Why Does Capitol Hill Look Like Lego Land?

Last week, I spoke a little bit about how the linguistic roots of gentrification could help us understand what the term implies, and how it relates to our current way of moving through the world. The qualms with gentrification on Capitol Hill, however, move beyond rising rents. Like any kind of change in the Urban landscape, Capitol Hill residents have taken issue with the aesthetic qualities of the new growth. Namely: the large, boxy, half-colored bricks that are taking the place of the old neighborhood. Last week I posited that this shift in style reflects our own shift in consumer choices towards the sleek, carefree design of our cell phones and laptops. But what other reasons could account for the changing face of Seattle’s skyline? Well, according to a new post on the Capitol Hill blog, a number of factors contribute. First and foremost is public policy. As I’ve written of in the past, the city of Seattle bases its urban growth plans on the state’s Growth Management Act, which requires that is take into account urban “villages” and centers in order to better utilize public space. The article points out that a number of other stipulations alongside this legislation further restrict building capacity. The “five over one” style, for example, that requires a floor of retail space at the bottom of new apartment buildings. This, according to the article, tends to produce buildings that look larger and clunker, in order to accommodate the different functions of the building. The facades of the building, which are often what residents complain about most, are often built with cheaper material on account of the size of the buildings. As the article says, this tends to make the buildings look blockier and uglier compared to “hand scaled” ones. There is also, of course, Seattle’s long history of fighting building heights. When developers aren’t allowed to build upwards, they spread out, which not only drives up rent prices but also results in less appealing building styles. Some buildings have attempted to curtail this by building newer complexes on top of the facades of old buildings, which maintains street-level architecture but still accommodates growth. CHB interviewed Mike Mariano of Schemata, a local architecture and design practice, and he seemed to recognize the importance of maintaining a positive street aesthetic. In the article he says that the “first 30 feet” are what makes all the difference and that “people are responding to the pedestrian experience at street level.” The biggest issue, however, is an unsurprising one. Because of the speed of growth here on the hill—with complexes filling up almost immediately after being built—developers are simply opting for the cheapest, quickest design in order to

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ensure a fast and significant profit. The article calls this the “winner’s curse”—in that developers need to come up with designs as quickly and cheaply as possible, which leads to more “conservative” building style. Like so many other issues with growth in the city, then, Seattle’s problems can be traced back to profit. While it’s hard to say what consumers can do—already scrambling, as they are, to acquire a relatively inexpensive place to live—it’s clear that Seattle’s new buildings probably won’t change their face until the market itself levels out.