July 26, 2007

South Lake Union prepares for its future

  • The growing area is participating in a LEED pilot program that supports many neighborhood plan strategies.
    Olympic Associates Co.

    Photo by Steven Paget
    Workers are finishing tracks for the city’s new streetcar, which will stop at Group Health’s new headquarters in South Lake Union.

    Rapid change and growth characterize the South Lake Union neighborhood. Tower cranes punctuate the skyline and navigating around street closures is a constant challenge. The proximity to downtown Seattle, underutilized and available properties, market conditions, civic leadership and vision are the ingredients creating a vibrant urban neighborhood guided by principles of sustainable development.

    The face of the neighborhood changes monthly with new residential, mixed-use commercial and institutional buildings being completed. The streets are torn up with infrastructure improvements and installation of the new streetcar line.

    South Lake Union was designated an urban center in 2004. The Seattle Comprehensive Plan calls for 16,000 new jobs and 8,000 new households in the neighborhood by 2024. The unprecedented level and rate of growth in the area calls for careful planning and implementation.

    A neighborhood vision

    In 2005, South Lake Union began preparing an update to the 1998 neighborhood plan. South Lake Union Friends and Neighbors (SLUFAN) Community Council, stewards of the plan, began working closely with the Cascade Neighborhood Council and other stakeholders to include the diverse interests of the neighborhood into the plan update. SLUFAN is partnering with the city’s Department of Planning and Development on the plan update.

    The vision for South Lake Union is expressed in the goal for the area to become: “a vital and eclectic neighborhood where people both live and work, where use of transit, walking and bicycling is encouraged, and where there are a range of housing choices, diverse businesses, arts, a lively and inviting street life and amenities to support and attract residents, employees and visitors.” Central to the plan are housing choices, access to transportation, preservation of neighborhood character and ecologically sound development.

    Creating a LEED neighborhood

    Concurrent with recent neighborhood planning, the opportunity arose for South Lake Union to participate in the LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND) pilot study of the U.S. Green Building Council. A partnership was formed between the city, SLUFAN, Cascade Neighborhood Council, area businesses and other stakeholders, and an advisory committee was created to study the LEED ND standard in relationship to South Lake Union.

    LEED ND is a rating system for evaluating and rewarding development that uses the principles of smart growth, new urbanism and green building. Nationally, 371 neighborhoods have been accepted into the LEED ND pilot study to field test and help fine-tune the system.

    The primary objectives for South Lake Union participating in the study are to:

    • Evaluate the neighborhood plan and the city’s comprehensive plan relative to the standard.

    • Assess the potential economic, social and environmental results of implementing LEED ND strategies.

    • Identify how the standard can support public policies and departmental work plans that increase opportunities for stakeholder and city priorities.

    Neighborhood planning

    The South Lake Union neighborhood plan is organized around five topics: neighborhood character, transportation, parks and open space, housing and sustainable development. Within each topic are high-level goals, supporting policies and detailed strategies for achieving the plan objectives. Most of the strategies can be implemented through city departmental work plans, while others require action by neighborhood stakeholders.

    LEED ND is organized into the categories of Smart Location & Linkage, Neighborhood Pattern & Design, and Green Construction & Technology. Within each of these categories are several prerequisites and multiple credit strategies with associated performance criteria. Applicants can pursue basic LEED ND certification or qualify for silver, gold or platinum levels by earning additional credits.

    A look at LEED ND and the South Lake Union neighborhood plan reveals a strong correspondence between the credits and the plan goals, policies and strategies. LEED ND credits addressing compact development and active public spaces, transit options, walkable streets, housing choices and job proximity, and reduced resource consumption are reflected in many of the neighborhood plan goals.

    Making the vision a reality

    Representative plan goals that capture the intent of LEED ND include:

    • A community that is well served by transit and easy to get around by foot, bike or transit.

    • A transportation system that provides safe, convenient access to businesses, residences and other neighborhood activities.

    • Parks and open spaces that provide an obvious and inviting purpose, accessible to the needs of an increasingly diverse neighborhood as it grows and changes.

    • Housing that is affordable and attractive to workers in South Lake Union, so that people can live near their jobs.

    • A neighborhood that acts as a model for sustainable redevelopment.

    Many of these elements are beginning to emerge in the area, but there is much that remains to be accomplished. Neighborhood plan strategies will help bring about a sustainable urban landscape that meets LEED ND credit criteria.

    Members of the LEED ND advisory committee are confident that South Lake Union can achieve a LEED ND high gold rating. A preliminary assessment scored South Lake Union at 72 points out of 106 credits for a low gold rating. The committee is in the process of completing a more through analysis of how the neighborhood rates against the standard.

    The performance criteria of LEED ND credits — representing the consensus of national leaders in smart growth, new urbanism and sustainable design — provide a guideline for defining how the neighborhood plan strategies are implemented and evaluated. The national standard will lend support to policy initiatives and proposed city work plans designed to achieve neighborhood plan goals.

    Lessons to be learned

    Beyond South Lake Union, lessons that will be learned from participation in the pilot study include assessing how well the standard applies to urban redevelopment, the direction and rigor it provides to Seattle’s neighborhood planning process, how the city’s comprehensive plan measures up to the principles of smart growth and new urbanism, and the potential financial, social, and environmental costs and benefits of qualifying for LEED ND certification.

    The convergence of the right conditions, vision and a commitment to creating a sustainable future have begun to make a difference in South Lake Union and will hopefully provide guidance to other Seattle urban centers undergoing change.

    Steven Paget, LEED AP and senior consultant with Olympic Associates Co., is president of the SLUFAN Community Council, on the U.S. Green Building Council LEED ND Corresponding Committee, and a member of the South Lake Union LEED ND Advisory Committee.

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