Rather than the usual mess of metal, Seattle’s Denny Substation is a work of architecture and a public space—with a controversial price tag.
When most people think of an electrical substation, they might imagine an ugly thicket of metal bars and wires, tucked in an out-of-the-way part of the city behind a chain-link fence. The new Denny Substation in Seattle, the city’s first new substation in more than 30 years, is meant to subvert these expectations.
Located between the Amazon-dominated South Lake Union neighborhood and Denny Triangle, the substation—which officially opened on July 20—will provide power to energy-hungry tech companies and local residents through a dedicated underground network. But it is also intended to serve as a community gathering spot. In addition to “stepping down” the high-voltage electricity coming from area power plants, the substation offers a walking path, a dog park, art installations, and indoor community rooms. Its designers hope that it will pave the way for a new generation of public-facing infrastructure.
“Typically, substations are on the periphery; they’re not a place where people congregate. You don’t see them—they’re either embedded or hidden,” said Jose Sama, the lead architect on the project with the firm NBBJ. “The situation around this station was unique, such that it required a different mindset.”
That situation stemmed not only from the central urban setting, but from a logistical problem. The initial plot of land that the utility, Seattle City Light, procured—a former Greyhound bus garage—wasn’t large enough for the facilities needed, so the utility had to buy another lot across Pontius Avenue. This necessitated taking over a public street to connect the two lots. In exchange, the city required the utility to integrate substantial public benefits into the substation design.
An eye-popping $210 million later, the Denny Substation is ready for its close-up. The walking path, dog park, and art installations are up and running, although the community rooms are yet to be put to use by a local nonprofit or city agency. The dog park is “completely occupied,” Sama said. “Nearby, we have a lot of Amazon buildings, and Amazon lets people bring their dogs to the workplace.” Facebook and Google also have offices nearby.
Sama, whose offices are across the street from the substation, said he met an elderly woman from a nearby retirement home who enjoys walking the quarter-mile path with her friends for exercise. They can get a lesson on the electricity grid at the same time: The path includes peep-holes into the substation and panels describing what happens inside.
The stainless-steel cladding is designed to reflect, quite literally, the surrounding neighborhood. “When it’s cloudy … the metal panels almost blend into the sky,” Sama said. “When it’s clear, you get more of a brilliance.”
Kathryn Firth, director of urban design at NBBJ, calls the substation an important “civic gesture” in an era when large-scale infrastructure is seldom thought of as such. “It’s not pretending it’s not there. I think there’s sometimes an attitude in cities that if we just make [infrastructure] into a dumb box, no one will notice it.”
Perhaps the most noticeable element of the substation is a 110-foot metal structure called “Transforest,” designed to look like a cross between an old-growth pine tree and an electrical transformer. The tallest work of public art in Seattle, “Transforest” was created by Lead Pencil Studio, an art collective that bases its works on the social and historic contexts of urban space.
Inevitably, the elaborate project is not without its critics. The substation ran $100 million over initial cost projections, or about 89 percent*. Initially designed to accommodate a 24-hour Amazon data center and a major rezoning of South Lake Union that were both cancelled, it comes online at a time when power consumption is actually decreasing, according to the Seattle Times. Meanwhile, Seattle City Light expects to raise the monthly power bill of the average customer $20 by 2024, $2 of which would go toward paying for the substation.
“This is why the rates go up,” a past member of a citizen-review panel told the Times. “Maybe it should have been a normal substation.”
Seattle City Light officials counter that the substation will relieve the strain on the city’s aging power infrastructure and allow for future growth in demand. And with its multiple, layered functions and sleek appearance, maybe it will help change the conversation about the role of heavy-duty infrastructure in cities, its architects say.
“These are places we have to look at, for one thing, but they’re also about the inner workings of our cities, and we should be celebrating that,” says Firth. “These structures could be so much more in our cities.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story used an inaccurate percentage figure.