Posts Tagged ‘density’

Where you live DOES matter

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

Earlier this year John Fox, leader of the Displacement Coalition, organized against House Bill 1490 titled “reducing greenhouse gas emissions through land use and transportation requirements.”

Fox took issue with many parts of the bill, including the claim that it would wipe out existing affordable housing and replace it with out-of-scale condo developments for the rich. Fox and supporters of the bill argued over whether the bill would really reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“There are hundreds if not thousands of low income and minority households all along the transit route whose homes would be turned into rubble,” he said. “What’s green about tossing that into a landfill and pouring tons of concrete for all the new high density development?”

The fight was over how to quantify whether the high density development proposed in the legislation would cut green house gas emissions or if the demolition and construction would actually increase emissions. Fox argued, without substantiation, that the bill would actually make things worse. Advocates were caught somewhat off guard. But a recent study sheds some light on the debate (although the bill is dead).

The authors of the study, published in The Journal of Urban Planning and Development, quantified the emissions from building materials and construction, home heating and power demands, and transportation energy, in both urban and suburban neighborhoods in the Toronto metro area.

They found that downtown residents use radically less energy, and consequently emit about two-thirds less climate-warming CO2 than their suburban counterparts.

While the study has its limits — it compares just two neighborhoods in a single city– it points, as other studies do, to the evidence that sprawl and car dependence are closely linked, and are responsible for a disproportionate share of GHG emissions.

This study or dozens like it probably won’t persuade John Fox. But it is an early indicator that indeed high-density development really does produce fewer green house gas emissions than low-density sprawl.

Read more about the study at the Sightline Daily Score Blog.

Seattle gets another chance to sell density

Monday, March 16th, 2009
Stay classy, Seattle.
Seattle hasn’t done a good enough job convincing its residents of the pluses of density, and the current slowdown will give the city a chance to try again, Denny Onslow of Harbor Properties said Friday at a CityClub luncheon that explored the impacts Seattle’s sluggish economy could have on livability.

Onslow and other panelists at the luncheon said the current downturn will give the city a chance to rethink some its growth and density regulations, like how much parking it requires, and where and when civic infrastructure should be built. And that might help single-family heavy Seattle to see that denser development in their neighborhoods comes with livability improvements for them, too.

“There’s a lot of good things that can come when density comes,”Onslow said.

“The problem of people wanting to live here is a good one,” agreed Michael McGinn with the Seattle Great City Initiative. “I think we’re smart enough to build smart places, we just need to do it.”

Justin Carder, president of the Capitol Hill Community Council, said even proponents of density have had a hard time stomaching what’s happened to certain sites, like the vacant lot that used to house Bus Stop, Manray and Pony.

“The ideals of density are very popular with the people of Capitol Hill,” Carder said. “It’s the specifics that they take issue with.”

McGinn said too often, infrastructure is an afterthought to buildings, and it should happen the other way around. Onslow said that is especially true of where the city chooses to build transit corridors.

Seattle needs to think ahead about what its civic infrastructure should look like and let those priorities inform regional decisions, McGinn said. For example, officials should not cut bus service to fill budget holes. With Seattleites voting last year against a tunnel replacement for the viaduct, McGinn said the money now being earmarked to build a bored tunnel should be allocated elsewhere.

He said local government should also be doing more to become efficient, planning ahead so that utility and street improvements always happen at the same time.

“The way we currently live, we could do a helluva lot better,” McGinn said. “And we need to go there, immediately.”

Read the whole story here.

More than sustainability

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Sustainability means doing the minimum necessary to avoid ecological or societal trauma, whether for one location or ecosystem, or worldwide. In other words, it’s a half-measure.

People like half-measures. Public discussions of sustainability tend to reflect giving people everything they already have, but in less-wasteful formats. We hear more about hybrids than encouraging people to have fewer cars, more about responsible forestry than about using less wood, and more about recycling than about “reducing” or “reusing.”

That’s a start, and plenty for some people, but perhaps we need to work harder on the big stuff too.

Like density. We’re improving a bit, but we still strictly limit density in this region, making it more expensive than necessary (through bonus fees, additional process, lack of sites zoned higher than what’s already there, etc.) and therefore reducing its market share, which in turn adds to sprawl. Meanwhile, denser construction brings huge efficiencies in energy, materials, and land use, due to factors such as shared walls and reduced commute distances. (Transportation is sometimes forgotten in analyses of energy use!)

The trend toward smaller homes (or plateau?) is encouraging. Smaller homes use less materials and energy to build, use less energy to heat, cool, and light (all else being equal), and don’t leave so much room to fill with unneeded stuff. The trend toward multifamily helps for similar reasons, plus multifamily residents have the option of simply deleting the astonishing array of tools and materials often kept by house residents, from paint to edgers to four kinds of shovel.

It’s great that we’re focusing on transit, because transit benefits energy use, land-use, runoff, the need for parking infrastructure, and so on compared to driving. Biking and walking are even better. Density automatically makes all of these modes more viable. Of course we still don’t put our policies where our mouth is on pedestrian issues, with many “no crossing” points even in our most urban districts, our lax oversight of speeding and red light running, and so on.

It’s disgusting what’s happening with the global warming “debate.” In fact it’s a fake debate kept alive by certain industries and those who believe them. We’re exactly where the cigarette “debate” was a couple decades ago. Scientists agree that humans are a contributor to the problem, as much as they agree about anything, except the corrupt (bought) ones and a small number of honest devil’s advocates. The cigarette deniers are now seen as having contributed to countless deaths (and they still troll online bulletin boards, denying everything!). In the coming decades the global warming deniers will be reviled in the same way for the same reason. I’ll applaud any leadership Obama might provide on this issue, and we can all act locally as well, as an industry adding to the strides we’ve made, as a region with policy, and as individuals.

Seattle is getting WAY better

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Is Seattle getting better? Well…yeah. In my own mind this is so clear that the question is always a surprise.

The discussion is generally about pace of growth. It’s easy to understand slow-growthers’ points, like how cheap everything used to be, the comfort of the familiar, or the ease of parking.

But it’s the big-city traits that impress me, like density, walkability, transit, diversity, and energy. One of the great journeys of life is watching this city turn into something greater.

Some of our neighborhood business and mixed-use districts had better retail in the 70s and 80s, but way fewer people lived there, and these places tended to lack energy. Yes there was parking — it dominated the fringes of many areas, like moats of nothingness. Seattle (in-town) has grown by over 20% since we bottomed out in 1986, and a lot of the growth has gone to urban villages. The difference is even more stark in greater Downtown, where many edge neighborhoods were wastelands.

Of course more stuff in proximity usually means greater walkability. We have physical and policy problems there (the City often doesn’t walk its talk),  but we did then, too.

We’re finally getting light rail, and not just a line but a network. Each new line magnifies the value of the lines that connect to it. Our bus service is less exciting, with service far too limited, due in large part to the 80/20 rule. Because the County might never sober up, we need Seattle to subsidize buses the way the State subsidizes Amtrak, possibly with a levy.

We’ve improved immeasurably on the diversity front. While we’ve lost ground on some fronts as the poor areas have edged southward, Seattle has also had big influxes, such as Vietnamese, Russians, Ethiopians, and others. Today’s Seattle is more worldly and interesting, and as Microsoft can tell you, we’ve gained priceless talent (which I hope we don’t lose due to misguided immigration law).

Parks are another improvement area. Downtown still lacks central green space, but the edges are doing better.

By the way, here is Stephen Cysewski’s astonishingly cool photo collection about Seattle in the 70s and 80s.

Why refuse the 2030 challenge?

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Several Seattle architects sitting on a ULI panel last week said their firms had decided not to take The 2030 challenge. But it’s not who you think, and their reasons might surprise you.

"Enviro Tower" by Eco-Logikal

Sandy Mendler, now a principal at Mithun, said Mithun isn’t taking the challenge because it doesn’t fit with the firm’s goals of improving urbanism and working toward less sprawl. She said meeting carbon targets on large standalone buildings is not the way to go. An environmental challenge should focus more on what really happens in urban buildings, she said.

Robert Miller, a principal at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, said his firm also hadn’t taken the challenge. His problem was with the commitment to meeting the challenge on all new buildings. He said the wording should be changed to commit a firm to meeting the challenge “on average,” throughout all of its work.

Chris Pardo of Pb Elemental said his firm also hasn’t taken the challenge. He said on the projects that Pb designs and develops, they are choosing to design to standards of the challenge because “we believe it’s something we should be doing no matter what.”

Peter Greaves of Weber Thompson and Margaret Montgomery of NBBJ also sat on the panel. Both said their firms have taken the challenge.

“It’s not achievable if we don’t try,” Montgomery said.

I’ll talk more about comments made by the panel in a story running on Wednesday’s A/E page.

Some love for midrises

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

A recent study determined that at least 220 midrises have been built in the 2,000-acre Greater Downtown area in the last 20 years, including those now underway. That’s in the CBD plus fringe districts like Lower Queen Anne, around Seattle U, etc.

OK, it was an obscure and imprecise study. Basically yours truly counting new buildings between 3-9 stories off the top of my head. I’ve been trying to invent a reason to write about this, and not coming up with one. So … quite a lot of midrises, eh?

One of 220: Cabrini First Hill Apartments

Well …. yeah. 220 really is a lot. Greater Downtown has changed dramatically in that time, and midrises have been a major reason, perhaps as much so as the 76(?) taller buildings built in the same period.

You can argue about architecture, or zoning, or what got torn down. But there’s no question that the edges of Downtown have gotten a lot more populated, with midrises bringing thousands of hotel rooms, millions of square feet of offices and labs, thousands of housing units, nice college buildings and a lot more retail. Far more people now live the sort of walkable, sustainable lifestyles many of us encourage.

Housing affordability should benefit long-term. First, midrises tend to be a bit cheaper to build than taller buildings. Second, look at today’s low-moderate-price housing: it’s generally the market-rate housing of past decades, whether the 70s or 20s. Because buildings tend to move downmarket over the years, buildings from the 80s should be following their 70s brethren.

Of course, the biggest requirement for affordability is keeping supply ahead of demand, and Seattle’s influx of midrises is a big reason why we have avoided San Francisco-type prices. (And kudos to our array of non-profits, who both house the poor and improve neighborhoods.)

Same story with retail. New buildings tend to be populated by established retailers and chains, because of lease rates and other requirements. But as long as there’s more retail space than the big guys want, there will always be cheaper spaces for the funky local stores, primarily in older buildings.

So, yeah, that’s a lot of midrises!

Will Belltown soon become Belltown?

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Since most of it was regraded a century ago, the area we now call Belltown has always been on the way to some fantastic destiny. The current vision has been clear since the 80s: Belltown should be a dense spinoff from Downtown proper, primarily residential but with offices too, and with lots of amenities.

Plymouth Housing's new project at at 2119 Third

I’ve always thought Belltown was just one more wave of projects away. After a few waves it’s not there yet. But it’s getting closer.

In many ways, Belltown is a huge success already, and I love living here. It’s vibrant to a point, and every convenience is either here or nearby. Young adults, empty-nesters, and a large poor population mix with less difficulty than some imagine. Half of us walk to work or use transit.

Traffic and street width are a hurdle. Belltown is “on the way to” Ballard in addition to destiny. The narrow streets and low traffic of Portland’s Pearl District magnify the feeling of people out and about, while Belltown needs lots of pedestrians to seem right, and busy crossings discourage strolling. Some avenues are probably unfixable, but Second and Third are low-volume toward the north and could be narrowed, perhaps replacing a lane or two with greenery.

We should concentrate our retail. Belltown is populated enough to have a couple good retail avenues, or one great one, but instead it has a lot of “sort of” retail streets. The culprit is code that favors/requires retail everywhere, and doesn’t require it to be wall-to-wall anywhere. We ought to pick a couple avenues for retail, and sharply reduce requirements elsewhere, leaving space for corner stores of course.

For those wishing for a bigger-city feel, another lesson is that a few hundred new housing units won’t have much effect in such a large area. That’ll take thousands of people, which will take years. Luckily some of us enjoy the journey.

Perhaps we can talk about amenities in another post!

Can zoning save Seattle from going Stepford?

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Former council staffer Roger Valdez wrote an interesting column on growth and change in today’s P-I.

Growth is coming, Valdez says; lots of it. So how do we accommodate all these new people, their new houses and cars and needs, without losing all of our Sunset Bowls, Chubby and Tubbys, all of our views of Mt. Rainier and Lake Union, all of our Seattleness? Is that even possible?

Not your grandmother's Seattle anymore

Valdez says the city would be wise to expand the Transfer of Development Rights program throughout the city so owners of landmark properties could make money, developers could keep building high and we could all hold on to a more diverse cityscape.

That’s an idea council has been kicking around for the past few months, but legislation hasn’t yet been discussed.

He also recommends developer incentives for preserving existing uses, aimed at earmarking some space for the arts, cultural and community spaces that are being pushed out with rising rents and skyrocketing development potential.

Valdez says increasing the type of uses we protect is a good way to protect uses that don’t really “pencil out” but add to the city’s bottom line.

In some cases, Valdez said, the city could even forgo the code and let neighborhoods and developers work together to create innovative projects that fit better with neighborhoods and protect the uses we value.

I’m not sure I really see developers and neighbors joining hands on many projects. But as our region aggressively plans for growth, people like Valdez suggest that more mitigation measures are needed to make sure we don’t change entirely.

In-city density is planning’s penicillin for sprawl. Nobody wants sprawl, but how do we know when we’ve gotten too aggressive with our treatment?