South Lake Union Sets the Table for Growth Management

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The “new look” of South lake Union, exemplified by one of many new buildings in the area. (Seattle Municipal Archives)

Since the revisions to the South Lake Union Neighborhood Plan and its designation as an Urban Center, South Lake Union (SLU) has led the City in developing new jobs and housing, just as was hoped.  By investing in infrastructure there, the City has successfully encouraged this development.  This year, the Council will consider additional rezones in SLU that will continue this record of success.

Since the adoption of the Comprehensive Plan in 1995, Seattle has focused on bringing jobs and housing to Urban Centers and Urban Villages where growth makes the most sense.  This protects our farms, forests, and wilderness areas from sprawl and concentrates new development where there are transportation and commercial centers to support it.  This also prevents ‘in-city sprawl’ from overwhelming our single family neighborhoods.

The core centers for growth are intended to be our designated Urban Centers, initially the 6 Downtown neighborhoods, First Hill, Capitol Hill, Northgate, and the University District, who are generally following the pattern of continued development.    The most dramatic change in that lineup was the addition of South Lake Union as an Urban Center in 2004.  Like First Hill, Uptown, and Pioneer Square, SLU is adjacent to downtown.  Unlike those neighborhoods, its original neighborhood plan, hammered out in a fairly tense process following the defeat of the Seattle Commons proposal, did not embrace growth, and instead called for SLU to remain a relatively low-density, mixed use neighborhood.

That changed as employment centers like the Fred Hutch and Zymogenetics grew around the edges of SLU, as property ownership turned over and Paul Allen’s Vulcan acquired much of the holdings of those who resisted change, and as City planners began to think more deeply about the possibilities of this in-city community.  In the mid-2000’s, the community revised the neighborhood plan, the City adopted the Urban Center designation, and both public and private investment began.

The City’s core investments have been creating the South Lake Union Park (fulfilling at least partially the dream of the Seattle Commons – and the majority of the funding for the Park came from private donations), joining with the private sector to create the South Lake Union Streetcar (almost 50% of the funding came from private sources, with most of the rest from federal and state grants), facilitating the relocation of MOHAI to the South Lake Union Armory (again with a significant private investment), and beginning the long-dreamed process of transforming Mercer from the Mercer Mess to a new Main Street for South Lake Union (also largely with grant funds, as well as significant private contributions).  Of the estimated $480 million in public investments committed or planned in South Lake Union, only $96 million came from the City’s budget resources.

In turn, new zoning and land use policies have facilitated private investment pouring into the neighborhood, with some 12.5 million square feet of new development between 1995 and 2011.  The result has been the emergence of a new mixed-use urban community, with approximately 3000 new residents and 8500 new jobs.   In 1990, SLU had a population of 677, almost entirely in the Cascade neighborhood.  In 2010, the population was 3738.

The new housing has led to a new and more diverse population.  The percentage living in poverty fell from 40% to 21%, with many of the low income residents living in publicly subsidized low income housing.  Of the nearly 2300 housing units developed in SLU in the last 20 years, about a third were below market affordable units.

South Lake Union has long been an employment center, with 14,570 jobs in 1995.  In 2011, there are now some 23,000 jobs.  Most of the growth has been in professional and technical services.  The principle loss has been in industrial jobs – although even in 1995, these were only 30% of the SLU jobs.  It is not clear how many of the 3000 that have left have migrated to other areas and how many have been transformed or lost as a result of the changing economy.

There are many different ways to measure the City’s return on investment, but even the narrowest method of computation – direct tax revenues generated in this community – suggests that the City has made a good choice in partnering for development in South Lake Union.  When you add the growth management implementation, the jobs for our residents, the new transportation opportunities that emerge from the Mercer rebuild, and the low income housing, it is clear that this coordinated strategy has made a lot of sense.

This fall, the Council will consider the final step in the neighborhood plan revisions, a proposed rezoning of significant areas of South Lake Union.  As we evaluate the opportunities and challenges posed by land use changes, we have the opportunity to continue to leverage our investments in the interests of good, thoughtful, and comprehensive public policy.