Archive for June, 2009

The “Great Urban Debate”

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

It was interesting to watch. On June 18 at the Central Library, civic leaders Gordon Price of Vancouver and Peter Steinbrueck of Seattle debated the merits of the two cities’ built environments, each arguing as mandated for the other’s city. CR Douglas, possibly the smartest person on Seattle TV, moderated. There was good audience Q&A at the end. You can follow what happened here, including a parallel event in Vancouver on June 16.

It’s not easy being Seattle! Rather than being compared with North American cities in general, where frankly the bar isn’t very high in our size range, we’re constantly getting compared with Vancouver, Portland, and San Francisco, each of which has plenty to be jealous of from an urbanist perspective, whether density (Vancouver and SF), narrow walkable streets (all), cultural diversity (SF and Vancouver), rail transit systems (all), or long history of smart planning decisions (all). Why can’t we go up against Houston?!

Price said lots of nice things about Seattle, noting that our topography helps give our neighborhoods identities, our waterfronts still have function rather than just looking pretty, and we have a strong cadre of rich donors to support civic causes. But as Steinbrueck correctly pointed out, few of those were about HOW we’ve built our city, particularly how we did it until recent years.

Steinbrueck has long used Vancouver as an example of how downtowns can attract families via measures such as inclusionary zoning, but he had a serious misconception and was corrected by Price. Steinbrueck claimed that Vancouver requires family-sized homes in new downtown highrises. Price corrected this, noting that only two megaprojects have this requirement, and the family-sized units are far too expensive for most families. (Edit: the negotiated zoning system does result in a lot of two-bedroom units.) Price noted that one reason for the large number of kids in downtown Vancouver is that many have moved from Hong Kong, where it is common for a family to live in a small apartment, and that these families tend to move out of Downtown when their incomes grow enough. In a different context, he also pointed out that the West End, which was mostly developed decades ago, is now a middle-low income area, which I suspect is related to the number of kids living there, along with the fact many of its streets are quiet and residential-only.

My opinion is that having more kids in Greater Downtown Seattle would be a good thing, but it’s not necessary for a fantastic downtown, and there’s no reason to mandate new family size units in new buildings, which has been discussed locally. We already mandate retail that the market doesn’t need, which is often vacant or rents at a loss. Rather than foisting these costs on the occupants of new buildings, why shouldn’t ALL of us pay to address civic problems? I suggest inclusionary zoning is based in part on cowardice by leaders who would rather ask a tiny number of people to pay, rather than ask the whole electorate.

Ah, retail. That didn’t come up. Vancouver has fantastic retail streets, including some in the West End. Why? Not just because their neighborhoods are denser, but because they concentrate retail on fewer streets. My own neighborhood of Belltown is the poster child of spreading retail to every avenue, meaning it’s far too diluted for a critical mass on any one avenue.

About Steinbrueck’s point that replicating Vancouver’s success will take Seattle a few decades, and that this gives us license to slow down … I don’t know what to think. On one hand he’s right that some development is poorly done. But adding process (at least temporarily) and construction costs (permanently, depending on the new requirements) has two side effects: the city becomes more expensive to live in, and development goes where it’s easier and cheaper, adding to sprawl. We can sacrifice the good in pursuit of the great. Still, I can’t argue for the worst examples of six-pack townhouses that wall themselves from the street and face interior driveway courtyards. Below-grade parking will add cost but perhaps it’s worth it.

There was a vote by applause at the end, which CR declared a win for Price’s defense of Seattle. (Steinbrueck won the Vancouver vote.) I wasn’t clear whether to vote for the city or the guy, or whether to vote for my city or the denser one, and clapped for both.

When you’re in a hole, start digging?

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

Early this year I wrote a post based on a quote from John Maynard Keynes, the famous British economist of the last century. Keynes had an idea about filling a hole with bottles filled with money, covering the hole over with dirt and then selling permits to dig out the bottles. His argument was that during an economic downturn the best thing was to spend, even if the spending seemed to contradict common sense.

Last week I wrote about the falling rate of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the United States and the Northwest. The post goes into a bit of detail about the numbers and asks the question, “Why invest huge dollars in capital infrastructure for new ways to carry cars?”

It’s far from certain what the downturn in VMT means. Part of it is attributable to last year’s price spike in oil and gas prices. But when you look at gasoline consumption (down), VMT (down) and car sales (down) you can’t help but wonder why we’re digging a big hole along the waterfront and filling it with cars. Does a tunnel that will cost billions of dollars still make sense?

Could the possibility that we are significantly changing our driving habits make Keynes’ idea more attractive?

Meeting promises

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

Do what you say you’ll do. Whatever your business, there’s a good starting point for success. I’ve had two stark lessons in this as a retail customer recently.

In both cases, the businesses are large, respected Downtown establishments I want to support and have been loyal to for many years. In both cases, their failure to meet promises means they’ll lose my business.

What an excellent parallel for those of us in the A/E/C/RE world. Do your customers care about your basic integrity and follow-through as much as your skills?

The first was a new bed. The sales guy said eight weeks. With no word at 10 weeks, the rep said 12. With no word at 14 weeks, the rep said “it’s almost in the warehouse.” With no word at 18 weeks, it was “in the warehouse” but couldn’t be delivered the following weekend. Guessing it wasn’t really “in the warehouse,” I cancelled. Three weeks later they called and asked why I wasn’t home to take delivery, as if this had been scheduled. At that point, I still wanted the bed and could have taken delivery that very day. But after 22 weeks (incompetence? honest error? lies? poorly-managed supply chain? all of the above? who cares), I didn’t act in my own interest. Instead I punished the store by reiterating my cancellation. 

The second was my longtime barber. He’s always done a good job, with excellent service. But four straight times the wait was 20-30 minutes after the appointment. On the last occasion I didn’t say anything, but apparently the ice was obvious, because afterward the cashier cut the price in half. It’s admirable that he acknowledged the error. But the gesture was way too little and too late.  My decision not to go back was made in the waiting room. More importantly, once the impression exists that someone isn’t reliable, that impression sticks. 

At your business, you might assume loyal customers will give you the benefit of the doubt when you screw up. That’s probably true at first in many cases, due to the strength of your relationships, the customers’ inertia, and their human aversion to starting an argument. But eventually it works against you. A loyal customer expects service in return, and can take it personally and deeply when you don’t live up.

Much of it is about being honest when setting expectations. For the barber it might mean more time between appointments. For the bed seller, a realistic due date would have been a start, and a correction would have helped if a shipping error had been made.

In the A/E/C/RE world, that means living up to what you’re selling. Are you?

Turning the ‘urbs’ inside out?

Monday, June 1st, 2009

The concept of “urbs” and “suburbs” is one that we’ve lived with in the United States since the end of World War II. It might be time to rethink these categories or get rid of them all together.

In an article that ran in Crosscut last week Knute Berger characterized as simplistic the distinction between suburb and city.  I agreed with that characterization in a response at the Daily Score.

But I couldn’t abide with Berger’s claims that somehow smart growth or density (the dreaded ‘D’ word) somehow contributes to sprawl. This conclusion is fueled by the very simplicity Berger seems to deride.

What seems to be happening instead is that it is getting harder to develop large projects in Seattle because of a kind of strange single-family preservationist streak here.  My point was that projects like Bel-Red on the Eastside are almost impossible to do here because of vehement opposition by neighborhood groups and labor.  Neighborhoods oppose the density and labor hopes for more public benefits for their workers from the projects.

As time ticks off the clock projects like the redevelopment of the Campfire site in North Seattle and the Goodwill project in the Southeast part of the city languish and die.  So while we resist growth in Seattle most of the 1.7 million people projected people coming to the region in the next two decades may end up living in Bellevue, which may, ironically, according to the old view, make Bellevue the city and Seattle a “suburb.”