SEATTLE -– A proposal to bring taller buildings, jobs and housing to South Lake Union is part of a city-wide strategy that dates back nearly 20 years.
Back in 1993, at a time when Seattle was still recovering from decades of population decline, planners were bracing for a massive influx of new residents.
“As the economy started to pick up, they were looking at significant growth and they said, 'Wait a minute. How do we want to do that?’” said Marshall Foster, Seattle’s current planning director.
Then-mayor Norm Rice pushed a plan to concentrate most of the growth in five urban centers and 24 urban villages -- places where people could live, work, shop and eat.
“One of the reasons to designate certain areas as urban centers is to take the pressure of growth off our single-family neighborhoods,” said Ada Healey, vice president of Vulcan Real Estate.
But back in the early 1990s, when the vast majority of residents drove their cars to work, the idea that people might want to live, work and go out in such densely populated spaces seemed like an odd concept. Many people who lived or worked in Seattle expressed their concerns at public hearings.
City planners felt urban centers were the best way to combat urban sprawl, especially as the city braced for a predicted increase of 60,000 households in 20 years. So the city pushed through with the plan.
“The good news is that it worked,” Foster said. “The goal was that 75 percent of our growth should go into those centers and villages, and over the last 20 years, it essentially has.”
From 1995 to the summer of 2012, the city added 52,000 households. Exactly 75 percent of that growth -– 39,000 households -– ended up in urban centers and villages.
South Lake Union joined the urban-center game a bit later. It was officially named the city’s sixth urban center in 2004, years after voters rejected plans to build a massive park, known as the Seattle Commons, near Lake Union. Following the failed votes, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and his Vulcan Real Estate began scooping up property in the neighborhood.
In 2006, Snowboard Connection moved from Pioneer Square to one of Allen’s buildings in South Lake Union.
“It was time for a new move to a new neighborhood with the richest guy in town as your landlord,” said co-owner John Logic.
Their first year in the neighborhood was their best year ever. Then the economy tanked. But things are once again starting to look up.
“It’s a long-term payoff, I think,” Logic said.
Once known for warehouses, prostitution and drug deals, South Lake Union is quickly becoming one of the most popular neighborhoods in town. Jeff Bezos plunked Amazon’s headquarters there, chef Tom Douglas opened four new restaurants, and Allen now owns about one-third of the entire neighborhood.
Adam Star, who moved to Seattle about six months ago for a job at Amazon, lives within walking distance of his job.
“During the week you just want to do your routine, go to work, get your food,” Star said. “It’s just great to have it all so close together.”
Star’s life is exactly what the city first imagined 20 years ago and what it wants to see more of as South Lake Union continues to grow. There are now plans to rezone and add about 22,000 more jobs to this urban center.
The Seattle City Council could vote on the rezoning proposal by the end of this year or early next year. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in the council chambers.
KING 5 will take a closer look at the proposed rezone on Tuesday, Nov. 13, during our 11 p.m. newscast.