Changes to UW Campus Master Plan move forward: combined with UDistrict upzones densities would rival downtown

uwWhile there’s been some press coverage of the city’s plan to zone the University District neighborhood for highrise development and we have written a number of stories about it with links here, there’s been almost no coverage of plans by the University of Washington (UW) to effectively upzone the campus itself.

While few were looking, UW administrators quietly drafted changes to its “Campus Master Plan” that would allow as much as an additional 12.9 million square feet of office and classroom space over the next two decades in buildings as tall as 17 stories. This plan is now undergoing environmental review.   

Changes to the Campus Master Plan would apply not just to the current campus, but also to UW properties to the east where the golf driving range and parking lots are now located, (say goodbye to views of the mountains from the Burke Gilman Trail), and along and south of Campus Parkway to Portage Bay.

If you’ve ever walked the main campus and marveled at its pastoral setting, tree canopy, extraordinary vistas of lakes and mountains, and the unique historic architecture, imagine how well steel and glass towers would mix with that. While renderings of UW’s plans show most new development occurring on the periphery, that easily could change should the City Council unconditionally grant these increased densities.  

(For a taste of what to expect in the way of future redevelopment on campus, take a look at the monstrosity of steel and glass now under construction on the corner of NE 45th and 15th NE.  For many decades, the corner there was a gladed entrance to campus used by hundreds each day. I regularly used it first as a student and then as a longtime resident.  When entering there, I always got the sense I was leaving the city and tumult of urban life immediately behind instantly transported to a park like setting. No more. Dozens of older growth trees that provided a natural edge and buffer between campus and the District itself were wiped out for expansion of the Burke Museum.   Whether the expansion was necessary or not, this design and configuration clearly wasn’t.)

Corner of NE 45th and 15th NE: U of W expansion – a taste of things to come.  From this:


To this:


pictures taken from Google maps

When combined with the city’s planned upzone for the UDistrict neighborhood, the Campus Master Plan would accommodate levels of commercial development exceeding Amazon’s meteoric growth in South Lake Union. UW administrators say not to worry; they’re only expecting to actually develop 6 million of the 12.9 million square feet of added capacity over the next decade or so. We’re not reassured.

Let’s take that additional 6 million square feet UW says it will put on campus and add that about 4 million square feet of highrise offices allowed under the proposed upzone for the UDistrict neighborhood. That 10 million square feet of office space would accommodate roughly another 35,000 jobs across the area.

Consider that even if only 45 percent of these new UDistrict workers choose to live in the suburbs, even though a recent study shows (Peter Steinbrueck’s SNAP Study p 17 quoting from Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer Household Dynamics Study) that over 62 percent of Seattle workers live there now), and then let’s say only 30 percent of those coming in from the suburbs drive alone with the rest taking mass transit (a very optimistic assumption), that’s still over 4700 additional cars every day coming into a community already facing near gridlock every rush hour. Considering that a freeway lane can accommodate about 1000 cars an hour, our optimistic scenario creates a demand for an additional 4-5 freeway lanes–which of course won’t be built. We’ll just have more cars spilling more carbon emissions into our already polluted urban air.

Now lets consider the 1500 existing affordable units within the area of the neighborhood upzone. A significant portion of people living in these units are service workers who maintain and manage UW facilities. But most of these units either will be torn down to make way for the new highrise towers or rents will be pushed above affordable thresholds due to higher land values, taxes, and speculative turnover set in motion due to the upzones.  So we’ll see more of this workforce displaced and living further out and commuting longer distances to UW for their jobs

Why not locate a significant portion of the office space planned for the UW main campus at its satellite campuses, say, in Bothell and Tacoma, closer to where many if not most of their new employees (and many of the students and teachers) will be living anyway? This would take pressure off the UDistrict and our city as a whole. And putting those jobs closer to where people choose to live (for economic or personal reasons) would be more environmentally sound, reducing commute distances and number of cars on roads into and out of Seattle.

The UDistrict Upzone is the first of the Mayor’s planned “HALA upzones” affecting the entire city followed by dramatic increases in densities on the campus itself. Citizens and small business owners from the UDistrict say they will be overwhelmed, yet the UW, Mayor, most of the City Council, large property owners, and developers push these plans forward with little regard to the communities concerns.  A vote on the neighborhood upzone may occur as early as January with a vote on the campus master plan occurring later in the year.

Neighborhood and housing advocate groups in the UDistrict point out that if and when city government gets away with these changes to the UDistrict, “They’ll be coming for your neighborhood next.”



About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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