How Seattle Is Focusing On The Future While Preserving What Makes It Unique
Downtown Seattle is experiencing an unprecedented development boom. The Downtown Seattle Association’s 2017 Mid-Year Development Guide indicates a record $5B in current construction activity downtown. Residential builders are racing to meet demand with more than 30,000 units under construction or in development. Hotels continue to invest in new rooms, and as more employers locate downtown, commercial contractors are in the process of delivering millions of square feet of new office space.
According to speakers at our Bisnow Future of Downtown Seattle event, this growth is just the beginning. Tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are expanding their downtown footprints to access the talent and residents in downtown neighborhoods, and igniting massive economic growth in Seattle.
“Companies used to move to someplace, and then people would move to be near the companies and the jobs,” Pine Street Group principal Matt Griffin said. “Fortunately, in the last 20 years we’ve made a much better downtown from one that was quite broken in the '90s. In doing that, we’ve created a magnet for talent, and now the companies are moving to get closer to the talent.”
Panelists said despite this success and growth, Seattle needs to keep thinking decades ahead. A recent analysis by the Seattle Times found Amazon now occupies 19% of all prime office space in Seattle, the most for any employer in a major U.S. city. But without continued evolution and forward-thinking city planning, even a big employer like Amazon will not retain the city’s talent, Griffin said.
“We have all this young talent and it’s great for them in today’s downtown with the bars and the music — but when they start having kids, if we don’t fix Seattle’s public schools, then we’re screwed," Griffin said. "When I think about this boom and the future, I really worry about if we’re doing the right things about education. Because if the talent doesn’t want to stay here, we’ve lost our edge.”
The panelists said if the public wants Seattle to remain competitive and affordable, it must promote policies that limit restrictions and fees on development. Some of the recent steps the city government has taken to bring costs down by putting the burden on developers have backfired, Perkins+Will design principal Erik Mott said.
“As an architect, we see that when some of these initiatives fall apart, it really puts a burden on development and severely increases the cost of construction. I think that it can have the opposite of the intended effect. It drives costs up, reduces supply and creates a market where rent will be escalated to cover the cost,” Mott said. “I would encourage on the public side, for there to be some sort of economic realism and to look at the city as a collective project. Know that private developers are the ones who are bringing change to the city. They are bringing places to work and places to live and recreate, and we should encourage that.”
In addition to building code, developers and designers must now consider how changing modes of transportation will affect real estate in downtown Seattle. Operating under the assumption that gas-powered cars will one day be phased out in favor of electric, the panelists discussed how new buildings will need to innovate to accommodate this change.
“We have to start thinking about, how are the people that live and work in my building going to move around?” ReachNow CEO Steve Banfield said. “If I’m going to have parking, what happens when the majority of those cars are electric? What do I need to do in terms of infrastructure before the concrete gets poured so that I can have car chargers sufficient enough to charge all the cars in that building? What do I do in terms of smart software so that when everyone comes home at 6 p.m. and plugs their car in, I don’t brownout my grid because everybody’s car suddenly wants to charge itself?”
Futuristic parking lots are not the only major changes the city can expect to see in downtown Seattle. The historic Seattle waterfront is undergoing a major transformation that will alter the heart of the city.
“In a little less than a year and half from now, the Alaskan Way Viaduct will come down. The reason that matters is to reclaim that front porch of Seattle as a public open space that will support the economic growth and vitality of our city,” said Marshall Foster, director of City of Seattle Office of the Waterfront. “We are knitting all these different historic parts of Seattle together and reconnecting them to the historic waterfront. We need to do it in a way that is not just imposing the new, but sort of surgically inserting some new design in a way that really fits the scale and context of those districts.”
Though much of the downtown core is changing, many are working to retain its original character. For designers and developers working in adaptive reuse for the city’s historic buildings, new challenges are arising as the city increases in density.
“As a building has been in existence longer and longer, there’s an emotional attachment that happens. That’s part of why we’re drawn to it,” Urban Villages principal Jon Buerge said. “As a result, the regulatory oversight on how you change a building is rooted in that emotional ownership by community.”
In some cases, that emotional attachment to the past can be a detriment to the city’s best interest, Eagle Rock Ventures owner Scott Shapiro said.
“If we’re going to accommodate the growth in this city, we need to be a little more flexible in these historic neighborhoods to add more density,” Shapiro said. “I consider myself a preservationist, but I also think there are times in our city when the pendulum goes too far and we want to preserve any building that is old. I think we need to be careful as a community to decide which buildings are important to preserve and which ones we need to allow new buildings to go in their place.”