Don't let the U District become the next South Lake Union
Published in the Seattle Times on April 16, 2016 by Taso Lagos & Jean Godden
DENSITY is Seattle’s newest buzzword. With tens of thousands coming to Seattle, the city is seeing red-hot demand for more housing, increased workforce housing and added commercial space. The boom — the largest since the Gold Rush or the wartime surges — has pushed the city to plan for denser neighborhoods.
For the University District, this developmental gold rush means the city is planning to turn the already bustling neighborhood into a mini-downtown, complete with 340-foot towers, slightly taller than the University of Washington Plaza tower (25 stories).
It makes sense that the University District would be next in line for increased density. In the past, the district has offered reasonable rents and buildable property. The availability of land (moderately priced compared to downtown) has been a magnet for developers. Further, the U District’s light-rail station will open in five years.
Higher density means packing more people into less space, which makes sense environmentally. Yet for its many residents and multiethnic businesses, the U District has long been neglected. The city practices a kind of civic colonialism. Activists argue the city takes the district’s parking money, about $2 million from University Way (The Ave) alone, and gives little back.
Now that the U District has captured the attention of city planners and developers, the race is on to see who can build the highest and quickest. But before massive upzoning and delivery of more towers, there needs to be discussion about the way high-velocity change can tear at the fabric and soul of the U District, leaving it bereft of the social life that makes it a community. Rents will rise and low-income workers will be displaced. City leaders may want to take photo-ops in front of gleaming new buildings but pay little heed to the people who live there.
The University of Washington, the district’s largest property owner, has a large stake in the area’s increased density. The university is exempt from property taxes, but opted to pay some of its share to have a larger voice in the area’s future. Since working to replace the University District Chamber of Commerce with the U District Partnership, the university has been making plans for tech upstarts, envisioning another South Lake Union.
If the university wants a vibrant community to match its healthy campus life, it needs to work with locals to ensure the U District remains its own unique neighborhood. Once known as “Brooklyn,” the district has a rich history of community and social activism. The university needs to commit to growth that enhances community, not decimates it.
This means supporting such public amenities as a broad, airy plaza around the light-rail station at Brooklyn Avenue Northeast and Northeast 43rd Street. Just as downtown needed Westlake Mall to center downtown, the U District needs its focal point.
This also means an emphasis on retaining family dwellings as well as low-income multiunit housing to encourage greater diversity, not just density. Some residents have even proposed building a cap over Interstate 5 between Northeast 45th and 50th streets that would allow for a mixed-use, mixed income development to reconnect Wallingford and the U District.
A shared vision is needed before the U District area becomes a runaway train of development. Great for those who can afford to live there — less so for those who are pushed farther from the city. Let’s not kick citizens out of the city that birthed and raised them.
A city must manage its growth and support its people, or it ceases to be a true city.
Taso G. Lagos teaches at the University of Washington.
Jean Godden served three terms on the Seattle City Council.