What Makes Seattle “Seattle?” – Impressions of a Summer Intern


U-District Infill. This example of new construction on University Way respects the materials and massing of the neighboring Wilsonian Apartments (a Seattle Landmark), while allowing for additional density on a major transit thoroughfare.


By Guest Blogger Brandon Spencer-Hartle

Seattle, like many of its West Coast counterparts, has seen a renewed interest in promoting urban living, expanding green infrastructure, and growing a viable local economy. Coffee shops have taken hold in storefronts once boarded, utilitarian warehouses have been adaptively reused into multi-million dollar condominiums, and new buildings have sprouted on arterials and neighborhood streets citywide. Seattleites have heard the gospel: smart growth and increased density will fight climate change, get us out of our cars, and make Seattle a 24-hour city chock full of local businesses. And in light of rampant corporate greed, the foreclosure of countless thousands of McMansions, and the recent BP oil spill, the vision of dense, walkable, sustainable Seattle is a good one.


Columbia City. Although older buildings are especially well-adapted to fostering small businesses, many are also home to national chain retailers as seen this example from the Columbia City Landmark District.


Longstanding critiques of sprawl and low-density commercial development have matured into planning policies that encourage development that is denser and more mixed use. According to the proponents, increasing the number of people who live in already established neighborhoods will translate into more efficient use of resources, increased transit options, and the critical mass necessary to incubate local retail businesses. But what planners, environmental activists, and developers shouldn’t forget is that many of Seattle’s neighborhoods have already achieved the density needed to support mass transit and local business: one need not look further than an early 20th century photograph of Capitol Hill, Fremont, or Columbia City to see streetcar s, quality buildings designed with local materials, and a wide variety of “mom and pop” stores. In many ways it seems Seattle’s vision for the future can be found in the memories of its past.

With only seven designated historic districts, the vast majority of Seattle’s older main streets and commercial districts are not protected by the regulations that accompany historic designation. Unless concerning a building that is individually designated, properties along streets like Queen Anne Avenue N, Broadway, Fremont Avenue N, and the Pike/Pine Corridor are subject to the Department of Planning and Development’s Design Review processes, not those of the Historic Preservation Program. So while residents and visitors may think of buildings and districts as “historic,” the overwhelming majority of Seattle is not designated as such. Therefore, protecting the lion’s share of those places that matter to communities becomes the responsibility of concerned residents, property owners, architects, developers, and the members of the city’s seven Design Review Boards.

During my eight weeks in Seattle this past summer, I watched a bike lane be installed on Roosevelt Way NE, lived in an “efficiency studio,” and got my daily coffee at an independent roaster. But despite all of the positive changes in urban amenities, it is evident that the city’s neighborhoods are at risk of losing their character to bland, oversized, corporate boxes.

It is discouraging to see many of Seattle’s new buildings blatantly fail their neighborhoods and mock, at best, the sustainability goals which prompted their allowance in the first place. Yes, density is good. Infilling vacant lots is good. Providing space for new business is good. But diminishing the character of community and/or replacing viable, quality, dense existing buildings is not.

For one, the design of new buildings doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there exists a community expectation for quality context—sensitive architecture that supersedes property rights and individualistic design motivations. For architects and developers, the challenge is to create dense, sustainable buildings with designs that are place-based, incorporating environmental and architectural cues provided by the surrounding community. While inherently more challenging than large-lot development, designs that honor surrounding lot sizes, building heights, and materials best integrate themselves into the existing fabric of a community. The Seattle Department of Planning and Development’s “Community Guide to Design Review” (pdf download) provides a good overview of the vocabulary and processes used for reviewing new construction outside of designated historic districts.

Beyond the design of new construction, the materials and use of new buildings are important to both the community and the environment. Imported cookie-cutter exterior materials run the risk of clashing with the hand crafted and locally-sourced materials used in many of Seattle’s older residential and commercial buildings. Unlike retaining the embodied energy harbored in existing buildings, new buildings require new materials, often produced at high energy and resource costs. New buildings should incorporate materials that are thoughtfully and sustainably sourced so as to meet the environmental goals intended by the upzoning that encourages density. The large parking garages, temperature-controlled interiors, and oversized luxury units that characterize many new buildings are less dense and less environmentally-friendly than they may appear from the real estate brochures. True density and sustainable living requires more than generous square footage for automobile parking and air conditioned penthouses, something that the builders of early 1900s commercial buildings knew well.

Ultimately, whether it’s a roadside attraction near Green Lake, an architect-designed mansion on Queen Anne, or an apartment building on First Hill, existing buildings matter to their communities. They add character to the built environment, contributing to a scale and design vocabulary that neighborhood residents value. They provide affordable and creative retail spaces, incubating small businesses and neighborhood economies. They encapsulate embodied energy, allowing existing building materials to remain in use. They provide housing with efficient floor plans and natural ventilation.  They use existing infrastructure and are sufficiently dense to support alternative modes of transit. And, above all, they add a sense of place for residents, new and old.


Agnes Lofts. The Agnes Lofts at 12th and Pike incorporates architectural and site planning cues from its surrounding "auto row" context but does not create a false sense of history.


New construction and increased density has great potential to enhance the character and vitality of Seattle’s older neighborhoods, honoring and building upon the existing stock of buildings. If done wrong, however, new buildings can disrupt and diminish the very cultural and aesthetic fabric which spurred the development in the first place. Unfortunately, Seattle’s neighborhoods have seen the loss of countless existing green buildings under the charlatan disguise of density and sustainability. Official historic designation is about honoring significance, yet preservation is an ethic and a value that goes far beyond individual landmark properties. If Seattle’s neighborhoods are to remain themselves in the decades ahead, increased density and new construction must honor the preservation ethic to enhance, rather than replace, the places that make Seattle “SEATTLE.”

On a positive note, examples of sensitive infill and creative adaptive reuse can be found as frequently as, or even more so than, examples of big-box “density” and vacant lots once home to viable existing buildings. Seattle, it appears, is at a crossroads. One road leads to a city that is comprised of thoughtful new buildings, maintained existing buildings, and residential and retail spaces that embody creativity, sustainability and preservation. The other road leads towards a city that is exploited for the good intentions of its progressive residents, comprised of bland new buildings, corporate retail, and homogenous neighborhoods. Seattle has the potential to lead the nation into a vision of a sustainable, dense, local future. In the opinion of this intern, that vision starts in the past.

Brandon Spencer-Hartle was Historic Seattle’s 2010 summer advocacy intern. He is a graduate student in the University of Oregon’s Historic Preservation Program and is an advisor to the Historic Preservation League of Oregon. All photos in this post are courtesy of Brandon.