Archive for May, 2009

Conflicting goals hinder walkability

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

Want to speak out on Seattle’s pedestrian environment, and the City’s upcoming plans? Your best chance is between now and June 15, the comment period for the recently-released Draft Seattle Pedestrian Master Plan. In addition to the summary, remember to see the list of specific implementation actions.

It’s heartening to see so much effort go into boosting walkability, especially since the leaders are frequent pedestrians and experts in pedestrian issues. There’s much to love in the plan (not focusing on that here). At the same time, Seattle has a long history of well-intentioned plans being subverted by other goals, directly or indirectly. The plan addresses all of these general topics, but not in detail, and where it really matters is in practice.

An example is enlarged tree wells. These are good for trees that outgrow their old wells. But they can also interrupt pedestrian flow, they’re often muddy, and sometimes they’re even dangerous. This photograph is a rogue tree well on First Avenue, with a four-inch drop that must surprise a few people, at least those who haven’t walked in it countless times as I have (rather than wait for others to pass). Some hard-packed gravel at sidewalk level would be nice. Or maybe a walkable hard-surface platform of some kind.

At first look, the draft plan itself has some items that need adjustment. The yellow, bumpy plastic “tactile warning strips” it calls for at curb ramps are useful for the blind, but they’re slippery, which is something you don’t want at a street corner! A potential solution would be to build the same thing in concrete, integrally colored or painted so it’s more visible, though even then you’ve created a trip hazard.

Another usually good idea is chirping walk signals for the blind. But some of these signals, such as the ones at 6th & Bell, are incredibly loud, easily audible a full block away. How many advocates would live 50 feet from that? We encourage people to live near work, while making some intersections inhospitable for living. Turn the volume down.

“All way walk” intersections (like First & Pike) are also discussed in the draft plan. These sound like a good idea, until it occurs that at a standard intersection, they mean you can’t walk 2/3 of the time. First & Pike works because there are only two phases, “traffic” and “pedestrians,” plus it’s easy to jaywalk N-S during traffic’s phase. But at a regular multiphase intersection, all way walk is like punishment.

Let’s not get into the parking meters and light poles in the centers of many sidewalks, which exist because City liability fears have required them to be three feet from curbs. This was thought up by bean counters more worried about fenders and dollars than pedestrian safety or walkability. Even the new “pay stations” are often located within narrow sidewalks due to expediency, and can be barriers if people are standing at them. They should be in parking strips.

Curb bulbs are a great idea, to shorten crossings and improve visibility. But please make sure there’s room for not only the car lanes, but bicycles along the right fringe as well.  Just a couple feet. The same stretch of Bell, a significant bike route, is a good example. Hit Fifth Avenue, and either the driver or the bicyclist better give way, because the curb bulb sticks out too much.

Readers, please read the plan and comment. City, good job on the plan, but please make some adustments, and please follow through on implementation!

Mag: OSKA among world’s ‘Top 10’

Monday, May 4th, 2009

Seattle’s own Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects has made national magazine Fast Company’s list of the Top 10 most innovative architecture firms in the world.

Bird's Nest
OSKA is in pretty good company on the list, which gives the No. 1 slot to international giant Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Second slot goes to Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, designer of the Beijing Olympics’ Birds Nest. The third firm listed is Zaha Hadid Architects, designer of London’s Millennium dome and that ET-inspired (or is that just me?) Chanel pavillion in Central Park last fall.

The list also includes a lot of global designers who’ve done projects in our own backyard. Rem Koolhaas’s OMA is fourth on the list. The Dutch designer‘s recent projects include the CCTV building in Beijing and our own Seattle Central Library.

Holl's St. Ignatius
Steven Holl, designer of Beijing’s “Linked Hybrid” complex and Seattle University’s Chapel of St. Ignatius, was fifth on the list. London’s Foster + Partners, designer of the new Beijing airport terminal, and, possibly, of the pending Civic Plaza for Seattle officials, was No. 6. (That project was supposed to leverage a public-private partnership to get a new skyscraper with public amenities across the street from City Hall, but it’s currently a hostage to the downturn.)

Spot No. 7 goes to Italy’s Renzo Piano, which recently designed the new NY Times headquarters building. Then comes Christian de Portzamparc, the French architect who designed the Luxembourg Philharmonic’s concert hall and has some cool visions for the future of Paris. Spot No. 9 went to KieranTimberlake, who designed the Cellophane House for MOMA’s show last year on modular marvels.

Montecito Residence- by Jim Bartsch
OSKA was tenth on the list. The magazine noted the firm’s “dossier of important public buildings” (Seattle Public Library’s Southwest branch, Frye Art Museum) and “skillful hand with residences framing sublime natural vistas.” OSKA has won numerous local awards in the latter category over the past few years (see Delta Shelter, Montecito Residence, Rolling Huts, Outpost, just to name a few).

This year, the firm was awarded AIA National’s firm of the year award. In the AIA Seattle awards last November, OSKA won an Award of Merit for its design of the Noah’s Ark for LA’s Skirball Cultural Center.