Posts Tagged ‘Planning’

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.

The crash as Seattle’s perfect storm?

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

In this month’s Atlantic, Richard Florida talks about the America that will emerge from the rubble of the current recession.

Too bad he hasn’t spent more time in the Rainy City, or we might have gotten our own cover, like they did in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Toronto, proclaiming our coming hegemony. No matter. For the America Florida describes is one where cities like Seattle will get all the candy.

Seattle wins.

No one will escape some serious hurt, Florida says, but some cities will find themselves bouncing back a lot faster.

And some might not bounce back at all. Gone are the days of easy credit fueling growth, Florida says. That will hurt some Sun Belt cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas and the fauxconomies that formed there based largely on speculation and flipping.

Also beaten back (again)  is the long-suffering rust belt and its dated manufacturing and distribution core.  Wisteria Lane-type suburbs will also find a hard time attracting people and growth to their sprawling reaches.

Ironically, Florida argues, cities like New York, the financial centers of the U.S., the ones where much of the damage was done that caused this crash in the first place, will emerge stronger than ever thanks to diverse economies and concentrations of highly educated people.

Florida describes a post-crash America where talent clusters in super-dense mega-regions will rule the day, places with lots of intellectual capitol and the ability to keep attracting those types of people. Places like Cascadia (which he actually mentions by name).

He argues the new administration would be wise to divert resources to those areas to keep people and capitol moving and ready for the economy of the future.

Saving bus service actually helps the economy

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

By now, most of us have heard Metro’s grim warning of a $100 million funding decline next year, and a potential 20 percent cut in service. We’ve also heard that an increase in local taxing authority might be a solution to keep our service. If it’s Thursday morning, the anti-tax, anti-transit crowd is undoubtedly out in full force. If history is an indicator, their arguments are hollow.

They’re probably saying more taxes will make the economy worse, and asking how we could even consider such a thing, and don’t we want to be business-friendly?

They’re backwards. Saving bus service will help us IMPROVE our economy, and improve a lot of people’s lives, even if requires a tax increase.

Of course, Metro hasn’t mentioned a tax increase per se, just maintaining a similar amount of revenue via a higher rate. But it’ll be argued as such.

With decent bus service, more people can leave their cars at home, saving operation and parking costs and wear and tear, and keeping away from the financial cliff. Transit gives people the option to not have cars at all, which can make poor people middle class. Anyone need reminding on the importance of saving individuals on the brink for the good of the rest of us?

Businesses are increasingly locating where the transit is good, because transit helps them attract employees. This is a major reason most office construction and tenants stick to a few urban districts in our region, and those in other areas are asking for better transit. Even if the boss doesn’t use it, the rank and file often do. I’ve heard 60 percent of my office uses transit at least sometimes, aided by our Downtown location.

Financial benefits to the region as a whole are less immediate but even more significant. We save tax dollars in the long run because good transit lets us reduce the amount we spend on road capacity, where our wish list is in the tens of billions because road capacity is outrageously expensive. Consumers end up saving because transit can reduce the amount of parking required (or wanted) for everything we spend money on. For example, the City of Seattle has reduced parking requirements for housing in a few areas, often saving tens of thousands of dollars per unit. Why throw these advances away?

Transit helps the nation use energy and materials more efficiently, from steel and leather to gas and oil. True, our whole metro is 1 percent of the country, but we can be part of the solution. Between the materials to produce the car and the resources to operate it, even a US-made hybrid sends money overseas hand over fist. We reduced oil demand when prices rose; again, why throw that away?

It’s hard to tell where the economy will go, and where tax revenues will go. Maybe things won’t be so bad. But count me as one who’s happy to vote yes if necessary to keep our bus service…and to stay up way too late tonight to write this.

Is DPD doing a good job?

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

The Department of Planning and Development has an online customer service survey on its site. The survey, which lets you respond anonymously, asks about experience and interactions with the agency, and what you might like to see changed in the future. It takes a few minutes to complete.

Does Portland’s architecture stink?

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger was in the Rose City Nov. 20 for a lecture. But a Willamette Week editorial reports that Goldberger thinks some of Portland’s architecture stinks.

Riding in a van through the city along with some local architects, reporters and academics, Goldberger commented on the beauty of the city’s South Park blocks and called Old Town‘s historic buildings “wonderful,” according to the editorial.

He also raved about the city’s public transit, active streets and urban feel. But he ewwwed at the Wells Fargo Center and called a surface lot at Fourth and Northwest Davis “terrible.”

The WW editorial notes that Goldberger, a Pulitzer Prize winner (like the Willamette Week) who writes the New Yorker‘s “Sky Line” column, was impressed with Portland’s neighborhoods and urban planning but had little to say about Portland’s buildings.

In Seattle, we spend a lot of time comparing ourselves unfavorably to our smaller, hipper cousin. Portland’s fast and efficient transit is a big one for many. Fans of adaptive reuse look to the Pearl District for great examples of warehouses-turned-condos.

There are also those beautiful bridges, abundant bike routes, and the walkable waterfronts (even if they do overlook a Superfund site). And then there are the movie theaters where you can drink a pint and watch a movie for under $10.

But, as the WW editorial points out, Portland doesn’t have a space needle. It doesn’t have an EMP, a Smith Tower, or much of a skyline at all. It doesn’t have iconic architecture. Does that matter in a city so-well designed in so many other ways?

Oakland: A parallel universe

Monday, November 10th, 2008

Writers often dream up worlds that are very similar to our own but have fundamental differences that shine a light on what’s wrong with ours. Thomas More’s Utopia and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels come to mind.

But I had a chance to visit just such a parallel world this week in California called Oakland.

Oakland has long been San Francisco’s ugly sister derided for its crime and Gertrude Stein determined that there was no there, there.

It is a small city and it has had its share of issues with crime. But there is a great deal of natural beauty, cultural and compelling architecture not to mention some fantastic historic landmarks.

What makes a trip to Oakland revealing is what its urgent desire to create more multifamily housing in the downtown area. There don’t seem to be the debates we have in Seattle about whether we have growth and whether Seattle should accommodate it. Instead former Mayor Jerry Brown developed the 10K Initiative which set as a goal to create 10,000 new units of housing.

Shocking! Imagine a housing agenda with an actual numerical and geographic target. And add to that the fact that the projects that are listed range from subsidized low income housing to large mixed used projects like the one on 23rd and Valdez Street. The amazing and historic Cathedral Building is also being converted to condominiums.

My walking tour of these projects took the better part of a day and some of the projects were completely ugly, others run of the mill and some appeared to really be reaching for new ground in design and function.

The sad thing is the effort may not be working. The flailing economy and the uphill climb to reverse the doughnut effect is creating a high vacancy rate—at least anecdotally. Some locals say they are the ones that should be living in the new units, but Oakland just doesn’t work for them.

So while some in Seattle want to shut the door behind them and keep out new growth, or nickel and dime developers with disconnected housing goals (How many? Where? Why?) Oakland is actually going out of its way to identify under utilized parcels and recruit efforts to build housing on them. I am

sure Oakland wishes it had our problems. And the Lesser Seattle folks, I’m sure, wish we had theirs.

Boise, Portland make APA 2008 Great Places

Friday, October 10th, 2008

Seattle was absent from the American Planning Association’s 2008 Great Places in America list but Boise and Portland both made a showing. Last year, the Pike Place Market made the Great Neighborhoods list.

Could be a protest, could just be lunch time

This year, Boise’s North End Neighborhood was ranked among the 10 Great Neighborhoods and Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square was ranked among the Great Public Spaces by the American Planning Association.

I think it makes sense for Seattle to make the list every year. Still, I’m pleased to see other great Northwest spaces make the cut.

Pioneer Courthouse Square serves at once as Portland’s Grand Central Station and Times Square. It’s sandwiched by Max tracks, hosts public concerts and protests and has built-in chessboards and benches that are popular to the homeless, businesspeople and tourists.

Thirty years ago, it was a parking lot. Portland’s 1972 Downtown Plan proposed the square and in 1982 the group “Friends of Pioneer Square” raised $1.5 million to make the project happen.

Yes, this is Idaho
I’ve spent a lot of time in the square, eating lunch, people watching and waiting for the Max. My one gripe: It could use a few more overhangs for rainy days.

Boise’s North End is a great close-in neighborhood that allows most of its residents a 10 minute walk to downtown Boise and is home to some great old houses.

It has its own little walking district, Hyde Park, that’s peppered with little shops and restaurants. Neighborhoods with strong identities are common in Seattle and Portland, but in Boise, the North End really stands out. In terms of its architecture and walkability, it’s similar to Queen Anne.

Also on the list this year: New York’s Central Park, Wichita’s Old Town, Washington Street in Boston and the Santa Monica Beach.

Our house

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

About 65 percent of Seattle is zoned for single family housing. Is that too much or just right?

In Chicago and DC, all of my friends lived in apartments or condos. In Portland, they all live in standalone houses, even the renters, though some have lots of roommates. In Seattle, it’s a real mix, with townhouses, rowhouses and duplexes increasingly entering the picture.

Does our Single Family majority keep prices high? Are we ill-equipped for all this growth people keep predicting? Does Seattle have too much single family land?

I asked two SeattleScape bloggers to take on the debate. Their pieces ran in today’s DJC and can be read here without a subscription.

Irene Wall argues that Single Family housing is Seattle’s Golden Goose and we’re doing great on density already. Roger Valdez, a new blogger at SeattleScape, makes the case that preserving all that land for standalone homes hurts the working class.

What do you think? Is Seattle’s house in order? HugeAss City weighs in here.

Stalled projects mean eyesores for Seattle

Monday, July 28th, 2008

As the financial credit crisis puts the crunch on local redevelopment projects, an additional unpleasant consequence is the increasing number of vacant lots and vacant buildings, especially in Downtown Seattle and nearby neighborhoods.

Who knows how long these sites will remain vacant? In the interim, we’re stuck with illegal parking lots at best and eyesores at worst.

East Pine Street at Belmont
On a quick drive through Downtown the other day I spotted three illegal parking lots on stalled redevelopment sites. While some folks may enjoy the suddenly greater availability of low-cost surface parking, these impromptu parking lots fly in the face of the City’s vision for Downtown and often create a false “value added” that can perpetuate the parking use for years.

First, in many parts of Downtown, as well as other pedestrian-designated commercial zones, surface parking is NOT an allowed use by City code. Occasionally, temporary surface parking is permissible, but only with special approvals.

Second, even where allowed, surface parking obviously cannot simply be set up as dirt or gravel lots. They need to be paved, with adequate storm water drainage, as well as include landscaped buffers adjacent to the sidewalk, plus interior landscaping. If you’ve seen some of these impromptu lots around town you’ll notice that the cars abut or even hang over onto the sidewalk, with no buffer but for weeds and occasionally black tarp staked up a few inches, ostensibly to contain runoff.

Lastly, surface parking lots are a valuable commodity in certain parts of town. Look at the parking lot at the southeast corner of Second and Pine! It’s been there for generations – a missing tooth in the otherwise improving stretch between the retail core and Pike Place Market.

Second Avenue in Belltown

Suffice it to say, in some cases what may seem like a casual, impromptu use can last for years. And, if the parking lot is either not allowable in that location and/or lacks the appropriate buffering, drainage, landscaping, etc., it’s a real detriment to the streetscape and neighborhood.

And what about those other “eyesores?” Other locations where projects have been stalled simply sit fallow – vacant lots, vacant buildings, or even semi-demolished buildings. Overnight, of course, these become targets for graffiti, litter, vandalism and crime, or simply become weed-choked, litter-strewn lots. Think of the former Safeway site at 40th and Stone Way N, or the collection of buildings along Westlake Avenue that Carr America hopes to redevelop. The list goes on.

This issue may be a bit more complicated, but the question is: should the City consider a minimum-maintenance ordinance for such properties?


Back to the future of South Lake Union

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

It seems like much of the city’s time is spent working on the future of South Lake Union.

No comment.

From trolleys and targeted up-zones to street redesigns and a new park (dedication shown at right) and trail, proposals for the hood once known as Cascade have kept city officials busy as bees in a hive for the past few years.

But what exactly should come next?

The Seattle City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee will hold a special meeting at noon Thursday to discuss the long-term vision for South Lake Union.

While they’re at it, they’ll bring out the crystal ball on Uptown, too.

The meeting will be held in Council Chambers on the Second Floor of City Hall at 600 Fourth Ave.

Presenters include John Coney and Steven Paget- in charge of the “visioning” process, Craig Hanway of the Queen Anne Community Council, John Savo of the South Lake Union Friends and Neighbors Community Council, Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute and Michael McGinn, director of the Seattle Great City Initiative.

A neighborhood-wide up-zone for South Lake Union is in the works and could come before council later this year.