What Kind of City do We Want to Be? Tacoma and the Arguments Cities Make

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My summer reading list this year included a debut novel by Seth Fried titled The Municipalists, which CityLab described as “the urban planning Sci-Fi novel you’ve been waiting for.” There are many things to say about this novel, but rather than offer a pseudo-review (other than to say that I recommend it), I want to focus on an observation the novel makes about cities. It appears at the opening of the third chapter in the voice of an omniscient narrator that often intrudes on the buddy-cop action to comment on larger themes and ideas. In this case, the narrator tells the reader a truth about cities, a truth which, as I see it, doesn’t get expressed or examined by planners, policy makers, or residents enough:

Many cities impress and please us because they are such perfect examples of human order. Here one thinks of the great European capitals, the streets of Paris lined with orderly rows of five-story Haussmanns or the open-air museum of Rome, where it feels as if not one building has been erected without first considering the argument of the city as a whole […] that everything there is in fact the product of a single unified thought, a calm and artful expression of humankind’s mastery over its environment.

As a person who studies rhetoric in a professional capacity, I’m attuned to how arguments and made and presented, especially in and through urban public spaces. Thus, this observation––that cities are able to make arguments––intrigues me. Most of us, I think, sense this is true. Spending any amount of time in a city––as a tourist, a short-term visitor, or simply on route to some place else, gives us impressions about the city. These visits let us leave with impressions about the city: is it easy to navigate? Is it clean? Does it seem fun? Is it set up for tourists or does it emphasize the resident’s experience? 

This passage from Fried’s novel got me thinking: what sort of argument does Tacoma make––about itself and about the people who live, work, and play here? As much as I think about the arguments made by and through urban spaces in a professional capacity, the idea that Tacoma has been configured and organized in ways that impact livability is a personal one for me given my move to the city a year ago. Admittedly, this is a question that can’t be answered easily––and certainly not in the span of a year. No less, it’s a question worth asking routinely, by leaders and residents alike. 

Sound Transit Wants Input on Station/Transit Access Project Proposals

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Sound Transit plans to spend about $10 million on transit access projects per subarea. A total of five subareas existing within the Sound Transit service area, which means that there is about $50 million available for projects. The transit agency says that it received 53 applications across 33 local jurisdictions, which cumulatively total $86 million in project costs–$36 million more than is allotted to the program. Sound Transit had already provided preliminary recommendations on the proposals. However, additional feedback on the proposals via an online open house is open through end of today August 23rd.

Funding for the program comes from the Station Access Fund, which was approved by voters in 2016 as part of Sound Transit 3. The program has a total of $100 million in funding available for improved, half of which is being allocated through this current effort.

Snohomish County Subarea Proposals

In Snohomish County, local jurisdictions have proposed 11 different projects. These projects range from $500,000 to $3.45 million a piece, which collectively total approximately $20.1 million.

The orange line indicates the one-mile bike and pedestrian improvements Edmonds proposed along 228th St SW. (Sound Transit / Mountlake Terrace)
The orange line indicates the one-mile bike and pedestrian improvements Edmonds proposed along 228th St SW. (Sound Transit / Mountlake Terrace)

Edmonds has the priciest project amongst the bunch billed as a bike and pedestrian project focused on 228th St SW. The goal of the project would be to improve connections to the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center, which will become a light rail station in 2024 as part of the Lynnwood Link light rail extension. The year of completion of the project would be in 2025 and involve “add[ing] a two-way left turn lane, sidewalk, and bike lanes on both sides of 228th Street SW between 78th Avenue W and 95th Place W,” according to Sound Transit.

The Ash Way I-5 direct access ramp and crossing would cost $2.5 million and open by 2036. (Sound Transit / Snohomish County)
The Ash Way I-5 direct access ramp and crossing would cost $2.5 million and open by 2036. (Sound Transit / Snohomish County)

Meanwhile, Snohomish County has proposed $4.5 million in two projects for Ash Way Park-and-Ride. That transit center will likely become a light rail station in 2036. One of the projects would involve a direct access ramp and I-5 crossing, which would improve bus access to I-5 north of the center. This would be particularly valuable to Route 512 and 532. The Swift Orange Line and other local routes could benefit from an I-5 crossing to avoid circling back on Ash Way to and from 164th St SW. $2.5 million would be used to fund 30% of the project, which would be completed by 2036.

Africatown Finetunes Its Designs for Midtown Center

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Community engagement continues to inform design plans for new developments at 23rd and Union in the Central District

Last summer more than 200 volunteers participated in a painting project that transformed the empty parking lots and shuttered buildings of Midtown Center into the Imagine Africatown Pop-Up Plaza. The project announced the beginning of the first Africatown Community Land Trust Design Weekend, in which community members and professional designers teamed up to imagine what vibrant, Afrocentric development could look and feel like in the heart of Seattle’s historic African American community.

The weekend culminated in a striking community dinner set on the pop-up plaza in which people shared food and stories at long tables, admiring the colorful setting.

The community dinner held on the site of the future Midtown Square celebrated the end of the first Imagine Africatown Design Weekend. (Credit: Africatown Community Land Trust)

The 2019 Imagine Africatown Design Weekend was a quieter affair that took place in Washington Hall, a little over a mile away from where bulldozers have begun to rip through the 23rd and Union site in preparation for construction of Lake Union Partners’ Midtown Square project (formerly called the Midtown Commons).

The 2019 Design Weekend was also a more reflective event which participants learned about transformative plans for original Africatown in Mobile, Alabama. Urban designer Renee Kemp-Rotan described how the discovery of the Clotilda, the last ship that transported enslaved Africans to North America, has catalyzed efforts to construct an Africatown living monument over four sites, including a full scale replica of the Clotilda, a convention center, pavilion, environmental jobs center, African Museum, permanently affordable housing, and more. An international design competition is slated to open this September.

Map of the Week: Cross-Sound Bridges for Highway Pipe Dreams

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The cross-sound bridges plan surfaced in the 1950s. Here's a 1965 map. (Washington SOS)

Seattle has too many urban highways, but it could have had so many more if state leaders had realized all their dreams of highway expansion–including four cross-sound toll bridges. In 1965, the Washington Toll Bridge Authority floated the plan to cross Puget Sound with floating bridges connecting Seattle to four westward destinations, including Vashon Island/Southworth, Bainbridge Island (twice!), and one direct connection to the Kitsap Peninsula.

On the Seattle side, the planned cross-sound bridges would have involved ramming highways through Discovery Park and Alki Beach to feed the bridges to Bainbridge. Another crosstown highway would have plowed through Fauntleroy and Delridge to feed the bridge to Vashon and Southworth.

Our own Scott Bonjukian parodied the idea in an April Fools post back in 2016 calling for Bellevue-to-Bainbridge Bridges. “The opportunities are endless with enough concrete,” he wrote. But it was probably closer to actually happening than any of us care to admit–even as ugly and environmentally destructive as it would have been.

After all, I-5 construction displaced 40,000 Seattleites out of their homes, replacing vital urban neighborhoods with dead concrete trenches and interchanges, walling off Downtown from First Hill and Capitol Hill, and filling the newly created vacuum with noise and air pollution. People realized highways scar neighborhoods, and opposition was stiffer for future urban highway projects.

The Koch-Fueled Anti-Transit Crusade Hits Phoenix, Is Seattle Next?

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Phoenix's light rail opened in late 2008 and stretches to Tempe and Mesa. (Credit: Kinkisharyo).

Phoenix, Arizona is about to vote on a ballot measure intended to sabotage light rail expansions. A Valley Metro Rail extension to South Phoenix set to open in 2023 would be the first casualty, but Proposition 105’s ballot language would actually ban new light rail outright, dooming all future expansion efforts. Voters in the City of Phoenix will decide on August 27th.

The measure is backed by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch through their influential political action committee Americans for Prosperity (AFP). The local anti-transit front group is called Building a Better Phoenix (in true Orwellian fashion) and a Phoenix New Times investigation revealed the campaign’s mastermind Scot Mussi is connected to the Kochs via his employer, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, an AFP-backed right-wing group. Mussi helped draft the proposal, contracted a signature gathering firm, and regularly advised Building a Better Phoenix members, the investigation showed.

As Laura Bliss reported in CityLab, conservative groups seized on some pushback by local business owners and motorists along the transit route. “It began with a seed of frustration among locals along South Central Avenue, which runs through a working-class section of Phoenix that is predominantly Latino and African-American,” Bliss wrote. “There, Valley Metro Rail planned to remove two traffic lanes to build 5.5 miles of light rail track. Worried that construction and a lack of space for cars would deter customers, a small group of business owners organized last year to demand the transit agency adjust their plans for the South Phoenix area.”

The Koch Empire Is Built on Car Dependence

It’s a playbook that the climate-change-denying Kochs have followed to block transit measures in cities like Nashville and Little Rock. Focus on delays to motorists and the hit to taxpayers, exaggerate the truth, and amplify that message with a huge influx of political spending. The Kochs built their corporate empire on the highway industrial complex. They drill the oil, pipe it, refine it, and sell it to you. Their asphalt builds highways and patches potholes. Coincidentally, conservatives can’t stop talking about potholes as soon as a transit project is proposed. Clearly they have a vested interest in ensuring that everybody drives everywhere and that transit languishes. And that’s why they come out ahead even as they spend millions of dollars on local anti-transit campaigns.

Hasan Minhaj made public transit the topic of his show, The Patriot Act, and highlighted the diabolical stunt the Koch Brothers are trying to pull in Arizona by astroturfing an anti-transit campaign just before Phoenix breaks ground on a light rail expansion.

Why the City Chose Alexandria for Mercer Megablock Deal

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Prelimanary designs shows trapezoidal and twisting elements to break up the boxyness of the Mercer towers. (Alexandria Real Estate)

Mayor Jenny Durkan announced her decision to sell the Mercer Megablock to Maryland-based developer Alexandria Real Estate for $143.5 million earlier this month. At the time, not much was known about the bids that failed to make the cut.

We got a little more information when Erica C. Barnett released the proposals on her website–illuminating at least as much as the City chose not to redact. Six developers participated through the end of competitive design bid contest, with a seventh proposal deemed non-responsive. Some developers included century-long ground lease options as opposed to the standard fee simple transaction where the land changes ownership status permanently. Boosted from inflation adjustments over the course of 99 years, some of the leases amounted to vast sums–more than a billion dollars before applying a discounting rate. Even with a discounting rate, the ground leases had significantly higher value than the cash offers for selling off the land outright.

The problem is the City has high need for housing funding now. Plus, it has $29 million in debt from purchasing the land it’s obligated to close out. Still, a perpetual source of revenue is a tantalizing proposition next to a one-time high. Below are the proposals courtesy of Barnett. I made mention of what seemed the best offer next to it–some developers offered multiple bid options.

  • Alexandria Real Estate– Best offer: $143.5 million, 175 affordable homes, and community center.
  • BioMed Realty – Best offer: $55 million and 175 affordable homes.
  • Kilroy – Best offer: $95.5 million and 184 affordable homes on nearby sites.
  • Tishman Speyer – Best offer: $163 million fee simple offer or ground lease for $70 million upfront plus $4 million annually with 2% annual inflation adjustment.
  • Touchstone – Best offer: $145 million fee simple or 99-year ground lease starting at $7.7 million.
  • Vulcan – Best offer: $50 million plus land transfer to create 440 to 535 affordable homes.

We got more information on the City’s decisionmaking process Friday at a presentation to transportation committee. The City was leaning toward the Alexandria Real Estate offer, a City representative said, and what really sold them was when the developer bumped up the offer after the City made a best and final offer (BAFO) request to the six developers. While Alexandria increased its cash offer almost 40%, the rest of the developers either sat pat or boosted their offer only slightly.

Alexandria made the largest best and final offer (BAFO) but initially Tishman made a larger offer. (Graphic: City of Seattle)

Councilmember Mike O’Brien commended the City’s Mercer Megablock team after their presentation. “We’ll see how it moves forward, but for the moment it feels like you’ve secured a really amazing deal for the people of Seattle,” he said. “A decade ago we were thinking about $40 million for these parcels… Obviously the market in South Lake Union has shifted quite a bit since then.” O’Brien said he would like to close the Mercer Megablock deal as quickly as possible, pointing to the stalled out Civic Square development on the block opposite Seattle City Hall as a cautionary tale.

Councilmember O’Brien did ask for clarity on the daycare center envisioned at the new Megablock campus and whether it would be optional feature or required. He also acknowledged that the sale of the property launches a larger conversation about land ownership and inequality in Seattle.

“We’re selling a really valuable asset, and we want to make sure that we use it acquire other assets that are important assets,” O’Brien added. “We’ve had conversations both public and private with community members who are concerned with the framework of how we think about land and real estate in our city and who gets to control it.”

The Pros and Cons of Ground Leases

Tishman Speyer, Touchstone, and Alexandria made ground lease offers, although we know almost nothing about the Alexandria lease offer since the developer sought to conceal those details and City has played along willingly, redacting nearly everything. One offer from Tishman Speyer that pairs a 100-year ground lease with $70 million upfront could have allowed the city to pay of its debts and still have some money to play around with. But there may have been other aspects of the offer the City didn’t like, despite the fact the lease would have kept revenue flowing to the City for 100 years and the land in public lands indefinitely.

Sunday Video: Why So Many Suburbs Look The Same

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In this Vox episode of Almanac, Phil Edwards explains why so many suburbs look the same. Principally, the advent of federal financing, the cul-de-sac, cars, and other policies changed the paradigm.

What We’re Reading: Parisian Veloism, Bus Only, and Drinking Water Woes

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On fire: Apparently two Lime bike batteries caught fire this week. Whoops. Is that something we should be worried about?

Safer places: A new Seattle homelessness pilot program will try to help reach those living in cars and vans.

Tolls for transit: A federal court of appeals agrees that interstate tolls in Pennsylvania can be spent on transit.

White House racism: Washington State will lead the fight against the federal regime’s attempt to redefine the application of “public charge” in denying Green Cards to immigrants.

Parisian veloism: Paris has grand plan for cycletracks to reach and crisscross its suburbs.

New leadership: A first-time candidate, Girmay Zahilay, looks poised to unseat lifer King County Councilmember Larry Gossett.

Highway removal: A new federal program would help cities remove highways.

Improving consultation: A Bay Area transportation planner makes the case for rethinking the way government conducts public outreach with diverse communities.

Low levels of salmon: A salmon season begins, their numbers in area rivers are at very concerning low levels.

Fewer service hours: Four Seattle community centers will see hours reduced beginning in September ($).

Bus only: Seattle now has a name to the woman who stepped up to keep motorists of the bus lane last week. This week, fellow advocates went next level in a campaign with red flags ($) waving motorists out of the lanes.

Unfair governance: The federal regime is planning to attack the principle of “disparate impact” in fair housing law, which could negatively affect its enforcement in communities across the country.

Generational divides: How are local demographics changing in Seattle for voting cohorts ($)?

Climate conscious cities: Sightline asks how our different our cities would look like if we took climate change seriously.

Scooter city: Everett is looks poised to keep its Lime electric scooters around ($) on city streets.

New in-need services: A new development in Downtown Seattle will provide the local aging homeless population with housing and healthcare.

Drinking water woes: A new report shows just how challenging safe, affordable, and reliable drinking water access and supply is in many Global South cities.

Disrupting progress: Streetsblog explains how Uber (and Lyft) is a “slow-motion tragedy.”

The greens roof: The world’s largest urban farm is set to open atop a roof in Paris.

Two tiered system: Car2Go has changed its rate structure in Seattle by creating two fare zones.

Environmental terrorism: California is suing the federal regime to stop a rollback of an environmental rule on coal-fired power plants. The Endangered Species Act is also proposed to be substantially weakened ($).

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