July 26, 2007

Urban canyons are making cities grand

  • Seattle’s skyline is finally growing up, thanks to several towers under development.
    MulvannyG2 Architecture


    We judge cities by their skylines. Funny, but true. Think of the signature skylines of New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Now consider the skyline of, say, San Diego. See the difference? Whether it’s fair or not, cities with dense, towering skylines are considered “real” cities. More interesting. More mature. The kinds of places people write songs about.

    Here in Seattle, our skyline is growing up after an awkward and prolonged adolescence. New zoning has uncorked a burst of high-rise development, and as the city’s center of mass shifts from the downtown commercial core to new clusters of residential towers in the Denny Triangle and elsewhere, our skyline — and the perceptions of our city — will never be the same.

    Image courtesy of GBD Architects/MulvannyG2 Architecture
    An urban canyon is being created by Bellevue Towers, which was designed by a joint venture of GBD Architects and MulvannyG2 Architecture.

    So what’s the key to achieving mature urban development, the kind of skyline that prompts people to take a city seriously and sing its praises? Canyons.

    No, I’m not dreaming of a summer vacation in the Southwest. Urban canyons — the spaces created by multiple high-rises whose heights exceed the width of the spaces between them — are what give a city a feeling of density and critical mass. We’re drawn to such places, consciously and unconsciously, because canyons are interesting, even spectacular, to look at. They also give us a sense of safety and shelter. Think of drifting through the Grand Canyon on a raft, or of cowboys in old movies taking refuge in box canyons.

    Sky neighborhoods

    Urban canyons also provide “visual community” by surrounding us with others. From a condo in an urban canyon, you can see nearby neighbors in their windows, and they can see you. It’s a neighborhood in the sky. Sure, the buildings may have been designed to deliver views of the city, water and mountains, but the main attraction in a thriving urban core is other people. That’s why we’d rather see a movie in a theater instead of on a DVD, and why it’s more fun to watch the Mariners at Safeco Field instead of in our living rooms. When you see the towers of a great city’s skyline from a distance — think Vancouver, B.C. — you know they signify people, life and activity. They are the signs of a place that is thriving.

    We may like crowds, but we don’t want to be crowded. Creating densely populated urban canyons doesn’t mean eliminating open space. To prevent city dwellers from feeling hemmed in, urban designers have typically carved out plenty of green space for residents to gaze upon (when they’re not watching their neighbors). New York’s Central Park is the classic example. In Seattle, open space requirements were the trade-off for the easing of height restrictions.

    Image courtesy of MulvannyG2 Architecture
    Escala, 30 stories tall with high-end condos, is one of several mixed-use towers that will create urban canyons in Seattle.

    Over the next several years, residential high-rises such as Olive 8 and Escala in Seattle and Bellevue Towers in Bellevue will result in urban canyons, cementing a new design aesthetic and creating a vibrant urban core that will leave few people longing for the days when shorter was considered better.

    Seneca Towers, developed by Levin Menzies & Associates and designed by MulvannyG2, also bears the hallmarks of Seattle’s new urban design. The project at Eighth and Seneca consists of 11- and 24-story residential towers connecting to Freeway Park. By being situated close together, the two buildings will create their own canyon. The views from the buildings will be unmistakably urban — filled with human activity, and encompassing other high-rise projects in the area, including Opus’ 1200 Madison.

    Balancing density

    How do you balance the project’s density? Again, with open space.

    At Seneca Towers, the space already exists, thanks to Freeway Park, a historically underused park that spans I-5 and adjoins the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. With a broad sidewalk that effectively serves as a new south entrance to the park, Seneca Towers will provide a “yard” for its residents that is superior to any courtyard or rooftop garden because it is an organic part of the city.

    Image courtesy of MulvannyG2 Architecture
    The Seneca Towers project will link to Freeway Park with a pedestrian bridge.

    The Seneca Towers project will increase park usage, not only by its residents, but also by patrons of Town Hall and other nearby attractions who will be invited to walk through the park on their way elsewhere. Horizon House, an eldercare facility being constructed nearby, will bring even more park-loving residents to the neighborhood.

    Buildings such as Seneca Towers can’t magically create a thriving urban core alone. The downtown denizens who inhabit these new high-rises will need the social infrastructure to match the physical infrastructure. If downtown is to be anything more than an enclave for single 30-somethings or empty-nester 50-somethings, there must be schools, stores and other life necessities to support a diverse range of people. So far, signs are encouraging: There are plans for a QFC not far from Seneca Towers, and more retail and restaurants are moving into the neighborhood as well. As for schools, we’re hopeful that “if we build it, they will come.”

    Urban canyons, open space and many kinds of people living in one community is the recipe for successful urban design, and Seattle is cooking up a tremendous future. I don’t know if anyone is writing a song about us yet, but before long, the Emerald City will be the kind of city anyone would judge as great — from a distance or from the heart of downtown.

    Warren Pollock is a principal at MulvannyG2 Architecture. He leads the firm’s Corporate Mixed-Use Team, which is dedicated to designing mixed-use high-rises and corporate headquarters.

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