Archive for December, 2008

Brother, can you spare a paradigm?

Monday, December 29th, 2008

Aubrey Cohen’s Friday piece on the Seattle housing market got me thinking about paradigm shifts. The shift from faxes to e-mail, for example, took more than a decade. The internet has fundamentally changed business and everyday life –but slowly.

In just the last year, however, we’ve seen collapse of the stock and real estate market, decreases in home values, multiple bank failures (including Washington Mutual) and the potential bankruptcy of the big 3 American automakers.

The typical solution is to loosen rules and allow more borrowing. Credit is the fuel of innovation, driving interest rates lower, inspiring investment, job creation and expansion of the market. But easy money is what got us into this mess in the first place.

And we are in a liquidity trap. Rates can’t go any lower than zero. Despite a bail out, banks are sitting on their cash until things become more stable. Even dropping cash from a helicopter may not inspire spending.

A Keynesian-Obama-New Deal based on infrastructure upgrades might reduce unemployment, but then what? In spite of the many make-work infrastructure projects undertaken by the New Deal, there was the recession of 1938 when the projects were done. Put a shovel in my hand, but will I buy a big screen television? It wasn’t until World War II broke out that that depression ended.

The solutions (and the problems) of the past aren’t working. Since the seventies, taming inflation, not full employment, was the objective of central banks. Ironically, now we are trying to get inflation going with little luck.

Perhaps in 2009 we’ll begin to see a new paradigm, if there is one, take shape.

An economy built on single family homes filled with furniture, appliances and a car out front, all bought with credit, may disappear.

Considering all this, do we really need a rebuilt viaduct? And doesn’t this change our views about affordable home ownership? What does sustainability look like with falling demand for oil and automobiles? Can we cope with getting what we’ve asked for all these years: a less car-dependent culture living within its means in compact communities? Maybe that is the scariest thing of all.

“Uncool” Olympics architecture in the ‘Couve

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008
Rendering of the Richland oval, now under construction
Vancouver’s Tyee online newspaper has an article today deriding the design of the various venues being built for the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games there. (Thanks to Crosscut for spotting the article first).

After the Bird’s Nest and all of the cool non-Olympic venues that were erected in China for the games there, expectations are certainly high for Vancouver, a city already regularly lauded for its architecture and planning.

But some of the venues seem perfectly designed . . .
But the article says most of the Vancouver designs are “unremarkable” and blames the games’ organizers for focusing more on corporate branding than architectural ambitions.

Of course, China does have its advantages over most other countries when it comes to getting huge-scale work done quickly.

What do you think of the work underway to our North? Check out a gallery of venues at VANOC’s Web site.

Seattle’s directional woes

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Maybe I’m the only native Seattleite who has found herself suddenly having to drive across three lanes of traffic to make it to a turnoff that I’ve consistently missed for the last 12 years, or who always remembers too late, on the way to my parents’ house, that the right lane ends two blocks ahead and I’m stuck in it now.

Wait, did I just miss Olive again?

Just getting from some point North of downtown to some point in SoDo is enough to give me hives: Do I stay on I-5 the whole time or is this one of those streets where I briefly merge onto 90 to get to the exit?  Or is this one of those exits where I follow signs to merge onto 90 but then don’t merge at the last minute?

Part of my driving chaos stems from my taking the bus most of the time (and vice versa). A lot of the rest of it comes from Seattle’s unique geographic layout which means there are seven ways to get to any one place across the city, and none of them are ideal.

But there are also places in the city where street signs are tiny, blurry or entirely obscured by tree branches, or lanes abruptly end or you just can’t tell if that arrow is directing you to go straight or make a slight right.  (Check out the Seattle sign gallery at Morgan Wick’s site. )

My family affectionately refers to this as Seattle sign snobbery because really the best way–sometimes the only way– to get around this city is to know it by heart. Many drivers here have little sympathy for you if you have to wait for a sign to tell you that a lane is ending.

But maybe we’re wrong. A recent comment thread over at the Times has some readers mocking those who admit they think Seattle’s intersection signage is confusing. Maybe it’s my problem. But I get lost in the city of my birth more than I’ve ever been lost on vacation.

What’s the question?

Monday, December 15th, 2008

Last week the Seattle Great City Initiative leader Michael McGinn hosted an end-of-the-year happy hour to toast the season and thank volunteers and supporters for their work. McGinn and Great City regular Brice Maryman were leading proponents for the successful parks levy that passed in November.

Great City has focused on trying to bring together neighborhood advocates, developers and environmentalists to be more supportive of growth.

There are some tremendous individuals with decades of experience in wide array of fields that are part of Great City. It was good to catch up with a few of those folks and talk about the last political year and the one coming up.

We started talking about the possibly three Seattle City Council seats that may be open next year and we hit on a lot of different topics. What three questions would we ask the burgeoning field of candidates? There were three that I distilled from our conversation that focused on transportation, density and affordability.

  • Studies show that 1 new mile of highway construction creates between 1,400 and 2,300 tons of CO2. And a recent Sightline study indicated that “adding one mile of new highway lane will increase CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 tons over 50 years.” What will you do as a member of the Seattle City Council to reduce vehicle miles traveled and limit new highway construction in the city, especially on the waterfront?

  • More than 60 percent of Seattle’s land is designated single family. The Puget Sound Regional Council projects that 1.7 million new people will be coming to our region in the next 20 years. As a member of the Council, what would you do to support accommodating Seattle’s share of that growth? Would you support the expansion of Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs) city wide? How would you create density in single family neighborhoods?

  • With the economy in a severe downturn, concepts of affordability are changing and some would argue a major shift that may be systemic or even paradigmatic. What do you think the downturn means for housing affordability in Seattle and specifically what would you do to set definitions and goals for affordability? Please tie your answer back to the recent debate over incentive zoning.

So what would your questions be? What are the answers we should expect and demand? 

Conflicted over viaduct options

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

The State narrowed the SR99 options down to two last week. Maybe that’s not the final word, but let’s assume it is for a moment.

I don’t like either of them. Both options have big problems. (On the other hand, wouldn’t a decision, good or bad, be a relief on some level?)

In some moods, the new-viaduct option even seems like the better of the two. Kinda leaning that way right now.

That’s not easy to admit. I was on the viaduct-over-my-dead-body bandwagon not long ago. Why build another view-blocking encouragement to driving too much? Why choose to make the same horrible decision that so many of us have regretted for decades?

A tunnel is clearly the best option. It handles most of the traffic, and it does it out of sight. But remember our assumption.

The one-way surface couplet is scary, though it has its benefits. For a few reasons.

For all the horrors of the current viaduct, it gets traffic off the streets, and makes Western and Alaskan pedestrian-friendly. We’re talking about turning both into high-volume throughways. Sort of like Western already is in Belltown, but worse.

The surface option assumes some traffic would go away as transit use grows, and as people make new decisions about where to live and work, telecommuting, etc. But it also assumes more traffic flows to I-5 and other surface streets. We also plan to accommodate more cars on our streets.

I don’t want Downtown Seattle to be a throughways! Let the through traffic stay on the two freeways, and let our surface streets focus on people and their own neighborhoods.

The emphasis on transit is fantastic. We should do that regardless. Taking it a step further, Seattle needs its own version of the Metro and Sound Transit bus improvements that are mostly suburban. A levy in the tens of millions per year would revolutionize inner-city transit.

If you’re concerned about the aerial option encouraging driving, rest assured that it won’t add capacity, and has fewer lanes than the current version, with the plan that Downtown commuters will exit sooner. Actually Downtown streets stand to suffer even in this scenario. It’s a decent balance.

Sometimes pragmatism and compromise gives you a better result than idealism.

P.S. North of Denny, it’s all positive. Anything is better than the mishmash of pedestrian barriers we have now, crossing Aurora, going north-south west of Aurora, etc.

Designing urban areas with salmon in mind

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

The Pacific Northwest is seen by many as ground zero for the “green” movement and this is perhaps most evident in the built environment.

From northern California through Washington State, builders and developers are working hard to gain certification and recognition through programs such as LEED, Built Green and Energy Star for designing and creating environmentally responsible projects.

This is great progress, and not too surprising given our region’s commitment to protecting and enhancing our precious natural resources. It comes as no surprise, then, that a program relatively new to Washington State designed to protect salmon habitat is gaining momentum as builders, developers and property owners and managers look outside the walls of their buildings to address critical habitat issues throughout the region.

Pic by Ben Benschneider
Following completion of the Salmon-Safe assessment, a certain waterfront sculpture park is expected to be certified (Pic by Ben Benschneider)

Salmon Safe, a private, non-profit organization based in Portland, is taking root in the Puget Sound region. Founded in 1996 by the Pacific Rivers Council, Salmon Safe has introduced a certification process for development practices that protect Pacific Northwest salmon watersheds.

In the beginning, Salmon Safe focused on certifying fish-friendly farmlands in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Today, more than 60,000 acres of farm and urban lands stretching from Marin County, Calif. to the Canadian border in Washington have been certified “Salmon Safe.”

(more…)

Amid slowdown, debating developer incentives

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

The Seattle City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee will have another hearing, discussion and possible vote tomorrow morning at 9:30 a.m. on a plan to extend the city’s incentive zoning program beyond downtown.

This proposal would insure all buildings taking advantage of future upzones come with units earmarked for certain income levels. It has been kicking around long enough to have germinated amid a flood of permits and plans. Now, it’s about to poke out of the dirt in a totally different development environment.

Does the change matter?

With development slowing in Seattle and financing tough to come by for even some of the seasoned pros, will any incentive help? Or should the city just be lapping up any new building plans it can get and putting off hopes of getting more public benefits out of the deal?

Some people testifying at previous public hearings on the proposal have pointed out that economic slowdowns are the best time — sometimes the only time– to right policy wrongs and prepare for the next building rush.

Others have testified that it’s important an incentive actually be an incentive. It may be tough to evaluate what that looks like now.

As suggested in part by the time it’s taken this proposal to move forward, it’s also hard to make development decisions amid huge uncertainty over the future.

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?

Where have we been?

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Hello readers. A flood in the DJC’s server room wiped out some of our November blog posts, comments, polls and other changes.

We’re back in business now and we’re sorry we were gone so long. We missed you!