Planning South Lake Union
Over the past century, Lake Union and its surrounding neighborhoods have inspired dozens of plans, projects and reports, published and promoted by public officials, engineers, business interests, community organizations and city boosters. These documents capture shifts in the theory and practice of city planning as well as changes in the balance of political and economic power in Seattle. Interestingly many of the plans, including those supported by elites, never reached fruition, though others were enacted, often over the protests of neighborhood residents.
The Bogue Plan - In 1910, Seattle voters passed an amendement to the city charter authorizing the creation of a Municipal Plans Commission. Shortly thereafter, Virgil Bogue, a planner and engineer who had partnered with the Olmsted brothers and worked on the Northern Pacific Railway, was hired by the commission. In 1911, he submitted his vision, a grand scheme that not only re-located all public buildings to an area in and around the Denny Regrade, but also proposed a huge train station (see photo) for South Lake Union as well as a tunnel running from Seattle to Kirkland beneath Lake Washington. After much public debate, the plan failed to pass muster with city residents, falling in a 1912 vote by a 2:1 margin. To read the section of the plan that specifically addressed Lake Union and its surroding neighborhoods, click here.
Highways and Freeways - In the decades following World War II, road construction boomed. The federal government heavily subsized the development of an interstate highway system (including the 1956 National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Act), while state and local governments also moved quickly to build new freeways, frequently decimating urban neighborhoods in the process. The decision to route Interstate 5 (image above shows the highway under construction in Eastlake), then known as the Seattle Freeway, through the heart of Seattle re-shaped the city. Whole neighborhoods, including eastern portions of South Lake Union were cut in half or destroyed. In a move rather unusual for the era, many of the homes in the path of I-5 were moved to new locations. Planners hoped the road would ease congestion and lead to more efficient transport, a vision soon disproved as traffic only worsened. To see a selection of historic images as well as some parcel maps impacted, click here.
Another postwar highway project, however, never moved beyond the planning stage. The proposed Bay Freeway (running roughly along the path of Mercer Street) would have linked State Route 520, I-5, and State Route 99 by traveling along the south shore of Lake Union. Interestingly, residents originally voted in favor of the project in 1960, approving it along with a new north-south highway east of I-5. By the end of the decade though, sentiments had changed dramartically and citiziens concerned about environmental and quality of life impacts rejected the Freeway in a 1972 election. Read more in a historylink.org essay here. The image at left shows a sketch of the the proposd path.
Seattle Commons Plan - Proposed in the early 1990's, the "Seattle Commons" was envisioned as a 61-acre urban green space stretching from the shores of Lake Union to downtown. Supported by a mix of city officials, journalists, planners and many others, including billionaire Microsoft founder Paul Allen, the park would have displaced more than 100 small businesses, though it was also predicted that the Commons would generated new investment and jobs. While private funds were pledged to the project, including more than $20 million by Allen (which was used to buy land within the proposed boundary), city residents would also have been on the hook for a large percentage of the costs. Ultimately, the issue came before the voters, who in 1995 and later in 1996, rejected the Commons proposal. Despite the plan's failure, however, the Commons would still alter the status quo in South Lake Union. Project supporters had used Paul Allen's funds to buy 11.5 acres of land in the neighborhood, property that reverted back to his possession, under the managent of Vulcan, a development company.
Interview with Paul Thiry - Among the most influential architects working in Seattle during the 20th century, Thiry designed the Museum of History and Industry in Montlake (now located in South Lake Union) and the Frye Art Museum. He also served as the Supervising Architect for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. For a brief overview, watch the MOHAI minute video. For a longer biography, read this Smithsonian oral history.
More interesting documents and images:
2005 South Lake Union Design Guidelines - In 1998, the City of Seattle’s Design Review program began creating neighborhood specific guidelines to govern and guide questions relating to building height, environmental mititagation, architecture and landuse. See the 2005 South Lake Union Design Guidelines created by city planners, developers and residents.
See a map from a 1963 Seattle Planning Commision Report documenting infill along the shore of Lake Union.
A report, including interesting information on real estate ownership and property development, highlighting the state of South Lake Union Art Spaces in 2007.
A detailed 2007 neighborhood plan developed by the City Planning office.
Report from the South Lake Union and Uptown Visioning Charette Stackholder Group, which included community members, non-profit organizations, public officials, business people and property developers. See Part I and Part 2 of the document.