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A Look at the Past and Present of Denny Triangle in Seattle, An Area That Continues to Evolve

Seattle, Amazon, Historic Preservation Program Department of Neighborhoods, ZGF Architects, Vulcan Inc, Mortenson Construction
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

By Jack Stubbs

At a time when all of Seattle’s neighborhoods are experiencing sustained periods of growth—driven in large part by the presence and expansion of technology companies like Amazon and Facebook, among others, looking to take up commercial space in the downtown core—it can be easy to forget the significant histories underpinning these continually transforming areas of the city.

Seattle’s Denny Triangle neighborhood, located to the south of Lake Union and east of Belltown, is one such area of the city that has changed significantly over the last few years. And while Denny Triangle has in recent years been shaped by significant commercial developments coming online—for example, the area is home to the Touchstone-developed Tilt49, a massive 11-story, 307,000 square foot office mid-rise entirely leased to Amazon—the area has only been recognized as its own distinct neighborhood in the city since the early 1990s.

Denny Triangle has had a long and protracted evolution over the last couple of decades. According to a Historic Survey and Inventory of Denny Triangle, which was prepared by the city for the Historic Preservation Program Department of Neighborhoods in June 2006, the term ‘Denny Triangle’ only appeared in development planning discussions and studies in the 1990s. Originally, the neighborhood—which is now synonymous with the continually-expanding footprint of tech giants —lacked definitive boundaries: the term ‘Denny Triangle’ was initially thought of as a left-over space that was set between a series of better-known neighborhoods, such as South Lake Union to the north and the city’s downtown core to the south.

Even in the current day, there is no definitive consensus about Denny Triangle’s formal borders, although the Seattle City Clerk’s Neighborhood Map Atlas defines Denny Triangle as bounded on the north by Denny Way, on the southwest by Third Avenue and on the southeast by Olive Way.

According to the 2006 context statement, the evolution of the area was very much informed by its geographical characteristics: before the completion of Interstate-5 in the 1960s, the area’s topography and history were very much tied to that of present-day Capitol Hill. However, over the last few decades, the geographical and physical characteristics of Denny Triangle have evolved as a result first of various natural phenomena and geological formations, and then due to a variety of construction and major engineering feats. Even as far back as the late 19th century, the physical changes were shaping the area: from 1898 to the 1930s, Denny Hill, one of Seattle’s many hills at the time, was viewed as a hindrance to transportation and to the development of Seattle as an established commercial center. As part of this fact, Denny Hill was leveled and many of the area’s major streets—like Pike and Pine Streets and Denny Way—were “regraded” to make way for new commercial developments.

Given the significant physical changes that defined the evolution of the neighborhood, perhaps it is of little surprise that more contemporary developments look to capitalize on the physical characteristics of the neighborhood. New commercial and residential developments continue to come online in Denny Triangle, and the exterior materiality of buildings is increasingly programmed as a way to reflect the neighborhood of which they are a part. AMLI Arc, a 41-story, 393-unit residential tower that opened in Denny Triangle in 2017, is one such project that is meant to reflect the evolving neighborhood around it. “The building’s [industrial] design kind of feels like the natural progression of [Denny Triangle] but still retains some of the grit and continuity of the neighborhood, too,” said Camilla Watson, interior designer at ZGF, who helped design the building.

More recently, over the last several years, downtown Seattle, and Denny Triangle with it, has been evolving as the proximity to occupational opportunities and quality of life increasingly contributes to the growth in the neighborhood, according to Lori Mason Curran, director of real estate investment strategy at Vulcan Inc. “In recent years, downtown Seattle has increasingly appealed to folks as a great place to live. The proximity of housing to well-paying jobs contributes to a quality of life that comes from not spending hours commuting by car and having services, amenities and cultural activities all within walking distance of home,” she said.

And while areas like Denny Triangle are advantageous in the current era because of their connectivity and proximity to amenities, the area has experienced significant change over the last few years, according to Kyle Paulsen, project manager at Mortenson Construction, who was on the project team for AMLI. “One of the first things to notice is that the Denny Triangle has really changed over the last 4 to 5 years. Previously, it had a more industrial feel with a lot of surface lots and low-rise buildings. Throughout the last four years, projects like Tilt49, Hill7 and Kinect have really evolved the whole area, [and] Denny Triangle has gone from an industrial feel to almost more of a tech-living community,” he said.

And while the addition of various high rises over the last several years means that Denny Triangle has evolved significantly due to these projects, this trend—from industrial towards residential development—was perhaps longer in the works, historically, as well. According to the city’s 2006 Context Statement, in the early 1910s, Seattle’s growth—in particular the area represented by Denny Triangle—was reflected in the addition of a variety of different buildings including family dwellings, apartment buildings and hotels to the original mix of single-family homes, churches and industrial buildings.

In the current era, developments like AMLI Arc hope to capitalize on the significant presence of tech in the neighborhood. The project is just half a mile from Amazon’s Spheres and is also less than a mile from the 58-story Rainier Square Tower—sitting at 1301 5th Ave.—that is under construction and developed by Wright Runstad. Adjacent to AMLI Arc is Tilt49, an 11-story, 307,000 square foot office mid-rise, which is leased to the tech company. Across from Tilt49 is Hill7, an 11-story office building (comprising 420,000 square feet of office space) that is attached to an adjacent 14-story, 222-room Hilton Garden Inn hotel. Construction on both projects—which were developed by Touchstone—began in 2013.

According to Kristin Jensen, vice president of development at Touchstone, both projects were initially conceptualized with the goal of taking advantage of the ideal location that Denny Triangle occupies. “Hill7 was the first project to break ground for this cycle and we started Tilt49 immediately following. The office attributes include proximity to the freeway, South Lake Union and the central business district,” she said. “We planned both Hill7 and Tilt49 together so that we could create a better corridor for the heavy pedestrian traffic that flows between Capitol Hill and South Lake Union along Boren Avenue.

This view of Denny Triangle as a hub that connects South Lake Union with downtown is one that has been prominent for several decades. According to the 2006 Context Statement, transportation lines from South Lake Union and the adjacent Cascade neighborhood to downtown Seattle and the waterfront often ran through Denny Triangle. By the early 1880s, the Seattle Street Railway Company ran various lines from South Lake Union to downtown along the current-day Westlake Ave.

Similarly as with the residential AMLI Arc building, the evolution of Tilt49 and Hill7 mapped onto changes occurring in Denny Triangle over the last several years, according to Jensen. “When we started these projects, we referred to Denny Triangle as an emerging neighborhood—but now it is blossoming! With the opening of AMLI Arc and several other residential towers currently under construction, the resident population is growing, which makes the neighborhood richer, safer and more inviting for all.” Jensen thinks that as growth continues to occur in the area the creation of retail and restaurant amenities will likely follow. “As this growth happens, more restaurant and retail amenities will fill in. But in the meantime, residents and workers enjoy the close proximity to restaurants on Capitol Hill as well as the short walk to the shopping district,” she said.

And the current growth occurring in Denny Triangle—driven by the increasing influence of retail, residential and commercial properties—has its original roots in a zoning ordinance passed in the early 20th century. Since 1912, there had been building regulations that stipulated the height limits for the three basic building construction types, according to the 2006 Context Statement, but there had never been regulations around building uses.

In July 1923, the city passed its first zoning ordinance, which established six zones or “use districts:” the first and second residence districts, the business district, the commercial district, the manufacturing district and the industrial district. Denny Triangle was located in the commercial district, which allowed for a greater variety of uses, more than in downtown, including apartment buildings, stores, offices, banks, restaurants and service stations, as well as a variety of trade and industry uses.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, Denny Triangle remained an area in transition due to various notable developments: in 1980, Martin Selig Real Estate developed Metropolitan Park I at 1701 Minor Ave. next to the former Smith Ford Gandy repair garage. The 11-story Metropolitan Park North building was completed more recently in 2000.

Given the fact that, historically, Denny Triangle was zoned for the development of multiple building types, it is perhaps no surprise that the prevalence of mixed-use projects continues into the modern era.

There are a number of projects under construction in the works indicating that developers and designers very much view Denny Triangle as the place to be: McKenzie, a new 40-story luxury residential tower located at 2202 8th Ave. (developed by Clise Properties and designed by Graphite Design Group), is set to bring 450 units to Denny Triangle in summer 2018. Vulcan Inc. has a project in the works in Denny Triangle (which was seen by the downtown review board on April 3rd): the company is developing 5th and Lenora, a 44-story, 463-unit undertaking that will also include 3,300 square feet of street-level commercial space. On May 1st, a two-tower project (designed by Gensler and developed by Onelin Investment Inc.) located at 1916 Boren Ave.—which will include between 400 and 500 residential units and between 250 and 280 hotel rooms—was approved by the downtown review board.

And while the city’s planners and design review board clearly views Denny Triangle as a conducive area for new development—given the large-scale recently-approved projects—the area has long been recognized as a sector of the city that was ripe for change, according to the 2006 context statement. By the late 1990s, a number of planning efforts in and around downtown Seattle were initiated by city planners and community members. Denny Triangle was described as a future location for downtown core expansion in the 1985 Downtown Plan and the Denny Triangle Neighborhood Association was founded sometime around 1995.

With the multitude of residential and commercial projects in the pipeline currently, it seems that Denny Triangle has a busy future ahead—and there will likely be more changes in the meantime. Just as Seattle has grown and evolved considerably over the last few years in particular as mixed-use development continues to occur citywide, so too are the neighborhoods that comprise it. The case study of Denny Triangle—which historically underwent changes due to zoning, geographical and regulatory changes and currently is a hotbed of development activity—represents an intersection between the old and the new.

And as Denny Triangle continues to grow, the expectation is that the area will continue to evolve at an even quicker rate, according to Corinne Kerr, architect at ZGF who designed AMLI Arc. “When we first interviewed for this project [in 2014], the Denny Regrade was not a bustling neighborhood. [But] these projects take a long time to come to fruition. Now, the building is occupied, it’s clear that the neighborhood has changed a lot.”