They Say They're Not NIMBYs

Meet the Residents of South Lake Union Fighting Taller Buildings

They Say They're Not NIMBYs

Kelly O

LOOMING DEVELOPMENT Lloyd Douglas, Christine Lea, and John Pehrson are happy to live near low-income housing, but they're not so sanguine about skyscrapers.

I'm sitting in the cafeteria of the Mirabella, a 12-story retirement home in South Lake Union that occupies a full city block, with residents and neighbors who fear the area will change for the worse if the city rezones the neighborhood to allow skyscrapers. They're trying to convince me that they're not anti-density. "If that attitude was here, this building wouldn't be here," says neighborhood activist Lloyd Douglas, pointing out that the Mirabella is one of the tallest buildings in the area. Douglas is a member of the Lake Union Opportunity Alliance, a community group fighting against city proposals for taller towers in the neighborhood but whose website dismisses the "NIMBY" label (short for the derisive term "not in my backyard").

"People say, 'You people just want private views.' That's a lie," says John Pehrson, a Mirabella resident. He points out that both Douglas and Christine Lea of the Cascade Neighborhood Council, who is also fighting the rezoning proposal, both have views only of the freeway and thus no great view to lose.

Over the next few months, the Seattle City Council will consider new rules for construction in South Lake Union—a former light-industrial swath north of downtown that is now sprinkled with squat new office buildings—that would add 200 feet or more to some height limits, making the tallest buildings up to 40 stories tall. This would effectively extend the reach of downtown nearly a mile north of Denny Way, helping the city accommodate more residents, more businesses, and ultimately a larger tax base. But the organizations headed by Pehrson, Douglas, and Lea have banded together to oppose this plan, forming the South Lake Union Community Coalition (SLUCC). They are concerned that a thicket of skyscrapers will erode the neighborhood's "character" and erase its history.

Having observed the neighborhood's rapid growth over the last decade, they say that they're happy to see new and diverse development within the confines of current height limits. "I've been here five years," Pehrson says. "In that time, four low-income housing projects have moved in. Nobody in the neighborhood complained. This isn't a NIMBY neighborhood."

Pehrson, a retired engineer, shows me slide after slide of a PowerPoint presentation explaining their specific concerns. For example, the proposal currently under consideration would allow three 24-story towers on Mercer Street. He argues they would cut off the neighborhood from the water, shade Lake Union Park, and loom over the shorter buildings. SLUCC recommends keeping the current zoning (now only 40 feet) or, as a compromise, shrinking the towers in scale. They say the city claims building heights would step down toward the water, but, Pehrson tells me, "I don't know how you can say that with a straight face," because these 24-story towers would be about a block from the shore of Lake Union.

But city council member Richard Conlin, who chairs the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee, says this is "greatly exaggerated as an issue." The tallest buildings in the neighborhood, at 400 feet, would be further south, closer to downtown and several blocks from the water, and "the land slopes down 100 feet" by the shore. Further, he says, the "widely spaced towers" protect sight lines. "It's a very good compromise."

As evidence that current zoning rules are working well, Pehrson points to Paul Allen's Vulcan Real Estate development called Stack House, which he says is "a great example of low-rise, high-density residential development" that fits about 300 apartments on three-quarters of a block, includes open space, and preserves a historic smokestack. "We don't demonize Vulcan," he says. "They have done and are doing some great work."

For Vulcan's part, spokeswoman Lori Mason Curran explains that when people imagine the new buildings, they "picture the Mirabella but taller," but that's not what they'll look like. "We don't have any buildings in Seattle right now that actually look like" what the new zoning will allow in South Lake Union—skinny towers meant to preserve sight lines. "You have to have so much open space and the floor plans have to be smaller."

Curran and Conlin agree that new development may shade Lake Union Park on the darker days of the year. Curran says people should "look at the park when there's the most sun" instead of focusing on winter days; Conlin says he's concerned by the shadow studies.

Pehrson, Douglas, and Lea say they will keep attending city council meetings, making presentations to lawmakers and developers, and reaching out to the media. I asked Lea if she thinks they can really get a seat at the table in this discussion. "I think we are sitting at the table," she tells me brightly. "We're going to be living with this for a very long time. And it's really important to get it right." recommended


Comments (20) RSS

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John Pehrson is an absolute hero of mine, a paragon of even-minded, committed, dogged, dedicated no-bullshit civic involvement. He did great work birddogging land use issues for Belltown within the confines afforded neighborhood input. Without him, trust me, that place would be much, much more of a shitshow by now. I'm very glad to hear he's helping in SLU.
Posted by gloomy gus on February 6, 2013 at 9:36 AM · Report this
I used to live in this neighborhood, in an old house that's been torn down. I know Lloyd, he was once affectionately known as the Grand Wazoo. I'm glad he's involved.
Posted by BallardBoy on February 6, 2013 at 10:14 AM · Report this
chinaski 3
Curran says people should "look at the park when there's the most sun" instead of focusing on winter days

Yeah, if you don't like it don't look at it!

Sounds like you will be able to look at it from July 5th through 12th, august 3rd and 7th through 16th, and September 4th.
Posted by chinaski on February 6, 2013 at 12:15 PM · Report this
Cascadian Bacon 4
Hasn't The Stranger been pushing this east coastie urban density bullshit for YEARS, this rag has been a shrill for nickles and mcgyn.
Posted by Cascadian Bacon on February 6, 2013 at 12:32 PM · Report this
Isn't the whole point of land use planning that density would be intensified in designated urban areas to reduce sprawl outside the city? Where else in Seattle makes more sense to go tall? Northgate? Ballard? U district? Now that someone actually want's to do it, the narrative seems to be "greedy developers getting what they want at the expense of humble citizens".

And @4, not only have they been calling for it, but have held up Vancouver B.C. as the right model--tall (40+ stories) with generous setbacks and relatively small floor plates.
Posted by Westside forever on February 6, 2013 at 1:08 PM · Report this
Old white people opposed to change in their backyard. STOP THE PRESSES!
Posted by tiktok on February 6, 2013 at 1:10 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 7
@6 for Most Insightful.
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 6, 2013 at 1:19 PM · Report this
Sargon Bighorn 8
"He argues they would cut off the neighborhood from the water," WTF? Is someone planing to fence the place? I can not side with hysteria. No one is being "cut off" from anything. #6 Stop the agism and racism. It's not about age nor race. In your hate you left out the woman (you probably don't see them as equals).
Posted by Sargon Bighorn on February 6, 2013 at 1:22 PM · Report this
Fnarf 9
What they should be doing is getting rid of setbacks altogether and cramming the neighborhood as full as they can get it. The point of tall buildings is lost if they're stuck in the middle of crappy plazas. My preference would be for 6-10 stories wall-to-wall with the only parking restriction be that zero percent of the ground floor of the buildings be allowed to have parking in them; as much or as little above or below that. You can pack a hell of a lot in a space that way, and it creates enjoyable, livable "rooms", and good retail spaces at street level.

But it doesn't matter. Whatever they build there, tall medium or low, it will be insanely expensive units for Richie Rich and his crew, not me or you. Oh, sure, there will be a handful of "low income" units which will still end up going to people earning $60,000 and up.
Posted by Fnarf on February 6, 2013 at 1:23 PM · Report this
After reading about Seattle's quest for Manifest Density and doing my own examinations, I have come to the opinion that the whole thing is a sham created by con artists.

What the densifiers really want is not to create a "walkable urban living space" but simply to get lots of financing, slash and burn and leave a lot of ugly half empty concrete in their wake.

The case for this can be made by simply doing what I did last Thursday. Start from King Station at around 6pm and walk up 2nd avenue to Vine in Belltown. Then go to Bambino's and have a calzone. (The last step isn't necessary for the analysis, it just tastes good!)

What you will see is a streets full...of cars fleeing the City. Once they leave the avenues will be nearly empty. And the side streets will be totally empty! Yes, I find it ridiculous that in the most dense urban developments, I can walk down a street at 6:30pm and there is absolutely not a single other human on the street!

So what you will be left with after all the rezoning is the locusts will go neighborhood to neighborhood, claiming "demand" for 250 sq ft condos and tear up the places, and leave half or quarter empty buildings. Then they will move on to whatever other neighborhood name will sell. They did it to Belltown, which I just described. They'll do it elsewhere, if you let them.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on February 6, 2013 at 1:24 PM · Report this
theophrastus 11
Utter geek aside (most will want to avert their eyes): many of us have computers more than capable of judging some of these simple geometric issues for ourselves; if we had the data. Is there any public source for the 3d data of the extant Seattle building areas and heights? one could hope for file with something like 3DS, PLY, STL, OFF, OBJ, COLLADA, VRML, DXF, GTS,... data, but even something a bit more numeric than a google-earth image would be useful.
Posted by theophrastus on February 6, 2013 at 1:27 PM · Report this
@5: Vancouver mandates the dimensions, quality, and unbrokenness of its street frontage, to the best of its ability.

Conlin and his ilk mandate anti-frontage -- setbacks, plazas, floor-area caps, parking egress and exhaust fans.

That's why Vancouver largely works in spite of its modernity, while walking in Seattle remains shit.
Posted by d.p. on February 6, 2013 at 2:53 PM · Report this
Yes to taller towers and more parks and open space.
Posted by KEYRE on February 6, 2013 at 5:10 PM · Report this
TotesFierce 14
@8: lol at racism against white people
Posted by TotesFierce on February 6, 2013 at 7:56 PM · Report this
I am delighted to read a quote from Vulcan stating the new buildings won't look like Mirabella. Because Mirabella is one of the ugliest buildings to have been built here in the past 20 years. (Of course, the Amazon buildings are in the running.)

I say build, Build, BUILD. And start with apartments and condos. The neighborhood is still overly dense in office / biotech relative to the residential population. If you want a vibrant, thriving place to live and work, SLU needs to add more people.

(Same recipe for improving streetcar ridership. Same recipe for improving South Lake Union Park usage. Same recipe for creating jobs.)
Posted by David in Shoreline on February 6, 2013 at 8:15 PM · Report this
Jeremy Janson 16
I have an idea - how about instead of this band-aid solution of trying to fight excessive and destructive density after each particular small proposal that is almost certainly doomed to fail at some point you get rid of the cause of all of this: the Growth Management Act.

It's an incredibly ignorant law, trying to "protect" farm and ranch land in a 1800 mile stretch between Seattle and Minneapolis that is NOTHING BUT FARM AND RANCH LAND. Although marketed as a way of preserving the open lands that Washington State is accustomed to, it really does nothing of the sort, priorities which are achieved instead by Washingtons Public Lands and have been since 1854 (WA's public lands are its oldest source of revenue), instead artificially inflating real estate prices for greedy developers to levels higher than most of NYC and in the process stifling manufacturing, affordable housing and commerce, along with the ability of local communities to plan their own futures. The people hurt most by this incredibly ignorant law are the poor, who are denied both affordable living and good high-paid manufacturing jobs. The Public Lands aren't even connected to the GMA and never have been!
Posted by Jeremy Janson on February 6, 2013 at 8:45 PM · Report this
These old people need to bow out gracefully before they shuffle off this mortal coil. Stop blocking progress.
Posted by rob in portland on February 7, 2013 at 10:06 AM · Report this
Jeremy Janson 18
#17, making Seattle identical to every other American city is not progress.
Posted by Jeremy Janson on February 7, 2013 at 1:50 PM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 19
@8 Lol at "people" not referring to women.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on February 9, 2013 at 7:24 AM · Report this
How many people are concerned mostly about tall buildings north of Mercer as opposed to tall buildings throughout South Lake Union?

The current proposal allows 240' buildings between Valley and Mercer, just across the street from the park.

Even downtown, between Alaskan Way and Western, buildings of this height aren't allowed. Why should they be allowed at South Lake Union?
Posted by pragmatition on February 10, 2013 at 9:13 AM · Report this

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