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Developer wants taller buildings in Seattle

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Developer wants taller buildings

Jeanne Lang Jones

Staff Writer

With the future of a crucial property near Seattle's Pike Place Market at stake, developer Greg Smith is working hard to persuade city officials to allow taller, thinner buildings downtown.

City planners are taking comments from Smith and other members of the public until the end of the month on proposals that could relax restrictions on building heights in certain areas of downtown Seattle.

Smith has been meeting with a number of city officials in recent weeks to build support for a new sort of high-rise that he said could make downtown a more vibrant residential community, while reducing sprawl in the suburbs.

The test case for Smith's argument is a parking lot he owns on the southeast corner of Second Avenue and Pike Street. Smith wants to build a taller, leaner building than regulations now allow on the property, which is on what he calls a blighted intersection.

"This is a meaningful piece of property that will set the stage for the direction the city will go," Smith said. "If we have to come to a public debate whether this is good or bad for the city as a whole, let's start it.

"I know there is a huge support base for it, and I know there will be people who will fight it," he said. "I hope we can prevail."

Smith also is in the vanguard of a group of downtown property owners proposing substantially more residential development be included in plans for the neighborhoods south of downtown, around Pioneer Square and the stadiums.

Smith's initiative is timely because the city's Department of Planning and Development is in the midst of preparing an environmental impact statement on changing building regulations.

While Smith is only one voice among many commenting on the city's proposed zoning changes, his voice is noteworthy because he is using a proposed building to advance his ideas.

The four alternatives proposed in the current draft EIS range from making no changes to increasing building heights by as much as 130 feet -- or more than a dozen stories -- in the heart of the downtown office core, for a maximum height of 585 feet.

Heights could also increase in two areas immediately north and south of the office core by 100 feet, or about 10 stories, for a maximum height of 400 feet.

Smith would like his parcel on Second and Pike to become a poster child for a new generation of tall, lean buildings -- like those found along the waterfront in Vancouver, B.C.

But Smith's property is outside the areas where zoning changes are being considered.

Smith would like to go up as high as 360 feet on his proposed, mixed-use tower, which would hold a hotel and condominiums. Currently, heights in the area are capped at 195 feet, or about 20 stories.

With a Johnnie Rockets restaurant moving into a space at First Avenue and Pike Street, and the massive Washington Mutual office tower project planned just a block south, the generally seedy area is starting to change.

But Smith says his property is "a missing link" that could connect Pike Place Market to retailers to the east and to concertgoers at nearby Benaroya Hall.

"I'm going to push on this site, but I think it could apply to a number of properties in that area," Smith said, adding, "I don't see any negatives to it."

Taller buildings would allow more residential development on downtown sites, reducing development costs and making units more affordable, he said. More people living downtown would also increase the city's tax base, attract more businesses downtown, make downtown streets safer and more vibrant, and take advantage of proposed transit systems, Smith said.

Such downtown development would help cut traffic congestion and sprawl in the suburbs, while improving freight mobility, he said. Otherwise, he argues there will be a push to put more development in other city neighborhoods, such as Capitol Hill and Queen Anne, mainly for lack of anywhere else to go.

Smith also favors a developers' tithe to help support affordable housing, which otherwise might be pushed out of the area by rising property values.

Currently, regulations require buildings to fill most of their lots up to 85 feet in height, above which setbacks are allowed. The result is buildings that resemble wedding cakes, said Smith. "It limits your ability to get very creative in the design," he said.

Thinner buildings, with floorplates of about 12,000 square feet, would reduce the obstruction of views and allow more light to reach street level, Smith said.

If code restrictions are relaxed for his property, Smith could double the number of condo units in his proposed high-rise to 320 units. Allowing a smaller floor plate would mean that as much as 70 percent less air space would be taken up by the building and more light would reach street level, Smith said.

Smith has met with Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Seattle City Council members and numerous city staffers. He's also building a 3-D model to help people see how taller, thinner buildings might change the appearance of certain areas of downtown.

Council Member Peter Steinbrueck, chair of the City Council's Land Use and Planning Committee, declined comment on Smith's proposals.

Smith appears determined to take city officials to the mat over the issue.

"Many people like myself feel this has to happen for the health of the city and the health of the region. Hopefully, through education, we will get the process completed and, if not, then we need to understand why not and address those issues," Smith said.

"If the politicians don't get the message, then we need to convince them or the public they are not the politicians for the future," he said.

Smith appears to be winning some support for his ideas.

"With respect to the specific site, I'm not going to comment, but in response to the general premise, I think developers should have more flexibility," said developer Doug Howe of Seattle-based Touchstone Corp.

Howe heads the local chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties. His company has several projects in the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union.

Meanwhile, Planning Chief John Rahaim said Nickels has asked his department to take a look at the potential impact of taller, leaner buildings in some areas of downtown.

"There are a number of property owners and developers who believe it is a good idea," Rahaim said. "We think it may have merit with regard to view blocking, as that often is a function of how wide a building is."

Rahaim expects to have a proposal on zoning code changes before City Council by the end of the year.

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This is a topic for all big cities. It's amazing that the general populace does not see the benefits of taller slimmer buildings. It happpens in NYC, but that's the only place I've seen it. The heights they're talking about 400', and 585' really aren't all that tall to make a stew about anyway.

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This is a topic for all big cities. It's amazing that the general populace does not see the benefits of taller slimmer buildings. It happpens in NYC, but that's the only place I've seen it. The heights they're talking about 400', and 585' really aren't all that tall to make a stew about anyway.

I agree. What city wouldn't want some new tall towers to help improve their city's image? Unless, of course, those new towers were tall, boring boxes.

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I would say that the chances are pretty good since the mayor later on this year will conclude the study of whether or he's going to increase height limits to allow more density, and taller buildings.

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That's good. If the limits are raised, it probably won't be long before Seattle sees another landmark tower rising downtown.

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I dont know. I wouldnt have anything taller that one in seattle. It would throw the skyline off i think. Right know without a doubt Seattle has the best skyline in the world. IMO. I wouldnt mess with it. And plus because its on a hill that building looks like it taller than a 1000 ft anyways.

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I dont know.  I wouldnt have anything taller that one in seattle.  It would throw the skyline off i think.  Right know without a doubt Seattle has the best skyline in the world.  IMO.  I wouldnt mess with it.  And plus because its on a hill that building looks like it taller than a 1000 ft anyways.

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The best skyline in the WORLD?? Seattle??

Wow, that's a hell of an overstatement wouldn't you say?

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The best skyline in the WORLD?? Seattle??

Wow, that's a hell of an overstatement wouldn't you say?

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Maybe he was including Mt. Rainier as part of the skyline.. :P

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I'm not so sure that tall, thin buildings are appropriate in places like Seattle where the potential for large devastating earthquakes is very real. Seattle is a (natural) disaster waiting to happen.

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I'm not so sure that tall, thin buildings are appropriate in places like Seattle where the potential for large devastating earthquakes is very real.  Seattle is a (natural) disaster waiting to happen.

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I was thinking the same thing...

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I'm not sure my opinion on the matter yet, but I really admire the developer for taking the initiative. One man with a dream can really make things happen, if they make themself heard. If my city (Jacksonville!!!!!, Florida) had somebody making such a stir, something might actually happen on the north bank.

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The best skyline in the WORLD?? Seattle??

Wow, that's a hell of an overstatement wouldn't you say?

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I think that Seattle has the best skyline - hands down

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