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Uptown, meet your old neighbor, South Lake Union

Aug 25, 2009

by Matt Roewe, VIA’s Director of Mixed-use and Major Projects

In the heart of Seattle, two vibrant neighborhoods will soon be re-joined after 60 years of separation by the “Great Wall of Aurora.” The stars have aligned on three major projects to produce an outcome that will re-knit the street grids across aurora and rekindle the livable and walkable association between these old friends.

The Mercer Street project will start this off by reorganizing the “Mercer mess” through South Lake Union (SLU). Making this corridor a simple, two way and straight “Champs Elyse” tree lined boulevard connecting Interstate 5 to the Seattle Center and on to Elliott Avenue near Puget Sound. This enables better urban design, pedestrian safety and a straightforward travel pattern for the frequent unfamiliar visitors to the area. It also yields a calmer Valley Street next to SLU Park and a new two-way Roy Street in Uptown. Property owners are giving up 50’ to allow the wider boulevard, which is timely for the plethora of new development proposals for this under utilized area. The highway like diagonal Broad Street goes away, allowing the orthogonal street grid to return.

I participated in a 40 person/organization stakeholder charrette over the last two years where consensus was reached by all participants including freight, bicycle, business, institutions and neighborhood groups. Construction is scheduled to start in the next year, although the SR99 North portal project described below may impact the timing. See more project info at: Mercer Corridor

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation new headquarters is well underway at 5th and Mercer. With 2000 jobs and a 1,300,000 SF masterplan on 12 acres, this project is a huge community asset, as well as, a real game changer for neighborhood planning. Some would like to rename Mercer Street as “The Road to Global Health” with this institution as the anchor destination.

The Gates foundation is currently a lynch pin in the negotiations with two way Mercer and the SR 99 North Portal as the reconnection of 6th Avenue through or around this campus is critical to the success of the circulation and street grid system. An Illustration below reveals a potential mutually beneficial outcome for both the foundation and the neighborhood. For more info go to: New Campus FAQ

Alaskan Way Viaduct (SR99) Bored Tunnel: North Portal is currently designed to pull together the two neighborhoods by “lidding” SR99 from Republican Street to Denny way, effectively creating new streets and blocks at grade at Thomas, John, & Harrison. This will effectively make SR 99 go away and allow this burgeoning area to be reconnected allowing an entire network of choices available to bikes peds, trucks and automobiles.

The urban design consequences of the North Portal are phenomenal. The city is currently working closely with stakeholders in the area to develop a framework urban design plan that capitalizes on this new potential. An entirely new set of street typologies is possible to create new development potential and greatly enhance the existing fine grain fabric.

The “lost triangle” district, also know as the Denny/Broad/Aurora Triangle, is wedged between Aurora and Seattle Center. The new connections to this area via the north portal project will give this neglected and underutilized area a reason to be a vibrant and complete community offering residential and commercial development potential, all within walking distance of Downtown and all things Uptown/SLU.

There is also a movement to develop an east/west streetcar system extension from the upcoming first avenue green line terminus at Key arena to the Cascade Neighborhood. Thomas and Harrison are likely to be couplet streets and August Wilson Way in Seattle Center is the likely route for this streetcar. Look forward to future posts on this fun topic.

Also in the works is the City proposed EIS alternatives for SLU increasing the height and density of the area significantly with potential trade offs for public benefits. This is an aggressive move to best utilize this area to meet the targeted growth of 20,000 jobs and 10,000 housing units (includes the DBA triangle and SLU area). I can’t think of any neighborhood in the entire northwest taking this kind of responsibility for sustainable, less car dependent growth. Hence, the investment of these projects is rewarding the place taking on the burden of growth in a manner that no other area regionally can achieve.

Politics and regime change: With the imminent appointment of a new mayor and two city council members, these issues will likely get further attention. The two-way Mercer project first phase is already approved and the current Mayor, the Governor and the state legislature have approved the SR99 Bored Tunnel Project. However, the design of the tunnel is still very young and funding is not 100% certain, so these may get revisited. The bottom line for Uptown/SLU is connectivity. Even without the north portal lid, the street grids could still be reconnected via stop lights on Aurora. Not the most desirable condition, but we can still proceed with planning on a better network of connections and relationships.

These are exiting times with many challenges, hurdles, political debate and further exploration. Let us dig in and continue the journey.


  1. Great article Matt!

  2. Joshua,
    Thanks for the link up with SLU.
    Also would like to pass on to that almost daily I watch teh SLU Streetcar pass by Cafe Touga (at 8th and Westlake) and it has about 30 people riding both ways during commute hours. SLU is alive and kicking…much more than the naysayers of the streetcar would probably like to admit!

  3. Matt Roewe, AIA

    Thanks for your input Carl,
    The First Ave Streetcar line has been identified by SDOT in thier planning as the next priority after the ST funded 1st hill line goes ahead, although it’s all very notional at this point. It’s a bit tenuous as the 1st Avenue Streetcar is, as I understand it, associated with the SR 99 Bored tunnel project as a possible part of the transportation redistribution for teh 30% capacity reduction.
    Yes, teh DBA triangle has those new projects along Denny and some are not too bad (I was on teh QA/SLU Design Review Board that reviewed those). It is my hope that we don’t continue to fill up the whole triangle with 85′ bread loave alone…a mix of pencil towers would be welcomed with more public amenities. See a PPoint presentation I helped with at Great City on this subject:
    Note: the server or link ay Great City seems to be having problems at this moment.

  4. A few questions/comments for you:

    Do you have more information on the “upcoming first avenue green line” that you mentioned? Perhaps a website. I’ve been researching future Seattle streetcar projects but the websites I’ve found are outdated.

    As for the “lost triangle” district, I agree it has been neglected, but it has experienced some new development over the last year, though mostly on the southern border along Denny. There is a new apartment building (Taylor 28), a new condo building bordering Denny and Aurora (lidding SR99 will really add value to these condos), and a hotel/condo in construction. I realize that the rest of the triangle is pretty dull, but the stretch along Denny is looking nice.

    Another big player in the Mercer Street project should be Amazon. With their new campus under construction between Westlake and Fairview that will bring thousands of jobs to the neighborhood (no doubt more than the Gates Foundation), I feel like an improved Mercer St. will greatly benefit them. I’m very concerned about all the side streets that run through the future Amazon campus however. All of the streets are 1 lane, except Fairview and Westlake which are on the perimeter, and many are in pretty poor shape. Unless a large portion of the Amazon gang take the bus of the SLUT, that are is going to be extremely clogged once they are up and running. Anyway, just a thought.

    Thanks for the article. I agree that with the regime change we may see some changes, but I hope at the very least the Mercer project is completed!

  5. Down with the “Great Wall of Aurora” – wonderful article Matt!

  6. Thanks Matt. I sure hope the 1st Ave streetcar project survives the economic downturn.

    I also linked here from the Southlake.