When most people see downtown Vancouver, BC, they think it is a big city because of the number of high-rise buildings. Actually, its metro population is less than Portland’s, and most of those buildings are condo towers. In contrast, most of Seattle’ high-rises are offices.
You could argue that Vancouver and Seattle have different approaches to planning, but what’s really at work is the different business interests in each city, and how those drive public investment. Seattle could have beautiful walkable waterfront neighborhoods on the north and south doorsteps to downtown, but century-old industrial interests are keeping underused land from conversion to residential. It will probably take job loss to the suburbs to open those possibilities.
Vancouver, Where Homebuilding is a Major Industry
Leave it to the Canadians, who rely on exports to Pacific Rim countries to drive much of their economy, to make homebuilding on their own shores a major industry with high-wage jobs in high-rise construction. That began happening in the mid 1980s when Hong Kong residents fearful of the 1997 turnover began flocking here. That turnover is now 28 years behind us, but today the mainland Chinese come as well, drawn by the possibility of getting their kids into good schools.
Vancouver had high-rise development before the 1980s near Stanley Park, but it was the reuse of the Canadian Pacific rail yards as the Expo 86 site and then as a new waterfront neighborhood that took that high-rise residential development to scale. And it was a Hong Kong developer, Li Kai-shing, one of the biggest businessmen in that city, who bought the Expo 86 site and brought master-planning and large-scale development to Vancouver. Yes, some of the seawall walks were left over from Expo 86, but as part of the approvals process, Li Kai-Shing also added large waterfront parks, a marina, and a new community center in an old round house, all publicly accessible. Those amenities made downtown a more interesting place to live, and they also sold condos.
With that template established, Marathon, the development subsidiary of the other railroad in town, Canadian National, began turning its railyards on the north waterfront at Coal Harbor into a second walkable waterfront community, also with a marina, seawall walks, parks, and a second community center. In preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the city acquired old warehouses and factories on the southeast shores of False Creek (about a mile east of Granville Island) and turned this into the Olympic Village, which was turned into permanent housing after the games were over. Just south of downtown in the Kitsilano neighborhood, two First Nations groups have approval to build a total of 19,000 housing units on two sites each near the water.
All in all, there are now about 80,000 housing units in and around downtown Vancouver, compared to about 45,000 units in areas of Seattle south of Mercer, west of I-5. and north of the football stadium. Seattle would have about three times as many units as it does now if it had the same ratio of downtown to metro housing as Vancouver.
Seattle, Where Commerce Speaks Loudest
While much of Vancouver’s investment in the public realm has gone into pedestrian and recreation improvements, most of Seattle’s has gone into moving workers and freight. Homebuilding does not have a big voice here. The Port, Nordstrom, and Amazon do, and the public investment has ensured that employees arrive on time and goods keep moving.
Think about the big projects in downtown the last 40 years: the bus tunnel and light rail, the Route 99 replacement for the viaduct, fixing the Mercer Mess, a streetcar that got South Lake Union workers to Westlake Mall and back, and extra travel lanes for buses and ferry queues on the waterfront where more housing might have been built.
In central Seattle, housing has mostly been an after-thought, and most of the new units built the last 30 years have been rental apartments, not owner-occupied. There was never a master plan and financing scheme to build the network of parks and open spaces that would make more people want to live here long term, and to co-invest in the place. It was first bio tech and then Amazon that sparked the redevelopment of South Lake Union, and until recently most of that redevelopment was office buildings.
The number of highly-paid tech workers there eventually drew institutional investment in luxury rentals. Lately that investment has taken the form of “Texas Donuts,” big, bulky apartments that wrap around a central courtyard and take up much or all of a city block. The lavish rooftop gardens on these projects compensate for the fact that walking to a big park may take 20 minutes or more.
Two Big Opportunities for Walkable Waterfront Neighborhoods
Still, Seattle has two big opportunities to walkable waterfront neighborhoods like those in Vancouver, but realizing this opportunity will require taking on the Port and the railroads. These sites have been subject to countless studies over the last four decades, but still sit underused.
The first is Terminal 46 near the Coast Guard icebreakers, which at the north end is less than a quarter-mile from Pioneer Square. If people lived and worked here, they’d be less than a 10-minute bike ride from the Pike Place Market. The north half of that site is vacant, while the south half is used to load and unload containers. Between the Port of Seattle and the Port of Tacoma, however, the Northwest Seaport has more than enough land to meet its needs, and it has told the federal government that its future lies in dredging a deeper channel west of Harbor Island to serve the next generation of ships. This site could hold both large waterfront parks and about 5,000 housing units.
The other area is Interbay, about a 1.5 mile bike up the waterfront from the Olympic Sculpture Park. There is about 225 acres of under-used land there, which is about three times the size of the Seattle Center. That’s enough to build about 15,000 housing units, plus parks. This total includes 100 acres on the waterfront and (immediately north of the Magnolia Bridge) 50 acres in the golf course, 50 acres in fields, storage buildings and the shopping center near Whole Foods; and 25 acres of sidings where the railroads currently store box cars.
Challenging the Status Quo
In the last 100 years, Seattle has comprehensively redeveloped its central waterfront only once, when Paul Schell – former mayor, former planning director and former head of Weyerhaeuser’s inner city development company – became president of the Port commission and bent that agency to his will in creating the condos, offices, marina, hotel and conference center at Bell Harbor. More redevelopment like that elsewhere will require that the Port and railroads let go of land no longer needed for industry.
That will require a countervailing economic force, like the loss of jobs to the Eastside or the hollowing out of downtown office towers. On the Eastside, the schools are better and Amazon is adding 25,000 people. It could be argued that great waterfront neighborhoods to both live and work are essential to the city’s competitiveness. The real power and money at the Port, however, are in the airport division, and it will probably take holding up a project there to get the Port’s attention.
Meanwhile, the city can do more studies while Bellevue and Redmond to the east and Vancouver to the north take its talent.