Archive for September, 2008

Our house

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

About 65 percent of Seattle is zoned for single family housing. Is that too much or just right?

In Chicago and DC, all of my friends lived in apartments or condos. In Portland, they all live in standalone houses, even the renters, though some have lots of roommates. In Seattle, it’s a real mix, with townhouses, rowhouses and duplexes increasingly entering the picture.

Does our Single Family majority keep prices high? Are we ill-equipped for all this growth people keep predicting? Does Seattle have too much single family land?

I asked two SeattleScape bloggers to take on the debate. Their pieces ran in today’s DJC and can be read here without a subscription.

Irene Wall argues that Single Family housing is Seattle’s Golden Goose and we’re doing great on density already. Roger Valdez, a new blogger at SeattleScape, makes the case that preserving all that land for standalone homes hurts the working class.

What do you think? Is Seattle’s house in order? HugeAss City weighs in here.

In case you blinked and missed it

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

September has been a busy month for Seattle land use. Here’s your primer on what’s going down and what’s going up.

South Lake Union looks up: The Department of Planning and Development released three up-zoning alternatives for South Lake Union. These are being studied in advance of the rezone there.

Inside the beehive

In one, residential towers could reach to 30 and 40 stories in most of the neighborhood. In another, most blocks would be up-zoned to 240 feet for both commercial and residential buildings. That’s about the height of 2200 Westlake.

In a third vision, commercial height increases would be minimal, with residential towers allowed to be 160 feet and 240 feet outside the Cascade blocks.

Most blocks in South Lake Union are now zoned at 65 to 85 feet.

Private improvements for Magnuson: Full council gave the nod to private renovation and leasing of two buildings at the Warren G. Magnuson Park at Sand Point.

Building 11 will get $8.5 million for environmental cleanup, seismic upgrades and fire protection. Building 11 LLC would pay $235,000 in annual rent to the city under a 30-year lease.

Arena Sports will invest more than $5.5 million in Hangar 27 for improvements and seismic upgrades. Arena Sports will pay $225,000 in annual rent under a 20-year lease.

Fort Lawton gets Green Light: A plan to turn the formal army reserve center into housing is headed to federal officials for approval. Council said OK to the semi-finalized proposal to build up to 79 single-family houses, 150 apartments and townhouses, and two new neighborhood parks on the 31-acre site.

The project could cost between $60 million and $80 million and is heavy on low-income housing, including three duplexes for Habitat for Humanity and 85 other low-income units.

McMansions reigned in: Full council is scheduled to vote Oct. 6 on design changes for single family zones aimed at curbing McMansions. Heights, lot coverage and garages would all see changes.

Looking ahead: Council’s transportation committee could voice its support for a streetcar network Monday morning, Mayor Greg Nickels gives his budget address Monday at 2 p.m. and a hearing on making the downtown developer bonus citywide is scheduled for Oct. 7 at 5:30 p.m.

Council will also vote on comp plan amendments, set the budget, likely rule on citywide incentive zoning and more well before the star is up on the old Bon Marche building.

Maybe you can rest your eyes in January. . .

Park(ing) Day makes impression

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

National Park(ing) Day was Friday, and it was quite an effective spectacle. A parking space at First and Spring became a lawn, one of hundreds set up and staffed by volunteers around Seattle and the US.

The park was the first open lawn anywhere near First and Spring in decades.

As the meter ran out, First Avenue lost its park

Perimeter districts around Downtown Seattle are improving quickly park-wise due to a lot of hard work, generally northward, with the Olympic Sculpture Park, South Lake Union Park (phase II coming!), Cal Anderson Park, the new pocket park at Queen Anne & Roy, and the refurbished Cascade Playground – all great additions. Also exciting are the proposed pocket park at 8th & Westlake and the proposed skybridge that will “add” Myrtle Edwards Park for Lower Queen Anne residents. But what about Downtown Proper…the area with the most people?

A little would go a long way. A quarter block is enough room for a big fountain, some trees, and a couple patches of grass, fertilizer-free of course. It’s easy to imagine a spectacular design, whether traditional or avant garde. The park would stay active all day by encouraging pedestrians to pass through and by being both interesting and pleasant. The City’s promising new Park Ranger program would help keep it friendly.

Two parks of this size would be even better. Or three, since I’m dreaming, including one in Belltown.

The elephant in the room is our fear of drunks, panhandlers and noisy teenagers. Forget that much of our fear is unfounded; perception might as well be reality if it keeps you from using a park. But parks don’t create drunks. If a few of our parks seem overrun, it’s because we don’t have much public space, so the drunks seem concentrated. To continue this non-pc thought, adding more public space would reduce the concentration.

With that, plus more parks nearby, perhaps a lot of us would use parks more. Maybe we’d regain a lost aspect of our culture.

Downtown’s growing mixture of uses would be a boost. A growing residential population, lots of shoppers, rising tourism, a huge office population, and scattered event crowds are combining to keep parts of Downtown active all day and, in some areas, all evening. The best park locations would be places that serve several of these groups.

Wow, another topic that’s far too complex for a blog post. More later.

Why refuse the 2030 challenge?

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Several Seattle architects sitting on a ULI panel last week said their firms had decided not to take The 2030 challenge. But it’s not who you think, and their reasons might surprise you.

"Enviro Tower" by Eco-Logikal

Sandy Mendler, now a principal at Mithun, said Mithun isn’t taking the challenge because it doesn’t fit with the firm’s goals of improving urbanism and working toward less sprawl. She said meeting carbon targets on large standalone buildings is not the way to go. An environmental challenge should focus more on what really happens in urban buildings, she said.

Robert Miller, a principal at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, said his firm also hadn’t taken the challenge. His problem was with the commitment to meeting the challenge on all new buildings. He said the wording should be changed to commit a firm to meeting the challenge “on average,” throughout all of its work.

Chris Pardo of Pb Elemental said his firm also hasn’t taken the challenge. He said on the projects that Pb designs and develops, they are choosing to design to standards of the challenge because “we believe it’s something we should be doing no matter what.”

Peter Greaves of Weber Thompson and Margaret Montgomery of NBBJ also sat on the panel. Both said their firms have taken the challenge.

“It’s not achievable if we don’t try,” Montgomery said.

I’ll talk more about comments made by the panel in a story running on Wednesday’s A/E page.

The way we live

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

The New York Times had an interesting story this week on the promise of modern pre-fab.

Reviewing MOMA’s “Home Delivery” exhibition, Allison Arief laments that the show lauds designs that are never actually built, ignoring those designers who bring pre-fab fantasies to life (see some local examples here, here, here and here.)

A pre-fab apartment might not look as appealing behind glass as Archigram’s living pods or Instant City airships, but people actually rest their heads there at night.

Archigram's Instant City Airships, c. 1969

Speaking of the way we live, the Oregonian reported Tuesday on Portlanders tearing up their lawns for gardens. The article cites a chain-reaction that occurs where one lawn goes garden and neighbors break out spades to follow suit.

The article asks the question: Do we keep our lawns just to keep up appearances? In Seattle, a lot of us let grass go brown in summer. But when one lawn goes gleaming green, neighbors quickly follow suit with sprinkler and fertilizer.

(The article also said lawn mower fumes make up one-third of greenhouse gas emissions in certain urban areas, though the source was not clear. Yikes!)

With people growing gardens street-side, going green on top isn’t much of a stretch. The Portland Tribune reports on the Rose City’s coming green roof grants.

How do we live in the Northwest? How should we live?

If you find yourself spending too much time ruminating on these questions, consider attending the coming Design for Livability Conference, Thursday’s Envisioning the Future of Architecture, or touring Friday’s local Park(ing) Day sites. In addition to the parking spots listed there, AIA Seattle and Site Workshop are transforming a spot in front of AIA Seattle at 1911 First Ave., and Owen Richards Architects and HyBrid Architects are rethinking a spot in front of their shared office at 12th and East Pike in First Hill.

Still thirsty? Check out my colleague, Katie Zemtseff’s blog for more upcoming events.

Don’t fence me in

Friday, September 12th, 2008
Ann Sperry deisgned this fence for a Seattle City Light station
A fence, like a garage or front door, has a fairly utilitarian purpose in design.

But it can be much more with the right designer.

We’ve all seen fences that elevated a project and fences that cut the project off from the world.

This fence at High Point tells a story

Seattle’s recent design changes for multifamily projects include changes for fence heights and discussion of where they are appropriate.

Chicken-wire, white-washed picket or something else entirely, check out this blog on wacky fence design and get inspired.

Some love for midrises

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

A recent study determined that at least 220 midrises have been built in the 2,000-acre Greater Downtown area in the last 20 years, including those now underway. That’s in the CBD plus fringe districts like Lower Queen Anne, around Seattle U, etc.

OK, it was an obscure and imprecise study. Basically yours truly counting new buildings between 3-9 stories off the top of my head. I’ve been trying to invent a reason to write about this, and not coming up with one. So … quite a lot of midrises, eh?

One of 220: Cabrini First Hill Apartments

Well …. yeah. 220 really is a lot. Greater Downtown has changed dramatically in that time, and midrises have been a major reason, perhaps as much so as the 76(?) taller buildings built in the same period.

You can argue about architecture, or zoning, or what got torn down. But there’s no question that the edges of Downtown have gotten a lot more populated, with midrises bringing thousands of hotel rooms, millions of square feet of offices and labs, thousands of housing units, nice college buildings and a lot more retail. Far more people now live the sort of walkable, sustainable lifestyles many of us encourage.

Housing affordability should benefit long-term. First, midrises tend to be a bit cheaper to build than taller buildings. Second, look at today’s low-moderate-price housing: it’s generally the market-rate housing of past decades, whether the 70s or 20s. Because buildings tend to move downmarket over the years, buildings from the 80s should be following their 70s brethren.

Of course, the biggest requirement for affordability is keeping supply ahead of demand, and Seattle’s influx of midrises is a big reason why we have avoided San Francisco-type prices. (And kudos to our array of non-profits, who both house the poor and improve neighborhoods.)

Same story with retail. New buildings tend to be populated by established retailers and chains, because of lease rates and other requirements. But as long as there’s more retail space than the big guys want, there will always be cheaper spaces for the funky local stores, primarily in older buildings.

So, yeah, that’s a lot of midrises!

Looking for work? It’s in the neighborhood.

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

The residential market may be slowing and the office market uncertain, but many small neighborhood projects seem to be moving along smoothly, thanks to grants and successful capitol campaigns. Many of them are seeking landscape architects and master planners.

Won't you be my neighbor?

Here are a few projects and awards that got Department of Neighborhoods matching fund awards this week:

Create a plan for a series of small gardens, a “pollinator pathway” starting at Nora’s Woods and ending at Seattle U. Pollinator Pathway received a $6,000 award for a pilot park. Applications due Sept. 19.

– Design new playground equipment for the Cottage Grove Playground. The North Delridge Neighborhood received a $15,000 award.

– Create a master plan for a new trail system at Seward Park. Friends of Seward Park got a $15,000 matching grant towards hiring a consultant.

– Design a playground at California Place Park. Friends and Neighbors of North Admiral received a $15,500 award to help them hire a landscape architect.

– Design a new streetscape for 33rd. Ave. E. in Lake City. The 33rd Ave. N.E. Vision Group received a $15,000 grant to help hire an architect. I’m not sure who to contact on this one. Patricia Lopez manages the Neighborhood Matching Fund program and could probably steer you in the right direction. She’s at (206) 684-0713.

– Site analysis and planning for a Wallingford community center. The Wallingford Community Center Steering Committee got a $15,000 grant.

Learn more about the awards.

Seattle toilets: Going, going, gone

Monday, September 8th, 2008

Seattle’s five automated toilets are on the road. The toilets were loaded onto flat-bed trucks last night and are en route to an Ebay auction winner who paid $12,500 for the toilets that have set Seattle back $5 million.

Toilets being loaded onto trucks outside Victor Steinbrueck park

The German-made Hering-Bau toilets cost about $544,000 each to install and about $128,000 to maintain. In some other cities using the toilets, those costs are offset by selling ads on and within the units. Seattle law precluded posting ads on our units.

The high maintenance costs and problems with drug use and prostitution meant the toilets had to go after only five years of use.

They were first listed on eBay in mid-July with a minimum bid of $89,000 each. There were no bidders.

The toilets were re-listed Aug. 4 with no minimum bids.

Comparable new units are now selling for around $200,000.

The city council overrode a mayoral veto in 2001 to install the toilets throughout downtown. But a report released in March said the toilets are the least cost-effective way for the city to provide public restrooms and said they were magnets for illegal activity.

Racecar Supply of Rochester won all five auctions, according to the Associated Press. The owner told an AP reporter that two of the units will grace the South Sound Speedway. He plans to sell the other three.

Reviewing Design Review

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

The city of Seattle is currently evaluating its Design Review process, aided by Weinstein A|U.

I was anxious to see what the review would look like. I helped craft the initial program, managed it for most of the 1990s, and then served on the Queen Anne/Magnolia/South Lake Union Design Review Board for four years ending in April.

Should we leave it to administrators?

The review conducted by city staff and the consultants is very thorough and presents many compelling observations and recommendations. What I wonder, after reading the report, is whether the recommendations go far enough.

When the Mayor and City Council began the process of creating Design Review in the late 1980’s there was very little trust in the community for the then Department of Construction and Land Use.

Little did folks realize that it wasn’t for lack of talent or compassion that DCLU was approving ugly stucco boxes in Wallingford, Ballard or the U District. It was simply that the department had few tools to deal with design. But because of this lack of trust, the group-think of the moment was that DCLU surely could not be entrusted with an administrative design review process.