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?

9 Responses to “High-rise on Beacon Hill”

  1. scott

    Anything built by the feds has carte blanche — they can essentially ignore local zoning.

  2. David

    I have always wondered about how some of these high rises outside of downtown were allowed to be built. Specifically Safeco (now UW) Tower, the hotel across the street from it, and the high rise apartment building just west of Metro Cinemas. This building on Beacon Hill seems to be another prime example.

    I guess was the same thing as yours… that these came before there was very much regulation, and that they were probably the catalyst for the regulations that we do have today. I’d really like to find out more of the story… does anyone know?

  3. David

    wow I really butchered that last paragraph… but you get the idea!

  4. Andrew

    Zoning as we know it was created in Seattle in the early 1970s. The building next to the Metro Cinemas (the University Plaza) was a major impetuses for height limits, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the beacon hill building was also.

    The University Plaza and the Safeco building were the first REALLY tall buildings built outside of downtown, and caused such a furor when they were built, that the city passed height-limiting zoning rules just after they were completed.

    Ironically, many of over tall buildings were either built as public housing or are public housing now, that Beacon Hill building, the Jefferson Heights building on First Hill, the 10 story building on the top of Capitol Hill (not the ones on Belmont, but the one on fourteenth, the oversized building on seventh near the University Plaza, and the overtall building on 12th and 47th.

  5. Tony

    On views: While this tower does not completely block the view of any particular resident of the immediate neighborhood, it is an eyesore that is endured by tens of thousands of people because it can be seen from miles around. While it doesn’t block any single view, it cheapens and degrades thousands of views from all over the city.

    This is a real issue that a lot of people care about. I would love to see beacon hill redevelop, and I believe IF there were appropriate design guidelines that ensured that the towers looked good from a distance, then I would be all for building a dozen towers on top of that hill, but if it was more of these, then I would rather have nothing.

    This issue also brings up an important issue that is ignored by proponents of pin-towers, which is that they affect more people than just the neighbors. Low and midrise buildings have virtually no view impact outside the immediate area, so it makes sense to focus only on their highly local view impacts, but towers, thick or thin, can be seen for miles. Thus they affect people over a broader area and that impact needs to be considered. This doesn’t mean, “don’t ever do it”, but it does mean that we can’t just assume that we can apply the same process and the same evaluation criteria to a highrise that we can to a midrise. The scope of the impact is different, so the definition of stakeholder needs to change.

    We density advocates should be the number-one cheerleaders of good design, because the surest way to create a anti-density backlash is to build a few new tall, ugly poster children that the NIMBYs can point to from anywhere in the city and say, “that building right there is why we need to limit density.”

  6. Sara N

    Ditto to everything Tony just said.

    You know the Safeco building is basically at the base of the proposed Brooklyn light rail station? That station was taken off the line in last year’s Prop 1, but it is back on the table for the possible package that ST may send to the ballot this fall. What, you havent commented on ST’s possible packages yet? Then please go visit their website this minute, http://www.soundtransit.org

    Talk about great TOD potential. Yes, the building is an out-of-place eyesore for miles around…but it is what it is. Now let’s look at the surround properties that may redevelop. Let’s get some good design in there to help soften the blocky-ness of the building. Let’s get great public spaces near the station area. Let’s get people.

    Oh, yeah, and let’s get transit.

  7. Josh Mahar

    The history of these few tall towers throughout Seattle is really interesting. They have, and will, stand alone for a significant period of time and thus, when light rail does come, and building height are raised, and the city densifies, these towers (Beacon Tower, Safeco Tower, the Cap. Hill tower) will be very interesting historical references. As ugly as they might seem, everything is beautiful within context and they will be old pillars of a forgotten age. A time before neighborhood review, DPD, and really any kind of city regulations. Perhaps the last vestiges of our freewheeling pioneer past.

  8. serial catowner

    As soon as I grasped the “circle around the transit station” idea, I thought, “What would be great, would be to have a really tall building right at the transit station, so you could see from a distance where it was.

    To imagine that an endless layer of single and double story buildings has little impact on the visual environment is fallacious. Many’s the time I’ve set out for some distant destination and traveled for seemingly hours, in a Seattle drizzle, through Seattle low-rise, becoming increasingly depressed at the thought that this might just go on forever. A one-story building is an effective viewblock to the person on the sidewalk, and certainly there is no particular novelty to 100 square miles of single family dwellings. This, after all, is why the Viaduct arouses such passionate defense from people who feel they only really see the Olympics during their brief drive on the elevated highway.

    The fairly obvious problems with the building in question are that it apparently was placed at random, built with no attempt at embellishment, and apparently garnished with parking to complete the feeling of “concrete wasteland” as you walk by the lot. It would make a lot more sense on a major street with surrounding street level retail, and decoration to make it something you might want to look at. It is a pillar of a forgotten, but not lamented, age.

    People who want to preserve single-family housing should be pushing for 50-story towers by transit stations. These towers would suck up market demand like a Hoover. In contrast, three-story development spreads like ivy, encroaching but not actually doing anything worthwhile, as most of it is by small players thinking only in terms of one or two residential lots.

  9. Roger P.

    Beacon Tower was built under a previous code, written in the late ’60’s, allowing for unlimited heights in certain areas of the city (density limited by FAR instead of building envelope). About 6 blocks of north Beacon Hill was so zoned, and this tower was the only result. These variable height zones were plunked down in various locations around the city without regard to urban centers or urban villages or walkable communities.

    Most of the buildings developed under this code were Seattle Housing Authority towers built under contract by private enterprise. Developers bought the land and designed the building, and then proposed it to SHA. The ones they liked got built and became part of the SHA inventory.

    And few people at the time much liked these resulting buildings, and the market for them was such that they became mostly stand-alone structures, so the areas ultimately were “downzoned” to standard height multi-family zones.

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