Archive for the ‘Neighborhoods’ Category

Will Council Raise Rents for Everyone?

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

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.

Can growth reduce traffic?

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014
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.

Should you mix affordable and upscale housing?

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013
Outdoor seating and landscaped areas would surround the ground floor of the R.C. Hedreen Co. project. Image courtesyof LMN Architects

Should “affordable” housing be mixed with high-income housing within the same building? That’s the subject of a short video by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat at http://tiny.cc/o5r04w/.

Addressing the question are Nigel Biggs of CBRE, Harry Handelsman of Manhattan Loft Corp., Christoph Ingenhoven of ingenhoven architects, Ian Simpson of Ian Simpson Architects, and Rafael Viñoly of Rafael Viñoly Architects. The video is part of a monthly series by the CTBUH.

In Seattle, R.C. Hedreen Co. has proposed including affordable units in a project that will not have upscale apartments or condos, but will have a hotel.
The project is a 40-story convention hotel complex at Ninth and Stewart that will have a five-story podium with a 35-story, 1,680-room hotel on the south end and 154 units of housing on the north end, reserved for people making 80 percent or less of area median income. Hedreen is building the north end units to get higher density through a city incentive program.

BIG unveils plans for Pier 6 of Brooklyn Bridge Park

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013
Image courtesy of BIG
BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates have unveiled their design for Pier 6 of Brooklyn Bridge Park, a public space and pavilion in form of a massive wood-clad triangular viewing platform for events and skyline gazing.
BIG was selected as winner of the project in spring of 2013 and is collaborating with MVVA. The project has won approval of the city’s Public Design Commission.
BIG said its proposal for Brooklyn Bridge Park, a project that has revitalized the New York City waterfront, consists of a 6,000-square foot triangular cross-laminated timber structure, serving as pavilion and platform.
Sloping upwards 17.5 feet in height from the foot of the large gathering lawn, the platform provides views of the surrounding harbor, the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline, and the Brooklyn Bridge. In conjunction with the adjacent greenery, Pier 6 will be dominated by a flower field and treed areas giving the area seasonal displays of color.
BIG said the surface of terraced stairs, softly illuminated, will allow for large and small events and is ADA accessible. The pavilion, supported by thin steel columns, is brightly lit with up-lights and provides shade, shelter and space for indoor activities. Movable site furniture underneath the platform will accommodate a variety of programs, from food carts and picnicking to community events and small performances.
Image courtesy of BIG

Bjarke Ingels said in a press release that “The Mantaray is a small public platform at the end of the pier – equally accessible above and below. Its namesake organic slopes and curves have been shaped by concerns for accessibility, safety, shelter, structure – like a manmade reef evolved to accommodate human life.”
Pier 6, located at the intersection of Furman Street and Atlantic Avenue, spans over 1.6 acres and offers amenities, including sand volleyball courts, concessionaires, themed playgrounds, a dog run, plantings, and the seasonal Governor’s Island Ferry connecting Brooklyn and Governors Island.
Collaborators on the project also include Knippers Helbig (structure), Tilotson Design Associates (lighting design), AltieriSeborWieber (MEP), Pantocraft (code), Formactiv (expediter).
BIG is an international partnership of architects, designers, builders and thinkers operating within the fields of architecture, urbanism, research and development. It is led by partners – Bjarke Ingels, Andreas Klok Pedersen, Finn Nørkjær, David Zahle, Jakob Lange, Thomas Christoffersen and Managing Partners, Sheela Maini Søgaard and Kai-Uwe Bergmann – with offices in Copenhagen and New York.
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is a landscape architecture firm that creates a wide range of landscape scales, from city to campus to garden. It has offices in Brooklyn and Cambridge, Mass.

“Vanity Height” added to more skyscrapers

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat has looked at the increasing trend towards extreme spires and other extensions of supertall (300-meter-plus) buildings that do not enclose usable space, and created a new term to describe this – Vanity Height, the distance between a skyscraper’s highest occupiable floor and its architectural top, as determined by CTBUH Height Criteria.

Burj Al Arab in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo by Nicolas Lannuzel

Here are some key findings of the study:
• At 244 meters, the vanity height of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE, could be a skyscraper on its own – in fact, it would be Europe’s 11th-tallest building.
• The Burj Al-Arab, Dubai, UAE, has the greatest vanity ratio of any supertall building – 124 (39 percent) of its 321 meters is devoted to non-occupiable space above the highest occupiable floor.
• Without their vanity height, 44 (61 percent) of the world’s 72 supertalls would measure less than 300 meters – thus losing their supertall status.
• United Arab Emirates clocks in as the nation with the most “vain” supertall buildings, with an average vanity height of 19 percent.
• New York City, USA has two of the tallest 10 vanity heights, and is set to gain a third with the completion of One World Trade Center in 2014.
• According to CTBUH Height Criteria regarding telecommunications towers, a 50 percent vanity height would deem any structure a “non-building.”
• The “vainest” building overall in the CTBUH database, although not a supertall, is the Ukraina Hotel in Moscow, Russia – 42 percent of its 206-meter height is non-occupiable.

New bilingual signs in Chinatown-International District

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Bilingual street name signs will be installed this summer at more than 30 intersections in Seattle’s Chinatown and Japantown neighborhood through a partnership of the city and the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area.
Mayor Mike McGinn said in a press release that the translated signs in English and Chinese, or English and Japanese “will help us celebrate the ongoing diversity of the Chinatown-International District, as well as help people navigate the neighborhood.”

Photo by Jen Nance, Office of the Mayor

The CIDBIA worked with neighborhood stakeholders, family associations, local ethnic media, the University of Washington and translators from the Seattle Municipal Court to translate the existing street names into traditional Chinese and Japanese.
Don Blakeney, executive director of the CIDBIA, said “Not only is it a wonderful reflection of the neighborhood’s rich cultural history, but a reflection of the international hub that Seattle has become.”
Translated street names will be in white lettering on a brown background below the current legal name. The first sign is at Sixth Avenue South and South King Street.
Funding was provided by a $20,000 Small and Simple Matching Fund Grant through the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.
The Seattle Department of Transportation also contributed $6,000 from the voter approved Bridging the Gap ballot measure.

The sidewalk observed: building a better street corner

Monday, June 17th, 2013
Successful street corner at 36th Ave SW and SW Snoqualmie St in West Seattle. Photo by Nate Cormier.

Last time I promised to contrast that miserable corner of 35th Ave SW and SW Avalon Way in West Seattle with something more gracious. This one is three blocks away at the corner of 36th Ave SW and SW Snoqualmie St. The context is quite different in terms of available right of way, traffic volumes and level of investment by the adjacent developer, but my interest here is in highlighting some of the aspects that make it a successful street corner.

• There are wide and nicely landscaped curb bulbs to slow traffic and buffer pedestrians at the corner from passing automobiles.
• The building entry is close to the intersection with decent transparency to the lobby so there should be a good amount of foot traffic and eyes on the street here.
• There is a seating area near the intersections for passersby to take a break. This is particularly valuable for seniors and others that pause frequently while walking. Hopefully once they lease up the apartment building they can get rid of those plastic signboards.
• There is a broad area between the ramps that is separated by a curb from turning traffic. This makes waiting to cross feel safer.
• The curb ramps align with the sidewalks and the unmarked crosswalks so the visually impaired can more easily guess the correct angle to make their way to the paired ramp on the other side of each street. Note that this leaves a triangular bit at the bottom of the ramp that needs to be carefully graded to not collect water.
• Finally, and this one is tiny, but the attention to detail is sweet…where the tactile warning strips meet adjacent curbwalls, there are subtle joints aligned with the tactile tiles. They may play a role in controlling cracking of the curb, but I like how they make those tactile strips appear rooted intentionally in those locations. Too often tactile warning strips look glued on as afterthoughts. Not here.

All in all, a solid contribution to the public realm!

Make Way for Parklets

Monday, April 1st, 2013

There is a new position at SDOT in the Street Use and Urban Forestry Division; Public Space Manager; and with this new role there is hope brewing for more permanent parklets coming to a Seattle neighborhood near you.

San Francisco Parklet

The re-purposing of parking spaces into miniature open spaces has grown from the latest soup d’jour for urban areas across the nation with San Francisco leading the charge and most recently followed by Los Angeles’ activity parklets to a more common wrench in the toolkit of cities as varied as Philadelphia and San Jose. Now it’s Seattle’s turn. Let’s give SDOT all of our support as they move forward.
Congratulations to the very capable Jennifer Wieland as she takes on this role. She let me know that Seattle can expect to see the pilot program roll out this summer with several projects in Center City neighborhoods.
If you would like to know more about how to develop and implement parklets, see this (very thorough) study from the UCLA Lewis Center here.
http://lewis.ucla.edu/content/completestreets-publications

Making strides on affordability

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Today’s DJC has a good story by Patrick L. Phillips of the ULI about housing affordability, particularly the importance of housing near jobs for people with moderate incomes. This needs to be a priority for Seattle, not because everyone is automatically entitled to live in their favorite neighborhood, but for limiting stress on our transportation system, giving low-wage workers an easier route up the ladder (minus the absurd commute), invigorating neighborhoods, and essentially making the city function for people and as an economic engine.

Terrazza aPodment (rendering courtesy of Kauri Investments)

Thankfully Seattle is doing a lot of things well.

Voters keep approving housing levies.  In 2009 we passed a $145,000,000, seven-year measure, which averages over $20,000,000 per year, most of which goes to rental construction and preservation. This is big reason Seattle always has low-income units under construction. A host of outstanding non-profits, such as LIHI and Plymouth Housing Group,  do an excellent job building and owning housing that both helps people and improves neighborhoods.

Seattle’s reduced/zero parking requirements for new housing are a big reason behind our current housing boom. The economics of 200 one-bedroom homes are much easier with a 0.6 parking ratio vs. a 1.0 or 1.2. The units that get built are cheaper, and more units are getting built, helping keep housing supply/demand in check.

We allow smaller units than most cities. New York and San Francisco have been wringing their hands about allowing 220 square foot units. Seattle already allows much smaller units than that, both with traditional apartments and in rooming houses. These are proliferating on Capitol Hill, in the U District, etc. What a phenomenal idea…the private market providing workforce housing without subsidy! Of course having little or no parking is a necessary precondition for these units.

Most importantly, we’re letting housing get built in sizeable numbers. Our biggest affordability weapon is to avoid undersupply, the bane of the most expensive cities. With decent supply, everyone avoids the worst price war scenario, and the less desirable units tend to be substantially cheaper. This is why the average building from 1920 or 1970 is relatively affordable today. Increasingly, units from 1988 play that role, and someday units from 2013 will as well.

Unfortunately we’re moving backwards in other ways. We’re attaching more bonus fees to taller buildings in some areas. This is counterproductive because it disincentivizes supply, and also makes the units in these building more expensive. (Disclosure: I work for a contractor that builds highrises.) We’re putting the burden on a relatively small number of residents and developers, apparently a politically expedient way to avoid paying it ourselves. It would be better to expand the levy.

And of course we need transit. Seattle is doing moderately ok, but clouds are on the horizon for big cutbacks to Metro.

So, while more needs to be done, we can pat ourselves on the back for doing some good things.

The sidewalk observed: a disappointing West Seattle street corner

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Others do a great job covering the major issues and signature projects of our region. I’d like to turn your attention, usually downward, to the less examined details of our cityscape. Let’s call it “The Sidewalk Observed.”

35th Ave SW and SW Avalon Way
Dodgy street corner at 35th Ave SW and SW Avalon Way in West Seattle. Photo by Nate Cormier.

This is the corner of 35th Ave SW and SW Avalon Way in West Seattle. A new building here, now called The Residences at 3295, has become notorious for its construction fits and starts. Neighbors are probably grateful to finally have the project  done, but WOW, this street corner is disappointing. We can surely do better at the intersection of two busy arterials with heavy bus and truck traffic. I write that  ‘we’ can do better because I’m not particularly concerned with who designed it. This is the kind of urban landscape shaped less by design intent than by underlying regulatory and economic forces that maxed out vehicular flow and land value at the expense of a safe and inviting pedestrian experience.

Typically, a corner like this would have two ramps with a bit of curb in between to protect a safe place for people to pause. Short of this, providing a contiguous flat area behind the sidewalk could have helped, but here we are pinned between the street and a step up to the corner of the building. For my next post, I’ll contrast this with a better example of a recent street corner improvement. And if you have a cityscape scene or detail you’d like me to highlight, please drop me a line at natec@svrdesign.com.