The hunk of rectilinearity in the photo above is the nearly completed Joule Apartments, one of the last large mixed-use residential projects to come down the pipeline of Seattle's real-estate development boom. End of an era?
Covering an entire city block near the north end of Broadway on Capitol Hill, the $104 million project will include 295 apartments, 29,000 square feet of retail, and a whopping 370 underground parking stalls. As of May 5, the project was 46 percent leased. which is impressive, given the state of the market.
Back when the project was in the proposal stage, I wrote that it was yet another example of Seattle's uninspired multifamily architecture. But seeing it in the flesh, I found myself having a surprisingly positive reaction. Sure, it isn't art, but at least it's relatively uncluttered and simple. And the street wall it forms along Broadway is great urban mojo.
Like the Broadway Building several blocks to the south, Joule is an urban workhorse, supplying the uses and density the neighborhood needs, so I'm inclined to cut it some slack on its lack of high design.
A more legitimate criticism is how the project's massive scale makes for a sterile, monotonous city block, both visually and economically. Indeed, I expect that this project will end up being a poster child of soulless mega-development. The building presents close to a quarter-mile length of facade to the neighborhood, a space over which pretty much any design aesthetic or materials palette is going to end up feeling monotonous.
Perhaps an even bigger drawback, from the perspective of neighborhood vitality and the experience on the street, is that the retail tenants are likely to be as monotonous as the building. A healthy diversity of businesses requires a diversity of commerical space, including cost, age, style, condition, and layout—exactly the opposite of what you see here:
One way to mitigate at least the visual oppressiveness of a block-long building is to create a mid-block break, which this project does have, as shown in the photo above. Unfortunately, the pass-through is not open to the public.
The fact is, there is no simple prescription for designing large developments that create the organic, lived-in, built-over-time feel characteristic of the world's best cities. The chief obstacle is economy of scale---the bigger and more uniform, the cheaper to construct.
Intentionally designing a large building to look like several unique, smaller buildings is one option, but people aren't so easily fooled by pretend architecture. Doing it well would require extraordinary design sensitivity, and would almost certainly add to the cost.
But here's a question: Given the new economic paradigm we seem to have entered, might all this be a moot point? That is, will the lack of capital persist, such that capital intensive mega-developments like Joule will be increasingly rare endeavors? Or is this downturn just a blip---albeit deeper than usual---before we return to business as usual?
In his keynote address to the Living Future conference last week, James Howard Kunstler argued that an economic system that is based on increasing debt requires increasing inputs of energy to maintain itself, and as energy costs rise, eventually that system will break. And then capital dries up. The one thing we do know for sure is that the price of a joule is destined to keep rising.
Human-scale, incremental urban development has been the norm until the last 100 years or so, and has proved to be a successful model for producing places that people love. Perhaps one positive consequence of our economic strife will be that we'll start building that way again.