Why Capitol Hill’s big mixed-use developments look, um, the way they do


The many faces of Joule. (Photo: CHS)

Boxy. Monolith. Bland. Generic. The adjectives that get hurled at many of the new mixed-used developments on Capitol Hill can be quite unforgiving.

One of those projects, Viva Capitol Hill at 12th and E Union, was recently stalled after complaints rolled in about the building’s monochromatic facade.

Materials, zoning, and Capitol Hill’s competitive development market all narrow the window for creativity and risk taking in building new mixed-use projects.

Those factors have led to some easily identifiable trends among Capitol Hill’s 47+ in-progress projects: cheap and flat facades, jolting color splashes, and hulking buildings desperately trying to look smaller and more welcoming at street level. The resulting public distaste is not surprising, and architects say more could be done to build better.

Public policy, enacted years before the neighborhood’s boom years, is part of the reason today’s developments look the way they do. In 1990 the state legislature passed the Growth Management Act which aimed to reduce sprawl and led to up-zoning through urban villages and urban centers, including on Capitol Hill. University of Washington architecture professor Rick Mohler told CHS that unlike other cities, Seattle has taken the GMA goals seriously, which has had a big impact on the type of projects that get approved.

“The city is in the position of having to accommodate an incredible amount of growth in not a lot of land area,” he said, adding that only 19% of the city has been zoned for urban villages. “It really is a response to accommodating population growth that the city thought was politically feasible.”

Additional zoning requirements have narrowed the types of projects that get approved, the most common being the six-story mixed-use developments with concrete bases and street level retail — the so called “five-over-one” projects. The 10th and Union Building is one example that includes underground parking — another common factor that leads to bulky buildings with massive footprints.

Due to their size, five-over-one projects are frequently built with cheap facades. “A lot of the projects use Hardie board and vinyl windows, because of the nature of five-over-one,” said Dan Foltz, who sits on the East Design Review Board. Foltz said public outcry over new buildings usually comes down to facades, especially when compared to older buildings.

“The type of material and the quality is the most important thing,” Foltz said, who is also a principal architect at Weber Thompson. “Citizens want to see quality of materials. They don’t want to see cheap stuff like corrugated metal, they don’t want small vinyl windows.”

The size of the individual facade elements can also help make big buildings more palatable. Schemata Workshop architect John Feit said new large developments tend to use materials that are not “hand scale.” Next time you see an “ugly” building, try to imagine installing the facade and holding the individual pieces in your hand. Chances are you couldn’t do it.

Mohler said Seattle planners have also been overly concerned with curbing building height, where cities like Vancouver have prioritized reducing bulk at street level to create a better pedestrian experience.

Modulate it
In an effort to breakup Seattle’s block-sized developments, design review boards frequently ask architects to add more “modulations” to their facades to reduce big flat walls and give the impression of smaller buildings. Broadway has become the epicenter of such developments on Capitol Hill, with buildings like Joule drawing a considerable neighborhood ire.

“It’s trying to look like several different buildings in one building,” Mohler said of the building designed by Driscoll Architects PS, which has since shuttered. “It doesn’t really work, it doesn’t fool anyone that it’s not a big development.” DSCN1404

While some of the “dishonest” design can be blamed on design review, the architects CHS spoke with all agreed that the architectural bar could be raised much higher for mixed-use designs. And if developments can’t all be smaller scale infill DSCN1382projects, Schemata’s Mike Mariano said designers should take more care to focus on the building at street level.

“The first 30 feet is key,” Mariano said of building heights. “People are responding to the pedestrian experience at street level.”

So do Viva, The Brix, Joule and others actually all look the same? Part of that answer will depend on your architectural acumen, but clearly they share some development DNA. The popularity of newer, cheaper materials is partly responsible, as are the GMA, up-zoning, and the popularity of underground parking. Either way, design monotony is not new or necessarily bad — just look at any of the beloved (and massive) 1920s apartment buildings around Capitol Hill.

The Granada at Belmont and Howell (Photo: CHS)

The Granada at Belmont and Howell (Photo: CHS)

“All the buildings in Paris look the same, but nobody walks through the streets of Paris and goes ‘yuck’,” Feit said.

The winner’s curse
But while Paris underwent a massive, centrally planned redevelopment in the 19th Century, developers on Capitol Hill are in fierce competition to cash in on the neighborhood’s boom years. The land rush has led to what some developers call the “winner’s curse” for successful bidders on Capitol Hill projects.

Developers rightfully concerned about a return on investment turn to formulaic projects and a conservative thinking, Foltz said. And as the price of Capitol Hill property rises, so to does the risk involved with building big.

One developer already involved with in-progress projects around Pike/Pine agreed to talk off the record and told CHS that a recently purchased plot of prime Pike/Pine land was nearly guaranteed to be developed with the cheapest possible materials after its winning bidder massively overpaid on the land. He wouldn’t be the first developer, to be sure, to complain about being outbid but his back of the envelope math made a convincing case. To win the land, any buffer budget will be long spent when it comes time to finish the building.


Dunn’s often praised, but never replicated building at 1310 E Union (Image: Dunn+Hobbes, LLC)

Some developers, primarily the local operations, have made an effort to take on more creative projects. Liz Dunn’s 1310 Union building was mentioned several times among architects. In 2010 CHS spoke with project designer David Miller of Miller|Hull about what a popular mixed-use development on Capitol Hill looks like:

I think there needs to be more of a focus on buildings that are simple and elegant. Some of the new multifamily buildings in Seattle are too complicated with so many different setbacks and materials. I think new buildings need to focus on rationality and simplicity.

Other developers who are interested in “designing from the inside out” opt to save on design fees and focus on tenant amenities as the rental market continues to explode.

“The rental demand in Seattle is just crazy,” Mohler said. “Developers can take high risks, but they can develop a crappier product and it will still lease.”

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41 thoughts on “Why Capitol Hill’s big mixed-use developments look, um, the way they do

  1. “Seattle planners have also been overly concerned with curbing building height, where cities like Vancouver have prioritized reducing bulk at street level to create a better pedestrian experience.”

    Enough said

  2. I honestly don’t understand what people don’t like about Joule, Lyric, Brix, etc. All of these buildings look great to me and are vast improvements over the garbage that was there before them. I’ve lived on the hill for 20 years and I think it just keeps getting better and better.

    • At least for Joule, I don’t like the pure concrete look. If they’d extended the color down from the top floors I’d like it a lot more.

    • I think The Brix is a great example of a quality, well-designed building. It incorporates classy materials, like a lot of brick. I wish there were more new buildings like it.

    • Same here! I’m really happy with the way the hill has been developing lately and I’d love to see more of it. I wish the areas zoned for this kind of development were much larger.

  3. Thanks for the great article and great insight. It would be great to see the design review board move away from demanding so much modulation. I get the impression they overuse it as a fallback to deal with the massing problems presented by big block developments.

    It’s the huge footprints of these new developments that are really changing the aesthetic of the neighborhood, not the height of the buildings. What if instead we started demanding smaller footprints? If a development takes up an entire block, could developers just be required to break it up into multiple buildings?

    • I agree, I think the insistence to keep building heights low means that developers need to build massive “bread-loaves” in order to make enough money to cover the project. If we allowed narrow towers, I think we might end up with a better street-level experience.

    • You think rents are high now? If you force them to break it up into smaller buildings it would make it ridiculously expensive and nobody could afford to develop them. BTW, Joule is actually broken up into two buildings and during business hours you can cut through from Broadway to Harvard in the middle of the block.

      • Well, no. Developing more buildings may be more expensive, but if we allowed more than 6 floors we’d get a bit more interesting of a street skyline and developers can turn a bit of a profit because they still get space. Frankly I am bored that everything is exactly 6 floors. How about we allow up to a single 1/8th of a block 12 floor building per block? And then one 1/4 of a block 9 floor building. And the rest be up to 6 floors like we have it today. The neighborhood would be so much more interesting.

      • Exactly.

        iluvcaphill, I’m glad you’re thinking about the affect on the price of rent. Many people either ignore that impact or don’t care about it when talkin about these things. I actually think that allowing developers to build higher but on smaller footprints would be cheaper to build per unit, thus cheaper for renters and more aesthetically exciting than letting them build superblocks that can only go up to 6-stories like we are seeing today.

      • I recall reading years ago, when the six-story rule was first put into place, that it is impractical to build taller than six stories using wood, and uneconomical to build under twelve stories using steel-reinforced concrete. So there will always be a gap in the number of stories, with no seven to eleven story buildings. Perhaps someone with more knowledge of construction can confirm this.

      • If I can only get through during “business hours” then it’s not really two buildings, is it? It’s not like an alley way. Just one massive, privately controlled space.

  4. The buildings have less square footage per room than the older construction in Seattle and rent for twice the price. Once the bright colors fade you will see that these buildings are nothing more than cheap European housing reminiscent of the USSR. Seattle will no longer have character like SF or NYC if bland construction like this continues. Also where are the locally sourced materials?!?

  5. Getting rid of parking minimums has helped drastically. More and more small lot developments that aren’t anywhere near as bulky. I’m ok if the arterials are bulky, but the side streets should have a slightly smaller scale (not necessarily shorter) in my opinion. I personally think many of the new buildings are huge improvements of the parking lots they are replacing. After 11 years in seattle I’ve come to the conclusion that if it’s taller than 25′ and newer than 1975 the old guard, seattle times message board poster type will complain about it endlessly.

  6. I’m not buying it that we have to choose between scale and design. We can have both. Architects, just work harder.

    • It’s not the architects – it’s the developers: they’re the ones dictating this uninspired and, most times, brutalist design.

      • It is a problem with the architects and developers both… during construction, owners and investors can change so often on projects, that there isn’t cohesion in the complete project.

  7. It does seem that there is more than a bit of disregard for the street level perspective. Look at Three20 at Bellevue and Pine. As ugly as the building is, few would argue that it isn’t an improvement over what was there before.

    However, the building is clearly designed to be viewed from Pine only. The east side might as well be abutting another building. And they put the gas pipes and meters right out in the open on Bellevue.

    Or look at TerraVita on Summit and Pine. One of the windows that faces Summit is completely blacked out due to where (it appears) they put their walk-in cooler. Once again, it just seems like poor or haphazard planning.

    There are examples of beautiful new buildings on Capitol Hill (the new Northwest School addition, for one) but after walking Capitol Hill for 20+ years, it’s becoming a bland experience.

    • I’ll argue that the old building at Bellevue and Pine – before it was emptied out and set on fire, at least – was a better building. It was meticulously maintained, with big, airy apartments, adequate covered parking (sized for actual cars) and real balconies. (None of this Juliet nonsense)

      Everyone sniffs at those worlds fair era apartment buildings unless they live in one.

      • I was referring to it after the fire, where it sat empty for how long? Ages. I loved all those old buildings along that stretch. I even miss the crazy old bastard who used to come chase you away if you cut through the parking lot under the building. I don’t know how many parties I went to in other buildings along that stretch of Bellevue just by passing by and getting invited to come in. But that was back when we were a community. When we knew and trusted our neighbors. When we lived on street level and not in the sky.

  8. At least part of the problem is culture. Portland developers & architects have done amazingly innovative and engaging projects that are essentially the same scale (albeit with one less story) as thoise in Cap Hill. I’m no insider, but I get the sense that the folks down south actually care about design. Maybe there are just more local developers in Portland that actually live in the neighborhoods where they develop…..

    • Amen. The new developments look totally different in Portland as compared to Seattle. One coming up right now is three or four stories with multiple bay windows (can’t remember the last time I saw that on a new building in Seattle!), and others nearby have tasteful brick facades with actual detailing along the roofline. There are some cheap-looking ones, sure, but surprisingly few. My sense is that someone’s willing to say no to developers, or to demand changes, in a way that isn’t happening in Seattle.

      • Haven’t looked but given factors we talk about here isn’t it possible that cheaper PDX land means more I budget for materials and finish?

      • The reason Portland’s new buildings look better than Seattle’s new buildings is the amount of power held by their respective design review boards. Portland’s has considerable legal authority, whereas Seattle’s can do little more than make suggestions.

      • I wish the public that seems to cry out all the time would actually come to a f*cking design review board meeting, but they usually happen during happy hour so the proletariat are usually too busy.

      • I second what Formica says. I lived near Seattle U (not far from the newly named “brown building”) for years and recently moved to Portland. I immediately started following what I could of the design review process, and it’s clear to me that citizens and boards have much more power than developers.

        For example, the apartment I’m renting right now is in a lovely old 1920s one-story complex that was going to be sold, torn down, and turned into a larger complex. Neighbors rose up, said no, and it didn’t happen. This isn’t an uncommon story in Portland, from what I can tell. Combine that with the fact that developers seem to be much more tuned in with locals’ preferences, and it’s astounding how much nicer the new buildings are.

        Rents are skyrocketing in PDX too, so that discussion is happening just as in Seattle. However, the ugly-building problem isn’t part of it here, and I don’t think it’s just cheaper materials and real estate.

  9. Beauty is more than skin deep. If you watched Joule and Brix as they were constructed, you’ll know they two buildings are night and day. Brix was constructed of concrete and steel, built to last. Joule was build of cardboard and epoxy, built to dissolve.

    I don’t mind they way either of them look tho but a building like Joule would be at the bottom of my list of places to call home.

  10. Let’s build some skyscrapers on the hill! Enough timid placation to eurocentric Jane Jacobs, I’d much prefer something Bladerunneresque let’s take some risks and ignore the staid conservative seattle urban zoning regs.

    • Jane Jacobs is eurocentric? She spent nearly her entire life in New York and Toronto, and the battles for which she’s most remembered were waged against Robert Moses and his eminently American fondness for giant slabs of freeway. Her opposition to highrises tended to be within the context of the megalomaniacal urban “renewal” schemes of the time, which gutted neighborhoods and destroyed human scale. I doubt very much she’d be offended by a twenty-story building on the corner of Pike and whatever. Erasing every building and street between Pike, Republican, 12th, and Broadway and erecting 15 twenty-story buildings, each of them a block long and entirely closed-off at ground level? That she’d protest, and I hope so would you.

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  12. If someone wanted to build a copy of the Granada, would it be practicable? Does it basically meet codes, would the materials make it the most expensive building in town, etc?

    • I too have wondered this! I would love to see more building like the Granada! These old building provide so much housing and essentially nothing else. (eg, no two story underground parking garage, no residents-only workout room, theater, and their amenities usually just include one or two laundry rooms and storage units.) Plus, the design of their facades seem to look classy regardless of the decade’s current style trends.

      And even if it is legal to build this today, would any bank lend to a developer wanting to build it?

      • The simple rectangular forms look not just classy to me but extremely *durable*. My engineer grandfathers were suspicious of every excess corner in a roof or floorplate, and my experience of old houses lines up — if it sticks out you have to brace it extra and if it folds in you have to caulk it extra.

  13. I’m sick and tired of people who know nothing about building marterials or construction techniques falsely decrying everything as “cheap” just as a blanked argument against develeompment and modern architecture. It’s nonsense. Hardi cement siding is a very durable, reliable, state of the art material. It is the best siding product on the market for large residential buildings. But IT IS NOT CHEAP. All the so-called “NIMBYs” and “neighborhood activists” (depending on who you ask) really need to get their facts straight if they want to be taken seriously.

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