Joseph Kaynor has lived and worked in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood for years. On a walk this week through the rapidly growing area, home to Amazon and so much more now, he gave the ever-transforming tech hub a thumbs up.
“I think it’s positive architecturally, because what was here was not really being used,” Kaynor said of the neighborhood, which was made up of a mix of warehouses and low-slung industrial buildings.
Now, with a mix of modern designs and tall and short buildings crowding the busy streets between the northern edge of downtown and Lake Union, Kaynor sees texture in the landscape.
And despite being surrounded by a neighborhood full of people working mostly for Amazon, Kaynor offered his own interesting architectural assessment.
“You don’t feel like you’re in the middle of Jeff Bezos’ brain,” he said.
Anyone else who might have their own take on what’s being built in SLU, or a desire to hear from professionals who could offer that take, can take a walk of their own on Saturday with the Seattle Architecture Foundation.
With a mission to connect people to the architecture, design and history of Seattle, the volunteer-driven organization uses programs, events and tours to help people consider the city’s built environment.
Saturday morning’s tour is intended to shed more light on the “no-mans-land” that has become “one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the country,” as SAF refers to it. That fast growth means SLU has been a focus of tours for several years, according to Stacy Segal, executive director of the non-profit.
“It just keeps changing, so every year the tour route is completely different because there’s new buildings along the way,” Segal told GeekWire in an interview to preview Saturday’s event. “We cover the architecture and the history of the neighborhood — what’s currently there, what used to be there and in some cases what’s coming online in the future.”
What’s coming online is not just more Amazon real estate. Silicon Valley tech giants Facebook and Google are also getting set to occupy large-scale properties in SLU, expanding their growing presence in the Seattle area. Facebook on Wednesday began moving into a new 196,000 square foot building directly across from an Amazon building.
The neighborhood that was once predominantly home to warehouses and industrial buildings is now bustling on any given weekday with thousands of tech workers who shuffle between new office buildings and trendy restaurants, apartment buildings and hotels. Float planes coming in for a landing on the nearby lake buzz over cranes building the next tech tower.
Segal doesn’t just take tours of the place — she actually put down roots, and has lived in SLU for about 10 years.
“When we first looked at buying a place in the neighborhood, it was during the downturn and there was nothing there,” she said. “We were a little bit hesitant. But now living there for a while, we’ve seen a lot of changes, and it’s different. It’s really conveniently located to lots of things. I think as transit has improved and amenities in the neighborhood have improved, it’s become even more of a desirable neighborhood.”
Those who take part in SAF’s tour will hear about the reinvestment and redevelopment of the neighborhood from the Denny Triangle to the shore of the lake, and participants will be asked to consider what the right mixture is for successful revitalization of an urban neighborhood.
And while development across Seattle can often be knocked for a variety of reasons, including the same-same nature of modern architecture, Segal defends some of what she’s been witnessing in SLU.
She believes developers are doing a lot more than what they previously did, especially when it comes to green spaces and the pedestrian experience, including the use of everything from artwork to well-designed benches. She said it’s important to take into consideration not just the buildings, but the spaces between them.
“In my opinion, the buildings that have started to move into the neighborhood are better designed than they used to be,” Segal said.
Segal credits the “softening of spaces” and the addition of parklets and pass-throughs that make the urban campus easier to navigate and more user friendly.
Miranda Lyons-Cohen was sitting in the sunshine this week on one of those thoughtful benches, outside UW Medicine, the University of Washington’s health system, where she’s a graduate student in the Department of Immunology. Lyons-Cohen moved to Seattle for school two years ago, and likes coming into the neighborhood as opposed to being on the main UW campus because “it feels like I’m going to work.”
To her, the neighborhood also feels very Amazon-centric and a bit sterile.
“In other neighborhoods [the architecture] is more mixed; everything here got knocked down and it’s homogenous,” Lyons-Cohen said. “Because it’s been built in a short period of time, everything looks the same.”
While Segal agreed that she misses some of the character of older buildings and warehouses, not everything got knocked down. She points to Brave Horse Tavern, a Tom Douglas property, as a saved building that turned out to be a “a really good development.”
“I think there’s still a long way to go,” Segal said. “It’s a lot of area to cover, but when I look at the new Facebook building it’s so different than some of the buildings that went up before it, just the way that it’s situated on that block. There was a lot of thought and consideration that went into how that street gets used by people.”
Saturday’s tour, one of 13 that SAF conducts across the city, will last two hours, and generally attracts Seattle residents who live right in the neighborhood and take part because they’re curious about what’s happening in their own community.
Segal’s hope over the next 10 years would be that more development addresses the need for affordable residences, so that the city is a place that everybody can afford to live in and enjoy.
“It’s a challenge in any growing city to really find space for everybody,” she said. “I think we’re just caught in a massive growth that we were not quite prepared for on a number of levels. But I think that if you just stop to look, there is a fair amount of thoughtfulness going into the development. You have to try appreciate that and that’s something we try to instill in people on our tours.”
The Seattle Architecture Foundation’s May 11 tour of South Lake Union takes place from 10 a.m. to noon. The tour starts at Triangle Park across from Whole Foods and ends at Lake Union Park. Ticket information here.