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Pencils or Breadloaves in Seattle’s South Lake Union?

Feb 10, 2010

Unlike Pioneer Square, who resists height increases due to the historic nature of the neighborhood, a recent Seattle Times article looks at South Lake Union and its potential for taller buildings with certain bulk controls and tower spacing. Current residents are concerned, however, that they’ll be “walled in” and others worry that they’ll lose views of the Space Needle, the lake, and even the sun.

As South Lake Union’s biggest landowner, Vulcan is entrenched the process and has been working with residents and neighborhood activists to hear their concerns. Matt Roewe is VIA’s Director of Mixed Use and Major Projects, and is also a member of the Planning Commission. As a resident of Queen Anne, he has been on many committees about South Lake Union’s future, and even sits on the neighborhood’s design-review board.

“Roewe agrees with Vulcan and the city that the current zoning in South Lake Union has led to ‘breadboxes’ — low-level buildings that fill entire blocks. Instead, they propose ‘pencils’ — tall skinny towers that leave room around the bottom for views and public spaces.

Part of the discussion, no doubt, will include exchanging the right to build taller for an agreement to add green space or other community amenities.”

Among the committees that have been working on South Lake Union, Matt participates in the following: Two Way Mercer Stakeholder group, South Lake Union framework charette, South Lake Union height & density study committee, and the Uptown South Lake Union visioning charette stakeholder group.

Back in 2008/2009, Matt partnered with the Great City Initiative in their “Leadership for Great Neighborhoods” campaign that aims to guide growth in Seattle’s emerging urban centers.

To see the combined Leadership for Great Neighborhoods presentation, which includes Matt’s “pencil and breadloaves” presentation, click here.


  1. Thanks Jihad,
    South Downtown Seattle city planners are targeting more of a mid-rise typology that is timid on height increases. At generally 125′ and less, this will yield more bulky buildings rather than pencils and podiums. The incentives for capicty increases are weighted toward affordable housing and TDR. I suspect they will not have many takers in this market place as the incentives proposed are not yielding enough value to support high-rise construction. The way it’s working down here is larger developers/land assemblies go for contract rezones that end up bumping up the heights further. Which makes it all seems very unpredictable and discretionary. But then again, that seems to be part of Vancouvers history as well.
    Read more here about livable south downtown:

  2. First of all; what a luxury reading this post has, especially after Matt’s masterpiece of “Commuter Parking at Seattle’s Light Rail Station” this short post is a rich lecture that you learn too much out of it and we as urban planner and architects should read it and interact with it. It makes us think more about what future we really want for our cities, our urban centers and our neighbourhoods to look like if we had the opportunity of being involved in the development process as resident of those communities.

    After visiting Seattle for the first time last week I totally agree with Matt’s point of the need to get rid of all-day surface parking in Seattle and his call for an upgrade of the zoning in those lactations. Those surface parking are taking prime urban location and it should be replaced with more compact and dense development Seattle deserve instead of the waste land state it is right now, besides, it force people to change the bad habit of being car dependent.

    I have one question regarding one slide in the presentation linked to this post, on page 17 of the presentation there is a graphic about the south downtown recommended neighbourhood zone proposal that doesn’t really reflect the great Pencil&Breadloaves concept of Matt’s.
    By comparing this specific slide with the example given of the “Pencil” development I see that the recommended zone proposal is too dense, it actually takes out almost all the positive element of having more open spaces the “Pencil” idea propose, is there a reason for that?