Final Analysis: Crowning Achievement

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Welcome to “the dark months.” This is what Mick McHugh calls the period between the end of one baseball season in late September and the beginning of the next one in early April.

McHugh owns F.X. McRory’s Steak, Chop & Oyster House, which debuted in Pioneer Square in 1977, the same year the Seattle Mariners were born. If you’re a diehard Seattle sports junkie, you’ve probably quaffed or noshed at McRory’s at least once. If you have visited during the dark months, it was probably on a day when the Seattle Seahawks were playing football.

There are only eight Seahawks home games each NFL season, so the dark months—October through March—are a challenge for establishments like McRory’s that rely on the sports-obsessed public for much of their income. Basketball and hockey are played during the dark months, which is why McHugh probably thinks Chris Hansen is a heavenly combination of messiah, mensch and Merlin.

Hansen is the rich guy from San Francisco who wants to put a basketball/hockey arena near the existing football and baseball stadiums in Seattle. He has spent more than $50 million buying up property nearby. In a recent blog post, McHugh described Hansen’s arena as having “the potential to … make a difference in the lives of not only the business owners in the area … but the staff we will be able to keep on during those quiet times and the additional people we will have to hire.”

In sporting circles, Hansen has already had his halo fitting. His canonization is likely on the fast track because anyone who can bring professional basketball back to Seattle—and maybe a hockey team, too—while footing much of the bill for a new arena is destined to be seated at the right hand of Oprah come Judgment Day.

But on the day in September that Seattle was celebrating the City Council’s tentative agreement over the financing of Hansen Arena, I was moderating a panel discussion about the outlook for the Washington state economy in 2013. Susan Sigl, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, mentioned that our economic future is inexorably linked to our ability to close the high-tech education gap—the yawning chasm between the huge number of available tech jobs in Washington and the small number of graduates qualified to fill them.

It’s an oft-heard refrain, but if we don’t improve education in the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), it doesn’t really matter if we get a shiny new version of the Seattle Sonics to play in a shiny new arena. Without a successful economy firing on all cylinders, adding one or two more teams to the professional sports landscape is like putting gas in a car whose fuel tank has a hole in it.

And so as I moderated the discussion, I began to wonder: Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody like Chris Hansen, a zillionaire who grew up in Seattle loving the Sonics and who wants to give back to the community he loves, were willing to pony up about $300 million to kick-start a first-class effort to close the tech education gap?

Look, I love sports. But sports is entertainment. It can boost civic identity to a point, but it’s not as if a city lives or dies according to the number of millionaire athletes it’s willing to coddle. Trust me. The city of Seattle and the state of Washington will survive without a pro basketball team. But without enough highly qualified tech graduates to stoke our economic engine, Mick McHugh’s dark months could become an all-year proposition.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

Creating an affordable, inclusive Puget Sound

Creating an affordable, inclusive Puget Sound

Making room for our growing population will require more density in urban areas as well as innovation in transportation and office use.
 
 

Seattle has an enviable problem. More and more people are moving to the Puget Sound, so many that, by some estimates, the region’s population could increase by one million residents by 2040. At the same time, Seattle is constrained geographically by water and hills. Our topography is scenic and beautiful, but it also makes it difficult to build new housing.

Further complicating matters, approximately 65 percent of Seattle’s land area is zoned for single-family residences. The hourglass shape of Seattle, at its widest point—between Ballard and Magnuson Park, along 65th Street—is zoned for the lowest density. Meanwhile, the area zoned for the densest development—downtown—is narrowest and where land is most scarce.

Water, land and zoning regulations: these are the facts. If population trends continue, how will people live in our city? As Seattle densifies, how can design provide a more humane environment and housing that all residents can afford? These are some of the questions I’m interested to explore at a panel discussion on October 5, “Seattle 2040: Where Will All the People Live?” at NBBJ’s Seattle office.

 

As an architect, I’m particularly interested in how we might insert greater density, for people of all incomes, into our existing street network including the single-family areas that constitute such a high proportion of Seattle. Mother-in-law apartments, residential units over garages, duplexes and townhouses are just a few options. Done right, we could increase density and affordability without dramatically changing the character of those neighborhoods.

This November a major ballot initiative, Sound Transit 3, could raise billions of dollars to expand light rail. If that happens, it would substantially increase the number of transit-oriented centers in our region, which would lessen the impact of building because we could spread it across more light rail stations.

There are other options. We could look at reusing and densifying public rights-of-way. High-rises like the “no-shadow tower” could mitigate the impacts of tall building on the urban environment. Or driverless cars might create a new transportation system in the next 25 years that fundamentally changes how we get around and where to encourage development.

If you think about the design of office space, 25 years ago, a majority had a private office with limited public amenities; now office space is moving in the other direction, asking people to have less personal space at their desk, but having access to a wider range of shared amenities. I almost think we need a similar approach whereby people move from large single-family houses to smaller homes or apartments. The key to making this work is to have access to more shared, semi-private amenities or nearby public open space.

Some of the issues Seattle faces also challenge many other U.S. cities, but these challenges cannot be solved by design firms single-handedly. A city’s growth affects everyone, young and old, rich and poor, newcomers and long-time residents. We are in this together, and it will require everyone to bring about our shared future. 

David Yuan, AIA, LEED AP, is a partner at global architecture and design firm NBBJ.