Friday, August 21, 2009

Belltown Used to Look Like This

Sort of... This is the view from Terry Avenue down to Lake Union:

I count five construction cranes and a sixth crane-crane - the kind of crane that either delivers or removes construction cranes. This is part of the second wave of sweeping development in that neighborhood. It's centered along Terry and Yale. The first wave was basically along Westlake. Take a wild guess at who's behind all this. That's right, Paul Allen. Either he's done the developing or the construction or he owns the land - most often it's all three. I have to say that many of his buildings along Westlake are gorgeous. Most of them are of simple design and have very clean lines. Here is a nice example of that. I love the neo-retro design. I'm pretty sure that this next wave will be built with similar aesthetics in mind. I can't wait till they're done.

Yes, Belltown used to look like this back in the nineties - only construction wasn't as concentrated. But it was possible to look around and see three, four or five of these cranes at any given time. Sadly, those days are gone. The only crane in the entire neighborhood is at the A.L. Humphrey House site at 1st & Cedar. I miss that time. The streets of Belltown were splattered with possibility. Now we just have a lot of ugly buildings. No matter, though, it's still a good place to be.

Getting back to the South Lake Union neighborhood, you'll recall that in the early nineties, there was a brave bit of urban planning called the Seattle Commons. It called for a large park to be built that would stretch from almost downtown all the way to the lake. Dozens of buildings would have had to be torn down to achieve this. And many, many others would have been constructed according to this new configuration. In other words, this huge new park would be lined with condos. The chief guy behind the push? Yep, Paul Allen. He had spent much of the late eighties and early nineties quietly acquiring land in the area. Of course, he stood to be the project's greatest beneficiary. The initiative went up for a vote twice and failed as many times. I was an ardent supporter and was terribly disappointed when it went down to defeat. It was a visionary plan that would have transformed a very ugly neighborhood. But people in South Lake Union very loudly cried foul. Other people didn't like the fact that city money was going to make a rich guy even richer. Allen himself seemed fairly indifferent to the defeat, merely prophesying that either development would happen all at once if the Commons passed or bit by bit if it failed. How right he was! Hey, I really like many of these new buildings, but compared to what we could have had, it really pales. Blame it on Seattleites' pathological distrust of innovation and their short-sighted NIMBY attitudes. I'll tell you, it was in my back yard and I thought it was a brilliant idea.

It's been a long time since there were similar bold plans for Belltown. The last big thing I remember was a rumor that they were considering building a new stadium here. That would have been awesome. But it didn't happen. There have been other grand schemes, such as building massive amounts of housing for people working downtown or on the waterfront. That came to nothing. Sure, now we've got this Bell Street Park-thing coming up. It'll either be nice or a complete disaster. My money's on disaster, because it isn't nearly sweeping enough. If all the side streets in Belltown were similarly changed, then OK, this would turn into a completely different neighborhood. But one street? It's not going to do much. But I'm hoping that some visionary will figure out some transformative plan that make this crummy district into something less ugly. That's something I could really get behind.

1 comment:

triptrumpet said...

I was just biking through there the other day and then found myself telling someone that exact story. Paul Allen wins or Paul Allen wins, but I agree that the development isn't shabby. Maybe a park will find its way in there after all. I'm just amazed at the number of cranes - recessions don't affect the recession proof.