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February 22, 2018

A balancing act: development, transportation, place making

  • As our cities grow, the challenge is to build denser and equitable cityscapes while driving down the carbon footprint.
    DLR Group


    Today's market looks and feels a lot like it did in 2007.

    Developers are now looking more conservatively at investment opportunities. Companies are rushing to get work out of the ground because of escalating costs. The city is up-zoning neighborhoods to try to manage a need for increased density in a downtown core that continues to grow. The mayor's office, City Council, and the Office of Planning and Community Development seek to incentivize development in neighborhoods while balancing the financial burden required of the development community through the Mandatory Housing Affordability policy.

    Add to the challenge a flooded construction market, where material costs continue to soar, and skilled labor is difficult to find.

    These dueling tensions give rise to questions. How does the city maximize opportunities for developers and city infrastructure for making great city spaces at a time when the construction industry feels pressured to build faster and cheaper?

    Seattle's population growth, as well as its millions of visitors, confirms this is a much-desired place to live, work and play. We need to continue to attract people while retaining commerce and corporate headquarters here. Yet this tension, due to challenges in transportation and cost of living, lessen the desirability factor.

    As the city invests in roads, infrastructure and parks, it must also leverage developer incentives to make better spaces for people. So how does the city continue to support development while asking the development community to give back to the public in tangible ways?

    Photo by Trevor Dykstra [enlarge]
    Staff from DLR Group recently held a community meeting on the renovation of Seattle Center Arena.

    A case in point: One Center City is trying to address transportation issues at a local, state and regional level. With the help of the Downtown Seattle Association and the mayor's office, they have brought all the right players to the table. However, the challenge is how to unify the agendas and scales of three different organizations: Seattle Department of Transportation, King County Metro and Sound Transit.

    As it turns out, it is an onerous task to get these agencies to find commonality when they are each trying to solve very different scales of investment and have very different customer bases and decision-making bodies.

    Another challenge is the pressure to design for today's immediate needs while still planning and providing an adequate foundation for growth and future changes in technology and infrastructure that are difficult to forecast. How do we manage the design conversation between immediate development opportunities and future needs that we are trying to project?

    Powerful place making

    The city strives to be thoughtful about development opportunities and creating great spaces in the downtown core within this set of competing challenges. How does the design community, and the city as an authorizing agency, manage that tension at both a neighborhood scale and a civic scale for gathering spaces like Pike Place Market and Seattle Center that not only serve a local community, but an international tourist market as well?

    Today, the city continues to consolidate facilities at the Seattle Municipal Tower, and King County is poised to begin a large civic center master planning effort. How do design and planning of these civic campuses affect urban fabric and all that occurs between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. in the core? And how do we address these agendas as the city tries to drive down its carbon footprint and create a climate-friendly Seattle?

    The answer to these questions must ultimately consider the power of place making in urban settings. We must raise the frequency and level of discourse and engage the entire community of investors, developers, businesses and residents in a conversation around how equitable development will serve a broad base of stakeholders and make for successful private development.

    Understanding the meaning of place making in contemporary culture and contemplating how meaningful spaces serve the public good always requires a diverse dialogue, both formal and informal. This conversation is vital to the future development of all urban cityscapes if we are to be good stewards of great places, whether it be a grand downtown plaza or humble neighborhood park.

    Great civic places and urban spaces share these four key attributes:

    • They are accessible through a variety of public transportation modes reaching a diverse group of citizens, connecting to multiple prime locations and venues.

    • They are walkable, sit-able, attractive, safe, comfortable and clean. Municipal entities manage this by tracking data based on local measures of excellence.

    • They serve as a destination where people like to gather again and again for social connection, volunteerism, cooperative events, street life and healthy living.

    • They celebrate unique identity through use of open space, culture, architecture, art, commerce, wayfinding and other elements to create a sense of belonging and community stewardship within a city, neighborhood or region.

    Whether the Seattle Waterfront, Westlake Center or Occidental Park, the need to invest in civic infrastructure and place making is clear. As our cities continue to grow, the challenge becomes one of balance to build denser and equitable cityscapes while also driving down the carbon footprint. And we attain this balance by continuing to meet the human need for thoughtful and memorable spaces where communities are encouraged and invited to live active, healthy and vibrant lives.

    This is an ongoing public-private partnership, where we must constantly challenge ourselves to leverage private investment opportunities and investment of public infrastructure projects. It calls for proper planning, earnest community engagement and true collaboration of the development community alongside those driving public projects.

    The value of these investments leads to a more meaningful sense of place and to growth of communities that balance the needs of all their citizens, regardless of color, creed or income level. Easy, right?

    Rico Quirindongo, AIA, is an architect at DLR Group. He has served on two city committees: One Center City Advisory Group and Key Arena Advisory Group, both focusing on community development, density and transportation issues.

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