New bilingual signs in Chinatown-International District

July 16th, 2013 by Lynn

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.

King Street Station Can Transform the City

June 24th, 2013 by darby

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

June 17th, 2013 by Nate
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!

Two steps back on affordability?

April 24th, 2013 by Matt Hays

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

April 1st, 2013 by darby

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

Our Strangled Greenbelts

March 27th, 2013 by Patrick Doherty
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.

Making strides on affordability

March 18th, 2013 by Matt Hays

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.

MOHAI is Awesome

March 12th, 2013 by Matt Hays
Photo courtesy of LMN Architects

The new Museum of History & Industry, which recently relocated to its beautiful adaptation of the Naval Reserve Armory at South Lake Union Park, sounded worthy of a good hour at most. Nice little museum in a small building, with some recreated storefronts, some trinkets and photos of old Seattle, and the odd neon “R.” Entering at the large central atrium reinforced this impression, as there’s plenty of room for further installations in addition to the transplanted landmarks and interactives.

Photo courtesy of LMN Architects

But then came the second floor, and the surprisingly large volume of stuff there…captivating stuff. If you’re curious about this city, how it got where it is, the people involved, and who and what we are today, then (shaking you by the shoulders) go now. My hour turned to two hours just to see the first 40%, then a second visit. A third will be needed to see the rest.

Perhaps it’s always been a great museum. Some of it matches distant memories of decades ago. But some is new, or refreshed.

Want to better understand our regrades, the suburbanization trend, or our one-time wealth of old theaters? Or the Great Seattle Fire complete with intentionally cheesy but catchy and informative multimedia show every 15 minutes? Boeing airplanes and worlds fairs? The surprisingly long list of movies filmed here? Local civil rights efforts?

MOHAI does a nice job of covering these and many other topics, including multiple viewpoints on many topics, and deeper dives on numerous touchscreens. In some areas it’s primarily boosterish, such as the 1962 fair, though that may be par for an event that was about boosterism. In others it’s surprisingly honest on topics such as Microsoft’s past missteps. They’ve done a good job mixing media — photos, text, spoken word, video — a key since people learn in different ways, and are drawn to different modes.

Part of going to MOHAI is South Lake Union Park. Be sure to leave time to stand at the end of the pier and look at the city. Or grab lunch as the Compass Cafe (part of MOHAI) and sit on the pier and look at the city. Prepare to be happy…Seattle looks great from here, especially now that you understand more about how it happened.

 

The sidewalk observed: a disappointing West Seattle street corner

March 11th, 2013 by Nate

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.

 

Seattle’s Engaged Design Community

February 19th, 2013 by Walter Schacht, FAIA

One of the things that struck me when I arrived in Seattle over thirty years ago was the engagement of architects in advocating for the quality of the built environment. I wasn’t aware of the fact that we are one of the largest communities of design professionals in the nation, among the top ten in the country in the number of AIA members. That, combined with the activist nature of our urban culture, creates an environment for involvement and advocacy.

Rod Hoekstra for Seattle Architecture Foundation

In the early 1980s two organizations played a key role in creating opportunities for engagement, Blueprint: for Architecture and ARCADE. Blueprint sponsored exhibitions, lectures and competitions, meeting the need in a city hungry for design ideas that stretched the imagination. ARCADE is still going strong, publishing a quarterly magazine that addresses a broad range of multi-disciplinary design issues from architecture to landscape architecture, urban planning, industrial design, graphic design and fine art. Their launch parties bring the design community together to celebrate the publication of each issue and provide an opportunity for dialogue.

AIA Seattle plays a central role in engaging people and design. It gave birth to the Seattle Architecture Foundation, a private, non-profit organization that connects people to the architecture, design and the history of Seattle through workshops, tours, educational seminars and advocacy. SAF’s annual model show puts the latest work of the architectural community on display for everyone to see.

More recently, AIA Seattle helped to found Design in Public, which is dedicated to growing a city that embraces design to create a healthier, more livable community. Their programs include lectures, exhibits, research, and case studies. Their annual Seattle Design Festival is the largest interdisciplinary design event in the Puget Sound region, offering more than 40 events, including tours, films, speakers, installations, and family programs — all aimed at a public audience.

AIA Seattle’s Public Policy Board plays an active role in advocating for the quality of design and the environment in our region. Growing out of the successful campaign to tear down the Viaduct and encourage the development of an accessible waterfront, the Public Policy Board continues to advocate for policies that promote livable cities, from State energy codes to urban design guidelines. To this end, the Board has hosted candidate forums for City Council candidates in Seattle and the State Legislature on the Eastside. Later this year, it will host a candidate forum for Seattle’s mayoral candidates. Stay tuned, this is an important year for an engaged design community to play a role in making sure that our leaders are focused on achieving the City’s potential.