A Walk with John (Part 1)
Touring downtown Seattle on foot with prominent zoning lawyer John Hempelmann, a one-man encyclopedia of Seattle's development history, lets you see things you never noticed. (It also reminds you that you're out of shape.)
John's office is in the Collins Building, built by John Collins, elected in 1873 as Seattle's first developer mayor. (He probably got himself a new top hat and an ascot for the occasion.) John says a developer would have a tough time getting elected in Seattle today, given the City's liberal bent and the impression that developers are focused on profit more than people. By 1880, Collins was one of the city's wealthiest residents, possibly helped by his political influence. His investments in utilities benefitted from the franchise the City granted to the Seattle Gas Light Co during his tenure, giving it exclusive rights to provide gas for 25 years.
Boasting a door to nowhere on its north side, John cites the building as a prime example of Seattle's famous underground. Collins built it after the Great Fire of 1889 wiped out much of the town, including his family home. Seattle's leaders took the opportunity to make some improvements. In the midst of reconstruction, the town regraded its streets, raising them 12 to 30 feet in some places. Some, like the Collins Building, lost a few feet along the hillside.
Columbia Center owes its height to another hill. The largest height bonus for public amenities came from the three floors of shopping arcades on the lower levels. The steep grade the building sits on was the trick to overcoming requirements to keep the entrance to each floor at street-level. Did the code's writers forget their city was covered in hills? Maybe; John says they expected only first-floor retail. If laws at the time restricted Columbia Center to its original floor-area ratio, it would've only risen about 10 stories instead of the final 76. (See, folks, paperwork can be your friend.)
Other bonuses came from public plazas, viewing areas on the top floors, and transferred development rights from surrounding buildings, such as the Oakland Hotel building next door. Reputed to be a former brothel, the building sold enough vertical rights to put two extra floors on the Center. John says the old cathouse is a bit of an architectural marvel itself. The modern top floors would have been too much for the 101-year-old brick structure to support, but the architect took pressure off by putting the weight on a steel structure built onto the exterior.
Blocks away, the Four Seasons stands next to its unlikely neighbor, the former Lusty Lady peep show. (Fun for the whole family, minus most of the family.) John says the hotel developer tried to buy the building, but the owner stood firm because he didn't want the women who worked there to lose their jobs. Instead, he sold the unused development rights to the developer, which allowed the Four Seasons to jut out slightly over the Lusty Lady. This had the added benefit of preserving the view corridor to the water for the building formerly occupied by Washington Mutual.
Seattleites considered the Alaskan Way Viaduct to be visionary when it was constructed, John says, despite now viewing it as an eyesore blocking views of Puget Sound. John says people in the 1950s thought the car was the perfect way to connect people moving to the suburbs, and the viaduct offered a fast route through the city, with great views of the waterfront and Olympic Mountains. Since then, gas prices, congestion, and a return to cities have changed attitudes on car ownership. Big Bertha's tunnel will replace the viaduct in 2016.
John points to the new apartment and hotel buildings built on what used to be surface parking around CenturyLink Field as another sign of the times. Before the Kingdome's demolition and replacement, these parking lots were considered vital to draw people in to the stadiums. Trading parking for apartments would have been as inconceivable then as building a combination baseball and football stadium would be now. John attributes the shift in thinking that caused people to turn against the viaduct. Now, all of the city's mass transit options converge there. To be continued...