High-rise on Beacon Hill

As discussed here and here, because transit-oriented development (TOD) is such a key strategy for reducing car-dependence and greenhouse gas emissions, and because there has been such a massive public investment in Sound Transit light rail, it would be doubly irresponsible to allow zoning to impede high-density redevelopment in the station areas. And of all the light rail stations, the Beacon Hill station area probably has the highest concentration of single-family-zoned land, and thus any proposed upzones there are likely to be that much more controversial.

Strangely enough, if people want to get a taste of what high-rise on Beacon Hill might be like, they need not even leave their neighborhood. The pale-yellow high-rise in the aerial image above is Beacon Tower, a 15-story, 165-foot tall low-income housing project located at the corner of 13th Ave S. and S. Massachusetts St. The tower is so much taller than anything else in the neighborhood it is startling. Many of nearby buildings are single family homes, including two directly across the street to the north (behind the tower in this image).

I suspect there is no shortage of Beacon Hill residents who loathe this tower. Not only does it stick out like a sore thumb in terms of scale, but it’s also stark and institutional architecturally. I’ve always had a “what hell?” kind of attitude about it when seeing it from a distance, but today I checked it out up close. And I have to say that from the perspective of the surrounding streets, I think it works surprisingly well. It doesn’t feel nearly as oppressive as you would expect for such a tall building. The simple explanation is that it is a relatively slender tower, measuring roughly 100′ x 60′. A 6000 sf floor plate falls within the typically defined range for a “point tower,” a form which has been popular — most notably in Vancouver, BC — because it minimizes view blockage.

It also occurred to me that because Beacon Tower is located at the peak of a narrow ridge, its view impact is reduced. Buildings on the slopes west of the tower typically only get good views to the west, so the tower isn’t a factor. And likewise for buildings to the east.

As immediately unlikable as Beacon Tower is to many, I believe it offers useful insight into how high-rise residential towers could be successfully integrated into a low-density urban fabric such as that which makes up the Beacon Hill light rail station area. Imagine a row of light and airy point towers along the north and south spokes of the station area, surrounded by a diversity of building types with the overall trend of decreasing height as you move down either side of the ridge.

Yes, towers can play nice with low-rise buildings, and I hope to show some Vancouver, BC examples in a future post.

As an aside, I’m dying to know how it was that Beacon Tower got approved for construction by the City of Seattle back in the early seventies. There are several similarly out-of-context high-rise projects scattered around Seattle. How were the neighborhood concerns that were undoubtedly being raised so summarily ignored? Were these projects a few of the last gasps of federal government-driven, top-down urban renewal? And might they be part of the reason the Seattle process pendulum has swung so far in the other direction? Pertinent questions, because it’s not hard to imagine a future scenario in which eminent domain for TOD becomes justifiable. Too radical?