Posts Tagged ‘walking’

Oakland: A parallel universe

Monday, November 10th, 2008

Writers often dream up worlds that are very similar to our own but have fundamental differences that shine a light on what’s wrong with ours. Thomas More’s Utopia and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels come to mind.

But I had a chance to visit just such a parallel world this week in California called Oakland.

Oakland has long been San Francisco’s ugly sister derided for its crime and Gertrude Stein determined that there was no there, there.

It is a small city and it has had its share of issues with crime. But there is a great deal of natural beauty, cultural and compelling architecture not to mention some fantastic historic landmarks.

What makes a trip to Oakland revealing is what its urgent desire to create more multifamily housing in the downtown area. There don’t seem to be the debates we have in Seattle about whether we have growth and whether Seattle should accommodate it. Instead former Mayor Jerry Brown developed the 10K Initiative which set as a goal to create 10,000 new units of housing.

Shocking! Imagine a housing agenda with an actual numerical and geographic target. And add to that the fact that the projects that are listed range from subsidized low income housing to large mixed used projects like the one on 23rd and Valdez Street. The amazing and historic Cathedral Building is also being converted to condominiums.

My walking tour of these projects took the better part of a day and some of the projects were completely ugly, others run of the mill and some appeared to really be reaching for new ground in design and function.

The sad thing is the effort may not be working. The flailing economy and the uphill climb to reverse the doughnut effect is creating a high vacancy rate—at least anecdotally. Some locals say they are the ones that should be living in the new units, but Oakland just doesn’t work for them.

So while some in Seattle want to shut the door behind them and keep out new growth, or nickel and dime developers with disconnected housing goals (How many? Where? Why?) Oakland is actually going out of its way to identify under utilized parcels and recruit efforts to build housing on them. I am

sure Oakland wishes it had our problems. And the Lesser Seattle folks, I’m sure, wish we had theirs.

More strides needed on walkability

Friday, October 31st, 2008

Seattle has taken important steps toward being a good pedestrian city. Our strategic plans say the right things, we have some excellent City staff as well as advocacy groups (Ped Board, Feet First), most streets have sidewalks at least in older neighborhoods, and so on. But, oh, could we do better.

To cross Denny Way from Belltown is to know where pedestrians really stand in Seattle – somewhere below getting cars to Ballard. At major intersections pedestrians can cross on one side only, at Queen Anne, First, Fourth, and Fifth. This forces some pedestrians to cross three streets rather than one, and creates a psychological barrier that discourages walking.

Denny has some push-button crossings too, as do other major streets on the edges of Downtown, like Boren. This means you have to get to the intersection well before the light changes. Basically you have to wait every time, unless someone else has pushed the button. This is odd given how many pedestrians cross Denny and Boren. How annoying push-button signals must be to those who don’t ignore them as I do, when there’s a decent gap.

Slippery metal grates and covers are a big problem. Many pedestrians know you walk gingerly on them when they’re wet, but they’re still dangerous. Why aren’t we covering metal with friction coatings, like sprays or tape? These should be required, particularly on hills. And speaking of slippery, how about those yellow mats they’re adding to curb cuts for blind pedestrians? Surely the designers knew that a sloped, bumpy plastic mat would get treacherous when wet.

Utility poles, parking pay stations, and other street infrastructure are often located three feet from the curb, which sometimes means the middle of the walkway. This is apparently to avoid dinging cars and the associated liability. Pedestrians, again, take second place.

Sometimes tree wells are too big, creating choke points and tripping hazards. A compromise used elsewhere is covering some of the well with a walkable mesh that allows the tree to grow without ruining concrete, but can be rearranged every few years as necessary at little cost.

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.

They’re driving me crazy

Monday, October 13th, 2008

When drivers’ manners and safety are discussed, it’s generally about their impacts on each other. But ask anyone who walks – the whims of drivers have huge effects on pedestrians.

I admit to some bias as a constant pedestrian and non-driver. To be honest, I’m pissed.

Typical scene at Second & Spring

It’s not just the big stuff like red-light runners, speeders, and drivers that turn without looking right. All of those can kill or maim pedestrians. Why offenders are allowed to keep their licenses is a mystery.

It’s also the subtle rudeness. My special pet peeve is cars that edge into crosswalks at red lights. This doesn’t endanger (necessarily) but still manages to convey…that the driver doesn’t care about others, that they aren’t qualified to drive, that cars are more important, who knows.

For 20 years, my response has been to touch every car in every crosswalk. Some drivers don’t like that, which is exactly the point. If they look like they might turn without looking, they get a couple taps on the hood. They like that even less, but maybe they’ll think twice next time.

Cars parked on sidewalks are equally annoying. Again, they’re (usually) not safety hazards, except when they force people to walk in traffic, but aside from some rare scenarios (giving birth perhaps?) it’s always rude. Architects are well-schooled in symbolism – maybe one of you can weigh in here.

Drivers don’t want pedestrians to take over lanes of Fourth Avenue. And we don’t plan to — it would be both dangerous and rude, as well as illegal. It goes both ways.

P.S. We’ve done a good job cracking down on drunk drivers. But isn’t rude and dangerous driving just as bad when the driver isn’t drunk?

P.S.2 Thanks to anyone who drives with pedestrians in mind.

Sidewalk talk

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

Erica Barnett’s column in this week’s Stranger focuses on sidewalks. It is a great rundown of the politics of sidewalks, street improvements and today’s tension between developers and neighborhoods.

But I would suggest that, like many issues, single-family politics drives the sidewalk discussion.

Last weekend I was visiting family in Tacoma. Someone walked in and said “What is the deal; you have the last unpaved street in Tacoma. Gravel? What gives?”

The road to the future?

Tacoma’s road to the future?

A heated discussion ensued about why the project didn’t happen. “We wanted asphalt and rolled curbs. The City wanted sidewalks that would have slashed into people’s yards and been outrageously expensive.”

I piped up and said “actually the way it is right now is best for everyone, especially for China Lake. If the street was paved, it would create a huge drainage issue because of the new impervious surface. That would create a huge expense and a bunch of dirty water. The road now has much better drainage. Gravel is the way to go. Keep it the way it is!”

Everyone looked at me for a beat with a bit of bewilderment and disdain—as if I had just spoken in Latin—and then continued their debate about sidewalks.

No offense to Tacoma. The opinions expressed there are the same ones that drive the sidewalk debate in Seattle. The bottom line on sidewalks is that they are often needless status symbols creating more impervious surface which is expensive to mitigate. How about those swales?

The next time you hear someone saying “for crying out loud, we don’t even have sidewalks!” think about Palantine NW pictured here.

An sustainable alternative to concrete walkways.

We don’t always need sidewalks to support pedestrian-friendly and pedestrian-safe neighborhoods. And they shouldn’t be a litmus test as to whether a neighborhood has favored status with the City.

Sidewalks add impervious surface which we have to mitigate with huge drainage projects. Let’s focus on how we move pedestrians safely, not creating more sidewalks. Progress can be less sidewalks!

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.

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!

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.