Those Who Opposed Landmark Status For The Ballard Denny’s, Accept Your Punishment

And you can include me among those whose deserve the punishment rendered above. Thank you sir, can I have another!

Sweet Jesus, this is what Rhapsody Partners and Freiheit and Ho Architects have in mind to mark the gateway to Ballard on the northwest corner of 15th and Market (65mb design review pdf here).  A generic monstrosity, a poster child for soulless multifamily design, but to be expected from the developer and architect — check their websites.

The design review board is not yet satisfied, but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be able to force a significant redesign. This is what tends to happen when buildings are put up by people with little connection to the local culture.

Filling the site formally occupied by the “Googie” Denny’s building, the project will provide 287 condo units, 33k SF of retail, and 446 underground parking stalls.  Bartell’s is the anchor tenant, which is why there’s a stealth drive-thru located inside the building’s first level.  But hiding the drive-thru doesn’t make it any more appropriate for a transit hub in a densifying urban neighborhood.  And as I said before, 15th and Market is already a grim intersection for pedestrians.

Now I’m not known for being a density-phobe, but man, the more I look at that rendering the closer I get to jumping off the density bandwagon and calling Knute Berger to see if Crosscut needs another slow growther author.

64 Responses to “Those Who Opposed Landmark Status For The Ballard Denny’s, Accept Your Punishment”

  1. Evan

    This is very depressing, and I sent an email to the architect concerning the design, although at this stage in the process, there’s very little likelihood this project could be redesigned, although it desperately needs it.

  2. Scott

    I agree that this isn’t the most attractive proposal, but what, specifically, would you recommend as an alternative that would achieve the same density?

  3. Matt the Engineer

    I still think they should have saved the Denny’s and just moved it to the roof.

  4. dave

    Yeah I’m with Matt, Dan your original design was far superior.

  5. Tony

    Dan, are you softening to the importance of design? What about the whole “density at all costs to save planet earth” mantra? An respect for local culture? You’re starting to sound like a NIMBY!

    Seriously though, while this is sorely unoriginal, to a degree it is what our land use code requires. If we want some greater variety, we’re going to have to make some code modifications.

    One possibility would be to separate “height” from “density”.

    I’m sure you know this, but for the readers: Height and setback requirements form a “building envelop”, which is the 3-dimensional bounding box that the building must fit inside of. Density in the case of NC zones is defined by floor area ratio, which is the ratio of total interior floor area to the area of the lot.

    In this case you have NC3-85 on the western half of the property and C1-65 on the eastern half. (85 and 65 are height limits) This zoning almost certainly explains why the east building is 2 stories taller than the west building. The FAR for these two zones is 6 and 4.75 respectively, basically 6 and 5 stories at full lot coverage.

    At about 10′ per story, the height limits allow 8 and 6 stories.

    The east building is a box covering the whole zone, which is why it cuts out a 5 stories. The West building goes up to 8, but has that courtyard as you can see. This is possible because the code does not allow the developer to fill up the full 8 stories with building, which would require a FAR of 8 rather than 6.

    The greater the distance between the Size of the Building Envelop and the maximum FAR of the building, the greater the flexibility in design and the more open space is possible. Developers are almost universally going to build out the maximum FAR allowed. If that means completely filling the building envelop, then the code has effectively dictated the exact shape of the building. This would be the case if the height limit were 65 and the FAR were 6. The fact that there is some divergence between these numbers gives us some variety of building shape.

    Greater variety could be achieved by increasing the divergence between the building envelop and the building. Increasing height limits to say 125 WHILE MAINTAINING THE SAME FAR of 6 might allow for a different design. The key, and this is critical, is to not let the height increase be coupled with a density (FAR) increase. If you do that you just get a taller building of the same inflexible shape. The same goal of flexibility could be achieved by lowering the overall density while keeping the same height limit. I.e. height 85′, FAR of 4 instead of 6.

    Of course, giving architects flexibility does not mean they will use it, or use it well. There are other things that can be done, such as upper-story setbacks and requirements for public open-space.

    Probably the most effective things that could be done would be to levy and “open space impact fee” something we are allowed to do by state law. This would be a cash payment the developer had to pay to the city that the city could use for its parks program.

    The city could then, through the design review process offer to waive all or part of the impact fee in exchange for “public amenities” included in the building. With a financial lever like that the city would be in a much stronger position to negotiate the inclusion of public amenities.

    Just a couple ideas. :-)

  6. Keith

    That was bound to happen given the style (monolithic effrontery) of the rest of the condos going up in the area. Damn.

    Evan, I admire and appreciate your emailing the architect but I’m pretty sure they know what they’ve designed is insulting. I think it’s probably the only way things would “pencil out” for the developer.

    On that note, Scott, an alternative that comes to mind would be a cluster of smaller buildings, of different shapes and heights; of course, that doesn’t exactly “pencil” in the short term but perhaps it could lead to a better, more desirable neighborhood in the long term.

  7. Tomas

    Last I heard this project was on hold indefinitly due to the poor housing market and economy.

    I’m not sure what’s better and empty hole or this thing.

  8. Tony

    This real estate downturn is a perfect opportunity for the city to get a handle on some of these design issues before the next upswing.

  9. dave

    Tomas, I hate to say it, but an empty hole is clearly better architecturally.

  10. Cascadian

    This is a horribly generic design, but honestly I think it’s better than what was there before.

    What we really need is developments that occur in smaller chunks, so that we don’t end up with monolithic generic condos that dominate the better part of a block. This should really be parceled out to at least half a dozen developers, preferably staged over time so that the street has time to adapt to the changes gradually, and so we eventually end up with a mix of building ages and types. That’s how you build an interesting neighborhood while still creating greater density.

  11. Sivalinga

    Visualize “Safeco City”

  12. J.R.

    So what’s wrong with it?

    OK, based on the comments to this point, I’m obviously trying to be provocative, but I’m still unsure how you legislate good design. I followed the links and saw that the design review board gave an earlier proposal these comments.

    “They wanted more attention to be paid to the prominent corner. They also asked the architects to unify the architectural expression of the facade; provide more canopies for weather protection; and lessen the scale, height and bulk along Northwest 56th Street.”

    Well, regardless of what you think of the weird little lighthouse motif, the architects followed the first instruction. Looking at the full package from the design review presentation, it seems like some sidewalk canopies have been added. The process, as written, seems to be working.

    To Dan: What specifically would you propose as a replacement design review process? How much power should the board have to stop the project? Would you create a provision for an architectural intervention?

    To Cascadian: How would you accomplish this incremental development program you suggest? Under your system, some entity would own large properties and hold them for a long period, while parceling out small sections of the property to different developers. Who would do this?

    I realize that it’s fun to print a goofy picture of a proposed building and slag it, and maybe that’s all you were doing with this post. However, all the evidence indicates (at least to me) that this building is going to be built and that the final product will look quite a bit like this rendering. Does anyone have any ideas on how to change that?

  13. Matt the Engineer

    I think Tony’s got the answer to that question (and I thank him for the great explanation). I don’t think increasing height (without increasing FAR) could force architects/developers to build more interesting buildings, but at least it would allow them to play with different shapes if they wanted to. We could certainly implement a maximum project size, which would force developers to at least consider Cascadian’s idea, although I’m sure many will just build 10 identical building right next to each other.

    What encourages beautiful buildings? My guess would be money combined with taste and few enough restrictions to let architects be artists. Zoning or building codes can only help with the last of those issues.

  14. GW

    Does anyone seriously believe this project will be built when our entire banking industry has flatlined and still isn’t responding to repeated defibrillation (leaving aside for the moment the very high probability that we’ll see a devaluation in commercial real estate this year)?

  15. CD Guy

    I’d take that over the Dearborn Street mall any day.

  16. Hold up...

    “Evan, I admire and appreciate your emailing the architect but I’m pretty sure they know what they’ve designed is insulting.”

    Keith, have you checked the architect’s website? They clearly don’t know!

    Of course, if I were building the lot… I’d be asking for a variance to incorporate a neon “B” (in the Rainer beer “R” font) on top of a spire right on the corner, tall enough for Interbay to see…

  17. Paulish

    Check out their websites (both the architect and developer). Crappy suburban multifamily projects. Kitsch suburban casinos. And… on the architect’s site, HORRIBLE background music (+ they have no women Principles or associate principles, gag).

  18. Keith

    I stand corrected; I hadn’t looked it their site. I just assumed that, being architects, they had some aesthetic sensibility. That’s what I get for making that assumption, I guess.

  19. spencer

    Some architects should either get their licenses taken away or never applied for them.

    In a few words, thanks for the schlock.

  20. Keo

    Ballard needs more parks.

  21. Andrew

    The problem is the site is just too big. It’s impossible to make a decent building on a 2 acre site or whatever that is.

  22. joshuadf

    I can think of several possibilities for a 2-acre site, mainly to make it look like multiple buildings (lose the pseudo-monster-townhome look on both IMHO). For example, U-Village is cheap architecture but popular with the public; they simply use facades to cover ugly strip mall construction and make it feel like Main St. (And I’m very biased, but I think the family-friendly covered play area and water features really help U-Village out too.) I’m not saying that would be perfect, but surely it would be better.

    Of course, it might be difficult for design review to require a neighborhood look that isn’t visible anywhere near that site.

  23. Michael

    I don’t fully understand the preoccupation with density being the problem with the awfulness of this design. It is huge, and it does appear oppressive.
    That’s not to say that we should look at the density a little, Tony has some interesting ideas about that.

    90% of the problem is a complete lack of imagination by the architect and/or developer. Some of Cascadians ideas are already easily achievable here. The project is already essentially broken up into two buildings due to the two zones it stradles. The code probably recognizes it this way as well. The problem is the architect has one or two details that they copied over and over. It would be a lot nicer if the shorter building actually looked like a different building. Maybe it should be a different construction type, and maybe neither portion have to be some cheesy suburban motif. Look at the Trace project on Capital hill, and Mosler in Belltown. Big doesn’t have to suck, it just happens that this project does and the architect and developer are 100% responsible. You can’t legislate goos taste.

  24. Michael

    I meant to say density ordinances should be looked at some.

    and ‘you can’t legislate good design’

    sorry for my bad proof reading.

    This is the one good thing about a bad economy. So many of these terrible projects will never become reality.

  25. dan bertolet

    There is nothing any of our regulatory agencies can do to stop buildings like this from going up. Because the problem is cultural, as discussed in this post:

    Breaking it up into smaller development chunks would definitely help, as noted here:

    But in a culture where property rights rule, regulations that prevent an owner from developing a mega-parcel just because its too big aren’t likely to be enacted any time soon, if ever.

    So about all you’re left with is writing snarky blog posts and hoping for a community uprising.

  26. jcdk

    Will HB1490 guard against this sort of thing – or will it be used in the future (if passed) to push projects like this through design review?

    Is it possible to package density requirements with something that could help guard against this sort of development?

  27. Keith

    About the community uprising: I think that’s a great idea. I propose that Hugeasscity, as “a place for armchair urban planning nerds,” shifts from just an online place to vent to a tool for real social organization.

    I don’t exactly know how to do this but I think something as simple as a happy hour would be a good place to start? I know I could learn a lot from some of the people that post here.

  28. carless in pdx

    The piss-poor design of this building has nothing to do with height or shapes. It has to do with the fact that Seattle allows such crap to be built.

    I think that if I had to look at it day in and day out either I’d move or burn it down. It looks worse than a trailer park!

    Actually, thats a good comparison: I dub it Seattle’s future “Vertical Trailer Park.”

  29. carless in pdx

    Oh, and here’s a good example of what a well designed midrise building could be. This one as 5 story concrete midrise.

    2121 Belmont

  30. Steve

    Isn’t the real question how this building works at street level? Nobody (well, except pilots flying awfully low) will ever see it from this angle.

    It looks to me like it might work from the sidewalk, but it’s hard to tell from this distance and angle.

  31. serial catowner

    So, the Denny’s was preferable to this proposed development, because….

    Seriously, does nobody see the disconnect non sequiter here? Now, I’m just going on memory here, but as I recall the Denny’s was just a cookie-cutter design plunked down with no regard to where it landed by a national corporation serving indifferent food to a declining patronage. To me it was just one of a number of shabby buildings with parking lots that made Ballard the last place I would want to buy a home.

    And, holy cow! the “Gateway to Ballard”? What, pray tell, would be a suitable gateway to a community as magnificent as Ballard? Maybe you could get some of those crossed-saber arches that Saddam loved to erect and put them over the various ‘gateways’ to Ballard, as a sort of reminder to ‘abandon all sanity, ye who enter here’.

    To me the building shown is a pleasant echo of many Seattle apartment houses that have gone before, most of which would be mourned with a great rending of garments and gnashing of teeth if they were torn down today. If built, the street-level storefronts will probably benefit from so many customers in walking distance, and undoubtedly be a great improvement on the gum wrappers and soda pop cans formerly found in the Denny’s parking lot.

    But I’ve always had common tastes.

  32. Sabina Pade

    I’m with Serial Catowner on this one. Yes, the proposed development on the Denny’s site is undistinguished architecturally, but it’s not worse than most other midrise developments in Seattle, and it may prove to be far better than many.

    Often, in such debates, one can perceive the yearning for a past that existed factually only in people’s imaginations.

  33. dan cortland

    Well, it “celebrates the corner”, thus fully satisfying the hapless bargaining that passes for design review in Seattle. No matter that the corner tower resembles a three-legged, 70-year-old spinster music teacher caught standing on the street skirtless in her gutta percha pantaloons and shower cap (“music teacher” may be a euphemism).

    And no, those multiple, detached peaked rooflet jobs aren’t reminding you of classic Seattle apartment buildings, they’re reviving memories, which your brain has tried valiantly to keep buried in its most reptilian depths, of residence inns constructed along Miracle Miles circa 1992.

    Sabina’s caught the spirit of Design Review, which is all about delicate extortion–”Give us such and such, or we’ll build a worse eyesore,”–while (always with the monkeys! See No Evil…) adding a snobbery of the Mediocre to the mix. Unfortunately, these days Mediocre only seems to come in XXXL. The only obvious benefit is in physical fitness: where once a pedestrian could take in 10 different buildings in a couple blocks’ stroll, now she has to walk 10 blocks to enjoy the same number. They have a fraction of the stylistic diversity, but the increased exercise is very healthy (hence the 446 parking stalls).

  34. serial catowner

    Actually, I just ignored the stupid roof treatments as being typical of modern crap.

    But this is a case where demanding loudly that they be replaced by the flat roof-cream band treatment of the higher portion at the rear might actually work. The builder would save money by not using any of the peaks or the little corner tower.

    As for the colors, don’t get me started. It’s like when you’re a kid and you use all the colors you have because you have them. And this is another place to put the foot down and tell them to come back when they’ve chosen one color for the brick and another for the trim.

    But, hey, things could be a lot worse. Just look at the next bunch of AIA awards.

  35. cjh

    Oh teehee, carless, you contrast this overly busy thing with the bland, stacked boxes of the International-On-A-Budget 2121 Belmont. You’re the best troll ever.

  36. carless in pdx

    Anyone who thinks this thing is even remotely a quality building must either be blind or failed 3rd grade art class.

    I would hardly call 2121 Belmont a ‘budget building,’ considering its $2/sq ft rental price, all-concrete construction + brick facade, etc. Oh, and it doesn’t reference cheap 80s motels in its design “features.”

    …which, of course, is entirely besides the point. It is immediately obvious when a building is entirely formula-driven when it has no concept behind it – sustainability, density, views, etc – and it comes out looking like this. I bet its even going to be sided in EIFS.

    I don’t know why I even post here, as virtually all the above posts seem to indicate a shocking lack of recognition that architecture is more than a numbers-driven process of sticking together “units.”

    Furthermore, what exactly is it that all of these infill developments bring to Seattle? Units? Besides the (rather tired, yet valid) density arguments, what good are they bringing to the community?

    Are there any public amenities to be included? It seems to be rather lacking in every aspect besides parking. This one doesn’t even offer any aesthetic benefit!

    Which is just sad. Many cities, following Vancouver’s model, leverage their developers with incentives to include public amenities: parks, schools, museums, open space, sustainable elements, and so forth. All you guys are getting is a bunch of units stacked together with no regards for Seattle’s existing or future built environment – and built as cheaply as possible.

  37. BrianK

    when i’m really really hungry i don’t even THINK i just chop up all the stale leftovers lying around, stir ‘em around in the pan a bit and hope the result turns out edible. it usually is but just barely.

    once i’m full though i never look back. belly’s full now; i wonder what’s on TV?

  38. Spencer


    “but as I recall the Denny’s was just a cookie-cutter design plunked down with no regard ”

    Seriously, I think you are confused as to what the building people are referring to on this site. It certainly wasn’t the same old Denny’s you see every where else. It’s previous life also wasn’t a Denny’s either. In fact, in the 80s the people of Ballard actually save this building from being demolished This is why people got wired up about last fall. It has a history. It connected with people (even if it was…only a Denny’s).

  39. Spencer

    “What encourages beautiful buildings? My guess would be money combined with taste and few enough restrictions to let architects be artists.”

    Matt, let me take a stab at this…revoke licenses and increase public demand for (way) better design. Let’s also keep a decent Architecture Critic reviewing our buildings and not falling prey to an occasional bruised ego with a little pull. I, for the record, am embarrassed that I did not make a stronger stand in support of Sherry Olsen vs. Webber Thompson.

  40. Spencer

    Careless PDX,

    “The piss-poor design of this building has nothing to do with height or shapes. It has to do with the fact that Seattle allows such crap to be built.”

    Here, here!

    “I think that if I had to look at it day in and day out either I’d move or burn it down. It looks worse than a trailer park!”

    Again. Here, here!

    Actually, thats a good comparison: I dub it Seattle’s future “Vertical Trailer Park.”

    To quote a more famous PDXer than you, “clever. How’s that working out for you?”

    “2121 Belmont”

    Good, but I’m not about to pop one off for it. Do you work for Amaa? There are a ton better projects in Portland.

  41. Spencer


    “Yes, the proposed development on the Denny’s site is undistinguished architecturally, but it’s not worse than most other midrise developments in Seattle, and it may prove to be far better than many.”

    Still, this is no reason to support this type of design. It’s like saying spoiled food tastes alright with a lot of cheddar cheese poured on top. That food might easier to swallow but now it’s even more bad for you.

  42. dan bertolet

    Now we’re getting somewhere…

    Dan Cortland @33, do you want to be guest architecture critic on hugeasscity?

    Steve @30 is right on about the street level experience. Even if totally generic it will function well for peds, not counting the big curb cuts for the drive-thru. But this building is at the intersection of two very wide streets, and so will be a highly visible landmark from the East and South. In this case the whole building matters a lot.

    carless in pdx @28 and anyone else: I’d like to know how Portland has managed to be so successful with its new architecture, e.g. in the Pearl District. Is it all about the Portland Development Commission? How would Portland put the kabosh on a proposed building like the Ballard example?

  43. Sabina Pade

    Mediocrity is, almost intrinsically, the way of the world. Surely the armchair critics here have noticed that the overwhelming majority of residential developments in Seattle and elsewhere are generic and formulaic in character. And always have been.

    Want something super? Become a developer, find a good architect willing to work on the cheap, and assemble the funding. Arm yourself against brickbats, because Jane & Joe Average will not necessarily share your aesthetic tastes….

  44. serial catowner

    Last night I was indulging myself, as I have for every night of the past week, with a video Swiss rail journey- an exercise I recommend to any student of the vernacular.

    Because Switzerland is nothing if not vernacular. North, south, east, west, up, down- millions of chalet-shaped buildings, all, from a distance, as alike as peas in a pod. I do not find this distressing. Nor, in fact, do I find the serried ranks of brownstone entrance stairways and bay windows on streets in Brooklyn, or the ubiquitous Sears Roebuck mail order homes found in almost every American town and city, to be distressing.

    As a child, I lived in Norwood Village, just northeast of the Factoria interchange. Now subtly changed by the addition of some new houses, this development originally used (IIRC) five designs which, flipped, became a total of ten. Knowing the key, you can probably see this from the outside, but it’s not oppressively apparent.

    Eventually, as will happen, my Swiss train reached a station, Zurich, and the camera took us for a brief tour. To my surprise, we looked down a street, and on one side was a building topped by the little dormers, and on the other, a little tower-projection adorned another building. Amazingly, I was not immediately struck by the thought that the Swiss had erected a ‘vertical trailer park’ or in some way defiled their visual environment.

    Maybe it’s a matter of expectations.

  45. carless in pdx

    ^ catowner, you should also watch PBS’s new e^2 design series. Its pretty amazing, if you want to see some good stuff regarding sustainability, architecture and planning.

    dan bertolet – how did the Pearl District come out with such a high level of architecture?

    Firstly, it wasn’t “slapped up” like infill projects happen in many other places. Pearl District’s redevelopment plan was actually a community effort started years ago (1998?) in conjunction with the city, PDC, and other groups.

    Much of the Pearl District has been developed by 2 developers: Hoyt Street Properties and Gerding/Edlen (they did the blocks near Powell’s) – whom strived for the highest level of design possible at the time. GBD and AMAA did most of the work (and no, I don’t work for them!), but other firms have brought much to the table.

    Portland’s Design Review commission has limited what has happened in the district, but there are very strict design guidelines for the district – ie, x% of ground-floor retail space as compared to lot size, FAR requirements, parking is heavily discouraged from ground floor, % requirement for windows along each facade, and a requirement for brick in much of the district.

    They certainly helped, but aren’t the only reason it came out so well. I believe that the pedestrian-focused plan for the district had a lot to do with it, and the fact that the local architecture firms that did the design work had completely embraced pedestrian-oriented green architecture in the development of the district. There are a couple of bad apples, however – but not nearly as bad as what I’ve seen in Seattle, with such amenities as ground-floor parking garages (which should just be flat-out banned).

    If you want to compare TOD design, the Yards at Union Station might make a better PoMo design comparison – but its done much, much better.

  46. carless in pdx

    Here is the other Pearl District planning document. It was adopted in 2001 – lots of good stuff in it, however.

  47. Hey Wait

    Dan, while this document is new, it helps explain why PDX is so great and will continue to be so. It’s the Infill Design Toolkit, released by Portland’s Bureau of Planning, Dec 22nd, 2008:
    (35mb PDF file. Give it a few minutes!)

    (I posted this once before but I’m not sure you saw it…)

  48. joshuadf

    I like both Ballard and the Pearl District, but we need to be realistic about the two locations. Even before a single building opened, the Pearl was within walking distance of Portland’s retail core (5th?), the train station, MAX including the airport line, and of course Powell’s. This Ballard location has no comparable advantages and additionally is hamstrung by the suburban-chic Safeway across the street.

  49. cjh

    Indeed, joshuadf, the Pearl is/was largely a blank slate in a way that Ballard is not (even that part of Ballard). SoDo today and SLU five years ago have a lot more in common with the Pearl than Ballard. Except, of course, that the Pearl is a much smaller area than either. Truly boutique.

    Anyhow, why look to Portland? Not to beat the drum but even that infill document is terribly conservative (not that I have a problem with preserving the historical built environment, especially landmark structures) and reflective of the “big small-town” mindset of Portland proper.

    Vancouver is a better model if you want to promote density, though it will involve breaking a lot more eggs, a lot of time and putting up with garish or bland buildings (of which, Vancouver had and still has plenty). But people will put up with buildings that aren’t perfect if development is tied to amenity, much like in Vancouver. They also showed how this can be done without high speed transit. In 1986, when SkyTrain opened, their density was a bit over 9,500 per sq/mile which is about 2,500 per sq/mi more than Seattle today because the municipal and provincial government had spent ~35 years cultivating density in the West End (a neighborhood in walking distance of the downtown core and the amenity of Stanley Park). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the urban village concept is rather close to this model. However, also unsurprisingly, the urban villages don’t go far enough.

    Anyhow, this is just armchair quarterbacking.

    And oh yeah, googie architecture and life in Ballard. The real losses were the Twin Teepees, architecturally, in that “mysterious fire” ( ) and Sunset Bowl (architecturally less interesting but an actual community hangout). I’m surprised to see you give a crap about googie architecture, to be honest, since it is pure car-culture.

  50. Spencer

    The Portland/Vancouver/Seattle debate doesn’t seem to be as apples to apples to apples of a comparison to me.

    Portland is a very special case that not many cities in the USA get to follow. The development of the design community goes back decades to the fertile period of the 1970s when Portland was able to write it’s own state legislation because a majority of the state’s population was living in urban areas (Portland, Salem, and Eugene). Subsequently, Portland has benefited from a lot of state and federal money that would have been directed to rural areas. Portland’s planning team was able to capitalize on that additional funding to develop the designs and planning making it the city it is today that has attracted so much decent design talent. This has also excited it’s community pride. For it’s life since the 70s Portland’s design community has focused inward and it has benefited greatly. In my opinion, Portland is humbly focused on being the best of the third tier cities in the USA.

    Vancouver, as I have understood, has only recently achieved the glistening shine that has attracted Seattle’s gaze. What I know people in Seattle to talk about when discussing Vancouver is all it’s glass towers and how cool it would be to live in those buildings. Until today (see comment above) I haven’t heard much talk about the process Vancouver has gone through to get there. My guess about Vancouver is that it didn’t explode in design and planning until it began it’s special relationship with Hong Kong just before China reclaimed it. At the time I remember Vancouver was openly taking in Hong Kong immigrants with little to no obstruction. I also remember hearing accusations that Vancouver was only accepting immigration applications from the Hong Kong wealthy and taxing them heavily to enter the city. It now makes me wonder how much of Vancouver’s success today was paid for by those immigrants?

    Seattle, by contrast, is focused on it’s image outwardly. Our commerce is built around major corporations (Boeing, Microsoft, Nordstroms) and the largest Western US sea-port focusing on exporting. It’s no wonder that our design talent, today, looks so similar. We have branch offices of the three largest architecture firms in the USA who, I imagine, attract and employ more than 1/2 our architectural talent. All three compete on a global level, so, and scarcely participate in designing Seattle. I think these things make us (Seattle) a little star-struck. We’re a lower rung, second tier city with strong international connections and our eyes looking up enviously at the larger first tier cities (NYC, Chicago, SF) wondering how do we get there. We have the personal, individual wealth but not the humbler, inward community focus of Portland. We, Seattle, in-fight constantly because so many people want to be in the solo driver’s seat. The evidence is in how we’ve made a bungle of our mass transit choices. Mono-rail, then light-rail, then mono-rail, then light-rail, then mono-rail again and then bus rapid transit. This spurred design lead community organizations to respond and new ones to spring up with yet another voice. We also couldn’t agree on what to do with the Viaduct only to have our governor step in like an agitated parent telling us to get our act together. Then like the spoiled teen-ager we get ticked off in return and stall more.

    If I had my druthers, we, Seattle, would stop focusing on what is happening in Portland and Vancouver and direct our attention on collaborating better on our own internal affairs. There are way too many examples good urban design to follow and I think we’ve done enough studying to know what is right. We are facing a new era of how to become inclusive and need to focus on how to develop new processes to be more inclusive. It’s time to focus on developing new methods to work as a community on getting great things done. Because of our size, population and wealth our community is fracturing too much for us to have any decent individual input.

    I expect this kind of “place” of invention could be the blog-o-sphere. It has the potential to be a leader in making connections and being forums of collaborations. Blogs need to make the next evolutionary step beyond the op-ed types of discussions and become the mixing board of solutions on specific topics. Because right now they are undisciplined in moderating and unfocused in intent and follow through. Just think of all the power of the minds participating on this particular blog if we just focused on parts of a single topic for several months with out getting side tracked too much by random off shoots.

  51. Keith

    Well said, Spencer. Thanks for that.

    Your last paragraph is exactly what I think is the future of social media, but the important step, I think, is shifting it in to real-world action. Maybe the move to facebook will help take away some of the anonymity of Dan’s site and push the readers closer to some sort of organization? I sure hope so.

    Maybe some of the readers of HAC have heard of Konstructr ( It’s a facebook-esque site for the design community. They have discussion boards, podcasts, expert groups, etc. I doubt it has the reach that HAC does, but it’s a very good idea, and the creator is a very energetic and inspired individual.

  52. Spencer


    Thanks for the link. I have never heard of Konstructr. Or at least that I remember.

  53. SA

    You think this is bad? Wait until they’re 1/4 into it and start having to trim the details to get it done within the budget. So long green roof, bye-bye sustainable materials.

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