The new architecture of West Seattle

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    We are fast becoming home to bland, uninspired buildings. To use an architectural term, these ‘grey’ high-rise buildings offer little in substantive style. They are uninspiring. Do they make West Seattle more appealing? Doubtful. The architects and developers here seem incapable of designing and constructing anything that has street/neighborhood appeal. We have seen these buildings before – in Ballard and downtown. Is there hope? If the current projects underway are any indication – no. The tragedy is we’re going to have to live with these dull structures for years and years to come. And then there’s the matter of 3-story homes built on lots meant for one. Lovely. Here developers found a loop hole and they’re filling it – all under the guise of constructive urban growth. West Seattle growth is inevitable and it can be very positive – note all the new businesses! It’s exciting! It’s unfortunate this enthusiasm doesn’t carry over to the new high-rises. Taste, proportion, style, neighborhood sensitivity – has been swept aside. Instead, they’ve been replaced by expediency and what will garner the most return on the dollar. After all, it’s not like we’re a Madison Park, we’re only West Seattle. Welcome to your new neighborhood.


    Yeah, it sucks. Been saying that for years. Not much we can do though with zoning the way it is.

    Just read this in the Times:



    The new High Point development is a good model of the right way to go. They increased the density there by several times, and yet it still feels like a neighborhood. Of course, development is much easier to control when you’ve got a large parcel of land to work with and when it’s all under one owner, as was the case with High Point.

    You can blame the current trend in ugliness partly on unrestrained population growth. Population pressure causes city planners to take short-cuts in order to get more units built more quickly.

    There have been at least two other building stampedes in Seattle. One was in the ’40s, when Boeing was ramping up production for the war. You can still see lots of homely little cracker boxes from that era around. Those things were the ugly ducklings of their day.

    The other stampede started in the late ’80s and has continued pretty much unabated to the present time.



    “There have been at least two other building stampedes in Seattle. One was in the ’40s, when Boeing was ramping up production for the war. You can still see lots of homely little cracker boxes from that era around. Those things were the ugly ducklings of their day.”

    I think DBP’s talking about my house here. *Sniffle*

    But now, these wartime houses are “vintage” and “charming.” ;-)



    Bill2: So wait… is your argument against utilitarian, prosaic architecture or density? It never fails to surprise me how quickly apparent design discussions get muddy when mixed in with complaints about density, land use and developer profit, change, etc.

    On one hand you seem to be complaining about dull architecture but then you’re advocating for “neighborhood sensitivity” (whatever that means exactly). I’m all for bolder, more beautiful, and perhaps even risk-taking architecture. Though in order to push that envelope I think one needs to be willing to embrace the diversity of architectural styles without slavishly serving existing historical styles (like Craftsman and rambler houses). I don’t know why good design should be forced to be sensitive to other (often hideous) architectural styles in a neighborhood just because they came first. This is especially true when the existing architecture in a neighborhood hasn’t held up or hasn’t been maintained well or both.

    The US tends to be much more innovative on so many different levels than Europe (for example). And yet Europeans are much more forward thinking with their built environments. They are much more successful than we are with building stunning architecture and integrating original design into varying architectural styles that go back hundreds of years. And it isn’t like cost and regulation/zoning aren’t factors either.

    Having witnessed many years of the Seattle design review process and the ugly architecture it seems to produce I’m not surprised that the powerful forces of NIMBYism and the demands of design by committee (usually by citizens themselves who possess little to no design aesthetic/language) produces the result that we get.

    I also wonder when people are going to come to terms with the reality that density is a change for the better and is inevitable for a growing city like Seattle. We used to build towns very well in America. Everything was arranged centrally according to walking access to the railway station. Civic, commercial and residential spaces were nicely integrated. It was a system that worked well, maximized space and the use of resources. The compactness meant that many of us knew our neighbors which made it harder to commit crimes with impunity.

    Privately owned cars largely upended this model (with the false promise of freedom) by allowing neighborhoods to sprawl all over the landscape to places where you really can’t get anywhere without a car. And here we find ourselves about 70 years later, living in a geography of nowhere, stuck in endless traffic, reticent to frequent any business unless we can park our cars for free with twenty feet of it, many people working away hours in jobs they don’t love partially to support the economy of cars (car payments, insurance, maintenance, fuel costs, traffic and speeding tickets, foreign wars for cheap oil, police and court-clogging crime issues like DUIs and hit and run accidents, trillions spent on street infrastructure, bridges, de-icing and maintenance, significant impact upon the environment… the list goes on and on).

    We need a sea change in the way we conceive and organize our built environment. You’re right that we need more boldness and beauty in our architecture. We need to take more risks and not be so uneasy with the unfamiliar. But we need more density too. There are definitely valid arguments against developers manipulating the system for profit under the guise of density. But too often the loudest voices in opposition to density are also misrepresenting their objectives. They fear change, they are intimidated by things with which they are unfamiliar, they have concerns about how increased density and progressive economic change in a neighborhood will raise the cost of living for them and remove the things in the community that are emotionally accessible and safe to them (as the janky dive bars and greasy spoons give way to upscale businesses).

    Change is as inevitable as those who will fuel their fight for the status quo with nostalgia and little else. I for one am nostalgic for the future.



    I LIKE janky dive bars and greasy spoons – lol. Not everything has to change. I understand that sometimes it’s inevitable…but…there is value is some older buildings, if one has the vision to keep the outside and change the inside. And, yes, I find the “build more and build’em bigger” idea here in WS a problem, because the way off the peninsula is not growing and changing with the growth on the peninsula. There has to be a compromise.

    Oh…and some of us can’t get anywhere if we don’t have a car..busses are extremely difficult for some disabled to use, cars help. Just an observation. I think one of the reasons I love living in the Admiral District is the nearness to grocery stores (3), restaurants, a movie theater, drug store,a park, etc. But, the bus service? Stinks !



    I once owned a house mid-block on 54th between Charlestown and Andover (east side). Next door neighbor sold his house and side lot, and 3 skinny homes went up, don’t match the ‘hood at all, and really close to the house I once owned. So there are many more out there not listed on your link, Rats :(


    Totally agree Jan. Definitely not a new problem but I like that people are getting organized and trying to keep the city council and developers honest like onehomeperlot.



    Building out to the lot setbacks doesn’t increase density, just decreases greenspace. I disagee about High Point – I can’t put my finger on one reason, but that place seems so contrived and uninspired to me. Except for the stormwater facilities.


    I fear I live in an ugly duckling, though! Definitely prefer “charming,” SarahS!



    One of the things that drew us to West Seattle – apart from our home’s awesome views – was the diversity of house architectures. We were glad that all houses didn’t look the same.



    and now they can cram 3 houses into an 11,000 sf lot



    I agree with 99% of what cjboffoli said. Europe does so much right in this area, whereas the US consistently seems to get it wrong. I don’t really know why this is. I guess money rules here more than most countries which have stricter preservation laws. They seem to be able to keep the old architecture, but at the same time integrate ultra-modern unique buildings. I like the old blended with the new. Unfortunately, in Seattle what passes for modern or daring is simply a facsimile approximating what ‘modern’ is supposed to look like (which is in fact just as shittily built as the janky bars and greasy spoons you speak of). I can’t figure it out. I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that architects in Seattle kind of suck. Thank god we’ve got someone from New York designing the new waterfront.



    I have to disagree with Bill2 and CJBoff. Building design in Seattle area and especially in West Seattle isn’t really about poor esthetic choices made by some architect. Most of what you see on the outside of the building is driven almost exclusively by budgetary needs. The final design of any building has had hundreds of revisions to meet requirements, codes and costs. The vision of the architect or builder is quite different when the realities kick in. If you want to see what happens to a design, attend a neighborhood meeting where people who know absolutely nothing about design begin to rip your masterpiece to shreds. Trust me, if it were up to the architects of the world, we would be living in pretty remarkable structures that none of us could afford. A great example of this would be to look at the costs in other parts of the world. In Europe for example, they have very different building criteria from what we use in the USA. Europe has had to live with land locked cities for centuries and as such live in conditions that are not acceptable or legal here. (Examples would be room sizes, bathroom sizes, fixtures, fire codes, stairwells, earthquake requirements, etc.) The other issue is costs. It is horribly expensive to build in Europe. The projects/houses that do happen have enormous (compared to the US) budgets and therefore look better than the equivalent we would find in our fair city. Switzerland’s building codes require houses to be built in order to last a minimum of 100 years. They have crazy expensive stainless steel plumbing, the highest tech windows and appliances. So a simple square 2000 SF house costs a million to build – not including the land. So to put it in perspective, when a new building rises where a lot or an old building stood, what we have is the best solution that meets the budget of the owner, the intended use of the occupants, and at the least the minimum standards that the state will allow. We have to accept it as part of our community – love it or not.



    I second cannotsee, in that in the US we task private companies to build out our urban form and meet our housing needs. In capitalism, profit reigns, and what we get in the final product is a result of this. It is totally true that the City sets the rules and these could probably always be improved. But if they set the rules to strict, or set the bar too high, than nothing would get built and costs would be even higher than they are right now (simple supply and demand). I guess that there are some people who would say “if we don’t build it, they won’t come” but I don’t think Seattle is ever going to be in that position. We are one of the most beautiful places in the County and look at all of the Fortune 500 companies here. People want to live here, period, and this building boom is largely a response to that demand. We are one of the only places in the country adding jobs, and high paying jobs at that – Google, Amazon, Boeing, to name just a few, are hiring.

    Personally I agree that some of these buildings are schlock. But, I often look around West Seattle and think that much of what has been built here since the founding of the City is crap! I mean, all you have to do is stand on California at the Morgan Junction and look at the crappy old multi-family and commercial strip mall type buildings constructed from 1920 onward and none of that is even charming (except maybe the BPP building). So I always struggle with the argument that we are “changing for the worse” when I feel like real estate in this City is dominated, and always has been, by terrible development decisions. It roots the “stop new development” argument in a false sense of nostalgia that isn’t even rooted in reality on the ground.

    Are there aspects of this old development that have other benefits? Of course. All those run down crappy commercial buildings on California keeps rents low for local businesses, but that is an entirely different issue from new development. And, the last time I saw WSB analyze the tenants of the new development around the Junction, something like more than 80% were locally owned businesses. So, it isn’t like the new buildings are bringing in all chains or something.

    If you want to impact the design of these buildings, go to design review! as awful a process as it is, I think the WS board is one of the only to actually get things out of private developers and owners, for the better. Which is because of how awesome our community is here. Keep it up WS.

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