April 14, 2012 – Future Seattle: Reading tea leaves in a coffee town

Glorifying and celebrating Seattle’s past, as a place and a state of mind, is a respected pastime.  Speculating about and lobbying for its future is not.  For at least a generation, debate about the City’s direction and character has raised the ire and voices of our citizens, and has resulted in marginalizing advocates of all stripes and engendered debilitating distrust of nearly everyone’s actions and intentions.

Seattle, like most large American cities, is at a crossroads.   We are faced with rising energy costs which in turn are causing us to rethink and reestablish how we get around the city.  We are constrained by limited undeveloped land which forces significant reshaping and rebuilding within our communities.  We are faced with turbulent economic times, aging infrastructure and rising operating costs which challenge our ability to fairly and completely provide for ourselves.  And we are faced with changing demographics which are redefining who we are and how we live.

While much of the disagreement has centered on what is acceptable “density”, Seattle still has only a quarter of the density of New York City and a third of Copenhagen.  While some, including Mayor McGinn and his Great City Initiative followers, espouse “Vancouverism” (tall towers on top of mixed use pedestals providing for view corridors), this yields an expensive housing type which would only exacerbate our housing cost to income disparity.  Conversely, the less costly “5 over 1” (wood frame over concrete pedestal) “breadbox” forms we currently allow are often “ugly” and hated just as much as the auto-court townhouses that have been the bread-and-butter infill housing type throughout the city.

Part of the demand for additional density, as we have seen with the recent Roosevelt rezone, is to support the enormous investment being made in Light Rail.  Since much of the project is going underground, this “Seattle Subway” has become the most expensive light rail project in the world. Had an alternative cheaper transit solution been invoked (such as electric trolley buses) perhaps such marked increases in density would have been unnecessary – or at least been handled through more “gentle” urban infill rather than concentrating it around distantly spaced stops.

Downtown was rezoned a few years back (with the leadership of today’s speaker) for additional heights overturning limits set by the 1989 CAP Initiative.  Downtown’s population is now over 60,000 people. Arguably increased density here makes sense since downtown is rich with retail, cultural and service amenities as well as served by excellent transit (both within downtown and into the neighborhoods and the wider region through our hub and spoke transit network).  Yet it has limited open space (to be corrected eventually by our new waterfront park), no public schools options (yet), and few family-sized units. And it remains to be seen if downtown-scaled density would work in an outlying neighborhood such as Northgate, which remains somewhat transit-isolated and overly rich in retail and lacking much else.  Complicating matters are those that see density as an end in itself and ignore the required amenities and improvements that make the urban environment successful rather than just a mass of buildings.

The currently proposed “Regulatory Reform” perhaps attempts to facilitate additional density into certain targeted zones and to tries find ways to more effectively use the built environment to enable economic activity and efficient use of space.  But the package was written largely by those with development interests and, intentionally or not, ignores many on-the-ground realities of areas most likely to be affected by those changes.  One-size-fits-all rules do not seem to work well as solutions to our growth aspirations.  As we approach a rewrite of our Comprehensive Plan, battle lines are being drawn around Light Rail (and bus rapid transit) as the predominant feature for defining future growth in the city.  Narrow typologies for our neighborhoods, such as the ‘Transit Community’ types recently defined by the Planning Commission (of which only two apply to most of the city’s urban villages) are unconvincing to many as a model for moving forward.  Since their plan calls for upzoning anywhere within the walkshed of a ‘frequent’ transit stop, this is seen by many as an assault on the single-family zones, since many are affected by this proposal.

Meanwhile, Harborview Hall is being targeted for teardown, yet, within blocks, millions of square feet of new office space and housing are being developed at Yesler Terrace.  And other buildings that define Seattle’s neighborhood character are also under threat of obliteration, such as the beloved Bauhaus Coffee building on Capitol Hill. Preservation and adaptive re-use must become prioritized when neighborhood character is at stake, and protection of community assets, such as with Roosevelt High School, the norm.

How should growth be handled in Seattle?  What are the best practices from elsewhere that Seattle should adopt? How do we increase our population by almost 50% AND become “zero carbon” within the next few decades?  How do we balance the needs of our city and its citizens against those of the region?  And how likely are we today to really have any genuine effect on what develops over the next many decades?   Will we recognize the Seattle of the future?

Our speaker this month is Peter Steinbrueck, former City Council President, and now with his own consulting firm, Urban Strategies.  He has just finished up a year at Harvard University where he was a Harvard Loeb Fellow,  in the Graduate School of Design, Advanced Urban Environmental Studies.

by Bill Bradburd 4/12/12


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