Posts Tagged ‘Downtown’

Livability means a pedestrian scale

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Frequently in my posts and in opinion pieces I suggest we should organize our thinking about growth as a city into three distinct domains: affordability, livability and sustainability.

I am continuing to think through these domains and defining them in more detail. But when I think of livability the first thing that comes to my mind is pedestrian scale. . . . at 12th and Thomas

If Seattle did one thing to support livability as we work toward accommodating more growth, it would be prioritizing pedestrian travel. The pedestrian would be at the top of the hierarchy followed in descending order by bicycles, scooters, transit, freight, shared vehicles and at the very, very bottom single passenger cars.

Two examples come to mind of what I mean by pedestrian scale and they are at extreme ends of the continuum. The National Mall in Washington D.C. stands out as an example of being out of scale with pedestrian travel. Although it was designed before the rise of the automobile it represents the kind of Brobdingnagian scale that lends itself to cars rather than people. It’s just too damn big.A quiet oasis . . .

At the other end is 12th and Thomas, shown above and at left. A look at these pictures might lead you to think that this is in someone’s back yard or perhaps a park. But the fact that this little oasis is part of a sidewalk near a busy street can teach us something.

Building Seattle as if we had to walk everywhere will make our city more livable. It doesn’t just have to be more sidewalks and gutters.

Instead, humanizing our walkscape means less pavement and more landscaping, less impervious surface and more unpaved amenities. The oasis at 12th and Thomas won’t save the world but you really can’t appreciate it driving by in a car.

About those sidewalk closures…

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Cities like New York, Washington D.C., Toronto, and Vancouver B.C prioritize keeping sidewalks open during construction, encouraging covered pedestrian walkways and pedestrian use of the same-side street when covered walkways won’t work.

Better than crossing the street, twice

They will turn to a sidewalk closure only as a last resort. Compare that to Seattle, where city officials discuss covered walkways and same-street use as options during construction, but no clear priority is stated on sidewalk closures v. the alternatives.

A lack of clear priority for pedestrian and cyclist safety is one of the findings of a Seattle City Auditor report on sidewalkaccessibility in the Emerald City. It came out in August.

SDOT also has problems coordinating multiple sidewalk closures, communicating on closures and alternate routes and inspecting and enforcing closures, the audit found.

The audit was undertaken at the request of City Council members Richard Conlin, Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen.

SDOT and the auditor’s office have agreed on an action plan to address the issues found in the audit. It includes developing methods to protect pedestrians, better enforcing ADA accessibility, naming a street use inspector to coordinate construction projects, developing a policy for waiving inspections, requiring applicants for street use permits to submit a notification plan and making information on closures and alternate routes available on SDOT’s Web site.

Tucson is one city that lets pedestrians know about what kind of closures and obstacles they might encounter.

Closing sidewalks means compliant pedestrians lose time crossing multiple streets and walking on clogged sidewalks. For pedestrians or cyclists who choose not to be inconvenienced, the consequences can be far worse. Time will tell if the changes keep Seattle pedestrians from going rogue.

Street life? What street life?

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008
Seattle's Third Avenue
Sometimes Seattle makes me plain crazy. We profess all sorts of environmentally and socially enlightened values and then we often ignore the obvious. Take our public sidewalks. Active, lively, livable? Maybe sometimes. Often, not so much.
We allow contractors to close off sidewalks while they build towers, despite the fact that most other cities have required protected shelters for decades. Contractors here get to close off block fronts for months while we pedestrians have to negotiate a gauntlet of “Sidewalk Closed” signs. Builders elsewhere have figured out how to stage and service a construction site. Yet we let these private companies usurp our precious public space for their own convenience and cost savings.
Another example: The State Liquor Control Board insists that restaurants serving drinks install expensive and space-consuming “corrals” made of cast iron, steel or wood around outdoor seating areas — ostensibly to protect minors. (And how does that work, actually?) Go east to Idaho and there are no sidewalk corrals. Go south to Oregon, same thing: no fences. Tables and chairs spill out onto the sidewalks like they do all over Europe and the rest of the world. Yet, I’ve never heard that those places have hoards of inebriated minors thronging the streets.
I am reminded that until the late 70s, the Liquor Board had a rule that restaurants serving drinks could not have windows, lest anyone be seen drinking. When they dropped that senseless rule, our restaurant industry began to flourish. Just as they changed that rule, they can certainly eliminate the ridiculous fencing requirement that pens us in.
A Portland vendor at Pioneer Square
But here is the worst example, one that truly prevents our urban sidewalks from being lively and livable. The city/county health department’s rules keep us from enjoying a simple delight that is enjoyed by people in most major American cities: sidewalk food carts. (Seattle’s vending ordinance is also very limiting.)
Portland’s downtown is chockablock with outdoor food sellers. Virtually every block has one or two – operating between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. In addition, numerous small food trucks park in lots and back up their counters to the sidewalks. They are often open late into the evening to serve people leaving theaters and night spots. And these are not just mushy steamed hot dogs. They’re fine, cooked-to-order meals of all cuisines, from French crepes to phad thai and burritos.
A vendor in Queens, NY
None of that here, though. Seems our health department folks insist upon an employee restroom and a three-compartment sink — neither one practical for a tiny cart or truck. I am not aware that folks in Portland have been dying in droves from e-coli or hepatitis-C. And that city has been allowing these little street cafes for many years, ample time for any evidence to appear. Of course, they inspect the premises and even inspect the home-based kitchens. Portland now has sidewalks far more interesting than any we have here.
Portland allows these diminutive enterprises to sell fresh, hand-made food for several reasons. First, they see it as an economic development tool. Small, family-based, and often recent immigrant-owned businesses can start up simply and flourish, perhaps eventually moving into a storefront. Second, the city wants to offer downtown workers the choice of inexpensive lunches. Hence, if the vendors keep their prices low, they charge no permit fee. Finally, they contribute to a dynamic public realm. The little businesses maintain eyes on the street and keep the area tidy.
So simple to do. Such amazing results. Not for us, however.

Read more SeattleScape comments on sidewalks and walking here, here and here.

Park(ing) Day makes impression

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

National Park(ing) Day was Friday, and it was quite an effective spectacle. A parking space at First and Spring became a lawn, one of hundreds set up and staffed by volunteers around Seattle and the US.

The park was the first open lawn anywhere near First and Spring in decades.

As the meter ran out, First Avenue lost its park

Perimeter districts around Downtown Seattle are improving quickly park-wise due to a lot of hard work, generally northward, with the Olympic Sculpture Park, South Lake Union Park (phase II coming!), Cal Anderson Park, the new pocket park at Queen Anne & Roy, and the refurbished Cascade Playground – all great additions. Also exciting are the proposed pocket park at 8th & Westlake and the proposed skybridge that will “add” Myrtle Edwards Park for Lower Queen Anne residents. But what about Downtown Proper…the area with the most people?

A little would go a long way. A quarter block is enough room for a big fountain, some trees, and a couple patches of grass, fertilizer-free of course. It’s easy to imagine a spectacular design, whether traditional or avant garde. The park would stay active all day by encouraging pedestrians to pass through and by being both interesting and pleasant. The City’s promising new Park Ranger program would help keep it friendly.

Two parks of this size would be even better. Or three, since I’m dreaming, including one in Belltown.

The elephant in the room is our fear of drunks, panhandlers and noisy teenagers. Forget that much of our fear is unfounded; perception might as well be reality if it keeps you from using a park. But parks don’t create drunks. If a few of our parks seem overrun, it’s because we don’t have much public space, so the drunks seem concentrated. To continue this non-pc thought, adding more public space would reduce the concentration.

With that, plus more parks nearby, perhaps a lot of us would use parks more. Maybe we’d regain a lost aspect of our culture.

Downtown’s growing mixture of uses would be a boost. A growing residential population, lots of shoppers, rising tourism, a huge office population, and scattered event crowds are combining to keep parts of Downtown active all day and, in some areas, all evening. The best park locations would be places that serve several of these groups.

Wow, another topic that’s far too complex for a blog post. More later.

Some love for midrises

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

A recent study determined that at least 220 midrises have been built in the 2,000-acre Greater Downtown area in the last 20 years, including those now underway. That’s in the CBD plus fringe districts like Lower Queen Anne, around Seattle U, etc.

OK, it was an obscure and imprecise study. Basically yours truly counting new buildings between 3-9 stories off the top of my head. I’ve been trying to invent a reason to write about this, and not coming up with one. So … quite a lot of midrises, eh?

One of 220: Cabrini First Hill Apartments

Well …. yeah. 220 really is a lot. Greater Downtown has changed dramatically in that time, and midrises have been a major reason, perhaps as much so as the 76(?) taller buildings built in the same period.

You can argue about architecture, or zoning, or what got torn down. But there’s no question that the edges of Downtown have gotten a lot more populated, with midrises bringing thousands of hotel rooms, millions of square feet of offices and labs, thousands of housing units, nice college buildings and a lot more retail. Far more people now live the sort of walkable, sustainable lifestyles many of us encourage.

Housing affordability should benefit long-term. First, midrises tend to be a bit cheaper to build than taller buildings. Second, look at today’s low-moderate-price housing: it’s generally the market-rate housing of past decades, whether the 70s or 20s. Because buildings tend to move downmarket over the years, buildings from the 80s should be following their 70s brethren.

Of course, the biggest requirement for affordability is keeping supply ahead of demand, and Seattle’s influx of midrises is a big reason why we have avoided San Francisco-type prices. (And kudos to our array of non-profits, who both house the poor and improve neighborhoods.)

Same story with retail. New buildings tend to be populated by established retailers and chains, because of lease rates and other requirements. But as long as there’s more retail space than the big guys want, there will always be cheaper spaces for the funky local stores, primarily in older buildings.

So, yeah, that’s a lot of midrises!

Will Belltown soon become Belltown?

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Since most of it was regraded a century ago, the area we now call Belltown has always been on the way to some fantastic destiny. The current vision has been clear since the 80s: Belltown should be a dense spinoff from Downtown proper, primarily residential but with offices too, and with lots of amenities.

Plymouth Housing's new project at at 2119 Third

I’ve always thought Belltown was just one more wave of projects away. After a few waves it’s not there yet. But it’s getting closer.

In many ways, Belltown is a huge success already, and I love living here. It’s vibrant to a point, and every convenience is either here or nearby. Young adults, empty-nesters, and a large poor population mix with less difficulty than some imagine. Half of us walk to work or use transit.

Traffic and street width are a hurdle. Belltown is “on the way to” Ballard in addition to destiny. The narrow streets and low traffic of Portland’s Pearl District magnify the feeling of people out and about, while Belltown needs lots of pedestrians to seem right, and busy crossings discourage strolling. Some avenues are probably unfixable, but Second and Third are low-volume toward the north and could be narrowed, perhaps replacing a lane or two with greenery.

We should concentrate our retail. Belltown is populated enough to have a couple good retail avenues, or one great one, but instead it has a lot of “sort of” retail streets. The culprit is code that favors/requires retail everywhere, and doesn’t require it to be wall-to-wall anywhere. We ought to pick a couple avenues for retail, and sharply reduce requirements elsewhere, leaving space for corner stores of course.

For those wishing for a bigger-city feel, another lesson is that a few hundred new housing units won’t have much effect in such a large area. That’ll take thousands of people, which will take years. Luckily some of us enjoy the journey.

Perhaps we can talk about amenities in another post!

Ode to the corner store

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Greater Downtown seems awash in supermarkets these days, including new stores at Eighth & Madison, Third & Pike, Westlake & Denny, and Fifth North & Mercer. You’re always near one…except in poor ol’ north Belltown. We’re truly the gap in the Downtown supermarket smile.

One stop shopping

The thing is, as a resident of the area, I don’t really care. North Belltown is corner store heaven.

That doesn’t mean dives plastered with cigarette posters that mostly sell chips and six packs. I mean places that not only sell cereal, but several kinds. Places with extensive ice cream collections, and everything you need to make cookie dough. And frozen calzone. And plenty of sauces. Plus a few kinds of fruit and vegetables, because one serving of those can remove a lot of guilt. Actual groceries.

The real value is convenience. For one, there’s no line! I’m always astonished at the waits people tolerate at supposed “high end” supermarkets. Two, getting there probably takes one or two minutes.

Ok, so the prices tend to be…somewhat high. But isn’t your time worth something? And you’re generally supporting a small owner-operator, like the family that owns my favorite store.

If the choices get a little repetitive, there’s another corner store advantage — Belltown has many of them, and each has different food! The one a block west might have apples and pepper jack cheese, while the one a block north has pesto and pears. And let’s not forget that we corner store shoppers like takeout places too, and some of us binge at the Pike Place Market, so nobody is living on 100 percent corner store.

PS: Now I want cookie dough. Great.

Urban flight, revisited

Monday, August 4th, 2008

The New Republic has an interesting piece today on America’s professional class taking over its innercities while lower-class Americans, many of them minorities or immigrants, are pushed to the outskirts and suburbs.

The piece, by Alan Ehrenhalt, describes this shift as going “beyond gentrification,” and says it is more appropriate to describe it as “demographic inversion.”

I just want to live closer to work. Is that so bad?

Chicago, Atlanta, and D.C. are all cited, along with Vancouver B.C., where “each morning, there are nearly as many people commuting out of the center to jobs in the suburbs as there are commuting in.” Sound familiar?

The article says downtowns have gotten more livable for the professional class because they’re no longer home to major manufacturing zones. Street crime has also gone down significantly since the 1970s, so people feel safer on downtown streets after dark, Ehrenhalt says.

Popular culture might play a part too. Many of these new urban dwellers are younger and seem to have more of an innate urban sensibility, the article says. They grew up watching shows set in cities, like “Seinfeld,” Sex and the City,” and “Friends.” A far cry from”Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.”

But one hallmark of suburbia is still well-ingrained in this new urban class: They still can’t imagine living without their cars. Ehrenhalt describes one new development in transit-oasis Chicago where residents can ride up the elevator to their floor without ever leaving their cars.

So its not exactly 1870s Vienna.

Stalled projects mean eyesores for Seattle

Monday, July 28th, 2008

As the financial credit crisis puts the crunch on local redevelopment projects, an additional unpleasant consequence is the increasing number of vacant lots and vacant buildings, especially in Downtown Seattle and nearby neighborhoods.

Who knows how long these sites will remain vacant? In the interim, we’re stuck with illegal parking lots at best and eyesores at worst.

East Pine Street at Belmont
On a quick drive through Downtown the other day I spotted three illegal parking lots on stalled redevelopment sites. While some folks may enjoy the suddenly greater availability of low-cost surface parking, these impromptu parking lots fly in the face of the City’s vision for Downtown and often create a false “value added” that can perpetuate the parking use for years.

First, in many parts of Downtown, as well as other pedestrian-designated commercial zones, surface parking is NOT an allowed use by City code. Occasionally, temporary surface parking is permissible, but only with special approvals.

Second, even where allowed, surface parking obviously cannot simply be set up as dirt or gravel lots. They need to be paved, with adequate storm water drainage, as well as include landscaped buffers adjacent to the sidewalk, plus interior landscaping. If you’ve seen some of these impromptu lots around town you’ll notice that the cars abut or even hang over onto the sidewalk, with no buffer but for weeds and occasionally black tarp staked up a few inches, ostensibly to contain runoff.

Lastly, surface parking lots are a valuable commodity in certain parts of town. Look at the parking lot at the southeast corner of Second and Pine! It’s been there for generations – a missing tooth in the otherwise improving stretch between the retail core and Pike Place Market.

Second Avenue in Belltown

Suffice it to say, in some cases what may seem like a casual, impromptu use can last for years. And, if the parking lot is either not allowable in that location and/or lacks the appropriate buffering, drainage, landscaping, etc., it’s a real detriment to the streetscape and neighborhood.

And what about those other “eyesores?” Other locations where projects have been stalled simply sit fallow – vacant lots, vacant buildings, or even semi-demolished buildings. Overnight, of course, these become targets for graffiti, litter, vandalism and crime, or simply become weed-choked, litter-strewn lots. Think of the former Safeway site at 40th and Stone Way N, or the collection of buildings along Westlake Avenue that Carr America hopes to redevelop. The list goes on.

This issue may be a bit more complicated, but the question is: should the City consider a minimum-maintenance ordinance for such properties?

(more…)

To market, to market

Monday, July 14th, 2008

There’s lots of good fodder for urban development nuts to digest in today’s news. A few selections, in case you missed them:

In a piece for Crosscut, former city council member, architect (and offspring of Pike Place Market advocate Victor

market.jpg
The Market's year?
Steinbrueck) Peter Steinbrueck sounds off on fixing townhouses. Steinbrueck’s take: disallow certain types of townhouses altogether and make the rest of the code more form and performance based, with more design flexibility. He also suggests the city’s design community create an attractive “townhouse model” developers can work from.

The Seattle P-I has a piece on a new campaign targeting grocery shoppers as a way to reduce miles driven in the city. Feet First is providing deeply discounted personal carts, for now only to people living within one-quarter mile of the Westwood QFC in hopes of getting shoppers out of their cars for grocery trips.

Speaking of markets, the Seattle City Council voted 8-0 to put a $73 million levy for Pike Place Market repairs and upgrades on the November ballot. Council is still in discussion on a $140 million levy for Seattle parks.