Fear of Heights

[ False Creek North, Vancouver, BC ]

A new citizens group has formed to oppose proposed upzones for the South Lake Union neighborhood. The group’s desire to see South Lake Union grow into a diverse and complete neighborhood is spot on. But alas, going on what the PI reported, it appears that their main beef is a misguided fear of tall buildings. Because as DPD urban designer Lyle Bicknell put it so well:

“There are many different ways to build a community; Paris has buildings 65 to 85 feet high, but Vancouver (B.C.) is also a successful urban environment, with schools, great open space, grocery stores and all the elements that make successful neighborhoods.”

We’ve seen what the current 65 to 85-foot zones will deliver: see for example Alcyone, Alley 24, AMLI 535, or Rollins St (not to mention countless “5 over 1” buildings all over the city). Restricted building height does not necessarily lead to affordable units, or any other desired neighborhood quality. And since these projects tend to max out the building height across block-long parcels, they have a bigger impact on most people’s views than would a pin tower on a two-story pedestal. (Alcyone’s designers left a gap in the building to allow a Space Needle view from Cascade playground.)

While the Vancouver model isn’t perfect, it is a dramatic success story by most standards. A recent survey of residents of Vancouver’s first planned complete downtown neighborhood, False Creek North, revealed a high level of satisfaction:

Residents said they liked the mix of people, which includes everyone from toddlers to grandparents and is split about evenly between people who speak English as a first language and people who don’t. And no one had a negative thing to say about the neighbourhood’s mix of social and market housing, which some experts in the past predicted would create tensions between low- and high-income people.

Paris reaches high population density with relatively modest building heights because so much of the city is blanketed in mid-rise buildings. Seattle would have to upzone massive tracts of single-family zones to become like Paris. And while I haven’t seen data, I suspect that the open space per resident in Paris is lower than what we expect here in Seattle (can anyone enlighten us on this?).

All in all, it is hard for me to imagine how we would be able to achieve the goals we have for sustainable growth in South Lake Union without allowing tall residential towers. And of course this is exactly why DPD planners are proposing the upzones. Getting beyond our tall building phobia will free our energies to concentrate on the details that really matter for growing a healthy neighborhood. Fortunately we don’t have to look very far north for proven solutions.

17 Responses to “Fear of Heights”

  1. vc

    Why is this city so density phobic? Seattle needs to grow up, literally and figuratively.

  2. DJG

    An aside, why are there no people in that photo? What good is a pretty park if nobody uses it?

  3. joshuadf

    I went to the meeting. It’s not that LUOA opposes the upzoning, it’s that the Vulcanized council SLUFAN has no “neighborhood plan” to go along with the upzone. (Full disclosure: there were some haters in the crowd but I think they come to every neighborhood meeting.)

    Most just wanted something with a little more detail beyond heights–you know, some community space (especially when the Armory goes to MOHAI), low and middle income housing, maybe a school, requirements designed for the street unlike the Four Seasons’ wall, and so on. That’s what Tim Soerens’s quote means: “whether we’ll have an extension of downtown in South Lake Union, or whether it will be a real neighborhood.” So far SLU is all Vulcan marketing materials.

  4. joshuadf

    Two more things I just thought of. First, evenings and weekends the north half of SLU (the biotech centers) is as dead as the financial district unless there is an event. That does not speak well of Vulcan’s ability to plan a livable neighborhood as opposed to just a bunch of buildings.

    Second, I see that the seven LUOA concerns are up on their website. Unfortunately it does seem a little more NIMBYish than I thought the meeting was.

  5. cjh

    Excluding the two bois (edge parkland) – Paris has a bit over 4 km2 of parkland inside the city proper. Which is just shy of 5% of the total land area.

    Most of it concentrated in the following park clusters:
    Parc du Champs de Mars (around the Eiffel Tower) and on the immediately opposite side of the Seine the Parc de Trocadero. (about .4 km2 in total)

    Esplanade des Invalides (.25 km2)

    The Tuilieres and the Place de la Concorde/Marigny/etc at the end of the Champs Elysees (a bit over .5 km2 in total)

    Jardin du Luxembourg (.25 km2)

    Jardin des Plantes (.2 km2)

    There are also about half a dozen other parks less than .2 km2 spread among the various arr.

    If you threw in the two bois, however, Paris devotes about 10% of its area to parks. A bit less than Seattle.

  6. qousqous

    @2 The photo is rather uncharacteristic—the park is usually full of people on a nice day, and there are always people walking and cycling the seawall.

  7. Sabina Pade

    Fear of heights, or fear of city? Tim Soeren’s query “…will we have an extension of downtown, or a real neighbourhood?” I think is a very telling manifestation of the underlying sentiment.

    CJH above excellently shows us that Paris devotes less of its total area to parkland than does Seattle. Being mostly flat and homogenously mid-rise, Paris does not offer a majority of its residents the possibility of an unimpeded view from their dwellings. Yet people clamour to the place; a great number of those who live there wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It would appear that Parisians appreciate their hometown because of, not in spite of, its city-ness.

    Likely most Seattleites hope that South Lake Union will become a diverse neighbourhood complete with housing for the less affluent, places of worship and schools. No question it would be wise for planners to mandate the inclusion of low-revenue spaces such as these, with housing for the working class a foremost priority. The Lake Union Opportunity Aliance is spot on about this.

    Yet development will inevitably lead to people’s views being blocked, regardless of the building heights and massing allowed by code. To pretend otherwise is dishonest. The real issue here, I think, is whether enough Seattleites will in a timely way realize that density is key to a healthy city – and that an unimpeded view is not a healthy city’s greatest gift to its inhabitants.

  8. Madisonian

    Can’t we just copy Vancouver’s “tall skinny” zoning for certain areas, like South Lake Union? I guess that’s naive, but really…

  9. joshuadf

    Thanks for the insightful comment Sabina; I think you are correct that there it is really “city” underlying a lot of these fears. Unfortunately what most Seattlites know of city downtowns is a cold empty financial district. I don’t think I would know differently if I had not lived in Japan as an exchange student.

  10. cjh

    To be honest, I am not a terribly big fan of Paris proper as urban design or French gardening which is, unsurprisingly, the dominant design mode for Parisian green space. Baron Haussmann’s renovation and the subsequent museumification of the city have simply always left me cold. Even as a tourist, I found myself rather oppressed by the 19th century bourgeois stone and plaster monotony of much of the city while enjoying the bits that were too sacred or too unimportant to feel the sledgehammer.

    But that’s not the important thing; rather, Parisian parkland largely works as open space because it is readily accessible and the two large edge parks are VERY large. Bigger than Central Park or Hyde Park (and there are two of them!) and designed in the English style – thankfully.

  11. GW

    RE: Heights

    One thing that seems to be missing from most discussions of height limits in denser zones is the “dead zone” between 65 and 105-120 feet. At 65 feet and below, it is practical to use wood frame over concrete plinth construction (5 floors of wood over one concrete level). Above 65 feet, you’ve got to upgrade the structure to steel or concrete all the way up. That typically doesn’t work economically until you get up above 8 to 10 stories. So, zones with 85-foot height limits usually wind up being underbuilt, or filled with buildings that are unaffordable and/or vanity projects.

  12. Joshua

    I recently visited Vancouver and their Olympic Village project management office. It was interesting to hear from several people very involved with both the northern section of False Creek (basically a master planned development by Concord Pacific, where most of the tall skinny buildings are) and SE False Creek (w/the Olympic Village) have actually rethought the tall skinny thing and seem to be moving more toward 5-8 story buildings as an agreeable massing for “livable” neighborhoods.

    More broadly, I think there’s a danger of the “density” and “height” arguments getting conflated. They are not one and the same, and can be mutually defeating if groups like this SLU group are successful in using their 400 ft scare tactics to throw people off of density in general. The key here, it seems, is to make the argument for a diversity of building types – it’s about the package of livability, not just the skinny tower.

  13. Kate G.

    I have never visited the city of Paris — except second-hand by watching the movies filmed there — and I have perhaps a dumb question about density: Aren’t most of the Paris streets a good deal narrower than Seattle streets, meaning that horizontal building coverage in Paris is substantially greater per square mile than horizontal building coverage in Seattle?

  14. Steve

    GW@11: Is there a technical reason someone couldn’t build taller with more concrete stories without going fully concrete (e.g. 5 stories of wood over 3 stories of concrete)?

    Kate G@13: I think the (non-boulevard) streets of Paris do tend to be narrower than Seattle’s, but aren’t most Parisian buildings designed around an central courtyard? I have the impression that a Parisian apartment’s lot coverage is much less than a comparable Seattle building.

  15. GW

    Steve@14: The typical cost upcharge on going from a level of wood construction to a level of concrete construction is in the neighborhood of $12-$15 per square foot (for the structure only, not counting anything else). That may not sound like much, but it’s actually a substantial amount of money when multiplied out over a floor plate. When buildings get tall enough (8 to 10 stories or so), the re-use of formwork and other repetitive elements increase the economic feasibility of concrete. Below that, the incrased costs aren’t really offset that much by those things. In order to offset the cost, you have to increase sale price/lease rates per square foot. In lower buildings, that’s hard to do without kicking yourself into the luxury/Class A category (where buyers are more sophisticated and willing to pay big premiums for having concrete slabs above and below them). You certainly can’t do it and keep rates affordable for median incomes.

    There’s also a limit on how high up in the air you can put combustible (i.e. wood) construction. No combustible construction is allowed above the reach of fire department ladders plus hose spray, for instance.

    Finally, wood structures taller than five stories experience significant problems due to differential shrinkage of wood plates over time, so the practical limit on wood buildings is five stories even though they could probably go higher than that and still be structurally sound.

    So, that’s why you see a lot of 5 plus 1 wood over concrete buildings. They’re very cost-efficient within the boundaries of their limitations.

    If you want buildings to be taller than 65 feet, you’ve got to allow them to get tall enough that the economics of steel and wood construction make them “pencil out.” That means at least 105 feet, and preferably 120 feet or more. It’s a quantum jump, rather than an incremental rise along a continuum.

  16. joshuadf

    Very interesting. The new Lothlorien Apartments on the Ave in the U-District is 7 stories. It is right next to and matches the height of the Wilsonian (built 1922). I’m not a construction expert, but as it was going up it seemed more solidly build than the nearby 5+1 story Helix-Ellipse two blocks away.

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