Turn those substation sites into parks

January 6th, 2015 by Lynn
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 TreePAC.org website.

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

Volunteers to host holiday dinner for Nickelsville encampment

December 23rd, 2014 by Lynn

Volunteers of the Low Income Housing Institute will host a holiday dinner at 6:30 p.m. tonight (Dec. 23) for residents of Nickelsville, a tent city encampment in Seattle for homeless people.
The volunteers will also distribute donated winter clothing, blankets and toiletries at the event at the International District Community Center at 719 Eighth Ave. S.
Pastor Steve Olsen of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd will give a blessing. The church is the religious sponsor for Nickelsville, which is at 1010 S. Dearborn St. Chris Koh will represent the owner of the property.

Photo by Sharon Lee

In a press release, LIHI said the encampment consists of tents and simple sleeping structures for 40 homeless people and their children. It includes a kitchen/dining tent, cooking area, donation tent, hand washing station, and Honey Buckets.
Nickelsville formed in 2008 as shelters were full, LIHI said. It is a self-managed community of homeless men, women, children and pets.
LIHI said The Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness has recommended to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray that additional homeless encampments be allowed to be operated by experienced shelter and service providers on public and private property in the city. This would be in addition to those sponsored by religious or faith-based institutions.

People can make a donation to Nickelsville at 1010 S. Dearborn St., at the LIHI main office at 2407 First Ave. in Seattle, or online at www.LIHI.org.

Microhousing: good or bad?

October 22nd, 2014 by sera

How Small Are They?

Microhousing: good or bad?

Did you know Seattle is the pioneer in microhousing – that is apartments with an average size of 150 square feet?  An article in Politico says this is because of our real estate boom, with a growing population of millennials, permissive city codes. Because of those permissive codes, Seattle’s microhousing units have the smallest square footage in the country.

Not everyone loves seeing these microhousing units popping up in their neighborhoods, tucked in between single-family housing.  What looks like a townhouse with eight small apartments could actually contain 64 units.

As reported in the DJC, Seattle City Council approved new regulations requiring micro units have a minimum of 220 square feet, two sinks and a food preparation area that includes “a cooking appliance.”

Sightline Daily blog says the city’s going backwards with these new regulations. Sightline Executive Director Alan Durning asks, why do we need two sinks in a 220 square foot apartment?

What do you think?

 

 

Will Council Raise Rents for Everyone?

September 18th, 2014 by Matt Hays

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.

IZ and Inclusion: Time to Find Better Ideas

August 20th, 2014 by Roger Valdez
Alcyone Apartments in South Lake Union. Photo by author.

Recently the Capitol Hill Housing Improvement Program (CHHIP) decided they are no longer endorsing incentive and inclusionary policy to create affordable housing. Is it possible that even non-profit housing agencies are seeing the light on these bad policies?

Over the course of the first half of this year we’ve spent a lot of time informing the press and public why Incentive Zoning (IZ) and inclusionary zoning are tools that won’t work and the problem they are intended to fix is one we don’t have.

Here’s a summary.

Incentive Zoning

Wrong Tool

Wrong Problem

  • There is no housing crisis for people earning 60 to 80 percent of Area Median Income
  • The real problem is for people who are poor, earning 50 percent or less of Area Median income and families

Inclusionary Zoning

Wrong Tool

Wrong Problem

The evidence against the continued use of Incentive Zoning is overwhelming; it is a policy that will neither lower prices nor help poor people. Instead it adds costs and risks to market rate housing that is currently meeting the demand for housing for people earning 60 to 80 percent Area Median Income.

It’s time to stop and come up with a better analysis of our housing challenge as we plan for coming growth. Smart Growth Seattle has gathered 250 signers for our petition calling for a comprehensive housing plan.

Let’s stop policies that would reverse microhousing development, building in our low-rise zones, and increases in fees on new growth and let’s come up with a plan!


 

UO architecture team wins national awards

August 6th, 2014 by Lynn
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?

July 3rd, 2014 by Matt Hays
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 Census.gov. 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

April 17th, 2014 by Matt Hays

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!

Frank Lloyd Wright campus to get updated lighting

March 14th, 2014 by Lynn

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s imaginative Taliesin Spring will receive an update from award winning lighting designer and founder of Studio Lux, Christopher Thompson, who will introduce energy-efficient technology to the historic site.

Photo courtesy of Studio Lux

Taliesin Spring was Wright’s home and drafting studio in Spring Green, Wis. The property was donated to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation upon Wright’s death in 1959. It is now one of two campuses for the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.
Taliesin Spring suffers from antiquated and poorly performing lighting systems throughout the campus.
Studio Lux will design systems that use high efficacy sources such as LED lamps, which will improve light levels, restore the original design intent, and decrease campus-wide power use while being sensitive to the site’s historical nature.
The foundation first sought out Thompson’s firm to create a Net-Zero energy zone for Taliesin West, the main campus of The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. That campus is in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Wright was a leader of the Prairie School movement of architecture and developed the concept of the Usonian home, his vision for urban planning in the United States.

Ahem, that planter is not a litter box

February 28th, 2014 by Nate

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.