Go fish! Google and Facebook sites in Seattle will rank among world’s most salmon-friendly buildings


One needn’t be a card-carrying environmentalist to know that it’s a bad thing for salmon to go belly up before spawning their eggs. But that’s just what’s happeningto many fish returning to some of the urban streams in Puget Sound.

Toxic chemicals are flushed with rainwater runoff from city roads, parking lots and rooftops directly into streams and creeks. The chemicals are poisoning coho salmon that return to have babies. Multiple local salmon runs are at risk of extinction.

And as Seattle continues its epic building boom, there’s a risk that things could get worse for fish and other native creatures as the number of roofs, cars and people increase.

Vulcan Real Estate, one of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s companies, is trying instead to use the development as an opportunity to make the built environment more fish friendly and undo some of the damage caused by past construction. The company is pursuing projects that will clean the polluted runoff and reduce the surge of water unleashed with rainstorms. That includes developments in South Lake Union that will be leased by Facebook and Google.

“Our only salvation — as we increase in population and everything that goes with it — our only salvation is that we do it better than they did in the past,” said Rich Horner, a leading storm water expert who advises Salmon-Safe, a nonprofit that promotes land use that protects fish.

Earlier this year, Vulcan became the world’s first accredited Salmon-Safe developer— a designation akin to LEED certification for green construction, but with a specific focus on fish and storm water runoff. The contractors working with Vulcan must likewise be Salmon-Safe accredited.

Dan Kent, Salmon-Safe’s co-founder and executive director, and Lori Mason Curran, Vulcan’s investment strategy director, pose with Sal the salmon at a tour this month of Vulcan’s Salmon-Safe projects. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

The company has started or completed 11 Salmon-Safe projects with five more “on the horizon,” said Lori Mason Curran, Vulcan’s investment strategy director. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, has focused some of his philanthropic work on marine and ocean health, including Puget Sound.

“Salmon have long been the lifeblood of our region,” Mason Curran said during a recent tour of Vulcan properties. “Nothing so drastically threatens salmon as urbanization.”

In a natural environment, when the rain falls most of it soaks into the ground or is captured by plant and tree vegetation. In urban settings, the rain hits roads, roofs and lawns or other less-absorbent landscaping. The water streams off these surfaces, picking up pesticides, oil and grease leaked by cars, dog poop and other pollutants. Much of the water flows untreated, straight into streams, lakes and sea water. The volume of storm water also causes problems, as the fast-moving water erodes and damages streams.

Green development tries to reduce this harm. Rain gardens help water soak into the ground where it falls. Green roofs catch and absorb water. Sustainable projects are also starting to “harvest” the rain water, collecting it in tanks for irrigation or even to flush toilets.

The Salmon-Safe buildings that will be occupied by Facebook are located at 8th Avenue North between Harrison and Thomas streets. The two six-story buildings will be topped with green roofs, one measuring 12,000 square feet, the other 11,000. While green roof plantings historically featured rugged, drought-tolerant sedums, the new roofs will have more diverse vegetation providing better habitat for birds and bugs.

At ground level, the so-called Arbor Blocks site will implement “woonerf” design, a Dutch approach to construction. It will include a winding street to slow traffic, large plantings that will help treat storm water runoff, outdoor public seating and retail space.

“This beautiful new meandering street will come into effect,” said Ellen Southard, outreach lead for Salmon-Safe. “It’s a great place for creation of habitat in an urban neighborhood.”

The project totals 384,000 square feet and is expected to be completed later next year.

The Vulcan buildings to be occupied by Facebook will include “woonerf” designs that incorporate street-side plantings, outdoor seating and a winding roadway. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Vulcan’s South Lake Union project that will be leased by Google is awaiting Salmon-Safe certification. It will span two blocks, including about 600,000 square feet of office space and a residential tower on each block. Work began in May 2017 and should be complete in 2019.

Other Salmon-Safe projects by Vulcan include Sitka, a 384-unit apartment also in South Lake Union, and a multifamily project called Batik, in the Yesler Terrace area.

Southard called Salmon-Safe’s partnership with Vulcan, which began more than four years ago, “a major tipping point in the success of our program.”

Horner, an emeritus research associate professor with the University of Washington, has for decades studied and preached the importance of controlling urban storm water. He’s pleased at last to see the idea catching on with developers and contractors.

“You keep yakking at them,” he said, “and they begin to see some advantage.”