Three Big Bread Loaves All In A Row

In the photo above, from left to right, along the north side of Denny Way just west of Aurora Ave: Taylor 28, Hyatt Place Hotel/Apartments*, and Marselle Condos

In Seattle, the combined effects of zoning and construction-type economics has led to the prevalence of a mixed-use residential building form affectionately known as the “bread loaf” (see for example Breadloaves & Pencils).  The NC-65 zone was essentially written for this building type, which puts five stories of wood frame on top of a one story concrete base, typically with multiple parking levels below grade.  The sweet spot for building depth is about 70 feet, which accomodates both a double loaded corridor plan, and a double row of parking stalls below.  Building length tends to be maximized, so you end up with a 70×65-foot slab two or three hundred feet long — not a particularly inspiring form. 

But to me, what’s more uncanny than the fact that these three of loaves happened to land in a row, is where that row is located.  As you may notice in the photo above, it’s not exactly a cozy pedestrian-oriented urban village.  Need a gas station, a car wash, or a convenient place to store your white Escalade stretch limo?  You’re covered.    

Denny Way west of I-5 is one of the most pedestrian-hostile arterials in the entire city.  The need to accomodate four travel lanes leaves very little room for sidewalk, and eliminates the possiblity for substantial planting strips or parallel parking to buffer pedestrians from fast moving traffic.  You might think that new development would be seized on as an opportunity to set new buildings further back from Denny and humanize the sidewalk, but as far as I can tell it has yet to happen.

The entire length of the Marselle condo building directly abuts the Aurora exit ramp.  Are there people who don’t notice such subtleties when they go condo shopping?

Oh, and things are going to get really interesting in this area if and when deep-bore tunnel construction begins.  Sixth Ave has been proposed as the primary connector from Mercer to points south through the tunnel.  Yummy — a depressed freeway entrance ramp.   

Of course, the main selling point for this location is its proximity to downtown.  That it is.  And the plaza at Denny and 5th Ave is a hidden gem of an amenity.  Seattle Center is also nearby, though that’s more of an infrequent destination than a regularly visited neighborly gathering place.  

But even being so close to downtown, it’s hard to imagine how this location can compete with so many other established, complete city neighborhoods.  And not only will these three loaves be competing with each other and with other neighborhoods for tenants: just across Denny is the mammoth Archstone Belltown apartment high rise (photo below). “Lease Today!”

But here’s the deal:  I declare that these developments shall be forgiven for every bit of their loafiness if they succeed in catalyzing a transformation of the Denny-Aurora area into a place that’s pleasant and safe for humans who don’t happen to be protected by a two-ton glass and steel shell.

*The Hyatt is concrete frame and is two or three stories taller than your typical bread loaf — it got a little more yeast.

25 Responses to “Three Big Bread Loaves All In A Row”

  1. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    There’s something to be said for watching city traffic on arterial streets, especially at night. I enjoyed it regularly when I lived in Japan. Also on paper the location is amazing–I know because we recently investigated one of those cheap leases at the Archstone Belltown. As you note it’s close to downtown, SLU, Seattle Center (it’s a park!), and Belltown. After they reconnect John there will be no need to walk on Denny.

    Incidentally there’s currently a UW College of Built Environments student landscape design project on remaking Denny on display in Gould Hall (15th Ave NE at 40th). Part of the idea is 5th/Vine triangle as a park and transforming the Archstone Belltown garage pictured above into mini-retail. It could work.

  2. Brad

    I took a look at the “breadloaves & pencils” slides and though it was a good read. It explains that there are both good and bad ways to densify a neighborhood. Higher buildings give the developer more flexibility, and allow them to return the favor by providing more groundspace for pedestrians.

    Unfortunately, I’m left with the feeling that Seattle has largely chosing the ‘bad’ way: 4-5 story houses which need to take as large a footprint as possible just to pencil-out.

    Does anyone know if the notion of ‘incentive towers’ that are mentioned in the slides are being considered by the powers that be in seattle?

  3. Kathryn

    Given how the city lets developers weasel out of everything, there is no guarantee that there will be any open space around towers, even if the zoning called for it.

  4. Kathryn

    I worked at the old Group Health Building (which was the old PI building) between Battery, Wall, 5th and 6th for many years. We spent a LOT of time at Seattle Center. Having that stretch of Denny more populated will be nice. You are right that the sidewalk experience needs a bunch of work. They might have been better off oriented to the side streets like Taylor, however.

  5. Josh Mahar

    I agree that forcing developers to take up the entirety of their lots can be a bit unfriendly but I’m not sure that tall buildings with “public amenities” are always better. As this blog has pointed out, the little plaza at the courthouse is utterly wasted space. In fact many of the towers downtown have included some pubic space and much of it is worthless and ugly. I understand that there can be incentives for other types of amenities too but it seems like a slippery slope teaming community amenities with developer profits.

    Most of Europe is zoned under 6 stories and I really think that is ideal. High rises can cause vertical segregation and focus far too much on grand views instead of street life. Plus, they aren’t particularly energy efficient.

    The truth is there simply is no quick, easy solution to transforming our car dominated world into a more pedestrian friendly one. It is yet to be determined whether these places will spark a better street life around Denny-Aurora but a few more shops in the area and a block of larger sidewalk and pretty landscaping is a start. As the neighborhood establishes itself, new pedestrian hangouts will arise organically and it is our job and to illuminate these places to the public and the government and foster them as much as possible. As more and more people explore the area, we have to push the little things: more benches, better crosswalks, reduced car lanes, etc.

  6. Keo

    That neighborhood has potential to be great, regardless of whether these first few buildings are too big or not. The location is amazing actually. What is truly missing is better East-West connections. However, when they re-do the area for the big ol’ tunnel there should be new connections on Thomas and John, which would be fantastic.

  7. Andrew Smith

    What makes Denny worse than 45th in Wallingford? Wallingford and 45th is a generally walkable and a obviously hugely (huge-ass-ly?!?!?) desirable place to live (otherwise, why would the houses sell for so much there?).

    Is it the lack of walkable retail on Denny? (yes, but how do you built that in?)

    Is it the #44 bus? (probably not, the 8 has more service).

    This is an important question if you want to address walkability, sustainability and desirability. I’ll leave which of those three is the most important as an exercise to the reader.

    If the answer is just “wallingford & 45th is old was not built around the car” then the reply is “you’re totally wrong, and you have no idea how to build a sustainable and desirable community whatsoever.”

  8. Kathryn

    Wider sidewalks, including overhanging upper floors for outside cafe space? Planting strips to separate pedestrians and traffic? That’s certainly two things I’d like to see generally.

  9. Keo

    I just took a nice long walk around this neighborhood today and I’m more convinced than ever of a few things-

    1) Thank god there will be more connections across Aurora after the tunnel is built.
    2) Let’s get rid of Broad St. from Roy to 5th and never look back.
    3) 2-way Mercer NOW please :-)
    4) The idea of a park on 5th and Vine is a great one.

    Some suggestions-

    1) Denny Park badly needs some park-oriented development around it. It seems city planners and developers have just ignored it for the past 100 years?
    2) Why is there a giant power substation at Thomas and 6th? Really hard to create a cohesive neighborhood around such a monstrosity.
    3) For a better Denny: replace the #8 with a streetcar or streetcar-conceptually integrated trollybus?

  10. Kathryn

    Oh GOD Please don’t mess with the #8. It goes all the places and between all the places no other line goes. It hardly has anything to do with the Regrade.

  11. Maryse

    My comment is not particularly on subject, but is related. A dear friend of mine works at the Seattle Architecture Foundation and they do regular tours of Seattle like those listed below.
    Considering your great eye and excellent turn of phrase, you should at least attend a tour if not volunteer to lead them.
    Contact Roberta Miner and tell her I sent you.
    http://www.seattlearchitecture.org/tours.cfm

    Sample of tour titles:
    Art + Architecture: Let the Streets be Your Museum!
    Historic Skyscrapers: Concrete, Steel, Glass and Egos
    Harvard Belmont District: The Rich Life on Capitol Hill
    Family Tour: Eye Spy Seattle
    South Lake Union: Extreme Makeover
    Modern Skyscrapers: What’s New?
    Architecture 101: Windows on Seattle’s Style
    That’s Entertainment: Glittering Palaces of Illusion
    Design Details: Lions, Griffins, & Walruses, Oh My!

  12. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    The desirability question is a good one Andrew, but I’m not sure about the comparison to 45th and Wallingford. The worst thing that intersection has is the QFC parking lot, which is awkward but nothing like the Aurora on-ramps! My biased opinion is that Denny’s main problem is that it has way too many through drivers because no one can make any sense of the switch between the downtown and uptown street grids. The reworking of Westlake through SLU is probably a pretty good comparison–wider sidewalks, trees, bulbs, and lots of retail on the ground floor of office or lab buildings. Even though that made Westlake a lot better, I almost got run over in a crosswalk there last Monday. It’s still an auto thoroughfare.

    By the way Denny Park did get one development–Vulcan’s moderate-income Borealis Apartments (80% AMI rents, and yet another bread loaf) on the west side of the park at Denny and Dexter. The north side along John is mostly covered by Denny Park Lutheran and Seattle Unity Churches–could they go the way of 1st Presbyterian? The east side is the lot behind Vulcan’s sales center which is surely going to be developed eventually. The south side (across Denny) is sad–there’s an decent Korean restaurant in an small building and a hotel. Denny Park itself is getting a little love. There’s a new playground being built; the equipment is there and it’s supposed to open in May.

  13. L

    the bread loaves document is pretty convincing. Problem is, the 2nd to last page is titled: “Ideas for Potential Recommendations.” Not really barnstorming material.

  14. Kathryn

    I prefer the Pike-Pine overlay plans for actual neighborhoods. Brown bag proceedings tomorrow at Noon and I expect on Channel 21.

    http://www.cityofseattle.net/council/committees/planning_comm.htm

  15. Wes Kirkman

    “The need to accomodate four travel lanes leaves very little room for sidewalk, and eliminates the possiblity for substantial planting strips or parallel parking to buffer pedestrians from fast moving traffic. You might think that new development would be seized on as an opportunity to set new buildings further back from Denny and humanize the sidewalk, but as far as I can tell it has yet to happen.”

    I’d prefer to be hopeful that the City will strangle its traffic engineers one day and then downsize Denny to a one-lane each way + center turn lane street. Would help to humanize Denny and grab some extra space for wider sidewalk, plantings, and/or bus(s) lane (don’t respond to me about how bad the traffic is on Denny, I know it is and could care less). I didn’t think this would actually happen of course, but with all the not too shabby development happening a little east of this area at the streetcar line, it may actually happen…minus the strangling of the traffic engineers unfortunately.

  16. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    I walked up Denny from 9th to Fairview today while thinking of this post. I’d completely forgotten the Wyland Orca mural on the La Quinta which adds a lot to the view across from Denny Park. The corner at Westlake had a lot of life just after 5pm, probably people stopping by for groceries after work. I hadn’t realized that there would be absolutely no visibility of traffic coming down the hill because Denny has about a 10% grade up to Terry and Boren, which really makes the Pan Pacific in 2200 Westlake and the Mirabella at Fairview seem even taller than they are. I really like the central courtyard at 2200 except that it’s currently for car loading. I could imagine instead of short-term parking maybe someday that could be a green roof for community events. Half of it gets some direct sun.

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