Transit, alleys and density

April 17th, 2014 by Matt Hays

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!

Frank Lloyd Wright campus to get updated lighting

March 14th, 2014 by Lynn

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s imaginative Taliesin Spring will receive an update from award winning lighting designer and founder of Studio Lux, Christopher Thompson, who will introduce energy-efficient technology to the historic site.

Photo courtesy of Studio Lux

Taliesin Spring was Wright’s home and drafting studio in Spring Green, Wis. The property was donated to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation upon Wright’s death in 1959. It is now one of two campuses for the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.
Taliesin Spring suffers from antiquated and poorly performing lighting systems throughout the campus.
Studio Lux will design systems that use high efficacy sources such as LED lamps, which will improve light levels, restore the original design intent, and decrease campus-wide power use while being sensitive to the site’s historical nature.
The foundation first sought out Thompson’s firm to create a Net-Zero energy zone for Taliesin West, the main campus of The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. That campus is in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Wright was a leader of the Prairie School movement of architecture and developed the concept of the Usonian home, his vision for urban planning in the United States.

Ahem, that planter is not a litter box

February 28th, 2014 by Nate

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

February 10th, 2014 by Dan Bertolet

Dan Bertolet, a planner and a blogger at, 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

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?

January 23rd, 2014 by Matt Hays

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 high-rise

January 10th, 2014 by djcadmin

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.

Should you mix affordable and upscale housing?

October 16th, 2013 by Lynn
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

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

September 17th, 2013 by Lynn
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

September 5th, 2013 by Lynn

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.

Lessons from Denver

August 26th, 2013 by Matt Hays

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, 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.