The South Lake Union Example

February 26, 2010

By Ada M. Healey


Ada Healey

Amid one of the most dramatic economic downturns since the
Great Depression, how do cities retain their competitive edge in a global
marketplace? In this economy, it is critically important to attract as well as
retain a highly educated, productive workforce. A desirable workforce will help keep major employers in
Seattle and bring new companies to the region.

Today’s key economic factors-talent, innovation and
creativity-often concentrate in specific locations. As best-selling author and
urban theorist Richard Florida has noted, creative-class workers are drawn to
places that offer a variety of economic opportunities, 24/7 urban districts and
amenities, openness to diversity and strong social interaction.

Despite what many refer to as a jobless economic recovery,
and while the local real estate market is still suffering from the aftershocks
of a global financial crisis, we have a promising glimpse today of a
fast-growing urban center in Seattle that will be more dynamic in the future.

South Lake Union was, historically, an underutilized
industrial district north of downtown. Today, the neighborhood is evolving to
meet the needs of new pioneers-transforming before our eyes into a diverse,
sustainable and people-friendly environment that attracts the kind of employees
whom catalytic businesses seek in order to compete in an increasingly global

The area is already home to world-class companies including
Microsoft, Group Health, NBBJ and Cole & Weber, as well as major life
sciences research and global health institutions such as UW Medicine, SBRI,
PATH and SightLife. And thousands of employees are coming to the
neighborhood this spring.

We can see the types of defining elements that characterize
successful “people places” in South Lake Union. Providing a wide variety of
housing options suited to a range of incomes and household types is crucial.
The housing mix in South Lake Union is one of the most varied in the city,
including market-rate condos and apartments, workforce housing, low-income
housing and senior homes.

Locating a critical mass of people- supported by taller
buildings-around major streets, transit and parks will also encourage greater
use of public transportation and create more active, safer open spaces. The
South Lake Union Streetcar line connects the neighborhood’s workers and
residents to the downtown core with its major employers, housing, retail and
regional transit hubs, including the light rail line.

Activating the streetscape by incorporating features such as
pedestrian corridors, pocket gardens and public plazas, intriguing public art
and lively street-level retail amenities with outdoor seating is vital to
creating an appealing, accessible urban center.

Along the same lines, supporting a mix of national retailers
coexisting with homegrown businesses can also help foster an authentic and
rewarding experience that still preserves the character of the existing

Providing quality open green space is also a critical
amenity seen in thriving urban centers. In South Lake Union, the neighborhood’s
three parks have been renovated with public and private support to make them
safer, more inviting and more accessible.

The question isn’t whether growth in our urban centers
should occur, but what form and shape it should take to inspire the kinds of
livable communities that will attract diverse groups of people. Creating the
type of welcoming environments that serve as magnets for innovative companies
will better position our region through this downturn.

Ada M. Healey is the vice president of real estate at
Vulcan Inc. Vulcan Real Estate manages a diverse development portfolio that
includes nearly 60 acres in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.