On the heels of a SeattleScape post by Patrick Doherty, the city of Seattle will consider removing a fence that blocks regular folks’ access to a block-long swatch of Lake Washington shoreline, one block north of the Madison Beach park. Doherty wondered “What’s up with that?” in the SeattleScape post. Now according to a SeattlePI.com post, the city’s Parks Board will take up the issue in December, much to the chagrin of some neighbors in Madison Park.
Archive for September, 2011
In Seattle, most anything built in the core of an “urban village” or in Greater Downtown is asked to to “activate the street,” meaning to have retail ideally, or at least live-work spaces if the project is along a lesser street. At the Ave and certain parts of Downtown, that’s basically as it should be. But aside from the major commercial and pedestrian streets, the requirements are scarcely more than codified wishful thinking, rather than any sort of urban or economic sensibility.
One result is that viable uses, like apartments and offices, tend to subsidize non-viable uses, which means less gets built until prices rise enough to justify the wasted cost. Another result is that we hurt our best retail streets. Rather than using new density to strengthen existing cores, we diffuse the retail, weakening California, Market, Roosevelt, etc. and creating large amounts of space that’s worthless to most retailers even if it’s dirt cheap. For a store, cutting business expenses by 10-20% with cheap rent on a side street isn’t helpful if it cuts total sales by 50%.
Activation comes up a lot if you read design review submissions on the DPD website. A review board will ask a project team to activate a street that is patently not suitable for any “active” use without subsidy, and the team will show admirable calm as they logically point out that back streets are horrible for retail, and live-work units often sell below cost, and so on. Or they’ll accommodate the request and eat the cost, passing it along to the building occupants.
A little math might help. In the US, we have about 40 square feet of retail per person. Even in a walkable district, a large percentage of the average resident’s spending will be at the supermarket or otherwise outside the neighborhood. This is a guess, but aside from groceries, perhaps 5-10 square feet per person might be merited for neighborhood stores and restaurants that a typical urban village resident with an average income might walk to. Now imagine 150 housing units. If the 150 house 225 people, 1,125 to 2,250 square feet of retail might be merited. That’s a coffee shop! You’d need several buildings like that to justify even one block of good retail, on one side of the street. Is it any wonder that even in a great economy, we have tons of unused retail? (The only winner seems to be owner-run nail shops, which can thrive with low sales due to very low costs.)
Several mental roadblocks are in our way. First, in Seattle, anything that a developer says will be widely considered tainted and self-serving, and therefore ignored, or only accommodated with an added incentive fee that might be worse than the original problem. Second, we have the idea that urban living automatically means spending your money in the neighborhood, when in reality a lot of urban dwellers drive for most of their spending. Third, we lack a frame of reference: Most of us grew up seeing two types of urban districts: Ones in Seattle that were either Downtown or small and centered on one major street, with much less density surrounding, and the downtowns and tourist areas of other cities. Most of these were destinations that drew from far away, not self-sufficient neighborhoods. We failed to see that large volumes of retail require the destination aspect. And we failed to see the widespread high-density areas in other cities that are full of “non-activated” streets.
More about live-work. The concept is appropriate in some places, and not in others. It fits a tight range — places active enough that numerous types of businesses are appropriate, but not so active that you don’t want a front door open to the public. Large traffic volumes, nightclubs, and panhandlers, while welcome to the sainted among us, tend to turn buyers off.
Walk around Manhattan sometime, away from the obvious districts. Many cross-streets and even some avenues have huge densities (think East Midtown for example, far denser than most of what we’ll see here in our lifetimes) but no retail, or very little. That’s despite their much larger blocks, meaning less street frontage per given area. Instead of retail, people often live on the first level, raised maybe five feet for privacy and security, also allowing the basement to be daylighted. This was easier pre-ADA (aside from townhouses) but it’s still doable in some cases with a sloping site, or an elevator or ramp in a bigger lobby. In other places, some creative shrubbery and fencing can do a lot with a couple feet. Likewise, head to any of New York’s lowrise areas, which are more our typical “urban village” speed, and notice the one or two major retail streets and, generally, block after block of only housing.
Our multifamily code update has chipped away at some of the problem. Hopefully our upcoming Comp Plan update will be a framework for addressing the issue more broadly!