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Ideas for the Metropolitan Tract

Dec 10, 2009

by Lydia Heard, VIA’s Urban Planner

Recently, instead of a party invitation, I found the following intriguing summons in my inbox, from Steven Goldsmith of the Puget Sound Business Journal, as follows:

“In 250 words or less, briefly describe your idea for the Metropolitan Tract 20 years from now — how it should look, and who should own and occupy it.

What kinds of shops and offices should be there? Should the tract go all-residential? Pedestrian-only?  Should the UW turn it into a downtown campus? Or sell the whole thing?

In short, what changes there would be best for the city, and for the university?  Be bold — no idea is too far-out.”

The message had a link to the Metropolitan Tract page of the UW Real Estate Office. My interest was piqued, so I went to the site and read the following information:

“In 1860, the Legislative Assembly of Washington Territory passed “An Act to Relocate the Territorial University” in Seattle, “provided a good and sufficient deed to ten acres of land, eligibly situated in the vicinity of Seattle, be first executed to the Territory of Washington for University purposes.” Early in 1861 Arthur and Mary Denny, Charles and Mary Terry, and Edward Lander fulfilled the legislature’s stipulation by executing deeds to a forested 10-acre knoll overlooking Elliott Bay. The University was established there, on the site of what is now The Fairmont Olympic Hotel on University Street.

Over the next thirty years, growing enrollment and the growth of Seattle around the 10 acres made the property inadequate for the University’s future needs. In 1895, the University’s main campus was relocated to its present Montlake site on the shore of Lake Washington. Some years later, the original campus site (less a small portion that had been sold in 1902) was leased to the Metropolitan Building Company for a term of 50 years. The Metropolitan Tract was expanded in 1958 in a property exchange with the US Postal Service and in the 1962 purchase of the site for the Olympic Hotel garage. The present area is 11 acres, and is managed and operated through long term leases with Unico Properties, Inc. and LHCS Hotel Holdings.”

“As presently developed, the Metropolitan Tract contains over 1,500,000 rentable square feet of office space, 200,000 rentable square feet of commercial retail space, 450 hotel rooms, 91 residential units, and about 2,000 parking spaces. The Metropolitan Tract is managed and operated through three long-term leases: one with Unico Properties, Inc. for the commercial office and retail buildings (Rainier Tower & Square, Financial Center, IBM Building, Puget Sound Plaza, Skinner Building); one with Unico for the residential Cobb Building; and one with LHCS Hotel Holdings for The Fairmont Olympic Hotel and garage.

In guiding Metropolitan Tract policy through the years, the UW Board of Regents has adhered to one primary objective: to generate maximum long-term value and related cash flow through the best possible use of this endowment of land and buildings.”

I was flattered to be asked – there was an impressive list of addressees – but really didn’t have any big, bold ideas. Just before the deadline (as usual) I put together a few thoughts – a little over the word limit, actually. I left out references to choice bits such as the early masterplan for a “City Within a City”. It will be in the Puget Sound Business Journal this Friday, Dec. 11th, along with other submissions, including one we know well from the Great Debate, if he accepted the invitation. What sort of advice would you have given them? What sort of vision would you have dreamed up?

What should the Metropolitan Tract become in 20 years?

This is a foundation property, part of the history of the University and of the city. Don’t sell it; it’s like spending the principal. The Tract makes great connections in all directions. It has great bones, and the flesh is pretty good, too. Don’t rush to change it too quickly.

The crossing of University and 5th Avenues is your basic framework. Fifth connects from the Westlake transit hub and the shopping district through to the civic district. It is a special street, of narrower width than the other north-south arterials, beautifully treed, comfortably proportioned, and lined with high end shops and theaters. This will be the next street for people on foot, after Pine through Westlake is returned to us.

University Avenue, that historic reminder, connects from the waterfront to First Hill. This street is different, too. The urban form of full streetwall and blockface is broken here – by SAM and the Benaroya, and all over the tract – the street court at the Fairmont Olympic, to the corner plaza at IBM; interior courts and upper plaza invite at Rainier Square and the Financial Center. Little spaces are carved out everywhere, out of the tower itself. This is special to the Tract; keep it.

Some things will change, and should. Office space will still be needed but residential units are needed even more. The area is well served by transit and more is on the way. Parking garages will change to other uses. The function of the Post Office is changing; that half block will redevelop as midrise residential mixed-use along the lines of the Cobb. If not redeveloped as a residential high rise, the concrete mass of the Olympic Garage will be converted to artist studios and performance space for the downtown branch of the UW schools of the Arts. Keep the option of a presence in this, your historic place.