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October 26, 2023

Going up: Seattle’s towering new vision for student housing

  • City leaders, UW and other neighborhood stakeholders work to balance growth in high-rise student living with neighborhood character and small business affordability in the U District.
    Special to the Journal

    Image by David Boynton [enlarge]
    At least 19 towers have been proposed for the U District, ranging from 12 to 32 stories. Most of these are student housing.

    With the opening of a new light rail station, and the promise of an eight-minute downtown commute, the Seattle City Council made a big, bold decision in 2017 to substantially upzone the University District, allowing for towers of up to 320 feet.

    The University of Washington joined efforts to increase building heights in the neighborhood, updating its master plan in 2019 to expand its West Campus with up to 3 million square feet of potential new development.

    Today, the new light rail station is open, the U District is booming, and a brand-new skyline is growing above the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

    Capitalizing on transit

    The City of Seattle hasn’t always been known for bold transit-oriented planning. Several stations, including Rainier Beach and Sodo, have seen minimal or no zoning changes, and there has been comparatively little investment near those stations.

    However, with cities such as Vancouver, Burnaby, and Surrey, B.C., providing examples of how to capitalize off transit investments with high-rise zoning, the City of Seattle and U District stakeholders agreed this was the vision to pursue.

    “We were thrilled when the city made the decision to commit to increase the zoning,” said Matt Roewe, an architecture, planning and development consultant who worked for many months with the University District Citizen Advisory Committee while serving on the Seattle Planning Commission.

    Roewe said the city initially considered heights of 125 to 160 feet.

    Photo by Scott Surdyke [enlarge]
    The Standard, a new two-towered 25-story student housing project with a rock-climbing wall and rooftop pool and study lounges, looms over the U District.

    “When we shared with them examples of livable transit-oriented high-rise communities, everyone agreed that taller buildings with public benefit incentives was the most effective way to achieve the city’s and neighborhood stakeholders’ goals.”

    The area was among the first to incorporate Seattle’s new Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program. Roewe said going to 240 to 320 feet of height also comes with bulk and scale controls such as limits on podium heights, tower spacing and setbacks. “The new projects are enriching the neighborhood with on-site pocket parks and including or funding affordable housing.”

    UW’s high-rise vision for West Campus

    The expansion of West Campus, an area largely located between 15th Avenue Northeast, the University Bridge and Portage Bay,may include up to 12 towers ranging from 120 to 240 feet in height.

    Known as Portage Bay Crossing, the West Campus redevelopment is envisioned as a high-density, pedestrian-oriented “innovation district” where students and experts can gather across multiple disciplines, including public health, social work, life sciences, humanities and environmental studies.

    Including a combination of public and private buildings and mixed uses, the expansion aims to connect the main campus with the growing U District neighborhood. Portage Bay Crossing will be “a lively urban environment with a robust mixture of arts and culture, retail and gathering spaces to promote interaction between students, researchers and partners.”

    Saving “The Ave”

    When planning for the U District rezone began in 2012, one of most important goals was to preserve the scale and character of University Way — “The Ave.”

    Considered one of the most diverse and eclectic neighborhood streets in Seattle, The Ave includes a vibrant mix of affordable, student-oriented cafes and restaurants, pubs, coffee and boba tea shops and bookstores. There was substantial support for maintaining and preserving the scale and existing character of The Ave, and consequently University Way was not included in the upzone.

    “Our ground-floor economy is a major success story in the U-District,” said Don Blakeney, Executive Director for the U District Partnership. “Small businesses are thriving, and we have a long line of local entrepreneurs looking to set up their first, second or third business here.” Blakeney recently oversaw the distribution of $4.9 million in federal funds to help businesses on The Ave spruce up their exteriors with paint, signage, awnings and outdoor seating.

    “The Ave has unique retail spaces that are much smaller and more affordable than what you find in newly-developed neighborhoods such as South Lake Union,” Blakeney said. “The human-scale rhythm of the streetscape, unique and colorful treatment of the storefronts, and diversity of the small businesses have created a lively and thriving neighborhood that is unique to Seattle.”

    Building on the character of the U District and The Ave, planners and local stakeholders worked hard to develop a set of design guidelines to help direct growth and promote a livable, sustainable, vibrant and inclusive neighborhood.

    Growing the skyline

    There are now over 19 towers proposed, completed or under construction in the U District, ranging in size from 12 to 32 stories. Most of these are student housing, though with close proximity to downtown and the large employment base at UW, there is speculation some of the new towers may include units that appeal to university and downtown workers.

    These new student housing projects offer amenities that are more common in South Lake Union’s luxury high-rises, providing a leap forward for student living. The new towers are quite varied in scale and design, reflecting the neighborhood design guidelines, which encourage buildings that are playful, unique, and complement the eclectic nature of the neighborhood.

    One of the first and largest projects to take advantage of the new zoning is The Standard. Designed by Ankrom Moisan Architects and developed by Landmark Properties of Atlanta, this massive student housing project just completed construction.

    The two-towered, 25-story complex includes 412 units (1455 beds) and 7,600 square feet of retail. Amenities include a rooftop pool and hot tubs, fitness center with rock-climbing wall, virtual sports room and rooftop study lounges. The complex also includes a mid-rise building on Brooklyn, which is connected by a through-block pedestrian walkway. The building is pursuing LEED Gold.

    One of the most notable new towers planned for the U District is a 27-story, 365-unit tower located at 1013 NE 45th. Designed by Hewitt Architects, the tower, known as OneU, features a pair of “social greenways,” dynamic open spaces connecting to multiple floors, providing opportunities for neighbors to gather.

    These unique linear open spaces are widely visible on the building exterior and are inspired from the urban experiences found in neighborhood parks, streets and campus plazas. They also pay homage to the district’s topography, which steps down approximately 245 feet to Portage Bay. Located on floors 7-9 and 16-18, the social greenways also help to break up the vertical nature of the tower. Developed by OneLin, the building is targeting LEED Gold and will be set back from 45th, allowing for public greenspace and relief from the busy arterial.

    The U District rezone represents a bold new model for high-density student housing, and a big step forward for Seattle. As the district develops it may well serve as a model for encouraging responsible high-rise growth while maintaining a cherished neighborhood’s character.

    Scott Surdyke is a development manager and planning consultant specializing in transit-oriented and mixed-use development.

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