Archive for October, 2008

More strides needed on walkability

Friday, October 31st, 2008

Seattle has taken important steps toward being a good pedestrian city. Our strategic plans say the right things, we have some excellent City staff as well as advocacy groups (Ped Board, Feet First), most streets have sidewalks at least in older neighborhoods, and so on. But, oh, could we do better.

To cross Denny Way from Belltown is to know where pedestrians really stand in Seattle – somewhere below getting cars to Ballard. At major intersections pedestrians can cross on one side only, at Queen Anne, First, Fourth, and Fifth. This forces some pedestrians to cross three streets rather than one, and creates a psychological barrier that discourages walking.

Denny has some push-button crossings too, as do other major streets on the edges of Downtown, like Boren. This means you have to get to the intersection well before the light changes. Basically you have to wait every time, unless someone else has pushed the button. This is odd given how many pedestrians cross Denny and Boren. How annoying push-button signals must be to those who don’t ignore them as I do, when there’s a decent gap.

Slippery metal grates and covers are a big problem. Many pedestrians know you walk gingerly on them when they’re wet, but they’re still dangerous. Why aren’t we covering metal with friction coatings, like sprays or tape? These should be required, particularly on hills. And speaking of slippery, how about those yellow mats they’re adding to curb cuts for blind pedestrians? Surely the designers knew that a sloped, bumpy plastic mat would get treacherous when wet.

Utility poles, parking pay stations, and other street infrastructure are often located three feet from the curb, which sometimes means the middle of the walkway. This is apparently to avoid dinging cars and the associated liability. Pedestrians, again, take second place.

Sometimes tree wells are too big, creating choke points and tripping hazards. A compromise used elsewhere is covering some of the well with a walkable mesh that allows the tree to grow without ruining concrete, but can be rearranged every few years as necessary at little cost.

About those sidewalk closures…

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Cities like New York, Washington D.C., Toronto, and Vancouver B.C prioritize keeping sidewalks open during construction, encouraging covered pedestrian walkways and pedestrian use of the same-side street when covered walkways won’t work.

Better than crossing the street, twice

They will turn to a sidewalk closure only as a last resort. Compare that to Seattle, where city officials discuss covered walkways and same-street use as options during construction, but no clear priority is stated on sidewalk closures v. the alternatives.

A lack of clear priority for pedestrian and cyclist safety is one of the findings of a Seattle City Auditor report on sidewalkaccessibility in the Emerald City. It came out in August.

SDOT also has problems coordinating multiple sidewalk closures, communicating on closures and alternate routes and inspecting and enforcing closures, the audit found.

The audit was undertaken at the request of City Council members Richard Conlin, Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen.

SDOT and the auditor’s office have agreed on an action plan to address the issues found in the audit. It includes developing methods to protect pedestrians, better enforcing ADA accessibility, naming a street use inspector to coordinate construction projects, developing a policy for waiving inspections, requiring applicants for street use permits to submit a notification plan and making information on closures and alternate routes available on SDOT’s Web site.

Tucson is one city that lets pedestrians know about what kind of closures and obstacles they might encounter.

Closing sidewalks means compliant pedestrians lose time crossing multiple streets and walking on clogged sidewalks. For pedestrians or cyclists who choose not to be inconvenienced, the consequences can be far worse. Time will tell if the changes keep Seattle pedestrians from going rogue.

Street life? What street life?

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008
Seattle's Third Avenue
Sometimes Seattle makes me plain crazy. We profess all sorts of environmentally and socially enlightened values and then we often ignore the obvious. Take our public sidewalks. Active, lively, livable? Maybe sometimes. Often, not so much.
We allow contractors to close off sidewalks while they build towers, despite the fact that most other cities have required protected shelters for decades. Contractors here get to close off block fronts for months while we pedestrians have to negotiate a gauntlet of “Sidewalk Closed” signs. Builders elsewhere have figured out how to stage and service a construction site. Yet we let these private companies usurp our precious public space for their own convenience and cost savings.
Another example: The State Liquor Control Board insists that restaurants serving drinks install expensive and space-consuming “corrals” made of cast iron, steel or wood around outdoor seating areas — ostensibly to protect minors. (And how does that work, actually?) Go east to Idaho and there are no sidewalk corrals. Go south to Oregon, same thing: no fences. Tables and chairs spill out onto the sidewalks like they do all over Europe and the rest of the world. Yet, I’ve never heard that those places have hoards of inebriated minors thronging the streets.
I am reminded that until the late 70s, the Liquor Board had a rule that restaurants serving drinks could not have windows, lest anyone be seen drinking. When they dropped that senseless rule, our restaurant industry began to flourish. Just as they changed that rule, they can certainly eliminate the ridiculous fencing requirement that pens us in.
A Portland vendor at Pioneer Square
But here is the worst example, one that truly prevents our urban sidewalks from being lively and livable. The city/county health department’s rules keep us from enjoying a simple delight that is enjoyed by people in most major American cities: sidewalk food carts. (Seattle’s vending ordinance is also very limiting.)
Portland’s downtown is chockablock with outdoor food sellers. Virtually every block has one or two – operating between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. In addition, numerous small food trucks park in lots and back up their counters to the sidewalks. They are often open late into the evening to serve people leaving theaters and night spots. And these are not just mushy steamed hot dogs. They’re fine, cooked-to-order meals of all cuisines, from French crepes to phad thai and burritos.
A vendor in Queens, NY
None of that here, though. Seems our health department folks insist upon an employee restroom and a three-compartment sink — neither one practical for a tiny cart or truck. I am not aware that folks in Portland have been dying in droves from e-coli or hepatitis-C. And that city has been allowing these little street cafes for many years, ample time for any evidence to appear. Of course, they inspect the premises and even inspect the home-based kitchens. Portland now has sidewalks far more interesting than any we have here.
Portland allows these diminutive enterprises to sell fresh, hand-made food for several reasons. First, they see it as an economic development tool. Small, family-based, and often recent immigrant-owned businesses can start up simply and flourish, perhaps eventually moving into a storefront. Second, the city wants to offer downtown workers the choice of inexpensive lunches. Hence, if the vendors keep their prices low, they charge no permit fee. Finally, they contribute to a dynamic public realm. The little businesses maintain eyes on the street and keep the area tidy.
So simple to do. Such amazing results. Not for us, however.

Read more SeattleScape comments on sidewalks and walking here, here and here.

Is pink the new black?

Friday, October 24th, 2008

In recent years, the rich deep colors of autumn leaves and “Halloween orange” have added a pastel partner – PINK! With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the typical color spectrum seems to have a sea of pink washing on its shores.

Leisure's Agave restaurant

Now, more than ever, pink is everywhere. The breast cancer movement lead by the Susan G. Komen Foundation chose pink as their identity color for this predominantly female disease. Since the onset of their visibility and that of other breast cancer organizations the color pink appears more frequently in clothes and household products. Historically, pink was more associated with Flamingos, Barbie and little girls’ fashion.

After World War II, during the post-modern era of design, it was popular for interior finishes. The film Pillow Talk prominently featured shades of pink in Doris Day’s Manhattan apartment, including oodles of pink pillows (Doris played interior designer Jan Morrow). Even the posters were primarily pink in color.

Let’s not forget your Aunt Edith’s pink tile bathroom with the matching vanity and toilet. A few years later, Aunt Edith traded in her pink for that 60’s “avocado period.”

Gatsby in pink

Pink had a minor resurgence in the 70s -This time it was the boys wearing it. Instead of burning bras, men found their own sense of liberation ditching the traditional blue and black suits for more modern colors and patterns. Some might credit the psychedelic revolution for that, but personally I believe this trend was inspired by Robert Redford appearing in a pink tuxedo for the film The Great Gatsby. For some of us, he looked as yummy as strawberry ice cream on a hot summer’s day.

Today, pink finally has its rightful place in design. Take for instance the Mary Kay Cosmetics headquarters in Shanghai. This is no dull “dusty rose” hangover from the 80’s. Designed by Gensler Architects, and finished in 2007, this is a seriously well designed modern office. A combination of color, sophistication, light and functional flexibility, it may well be one of the best palettes of pink ever used in a corporate office space. Its design gestures inspired by roses create a very inviting place to work and visit.

Bouganvillea at Night
Some of you might ask: Do pink and sustainability go together? The answer is an emphatic yes. There are some wonderful eco-products available in pink. Ecohaus for example carries Geostone recycled tiles and Sandhill tile made from 100 percent recycled glass. They also have some interesting combinations from the Yolo Paint’s Petal line.

In addition, I would recommend checking out Madison & Grow’s wallpaper. They are 100 percent toxic free, made from recycled content. I especially like “Bouganvilla at Night;” it’s a fairly traditional pattern, with a wonderful shade of pink on a gray background.

One of my favorite local design firms is Leisure Corporation. They are uber-creative folks with a great sense of humor who add this magical sense of delight to their work. I recently spoke with Justin Zier, their founder, about his project Agave, a hip Las Vegas restaurant. Here’s what he had to say:

“I think pink is the new Friday. I like pink so much I have four pink Christmas trees. The interior color palate of one of our restaurant projects in Las Vegas was inspired by a Mexican Begonia. It’s wicked pink.”

By the way, I share Justin’s sentiment, but I only have one pink Christmas tree for now. I proudly display my vintage pink reindeer along side of it.

Could Interbay become Seattle’s Pearl District?

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

My travels this week led me to Portland’s Pearl District. I couldn’t help but think about places in Seattle that could benefit from broad changes like those that created the Pearl. We don’t have Tax Increment Financing, but we do have Interbay 

Recently the Interbay/Dravus rezone passed out of the Planning Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee, but has run into some trouble on the way to the full council. 

Should the rezone be subject to the pending incentive zoning proposal? The mayor seems to want this to happen as do some councilmembers. Additionally the Seattle Department of Transportation seems to have some issues with infrastructure missing as part of the rezone. At the PLUNC meeting where the rezone passed, concerns were raised that sidewalks and road improvements wouldn’t happen. 

But Interbay’s time has come.  

Like the warehouse district in Portland that became the Pearl District, Interbay is now a mix of low-intensity uses with no housing to speak of. Because of its location, more people living here is not sparking dissent from neighboring single family neighborhoods. Even the industrial community seems to be supporting the changes.

 The council needs to avoid getting into a battle over the many ‘what ifs’ that could hold this up. The project should look at non-traditional sidewalks to address the SDOT concerns, and a reasonable target needs to be set for affordability. Sustainable reuse of buildings like the Ecotrust building in the Pearl should also be encouraged.  

The council should take the time to get these things sorted out and set some indicators to measure whether the rezone lives up to our expectations. But we’ve waited long enough. 


NBBJ architect designs a better double-decker for London

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008
Chandegra's Routemaster, from the Standard
The UK’s Evening Standard had a story today on an NBBJ architect’s vision for “the 21st century Routemaster,” that iconic red double-decker bus you’ve probably seen on postcards, in Austin Powers movies, and maybe even on the bustling streets of modern London.

Paresh Chandegra’s design is not your mum’s double-decker, though. The curvier, shinier model includes onboard digital navigation screens for passengers, and, while it includes the “hop-on hop-off feature of the old Routemaster” at the rear, the front has sliding doors.

Chandegra’s design is one of 225 entered in a competition for a revamped Routemaster launched by London Mayor Boris Johnson. The winner could be announced next month.

Letting townhouses be homes

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

The Northwest Chapter of the Congress of Residential Architects (CORA) has been presenting proposed revisions to Seattle’s multifamily code to neighborhood councils. I just attended their presentation at the Sunset Hill Community Association sponsored by the Crown Hill Business Association.

Existing zoning for Lowrise 3

David Neiman of CORA gives an outstanding presentation about how most of the things single family neighborhoods hate about townhouses, are, ironically, driven by the effort to make them more like single family homes; a yard, set back from the street and a place to park a car.

In many respects the puzzle of how to fit four houses on a lot, with private open space, setbacks and parking was never meant to be solved.

But the off the shelf four-pack plans emerged as the solution, making these kinds of town homes profitable. Parking requirements make townhouses parking solutions, not housing solutions. Could we just remove parking and set back requirements from L-3 and L-4 zones and go from there?

CORA’s proposal focuses on addressing the biggest complaints about townhouses. If design is the biggest part of why neighborhoods object to town homes, then why not use design review to free the townhouse from the single family corset so they can be responsive to the needs of the end user, neighborhoods and the region’s need to accommodate growth.

Craig Benjamin from the Cascade Agenda spoke just before the CORA presentation about 1.7 million reasons why we need more density.

CORA’s proposal is trying to get more density through better design. The question is, will single family neighborhoods relent in their opposition to density in exchange for better design of townhouses?

60th Street Cottages

Will the administrative process that is run entirely by DPD satisfy their need to get the outcomes they want? The proposal is likely to come before Council early next year.

On my walk to the Community Center, I stumbled upon these little gems called the 60th Street Cottages. I don’t know how they were received by the neighborhood, but they look like what we were talking about.

AIA 2008 Honor Awards entries online!

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008
COOP 15 Architecture's Kaneko Pool House
Check out the competition. AIA Seattle 2008 Honor Awards entries are now available online.

Unbuilt entries include Eastgate Elementary School, the 99 K house and a project that takes its inspiration from a lightning bug.

The Museum of Flight Pedestrian Bridge, Alki Statue of Liberty plaza, Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center and Northgate Library are among the built entries.

Seattle architects’ 15 minutes of fame

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

My google alerts on local architecture firms were off the hook this morning. Here are some of the interesting links that popped up:

Seattle design stands out

Metropolis had fun delving into Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen’s design process on the new Wing Luke Asian Museum.“I fell in love with the building in its worst possible state,” muses Rick Sundberg in the article. “It took me a long time to calm down enough. But, eventually, I began to see what I was talking about.”

Architectural Record has a story on how architectural firms are faring in the economy, including a brief snippet on Mahlum and how slowing of school work in Portland means some Portland architects are working in the firm’s Seattle office.

Mahlum is hiring, though. Check out AIA Seattle’s job board.

Speaking of the economy, the DJC is also running a series, “Downturn hits home,” on the impact the economy is having on the local A/E/C industry. Monday’s story was on contractors, Tuesday we touched on architecture and engineering firms, and today’s story had tips for job seekers. A fourth installment on real estate will run soon.

The Coloradan also reports that LMN was picked to design a performance hall near Fort Collins. Sustainable Industries had a story today on High Point.

And in local blog news, a recent blog start-up that talked smack about local condos has been removed from the Web.

Have a few more minutes? AIA Seattle has an online questionnaire that will help them shape a climate change education program to update the 50>>50 Initiative.

Incentive zoning: Right solution, wrong problem?

Monday, October 13th, 2008

The City Council appears to be moving deliberately and methodically toward approving an incentive zoning proposal. The morning after the public hearing I wrote about earlier, the Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee held a three-hour meeting including a another discussion of incentive zoning. Conventional wisdom holds that the Council will pass something.

Councilmember Tim Burgess asked a key question of the incentive zoning discussion: what is our goal? Is it affordable units? How many and where?

Council staff didn’t really have a clear answer.

Incentive zoning is a good concept. A Public Health study from a few years ago showed that developers like the idea, provided that there was a real incentive involved. More density might work but an incentive also might be reduced parking requirements or, as Denny Onslow suggested, an easing of local regulations that could make 85 foot development produce housing as affordable as 65 foot development.

What it will be

But incentive zoning all by itself won’t get us closer to the larger goals of affordability, sustainability and livability.

Height is a problem. Large chunks of our city are zoned for 40 feet. That height doesn’t work for projects like Jim Mueller’s at 23rd and Union.

The city needs more projects like Mueller’s. It activates a property that was blighted, turning it into a community asset.

Incentive zoning is based on the theory that morepublic benefit will be created when there is less regulation. The current proposals don’t address the problem of intersections like 23rd and Union. The Council really needs to ask itself, as Councilmember Burgess did, what are we trying to accomplish? (more…)