Archive for January, 2010

Sandwich boards…moved

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Sandwich boards done right in Pioneer Square

Isn’t it nice when progress is easy?

Poorly located sandwich boards, aka A-frames, next to businesses have always been an annoyance for many pedestrians. They force us to walk around them, they sometimes narrow sidewalks to single-file, they can be tripped over, and in some places they’re clutter.

I’ve taken to moving many of the worst ones to the side, sometimes day after day, hoping that the owners will get the message. That doesn’t work very well, though it solves the problem momentarily and is satisfying.

Lo and behold, there’s an easier way. SDOT will come to the rescue upon request. With great effect.

The signs are rarely legal, according to this City web page. “Currently, A-frame signs are illegal except in a City-approved district that has obtained a street use permit to allow and regulate A-frame signs (see BIA).” These districts, where A-frames still face strict rules, are Pioneer Square, Broadway, and the Pike Place Market. A City web page about sidewalk cafes says that even legal A-frames must provide six feet of clear space past seating areas.

I’ve talked to some businesses directly, whether they storm out their doors indignant about “property rights” (this has come up twice, related to poor education presumably), or because I contact them. Sometimes they agree to keep the signs along the curb out of the way. Other times they don’t.

That’s when it’s time to contact SDOT. They regulate signs upon complaint. Just call (206) 684-5267 and leave a message with the address and business name.

I don’t know what they tell the offending businesses, but it works! A few days after a recent complaint about two businesses, both signs went to the side out of the way of pedestrians, and they haven’t offended again. SDOT appears to be enforcing the spirit of the law rather than the letter. I support the enforcement-as-appropriate approach.

There’s a legal side to this. I’m no lawyer, but if someone trips on a sign the City was warned about, shouldn’t the City be liable if it didn’t crack down, and the business be liable if it ignored a City request? Isn’t the business liable regardless? (Any lawyers want to clarify that?) Since liability law is often an excuse to shaft pedestrians (light poles three feet from curbs, crosswalk markings taken away, overly wide streets), it’s nice if the same system helps us occasionally. If the sign is a potential tripping hazard in your opinion, the City will enforce the law to protect itself from costly judgments.

On another tangent, some business owners complain that moving signs hurts business. Maybe that’s true for them personally, but overall, we’ll all buy the same amount of stuff. If the signs have an effect, it’s to move some sales from some businesses to others. Basically illegal signs move sales from complying businesses to non-complying ones. Moving the signs should even the playing field for the good guys.

Now it’s time to try the same thing with parking lot signs. King County’s parcel viewer is good for identifying absentee owners, which could expedite the process for SDOT…

Could a 7.0 quake strike the Palouse?

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

The Palouse: No earthquake worries.
An earthquake won’t likely level the Palouse anytime soon, but Washington State University wants to put your mind at ease.

The school has released a two-minute video in the wake of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti to discuss what caused the quake and whether anything like it could ever hit Eastern Washington. Catherine Cooper, an assistant prof in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, does the talking.

B&O brouhaha

Monday, January 4th, 2010

A mid-rise planned for the B&O Espresso site on Olive Way.
OK, I’ll admit it. I love the B&O Espresso on Olive Way. It’s not only been a Capitol Hill establishment for 30 years, it’s also a bit of old Vienna right here in the Wild West. It’s the kind of place where I’ve gone on dates, taken visiting relatives, and just stopped in for a quick Sacher torte and coffee.

And, yes, I lament that it may soon go the way of the dodo bird with a new mid-rise, mixed-use building being designed and proposed for that site.

But we’ve got to stop whining!

Over the last few years it’s become a new Seattle ethos to whinge and mope collectively about every new development project that may replace an existing restaurant, coffee shop, bar or bookstore. In some cases, neighbors have even gone so far as to wage appeals and litigation in hopes of thwarting a development, almost invariably in vain. (Case in point: the battle against the proposal for an East Pine Street mixed-use project that would’ve demolished several popular bars, with the result that the demolition occurred but the building never materialized. Result: a vacant lot!)

I’m not any happier to see my favorite bar, coffee shop, restaurant or chocolaterie demolished, but all of these establishments are tenants within a transitory vessel. Unless the building has heritage value (and some do go on to landmark status), what we lament is the loss of the establishment, not so much the actual building.

What we’re losing sight of is that buildings are simply the current vessel for that beloved establishment — or one very similar to it in the future. Take the Dilettante cafe for example. While we all came to know and love that famous dessert dispensary at its old Broadway location, its former “vessel” wasn’t even demolished, yet the owners decided for a markedly ampler and more creative space up the street in the ground floor of the new Brix building — a building, I imagine which had and probably continues to have its detractors because it replaced a formerly beloved Safeway (?)!

The developers of the proposed new building on the B&O site have been very willing to meet and work with the neighbors and other concerned parties. An offer has even reportedly been made to the B&O owner to relocate that use within the new building. I’m sure if he accepts that offer, he will likely be invited to participate in the design development of the ground-floor space. There’s no guarantee he will accept new terms and likely higher rent, but the new building will indeed include new commercial space for a shop, bar, restaurant or similar use. And if not there, the B&O owner will likely set up shop in another of the many vacant spaces around the Hill or elsewhere.

We need to support responsible developers like these who are willing to engage the community, involve their design input and seek to become community partners. There are far too many corporate developer-machines out there that would never deign to be so participatory. They should receive our assistance, prodding and even constructive criticism, but not our opposition and obstructionism.

And I want to make a particular plug for this type of smaller-scale development. While even this project will encompass a few parcels, it represents the scale of development that should be encouraged. While certainly a hodgepodge, the prevailing fabric of the Capitol Hill urban form is still characterized by midrise buildings that span only a few small parcels. This module provides a more human-scale context that we are more comfortable inhabiting and approaching. Conversely, many large-scale developers take on massive sites, often comprising full city blocks. Even with the most adroit design maneuvers and city oversight, it’s quite a challenge to break down such large projects into human-scale modules that creative an attractive and comfortable street environment.

So in cases like the B&O site, where thoughtful, inclusive, smaller-scale developers propose larger, yet still human-scale development, we should do our best to encourage them — not without due design vigilance and participation — even if it may mean the relocation or reconstitution of a beloved establishment.