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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

August 19, 2014 at 10:52 AM

The boom and its discontents

In the hometown of Steve Ballmer’s new NBA team, the Wilshire Grand Center is under construction. It will rise 1,099 feet above downtown LA’s Financial District, making it the tallest skyscraper west of Chicago. Or will the honor go, for a time, to a supertall skyscraper at San Francisco’s Transbay Center, a massive new project rising on the site of the gritty old bus terminal? Starchitect Cesar Pelli’s Salesforce Tower is set to top out at 1,070 feet.

Slow growth and the lesser depression haunt most of America. But in a few winner cities, the commercial real-estate boom is startling in its velocity and ambitions. According to a Downtown Seattle Association report in June, a record 100 buildings are under construction, permitted or recently completed in our center city. I counted 15 big cranes on South Lake Union and the north end of downtown coming back on the bus from the U District on Monday.

Yet this economic windfall that most cities would kill for is bringing discontent and unease, especially as it spreads out to other neighborhoods. A reader recently wrote:

I’m not against urban growth but I sure am against the growth that is taking place in certain parts of the city. We live on Phinney Ridge and have been watching with horror the buildings that are going up. There are a few older buildings that are fairly nice but the recent ones including the AVP building on Market looks as if they ran out of siding. The building on the old Denny’s property is so big and ugly.

All of these buildings look as if the builders got the same plan online and are using slight variations of the same color for the outsides of these buildings. Remember Avocado appliances, well we’ll look back at these same-looking apartment buildings and know what era they were built in. And I’m not construction expert but they go up so fast I can’t believe they will last very long. We will have our own Ballard slums.

And lastly they do not provide enough parking spaces. Parking in Ballard is impossible at times especially in the evenings. I love Ballard Avenue. Reminds me a bit of the Village in New York and thank God they haven’t ruined that — yet. Seattle definitely needs help from these greedy developers who care nothing about what they’re putting up.

I feel her pain. According to the Puget Sound Business Journal, construction will begin this week on a 41-story hotel-apartment tower on Fourth Avenue next to Cinerama. It will displace Dean Transmissions, one of the last workaday but useful long-standing businesses in Belltown, along a changing boulevard I chronicled last year. (Dean will move to Seventh Avenue and Battery).

It’s great to live in a vibrant neighborhood benefiting from the Amazon effect. Focusing employment in the center city is the most efficient, cost effective and environmentally friendly civic design — provided abundant transit is available. On the other hand, I wonder if people on Fourth to the south of the new tower will be able to see the Space Needle. City officials claim they have set aside “view corridors.” It’s also unfortunate that the developers can’t move up to Third Avenue, but the bus corridor and clustering of social services are apparently a deterrent.

My deeper concern is whether Seattle is planning the infrastructure for an increasingly dense city. We’re struggling to maintain the existing bus system and buses won’t cut it. They back up during peak periods, get stuck in traffic and are much less appealing to riders or easy to board compared with light rail or subways. I know, I know…failed monorails, shouldn’t have let Atlanta get our subway system that was majority funded by the feds in the late 1960s but voters shot it down. Wider streets and more freeways only add congestion. Ride share, bikes and the chimera of self-driving cars won’t save us. What’s the plan? Muddling along is a tried-and-true Seattle method, but at some point inaction will threaten growth and competitiveness.

P&GThen there’s the aesthetics. The loss of classic three-story brick apartments, low-slung commercial buildings and the appealing human scale this brings to the streetscape. All the lookalike bland vast sheets of glass. Art deco revival, anyone?

When Cincinnati’s Procter & Gamble decided to build a new headquarters in the late 1980s, it could have thrown up a soulless International knock-off like crosstown giant Kroger had done. Instead, it commissioned Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates to create a gift to the city: two low towers along with a park and inviting entry pavilion. The result was an award-winning project, as well as something that fit well with the historic buildings around it.

Alas, Amazon doesn’t seem to have such an ambition. Perhaps we should be grateful that Jeff Bezos had the insight to create an urban technology campus like none other. And, to be fair, there’s plenty of variety, human scale and even preservation thanks to Paul Allen’s Vulcan.

As I say, most other cities would envy our reasons for complaint. That doesn’t mean city leaders shouldn’t be paying more attention to the larger implications of what’s being built. With all the capital out there looking for a return, it’s not impossible that a supertall developer will drive up soon. Yes, in our little town.


Tuesday Reading: Modern economic history of the United States | The Big Picture

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Dollar store throw down

Fight to serve the working poor

And kill off rivals




Comments | More in | Topics: architecture, Development, transit


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