Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.

Transit, alleys and density

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

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!

Ahem, that planter is not a litter box

Friday, February 28th, 2014

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.

The inconvenient truth about workforce housing

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Dan Bertolet, a planner and a blogger at CityTank.org, posted his thoughts on an upcoming forum:

On Thursday, February 13th the Seattle City Council will host a Seattle Workforce Housing Forum. The City Council promises that the forum will “tackle the best ways to meet Seattle’s affordable housing needs!”

But is there a scarcity of housing priced at 30 percent of the monthly income of people that earn 60 to 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI), housing typically referred to as “workforce housing?”

According to a comprehensive analysis of housing data conducted by King County the answer, in Seattle, is “No!” Instead the report finds:

(The) Critical Need is for Affordable Rental Housing for Very-Low and Low-Income Households. While the amount of rental housing stock affordable to households earning above 60 percent of median income appears adequate, market-rate affordable rentals for those between 40 and 60 percent AMI are scarce and not well-distributed geographically.

The analysis goes on to say:

For those moderate income renters, the supply is much more than adequate in all of the sub-regions … 38 to 42 percent of all rental units throughout
the County are affordable at the moderate income level.

The City Council is poised to solve a problem that we don’t have with a tool (incentive zoning) that will only make workforce housing more expensive. More fees and process would, ironically, drive up costs and prices of a housing product that is already, by the City’s standard, affordable.

Chart by Dan Bertolet/ planner, and blogger at CityTank.org

So what is the problem?

Many people, of all income levels, find it frustrating to find a place to live in Seattle. Seattle needs more housing!

What is the solution?

Seattle needs to allow more housing of all types in all neighborhoods, including small-lot homes, cottages, microhousing, and multifamily housing for families who need 2 and 3 bedrooms. Even housing that is within reach of people with more money means those people won’t be competing with people with fewer dollars for scarce housing. More housing means more choices, better prices, more competition between landlords for tenants not renters competing with renters for scarce housing units.

Biggest boom ever?

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

With Downtown Seattle’s history of construction booms, being able to stand in one place and see 15 or 20 tower cranes isn’t unusual. So being the biggest boom ever would take some doing. But we might be there today. How remarkable given the still-recovering economy.

Bay Vista in 1982, courtesy of Lease Crutcher Lewis

The 70s began by saving the Market and Pioneer Square, encouraging a lot of reinvestment in those areas. It continued with the Kingdome, Freeway Park, Rainier Square, Bank of Cal, and the Federal Office Building. In an era when many cities tried to out-suburb the suburbs, we chose to celebrate and revive our urbanity. Or we did to an extent, as we also upped the safety regulations on rooming houses to such an extent that, according to Sightline, 5,000 rooms closed in a span of months in close-in neighborhoods, which must have helped spur today’s mass homelessness. The decade also began with voters turning down the Forward Thrust rail system, earning the scorn of many urbanists ever since.

The early 1980s were epic, adding our first major wave of condo towers, doubling (and seriously overbuilding) Downtown’s hotel inventory, and adding office towers like the Columbia Center and Wells Fargo Center. The early 80s might be called the dawn of our modern downtown. (Apologies to the 70s, as well as the 62 Fair, the Box the Space Needle Came In, and the advent of Seattle-style teriyaki.)

The late 1980s were even bigger. We built four of today’s seven tallest office towers. The housing boom was the biggest yet, including a larger focus on Belltown. We built the convention center (helping those hotels!) and the Downtown Transit Tunnel. The voters rebelled with the CAP initiative in 1989, dramatically reducing building heights and temporarily restricting new office square footages (largely irrelevant since we overbuilt). Of course, voter annoyance might have been more about traffic disruptions related to the tunnel and convention center, but developers are a natural target for populists.

The late 1990s were bigger still. By then we were building hotels again. The retail core underwent a massive transformation, making us once again a top retail destination. Another office boom brought the late 80s to mind but spread more to the Downtown peripheries, powered by tech and astonishingly low vacancy rates.  The housing boom was again our largest ever. We expanded the convention center and built Bell Street Pier and Safeco Field.

The late 2000s gave the late 90s a run for their money. Again it was our biggest housing boom ever, primarily condos. Offices once again got built at a high rate, and hotels continued unabated as Seattle continued to emerge as a visitor destination. We added CenturyLink Field, turned the Bus Tunnel into the Downtown Transit Tunnel with light rail, expanded hospitals, and continued to grow as a center for disease research.

And then there’s now. Who’d have thunk it? Ripples in 2010 turned into waves of groundbreakings in 2011 and unquestionable boom status by 2012. Apartment construction is over 10,000 units if you gerrymander up Dexter and Pike/Pine and count projects in early demo. Along with the one big condo project, that’s by far the largest housing boom ever. The office market is still relying on niches and a big internet/retail firm, but we’re already building at a good clip. Hotels have just started. The 99 tunnel, Mercer/Valley/Broad, the Link extension, and the First Hill Streetcar are the biggest transportation wave since the I-5 at least. But that’s not all. This boom appears to be sticking around.

Apartments should keep breaking ground at a good clip, spurred by culture and job growth, even if the market moves somewhat toward normal. They’ll be joined by a surging condo market in the next year or two, as a few developers can finance projects without presales, and rising confidence by buyers and lenders may result in presales being viable again. The office market should broaden with the economic recovery, even while Amazon has announced further expansions. Hotel occupancies recovered two years ago, followed by room rates more recently, and that market seems poised for another large wave. Absent a major surprise, the pace of work underway might even increase.

Check out video about Amazon.com high-rise

Friday, January 10th, 2014

On December 14, GeoEngineers shot a time-lapse video of its project partner, Sellen Construction, pouring more than 11,000 cubic yards of concrete for the foundation of the first of three buildings that will make up the new Amazon headquarters in downtown Seattle. This volume of concrete is the equivalent of more than four Olympic-sized pools. The pour began in the early morning and ran for more than 17 hours straight, making it one of the largest continuous pours in Seattle’s history.

Known as the Block 14 project, this 37-story structure is the first phase of a campus that will ultimately total 3.3 million square feet. GeoEngineers is providing environmental and geotechnical services on the project. The video was shot from GeoEngineers’ downtown Seattle office, which is next door to the project site.

Lessons from Denver

Monday, August 26th, 2013

For an urbanist, traveling can evoke jealously, pride in one’s own city, and any number of “what were they thinkings” and “wow, good ideas.” My recent trip to Denver brought all of these. While bigger cities inspire more jealousy, Denver is a more realistic peer than Tokyo, with plenty to learn and compare.

Direct garage access in Denver using sidewalk space. Photo by Matt Hays.

I was impressed. It’s a good, comfortable, growing city that’s doing a lot of things right. It offers many lessons in what Seattle might do better, along with others we shouldn’t do.

On the urbanity front, Denver has historically had less core density than Seattle. It also started the infill trend later and more slowly. But today neighborhoods ringing Downtown and other key spots are sprouting apartments seemingly everywhere, much like Seattle though without large towers and with more (probably too much) parking. A critical mass of residential convenience appears to be forming in greater Downtown, though groceries are reportedly hard to come by.

Axis of skybridges into downtown Denver. Photo by Matt Hays.

Seattle is very rare in that Downtown serves all the major purposes: offices, government, events, vacations, housing, transportation, shopping, and culture. Downtown Denver does all this to some extent except large scale shopping and tourism. The main core retail district is a few miles southeast at Cherry Creek, which has a large enclosed mall plus a sizeable neighborhood of higher-end retail and restaurants that appears to be very successful. Within Downtown proper, retail is generally on the 16th Street Mall (a pedestrian and shuttle bus corridor similar to Nicollet in Minneapolis). This is a fantastic street, lined with restaurants and shops for much of its length. At the center is Denver Pavilions, which is the size and function of Pacific Place but on more than twice the land. The street cries out for stores like Nordstrom and Target. Their problem might be similar to Seattle’s Pine Street – additional stores would like to move in but there’s no easy room on 16th. Streets like 15th have plenty of room but they’d have to create their own critical mass. Also, major stores would have to cannibalize Cherry Creek. On the tourism front, Downtown lacks major draws, and no areas feel touristy though 16th, historic LoDo, and the civic center and museum area get their share.

As Seattle plans a second convention center (or is it called an expansion?) some perspective is useful. Denver often hosts conventions of 10,000 to 15,000 people and has about 7,500 Downtown hotel rooms. Seattle hosts conventions generally below 6,000 people but has 12,000 Downtown hotel rooms in a similar zone. Their hotels are more convention-dependent than ours, with less pleasure tourism. Their way creates a boom/bust tourism economy, a common pattern in cities that use big convention centers to overcome a lack of vacationers. Our way creates steadier demand that augments our larger pleasure tourism economy rather than dominating. Expanding the WSCC would build upon this. Seattle’s typical conventions would still be of moderate size relative to our hotel inventory, while covering more of the calendar. We should build this.

We often lament Seattle’s land prices and availability. From an urbanist perspective, Denver shows the opposite problem – with lots of relatively cheap land, things tend to be too spread out. The convention center, while efficiently atop a light rail line and street, also covers a massive 25 acres. The new football stadium and basketball arena, multi-college Auraria Campus, and Elitch’s Garden amusement park, all on the southwest periphery of Downtown, have something like 100 acres of surface parking between them (based on Google Maps and a straightedge), roughly equal to everything between Yesler and Weller from I-5 to the viaduct. New apartments in some of Denver’s cheaper core districts sometimes have surface parking, and many have above-grade garages next to the housing rather than below it. Even the neighborhood-integrated Coors Field baseball park are has a parking lot extending along the railroad for well over a mile(!) northwest averaging a block wide. The good news (from this perspective) is that things are filling in at a decent clip, which should change the dynamic.

There are other positives to cheap, plentiful land. Denver built its Commons Park, and it’s nicely done alongside the even nicer Confluence Park. At the latter, two streams intersect, each with bike trails. A short stretch has been rebuilt as a rippled stream, a popular spot for kayaks and body boards. The area around both is booming with housing, aided by a sequence of pedestrian bridges that go over train tracks, then the South Platte “River,” then a freeway, into another neighborhood that’s also booming. It’s a pleasant walk and appears to be a popular draw. Overall, Downtown Denver has a lot more places to sit than Downtown Seattle. Many are shady. Seattle has way too many parks without shade. Wouldn’t it be great to have Philadelphia’s lightly shaded Rittenhouse Square, in Belltown maybe?

Denver looks like an easier bike city than Seattle. Being flat helps. It also has a lot of bike lanes, and the converging streams each have long trails leading outward from Downtown. As for walking, Downtown has a lot of “pedestrians all ways” lights, which sound fine in theory but are terrible in practice. At one, pedestrians could cross about 1/4 of the time by my count. Apparently, grouping people gets them out of the way of cars. Seattle should do this kind of signal only where the cycle has two parts maximum – pedestrians-cars-pedestrians-cars, like First & Pike.

Some below-grade parking garages have ramps that go below-grade within the public right of way then curve under sidewalks. This seems fine in practice, but they do it within the sidewalk area rather than in a parking lane. Each has a way for pedestrians to get around. This has good and bad points. They tend to be inconvenient for pedestrians, but might be better than having cars in the way. It must be faster for the cars and seems safer for everybody.

Denver has a growing transit system. Light rail is largely at ground level, running on Downtown streets and freeway corridors. Some train and bus routes terminate at the edge of Downtown, with riders transfering to the free 16th Street Mall Shuttle. This is efficient in some ways (the shuttles are frequent and buses and riders don’t crowd the streets) but transfers presumably reduce ridership. Per the 2011 American Community Survey (confusingly presented at census.gov), the Denver metro had 4.3% transit commuting compared to Seattle’s metro at 8.1%. This suggests that transfers and highway rail alignments might be problematic for ridership, and that Seattle’s spiderweb of buses is useful to a lot more people. It’s also thanks to our higher core densities of residents and jobs. Within city limits, the numbers were 7.5% transit for Denver (plus 4.3% walking) and 18.5% for Seattle (plus 8.9% walking). Denver is building a lot more rail, though another funding measure is needed to build out the full vision. Much of this will center on a refurbished and expanded Union Station, which is half-done but already spurring mixed uses around it along with the Commons nearby.

One of those new rail lines will connect the airport, which is a loooong way into the Great Plains. It’s a fine airport once you’re there, but what a great advertisement for convenient Sea-Tac! From DIA you travel for miles and miles to reach real suburbia, aside from a couple business pods where chain hotels sit in moats of parking. Even the pods are miles from the airport. At Sea-Tac, you can walk from your plane to Link or RapidRide…or even walk to your hotel. Your taxi will be much cheaper too. With Sea-Tac’s consideration of a bridge over planes for International Arrivals, it’s interesting that Denver already has a terminal bridge, though goes over smaller planes.

Another Denver trend is to pick up campuses and move to the suburbs. Malls leapfrogged out, and now several big hospitals have too, a few (Children’s, VA, University of Colorado) moving to the old Fitzsimmons campus in suburban Aurora that’s also the local (lately pretty quiet) attempt at growing a biotech center. They’re presumably making fine decisions, but for urbanists it seems sad to disperse jobs like this. Fitzsimmons has nice buildings but isn’t very integrated into the city.

Now to plug a very good brunch. The Kitchen at 16th & Wazee, near Union Station, was a fantastic meal well served. It turns out that regret equals having just one bite of “Eton Mess,” which is chantilly cream, strawberries, and meringue. And the polenta might be the best ever.

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.

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!

Our Strangled Greenbelts

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013
Dr. Seuss-like trees, strangled by clematis vines, sadly fill our greenbelts.

As Earth Day approaches (April 22 this year) I am reminded, as I have been every year over the past couple decades, of how poorly managed our City’s urban forests are, especially in the most central neighborhoods, such as Queen Anne Hill, Capitol Hill, and Beacon Hill.  Living on Queen Anne Hill, I have frequent occasion to walk, bike or drive by the various segments of “greenbelt” that have been purchased by the City over the yaears with parks levy dollars.  Case in point is the “Northeast Queen Anne Greenbelt” – a compendium of disaggregated full and half-blocks of forested hillside that in some cases stretch for a few blocks and in others are simply single-block in-holdings.  In this area in particular the “urban forest” – for want of a better term – is in such poor condition that one wonders if a controlled burn or some other scorched-earth approach might not be in order to start over.

While there’s no denying that undeveloped swaths of green space offer a welcome respite from the dense development in our central urban neighborhoods, when they are choked with vines and other intrusive vegetation, harbor rats and other vermin, and are essentially inaccessible for a casual urban hike, are they really serving the purpose they were likely intended to do – at taxpayer expense?

Not so many years ago it seemed the universally feared vegetative invaders were English ivy (Hedera helix) and Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus).  That’s not to say that they have ceased fulfilling this invidious role, but over the past 15 years or so, especially in the most central urban forests, the dreaded wild oriental clematis (Clematis orientalis) has taken a foothold and is on the rampage.

Entire blocks of greenbelt are a tangle of vines, with small hillocks where trees used to stand.

This rapacious vine leaves the other two behind by leaps and bounds – literally.  This plant’s vines thrust upward onto tree canopies and literally engulf an entire tree.  I’ve seen greenbelt acreage in my neighborhood that formerly sported a variety of individual trees now resemble a Dr. Seuss-like living carpet of vines with indistinguishable hillocks of vine mass where the trees once stood.  What’s more, these vines so aggressively pull on their victims that branches and even small trees literally fall over under their weight.  I witnessed a large branch of a big-leaf maple come tumbling down into the sidewalk and one of the southbound travel lanes of Aurora Avenue North.

Perhaps the worst effect of all of these invasives in our greenbelt lands, even if individual trees find a way to survive their onslaught, is that the potential for a new generation of tree canopy is all but lost across these pockets of greenbelt.  With the understory almost entirely engulfed in vines of one sort or another, new saplings or seedlings have no chance of survival.  And as our mostly deciduous urban forests reach their maturity (most big-leaf maples and alders have a lifespan of only 75 years or so), what will we be left with to grace our hillsides?  Tangled masses of vines clinging to dead snags?

I know that municipal budgets are tight and our City’s pressing needs are many, but it may be time to consider appropriating some even modest amounts to fund incremental rescue efforts in our taxpayer-purchased greenbelt areas. Volunteers do help, and I have a long-standing tradition of going out, heavy-duty clippers in hand, on every Earth Day weekend to do my small part, but volunteers alone cannot take it all on.  I hope the City will see the wisdom in helping to stem this insidious tide.