Friday, June 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Raising the ceiling on a vibrant downtown Seattle

Special to The Times

Downtown living is about to get more dynamic. The city of Seattle's new downtown zoning codes encourage taller, more-slender buildings and will bring even more vitality and vibrancy to our downtown.

The more housing we build downtown, the more desirable downtown becomes for all — residents, workers, visitors and tourists. Many people who live downtown invest in downtown. They donate their time and resources to social services and nonprofits, they care about their neighborhood and they shop and dine downtown.

Unlike other dense cities, Seattle is not a downtown comprised of real-estate investors. During its 1990s building boom, Vancouver, B.C., overbuilt housing, selling half of it to out-of-town investors who weren't interested in developing a community. In Seattle, the vast majority of the local demand for housing is being filled by people who choose to live here, thereby ensuring that our growth will be smart growth. And this benefits us all.

When I moved to downtown Seattle from Green Lake in 1977, it was as much to be closer to work as to experience the energy of living in an urban environment. Although downtown living was not seen as the "trend" it is today, I saw firsthand the benefits of living downtown — the sense of a free-flowing community, the ability to just walk out your door and connect with the world.

It's difficult to interact with neighbors when you spend your life isolated in a car. I walk about four miles a day, meeting and interacting with friends and colleagues I meet on the street. The convenience of being able to just lock and leave my home to step out on the town was really appealing to me then, and it still is now, 29 years later.

Today, we are poised to take downtown living to its next height. For the first time, the downtown zoning regulations encourage residential development. The updated code champions improved aesthetics, greater amenities and more and better utilization of our limited downtown space.

It allows more homes on a piece of property, permits residential towers to be taller than commercial ones in many areas and requires all residential towers to meet environmentally proactive LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver sustainability standards. For the first time, our zoning code recognizes that a vibrant and vital downtown relies on a healthy mix of retail and residential.

The new code will also help reverse a prolonged trend toward urban sprawl. In the past few decades, baby boomers have created urban sprawl by moving ever farther into the suburbs to raise families. That trend is reversing. As their children grow up and move out, many of these "empty nesters" are moving back to the cities and into the downtown neighborhoods to free themselves from traffic commutes, to be closer to urban cultural amenities and to shed some of the responsibility that comes with maintaining a house and a yard. In turn, more young families can now "recycle" these suburban homes rather than build new ones and extend suburban sprawl.

In my 29 years of downtown living, I've lived close to the Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square and Westlake Park — and not once have I regretted living in any of these wonderful downtown neighborhoods. Each has its own distinct flavor: Pike Place with its quiet evenings, Pioneer Square with its special historic buildings and scale, and Westlake with its shopping, its theaters and its people-filled streets.

The new downtown will incorporate all of these flavors and more. Sitting front row and center is Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue, just a block from the Pike Place Market. It will be the first high-rise residential tower to be built under the new code.

During the city of Seattle's zoning deliberations, the project was revised and redesigned many times. I worked with the city and tested various code changes as well as social and architectural assumptions. The effort provided constructive feedback and helped us all determine what worked and what didn't work. With construction scheduled to begin next month, this 38-story condominium represents the next generation of downtown living.

As a longtime resident of downtown, I applaud all those who helped make the new downtown zoning regulations a reality. Our new tall and slender residential towers reflect our city's more acute understanding that downtown living can benefit us all. Seattle is taking a positive step toward becoming a more vibrant, sustainable and world-class city, and I am excited to be part of its future.

William Justen is the managing director of the Samis Land Company and founder of The Justen Company, a real estate consulting and development firm. He conceived of Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue and is working closely with its developer, Opus Northwest.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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