Archive for July, 2008

Ride Transit, Save $8,400

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

You might have read that Seattle transit users save an average of $8,400 annually compared to drivers. That’s according to a recent study that assumed transit users have one less car.

$8,400 is quite a figure! Is it true? Who knows, but the approach looks reasonable.

Better than clipping coupons

It’s good to think about this. We talk endlessly about housing costs and taxes, but personal transportation costs were hardly mentioned until gas hit $3. Even now, people aren’t necessarily connecting the dots: Transportation is a variable expense, and ditching the car (or using it less) can save you a bundle.

We often hear that 30 percent of income should be used to calculate housing affordabilty. But that assumes big transportation expenses. I’d argue that a combined figure for housing and transportation is a better metric. Perhaps a number like 45 percent is reasonable for both.

We Downtown residents often hear that we’re paying too much for housing. So we explain that many of us are actually pretty thrifty, all things considered. In fact, we often save far more than $8,400, because we ride in the free zone, or walk, rather than buying bus passes. We can even rent out our parking spaces.

That said, you don’t need to be in the center of town to make transit convenient. Any bus that goes past work probably goes past residential areas. Even if those areas cost a few hundred bucks more, maybe it’s worth it.

Now we just need more transit!

You’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Seattle’s Mithun has been picked to lead master planning for a 2.6 million square foot redevelopment of five blocks of Austin’s downtown. It’s the largest downtown redevelopment effort in the history of the Lone Star State’s capitol.

Rendering by Mithun
Mithun's view on Austin

The mixed-use development will include office, retail, two condo towers, another tower split between condo and hotel, an assisted living tower, parking, and public green spaces. It also includes 5,200 parking spaces.

The development will be built at the site of a decommissioned water treatment plant. It is near links to transit and a planned new central library.

The Austin City Council picked Trammell Crow, Austin developer Constructive Ventures, and San Antonio-based USAA Real Estate and Mithun to lead the development.

Developers will target LEED Gold certification. Green building plans so far include: solar thermal collectors, double skin membranes, solar screens, and green roofs on the buildings and a mix of energy efficiency and renewable power sources.

Update on: Who spiked our drink?

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008
Green Lake, still harmless

Update!: The P-I is now reporting that the spikes in Green Lake are indeed an innocent occurrence, apparently left over from a Eurasian milfoil eradication effort in the 1980s.

From July 25 SeattleScape: Seattle Parks just said in a press release that it is now hiring professional divers to sweep all of its nine beaches and two small craft centers.

The move comes after 41 additional spikes were found in Green Lake this morning by volunteer divers. The first 45 spikes were pulled out of the lake last week after a wader reported seeing one in the water.

Parks said it will keep all of the beaches and centers open while the sweeps are being scheduled.

Is there possibly an innocent explanation for this? If someone really wanted to hurt swimmers, wouldn’t Lake Washington have been a better choice? I guess we’ll find out.

It’s a Wonderful Store

Monday, July 28th, 2008

When it opened four years ago, the Phinney Market was like a dream come true. The neighborhood grocery / deli was operated by local owners with a vision of serving fresh food in a “third place” atmosphere. In addition to bread-and-butter and eclectic groceries, offerings grew to include casual dining on Friday evenings at community tables and other neighborly events like BBQs and beer tastings.

Open long hours, it became a crossroads for residents and visitors. Nearby zoo employees got special discounts. Fresh flower displays, free treats for dogs, what’s not to like? This is what neighborhood commercial is all about: Walk, don’t drive.

A lot of neighborhoods would give up their parking spaces for this.

So when the e-mail hit our inboxes a few weeks ago that the store was in trouble, a large crowd gathered at “the last supper” incredulous and wanting to Do Something! But what?

Can this market be saved?
Can this market be saved?

The owner offered mea culpas. Opening a second store had distracted him from Phinney Market. Things fell apart, the shelves were getting bare and the wolf was at the door. Capital was needed and the question floated: When do shoppers become investors, or should they?

According to popular statistics, most small businesses fail. Other businesses had come and gone from this location, a classic one-story commercial building anchoring a small commercial strip in a residential neighborhood. We had petitioned the city for a pedestrian overlay zone to protect just this kind of anchor.

“Should we do more to save this amenity?” is the question now facing the neighborhood. A diplomatic mission bought a stay of execution and financial concessions owing to the willingness of the landlord, also a long-time local resident.


Everybody Under the Sun?

Monday, July 28th, 2008

It was Memorial Day weekend, a few years ago. A warm day but not hot. Great time to visit the Space Needle observation deck. Of course the Center was packed with Folklifers that day. Looking at this mass of people from 520 feet taught a surprising lesson.

Seattle residents love sun, right? They’ll do anything to get more of it. We design our parks and buildings to capture as much of it as possible. All good? Well, to a point.

New amphitheatre proposed at Memorial Stadium

Almost directly below the Space Needle is the Mural Amphitheatre, one of the Center’s larger concert venues. At first glance that day, it looked 1/4 full. On second glance, the people were there, but they were packed around the shade trees on the perimeter. People were out in droves, but avoiding the sun.

What does that mean? Clearly, anecdotal evidence isn’t a mandate. Sunlight is important. But it’s an interesting window on what people, many of them, really prefer.

A new amphitheatre is being discussed for the Memorial Stadium site. Will this have lots of trees around the edges? Perhaps a nice shady grove or two? I hope so. People sit in amphitheatres for long periods. Heat and glare are just the start. Two hours can be bad-sunburn territory. Other walkways at the center should have trees as well.

And yes, let’s add more street trees. For those of us who take long walks and aren’t sun worshippers, nothing is worse than block after block in blazing sun. And few things are finer than the cooling effect and ambiance of a canopy of huge trees, or at least mid-sized ones.

Stalled projects mean eyesores for Seattle

Monday, July 28th, 2008

As the financial credit crisis puts the crunch on local redevelopment projects, an additional unpleasant consequence is the increasing number of vacant lots and vacant buildings, especially in Downtown Seattle and nearby neighborhoods.

Who knows how long these sites will remain vacant? In the interim, we’re stuck with illegal parking lots at best and eyesores at worst.

East Pine Street at Belmont
On a quick drive through Downtown the other day I spotted three illegal parking lots on stalled redevelopment sites. While some folks may enjoy the suddenly greater availability of low-cost surface parking, these impromptu parking lots fly in the face of the City’s vision for Downtown and often create a false “value added” that can perpetuate the parking use for years.

First, in many parts of Downtown, as well as other pedestrian-designated commercial zones, surface parking is NOT an allowed use by City code. Occasionally, temporary surface parking is permissible, but only with special approvals.

Second, even where allowed, surface parking obviously cannot simply be set up as dirt or gravel lots. They need to be paved, with adequate storm water drainage, as well as include landscaped buffers adjacent to the sidewalk, plus interior landscaping. If you’ve seen some of these impromptu lots around town you’ll notice that the cars abut or even hang over onto the sidewalk, with no buffer but for weeds and occasionally black tarp staked up a few inches, ostensibly to contain runoff.

Lastly, surface parking lots are a valuable commodity in certain parts of town. Look at the parking lot at the southeast corner of Second and Pine! It’s been there for generations – a missing tooth in the otherwise improving stretch between the retail core and Pike Place Market.

Second Avenue in Belltown

Suffice it to say, in some cases what may seem like a casual, impromptu use can last for years. And, if the parking lot is either not allowable in that location and/or lacks the appropriate buffering, drainage, landscaping, etc., it’s a real detriment to the streetscape and neighborhood.

And what about those other “eyesores?” Other locations where projects have been stalled simply sit fallow – vacant lots, vacant buildings, or even semi-demolished buildings. Overnight, of course, these become targets for graffiti, litter, vandalism and crime, or simply become weed-choked, litter-strewn lots. Think of the former Safeway site at 40th and Stone Way N, or the collection of buildings along Westlake Avenue that Carr America hopes to redevelop. The list goes on.

This issue may be a bit more complicated, but the question is: should the City consider a minimum-maintenance ordinance for such properties?


Welcome to the new SeattleScape!

Friday, July 25th, 2008

Seattle World's Fair drawing by Earle Duff
Thanks to all of you who have loyally read and commented on the SeattleScape blog for the past five months. We’ve had a lot of fun, so we’re stepping it up.

Six new SeattleScape bloggers are joining the conversation (Read more about them at right). They are architects, planners, neighborhood organizers and others obsessed with design and urban development in our fair city. Their voices will expand our discussion and I hope you will continue to join in.

Have topics, projects or ideas you want us to write about? Post your comments on our site, or email me at

Thanks for reading.

Who spiked our drink?

Friday, July 25th, 2008
Green Lake, in happer times
Seattle Parks just said in a press release that it is now hiring professional divers to sweep all of its nine beaches and two small craft centers.

The move comes after 41 additional spikes were found in Green Lake this morning by volunteer divers. The first 45 spikes were pulled out of the lake last week after a wader reported seeing one in the water.

Parks said it will keep all of the beaches and centers open while the sweeps are being scheduled.

Is there possibly an innocent explanation for this? If someone really wanted to hurt swimmers, wouldn’t Lake Washington have been a better choice? I guess we’ll find out.

You scratch my back. . .

Monday, July 21st, 2008

Transfers of Development Rights are not new. In 1916, New York City planners zoned the city and included a provision letting owners sell their building rights to neighboring lots. In the 1960s, they changed the law so lots didn’t have to be next to each other to TDR-swap.

Thanks for the development rights

In downtown Seattle, the owners of older, landmarked buildings get money for selling their development rights, and downtown developers buy those rights to build bigger on other sites.

King County also has a TDR program that lets developers in areas targeted for growth buy development rights from rural landowners. Vulcan took advantage of that program in 2005, purchasing 19 private TDRs to build 40,000 more square feet at Westlake/Terry. The county’s TDR program sunsets this month.

Now, the Seattle City Council is considering expanding Seattle’s program to other areas of the city. Proponents like former council aide Roger Valdez say other neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and First Hill are also seeing rapid growth and the TDR program will help the city hold on to some of the older buildings that might otherwise get razed.

The Seattle City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee could discuss the idea at its meeting at 9:30 a.m. this Wednesday.

The committee will also talk about raising allowed building heights in Interbay and South Downtown, and about extending the developer incentive program, where developers get to build higher if they build or pay for affordable units.

To market, to market

Monday, July 14th, 2008

There’s lots of good fodder for urban development nuts to digest in today’s news. A few selections, in case you missed them:

In a piece for Crosscut, former city council member, architect (and offspring of Pike Place Market advocate Victor

The Market's year?
Steinbrueck) Peter Steinbrueck sounds off on fixing townhouses. Steinbrueck’s take: disallow certain types of townhouses altogether and make the rest of the code more form and performance based, with more design flexibility. He also suggests the city’s design community create an attractive “townhouse model” developers can work from.

The Seattle P-I has a piece on a new campaign targeting grocery shoppers as a way to reduce miles driven in the city. Feet First is providing deeply discounted personal carts, for now only to people living within one-quarter mile of the Westwood QFC in hopes of getting shoppers out of their cars for grocery trips.

Speaking of markets, the Seattle City Council voted 8-0 to put a $73 million levy for Pike Place Market repairs and upgrades on the November ballot. Council is still in discussion on a $140 million levy for Seattle parks.