Archive for July, 2010

Here’s what crossing the 520 bridge will look like

Monday, July 26th, 2010

The Washington State Transportation has posted a video simulation of what traveling across the new Evergreen Point floating bridge will be like. The video comes with some trendy music for your listening enjoyment.

Next month the Washington State Department of Transportation begins its search for a design-build team on a $700 million to $1 billion project to replace the state Route 520 bridge between Seattle and Medina.

The agency will issue a request for qualifications in August and a request for proposals in October. The project is scheduled to finish by December 2014.

Park design mistreats public

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

I’m writing about a little park along a major regional paved trail. The park will go nameless here…no sense embarrassing the design team or owner. It’s actually a nice park, depending on the weather.

The temperature was in the low 80s yesterday when I stopped on a long bike ride. The park has lots of benches and low walls for sitting, and there were a dozen bicyclists hanging out, along with others presumably from the neighborhood. The benches and low walls, all in the sun, were empty.

Instead, the bicyclists — nearly every one — huddled in the shade of trees along the water’s edge, despite the lack of seating there. There were five or six good shade spots, one paved and the others not. Each shade spot was staked out by between one and three people. Thankfully the paved spot had enough room for a couple of us to share.

The park was renovated not long ago, and got a new restroom building. It has no awnings, and provides no shelter from either sun or rain. Unless you want to hang out with the toilets.

Here’s my question: Do park designers REALLY have so little understanding of how parks are used? Don’t they know that bicyclists are generally overheating when we stop during a summer ride? Or that on many other days, for familes too, it’s reassuring to be able to dash under an awning if it suddenly starts raining?

In the case of this park, simply moving a few benches to the shady areas would give a lot of tired people a respite on a hot day. And an awning, anywhere, would be nice.

Tunnel Referendum Already Scheduled

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

My SeattleScape colleague Matt Hays has done a great job of laying out some of the tired arguments in favor of the waterfront tunnel boondoggle in his SeattleScape post below. I won’t bother to refute them because others far more capable than I have addressed the overruns, what could go wrong, (OK I talked about revenue underruns ), climate impacts, and why there are better and more sustainable options.

But here’s the deal, there already is a referendum scheduled on the tunnel: in 2011 there are five members of the current Seattle City Council up for re-election should each of them choose to run. Whether a referendum on the tunnel project specifically gets put on the ballot or not, five pro tunnel Councilmembers will have to face the music next fall in forum after forum about their choice to support the tunnel. And some of us fully intend to exploit the opportunity for accountability. Seattle may yet see another movement like the Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC) movement of the late 60’s that can muster a pro-sustainability majority on the Council.

Next year's City Council elections will certainly feature the tunnel.
Next year's City Council elections will certainly feature the tunnel.

Now let me issue a warning to those who might smugly laugh as they sit upon their massive campaign war chests in the form of a name: Rex Burkholder.  I highlighted Rex Burkholder’s campaign for election to the Presidency of the Metro Council in Oregon in a post called “Bridge Across the Sustainability Gap,” calling out his support for the Columbia River Crossing project, Portland’s own big unsustainable highway project. Burkholder, like Richard Conlin, was Mr. Sustainable for many years, biking to campaign events, supporting carbon neutrality, and being an all around champion of every sustainable idea and concept in the Portland region.

Burkholder got a lot of heat from supporters for his advocacy for the highway project and he ended up losing his election. Now I have no crystal ball app on my I Phone, but I would say that however this all turns out, the current City Council, like Burkholder, will be faced with a lot of people who expect them to lead the sustainability charge in our city and in our region—not flummox it by building more highways. Time will tell whether “the Get it Done Gang” will face a similar political fate as Burkholder did. But there are few better ways to close the Sustainability Gap than at the ballot box next November.

Let’s no-go tunnel referendum idea

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Opponents of the deep bore tunnel are getting desperate. Now some are proposing a City referendum. Assuming your standpoint is something other than “stop the tunnel at all costs,” this is a ridiculous idea. Without getting into the minutiae, here are a few major flaws in their thinking.

1. It would cause delay, which would increase cost. To ensure top-quality, low-price proposals, WSDOT would presumably postpone the team selection, and much of the public deal finalization would be delayed as well. Even if the referendum resulted in a “go,” this would risk moving the pricing into a period of general economic recovery. As everyone in construction knows, any economic recovery will cause prices to rise substantially due to higher material costs, normalization of margins at every level, etc. The current RFP process is well timed to take advantage of low pricing that we know will last into early next year, but might not last much longer.

2. If opponents were to win, what then? Would it be a simple matter of clarifying Seattle’s exposure to overruns, or would it stop the tunnel concept entirely? Does anyone think that another option would be more popular? Based on who is supporting the referendum, it sounds like the “surface” option is their intended goal. That might play well in some neighborhoods, but it’s the worst nightmare for many of the viaduct’s

The deep bore tunnel being studied as part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement will carry four lanes of traffic under downtown Seattle. Much of the two-mile-long tunnel will go through glacial till, reaching a depth of 220 feet. Image courtesy of WSDOT
current users, much of the business community, and many of us Downtown workers/residents who would see our Downtown avenues turned into pedestrian-unfriendly throughways for drivers who don’t want to be here. Others insist that we’re all insane if we don’t retrofit the viaduct so it’ll last two or three decades longer, or we’re insane if we don’t rebuild a similar viaduct, or the only solution is a bridge in Elliott Bay, or we should revisit the cut-n-cover idea…  Every one of them has a built-in opposition, which I think will be larger than the opposition to the tunnel. Anyone who thinks their pet idea will magically make a majority happy is delusional.

3. It would be a City referendum for a State project that affects the whole metro. I agree that the cost risk should be shared by the State and the City…which currently appears to be the case, barring any future contract language that specifies otherwise. Aside from the issue of Seattle’s risk, there’s the issue of who the viaduct belongs to. Referendum supporters appear to be forgetting that tunnel is a State project, and serves a region-wide traveling public. Do they really think the State will let Seattle delete a regional lifeline? If the tunnel were stopped, the result would be another highway of some kind. Probably an aerial replacement, built a couple years after the current plan during a time of much higher pricing. The no-replacement people would get to look at THAT for the next 60 years, which horrifies me as well.

4. The other concepts have MORE cost risk. In 2008 it could be argued that a tunnel had higher cost risk than an aerial option. Off the cuff, the opposite seems to be true today. The tunnel has gone through a year and a half of intense study, design, and improvement since becoming the chosen option. A replacement viaduct (or any other concept) would start over with very minimal design, very minimal knowledge of what’s under the existing viaduct, and very minimal idea of what would be needed to minimize the considerable construction inconveniences. Further, those who prefer other options typically forget to include the cost of knitting South Lake Union and Lower Queen Anne back together via a lowered Aurora, which would be a much more difficult project in their scenarios, and they leave the current tunnel severely under code. (This is all completely separate from the hidden costs of disruption (during construction and permanently) with the surface, aerial, or cut-n-cover options, which would dwarf the project cost in every instance.)

In another blog post I discussed why the idea that driving will suddenly become unpopular (an idea held by many surface option supporters) is wrong as well. I won’t get into the opponents claims about overruns on past projects, which are based on ancient history rather than the modern practices of agencies like WSDOT, Sound Transit, etc., who have done well in keeping their recent work on budget.

I suspect the referendum won’t happen because smarter heads will prevail. And if it does, it’ll probably lose, because as some old polling suggested, the public’s #1 priority is to get it done, even among many people who consider the tunnel their second or third favorite option. The tunnel is a good plan, which does an excellent job of balancing millions of viewpoints, and is ultimately the lowest-risk concept.

Seattle Children’s uses Toyota-like efficiency practices

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

The New York Times has an interesting article on how Seattle Children’s hospital is using an efficiency system to help it avoid some capital spending.  Here’s the story.

‘Windfall’: Catch it while you can

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Last month, an engaging temporary public art installation, “Windfall,” opened at Seattle Center next to the new Theater Commons and Donnelly Gardens.

Created by Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio in Seattle, “Windfall” consists of some 1,000 cast iron wind chimes hanging in the trees on both sides of a walkway. The ringing is sublime and the bliss is unexpected in a busy urban environment. You can see how it catches people off guard when – as they’re hurrying by – they stop and stare into the trees.

Upon hearing that it’s a temporary installation, many of them say it should stay permanently. The short answer is it won’t. So you should go see it before it’s dismantled in mid-September.

Like the new Theater Commons and Donnelly Gardens, “Windfall” honors the late Peter Donnelly who, starting in the latter half of the 20th century, invigorated the city’s arts scene.

In an e-mail, Han and Mihalyo said they sought to highlight this new public space by providing visitors with “a heightened experience of the spatial qualities of wind and its impressive volume.” They chose bells to do this due to chimes’ association with the cycles of life and birth.

“We wanted this artwork to be a contribution to the landscape experience, filling the available site without overwhelming the primary experience,” they wrote.

With the garden completed only about a week before the planned opening, the artists had no time to test their idea. They worried “Windfall” would seem either not large enough or too large. They wondered, too, whether the chime “feathers” – made of eucalyptus wood veneer – might appear “too artificial.”

Mihalyo and Han designed the chimes and fabricated prototypes before finding a company, Travis Pattern – N.E.W. Foundry near Colville, to manufacture them. After the castings arrived, the artists had three assistants help for about 3 weeks, applying metal primer, drilling, tying knots and fabricating the feathers.

The idea of making the installation permanent did come up when the project was proposed, and some members of the artist selection committee recommended a longer-term installation. Ultimately, however, Seattle Center and the city’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs decided it would be most appropriate to make “Windfall” temporary.

There were concerns about the health of the trees, which could be damaged if people yanked the chimes down. The materials are “very ephemeral,” said city Public Art Project Manager Patricia Hopper. “It simply could not last forever.” And, to make a longer lasting exhibit would have exceeded the project’s $24,000 budget.

Besides these practical issues, there is the purpose of “Windfall.” Hopper explained it’s to celebrate the opening of the gardens and draw people into the new space. The work is something “that thrills for the moment and then lives on.”

And it will.

When the installation comes down, Mihalyo and Han plan to give the bells to people who come to Seattle Center Sept. 16-17. They say this will allow the memory of “Windfall” to be dispersed out into the city to the backyards and porches of residents who experienced it.

Creating of a new central waterfront neighborhood

Thursday, July 1st, 2010
The Alaskan Way Viaduct and downtown Seattle. Photo courtesy of Clair Enlow.

Reading Clair Enlow’s very insightful piece in yesterday’s DJC gave me hope.  For too long all I’ve heard about is the proposed new Central Waterfront park that could some day replace the dead zone now created by the Alaskan Way Viaduct.  Don’t get me wrong; parks can be great and we do need more gathering space(s) at the City’s front door, but the thought of a single, long, linear park in that location would send shudders down my spine!

When I read that partnership committee member Mark Reddington stated exactly what I’ve thought all along, my fears started to relent, and hope entered the picture.  “This isn’t just a single space,” he said.  “It really should be a deeply integrated place.”

That’s exactly right. that does three crucial things: 1) knits back together the waterfront and the downtown neighborhoods uphill; 2) creates a new series of microneighborhoods with their own new and exciting character, and finally 3) provides a series of interesting, engaging, diverse, interconnected public spaces.

Stated succinctly, Seattle has not done a good job (yet) with downtown public open spaces. In addition, for some reason the political ethos has not yet warmed to the notion so prevalent elsewhere around the world of a genuine integration of public spaces with other public, semiprivate and private uses to achieve truly urbane spaces.  Just look at Westlake Park versus Westlake Plaza (next to the Westlake Center).  The City’s ludicrous policy of essentially disallowing any private activities (vendor carts, spill out of café tables or sales tables) onto public land leaves that park rather lackluster.  Just across the street, on private land, the smaller Westlake Plaza, complete with its coffee shop, vendor stands and exhibits is often so lively and populated it can actually become crowded. For an important civic space in a major city’s downtown that’s not a bad problem to have!

Can you imagine if that policy were allowed to prevail in the much larger central waterfront public spaces?  Just think of Pier 62/63, where not even a popcorn stand, hotdog vendor or espresso stand can be found in that vast, vacant, yet valuable space.  Yes, the view is lovely there, but imagine how much richer the experience would be if there were some minor services or amenities, together with more movable tables and chairs.

If we can truly shed this mindset and move towards an underlying principle of a genuine integration of public and private spaces, activities and uses, then we will have set the stage for a remarkable central waterfront neighborhood that could become the envy of cities across the country.

The remarks by Cary Moon, Clair Enlow and Mark Reddington are giving me hope. Let’s work with them and support this new vision for the central waterfront.