Scott Surdyke, SeattleScape’s newest blogger, has some things to say about Amazon.com’s proposal to build a large office complex in downtown Seattle. Here is his take:
The news is REALLY BIG: Amazon and its architect, NBBJ, will present to the downtown Design Review Board on March 27th its proposal for a MASSIVE new office tower campus in the heart of the Denny Triangle. The proposal is expected include up to three (3) 1-million-square-foot towers, and may include up to two towers per block. In ANY city today, this would be viewed as a once in a lifetime project, a signature addition to the skyline, and an equally important opportunity to provide great public benefits such as open space and other on-site amenities. However, the scale and potential bulk of these proposed towers is concerning when you consider just how big (wide) a million-square-foot building has to be when it only has 500 feet of height to work with.
A tale of Two Towers:
The widest building on the Seattle skyline is the Russell Investments Center (former Washington Mutual Tower). This is a 1.2 million SF building, also designed by NBBJ, squeezed into 575 feet of height, and it is a full block wide. The size and shape of this building was determined by the former “CAP” on building heights, which were first reduced to 450’ in the late 1980s. Since then, height limits for major towers have incrementally crept upward as Seattle has warmed up to the fact that taller, narrower buildings (think Vancouver BC) are much more desirable than squat, full block buildings, which tend to block out sunlight, create a “canyon” effect and offer little or no public open space.
A major contrast to the Russell Investments Center is the original Washington Mutual Tower, which at 772 feet is widely considered one of Seattle’s most beloved skyscrapers. That building, even though it’s approximately 200’ taller, is roughly the same size (1.1 Million square feet) as the Russell Investments Center, if not a little smaller. Not only is the building, now called 1201 Third Avenue, a striking and elegant addition to the Seattle skyline, but it also offers substantial public open space with its sunny and lushly landscaped plaza.
Today our city planners and leaders have thankfully embraced the blueprint for a truly sustainable and livable downtown, whereby taller, more slender towers are encouraged in order to provide greater public benefits such as open space, light and air between buildings. Vancouver, BC is an ideal model of how this can be achieved, and even that city has now raised its height limits in anticipation of buildings in the 600-700’ range. However, in order to achieve that height, new towers in that city are subject to more rigorous design review, and they are expected to meet greater architectural standards as well as increased open space and LEED requirements.
Similarly, heights in Seattle’s central downtown core have been lifted. However, the adjacent Denny Triangle, often considered a “secondary” office core, has height limits of only 500’. Perhaps there was an assumption that those million-square-foot tenants (of which there are very few) would likely go in a single tall (or is that double-tall?) tower in the central downtown core. Such is not the case for the Amazon proposal, where the preferred location of its new towers is appropriately much closer to its new campus in South Lake Union. Planners at the time likely did not conceive that there would someday be demand from a single user for 3 million square feet in a neighborhood that is largely known for vacant lots and car dealerships. This, then, may be one of those instances where it makes much more sense to consider allowing buildings with a taller, leaner profile. As Seattle gets denser, we will have precious fewer opportunities to for light, air, open space and the views that are cherished by so many. It would be prudent for Amazon and our city leaders to at least consider an option that allows for a taller tower configuration (much like the way the City already accommodated Vulcan and Amazon by raising height limits for several of its South Lake Union buildings). Rather than three or more towers of 500’ each, a tower campus with a true variety of heights might achieve greater long-term benefits for our city.
Before the City accepts a proposal that could equate to the combined mass of three Russell Investments Centers (see above), we should at least give Amazon and NBBJ the opportunity to consider narrower, taller buildings for its new tower campus. The current density would not have to be increased, however allowing flexibility for taller and narrower buildings could bring more open space and provide other public benefits to our “new” downtown.
According to the city of Seattle, a public meeting will be held Tuesday, March 13 at 6:00-7:30 p.m. at Seattle Municipal Tower, Room 4050 to identify concerns about the site and to receive public input into establishing priorities for public benefits which may include low income housing, townhouse development, historic preservation, public open space, implementation of adopted neighborhood plans, improvements to pedestrian circulation, urban form, transit facilities and, or other elements that further an adopted city policy and provide a demonstrable public benefit.
A copy of the proposal materials are available at the DPD Public Resource Center, 700 5th Avenue, Suite 2000. The center is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. The telephone number is (206) 684-8467.