University Street was established as part of the Plat of an Addition to the Town of Seattle as Laid Out by A.A. Denny on November 16, 1861. It was named for the Territorial University of Washington, which had opened 12 days earlier on a 10-acre site atop “Denny’s Knoll.”
Even though the University of Washington moved to its current location on Portage and Union Bays in 1895, the name was not changed. Nor did the university relinquish the land, though not for lack of trying. This turns out to have been fortunate. The UW owns the Metropolitan Tract to this day, and it earned $25 million in rent on the property during fiscal year 2020 alone.
The street, which originally ran from Front Street (now 1st Avenue) to the university campus, just northeast of 3rd Avenue, today begins at Alaskan Way on the Elliott Bay waterfront, and makes it just one block, to Western Avenue, before it becomes the Harbor Steps. From 1st Avenue, it’s about a third of a mile to 7th Avenue, where University Street is blocked by Interstate 5. It resumes at 9th Avenue and goes for another third of a mile to Boylston Avenue.
Incidentally, you’ll notice in the map above that 4th and 5th Avenues between Seneca and Union Streets, as well as University Street between 4th and 5th Avenues, plus half a block on either end, are marked private way subject to public use — long term grant of use for street purposes. This fact — that the University of Washington still owns all the land within the Metropolitan Tract and never formally dedicated those streets to the public — was something I never knew until I started taking close looks at King County’s quarter section maps as part of my local history research. It might seem an academic distinction, but as The Seattle Times reported in 2015, there are very real financial consequences.
In 2008… the UW wanted the city to interpret the tract as one undivided lot, streets and all. That novel argument would benefit the UW in calculating the development footprint, or base.… The bigger the base, the logic went, the more square footage a developer could build before triggering affordable-housing fees under the city’s formula.… The university held a heavy hammer in negotiations. Because the UW owned development rights for the land under Fifth Avenue and University Street, it could make the city compensate it, one way or another, for using those streets.
Born and raised in Seattle, Benjamin Donguk Lukoff had his interest in local history kindled at the age of six, when his father bought him settler granddaughter Sophie Frye Bass’s Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle at the gift shop of the Museum of History and Industry. He studied English, Russian, and linguistics at the University of Washington, and went on to earn his master’s in English linguistics from University College London. His book of rephotography, Seattle Then and Now, was published in 2010. An updated version came out in 2015.