The new Seattle, offspring of Amazon and the ever-growing tech industry, could change everything. We’re already watching a new waterfront spring up, along with a new Pike Place and a host of new transit options. We’re seeing unprecedented population growth, and we’re jumping out of the way as skyscrapers shoot up like weeds.
Does this new Seattle threaten the old? Could we lose the city we fell in love with?
The answer lies with neighborhoods. Seattle is a city of strong neighborhoods with strong identities: Ballard feels nothing like South Lake Union, which feels nothing like Georgetown, which feels nothing like West Seattle. You’ll find Seattle’s roots in these disparate communities, roots buried deep in a dozen different soils, roots that grow together to form the sturdy, beautiful trunk we call Seattle. To know the future of the tree, you must study its roots.
So what do these neighborhoods have to say about the future? Let’s look at Ballard, one of the city’s best-known communities.
According to Crosscut, “the area could become a kind of funky version of South Lake Union, combining the best of what Ballard has to offer — a real neighborhood with some character — with the tech-based jobs driving Seattle’s economy.”
Ballard, historically, has been a small town nestled within a big city. It’s a place defined by its origins as a Scandinavian fishing village. It’s a place where old industrial warehouses and light manufacturing meet a vibrant nightlife. It’s a place with character, and ever since it sprouted, Ballard has viewed itself with pride. What has been noticeably absent throughout Ballard’s long history: skyscrapers and impersonal corporations.
But those things are coming to Seattle whether we like it or not, and Ballard has to respond. It plans to strike a middle ground between resistance (think Vashon Island, which keeps itself isolated and preserves a very special sort of uniqueness) and acceptance (think South Lake Union, which remade itself even more drastically than J.J. Abrams remade Captain Kirk).
“Our challenge is how do we preserve the character of Ballard and get the growth we want,” said Mike Stewart, executive director of the Ballard Chamber. “But we don’t want the canyons of tall building like Belltown or Dexter Avenue.”
Here’s what we can expect from the new Ballard:
Urban density: Ballard’s already high desnity of 10,000 people per square mile will get even higher.
Multifamily housing: Last year, Ballard increased allowable density from 1 unit/2,000 square feet to 1 unit/1,600 feet. Townhouses followed in the wake of the new regulation. Expect even more townhouses and apartment buildings.
Taller buildings: Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association, predicts that Ballard will soon allow buildings 85 feet tall or higher around light-rail stations. This is double the height of existing buildings.
More small businesses: Microbreweries and restaurants have already made Ballard a hub of nightlife, and that trend will only continue. Tech jobs will move in, too. And the new Ballard will also shelter companies that can’t compete with the price of SLU commercial real estate, such as the recently relocated Nebar Hose and Fittings. Big businesses, however, are not yet choosing Ballard.
Traffic: The Ballard Bridge regularly causes bottlenecks, and it will take a decade, at least, before any new mass transit options can alleviate the situation. New Ballard will move very slowly during rush hour.
Perhaps the best symbol of Ballard’s future is its Nordic Heritage Museum. The museum celebrates Ballard’s culture and identity, and it has quietly operated in the community since 1980. But it will open a new $45 million dollar facility in 2017, and it hopes to make new Ballard a destination.
The small town in a big city will get bigger. It will change—but only to an extent. The future of Seattle is still emerging, but Ballard, at least, will enter that future with a proud, deep-rooted identity.