Urban Design: Washington State Convention Center Expansion

Situated in the heart of Seattle, the Washington State Convention Center has been a prominent events facility in the Pacific Northwest for over two decades. The Convention Center is now proposing to build an additional sister facility near the existing building to address a growing demand for larger events. This week, our Project Manager Josh introduced us to the billion-dollar Convention Center expansion plan, and addressed some key public concerns regarding the proposed additional facility.

Proposed rendering of the WSCC expansion project.   |   Image by  LMN Architects  via  Seattle.gov

Proposed rendering of the WSCC expansion project.   |   Image by LMN Architects via Seattle.gov

Witten by Josh Janet, Project Manager | PE:

The Washington State Convention Center (WSCC) hosts around 350 events per year near the downtown of Seattle. Many residents in the region have attended conventions there for their respective industries or personal interests; I myself have attended conventions for the American Planning Association and the Urban Land Institute there. The facility contains over 414,000 square foot of total rentable space, which is comparable to many others in the United States but places it far from the category of largest convention center in the United States (that distinction belongs to McCormick Place in Chicago) and smaller than the average size convention center.

This status quo prompted the WSCC to purchase the Convention Place Bus Station property and adjacent properties when they became available for sale from King County, with the grand purpose of an expansion that would double the size of the existing Convention Center. Each event currently booked at the Convention Center requires several days for both set up and breakdown, in addition to the event itself. A second facility would provide more flexibility for either larger events or a greater number of events at the current size to be held, along with more streamlined staging between events. The project would also produce more construction jobs and an estimated 2,300 additional lower wage jobs.

The current Convention Place bus station will be part of the site for the proposed expansion.   |   Photo by Josh Janet

The current Convention Place bus station will be part of the site for the proposed expansion.   |   Photo by Josh Janet

There’s one wrinkle in this proposal, however, that has some citizens concerned. This project requires an alley vacation in order to move forward, which means that, come November, the City Council will need to:

  1. “Consider the impact of the proposed vacation upon the circulation, access, utilities, light, air, open space and views provided by the right-of-way”;
  2.  “Consider the land use impacts of the proposed vacation”; and
  3.  “Approve proposed vacations only when they provide a long-term benefit to the general public.”

On that last point, questions have been raised as to whether an expansion of the Convention Center is truly the most valuable use of that eight acres of public land near the heart of the city, especially at a time when land costs have hindered the development of new parkland and affordable housing. The WSCC reached out to the general public for suggestions on a community benefits package last December to address that third criteria, but the package that is currently under review by the Seattle Design Commission did not include many of the suggested projects, provided much less in funding for others, and finally included funding for other public benefits that seem to be more beneficial to the WSCC than the general public.

There is no formula for what the dollar amount needs to be for the value of the public benefits package, which complicates matters. However, a coalition of “nine nonprofits, community organizations, and advocacy groups serving neighborhoods adjacent to the WSCC Addition” has released its own package that it argues is in line with previous street vacations (and can be read here). The short version is that they propose funding for five (5) projects related to parks and public spaces, funding for five (5) projects for improved multimodal transportation in the surrounding area, and increased funding for affordable housing.

Based on previous street vacations, the coalition believes that the value for the public benefits should be in the $65 to $70 million range. The WSCC is currently proposing $30 million, of which $17 million is allocated for the development of a plaza five stories up that was already going to be built as part of the project (it would not have been open to the public before). This proposal is questionable because the hours that it would stay open would be limited and it is unknown how visible of a space it would be to the public-at-large.

Properly funding affordable housing is the most important public benefit in my opinion, given the crisis the city is in now for the gross lack housing available to support people of all economic stations. The coalition is requesting $33 million for affordable housing, which it believes will be adequate to fund the construction of enough affordable housing units to accommodate the number that would be necessary to house the aforementioned 2,300 minimum wage workers that would be employed by the WSCC. The current package from the WSCC proposes $5 million for affordable housing.

The WSCC expansion project will likely move forward in some capacity, but considering how substantial of an impact it is likely to have on downtown Seattle’s urban fabric and housing needs in the near future, it is vital that Seattle residents are able to compel its leaders to address the myriad concerns surrounding a project of this scale. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak, so it’s better that the consequences be addressed sooner rather than later.


  • Boiko-Weyrauch, Anna. “If Airbnbs get staxed, should Seattle’s Convention Center get the money?” KUOW News and Information. 4 June 2017. Available WWW: http://kuow.org/post/if-airbnbs-get-taxed-should-seattle-s-convention-center-get-money.
  • “The Community Package.” The Community Package. Last visited 11 July 2017. Available WWW: https://www.communitypackage.org/communitypackage/.
  • Hyde, David. “The big, expensive project in downtown Seattle we’re not talking about.” KUOW News and Information. 8 June 2016. Available WWW: http://kuow.org/post/big-expensive-project-downtown-seattle-were-not-talking-about.
  •  “List of convention centers in the United States.” Wikipedia. Last visited 11 July 2017. Available WWW: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_convention_centers_in_the_United_States#By_size.
  • Macz, Brandon. “Design Commission questions WSCC Addition urban park.” Capitol Hill Times. 7 July 2017. Available WWW: http://www.capitolhilltimes.com/Content/News/News/Article/Design-Commission-questions-WSCC-Addition-urban-park/26/337/5034.
  • “SDOT – Street Vacations.” Seattle Department of Transportation. Last visited 11 July 2017. Available WWW: https://www.seattle.gov/transportation/streetvacations.htm.
  • “WSCC Services & Facts.” Visit Seattle. Last visited 11 July 2017. Available WWW: http://www.visitseattle.org/meeting-planners/washington-state-convention-center/services-facts/.

Urban Design: Housing for Urban Families in Seattle

Being one of America’s fastest-growing cities, Seattle continues to experience a tremendous growth in population. Despite thousands of housing units are being built to accommodate young professionals and couples that are moving to the city, Seattle does not have enough housing units available and affordable for families with children.  

A white paper highlighting the lack of family-sized housing in Seattle was released in 2014 by the Seattle Planning Commission. After the Planning Commission conducted an extensive study on the availability of affordable, family-sized apartments within Seattle’s housing market in 2011, they found that the majority of affordable housing units in Seattle are not large enough to accommodate families with children. While a standard family-sized housing unit should have at least two bedrooms, the majority of market-rate apartments in Seattle are studio and one-bedroom units. In 2009, merely two percent of market-rate apartment units in Seattle have three or more bedrooms, and only half among the two percent are affordable for low- and middle-income families (see graph below).

Graph captured from The Seattle Planning Commission's 2014 white paper. |   Images via  Housing Seattle report

Graph captured from The Seattle Planning Commission's 2014 white paper. |   Images via Housing Seattle report

Last Wednesday, the Urban Design Forum of AIA Seattle put together a panel of Planning Commission members to address the family-sized housing crisis in Seattle. The intent of this panel discussion is to provide the community with an update on how the city intends to attract and retain urban families. The discussion features five speakers, including Catherine Benotto from Weber Thompson, David Cutler AIA from Northwest Studio, Jake McKinstry from Spectrum Development Solutions, Grace Kim AIA from Schemata Workshop, and Amalia Leighton from SVR Design.

During the event, the panelists presented some of the key findings from the Planning Commission’s 2011 Housing Seattle report, and shared highlights of an action agenda that aims to aid the city to increase affordable housing for families with children at a wide spectrum of income levels. One interesting finding the panelists have pointed out was that, despite the city’s goal to attract and retain families with children, there is a relatively small share of households with children in Seattle when compared to other large cities like Portland and Los Angeles ---- roughly 19 percent of households in Seattle are families with children. One attendees asked if the Planning Commission has worked with the local school district has to push for the creation of more school development in downtown Seattle. The panelists explained that the city does not have any plan for new school development in downtown school so far, although part of the action plan calls for strengthening partnerships between the Seattle School District and the City to allow for better planning to accommodate future growth and foster family-friendly neighborhoods. The panelists mentioned that the local school district has played an important role in helping the Planning Commission to understand the enrollment trend in Seattle’s Public Schools. A positive finding shows that Seattle Public Schools’ total enrollment has increased rapidly in the recent school year, and that urban neighborhoods like South Lake Union, Uptown and Pioneer Square have a growing number of families with children.

The event allows community members to share their thoughts on the family-sized housing issue.  |   Photo by Sapphire Chan

The event allows community members to share their thoughts on the family-sized housing issue.  |   Photo by Sapphire Chan

The panelists went on and gave a brief summary of the rest of the action items, in which more detailed information about the action agenda with specific recommendations can be found in the whitepaper released by the Planning Commission. A recapture of the action agenda is shown below:

Action #1: Adopt a formal definition of family-sized housing and family-friendly buildings.

Action #2: Allow added flexibility in single-family zoned areas with frequent, reliable transit and in other selected areas.

Action #3: Foster a larger supply of family-friendly lowrise and midrise multifamily housing.

Action #4: Ensure that bonus development provisions and incentive zoning programs work to encourage family-sized units.

Action #5: Advance the creation of residential cores with ground-related housing in the city’s most urban neighborhoods.

Action #6: Ensure that the Multifamily Tax Exemption (MFTE) Program encourages the production of 2-bedroom and 3+ bedroom units.

Action #7: Encourage the creation of more family-friendly housing through innovative design and construction.

Action #8: In affordable housing programs, include a strong priority for families with children.

Action #9: Strengthen partnerships to align School District planning and capital investments with the City’s planning for growth in family-friendly urban neighborhoods.”

If you are interested to find out more about the Planning Commission and their publication, you can go to their website for more information. For those of you who are interested in attending the Urban Design Forum events, the next meeting will be held on February 22, 2017, with a discussion topic on “The Grand Bargain.”

Urban Design: Using Data in Urban Planning

Technological advancements change the way we learn, the way we communicate, and the way we live. With an increasing amount of data available about our built environment and those who live in it, urban planners are discovering new ways to incorporate data into city planning and design. This week, our Project Manager Josh shared his thoughts on a recent lecture regarding the use of data collection for the advancement of city planning, and reflected on the potentials of data collection for architecture.

Written by Josh Janet, Project Manager | PE:

 I had the good fortune to be able to take an Urban Form course with Professor Anne Moudon at the University of Washington two years ago. After 34 years with UW, Anne decided to retire, allowing more time for herself to travel the world and to focus more research in the Urban Form lab that she helped establish with the Department of Urban Design and Planning.

The Department held a celebratory final lecture and cocktails event this past Saturday in her honor. Current professors, former colleagues, and past students listened as Anne gave a brief whirlwind history of a subject near and dear to her — the collection and application of data on urban life to influence how we can improve our cities and ourselves.

Professor Moudon delivering her closing remarks   |    photo by Josh Janet

Professor Moudon delivering her closing remarks   |    photo by Josh Janet

She first spoke of Ildefons Cerdà, the world’s first urban planner, who expanded Barcelona in the 1850’s with the Eixample district to address mass health issues due to overcrowding. Cerdà relied on data collected on myriad subjects — from the sizes and lengths of streets to the volume of air one person needed to breathe — to inform the development of the new district. The Eixample isn’t all that well regarded by architects with regards to urban form — there are little to no landmarks in the district and the grid layout is monotonous as a result — but Cerdà’s 1867 publication, “General Theory of Urbanization,” was the first of its kind in developing the new field of urban planning.

Aerial image of Eixample   |   Images via  Amusing Planet

Aerial image of Eixample   |   Images via Amusing Planet

Anne continued with the innovations of Sir Patrick Geddes, the Scottish planner who developed ideas related to regional urban planning and “conurbation,” or the continued urbanization of areas beyond central cities, in the early 19th century. He developed the “Valley section model” as a representation for how regional environmental characteristics shaped city institutions and values.

The “valley section model” created by Patrick Geddes   |   Images via  Wikimedia commons

The “valley section model” created by Patrick Geddes   |   Images via Wikimedia commons

Anne finished with the Puget Sound region and the advancement of geographic information systems (GIS), beginning with the founding of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) by former UW professor Edgar Horwood in 1963. Horwood, a civil engineering professor, was fundamental in the guiding of information system development for urban and regional applications. We would not have complex mapping software like ArcGIS today if not for Horwood’s foresight and leadership.

The use of data collection for the advancement of city planning is an obvious fit, but it got me thinking about the lack of data collection for architecture. Our work is so site and client specific that it is difficult to apply broad ranges of data sets to our designs and applications. We innovate where possible, of course — we listen to clients’ needs and may research what new technology or materials may exist that can address lighting, energy, or durability concerns (assuming it falls within a normal budget).

At Urbal, we also regularly update our senior housing programming based on the information that we receive from clients, who make their suggestions based on the data they collect from their residents and staff. These can range in scale from the size of certain spaces, like a Wellness Center, to the location of the control valves in roll-in showers.

Architects have to strike a precarious balance between pioneering new and/or untested building systems, materials, and programming arrangements, and chasing the zeitgeist with outdated technology and modes of thinking. We also face the prospect of being replaced by computers, if companies like Flux (an offshoot of Google X) are able to truly integrate the complex web of zoning codes, building codes, accessibility codes, structural codes, fire codes, and mechanical/electrical/plumbing codes into a single development tool. I remain skeptical (if perhaps just a little biased) that any computer system can replace the need for a design team, but in honor of Anne Moudon’s insistence on the need to automatize land use development for urban development, I’ll try to keep an open mind. 


  • Bausells, Marta. “Story of Cities #13: Barcelona’s unloved planner invents science of ‘urbanisation.’ ” The Guardian. 1 April 2016. Available WWW: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/01/story-cities-13-eixample-barcelona-ildefons-cerda-planner-urbanisation.
  • Marshall, Victoria. “The Valley Section.” City in Environment. 16 February 2013. Available WWW: http://cityinenvironment.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-valley-section.html
  • Dueker, Kenneth J. “Edgar Horwood.” URISA. Available WWW: http://www.urisa.org/awards/edgar-horwood/.