The full version of this story is available at Sightline.
Seattle’s Interbay industrial district is a landscape dominated by warehouses, small manufacturing plants, and parking lots, with hardly a sidewalk to be found. Unlike other former manufacturing districts in Cascadia’s first city, like Amazon-occupied South Lake Union, Interbay has very few buildings that would qualify as “mixed-use,” and that’s by design; for decades, the district, like Seattle’s other industrial areas, has been “preserved” by zoning that prohibits most non-industrial uses, including office space, large retail stores, and housing.
In recent years, though, the city’s housing shortage has led developers to take a new look at the city’s previously sacrosanct industrial areas and ask: Why couldn’t people live here? Jeff Thompson, president of the Freehold Group, owns several properties in the area. A couple of years ago, he did some back-of-the-envelope math and discovered that by taking just five percent of the city’s vacant industrial land—about 28 acres—and rezoning it to allow six-story buildings, the city could accommodate 6,800 new apartments, without touching Seattle’s famously development-averse single-family neighborhoods. It’s a possibility relevant not only in Seattle but across Cascadia and beyond, everywhere housing shortages are escalating rents and pinching off opportunity for urbanites.
“Most of our industrial areas are derelict—full of potholes, with streets that were never meant to be places for people,” Thompson says.
Developers could improve those areas, adding sidewalks and paving crumbling streets themselves at a lower cost (and a lower lifespan) than expensive, heavy-duty reinforced concrete pavement typically found in industrial areas. In exchange, they would be allowed to build housing for some of the thousands of people who continue to pour in to Seattle every year—more than 100,000 of them between 2010 and 2017 alone.
Yes, those new residents might find themselves living next to warehouses where trucks go in and out day and night. Yes, they may have to get used to the sound of railroad traffic. But how is that different, Thompson asks, than living in the middle of any big city?
“You can go to Brooklyn or Chicago and find an apartment next to an elevated rail line,” Thompson says. “Is it inhumane of us to provide housing like that?”
Like Seattle’s evolution from sleepy outpost to big city, the definition of “industrial” has been quietly changing for at least the past several decades. Instead of factories spewing toxic fumes and “enormous vats of splashing and spluttering metal,” Thompson says, the term now encompasses firms that make software that enables customers to make their own robots at home, or labs where food production companies test new products. Or companies like Interbay’s Thermetrics, which makes mannequins that measure how fast an air conditioner cools down a car, or how effectively a sleeping bag retains a person’s body heat.
The idea that people might choose to live in an industrial area is no longer revolutionary. At the TAXI development in Denver’s River North industrial area, a company that manufactures boots for snowboards sits cheek to jowl with an outpost of the international advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi. The firm is just downstairs from 48 units of housing, which overlook a pool built from recycled shipping containers that offers a view of an active railroad line. Also on site: Business incubators, a pot shop, design and architecture studios, and several software firms. Several nearby developments follow a similar mixed industrial-housing model, and developers have proposed hundreds of units of affordable housing as part of a future project in the area.
The success of the TAXI project, Thompson says, proves that industrial areas are compatible with housing. “It’s an industrial area, and it is a popular, cool place to be,” Thompson says. “People may say, ‘No one will want to live [in an industrial area]—well, they do want to live there.”
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