Seattle Has Just Built Its Best Urban Plaza

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A new office tower has quietly joined the Seattle skyline, located at Second and University (hence the name 2&U). It’s not the tower that is worth a trip downtown, but rather the base. The plaza at the base is the best design addition to the city in a long time.

From far away, the 38-story tower structure is an awkward pair of conjoined glass and steel towers, low on the west and high on the east—each topped with its own shed-roofed, penthouse-like enclosure. The unusual configuration can be read as a quick lecture on zoning, Seattle-style. One designer’s comment is apt: “It’s absurd to impose two very different height limits on a single development within the same city block. Here’s what you get.”

It’s also a reminder that here in Seattle, zoning is political. Negotiating matching tall towers for a 3/4 -block development like this one could be seen as unfair spot-zoning and risk stirring populist suspicions about money, power and influence.   

The tower itself, known by the name of master lease holder Qualtrics, opened before the pandemic, and has its own Wikipedia page. But 2&U is still the name of the multi-level plaza underneath, where signs invite the public through, around, and behind the old red brick Diller Building, which has been retained. The project is right across University Street from the Seattle Art Museum. Water views are on the other side, above Seneca Street.

The large, high-ceilinged plaza is designed for walking in from adjacent streets. It’s light and open air with views, but protected from the rain. The arcade is 65 feet underneath the floor of the tower. The plaza is surrounded on different levels by unusual retail spaces that are open to views from more than one side. Most retail locations are leased, according to developer Skanska’s Murphy McCullough, but were empty as of the week before Halloween. The coronavirus hit about the time the space was ready for move-in, months ago. 

From the beginning, the site was complicated. Skanska USA got a long term lease from Samis Land Co, which had already assured that existing structures like the Galland Building were not designated historic landmarks. Still, to make the project work, a city alley running north-south through half the block between the old buildings had to be officially vacated, and this meant the developer owed the city some form of public benefit. Among other things, the lifted tower and the semi-public plaza are an answer to that requirement. 

The complex zoning helped ensure against a formula office tower. The complexities no doubt also helped deter would-be developers, which explains why the odd assortment of old hotel buildings and open land lingered until two years ago. True to the city’s urbanistic goals, the plaza clearly embraces the street and the pedestrian environment on four sides. Additionally, loading areas were moved from the First Avenue side of 2&U in anticipation of the Center City Connector, a proposed new downtown streetcar project. 

The towers are lifted over the sloping block by muscular columns designed with MKA. The plaza connects First and Second Avenue by skirting around the back of the Diller Building in the northwest corner of the block. From the entrance to the main office tower on Second Avenue, doors lead to a balcony overlooking the large mid-block plaza. There are many ways to negotiate the different levels, but the lobby overlook branches out into angular terraces overlooking First Avenue and providing views to Elliott Bay. 

In addition to the unique civic plaza beneath a tower, the lifted ceiling, plus contouring around the alley and the brick building, allow natural light to flood all the way through the plaza.  Those features are what you might expect from Seattle designers Barbara Swift (Swift Company) and architect Jim Graham (Graham Baba), who joined the design team after the lift decision had been made. Swift and Graham shaped the resulting void into a non-traditional civic open space. 

There is a lot of see-thru storefront space, the kind cities require for new construction because they are good for the whole neighborhood. But it’s not traditional retail space. In some ways, 2&U is a laboratory for cities of the future. It could show us how to activate the all-important ground floor after e-commerce and now the pandemic have dealt blows to downtown retail. 

To be sure, storefront space is not good for developers’ bottom line. Since 2&U is the fourth Seattle project for developer Skanska, the company anticipated the surfeit of ground floor space by working with the city and non-profits like 4 Culture, the King County arts agency, to activate the plaza with arts groups. As a result, one of the glass enclosures in the base of 2&U, along the Seneca Street side, will be managed over the long term by Shunpike, a Seattle non-profit that supports arts groups with back-of-house management and scheduling. Exhibits are planned at first, according to Shunpike director Line Sandsmark, to be supplanted later with performance groups with short term rentals. That means dancers could be practicing steps behind the glass. 

When talks about this arrangement began, historic storefronts in Pioneer Square and elsewhere had just successfully weathered the 2008 recession, according to Sandsmark. A city program aptly called Storefronts brought artists and small enterprises together to occupy empty Seattle storefronts, and they learned a lot about what makes urban neighborhoods work. That helped inspire Shunpike in programming the 2&U space, Sandsmark said. 

In another experiment, a new restaurant space is designed to be linear and open up completely on one side for open-air dining.  The central restaurant (Ethan Stowell’s Tavolata) is ready, and so is the multi-level, civic-scale plaza with places to park bikes near an area for outdoor dining. The restaurant, like Seattle’s downtown and the new plaza, just needs people.  The open plaza itself will be managed in the long-term by the Downtown Seattle Association, which also oversees activation for hardscape parks like Occidental Square and Westlake.

Will it work? Right now, you can hear a pin drop in the eerily quiet downtown, which means the acoustics of the plaza are excellent. When the retail court is all dressed up and ready to dance, the scene will be even better.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Great over- (or thru-) view, Clair. It would be even better if it contained graphics illustrating each of your main points. Just a suggestion for Post Alley’s design desk.

  2. I hope it does work. I remember walking by as the building took shape over the past few years. But I haven’t been down there since the pandemic. I look forward to a time when we all can enjoy the open plaza and shop and dine there, and maybe catch sight of dancers training. It could be a glorious civic oasis.

  3. I find the most constructive idea to be offices for nonprofits and allowing arts to perform in these quasi-public spaces. Another good example is the new home/performance/rehearsal facility for Seattle Chamber Music Society in Two Union, at Sixth and Union (second floor). We need to find a wider range of uses for street-level spaces, since retail is now more limited. Another good straw in the wind is the decision by KNKX to locate in a storefront facing Pike Place in the Market, and I hope that KCTS/Crosscut, as they look for a new home, are also open to this kind of animation and connection with a strolling public.

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