Tuesday, 19 January, 2021
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Seattle Will Be Biggest Gainer in State Legislature Redistricting

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Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia. (Credit: Washington State)

When it comes to adding seats in the state legislature, the 2020 election was a wash for Washington Democrats. State Senator T’wina Nobles (D-Fircrest) is an exciting addition, but State Senator Dean Takko (D-Longview) lost his seat, meaning the senate is still 28-21. Democrats can lose three caucus votes and still pass bills (without Republican votes), but not more–doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room.

One of those frequent defectors is State Senator Mark Mullet, a center-right Democrat from Issaquah who won re-election by the narrowest of margins–58 votes–over nurse Ingrid Anderson, who was backed by labor and progressive groups. Governor Jay Inslee endorsed Anderson in hopes of bolstering his climate agenda, which Mullet has largely opposed. Inslee also threw his weight behind Nobles, Daniel Smith in the 17th, and Helen Price Johnson in the 10th, who all faced Republican incumbents. Price Johnson led on election night, but late results swung the election to incumbent Ron Muzzall (R-Oak Harbor). Daniel Smith lost by nine points.

While those losses were tough, redistricting could end up swinging these district in Democrats’ favor. The results of the 2020 Census will guide redistricting decisions since every district must be reset to have a nearly identical population once more, as was true in 2011 (using 2010 Census figures). Slow-growing districts will need to expand to capture enough population, and fast-growing districts will shrink in geographic size. In redistricting speak, the slow-growers are “underpopulated,” and the fast-growers “overpopulated.” Since it grew the most by far, Seattle will add representation most of all, carving out nearly half a district from its neighbors with a domino effect that may ripple far into the suburbs.

A map of Washington state with the 39 counties and 49 legislative districts indicated.
Washington has 49 legislative districts with one senator and two representatives each. The boundaries are shown here overlaid on the 39 counties. (Washington State)

As a baseline, Washington state has grown nearly 14% in the past decade based on preliminary figures. That means a district that has grown 14% is treading water. Beat 14% growth and a district will shrink in geographic size, while falling short of 14% points toward expanding boundaries to take in more population. Seattle grew 25% in the past decade, adding about 152,000 residents–nearly half of King County’s expected gain of about 330,000 and 16% of the state’s total population growth of 931,660, as of April figures from the state Office of Financial Management. The state’s fastest growing district is the 43rd, with the 36th, 37th, 48th, and 1st also near the top, according to a Seattle Times analysis.

Sunday Video: How Japan Is Building Disaster-Proof Skyscrapers

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Bloomberg Quicktake highlights how Japanese engineers are designing skyscrapers to withstand disasters like earthquakes and typhoons.

The View From Nathan’s Bus: Clean-Shaven Revelation

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“Hi, Mister Nathan!”
“Heyy! Abdulahi, how are you?”
“I am good, Mister Nathan, how are you?”
“Great! It’s good to see you!”
“What us you driving now?”
“Same as before, number 7!”

Not the most shocking of exchanges, you’re thinking. At least not at first glance. 

But when you’ve seen the state he used to be in, constantly, year after year… I remember when Abdulahi first showed up on the Seattle scene. He was usually so drunk he couldn’t keep balance, and whether it was spilling popcorn all over the front half of the bus floor, or collapsing in the doorway and needing to be carried off by enterprising passengers and myself, or passing out in various states of unconsciousness untold numbers of times– Abdulahi was a handful and a half. You sighed when he got on your bus, because it meant you’d be on the radio with the coordinator and filling out paperwork later tonight, as sure as the wheels on the bus go round. 

But I found it impossible to dislike him. I’ve never seen a happier drunk, and I mean truly happy—not the happy drunk who can tip into anger at one wrongly interpreted word, but a happy man genuinely pleased to see you, who always remembered my name no matter how plastered he was, who never bothered the other passengers, female or otherwise. We were similar in age and temperament, and I like to think we were both resourceful, even if we couldn’t be more opposed on personal health. Because although Abdulahi’s method for surviving may have been annoying, selfish and shortsighted, it was nothing if not clever. Here’s what he would do. 

Despite Its Bluster, Bellevue Is Ill-Prepared for Amazon Boom

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Downtown Bellevue viewed from the east with I-405 chasm setting off Wilburton. Seattle skyline and Lake Washington in the background. (
Downtown Bellevue viewed from the east with I-405 chasm setting off Wilburton. Seattle skyline and Lake Washington in the background. (Photo credit: CommunistSquared, Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday, Puget Sound Business Journal published a story on Bellevue’s affordability efforts. Despite some optimistic quotes from local leaders, Bellevue has yet to crack the code or doing anything of note, as far as I can tell. Notwithstanding bluster about outdoing Seattle, Bellevue suffers from the same problems, and arguably is worse off and doing less about it.

Approximately 75% of Bellevue is zoned for detached-single family homes. Backyard cottages are illegal in those zones and the rules around attached accessory dwelling units (ADU) are restrictive, and unlike Seattle and several other Puget Sound cities, it hasn’t passed reform liberalizing ADU rules.

Four-term Bellevue City Councilmember Jennifer Robertson has even argued changing single-family zoning is impossible because of Bellevue’s “heavy clay soil” and the need for expensive sewer upgrades, which Bellevue, despite being one of the richest cities on earth, apparently can’t afford.

Robertson remains popular. She most recently defeated civil rights attorney James Bible, former head of the King County chapter of the NAACP, garnering more than 60% of the citywide vote. Bible argued the city was too beholden to Amazon, ill-prepared for the influx of office workers, and needed to boost funding for social housing.

headshots of Jennifer Robertson and James Bible in business atire
Jennifer Robertson won her fourth term in 2019, defeating civil rights attorney James Bible, who is pictured right. (Credit: campaign photos)

Bellevue has followed in Seattle’s footsteps in funneling the bulk of its growth to its downtown core. Tony Lystra’s reporting suggests Bellevue Mayor Lynne Robinson still is hoping that can work: “None of those policies touches single-family homes, Robinson said. Still, she said, with 30% of downtown yet to be built out, there’s a chance for Bellevue to make condos and apartments affordable for those with more modest paychecks.”

Zillow pegs the median home value in Bellevue at $1,056,000, while RentCafe estimates the median rent in Bellevue at $2,188–$200 higher than Seattle’s current median. It’s also on a starling trajectory. “The city saw a 33% jump in its rental prices between 2019 and 2020, according to the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, one of the steepest increases in the nation among similar-sized cities and larger,” Lystra noted.

A zoning map of Bellevue shows mostly canary yellow for single family zones, except from downtown and narrow slivers along the freeways.
About 75% of Bellevue’s land zoned as single-family as shown by the pervasive canary yellow. (City of Bellevue)

This is a city with an affordability crisis arguably worse than Seattle’s, caught flatfooted about it, but still acting superior and on top of things.

Bellevue badly needs to tackle its restrictive zoning and land use policies, like nearly every city in the region. But unlike many other suburbs, Bellevue is a hotbed of high-end office growth to serve the various tech giants. Amazon has made a splash pledging it will bring 25,000 jobs to the city in the next four years, while hinting it will spurn Seattle due to frustration with its failure to buy the Seattle City Council and thus prevent the City from taxing it. In 2020, the Seattle City Council passed a progressive payroll tax (which hit Amazon most of all) as part of the JumpStart Seattle plan aimed at Covid relief and funding social housing.

Garbage Diagrams Only Tell Half of the Story

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Cedar Hills Landfill versus Mt. Rainier. (King County Solid Waste Division)

Let’s try to build a picture of King County’s waste issues. 

For the last couple of weeks, I have been working on an article about the Seattle and King County wastewater and solid waste systems. That’s a combination of sewage and garbage and recycling and compost, all the stuff that leaves our homes as waste.

What I’ve found is that we have a system that works acceptably for right now. There’s a handful of caveats to that sentence. Acceptably means that our waste systems function within the bounds of applicable law and regulation. Some parts do great, others not as much, but nothing egregiously illegal seems to be going on. Right now means literally right now. These systems do not deal at all with a long history of mismanagement and are not prepared for systemic shocks coming in the future.

But that article is for the coming weeks. Today we have to talk about what our waste system actually looks like. 

That’s a problem. Once waste leaves our homes, it gets shuttled to varied corners of the county and out of state on different tracts. Sewage leaves as pipes. Different flavors of solid waste leave in different colored trucks. Some return as resources. Often the waste gets buried somewhere. Different agencies deal with each component of the waste cycle separately. 

As part of justifying their existence, many agencies create diagrams of their section of the process. They simplify down elaborate systems to a series of icons so they’re easily understood by the most people. Diagrams are abstractions of real world complexity. Here’s a sample from local water, wastewater, and electricity service providers:

Each diagram starts or ends at a home. Rarely do we ever see the outputs of these processes wrap back around to produce new materials or combine various parts of the waste/recovery system into one larger picture. One that comes closest is a diagram from King County’s 2019 Solid Waste Management Plan. It shows waste leaving the home heading to its various destinations, then returning to the community as recycled material, compost, or other recovered resources. It’s a really well done diagram.

A very interesting and unique diagram showing how various streams of solid waste can return to the community as recycled material.
King County Solid Waste Management Plan 2019. A very interesting and unique diagram showing how various streams of solid waste can return to the community as recycled material. (King County)

Yet even this diagram omits a lot of the waste that leaves the home, specifically sewage. It also skips places where these processes commingle. Let’s try to do better.

Unified Diagram of Waste

From here on out, we’re going to flip through a series of images trying to build up to a complete, if still simplified, diagram of the waste inputs and outputs in King County. There is some variation throughout the county, with individual jurisdictions sending waste to other places or joining independent wastewater treatment districts. I’ll note it where possible, but we’re trying to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

Seattle Desperately Needs the GMA to Promote Affordable Housing

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A street with a row of single family homes with one under construction.
Typical Seattle block under single family zoning. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

When I moved to Seattle from New York City last summer, I was struck by the drastic difference in the housing provided by each city. In Brooklyn, apartment buildings took up whole city blocks. Here as newcomers, my girlfriend and I spent a lot of time touring houses or duplexes instead. We weren’t interested in a luxury downtown highrise–and couldn’t afford one anyways–so we settled on an old house in Fremont–one that was near the top of our budget and cost a lot to heat every month with its poor insulation.

It was less than ideal. On a plot of land that could have housed four or five families, there was just one slightly decrepit house. At the time, I considered this an inconvenience and didn’t dwell on it. However, after learning about the Growth Management Act (GMA) and Seattle’s lack of dense affordable housing, it became clear to me that this was a much more dire issue than I had initially understood. 

Seattle is full of neighborhoods like mine that have strict limits on density. I see old homes getting demolished regularly. Instead of affordable housing, million dollar townhomes spring up in their place. Over time the neighborhood transforms — becoming unaffordable, and bland. I look out my window now at rows of townhomes and miss the vibrancy of my former block in Brooklyn, where every building was home to dozens of families, and somebody’s grandma spent Sundays drying her laundry in the courtyard, and you couldn’t go more than two blocks without encountering a deli. The sounds and smells of many, many dinners being made; the din of radios and TVs and car alarms; these little tidbits of life are markedly absent.

Updating the Growth Management Act could bring them back, but this is about so much more than my own nostalgia, or what I think a neighborhood should look and feel like; it’s about real people’s lives, which will be improved if Seattle chooses to prioritize housing that is inclusive, affordable, and dense.

The Top 10 Street Ends of West Seattle

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Since Seattle is bounded and divided by numerous fresh and salt bodies of water, the city has what are colloquially known as Street Ends: those streets that end when they encounter a waterbody and are unable to continue. There are hundreds of such occurrences–almost as many as there are east-west and north-south streets. A number of them, 149, are part of a Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) program called Shoreline Street Ends. The program’s goals are:

  • Help create great neighborhoods;
  • Improve public access to and enjoyment of Seattle’s shoreline;
  • Enhance shoreline habitat;
  • Encourage community stewardship of shoreline street ends;
  • Support maritime industry; and
  • Responsibly manage private permits and deter non-permitted encroachments.

A little over half of the Street Ends are defined by SDOT as ‘worth a visit’, while the remainder are either ‘not yet ready for visitors’ or have ‘no public access.’ Street Ends are most heavily concentrated along the Ship Canal and Lake Washington but occur along each waterfront environment. Working with the city and neighborhoods to secure funding, pass legislation, and organize work parties, the non-profit and all-volunteer Friends of Street Ends help ensure Seattle’s accessible Street Ends grow in number and those already serving visitors continue to thrive.

Street ends vary in character from sandy beaches to docks wedged amongst shipyards and industrial uses. They are spacious and they are compact; some are easy to find, others require a bit of diligence. They support habitat for native species of flora and fauna as well as convenient places to launch a kayak, sailboat, or motorboat. Oftentimes, they are adjacent to waterfront parks, expanding upon those assets. They are as varied as Seattle’s topography, and you can visit them any time.

West Seattle’s eight ‘worth a visit’ Street Ends provide access to gravelly beaches, seawalls, and steep, rocky shorelines. Being on Puget Sound, their character and accessibility constantly change with the tides, making each visit a new experience.

Street End #1

  1. The shoreline to the north of Street End #1, at SW 98th Street, is rugged and picturesque. Decades-old logs define the water’s reach.
  2. While to the south seawalls guard homes against the tides, leaving the beach rock-strewn and absent of logs.
  3. In addition to anchoring the beach, the seawalls provide a prospect from which to photograph passing marine wildlife. Please note that the beach at the Street End is private property; therefore, it only provides view access.

It’s a Car Car World–We Just Live in It

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A birds eye view of Downtown Seattle from the south with the I-5 and I-90 spaghetti interchange dominating the frame.
Even in Downtown Seattle, cars rules. (Photo credit: Jude Freeman, 2008, via Flickr)

The car is an amazing machine. So amazing, that with a little help from cheap portable fuel and a flood of public investment in smooth, wide, and straight (ish) roads (thanks Ike), our car dependent form of living has come to dominate a whole continent. This dominance is so complete, that from behind a steering wheel it is difficult to see the system as anything less than necessary, much less imagine a different path forward or consider the true cost of our continued allegiance.

After tackling Five road widening myths that are delaying climate action, let’s look a little deeper at how cars shape the geometry that we find ourselves living in–and what that tells us about the far reaching consequences of the infrastructure decisions (e.g., bridges, freeways, land use, and zoning) we will face in the very near future.

The car chronicles of time and space

Part of the goal of this piece is to think through the rippling consequences of decisions made locally (widen a road, build a flyover to make an intersection free flowing) on the geometry of how we live in the region. Over the past 50 to 100 years, many of these decisions have focused on how to move more cars and how to move them faster. Setting aside profit motives, lobbying, and devious gambits of the automobile and fossil fuel industries—the faster a person can travel from where they live to where they are going, the more land there is available for folks to live on. 

For example, before cars, where people lived was primarily constrained by how fast they could walk to where they are going. At an average walking pace of three miles per hour, this puts anything within 1.5 miles a reasonable 30-minute travel time away. Not coincidentally, the old core of Paris is about a 30-minute walk across. A decent streetcar system can up travel speed to 10 miles per hour, opening up five-mile trips to 30-minute commutes. As more and more people lived in cities, technology like the streetcar opened up more land for people to live on and the imprint of that mode of transportation, even though the tracks are long gone, is apparent in most American cities.

1941 Seattle bus/streetcar map
Map of 1941 Seattle Streetcar from seattletransitblog.com and Andy Filer.

Enter the automobile. Whether we are talking about the humble Model T (top speed 45 mph, 20 horse power) of 1908 or the souped-up dragster Honda Civic (top speed 119 mph, 150 hp) of 2020, cars are fast. Off the shelf (and ignoring traffic and safety), no other technology can take you from A to B (rather than station to station) as fast as a car. Cars are so fast that top speed really doesn’t mean anything, instead we will (optimistically assuming no stops or traffic) use standard speed limits–30 mph for in the city, and 70 mph on the freeway–for the purposes of this journey.

At 30 mph we can now go 15 miles (about tip to tail of Seattle!) in our reasonable baseline of 30 minutes, and if it is on-ramp to on-ramp (so many optimistic assumptions!), a whopping 35 miles on the freeway. For those keeping track at home, the automobile (and freeway system) opened up a lot of land for people to live within commuting distance.

Simple estimate of the area covered by distance traveled in 30 minutes. Each square represents approximately 4.5 square miles.

Speed has its consequences

The evidence of the transition to this car car world is written across most North American cities in the transition of a tight regular walkable street grids (black grids on the map below) and streetcar suburbs, to arterials and freeways (outlined in red on the map below) feeding cul-de-sacs and quarter acre ranchettes.