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The Remarkably Good Urban Design of UW’s New Dorms

In the past decade the University of Washington has undertaken a major building campaign to replace aging dormitories on the west side of campus, building seven new dorms around Campus Parkway and 12th Avenue. These buildings have positively contributed to the urban environment of the neighborhood in several ways: they have increased the residential capacity of west campus from 3,000 to 5,000 beds, improved the quality of public and private open spaces, and provided a blueprint for sustainable, compact urban form.

UW West Campus

The new dorms were principally designed by two firms, Mahlum and Mithun but many characteristics are shared by the whole group. They are 6-7 stories tall, use linear forms to create well-defined streetscapes and courtyards, and include ground-level spaces for retail and student support services. Surface parking lots have been removed or replaced by underground lots, improving the quality of the open areas and the capacity of the built areas. They all generally have a classy, restrained use of materials that is neither distracting nor off-putting.

Mercer Court

These project address concerns about the poor quality of the urban grain of many new developments expressed by Liz Dunn and which have caused significant backlash against new development in Seattle. Although these dorms each have a fairly large footprint, their design works to increase the density of unique places within each building and between the buildings. They do this by differentiating parts of the buildings and open spaces based on their use, relationship to surrounding elements and grade changes of the sites.

Because they have nearly doubled the housing capacity of west campus these projects also address Glaeser’s concern about housing scarcity, although it is pretty likely that he would heave preferred that these buildings be taller. Most of the new dorms rise to the maximum 65 feet allowed in the zoning, however Poplar Hall, Elm Hall, and the Cedar Apartments north of Campus Parkway are zoned for 105 foot height limits, meaning that for some reason the university chose not to built to the maximum allowed height.

The high-quality urban design of these projects encourages students to walk and socialize outside, with positive health and social outcomes for the community. It also encourages active transportation and use of transit. More broadly, the new dorms epitomize the ideal of compact urban growth, with lively social activity, efficient transportation and building, and dense but livable neighborhoods.

The university’s ability to realize such a vision is probably the result of its unique situation with large financial and land resources and influence at city hall, a fact that may urge caution against using the west campus expansion as a model for the rest of the city to follow. Still, as noted in chapter 1 of The Carbon Efficient City, universities are excellent testing grounds for sustainable practices, and the bifurcation of capital and operational funding streams gives these institutions a strong interest in investing in high-quality buildings that will save money in energy and transportation costs over time. Hopefully the experience gained by the builders, designers and residents of these projects will shape understandings of what good urban form looks like how to achieve it over a greater part of our city in the future.

12th Avenue plaza between Terry (pictured) and Maple Hall

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