Choose Alternative 4 for the University District


Editor’s Note: For a more in-depth primer on the University District Urban Design Framework, see our background article on the project.

Mixed Density in the U DistrictThis is a pivotal time for the University District. The neighborhood is undergoing many major changes, including a new light rail station, an improved Burke-Gilman Trail, expansion of the UW’s West Campus, and dozens of mixed use projects in the heart of the neighborhood. The University District will be growing rapidly over the next 20 years. As the light rail station opens, and the network expands to Lynnwood and Bellevue, the University District will only grow more important as an educational, shopping, employment, and residential center, for students and long-term residents alike.

Over the past few years, the Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) has been developing an urban design framework for the University District. The University District Urban Design Framework (UDUDF) will play a huge role in shaping the University District’s growth over the coming decades. DPD has proposed three alternatives for accommodating the University District’s expected growth. Alternative 1 would distribute housing and development throughout the neighborhood, with moderately taller buildings near the light rail station. Alternative 2 would focus development into high-rises around the light rail station, while making fewer changes to the rest of the neighborhood’s zoning. Alternative 3 would make no changes at all.

Between the two growth-friendly alternatives, Alternative 2 is the clear winner. High-rise development will make excellent use of the new light rail station, and new towers will not be out of place in the Seattle neighborhood with the two tallest buildings outside of downtown. Alternative 1 would lead to unnecessarily small buildings in the center of the neighborhood, which we would be stuck with for a very long time. Alternative 2 will likely preclude any mid-rise redevelopment of many properties on the neighborhood’s fringes, but a later rezone could fix that problem.

Having said that, we believe that the best approach would be a combination of these two alternatives. The combination, which we’ll call Alternative 4, would pair Alternative 1’s neighborhood-wide rezoning with Alternative 2’s high-density core. Alternative 4 would be able to accommodate additional towers and mid-rise development toward the center of the University District, while encouraging more modest redevelopment of underutilized and blighted low-rise properties along the fringes of the neighborhood. The neighborhood core could become a strong anchor for research and development organizations, local services, offices that serve the University of Washington, and any private businesses that want space outside of downtown Seattle. The University District’s convenient location and light rail access will make it a highly desirable place to live (even more than today); the more housing (and variety of housing types) that the neighborhood can accommodate, the better.

Alternative 4U District Alternative 2 Map

We urge you to express your support for Alternative 4 as the best possible approach, and Alternative 2 as the best approach in the existing UDUDF.

Whichever alternative(s) you support, please make sure to send your feedback to DPD. You can submit comments to the project planner, Dave LaClergue, through June 23, 2014.

UPDATE: For a high resolution version of Alternative 4, please download the PDF (courtesy of Oran Viriyincy).

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Let the entire neighborhood build 40 story buildings, but only sliver towers on 1/6th of a block & the rest of it no more than 2 stories.

Ryan Countryman

Strong editorial! I agree with your reasoning and support the
proposed zoning in your Alternative 4. With light rail soon to provide a travel
option that is independent of congested roadways, the city should maximize the
development potential near the stations. Alternative 4 does that more
effectively than the first three official options. I admit, however, to having a soft spot for
some of the older buildings that would likely be redeveloped under Alternatives
2 or 4. Does the city have a mechanism to sell air rights from above certain
buildings to other locations? I skimmed the city documents and didn’t see
anything like this as an option.

Stephen Fesler

So do you essentially historic preservation TDR? It looks like there is an option for that, but I’m not sure how widely used it is or how effective. See the land use code section here:

I wonder if a Capitol Hillesque effort like Pike/Pine could be a worthy way to do that. Although, I think going straight to masterplanning historic blocks would be better to determine which buildings to save (whether in full or just facades) and the scale of additions vertically to them (if compatible).

Ryan Countryman

Yes, the idea would be something like allowing transfer of
development rights (TDR) from historic buildings, or transfer of development potential (TDP) as appears in the link that you provided. The overall priority should be increasing development potential near rail stations to maximize use of rail infrastructure. Retaining some historic buildings, or facades as in your suggestion, is a good way to add interest to an area thereby strengthening the overall market and encouraging more development nearby.

I lived in the U-district from 1994 to 1997 when I was an undergrad at UW. Change in the area is a good thing. It would be useful, I think, to be able to preserve some buildings such as the Neptune by selling air
rights within the district to other locations, including the area with MR
zoning in either proposal. This would create a way keep neighborhood gems intact and allow for making the most of rail and proximity to campus.

Stephen Fesler

The good news is, some of these buildings are already outright protected like the Neptune Theatre! 🙂

But yes, totally agree. Diversity and heritage matter, especially with historic buildings. One of the things that’s great about older buildings like those of The Ave are the widths of storefronts. There’s a much greater density of spaces along a block, and I think that’s something worth maintaining. Character and design is also a worthwhile thing. And, I think new development and historic preservation done right can easily achieve those goals.

Matt the Engineer

Ha. Almost exactly what I commented. I’d also like more units than they’re considering, with less setback.