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April 6, 2009

Opinion: Still drawing a blank downtown

Special to the Journal

Photo by DJC staff [enlarge]
The western side of Seventh Avenue between Pike and Union streets consists of one uninterrupted, blank concrete facade.

Those of you who are old enough and with good enough memories might note that I'm borrowing this title from an article published in the April 4, 1983, Time magazine about how the expansive blank walls of then-modern architecture were deadening the street life of cities.

The late William H. Whyte, a one-time Fortune editor and one of the nation's most ardent champions of city center street vitality, was at that time exhibiting a collection of photos of the “worst offenders” in American modern architecture. Topping the list was Seattle's then-rather-new Sheraton Hotel, with its particularly egregious expanses of concrete blank facade along Pike Street and Seventh Avenue (not to mention the loading dock and parking area gracing Union Street).

The kicker is that it's deja-vu all over again at the Sheraton site. Those of us involved in Seattle's planning and urban design have dreamed and hoped for the day when the southern half of the Sheraton block would finally be redeveloped, ridding Union Street of the unsightly parking lot and loading dock, and offering the opportunity to make some amends along Pike Street and Seventh Avenue.

Well, that opportunity came and went with the second Sheraton Tower, which opened in 2007. I withheld judgment for many months, assuming that something, anything, must be in the works for Seventh Avenue and its corner with Union Street. But it is time to uncork the bottle and let the judgment flow.

As opposed to the more permissive regime that permitted the first Sheraton Tower, this second tower was the subject of Seattle's Design Review program. With a set of well articulated and aptly illustrated guidelines that address every aspect of a building's architecture and urban design, the Downtown Design Review Board has an arsenal of authority to help ensure that new development attain the utmost of what Whyte called the “social life” of our urban streets.

I'm sorry to say that someone really dropped the ball this time. If you haven't had the pleasure of strolling along the western side of Seventh Avenue between Pike and Union streets, you're in for a shock. The entire block consists of one continuous, uninterrupted, blank concrete facade. The only “social life” to be found is whatever interaction you might have with the hotel's catering staff hanging around the back door on their smoke breaks!

The exclamation point on this tragedy is at the corner of Seventh and Union. Here the facade is chamfered back to reveal a triangular patch of bark-dust-covered earth.

Now to be fair, I have investigated the matter with the Department of Planning and Development, and an improvement plan was submitted several months ago and approved by DPD this winter. It contained a proposal to add overhead weather protection along Seventh Avenue and a piece of artwork in the triangular corner patch. But there has been little progress on actually performing those improvements since that time. I can only hope DPD will force the issue more diligently.

What really galls me, though, is how on earth such a solution could have ever been deemed acceptable by the board or DPD. The Seattle Land Use Code is replete with provisions meant to prevent this kind of blank facade (provisions enacted in 1984 in partial reaction to the initial Sheraton tower!).

So how was this possible? The city had to grant departures from these provisions, apparently appeased by the lipstick-on-a-pig application of the canopies and artwork scheme proposed by the applicants, that's how. But in order to get departure approval, the resulting design must “better” meet the intent of the Downtown Design Guidelines. I have to question how the solution (whenever we finally get it) could possibly be “better” than active storefronts.

Lastly, Kreielsheimer Place across Seventh Avenue, housed in the elegant former Eagles Temple, is a national and city landmark. New developments located across the street from a landmark must undergo an even more rigorous review by the city's Historic Preservation Officer, who may recommend mitigation “to insure the compatibility of the proposed project with the color, material and architectural character of the designated landmark and to reduce impacts on the character of the landmark's site.”

I won't hazard a suggestion as to what particular “mitigation” might have achieved this compatibility, but I'm quite convinced the resulting product does not make an elegant neighbor to the Eagles Temple.

I can certainly chalk the whole mess up to a mistake, and mistakes happen. But mistakes that may plague the city streetscape for decades are particularly hard to swallow. If there is any lesson learned here, I'd say we need to remember that Downtown Seattle is everyone's neighborhood, and we all need to participate in its design and development by attending public meetings or otherwise offering our comments on individual projects. 

Patrick Doherty is economic development director for the city of Federal Way and a blogger on the DJC's SeattleScape blog. He previously worked for the city of Seattle in planning and development, including managing the Design Review Program from 1994 to 2001 and chairing the Queen Anne/Magnolia/South Lake Union Design Review Board from 2006 to 2008.

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