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Thursday, March 23, 2006 - Page updated at 08:13 AM


Taller skyscrapers on the horizon

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle's downtown skyline could soon soar hundreds of feet above limits that voters, fearing a wave of soul-robbing corporate towers, approved by a landslide in 1989.

And no one is protesting. Instead, former leaders of the citizen-led CAP Initiative — such as the League of Women Voters and City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck — are embracing a plan to allow dozens of taller skyscrapers downtown.

"It's a colossal change," said local historian Walt Crowley, as a City Council committee is scheduled to start voting today on zoning changes that would demolish downtown height limits.

What happened to fears of rapacious development that fueled a citizen uprising 17 years ago?

More than anything, Seattleites have bought into the idea that it's better to funnel growth into dense urban areas than having it spill outside the city. Also, an influx of new residents comfortable with big cities and new attitudes about the attractiveness of downtown living have contributed to a major political shift.

"Seattle was a little more humble then. There's sort of a pride in bigness now that we didn't have before," said Steinbrueck, son of the city's most famous preservationist, Victor Steinbrueck, who led the fight to save Pike Place Market.

Should the Seattle City Council lift the limit on downtown building heights?

Yes - 71%

No - 22%

Who cares - 7%

Total votes: 1,866

Attitudes toward growth have evolved so thoroughly that the only really heated debate now concerns a plan to charge developers a fee to help open about 15 new apartment units a year for people with low to moderate incomes.

But Steinbrueck says the challenge goes far beyond allowing taller buildings. The key issue facing city leaders, he says, is how to make a downtown topped by million-dollar penthouses a desirable home for a diverse mix of people.

A towering menace

When the 76-story Bank of America Tower went up two decades ago, many saw the black-sheathed building as a menacing sign.

"There was a sense that everything was up for grabs and developers were doing the grabbing," said Steinbrueck, who chairs the council's Urban Development and Planning Committee.

Today, people tend to see skyscraping towers as places where they might want to live, or where newcomers might reside.

Nancy Eitreim, president of the League of Women Voters of Seattle, says civic groups' sweeping support for the zoning changes comes from their belief in the state's 1990 Growth Management Act, which requires cities to set goals for accommodating new residents and jobs.

"It comes from realizing that we as a city need to absorb population to preserve the rural nature of forest and farmlands that surround us and to contain sprawl," Eitreim said.

High-rise living has also gained popularity, especially among empty-nesters and singles who see downtown as a cultural playground where they can go see a concert instead of listening to it while stuck in suburban traffic.

Developer William Justen believes this trend, driven by baby boomers, will do more than taller buildings to reshape downtown.

"I don't think the new land-use code would create that many new housing units," Justen said. But it would improve the appearance of buildings, he said, creating more tall and skinny towers and fewer short and squat buildings.

There's scant evidence, however, that the changes — proposed last year by Mayor Greg Nickels — would curb sprawl over the next 20 years by pulling more people downtown. Under current or proposed zoning, city studies project about 10,000 new households downtown and 29,000 new jobs in that period.

Planners, though, are taking a longer view. They're trying to create space for the next century, said Alan Justad, spokesman for the city's planning department.

The new downtown is unlikely to produce new buildings as tall as the Bank of America Tower, now called Columbia Center, because the lots needed for such structures are scarce. More buildings of 40 to 50 stories are possible.

A few activists such as former city neighborhoods director Jim Diers and Seattle Displacement Coalition leader John Fox have warned about the dangers of such growth. Diers and Fox say it can lead to demolishing historic buildings, displacing affordable housing and a further strain on the city's social-service safety net.

"We'll pay the costs while the downtown corporate crowd benefits," Fox said.

But critics have not organized any opposition to a taller, denser downtown. Instead, they're trying to soften the impacts of growth by advocating for more money for affordable housing.

Nickels' plan

Nickels acknowledges the need for more affordable housing in a more upscale downtown. He would let condo and apartment developers build taller if they set aside some units in their buildings for low- and moderate-income residents, or pay into a fund for affordable housing elsewhere downtown.

Nickels' plan, which would charge $10 per square foot, would help fund about 300 affordable units over 20 years. That translates to about 15 units a year.

This is where the main debate is focused — whether Nickels' plan is enough.

Steinbrueck says no. He would nearly double the fee, and double the number of affordable units.

City officials say the apartments would be affordable to people making between $16,350 and $41,700 a year.

This would mark the first time the city would tap residential developers for contributions to an affordable-housing fund. The city already has a fee for downtown commercial developers, and that is expected to produce about 2,000 units in the next 20 years.

Even the $10 fee is too high, said Murphy McCullough, who wants to build a 400-foot apartment tower for middle-class renters at the corner of Third Avenue and Virginia.

Other developers who plan on building high-rise condos say the $20 fee would amount to a $15,000 surcharge that they will pass on to buyers.

Look across the border

Once the height and affordable-housing issues are settled, Steinbrueck insists Seattle needs to look to Vancouver, B.C., as an example of a downtown that's livable, attractive to a mix of people, and therefore has a better chance of curbing sprawl.

In focusing on Vancouver, he hired two of that city's planners as consultants. He followed their advice and hired real-estate experts to calculate projected risks and profits for downtown developers — and what kind of fees they could afford for public amenities like affordable housing.

The goal, Steinbrueck said, is to create downtown neighborhoods with lots of amenities to attract families. A new park in Belltown, a new public school, public art.

"If we make downtown friendly to kids, it will be much friendlier and safer for everyone. Plus, singles and retirees are not the groups spreading out to the suburbs but rather families," he explained.

This vision for downtown may mean charging developers more fees, Steinbrueck said, which would likely lead to intense political debates.

While those battles remain, Eitreim of the League of Women Voters said this much is already clear: Future high-rise construction will dwarf today's towers and change Seattle permanently.

"The CAP Initiative has, in effect, been repealed unanimously with hardly anyone noticing," said Crowley, executive director of

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