Building design and city planning, like music, cars and clothing, are subject to fashions and fads.
The cure for dowdy and tired storefronts in commercial districts was to cover them with modern facades, awnings and signs, making them look more like a strip mall. Then people decided they’d prefer to go back to exposed brick and other features that proudly announced a building’s age and character. Off came the facades (and the acoustical-tile dropped ceilings inside).
Pedestrian malls downtown were a big deal until people noticed the lack of pedestrians, and thus a lack of business, and reopened closed-off streets to cars. Suburban office parks, planned communities, downtown vertical malls, business districts spruced up with banners and flower planters and hanging baskets, preserved but repurposed historic buildings and 100 other bright ideas have flourished and faded, with a few examples of each enduring.
DuPont has an interesting history. It’s a company town (there’s another long-gone concept of city design) for a DuPont explosives plant grafted onto a development plan that, according to the town’s website, “became a model for New Urbanism and Smart Growth movements.”
Weyerhaeuser bought the 3,000-acre site in 1976, thinking at first of building an export terminal. In the late 1980s it shifted to a proposal for Northwest Landing, a planned community incorporating residences, businesses and some industry. The town’s website says DuPont’s population grew from 601 residents to nearly 9,200.
Now a development company is proposing to build 1.3 million square feet of warehouse space. That in itself isn’t so striking. Nor is the location particularly remarkable; the property is zoned for that use, and is across the street from a warehouse/distribution center for Amazon.
What is noteworthy is what new warehouse buildings will replace: two office buildings that date all the way back to … the late 1990s.
The idea behind Northwest Landing was to meld the design and features of a traditional small town and a suburb to create a neighborhood where some of the residents could walk to stores or to work. The development gets a mention on an Environmental Protection Agency website discussing smart-growth design.
The office component of Northwest Landing did land some sizable tenants, including State Farm and Intel. But the insurer moved operations to the former Russell building in downtown Tacoma (vacated in yet another business trend of the moment), a nice get for the city but a loss for DuPont, and the tech company pared back its presence.
The suburban tech-company office campus, once a major generator of construction activity, has apparently fallen so far from favor that the property owners believe they can get a higher return by taking down two still-serviceable buildings to be replaced by warehouses. They may be right. If you want an eerie sight, drive along state Route 18 just east of Interstate 5 and glance at the former headquarters of Weyerhaeuser, the company that developed Northwest Landing. Stripped of employees and interior furnishings, the low-slung building is the definition of see-through. Anyone want it? Its former occupant joined Russell in clamoring to get into downtown Seattle.
In the Proctor District, the issue isn’t one of business and commercial properties but residential, with news of imminent construction of Madison25: a six-story, 141-apartment building a few blocks from Proctor Station, the apartment development that opened in early 2016.
Discussion of what’s happening to Proctor — or what happened to Ballard or Capitol Hill or a dozen other neighborhoods in Seattle — is always combustible fuel for arguments about development trends. Those who lament what has happened to a comfortable, attractive business and residential neighborhood in a city not overly endowed with them are often rebuked by those who insist high-rise, high-density is the wave of the future, and not just in an urban core. Leave our neighborhoods alone and build somewhere else vs. you can’t stop progress so stop clinging to the past.
The trends in both DuPont and Proctor are driven by the cold numbers of supply and demand. They’re also a product of changing tastes and preferences. Maybe the low-rise, low-density large-city neighborhood truly is doomed to extinction, and no large company will ever want suburban offices again.
But change in tastes is a constant, what’s old is new again, what’s hip today might become passé (a Tower of Power reference for you), and the choices of today might be in for revision (and some judgment) tomorrow. “Wait, you tore down perfectly good office buildings for a warehouse?”
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.