city in the United States…So I just think that’s a completely false set of outcomes that you think would be achieved if you were to remove the zoning.”

Steinbrueck instead remarked that Vulcan’s present strategy was preferable to mine.

“I do think what Vulcan has done has been largely successful…They’ve done some careful planning and policies, and studied the kinds of heights and densities that would be desirable for a live-work urban district.

“You also have, again with Vulcan, a rather unusual development firm, with a business plan that is triple bottom line…[aiming for] social equity, and environmental, and community.”

But I asked Steinbrueck to imagine that SLU did become that dense hub. Because he had just mentioned Vulcan’s “triple bottom line”, I listed my own bottom line, and how taller buildings might help. I suggested first that such buildings would better fund surrounding amenities, through more revenue; that they would boost investor confidence, by implying fewer regulations; that they would make housing more affordable, by increasing supply; and that they would counter sprawl, by receiving more of the incoming population.

Again Steinbrueck disagreed with much of this, and as he did, began to display the fractured thinking that architects tend to have whenever they place aesthetic pieties over practical urban matters. For example, to the idea that taller buildings created affordable housing, he responded:

“That’s a simple kind of Glaeseresque supply-demand theory that I don’t think bears out.” He said rather that high-rise housing, when left to the market, simply produced units that the middle class couldn’t afford, in the form of “vertical gated communities.”

I asked him why he thought this was, and he responded that “it’s very expensive to build in urban cores. The land values are already stacked up very high. And office use has tended to be favored over residential,” which inflates prices.

I mentioned that the regulations he’s long supported also inflated prices.

“Well, that’s life in America. Environmental regulation adds expense.”

While on the subject of the environment, I again spoke favorably of tall buildings, as a detriment to sprawl. Although such buildings often catered to the rich, I admitted, at least they took pressure off suburbs and single-family areas, where rich people would otherwise locate.

“It’s a mistake to think you’re going to address sprawl, and end it, by simply eliminating zoning inside cities,” responded Steinbrueck. “Most cities can absorb some of the growth, but it tends to be more expensive, and it’s not the way most Americans want to live.”

I asked if the rapid growth downtown the last few decades—and its increased living costs—were not validation that people in fact did want to live there, but just couldn’t afford to.

“That might be one theory, but the fact is, not everybody wants to live in high-rises…because there are trade-offs with the quality of life.”

This segue into “quality of life”, I soon realized, was at the heart of Steinbrueck’s philosophy, more than concrete policy ideas. When pressing Mayor Rice on why he hadn’t advocated harder for density himself, while in office, he had used the same phrase, associating it with life in the Pacific Northwest. To me the phrase only implied subjective differences between the three of us about what it even meant—and what form of urbanism best produced it.

“Density for density’s sake does not produce a livable environment,” Steinbrueck said. Instead this was created when planners and citizens worked together to allow moderate densities, that were built to scale, and not just full of “schlocky architecture.” This is what had been done in Vancouver, and was why he preferred it over deregulated cities like Houston and New York.

“Seattle,” he concluded, “does not aspire to be New York City.”

*

The idea that Seattle is not New York, and shouldn’t try to be, is of course shared by many locals. But it wasn’t much shared by younger ones I talked to here, who often scoffed at some of the city’s urban planning sacred cows—like that whole swaths of the city should go underdeveloped to preserve views of the Space Needle; or that skyscrapers should be resisted because they didn’t all have perfect facades. While these urbanites felt such buildings shouldn’t overrun historic areas like Capitol Hill, they understood skyscrapers in general gave the city more than they took, in respect to crowds and amenities, and would be good for sparser areas like SLU. Nor was slow growth desired by many of the transplants I talked to, who often had multiple options on where to live, but were attracted to Seattle precisely because of its cosmopolitanism.

But the best way to gauge the popularity of a given style of urbanism is not to ask people what they like, but to observe where they actually go, and what they buy. Here in Seattle, demand is still evident in all the new construction. Because this construction continues via high-rise towers is ipso facto proof that people like such high rises, both to live in and visit. It’s also proof—as are crowded public spaces—that people here like urban density, in the broader sense.

“So much is happening here!” shouted Leah Taub, a busker I met in Westlake Park who was visiting the city on summer break after her sophomore year at UNC. Originally from Charlotte, Taub said that she disliked the slow pace of her hometown, and was considering moving to Seattle after graduation. “You just look at places like this park, and Pike Place, and the museums, and really the whole vibe here, and it makes you want to move here, become a part of it.”

While observing downtown from a bench, she added: “I don’t see why anyone would resist this. I love tall buildings…I think they’re great, and the city should encourage them wherever it can.”

There’s no magic formula for producing the vibrant amenities and public spaces that exist in downtown Seattle. They’re simply a natural outgrowth of heavy foot traffic—which itself is the outgrowth of tall buildings. Downtown became the way it did because such buildings were allowed by local officials. But it will only be replicated in neighborhoods like South Lake Union if the regulations which now forbid them are overturned.

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2 Comments

  1. You mention throughout your essay that downtown, with its high rises, is vibrant and full of foot traffic. While this may be true during the day, at night it is simply not the case. At night downtown becomes a dead zone. I would guess that if it weren’t for paychecks people received for being there it would be the same dead zone during the day. It is largely in LR, low rise, neighborhoods, with their human scaled development that many of those people choose to spend their evenings and nights venturing out in.

    Furthermore, contemporary developers could build lower buildings and leave more green space if they chose to but it would take them a few more years to pay off their projects. These days most developers seem to want to make their return more quickly so we are left with property line to property line development.

    • “Contemporary developers could build lower buildings and leave more green space if they chose to but it would take them a few more years to pay off their projects.”

      Actually, CapHillCW, no they can’t. Developers can’t just take a “few more years” to earn profits. They have creditors to pay off, salaried workers, etc. Thus they’re trying to maximize returns quickly. If they can’t build up, even on expensive downtown land, they’re going to build out, even butting up against the property line. If a city regulates against either, they’re minimizing the potential real estate. But people like the ones from Capitol Hill just say, “developers should do this, and developers should do that”, without stopping and thinking about what market realities allow them to do.

      And again, I’m not sure why buildings can’t come all the way to the property line anyhow–many of the ones along Capitol Hill’s commercial corridors certainly do…


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