When the government does it: Part 3, Similar mega-developments

January 10, 2018 | Development, Government, Housing, Inclusionary zoning, Legislation and policy, Markets, Policy, Seattle, Theory, Universities, Zoning

By: David A. Smith


[Continued from Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]


As we saw in Part 1, using as our source a short factual article University of Washington Daily (November 22, 2017) by student reporter Max Wasserman, the University of Washington’s expansion will generate the need for 4,750 new apartments or homes, and yet Part 2 established that not only is the university proposing to include only 150 of them in its expansion, as a state governmental entity (!) it is exempt from Seattle’s otherwise mandatory inclusionary zoning law. 


While we set in abeyance question of whether the university should be held to the same inclusionary zoning requirements as every other property developer in Seattle, we can look at the other half of the policy question: by what right and according to what standard should the city judge development? 


We get the right from zoning laws, and they’re 102 years old


 E. How bad is verticality?


If the march of civilization is ever coldward and stormward, the march of cities is ever upward and downward: down into piping and public transit –


Drilling into the granite: New York City subway cutaway, 1905


– upward into elevatored air homes and offices.


The more I work in emerging countries, the more clear becomes the fundamental societal moment when the urbanizing population is willing to abandon their ground-floor front door and live in walkups and high-rises.  Even today, some cultures fiercely resist it, but in a quarter of a century every human society will have made the transition – and like other transitions of urbanization, this one is irreversible.  Once a society gets used to living or working in the sky, it never goes back.  (Knowing this, and knowing that the greenest form of human society is also the most vertical, I’ve become a verticalist and pursue it wherever practical.)


What’s good for structures is also good for societies and economies


But what may be true for societies isn’t always true for long-resident curmudgeons, many of whom are charter members of the Urban Stasis Party:


[Douglas] Campbell [owner of Bulldog News] has seen major neighborhood changes since opening on the Ave in 1989, but none bigger than what it currently faces: a major upzone that will bring buildings as tall as 320 feet in some areas.


A man who’s happy with his location as it currently is


“We don’t want another South Lake Union,” Campbell said.


For those of you who don’t have the context (I didn’t), here’s Wikipedia’s description:


Due to recent development plans by Paul Allen‘s Vulcan Inc., as well as other prominent developers, South Lake Union is becoming a hub for life science organizations. Some in the area include: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Allen Institute for Cell Science, Zymogenetics, Battelle, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, Seattle Children’s Hospital, PATH, Rosetta (now part of Merck & Co.), Bio-Rad, and University of Washington Medicine.


Yes, one can see how horrible this would be


Steady densification and steady verticalization are the history of the university district into which Mr. Campbell moved, as I discovered in a great through-the-decades montage from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that my friend the Google found for me.  A hundred and ten years ago, when the University of Washington was 45 years old, the neighborhood was prosperous and solidly residential:


50th and University, 1909


Seattle was digging down, as shown in this 1914 photo of sewer excavations.


Replacing stick-built ground-floor sheds


By the 1930s, jobs, cars, and students had brought verticality, with the construction of four-story apartments:


Note the below-grade level as the hill slopes down behind


With the postwar boom, the freeway model arrived not long after:


Campus Parkway underpass being opened, 1950


But the University District was still spacious and largely horizontal”


Aerial photograph of the university district, undated (probably 1955)


In the photo above, note the waterfront on-campus golf course (!) and Husky Stadium with only a single row tier.  Naturally, not everyone favored the expansion.


Nowadays we’d call this a hate crime: Traffic Engineer hung in effigy, 1956


Nor was verticality satiated: With trackless-trolley electric buses, more people, and more students, high-rises sprouted as well:


Northeast 45th Street and University Way, 1959 (note elevator apartments in the background)


Fast-forward half a century, and the university district is now thoroughly urbanized:


On a clear day (rare), you can see Seattle: University District aerial photograph


By now that whole army has gone vertical, increasingly vertical, and the city’s approval of upzoning will not only make it more vertical still, it will add immense value to all property in the district.


Going up?


Taller development is bound by what’s called floor-area ratio, or a balance of the total square footage of how much ground space the site occupies. Developers can satisfy the constraint with designs of sleek skyscraper or shorter buildings with stout pedestals as a base, a design Campbell fears would turn the neighborhood into an office park.


Cities constantly evolve across multiple dimensions – demographic, economic, built environment – that reinforce one another.  Seattle’s original business model was lumber production:


Henry Yesler’s steam-powered sawmill


Then it became a manufacturing center:


Boeing mail planes standing in Boeing Field, 1928


Production line for B-17 Flying Fortresses, Boeing Field, World War II


Even today, Boeing is the region’s largest single employer.


Building a 777 for Cathay Pacific


The trifecta allure of the U-District may mean just that: the upzone, light rail, and the UW are attracting similar mega-developments that have transformed South Lake Union from an industrial park into a tech metropolis.


Who weeps for vanished industrial parks? 


A tremendously underappreciated writer: Alfred Bester


In Hobson’s Choice, a 1952 short story by Alfred Bester, a statistician finds his way to rural Iowa, where there is a time travel portal with people clamoring to be somewhen else:

“You’d find it damned inconvenient trying at your time of life.” Jelling shook his head.  “Because you’d find that living is the sum of conveniences. You might think plumbing is pretty unimportant compared to ancient Greek philosophers. Lots of people do. But the fact is, we already know the philosophy. After a while you get tired of seeing the great men and listening to them expound the material you already know. You begin to miss the conveniences and familiar patterns you used to take for granted.”

“That,” said Addyer, “is a superficial attitude.”

“You think so? Try living in the past by candlelight, without central heating, without refrigeration, canned foods, elementary drugs ….” p. 11-12


Through the vistas of the years, every age but our own seems glamorous and golden. We yearn for the yesterdays and tomorrows, never realizing that we are faced with Hobson’s Choice … that today, bitter or sweet, anxious or calm, is the only day for us. The dream of time is the traitor, and we are all accomplices to the betrayal of ourselves. p. 15


Time’s arrow points only one direction – forward – and urbanization’s arrow points only one direction – upward.  Where then does that leave the University of Washington and its duty, moral if not legal, to mix affordable housing in with its commercial expansion?


[Continued in Part 4.]


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