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Changing Visions: Part 3Cover Story
WRITTEN BY WILLIAM DIETRICH
PHOTOGRAPHED BY HARLEY SOLTES
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Alternative Urban: High-rise homesteaders ditch the car and discover new mobility

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The series: In this ongoing series, Pacific Northwest magazine explores the forces of change around us and its significance to our future as a community. Readers have been chiming in with their own opinions, suggestions, horror stories and even creative solutions.
Read other installments in the series.
To contribute your comments, e-mail or write to "The Big Squeeze," Pacific Northwest magazine, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.
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LIVE LIGHT. Live close. Live high.

Is downtown condominium living the new environmental ideal? Is the proper abode of the Northwest planet protector not a cabin on five acres, cutting the landscape to ribbons, but 1,000 square feet on the 25th floor — with the VW microbus gathering dust in the underground garage, a P-Patch around the corner, and a street tree to hug by the bicycle rack outside?

Alan Durning, director of Northwest Environment Watch, thinks it is. He wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times calling compact Manhattan an "Ecotopia on the Hudson" for fighting sprawl. He pointed out that we Northwesterners, per person, drive more, eat more land and consume more energy.

The Great Gray Lady turned the piece down, probably figuring Durning is nuts for finding any environmental good in the Big Apple. But a lot of people who live in downtown Seattle's West Edge, Belltown, Pioneer Square, Capitol Hill or South Lake Union think Durning has a point.
 
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Packing people together creates problems as well as solutions, generating imports of food and goods and exports of waste and air pollution. Seattle's garbage is railroaded to landfills more than 200 miles away.
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They have freedom from the car. Their heat use is minimal. Their high-rise buildings are concrete, not wood, and should be enduring. The amount of land their individual dwelling takes up, given that they are stacked on top of each other on a small footprint, is tiny compared to a suburban quarter-acre lot.

They're solving sprawl and traffic congestion one story at a time, and having fun doing it.

We know what you're thinking: street people, crime, noise, cost; mobility, green space, room to live. Downtown living is a definite tradeoff.

But the people who've done it describe something very, very enticing.

Take David Marcarian. After a divorce, he drove from the Bay Area to Belltown with a suitcase, rented a place at The McGuire Apartments and then, one year to the day later, bought a top-floor condo at The Ellington, running his medical-technology business in California via the Internet. His annual mileage has dropped from 27,000 to 4,000. He seldom has to turn on the heat. He has a panoramic view of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains. He shops daily in the Pike Place Market. Best of all are the friends he's made.

"It's like living in a small town," he says. His neighbors see each other in local pubs and restaurants. They run into each other on the sidewalk because everyone walks. "Psychologists always talk of the stress created by a lack of a sense of community. Well, this is all erased by living downtown."

Developer Matt Griffin converted the Seaboard Building on Westlake Mall into condominiums and has sold most of the 24 units despite having no parking at all. "It's all about mobility," he says — but not behind the wheel. "I can't think of a great city that's not a great place to walk in," and downtown Seattle is becoming great to walk in. "If we don't do this, we're going to grind up all the green hills."
 
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The downtown population has grown to about 20,000, filling newly built condominiums in Belltown, along the waterfront and in the International District.
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Bruce Lawrence, 74, a pioneering black musician at the Seattle Symphony, moved from Shoreline to a Harbor Steps 22nd-floor apartment on First Avenue and wheels his bass to work down the sidewalk. With their view of the water and a thousand restaurants within a couple miles, "You get the best of both worlds," says his wife, Josie. "From here to heaven, we're not going anywhere else."

Former Port Commissioner Henry Aronson owned a home on Bainbridge Island for 17 years and kept an apartment downtown before finally making the jump to a full-time condo with an expansive downtown view. A view of bustling downtown that is fascinating by day is magical by night: "I love watching the airplanes lined up to come into SeaTac, their lights like a string of pearls."

Samantha Britney moved from Atlanta to work for Microsoft and chose The McGuire over Redmond for the friendliness of a building of single-somethings, working from home some days and reverse-commuting others. One plus was that the building not only allows her shaggy dog Bailey, it pampers the canine.

Neighbor Tom Craig moved from New York City to Capitol Hill initially, "and I felt like I was living in farmland." So he, too, took a tower apartment in Belltown, even though he works in Bellevue. "You can't hear your neighbor and you can't hear the street. I think the momentum of urban living is going to keep happening."

"It's a sensory experience," says Lyn Krizanch, who lives in a downtown condo. "One person's noise is another person's music. You go shopping at the Pike Place Market and come home with a wonderful morning: giant sunflowers, fresh fruit, and you say, 'Life is good.' "

At age 24, Kyle Vixie, a Belltown apartment dweller, has a waterfront view, is within walking distance of three major-league sports and a dozen live theaters, and can host rooftop Fourth of July parties with a view of both the Elliott Bay and Lake Union fireworks spectacles at once. "Living downtown allows me to be a social hub," he says.

Listen, guys: A high-rise can be a babe magnet.
 
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Jaison Scott lives in a rent-controlled apartment directly upstairs from where he works as a fish-tosser at Pike Place Fish. The neon of the market sign floods into the small apartment the drummer for the band Severhead shares with his dog Nyima.
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WAIT A MINUTE. Isn't downtown Seattle living just for affluent, soulless, childless Yuppies who think old growth is a fern bar, exercise is prowling the aisles at Nordstrom, and gardening is dusting your jade plant? What about real people who lead the true-blue SUV, Costco-pallet, plywood-sheet-hauling, kids-to-soccer-schlepping, lawn-mowing, house-painting, garage-crowding, flannel-shirt-wearing Northwest lifestyle?

Well, here's the vision thing. Dense urban living needs a critical mass of residents to sustain the restaurants, shops, parks and theaters to make it fun — and Seattle's core has finally achieved that mass: Its population has roughly doubled, to 20,000, since 1990. In the six-year period between 1997 and 2002, the city permitted more than six times as many multifamily units as single-family, according to figures from real-estate consultant Gardner Johnson and the U.S. Commerce Department.

The recession isn't going to last forever. Growth will resume. And it could be focused downtown instead of Marysville, Monroe and Bonney Lake. As well as in the cores of Bellevue, Kirkland, Bothell, Renton and so on.

Planners and developers say the future could produce (if the city wants to zone for and encourage it) new towers sprouting on underused docks west of Pioneer Square, along the waterfront if the Viaduct comes down, in the flat Pier 91 area between Queen Anne and Magnolia, and in the underdeveloped neighborhoods between downtown and Lake Union: the Denny Triangle, South Lake Union and the Cascade neighborhood.

The dream is that the Seattle School District brings schools back to the core. And that the Parks Department reclaims, cleans up and develops new parks and playgrounds. Architectural critic Mark Hinshaw charges that Seattle's tolerance of park takeovers by the homeless is unique on the West Coast: Other cities have reclaimed and policed their open space. Churches will pop up and double as community meeting places, too. The monorail will be built, light rail will extend north, and a streetcar similar to Portland's will prowl from the waterfront to Lake Union. A rich mix of high towers and lower townhomes brings prices within reason. Families supplement the singles and DINKs. Street people and criminals flee from urban wholesomeness like vampires from the sun.

Fantasy? Nope. There's a lot of creative thinking going on.

Developer Bruce Lorig has helped point the way with mixed-use projects such as the apartments built over the new Uwajimaya store in the International District.
 
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David Marcarian cooks a piece of swordfish on the deck of his condo at the Ellington in Belltown. He likes the advantage of living in a "neighborhood" where everyone walks instead of drives. "There is so much to do, and you never have to worry about DUIs."
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Al Clise, whose family has been in the Seattle development business for 115 years, has assembled downtown's largest single contiguous block of ownership in the Denny Triangle, and has models of a proposed complex with 6 million square feet of office and retail space, more than current zoning allows. Microsoft, c'mon down!

Developer Paul Allen's Vulcan Properties has snapped up 50 acres throughout Lake Union and is starting work on a dizzying list of labs, offices, condos and apartments that echo European models. If the Viaduct comes down, real-estate vice president Ada Healey foresees a new lid over Highway 99 that unites Allen's properties with Seattle Center. "We have a mission to change the world," she says. "One goal is that if you live here and don't want to get in your car, you don't have to. Everything is here."

The city of Seattle has a department of urban design called City Design that is trying to address the fact that the core, according to director John Rahaim, has less public open space than any large city in America. He is looking at the "spaces between buildings" — primarily, streets and sidewalks — as "the public realm" that needs more imaginative development. That means wider sidewalks in places, more street trees, sidewalk cafes, architectural detail in paving and lampposts, an inviting and safe way to walk from place to place, and so on. His most ambitious proposal is for a ring of parks, sidewalks and freeway lids around downtown, making a loop that connects the waterfront to First Hill, and Pioneer Square to the Denny Triangle, Belltown and South Lake Union.
 
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Marcarian and Scott's different lifestyles are connected by a transaction for fish at the Pike Place Market.
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Vancouver is doing it. Portland is doing it. Why can't Seattle do it?

WELL, THIS particular ecotopia still has thorns.

Cost is the biggest, with downtown-area units priced at anywhere from two to four times what suburban housing costs per square foot. Land is pricey and high-rise construction, while long-lasting, is expensive. For example, Alesha Anderson, a marketing specialist with Unico Properties downtown, is a natural for downtown residency: She's single, loves the lifestyle, and works there. Trouble is, she was born and raised in Des Moines near SeaTac. "I need space," she sums up. "I like space." She could buy a condo in Kent for $100,000 to $200,000 less than a smaller unit downtown, and accordingly endures a 45-minute commute in the morning.

Marketing expert Johnson has data suggesting that 82 percent of likely downtown buyers want units costing less than $350,000 and more than half are shopping below $250,000. Supply is not there to meet that demand.
 
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With very few parks in the downtown core, it is hard to find a place to walk the growing population of dogs in the city. One dog resists a walk down the cold cobblestone surface of Post Alley.
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Vancouver has kept its downtown condo prices lower by the near-gift of cheap government land and allowances for tall buildings, giving developers more floors to sell, and allowing shoebox-sized, 800-square-foot units to get moderate-income buyers in.

But Seattle doesn't have Vancouver's pool of land, and while a voter-approved height limit on downtown buildings here has expired, its spirit still haunts city officials who aren't sure citizens will accept a forest of high-rises. That keeps a lid on supply and condo prices higher. At a recent meeting of the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects, some architects and planners said the region's traditional favoritism toward single-family housing has crippled efforts to provide a range of multifamily alternatives.

Children, or the lack of them, is the next stumbling block. Marcarian has seen couples move from his building within months of having a baby. Even in New York City, many parents prefer to raise their children in the suburbs. When Laura Retzler, a 33-year-old mother of two, asked officials at a public forum last summer about what was being done to make downtown workable for families, panelists came up empty. The divide between the childless and those with children is bigger than race, gender or age.

Like Anderson, Retzler would prefer to be downtown. She and her husband Henry moved from New York City and settled on Capitol Hill only as an awkward compromise between their preference for downtown and their need for space and safety for their children. "I would sell my house in a minute," she says. "My husband and I don't like yard maintenance." But the schools, grocery stores, daycares and playgrounds they were accustomed to in Manhattan are still absent in Seattle's core.

So is good bus or transit service, she says: It's difficult to go from neighborhood to neighborhood without shuttling through downtown, the buses are slow, and too many "are full of crackpots and the mentally ill. Nobody on our street rides the bus." So the couple has reluctantly bought their first car, a 1984 Honda wagon. It cost half as much as their tandem bicycle.

Safety is a third issue, one more of perception than reality. Most suburbanites I talked with said they often felt uneasy in the central core, particularly at night, while every downtown resident I talked to, including women, insisted the neighborhood is relatively safe. To assuage fears, the Downtown Seattle Association has hired a corps of street "ambassadors" who clean up litter and deal gently but firmly with street people, getting them to move on to shelter. Ambassador Robyn Magda is built like a ballerina but has the street smarts to defuse trouble before it happens, but let's face it, many Northwesterners still find downtown more intimidating than exciting.
 
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Downtown Ambassador Nate Cole-Daum gently encourages a "sleeper" to wake up in the doorway of a business on Pike Street. The Downtown Seattle Association hired ambassadors to use gentle encouragement to help enforce laws on the sidewalks, but they call in the Seattle Police if a situation escalates.
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Our addiction to the car is the fourth issue. Every downtown resident I interviewed expressed relief at their relative liberation from the machines, and every suburbanite expressed skepticism at the idea of limiting themselves to the usual single parking spot in a downtown condo garage. Filling the gap is Flex-Car, which allows rental of a car for a couple hours at a time to run errands, but again, Northwesterners have to be convinced that carlessness is next to godliness.

Finally, there is simple instinct and gut feeling. High-rises have stunning views but less space, fine finishes but fewer windows, less maintenance but less opportunity for gardening or woodworking, more friendliness but less privacy, more security (most buildings boast of zero burglaries) but more vulnerability on the street, from negotiating street people to crossing avenues against heavy traffic.

Those who have tried it say the result is cozy and communal, not confining — but again, this is a new lifestyle to most Northwest natives. Some realtors suggest renting for a year before buying.

Is this kind of ecotopia for everyone? Of course not. One of downtown's secrets is that many of the more affluent condominium owners have second homes in the San Juan Islands or Cascade Mountains, allowing them to enjoy the best of both worlds.
 
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And yet in a period when Seattle is choking on traffic, high-level living offers an alternative. Nor is urban density limited to downtown. There are intriguing suburban experiments going on as well.

Issaquah, for example, has forged an unusual partnership between local environmentalists and developers to create a new "suburban village" called Talus, on the lower slopes of Cougar Mountain next to 20,000 acres of public land. Owned by InterCorp, the 630-acre site will have 146 acres developed as houses, offices, stores and roads, and 484 acres set aside as forest, abutting the Sound to Mountain Greenway. Add in promised improvements to water quality in Tibbetts Creek, two park-and-ride lots, four miles of internal trails, and architectural detailing modeled on the Whistler resort in British Columbia, and you have an experiment in giving people the best of urban and rural in one place.

The original zoning was for five-acre lots. Instead, single-family housing lots are now just 4,500 square feet in size, or less than half the size of a conventional quarter-acre suburban lot. It makes the density feel more like Queen Anne Hill — and the lawnmower almost obsolete. Some of the 1,700 or so units are townhomes and apartments. Office buildings on site mean that, in theory, residents could work where they live. While Talus still follows suburban convention in funneling all its traffic in and out of a couple of entrances onto a county arterial — rejecting the urban grid that planners now believe is ultimately more efficient — it remains light years ahead in thinking compared to typical cul-de-sac developments.

Johanna Buehler, director of Save Lake Sammamish, says she was skeptical of InterCorp at first but was won over. "Environmental activists get slammed for being against everything," she says. But with greens conceding development was inevitable on the site — it had been proposed there for 20 years — the lighter footprint of Talus was something enviros could back.

The result, says Ken Konigsmark, special projects director of the Mountains to Sound Greenway, was hard bargaining that meant less road paving, shorter sewer lines and less urban runoff. "What we got is 77 percent of the site untouched."

Are you skeptical about squeezing together? Who isn't? The whole idea of America — and especially the American West — was the promise to spread out: to sprawl, if you will. Trouble is, there's just too dang many Westerners, and sprawling has become a transportation and utility nightmare.

We all dream of our own little waterfront South Forty. But the future's reality may be more togetherness. And hey, we might just find we like each other.

William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Harley Soltes is a Seattle Times staff photographer.


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