Archive for the ‘Planning’ Category

IZ and Inclusion: Time to Find Better Ideas

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014
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!


 

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.

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.

King Street Station Can Transform the City

Monday, June 24th, 2013

Seattle has invested a great deal in King Street Station and the surrounding area, why not go a little further and make it a world-class transit hub?
Out of the three designated hubs in downtown Seattle, King Street is arguably the primary transit hub bringing together Amtrak, streetcar, local and regional bus, and light rail. In the not too distant future, rapid ride from West Seattle and access into downtown from SR-99 will both have significant impacts to this area. Using the already congested street grid to transfer between systems is not a coordinated nor safe approach for transit riders.  

Transbay Transit Center is anticipated to have a patronage of 100,000 every weekday and 45 million annually. Photo credit: © Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects

All the transit systems in the hub are just a block or two away from where you hoped they would be.  Light Rail is a trek across 4th from King Street Station; bus stops on Jackson are one-two blocks away; and the First Hill streetcar stops are a block or two in either direction. The City and transit agencies need to think bigger, in a way that leverages the investments in this hub including the restoration of the historic station, the North Lot, Union Station, and the Stadium District. In early thinking about the North Lot there was an idea proposed that included a significant bus terminal proposed for 4th Ave S over the BNSF tracks- this would provide the opportunity to create a stacked connection including Sounder, local bus, and perhaps an underground connection to Link. It’s time to start thinking about this facility now so that the promise of a real transit hub can be realized and the benefits of investment in the neighborhood can bring about real change.  Change that’s been planned for in the Livable South Downtown Plan.

The experience of San Francisco has an uncanny comparison.
Downtown San Francisco is a maze of cranes these days and the 6-block long gaping hole next to Mission Street that will become the Transbay Transit Center is a healthy contributor to the current crane count. With an anticipated patronage of 100,000 every weekday and 45 million annually, Transbay will be one of the largest transit hubs on the West Coast. From local rail and bus service to Amtrak and Greyhound, Transbay will provide the hub for more than 8 transit agencies including Caltrain and High Speed Rail. Originally built in 1939 to handle electric trolley service (and later bus service) from the newly constructed Bay Bridge, the original building was razed and along with several earthquake related ramp removals that provided the real estate and a significant source of funding for the new Transbay Center. The new Transbay was conceived in 2008 and is to be completed in 2017. But even the 70’ deep hole in Soma is already spurring development including the Transbay Tower- planned to be 200′ taller than the Transamerica pyramid.
Seattle has the opportunity now to rethink how transit systems come together at King Street Station and to create a world-class transit center befitting a world-class city.

Two steps back on affordability?

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

If Seattle aligns on anything, it’s affordable housing. We pass our levies by wide margins, and seem to agree that our city should be available for all income levels, whether for empathy, worker availability, or other reasons. We might also agree that the SHA and non-profits do a good job leveraging our money, and the levies aren’t enough.

Triad Capital Partners project on Capitol Hill. Rendering courtesy of grouparchitect.
Beyond that things get sketchy. In classic Seattle fashion we mix steps forward with steps back. The council is working on two major issues currently – regulation for micro housing projects, and the South Lake Union rezone. In both cases we risk shooting our feet.

The South Lake Union rezone, which got committee approval this week, involves fees of $21.68 to $29.27 per square foot (plus inflation) for space above the original height limits. Let’s look at that. Ideally a tax system should put less burden on things you want to encourage, and more burden on the rest. So where do we put the maximum burden? On new construction projects, and the homes and jobs they’ll contain. On the housing side we’re addressing affordability by directly making this housing more expensive for most people, and disincentivizing new supply, which is our greatest weapon to avoid San Francisco’s fate. On the commercial side, we’re disincentivizing the job creation that supports our overall tax base, and the job centralization that’s crucial to maximize walkability and leverage public transportation. We also risk pushing construction outside the neighborhood, perhaps to other municipalities, losing that sales tax revenue.

Outside the A/E/C/RE industry, people seem to think the added heights are an easy windfall, and sometimes they are. But going tall also has downsides – substantially higher cost per square foot (even before the fees), more space to fill, longer construction duration, etc. On top of that the fees add perhaps 6-8% to total development cost above the old height limit. Taking advantage of the new heights therefore assumes high-rents, and requires a bigger bet. The math will work in some cases, such as a big eager tenant wanting to expand across the street, or apartments with permanent water views. Other projects will likely find that six stories with woodframe pencils more easily, and limits risk. Maybe this is why developers continue to advance new plans to build lowrises in South Lake Union.

So what’s a better solution? If we can expand the housing levy, let’s do that. The voters will support it. And maybe we should be less reticent with one-off deals like Vulcan’s Valley Street swap, or similar versions. And then there are micro units.

Miraculously, a chunk of the affordability puzzle is taking care of itself. Micro units of various types are proliferating and filling up with renters eager to pay rates otherwise unheard of for centrally-located homes in good repair. This includes typical units that are simply very small, as well as the “rooming house” concept, where one “unit” might include eight bedrooms rented separately, with a shared kitchen to augment in-room kitchenettes.

Typically, rooming houses stay below a certain unit count to avoid the design review process and fit perhaps 40 homes into what would otherwise be a fraction of that, in multifamily zones. They often take advantage of what has been called a loophole, but it’s also an essential part of building at the most affordable rents. Seattle’s process costs a lot of money, with design review being part of that. First there’s the added time between tying up land and breaking ground, which involves carrying costs in the tens of thousands of dollars. Second, process means uncertainty about going forward at all, in part due to reduced flexibility in market timing. Third, design review means a choppier, less efficient design process, with higher fees. Of course with more units, the land cost is spread among more homes. Much of this relates directly to development cost. The rest affects cost indirectly – if we reduce supply, we cause scarcity, which will cause higher rents.

Basic unit sizes might become a debate topic. Homes are often in the 200 square foot range (similar to a typical hotel room), and some down to 100 square feet or so. But why is that controversial? Wealthy suburbs have often mandated square footage minimums to keep the poor folks out and protect property values. Many people seem offended at the idea that some renters would live in places they themselves wouldn’t. But surely Seattle isn’t an exclusionary, authoritarian city in those ways. Others talk about humane living conditions, forgetting that $10 per hour might otherwise mean mom’s basement, three roommates, and/or spending two hours a day commuting. Still others complain that their public street parking will get tougher, as the new buildings generally have little or no parking. The last point is at least understandable human nature, though the existing residents have no more claim than anyone else. What’s left? Is there a valid reason to not allow even a 200 square foot home, or even 100 square feet? Why aren’t we celebrating these as a choice for people to live independently, and with less energy and stuff?

(Disclosure: I work for a contractor that builds highrises, but have no connections to the micro trend.)

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

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.

 

How do you make tall buildings liveable?

Friday, February 15th, 2013

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat has created a video in which industry leaders talk about how to make tall buildings liveable.
The video is part of an ongoing series by the council addressing big-picture questions about tall buildings.

Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘til it’s Gone

Sunday, February 10th, 2013
Photo by Tim Rice Architectural Photography

One would think that moving to the Bay Area would afford great advantages for a mid-career urban planner/designer. What with all of the cutting edge parking management and parklets, there is so much to learn. After 10 months I’m beginning to understand the ins and outs of planning in California. Though there are things that I miss about Washington besides the rain. The one thing I never thought I would reminisce about; I find myself mentioning in even non-planner company, the Growth Management Act.

That delightful piece of state policy borne of the exponential growth of the 80’s and 90’s (and often blamed on Californians) is the one key legislation that is so obviously non-existent in the Golden State, that I find myself quoting it endlessly. While the recession has stemmed the tide of suburban growth, and California has in many places adopted smart growth policies and embraced new urbanism for what it’s worth.  The fact remains that most California policy and legislation does not have the teeth or the checks and balances of the Washington GMA. Though the State has recently worked to tie Green House Gas emissions to Vehicle Miles Traveled, it’s not strong enough to define a minimum density to limit suburban or exurban growth in a meaningful way. California continues to grapple with its love for the automobile- even while proposing to tear down freeways.  While the ex-urbs continue to expand and demand all of the public transit, freeways and other services that support urban areas. I try restrain myself from asking, “What about your urban growth boundary?”.
For all its idiosyncrasies, the GMA is a valuable tool for the urban planner and I for one, miss it greatly.