Check out video about high-rise

January 10th, 2014 by djcadmin

On December 14, GeoEngineers shot a time-lapse video of its project partner, Sellen Construction, pouring more than 11,000 cubic yards of concrete for the foundation of the first of three buildings that will make up the new Amazon headquarters in downtown Seattle. This volume of concrete is the equivalent of more than four Olympic-sized pools. The pour began in the early morning and ran for more than 17 hours straight, making it one of the largest continuous pours in Seattle’s history.

Known as the Block 14 project, this 37-story structure is the first phase of a campus that will ultimately total 3.3 million square feet. GeoEngineers is providing environmental and geotechnical services on the project. The video was shot from GeoEngineers’ downtown Seattle office, which is next door to the project site.

Should you mix affordable and upscale housing?

October 16th, 2013 by Lynn
Outdoor seating and landscaped areas would surround the ground floor of the R.C. Hedreen Co. project. Image courtesyof LMN Architects

Should “affordable” housing be mixed with high-income housing within the same building? That’s the subject of a short video by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat at

Addressing the question are Nigel Biggs of CBRE, Harry Handelsman of Manhattan Loft Corp., Christoph Ingenhoven of ingenhoven architects, Ian Simpson of Ian Simpson Architects, and Rafael Viñoly of Rafael Viñoly Architects. The video is part of a monthly series by the CTBUH.

In Seattle, R.C. Hedreen Co. has proposed including affordable units in a project that will not have upscale apartments or condos, but will have a hotel.
The project is a 40-story convention hotel complex at Ninth and Stewart that will have a five-story podium with a 35-story, 1,680-room hotel on the south end and 154 units of housing on the north end, reserved for people making 80 percent or less of area median income. Hedreen is building the north end units to get higher density through a city incentive program.

BIG unveils plans for Pier 6 of Brooklyn Bridge Park

September 17th, 2013 by Lynn
Image courtesy of BIG
BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates have unveiled their design for Pier 6 of Brooklyn Bridge Park, a public space and pavilion in form of a massive wood-clad triangular viewing platform for events and skyline gazing.
BIG was selected as winner of the project in spring of 2013 and is collaborating with MVVA. The project has won approval of the city’s Public Design Commission.
BIG said its proposal for Brooklyn Bridge Park, a project that has revitalized the New York City waterfront, consists of a 6,000-square foot triangular cross-laminated timber structure, serving as pavilion and platform.
Sloping upwards 17.5 feet in height from the foot of the large gathering lawn, the platform provides views of the surrounding harbor, the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline, and the Brooklyn Bridge. In conjunction with the adjacent greenery, Pier 6 will be dominated by a flower field and treed areas giving the area seasonal displays of color.
BIG said the surface of terraced stairs, softly illuminated, will allow for large and small events and is ADA accessible. The pavilion, supported by thin steel columns, is brightly lit with up-lights and provides shade, shelter and space for indoor activities. Movable site furniture underneath the platform will accommodate a variety of programs, from food carts and picnicking to community events and small performances.
Image courtesy of BIG

Bjarke Ingels said in a press release that “The Mantaray is a small public platform at the end of the pier – equally accessible above and below. Its namesake organic slopes and curves have been shaped by concerns for accessibility, safety, shelter, structure – like a manmade reef evolved to accommodate human life.”
Pier 6, located at the intersection of Furman Street and Atlantic Avenue, spans over 1.6 acres and offers amenities, including sand volleyball courts, concessionaires, themed playgrounds, a dog run, plantings, and the seasonal Governor’s Island Ferry connecting Brooklyn and Governors Island.
Collaborators on the project also include Knippers Helbig (structure), Tilotson Design Associates (lighting design), AltieriSeborWieber (MEP), Pantocraft (code), Formactiv (expediter).
BIG is an international partnership of architects, designers, builders and thinkers operating within the fields of architecture, urbanism, research and development. It is led by partners – Bjarke Ingels, Andreas Klok Pedersen, Finn Nørkjær, David Zahle, Jakob Lange, Thomas Christoffersen and Managing Partners, Sheela Maini Søgaard and Kai-Uwe Bergmann – with offices in Copenhagen and New York.
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is a landscape architecture firm that creates a wide range of landscape scales, from city to campus to garden. It has offices in Brooklyn and Cambridge, Mass.

“Vanity Height” added to more skyscrapers

September 5th, 2013 by Lynn

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat has looked at the increasing trend towards extreme spires and other extensions of supertall (300-meter-plus) buildings that do not enclose usable space, and created a new term to describe this – Vanity Height, the distance between a skyscraper’s highest occupiable floor and its architectural top, as determined by CTBUH Height Criteria.

Burj Al Arab in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo by Nicolas Lannuzel

Here are some key findings of the study:
• At 244 meters, the vanity height of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE, could be a skyscraper on its own – in fact, it would be Europe’s 11th-tallest building.
• The Burj Al-Arab, Dubai, UAE, has the greatest vanity ratio of any supertall building – 124 (39 percent) of its 321 meters is devoted to non-occupiable space above the highest occupiable floor.
• Without their vanity height, 44 (61 percent) of the world’s 72 supertalls would measure less than 300 meters – thus losing their supertall status.
• United Arab Emirates clocks in as the nation with the most “vain” supertall buildings, with an average vanity height of 19 percent.
• New York City, USA has two of the tallest 10 vanity heights, and is set to gain a third with the completion of One World Trade Center in 2014.
• According to CTBUH Height Criteria regarding telecommunications towers, a 50 percent vanity height would deem any structure a “non-building.”
• The “vainest” building overall in the CTBUH database, although not a supertall, is the Ukraina Hotel in Moscow, Russia – 42 percent of its 206-meter height is non-occupiable.

Lessons from Denver

August 26th, 2013 by Matt Hays

For an urbanist, traveling can evoke jealously, pride in one’s own city, and any number of “what were they thinkings” and “wow, good ideas.” My recent trip to Denver brought all of these. While bigger cities inspire more jealousy, Denver is a more realistic peer than Tokyo, with plenty to learn and compare.

Direct garage access in Denver using sidewalk space. Photo by Matt Hays.

I was impressed. It’s a good, comfortable, growing city that’s doing a lot of things right. It offers many lessons in what Seattle might do better, along with others we shouldn’t do.

On the urbanity front, Denver has historically had less core density than Seattle. It also started the infill trend later and more slowly. But today neighborhoods ringing Downtown and other key spots are sprouting apartments seemingly everywhere, much like Seattle though without large towers and with more (probably too much) parking. A critical mass of residential convenience appears to be forming in greater Downtown, though groceries are reportedly hard to come by.

Axis of skybridges into downtown Denver. Photo by Matt Hays.

Seattle is very rare in that Downtown serves all the major purposes: offices, government, events, vacations, housing, transportation, shopping, and culture. Downtown Denver does all this to some extent except large scale shopping and tourism. The main core retail district is a few miles southeast at Cherry Creek, which has a large enclosed mall plus a sizeable neighborhood of higher-end retail and restaurants that appears to be very successful. Within Downtown proper, retail is generally on the 16th Street Mall (a pedestrian and shuttle bus corridor similar to Nicollet in Minneapolis). This is a fantastic street, lined with restaurants and shops for much of its length. At the center is Denver Pavilions, which is the size and function of Pacific Place but on more than twice the land. The street cries out for stores like Nordstrom and Target. Their problem might be similar to Seattle’s Pine Street – additional stores would like to move in but there’s no easy room on 16th. Streets like 15th have plenty of room but they’d have to create their own critical mass. Also, major stores would have to cannibalize Cherry Creek. On the tourism front, Downtown lacks major draws, and no areas feel touristy though 16th, historic LoDo, and the civic center and museum area get their share.

As Seattle plans a second convention center (or is it called an expansion?) some perspective is useful. Denver often hosts conventions of 10,000 to 15,000 people and has about 7,500 Downtown hotel rooms. Seattle hosts conventions generally below 6,000 people but has 12,000 Downtown hotel rooms in a similar zone. Their hotels are more convention-dependent than ours, with less pleasure tourism. Their way creates a boom/bust tourism economy, a common pattern in cities that use big convention centers to overcome a lack of vacationers. Our way creates steadier demand that augments our larger pleasure tourism economy rather than dominating. Expanding the WSCC would build upon this. Seattle’s typical conventions would still be of moderate size relative to our hotel inventory, while covering more of the calendar. We should build this.

We often lament Seattle’s land prices and availability. From an urbanist perspective, Denver shows the opposite problem – with lots of relatively cheap land, things tend to be too spread out. The convention center, while efficiently atop a light rail line and street, also covers a massive 25 acres. The new football stadium and basketball arena, multi-college Auraria Campus, and Elitch’s Garden amusement park, all on the southwest periphery of Downtown, have something like 100 acres of surface parking between them (based on Google Maps and a straightedge), roughly equal to everything between Yesler and Weller from I-5 to the viaduct. New apartments in some of Denver’s cheaper core districts sometimes have surface parking, and many have above-grade garages next to the housing rather than below it. Even the neighborhood-integrated Coors Field baseball park are has a parking lot extending along the railroad for well over a mile(!) northwest averaging a block wide. The good news (from this perspective) is that things are filling in at a decent clip, which should change the dynamic.

There are other positives to cheap, plentiful land. Denver built its Commons Park, and it’s nicely done alongside the even nicer Confluence Park. At the latter, two streams intersect, each with bike trails. A short stretch has been rebuilt as a rippled stream, a popular spot for kayaks and body boards. The area around both is booming with housing, aided by a sequence of pedestrian bridges that go over train tracks, then the South Platte “River,” then a freeway, into another neighborhood that’s also booming. It’s a pleasant walk and appears to be a popular draw. Overall, Downtown Denver has a lot more places to sit than Downtown Seattle. Many are shady. Seattle has way too many parks without shade. Wouldn’t it be great to have Philadelphia’s lightly shaded Rittenhouse Square, in Belltown maybe?

Denver looks like an easier bike city than Seattle. Being flat helps. It also has a lot of bike lanes, and the converging streams each have long trails leading outward from Downtown. As for walking, Downtown has a lot of “pedestrians all ways” lights, which sound fine in theory but are terrible in practice. At one, pedestrians could cross about 1/4 of the time by my count. Apparently, grouping people gets them out of the way of cars. Seattle should do this kind of signal only where the cycle has two parts maximum – pedestrians-cars-pedestrians-cars, like First & Pike.

Some below-grade parking garages have ramps that go below-grade within the public right of way then curve under sidewalks. This seems fine in practice, but they do it within the sidewalk area rather than in a parking lane. Each has a way for pedestrians to get around. This has good and bad points. They tend to be inconvenient for pedestrians, but might be better than having cars in the way. It must be faster for the cars and seems safer for everybody.

Denver has a growing transit system. Light rail is largely at ground level, running on Downtown streets and freeway corridors. Some train and bus routes terminate at the edge of Downtown, with riders transfering to the free 16th Street Mall Shuttle. This is efficient in some ways (the shuttles are frequent and buses and riders don’t crowd the streets) but transfers presumably reduce ridership. Per the 2011 American Community Survey (confusingly presented at, the Denver metro had 4.3% transit commuting compared to Seattle’s metro at 8.1%. This suggests that transfers and highway rail alignments might be problematic for ridership, and that Seattle’s spiderweb of buses is useful to a lot more people. It’s also thanks to our higher core densities of residents and jobs. Within city limits, the numbers were 7.5% transit for Denver (plus 4.3% walking) and 18.5% for Seattle (plus 8.9% walking). Denver is building a lot more rail, though another funding measure is needed to build out the full vision. Much of this will center on a refurbished and expanded Union Station, which is half-done but already spurring mixed uses around it along with the Commons nearby.

One of those new rail lines will connect the airport, which is a loooong way into the Great Plains. It’s a fine airport once you’re there, but what a great advertisement for convenient Sea-Tac! From DIA you travel for miles and miles to reach real suburbia, aside from a couple business pods where chain hotels sit in moats of parking. Even the pods are miles from the airport. At Sea-Tac, you can walk from your plane to Link or RapidRide…or even walk to your hotel. Your taxi will be much cheaper too. With Sea-Tac’s consideration of a bridge over planes for International Arrivals, it’s interesting that Denver already has a terminal bridge, though goes over smaller planes.

Another Denver trend is to pick up campuses and move to the suburbs. Malls leapfrogged out, and now several big hospitals have too, a few (Children’s, VA, University of Colorado) moving to the old Fitzsimmons campus in suburban Aurora that’s also the local (lately pretty quiet) attempt at growing a biotech center. They’re presumably making fine decisions, but for urbanists it seems sad to disperse jobs like this. Fitzsimmons has nice buildings but isn’t very integrated into the city.

Now to plug a very good brunch. The Kitchen at 16th & Wazee, near Union Station, was a fantastic meal well served. It turns out that regret equals having just one bite of “Eton Mess,” which is chantilly cream, strawberries, and meringue. And the polenta might be the best ever.

New bilingual signs in Chinatown-International District

July 16th, 2013 by Lynn

Bilingual street name signs will be installed this summer at more than 30 intersections in Seattle’s Chinatown and Japantown neighborhood through a partnership of the city and the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area.
Mayor Mike McGinn said in a press release that the translated signs in English and Chinese, or English and Japanese “will help us celebrate the ongoing diversity of the Chinatown-International District, as well as help people navigate the neighborhood.”

Photo by Jen Nance, Office of the Mayor

The CIDBIA worked with neighborhood stakeholders, family associations, local ethnic media, the University of Washington and translators from the Seattle Municipal Court to translate the existing street names into traditional Chinese and Japanese.
Don Blakeney, executive director of the CIDBIA, said “Not only is it a wonderful reflection of the neighborhood’s rich cultural history, but a reflection of the international hub that Seattle has become.”
Translated street names will be in white lettering on a brown background below the current legal name. The first sign is at Sixth Avenue South and South King Street.
Funding was provided by a $20,000 Small and Simple Matching Fund Grant through the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.
The Seattle Department of Transportation also contributed $6,000 from the voter approved Bridging the Gap ballot measure.

King Street Station Can Transform the City

June 24th, 2013 by darby

Seattle has invested a great deal in King Street Station and the surrounding area, why not go a little further and make it a world-class transit hub?
Out of the three designated hubs in downtown Seattle, King Street is arguably the primary transit hub bringing together Amtrak, streetcar, local and regional bus, and light rail. In the not too distant future, rapid ride from West Seattle and access into downtown from SR-99 will both have significant impacts to this area. Using the already congested street grid to transfer between systems is not a coordinated nor safe approach for transit riders.  

Transbay Transit Center is anticipated to have a patronage of 100,000 every weekday and 45 million annually. Photo credit: © Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects

All the transit systems in the hub are just a block or two away from where you hoped they would be.  Light Rail is a trek across 4th from King Street Station; bus stops on Jackson are one-two blocks away; and the First Hill streetcar stops are a block or two in either direction. The City and transit agencies need to think bigger, in a way that leverages the investments in this hub including the restoration of the historic station, the North Lot, Union Station, and the Stadium District. In early thinking about the North Lot there was an idea proposed that included a significant bus terminal proposed for 4th Ave S over the BNSF tracks- this would provide the opportunity to create a stacked connection including Sounder, local bus, and perhaps an underground connection to Link. It’s time to start thinking about this facility now so that the promise of a real transit hub can be realized and the benefits of investment in the neighborhood can bring about real change.  Change that’s been planned for in the Livable South Downtown Plan.

The experience of San Francisco has an uncanny comparison.
Downtown San Francisco is a maze of cranes these days and the 6-block long gaping hole next to Mission Street that will become the Transbay Transit Center is a healthy contributor to the current crane count. With an anticipated patronage of 100,000 every weekday and 45 million annually, Transbay will be one of the largest transit hubs on the West Coast. From local rail and bus service to Amtrak and Greyhound, Transbay will provide the hub for more than 8 transit agencies including Caltrain and High Speed Rail. Originally built in 1939 to handle electric trolley service (and later bus service) from the newly constructed Bay Bridge, the original building was razed and along with several earthquake related ramp removals that provided the real estate and a significant source of funding for the new Transbay Center. The new Transbay was conceived in 2008 and is to be completed in 2017. But even the 70’ deep hole in Soma is already spurring development including the Transbay Tower- planned to be 200′ taller than the Transamerica pyramid.
Seattle has the opportunity now to rethink how transit systems come together at King Street Station and to create a world-class transit center befitting a world-class city.

The sidewalk observed: building a better street corner

June 17th, 2013 by Nate
Successful street corner at 36th Ave SW and SW Snoqualmie St in West Seattle. Photo by Nate Cormier.

Last time I promised to contrast that miserable corner of 35th Ave SW and SW Avalon Way in West Seattle with something more gracious. This one is three blocks away at the corner of 36th Ave SW and SW Snoqualmie St. The context is quite different in terms of available right of way, traffic volumes and level of investment by the adjacent developer, but my interest here is in highlighting some of the aspects that make it a successful street corner.

• There are wide and nicely landscaped curb bulbs to slow traffic and buffer pedestrians at the corner from passing automobiles.
• The building entry is close to the intersection with decent transparency to the lobby so there should be a good amount of foot traffic and eyes on the street here.
• There is a seating area near the intersections for passersby to take a break. This is particularly valuable for seniors and others that pause frequently while walking. Hopefully once they lease up the apartment building they can get rid of those plastic signboards.
• There is a broad area between the ramps that is separated by a curb from turning traffic. This makes waiting to cross feel safer.
• The curb ramps align with the sidewalks and the unmarked crosswalks so the visually impaired can more easily guess the correct angle to make their way to the paired ramp on the other side of each street. Note that this leaves a triangular bit at the bottom of the ramp that needs to be carefully graded to not collect water.
• Finally, and this one is tiny, but the attention to detail is sweet…where the tactile warning strips meet adjacent curbwalls, there are subtle joints aligned with the tactile tiles. They may play a role in controlling cracking of the curb, but I like how they make those tactile strips appear rooted intentionally in those locations. Too often tactile warning strips look glued on as afterthoughts. Not here.

All in all, a solid contribution to the public realm!

Two steps back on affordability?

April 24th, 2013 by Matt Hays

If Seattle aligns on anything, it’s affordable housing. We pass our levies by wide margins, and seem to agree that our city should be available for all income levels, whether for empathy, worker availability, or other reasons. We might also agree that the SHA and non-profits do a good job leveraging our money, and the levies aren’t enough.

Triad Capital Partners project on Capitol Hill. Rendering courtesy of grouparchitect.
Beyond that things get sketchy. In classic Seattle fashion we mix steps forward with steps back. The council is working on two major issues currently – regulation for micro housing projects, and the South Lake Union rezone. In both cases we risk shooting our feet.

The South Lake Union rezone, which got committee approval this week, involves fees of $21.68 to $29.27 per square foot (plus inflation) for space above the original height limits. Let’s look at that. Ideally a tax system should put less burden on things you want to encourage, and more burden on the rest. So where do we put the maximum burden? On new construction projects, and the homes and jobs they’ll contain. On the housing side we’re addressing affordability by directly making this housing more expensive for most people, and disincentivizing new supply, which is our greatest weapon to avoid San Francisco’s fate. On the commercial side, we’re disincentivizing the job creation that supports our overall tax base, and the job centralization that’s crucial to maximize walkability and leverage public transportation. We also risk pushing construction outside the neighborhood, perhaps to other municipalities, losing that sales tax revenue.

Outside the A/E/C/RE industry, people seem to think the added heights are an easy windfall, and sometimes they are. But going tall also has downsides – substantially higher cost per square foot (even before the fees), more space to fill, longer construction duration, etc. On top of that the fees add perhaps 6-8% to total development cost above the old height limit. Taking advantage of the new heights therefore assumes high-rents, and requires a bigger bet. The math will work in some cases, such as a big eager tenant wanting to expand across the street, or apartments with permanent water views. Other projects will likely find that six stories with woodframe pencils more easily, and limits risk. Maybe this is why developers continue to advance new plans to build lowrises in South Lake Union.

So what’s a better solution? If we can expand the housing levy, let’s do that. The voters will support it. And maybe we should be less reticent with one-off deals like Vulcan’s Valley Street swap, or similar versions. And then there are micro units.

Miraculously, a chunk of the affordability puzzle is taking care of itself. Micro units of various types are proliferating and filling up with renters eager to pay rates otherwise unheard of for centrally-located homes in good repair. This includes typical units that are simply very small, as well as the “rooming house” concept, where one “unit” might include eight bedrooms rented separately, with a shared kitchen to augment in-room kitchenettes.

Typically, rooming houses stay below a certain unit count to avoid the design review process and fit perhaps 40 homes into what would otherwise be a fraction of that, in multifamily zones. They often take advantage of what has been called a loophole, but it’s also an essential part of building at the most affordable rents. Seattle’s process costs a lot of money, with design review being part of that. First there’s the added time between tying up land and breaking ground, which involves carrying costs in the tens of thousands of dollars. Second, process means uncertainty about going forward at all, in part due to reduced flexibility in market timing. Third, design review means a choppier, less efficient design process, with higher fees. Of course with more units, the land cost is spread among more homes. Much of this relates directly to development cost. The rest affects cost indirectly – if we reduce supply, we cause scarcity, which will cause higher rents.

Basic unit sizes might become a debate topic. Homes are often in the 200 square foot range (similar to a typical hotel room), and some down to 100 square feet or so. But why is that controversial? Wealthy suburbs have often mandated square footage minimums to keep the poor folks out and protect property values. Many people seem offended at the idea that some renters would live in places they themselves wouldn’t. But surely Seattle isn’t an exclusionary, authoritarian city in those ways. Others talk about humane living conditions, forgetting that $10 per hour might otherwise mean mom’s basement, three roommates, and/or spending two hours a day commuting. Still others complain that their public street parking will get tougher, as the new buildings generally have little or no parking. The last point is at least understandable human nature, though the existing residents have no more claim than anyone else. What’s left? Is there a valid reason to not allow even a 200 square foot home, or even 100 square feet? Why aren’t we celebrating these as a choice for people to live independently, and with less energy and stuff?

(Disclosure: I work for a contractor that builds highrises, but have no connections to the micro trend.)

Make Way for Parklets

April 1st, 2013 by darby

There is a new position at SDOT in the Street Use and Urban Forestry Division; Public Space Manager; and with this new role there is hope brewing for more permanent parklets coming to a Seattle neighborhood near you.

San Francisco Parklet

The re-purposing of parking spaces into miniature open spaces has grown from the latest soup d’jour for urban areas across the nation with San Francisco leading the charge and most recently followed by Los Angeles’ activity parklets to a more common wrench in the toolkit of cities as varied as Philadelphia and San Jose. Now it’s Seattle’s turn. Let’s give SDOT all of our support as they move forward.
Congratulations to the very capable Jennifer Wieland as she takes on this role. She let me know that Seattle can expect to see the pilot program roll out this summer with several projects in Center City neighborhoods.
If you would like to know more about how to develop and implement parklets, see this (very thorough) study from the UCLA Lewis Center here.