Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Infrastructure for a new Japan

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016
Asaskusa Tourist Information Center in Tokyo, Japan, which was designed by Kengo Kuma & Associates and completed in 2012. Photo by Takeshi YAMAGISHI
Asaskusa Tourist Information Center in Tokyo, Japan, which was designed by Kengo Kuma & Associates and completed in 2012. Photo by Takeshi YAMAGISHI

The Mitsubishi Corporation is presenting a free symposium on “Sustaining Japan: Past, Present Future — Infrastructure for a New Japan” from 6 to 7:30 p.m. today and tomorrow (April 13 and 14) at Architecture Hall 147 at the University of Washington.
Kengo Kuma of Tokyo- and Paris-based architecture firm KKAA will lecture today on “Crafting Communities” and tomorrow on “Urban Regeneration.” Both lectures are at 6 p.m.
The symposium is sponsored by UW Japan Studies, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and College of Built Environments/Department of Architecture in collaboration with urban@uw.
Registration in not necessary.

The other civic disorder

Thursday, August 20th, 2015
Crossing Second Avenue at Stewart with 10 seconds left, with left turners coming from directly behind. Photo by Matt Hays
Crossing Second Avenue at Stewart with 10 seconds left, with left turners coming from directly behind. Photo by Matt Hays

Finally, some movement on civic disorder and public safety in Downtown Seattle!

No, not the improved Westlake Park and Third Avenue…traffic disorder. Blocked crosswalks, bike lanes, and cross-traffic. Red light runners, whether cars or bikes. Speeding. Free right turns without looking both ways. Cars not stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks, marked or unmarked. Cars edging into crosswalks against the light, drivers texting away. Collectively this is big safety issue, a serious problem for mobility when routes are blocked, and a constant nuisance.

Ok, we’re not dealing with all of that yet. Just “blocking the box,” i.e. blocked cross-streets and crosswalks. But what a breath of fresh air. Per the Seattle Times, “mass citations will begin in October, following a publicity campaign and sign postings in August and September” and tickets are $136.

Watch any street heading toward I-5 at rush hour. It seems like every cycle at every intersection has someone blocking it. A recent Council Transportation Committee briefing by SDOT and SPD notes key intersections with more than one infraction per minute. Sometimes pedestrians have to walk dangerously in traffic lanes. Bicyclists risk serious injury, for example when using the often-blocked Second Avenue bike lane. When a car is even partially in the crosswalk, pedestrians have to worry about getting run over by that car in addition to the other directions, particularly when the car is pointing downhill and one driver stepping off the brake pedal might mean getting hit.

An occasional misjudgment is understandable, but constantly? Is there a possible reason that doesn’t involve name calling? All I can think of is idiots and jerks.

This is a traffic flow problem as well, like streets crossing Mercer, Denny, or Spring eastbound after work, or any southbound avenue before a night game. Cars and buses both get stuck.

Sometimes there’s no traffic jam at all, but cars still creep into crosswalks. Maybe they’re turning right and not looking both ways. Often they’re not turning at all, and simply don’t care about others. Or they decided to drive uphill without the skill to do it safely.

I say throw the book at them. And do the same for red light runners and texters.

Turn those substation sites into parks

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015
This former substation site at 3904 N.E. 65th St. was sold last year for development. Photos by Cass Turnbull.
Posted by Cass Turnbull

‘It’s not right’.’That’s what I thought when I heard Seattle City Light was going to sell 35 surplus properties to balance their budget. The surplus lots are what are left of 150 electrical substations that became obsolete because of new technology in the 70’s. Today they are typically just an empty concrete pad surrounded by a fence, surrounded by some really nice, mature trees and landscaping. I thought, ‘If you just took down the fence and added a gazebo or a bench and you’d have a great, ready-made pocket park’.

I joined Seattle Green Spaces Coalition, a group formed to Save Our Substations. We soon ran into a stone wall of laws, policies, seriously disinterested departments that said we couldn’t. We were told that legally the property had to be sold. The Parks Department said they didn’t have the money to buy them or maintain them. If we wanted them for greenspace, we’d have to buy them. It’s even crazier, I thought, to ask the public to pay for land that it already owns, so it can be kept for the public good. Over the years some substations have become parks, some have become public housing, but most have been developed by private interests.
Seattle isn’t meeting its current open space goals. With 100,000 to 200,000 new people headed our way over the next few decades, I suspect the amount of open space per person will be much less. The privately owned open spaces are shrinking. Just look at the McMansions, the Three and Four Pack condos, and the apodments. They haven’t enough greenspace to put out a kiddy pool.

I keep wondering where the people living in all those monolithic apartment buildings will go to find something green. Where will the mothers go with their baby buggies, dog walkers go with their dogs? How will they know it is spring if they can’t hear birds or smell the lilacs. Will the kids in those buildings get to play hide and seek, build forts, climb trees, make snowmen, run? These little properties may not amount to much but they can provide solace for the troubled, respite for the weary. They can be place for the young to dream, and a place for the old and the infirm to sit in the sun.

City Light will eventually put this former substation at 7750 28th Ave. N.W. up for sale.

Photos by Cass Turnbull

So I’m hoping that the City Council, courageously being lead by our friend, Tom Rasmsson, can find a way through, or under, or around the stone wall. Because we need all the open space we can get.

A partial list of substations is on the website.

Cass Turnbull is a lifetime resident of Seattle and founder of TreePAC, a political action committee to advocate for the Urban Forest.

Will Council Raise Rents for Everyone?

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

It’s a repeated movie scene: soccer player dribbles down the field, overcoming all opposition and ignoring the shouting onlookers….and scores in the wrong goal.

City Council members say they want Seattle to be affordable, but the Land Use Committee is blindly heading the wrong way. They’re going to increase residential and commercial rents via massive development fees and new restrictions on the best way the market can provide cheap housing.

“Massive” is the right term. Basically, all multifamily and commercial developments would be subject to fees ranging from $7 to $22 per square foot (or alternatively $5 to $16), depending on neighborhood. Averaging out the higher version, that might be a 5% increase in development cost. Or development onsite, which tends to be much more expensive. The fees would apply to the whole building, vs. the current method of fees only above the old height limits. Houses would have no fees of course.

Micro project on East John, by DPD

The result is obvious. Higher rents won’t apply to just new buildings, but to every person or company that rents in Seattle. In a growing city, rents tend to follow replacement cost, plus a premium if vacancies get too tight. Replacement cost for all types of space would go much higher, even with a likely dampening of land prices. The fees would reduce construction until demand pushed rents up enough, then we’d start building again. It would be another “great reset” to higher rents. Some people counter that incomes are flat, but that’s not very relevant; in high-demand cities, people tend to pay a larger percentage of their income. The question of “what will the market bear” for a necessary product is based on customers’ pain thresholds, and prices rise until enough people let go.

Fee proponents seem to think the projects will keep flowing and costs don’t translate to prices. This is pure ignorance. Even without fees, the average project is on the edge of happening or not happening even in the weeks before it breaks ground. What will interest rates be? Will the market soften in the next two years? Is someone at DPD going to require an expensive change? Will the equity partner take the leap necessary to build offices on spec? We contractors hear about many projects that never even make the DJC because the pro forma doesn’t work. Once projects are public, or even permitted, a great many still never happen. There’s good reason behind that, and not just that returns might be disappointing – sometimes developers and financiers lose their shirts, as many did a few years ago.

Owners of existing buildings and homes would celebrate the fees of course (seriously, does the Land Use Committee know this?). Less competition means higher rents and higher building values. My condo would be worth more too. Commercial building investors love to buy buildings in areas with “high barriers to entry” for this reason.

So, rents would go up substantially for 130,000 renting households in Seattle (my guesstimate) and any business that rents space. That’s quite a price for a relatively small number of subsidized units.

We can do much better. There are methods that don’t restrict housing supply or punish companies for locating in Seattle. The existing housing levy is part of that; can it be expanded? How about making it easier for homeowners to build accessory units? How about micros? Or expanding the zones where townhouses can be built, even a little? Each can help fill part of the affordability gap for different types of people.

But most of those things are too scary for the Land Use Committee. The loudest voters want free, empty parking in front of their houses, and no “renters” (sometimes a euphemism) living nearby. Now micros, despite their popularity, have been slapped down already, and the Committee (motto: “You’re out of LUC”) wants to all but destroy the model entirely, with added parking, sinks, square footage, and entitlement process.

Some of that is understandable in the context of negotiating tradeoffs, like parking in certain zones, or even the design review process that adds costs, duration, and uncertainty to every project in Seattle. Other parts make no sense at all. Who does it help to outlaw the smallest micros, which are basically the size of a dorm room, minus the snoring roommate? If someone can afford 150 square feet but not 220, it’s off to the friend’s couch? (PS, as a donor to some of our outstanding nonprofits, I’d like to see money spread further with smaller units, like micro sizes for single people and micro+bedroom for families, with a focus on temporary rather than lifetime housing.)

About micro prices: Some say $700 isn’t really affordable (I’ve heard numbers from $600 to $1,000 for bigger units). It’s not low enough for everyone, and many people aren’t suited for micros. But it’s definitely a gap in our housing supply, and these units are popular. It’s notable that rents often include utilities, internet, and significant shared space. And don’t forget that the market is otherwise averaging over $1,400 for apartments. All things considered, $700 is a great price to live in a core Seattle neighborhood.

Hopefully the LUC and full council will listen to people beyond its own echo chamber and the consultants who want us to emulate the nation’s most expensive cities. The Mayor has shown signs of being reasonable. Let’s not look back on 2014 as the year we flubbed ourselves into higher rents for all.

UO architecture team wins national awards

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014
This water collection and filtration system can be attached to parking garages. Image courtesy of Cody Tucker

Three University of Oregon architecture undergraduates won four team awards in the Royal Society of Arts U.S. awards, with one of the three also winning a three-month summer internship with a global architecture firm.

Carolyn Lieberman, Samuel Ridge, and Cody Tucker took home the RSA Leadership Award for Architecture, the Agnes Bourne Cash Award for interiors, and the Techmer PM Award for Sustainable Design. Each award comes with a $1,000 cash prize.

In addition, Tucker was offered a paid summer internships in the New York office of Grimshaw Architects.

The students won for a project called “Infiltrating the City,” which they developed as part of UO Associate Professor Brook Muller’s winter 2014 studio. Muller asked the students to create intelligent designs for a parking garage in Portland’s South Waterfront district, a new development area just south of central Portland.

Tucker said he and the other students designed a kit of parts water collection and filtration system that can be attached to new or existing parking garages. The system uses terraced planter beds to filter heavy metals from runoff.

The South Waterfront garage is in the area known as the Zidell Yards, adjacent to the Ross Island Bridge. The students designed their system to collect and filter runoff from the bridge and garage. The cleansed runoff would water a wetlands the students designed to go under the bridge. The water would be released as needed, depending on the season.

Can growth reduce traffic?

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014
Via6, photo by Tim Rice

Often we look at development and wonder what will happen to traffic. This comes up a lot regarding greater Downtown Seattle, particularly the fast-growing northern portions. Actually, the truth might be pretty good.

The reasons are primarily these: 1. Congestion is mostly about peak times, and some buildings’ users spread their travel throughout the day rather than concentrating at rush hour. 2. A large percentage of growth does not add trips, but rather makes them shorter.

Category 1 includes hotels (a big growth area) as well as colleges, hospitals, retail, and art/tourist attractions. While these have peak times, they mostly spread activity throughout the day and night. Even at hospitals, only portions of the staff work bank hours, and few patients arrive at 8:00 am. Hotel guests arrive all day and evening, stay multiple nights while getting around mostly on foot, then leave throughout the morning. Destination retail is often busiest on weekends. Concerts are mostly at night. College students and faculty keep varying class hours. All of these uses avoid making rush hour much worse, while also activating our parks, spreading their lunch dollars to the slower times, and so on.

Housing falls heavily into Category 2. Greater Downtown residents are often greater Downtown workers. They’d already be traveling to these jobs daily, but living nearby means they can walk, use transit, bike, or drive a short distance instead of a long one. Working residents of the three major Downtown zip codes commuted on foot at rates of 47.6% for 98104, 34.1% for 98101, and 32.3% for 98121 in 2012 per They drove alone (often a much shorter distance) only 22.0%, 21.0% and 38.1% of the time. The gap between those figures was mostly transit, which is also much more convenient when you’re downtown. Working at home is also a major category. Expanding to the north, the 98109 area includes South Lake Union but also half of Queen Anne Hill, so its 13.7% walk and 47.6% drive alone rates are less relevant; perhaps SLU’s numbers are more like 98121’s.

Of course, those figures include people who commute to jobs far away from Downtown, who must represent a big chunk of the drivers and transit riders. The pedestrian numbers should be much higher if you only count those who also work Downtown. As for outbound commutes, these are added trips, but might peak a little earlier than inbound commutes (like 7:00-7:30 instead of 7:30-8:00?), and use the less-congested half of Downtown streets. In any case, it seems likely that most new Downtown residents also work here, so there should be a net reduction in traffic.

Many residents are in Category 1 as well, largely traveling outside commute times. This would include many retirees and students without jobs, who are apparently not counted in the commute statistics. These people seem likely to have low driving rates as well. Category 1 would also apply to many workers with non-traditional hours.

This is all relevant to transportation to and from greater Downtown as well. Turning thousands of 20-mile drives into two-mile drives and half-mile walks must be really helpful. If the current greater Downtown housing boom is around 11,500 units including tendrils up Dexter and Pike/Pine (my guesstimate), how many fewer inbound commutes might that represent, and and how many tax dollars might we avoid in future road projects, let alone less-jammed public transit? Between that savings, construction-related sales taxes, and new tax base upon completion, it’s a wonder we charge development fees rather than incentivizing new housing along with nice thank-you letters.

Offices (as well as laboratories) are the other big category of growth, and of course they contribute to rush hours. But our region needs their economic engine. That engine is best served by allowing companies to locate where workers want to work and companies can be near each other. Locating downtown means they’re transit-accessible and many employees can walk, meaning fewer cars on the road overall. They key is to balance office growth with housing growth. It would help if some companies changed their start times a little, much like the construction industry already has.

The concept of living Downtown is supported by demand. Apartments keep getting built because they keep filling up, at good prices. Maybe people like those leisurely walks to work, and choosing from the Downtown smorgasbord on the way home. Maybe they like walking out their doors on weekends and already being somewhere.

It works in other places too. Want less traffic in Redmond? Keep adding housing in that nice downtown area (seriously, take a look) as well as around Microsoft. Downtown Tacoma? Same thing. Everybody wins.

Transit, alleys and density

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

The King County “Proposition 1” transportation measure is Tuesday. Calling this a crucial “yes” is a huge understatement. Since it’s also a special election that may have low turnout, every vote (your vote) is magnified. Why is it crucial? For starters:

Protect our bus service

– It’s about restoring lost Metro funding, and avoiding a major reduction in service. This isn’t additional.

– Metro ridership has recovered to peak levels of 400,000 per day, and many routes are jammed. Metro serves the large majority of local transit trips.

– Street maintenance is important too. Forty percent of the funding will go to streets.

– Many people rely on transit to get to work or school, and have no other means. That’s important to the rest of us too – society and businesses function better when people of moderate means can live decently, attend school, etc.

– Transit use keeps cars off the street, helping drivers.

– Urban cores need good transit to function, and we rely on these cores as economic engines – not just Downtown Seattle, the U-District, and Downtown Bellevue but every other sizeable employment and population node.

Yes, it’s a few dollars per year, and King County Metro hasn’t achieved perfection. They’re a vital service that most people in the region rely upon either directly or indirectly. Road maintenance isn’t glamorous but it’s needed and woefully underfunded. This is a good measure. Please vote!

On another topic, here’s hoping the City eases up on alley vacations for development projects. Of course alleys are public property and the public should get fair return. But alleys exist for the current and future occupants of each block, and if the block is a single development with its own loading dock there’s no other purpose, especially if the developers are adding public access. The current process and climate results in uncertainty and delay, which can cost a project millions just for the wasted time. For projects that get a “no” or simply avoid pursuing a vacation entirely, the result can be a much costlier or cancelled project. Parking garages, for example, can be efficient on a large site but grossly inefficient and expensive on a half-block that isn’t large enough for two double-loaded aisles. Thankfully the project in West Seattle seems to be getting a good decision. Hedreen’s big hotel and apartment project should also. Shouldn’t we want (aside from lesser-Seattleites) to add to Seattle’s meeting business, tourism, and tax base? Visitors are also a huge percentage of Downtown retail sales and museum attendance, and we’re losing out because our hotels fill up during much of the year. The project would add a large amount of affordable housing and public amenities.

A recent Seattle Times column by Danny Westneat expressed his worry about apartments planned near his office. This brought up a common refrain, that housing in Greater Downtown could cause strain on roads and parking. I suggest that the opposite is true. New residents in Greater Downtown are often people who already work here, and are turning long commutes into short ones. Further, residents walk to work far more often than driving, according to the US Census 2012 ACS – walking at rates of 47.6% for 98101, 34.1% for 98104, and 32.3% for 98121, and driving alone at 22.0%, 21.0% and 38.1% rates, and those numbers include reverse commuters! The rest is mostly transit. The multi-block job Westneat was concerned about should reduce transportation stress rather than adding to it. Add the tens of millions it’ll pay in height bonus fees and sales taxes and it’s a major positive. People want to live close-in, and with jobs increasing in Greater Downtown it’s all the more important that housing help keep commuter numbers from getting out of hand. Which is another reason to vote yes for transit!

Ahem, that planter is not a litter box

Friday, February 28th, 2014

As I walk around American cities like Chicago, New York and Washington DC, I see lots of low metal fences around streetside planters. Robust vegetation grows inside, protected from people and dogs. Invariably the plants are in dramatically better condition than those in similarly situated planters without the fences. For some reason, this detail did not catch on in Seattle. I’m guessing that in balancing the various constraints of the right-of-way, city policy and standard practice valued a less cluttered streetscape.

planter with fence at Via6

Getting more people to live in our urban neighborhoods is great, but they come with feet and dogs so planter fences deserve another look. Newer projects such as Via6, Bell Street Park (under construction) and the Pike Pine Renaissance (on the boards) are turning to planter fences as a way to provide lush vegetation on our streets. The results are better walking experiences and a healthier urban environment, but we’ll only get more of these improvements if we respect the subtle behavioral cues that these fences represent. I’ve talked with the gardeners and maintenance folks that have to clean up these planters. Unsurprisingly, they’d rather we just built everything out of concrete.

I’ve seen people lift their dogs over these fences despite the presence of discouraging signs and passersby. Maybe apartment buildings should be required to provide private facilities for all their four legged inhabitants as at Stadium Place or maybe there is a new public relief station parklet that could be deployed in busy corridors. Just like I can’t park my car on the sidewalk, people should be sensitive to the way curbing dogs in an urban environment impacts the public realm. With careful design and mutual respect, we should be able to welcome many new residents, and their furry friends, into a great pedestrian-oriented city.

The inconvenient truth about workforce housing

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Dan Bertolet, a planner and a blogger at, posted his thoughts on an upcoming forum:

On Thursday, February 13th the Seattle City Council will host a Seattle Workforce Housing Forum. The City Council promises that the forum will “tackle the best ways to meet Seattle’s affordable housing needs!”

But is there a scarcity of housing priced at 30 percent of the monthly income of people that earn 60 to 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI), housing typically referred to as “workforce housing?”

According to a comprehensive analysis of housing data conducted by King County the answer, in Seattle, is “No!” Instead the report finds:

(The) Critical Need is for Affordable Rental Housing for Very-Low and Low-Income Households. While the amount of rental housing stock affordable to households earning above 60 percent of median income appears adequate, market-rate affordable rentals for those between 40 and 60 percent AMI are scarce and not well-distributed geographically.

The analysis goes on to say:

For those moderate income renters, the supply is much more than adequate in all of the sub-regions … 38 to 42 percent of all rental units throughout
the County are affordable at the moderate income level.

The City Council is poised to solve a problem that we don’t have with a tool (incentive zoning) that will only make workforce housing more expensive. More fees and process would, ironically, drive up costs and prices of a housing product that is already, by the City’s standard, affordable.

Chart by Dan Bertolet/ planner, and blogger at

So what is the problem?

Many people, of all income levels, find it frustrating to find a place to live in Seattle. Seattle needs more housing!

What is the solution?

Seattle needs to allow more housing of all types in all neighborhoods, including small-lot homes, cottages, microhousing, and multifamily housing for families who need 2 and 3 bedrooms. Even housing that is within reach of people with more money means those people won’t be competing with people with fewer dollars for scarce housing. More housing means more choices, better prices, more competition between landlords for tenants not renters competing with renters for scarce housing units.

Biggest boom ever?

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

With Downtown Seattle’s history of construction booms, being able to stand in one place and see 15 or 20 tower cranes isn’t unusual. So being the biggest boom ever would take some doing. But we might be there today. How remarkable given the still-recovering economy.

Bay Vista in 1982, courtesy of Lease Crutcher Lewis

The 70s began by saving the Market and Pioneer Square, encouraging a lot of reinvestment in those areas. It continued with the Kingdome, Freeway Park, Rainier Square, Bank of Cal, and the Federal Office Building. In an era when many cities tried to out-suburb the suburbs, we chose to celebrate and revive our urbanity. Or we did to an extent, as we also upped the safety regulations on rooming houses to such an extent that, according to Sightline, 5,000 rooms closed in a span of months in close-in neighborhoods, which must have helped spur today’s mass homelessness. The decade also began with voters turning down the Forward Thrust rail system, earning the scorn of many urbanists ever since.

The early 1980s were epic, adding our first major wave of condo towers, doubling (and seriously overbuilding) Downtown’s hotel inventory, and adding office towers like the Columbia Center and Wells Fargo Center. The early 80s might be called the dawn of our modern downtown. (Apologies to the 70s, as well as the 62 Fair, the Box the Space Needle Came In, and the advent of Seattle-style teriyaki.)

The late 1980s were even bigger. We built four of today’s seven tallest office towers. The housing boom was the biggest yet, including a larger focus on Belltown. We built the convention center (helping those hotels!) and the Downtown Transit Tunnel. The voters rebelled with the CAP initiative in 1989, dramatically reducing building heights and temporarily restricting new office square footages (largely irrelevant since we overbuilt). Of course, voter annoyance might have been more about traffic disruptions related to the tunnel and convention center, but developers are a natural target for populists.

The late 1990s were bigger still. By then we were building hotels again. The retail core underwent a massive transformation, making us once again a top retail destination. Another office boom brought the late 80s to mind but spread more to the Downtown peripheries, powered by tech and astonishingly low vacancy rates.  The housing boom was again our largest ever. We expanded the convention center and built Bell Street Pier and Safeco Field.

The late 2000s gave the late 90s a run for their money. Again it was our biggest housing boom ever, primarily condos. Offices once again got built at a high rate, and hotels continued unabated as Seattle continued to emerge as a visitor destination. We added CenturyLink Field, turned the Bus Tunnel into the Downtown Transit Tunnel with light rail, expanded hospitals, and continued to grow as a center for disease research.

And then there’s now. Who’d have thunk it? Ripples in 2010 turned into waves of groundbreakings in 2011 and unquestionable boom status by 2012. Apartment construction is over 10,000 units if you gerrymander up Dexter and Pike/Pine and count projects in early demo. Along with the one big condo project, that’s by far the largest housing boom ever. The office market is still relying on niches and a big internet/retail firm, but we’re already building at a good clip. Hotels have just started. The 99 tunnel, Mercer/Valley/Broad, the Link extension, and the First Hill Streetcar are the biggest transportation wave since the I-5 at least. But that’s not all. This boom appears to be sticking around.

Apartments should keep breaking ground at a good clip, spurred by culture and job growth, even if the market moves somewhat toward normal. They’ll be joined by a surging condo market in the next year or two, as a few developers can finance projects without presales, and rising confidence by buyers and lenders may result in presales being viable again. The office market should broaden with the economic recovery, even while Amazon has announced further expansions. Hotel occupancies recovered two years ago, followed by room rates more recently, and that market seems poised for another large wave. Absent a major surprise, the pace of work underway might even increase.