Seattle at a Major Crossroad for Livability

Seattle at a Major Crossroad for Livability

Letter to Jon Talton at The Seattle Times:

Thank you for your good work—have enjoyed your various articles about downtown Seattle growth pains.  I believe we are at a major crossroad in deciding what Seattle will look like—and we need to get this right.  At a City Council committee meeting Friday morning (2/24), Councilmember Sally Bagshaw noted that decisions that will be made over the next few weeks or month having an impact we’ll have to live with for a 100 years.  She’s right—and this is time for all of us to decide what that future will be.  Details of Mayor Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) and now Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) plans are being determined for implementation—soon.  At the Friday meeting, councilmember Rob Johnson indicated this would happen over several upcoming meetings.  

My concern, which is shared by many downtown residents, is that LIVABILITY is being ignored and sacrificed.  I worry that the city will allow development that packs high-rise glass towers right next to each other in return for affordable housing—Mayor Murray’s “Grand Bargain”.  But it doesn’t seem like a grand bargain to pack human beings in like sardines with no privacy or life-giving light.   Rich or poor, old or young, owner or renter—no one wants their bedroom or living room window to be 18’ away from their neighbor’s.  No one wants to live in the dark shadows of a 50 story neighboring building 24/7—needing to have lights on all the time.  And no one is going to want to wait 30 minutes to leave their parking garage via a narrow 19th century alleyway blocked by delivery trucks to go to work or shop.  Do any of us have this view as our hope for the future?

But perhaps folks think “this cannot happen in Seattle”.  Wrong—it already has.  People today own and rent homes in two towers right now (Cosmopoitan and Olive 8)—one more (Escala) is in the cue right now—and there are 9 more buildings likely to face the same.  Councilmembers have said this is “awful”—and we even have quotes from developers saying the same thing.  When confronted with a possible competing high-rise project just 42 ½ feet away from his project Seattle developer Al Clise said “It’s a bad precendent for the city.  It’s bad archicture.  It’s really bad for the people who live in the area”  (Puget Sound Business Journal 4/19/16—see attached).  He’s right—but evidently this only applies to his projects and not the rest of us regular folks who live and work downtown.  

This is NOT about views.  It is not anti-growth.  It is not a “NIMBY” issue.  It’s about having a thriving, LIVABLE city.  And believe it or not, we think there may be a practical way to deal with growth, affordability, and livablity to make sure Seattle remains a vibrant city we, our kids, and our grandkids can be proud of.  While these issues are now primarily about downtown and South Lake Union (SLU), folks in other parts of the city better believe their turn may come before long.  So we all need a workable plan.   Here’s one we think can be a win-win-win:

1.  Tower Spacing thru taller/skinnier buildings.  The MHA proposal currently under debate already allows for taller buildings in return for affordable housing.  The city can require future development to be skinnier in return for taller—with bigger setbacks/tower spacing.  Residents win with greater privacy and light.  Developers win with similar square footage and higher prices for upper floors.  And the city wins with more money for affordable housing.

2.  Mixed Development.  If downtown is going to really be livable, don’t we need schools and parks like the suburbs?  Councilmember Sally Bagshaw mentioned this last Friday—and she’s right.  And think about this—what if you put a 4 story school on one corner, a park on another corner, and two high-rise residential towers on opposite corners?  What a great block that would be!  (Frankly, the block where I live in Escala would be perfect for that—Escala on the NW corner, new proposed 5th & Stewart building on the SE corner, the school on the SW corner, and a park on the NE corner).  WOW!

We can and must make sure Seattle doesn’t “miss the train” with major decisions once again.  Our city has missed huge opportunities over the years to prevent traffic congestion that now cost citizens millions in both lost time and high cost projects.  We’re not going to be able to “fix” a mess of tightly packed towers after the fact—so it’s time to set rules that make sense for the future. 

Many downtown residents are working hard to help shape a better future for Seattle—and I’m hoping you will help get the word out that these issues are being decided now.  Our city government needs to hear from its citizens as it makes significant decsions that will impact livablity for the 21st century. 

Thank you.

Kirk Greene