Stepping into my new role as Managing Editor of The Urbanist has made it clearer for me than ever how much effort it takes to produce a quality publication. Every story we publish is the result of vigorous research and careful writing, most of which is accomplished by volunteers who share their work with us because they believe in our mission to make cities, and quality of life, better.
However, each article is also the result of our financial contributors as well. It is because of generous gifts made by both volunteers and donors that we have been able to create an impressive body of knowledge related to urbanism, an archive of thousands of articles that tackle urbanist topics in our signature deep-dive, wonky style.
When I first discovered The Urbanist as a reader about five years ago, I felt like I had discovered a secret treasure. Suddenly I was able to read articles about topics I cared about, such as public transportation and urban development in Seattle, on a daily basis. These were articles that I literally could not find anywhere else. Additionally, they were written in a way that both expanded my understanding of urban planning and deepened my knowledge of important issues in my community. At the time, I didn’t understand how much effort it took to create these articles or finance the upkeep of a website. If I had, I would have become a donor sooner.
After years as a volunteer reporter, I stand here today as The Urbanist’s second paid staff member. What I can say is this: it has taken a lot of effort, most of it volunteer effort, to build the publication and organization that The Urbanist is today. Since stepping into my role as Managing Editor, I have been able to pour much more time into my work for The Urbanist, and I can say firsthand that we have more building to do. Everyday new stories break related to our mission, vision, and values, and we do our best to keep up, something only possible because of our small and scrappy team’s deep knowledge of urbanism in Puget Sound.
The work we’ve accomplished has helped The Urbanist advance the vision of what urbanism can be in the Seattle region and beyond. However, we need continue to expand our circle of writers so that we can make sure this vision is more inclusive and that important topics are not overlooked. More writers will also mean increased opportunity to cover stories that extend our geographic reach into rapidly growing areas like the Eastside, South King County, and Tacoma. Based on readership trends, we can see that people are hungry to learn more about urbanism in these areas, and we need more writers to make that coverage happen. Our paid freelancer pilot will offer a valuable opportunity to extend that work. On top of that, I also plan to leverage my professional experience as a community college instructor to support aspiring reporters interested in careers in journalism and urban planning.
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I don’t consider myself a political creature. The transformation of my perspectives into political views is always a transformation of reduction. I find people too rich and nuanced, the world and its problems too complex, for the American obsession of turning everything into a competition to have any value. Ideas on ethics, rights, justice and progress, fundamental and important as they are, should least of all be subjected as fodder for a hyped-up contest with only two sides. Could there be a more awkward fit?
You might imagine that, what with my immigrant background, enthusiasm for the rights of marginalized peoples, support for maligned and subjugated demographics, and livelihood resulting from subsistence on Unions (I’ll always capitalize Union!), that pegging which voting body I vote for would be too easy. In one sense you would be right. I’ll never run out of bad things to say about Reagan, Nixon, Bush, and Trump.
It’s just not that simple. There are as many attitudes co-opted by the Left that I find insufferable as on the Right. If you have to ask what those are, forgive me for lovingly venturing to suggest that you might be in too deep! The game of politics has become the game of judging others, creating distance and putting people in boxes so they can be written off. Such things wouldn’t even be appropriate on an elementary playground. What do the children think of us?
This article is the second in a series that takes a deep dive into Bellevue’s Grand Connection, an ambitious project to improve the pedestrian experience and engage in distinctive placemaking over a 1.5 mile corridor in heart of central Bellevue. In the first article, I took a close look at the stretch of the Grand Connection spanning from Lake Washington through the Main Street area of Downtown Bellevue and identified some improvements for current plans. Now we are going to pick up at one of the city’s most iconic locations, the Downtown Park.
Next we enter the wide open 20-acre Downtown Park, a tremendously valuable amenity to have right in Downtown.
I do not really have any suggestions for improvement here, the park is already an amazing asset. However, if I were to dream big, I would build an elevated viewing platform near the trees in the very center of the park, so that everyone can enjoy the views of Mount Rainier, the Cascades and Olympics that open up from just 30 to 60 feet above the park. Bellevue means “beautiful view” in French, yet there are few public locations where one can enjoy the mountain views that clearly inspired the name and I think that’s a real shame. A stronger connection to nature will lead to a healthier population and greater care for the environment.
A great example of this idea is the Camp Adventure tower in Denmark — it’s a beautiful oak and steel spiral design that is fully accessible! This is key since many similar attractions are not accessible without an elevator (cough… Vessel… cough) and this really spoils their ability to be a community meeting spot.
4th and Bellevue Way
A new park entrance was recently unveiled at this corner, allowing for a direct link to the street-running portion of the Grand Connection. However, crossing from the park entrance on the south-west corner towards the row of restaurants and other businesses on the north-east corner requires waiting out Bellevue’s notoriously pedestrian-unfriendly light cycles twice. How can this be a grand pedestrian connection if it can easily take more than three minutes (!!!) to cross a single intersection?
Create an all-way walk intersection and provide a pedestrian cycle every 71 seconds. This is how long it takes for the direction of the intersection to change. This is not an easy change given the level of vehicular traffic on this intersection, but if there is a place to prioritize pedestrians, this is it!
Already 88 readers have donated or subscribed. With a strong finish we can beat our record from last spring — 94. We are grateful for the outpouring of support. We quickly raised $2,000 and set that aside to invest in freelance reporting. We’ll be issuing a call soon for story proposals. That investment will allow us to get more stories covered by somebody close to the story and duly compensated for their work.
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Since the start of Northgate Link service this month, King County Metro has brought online a network of new digital real-time information signs (RTIS). The initial batch of signs are located around light rail stations in Northgate, Roosevelt, U District, and Capitol Hill. Metro plans to install more than 340 signs over the next five years as part of a contract with Connectpoint, which specializes in RTIS systems.
In a statement to The Urbanist, Rick Wood, President and Chief Executive Officer of Connectpoint, said that “King County Metro is one of the premier transit agencies in the country” and that “other agencies look to them for ideas and best practices,” alluding to Metro’s track record of innovation and ongoing endeavor to provide better rider tools like the company’s industry-leading e-paper displays. “Connectpoint displays provide crystal clear readability while King County Metro can control them through our cloud-based backend,” he said. Among the direct user benefits, Wood said that the displays would provide riders “with real-time service information and up-to-the-minute real-time service alerts and import community service messages and graphics.”
Where RTIS is being installed and capabilities
As of Monday, Metro has installed new RTIS at 15 locations near four light rail stations in Seattle. Around half of the signs are energized and mostly operating, but seven still needing to be energized and others need final programming. Two other locations still need RTIS to be placed, energized. The map below shows the locations with green indicating energized/operational, orange indicating awaiting energizing and programming, and red indicating awaiting installation, energizing, and programming.
All of the RTIS locations use Connectpoint’s e-paper screen technology. The e-ink displayed on screens provides high contrast allowing it to work well in both dark and bright conditions while reducing glare. The technology also uses materials that are resistant to condensation, corrosion, and vandalism, and provides robust performance during extreme weather events. Assuming that the devices indeed meet the contractual standards, the average life of the screens should be just over 11 years, offering a very long service period before replacement would become necessary.
The Urban Land Institute, the world’s largest network of real estate and land use experts, held its fall meeting in Chicago this week. Many attendees participated for their first in-person conference in two years. The group’s updated mission — to shape the future of the built environment for transformative impact in communities worldwide — was on full display at the conference. Big plenary sessions and luncheons. Networking opportunities and swag bags. All on the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan.
Not me. I streamed the presentations remotely. It drained a good amount of the fun of conferences to participate from my kitchen table, so you’re stuck with a breakdown of what was actually said at the sessions.
I’m a big fan of ULI. I went through their Leadership Institute in metro Washington D.C. a few years ago and benefited from insight of their advisory services. The group is one of the few that doesn’t cloister building and financial industry folks from academics and government apparatchiks. It lets regulating people and design people and money people talk to each other as peers, not competitors.
The ULI Fall Meeting lived up to that. The sessions were panels of very smart folks downloading an enormous amount of information on the what, where, and why of big real estate deals and the ways companies and cities are coming out of pandemic.
The upshot is that the two years of pandemic have been too short to change many types of real estate products. The things that changed were not necessarily the footprints, but the users. In Nashville, a hotel operator backed out of Nashville Yards and now those hotel rooms are being built as residential units. Horton Plaza in San Diego is going to be a life sciences campus instead of a “creative office” complex. People who could move found places of affordability and access in secondary cities, but there are longer term averages in rent and price for construction, and the market is beginning to revert towards them.
Cutting across a lot of presentations, it was interesting to see several themes frequently pop out. More than the overall discussion of where office or residential markets are going, these are are the three issues to watch.
TREND 1: Build to Rent
An entire session was devoted to Single-Family Rentals – Build to Rent. These are tracts of single family homes developed with the purpose of being held by an investment firm and rented out to individuals. Some firms have a broader SFR-BTR (terrible abbreviation, sorry) purchase mandate, including existing properties or townhomes. It is, at the moment, a heavily suburban Sunbelt phenomenon with private equity firm backing that carries a lot of levels of troubling.
The session devoted to SFR-BTR (ugh) was very interesting. Panelists pointed out the market is maturing to the point that it’s changing. Specialized firms are systemizing their paperwork and construction, a move to scale. However, they’re no longer getting discounts for buying in bulk. Reports of billions of dollars moving into the sector are frequent, but not wholly accurate because it’s difficult to find the properties to consolidate into a portfolio. The property acquisition mindset is eerily tilted also. Like any homebuyer, investors are looking for good schools, commute times, and resale values. But their comparables are apartment rents and the calculation is as an income stream, not home equity.
The topic came up in other residential real estate talks. Concentration in secondary and Sunbelt cities raises the question of negative impacts on unprepared markets. The massive Lakewood Ranch community of Florida offers single-family rentals, which Senior Vice President Laura Cole called a way for potential buyers to “test run the communities.” In all, SFR-BTR (gah) looks like a gold rush in the near term, one that may focus immense money in some places that quickly goes elsewhere. The question is whether jurisdictions have a role to play in managing them because the towns will be stuck with the impacts of these developments.
TREND 2: Headline Noise
ULI held separate presentations on mixed-use entertainment districts and office trends with a focus on spending 18 months empty. Entertainment spent the time eating losses and trying to do public services (vaccine clinics in stadiums) while recouping some funds (smaller, vaccinated events). Offices are trying to find a path to widespread return. The coastal cities are lagging behind those cavalier cities that opened earlier. For big companies with multiple locations that variation will offer a contrast in productivity.
Between office and entertainment, the overlap centered on discussions of bringing people back and ways to make them feel safe. Space does. Open air does. Transit does not. It brought up the question of whether people would return to downtowns easily. Here, the entertainment crowd informed the office. The last few weeks have seen full stadiums in slow-to-reopen towns like Boston and San Francisco. Yes people will come back, and ball games may allow folks to reacclimate to transit. When it comes to championships or career promotions, people are expected to FOMO themselves back on the train.
But, will they feel safe in all these dead coastal downtowns filled with tents and people sleeping on the street? The evening news and the local fish wrap will tell you this perception of decrepitude is the leading thing keeping workers and tourists out of our city. Such simplification was completely dismissed by presenters as “headline noise.” Mixed use neighborhoods where people live, even downtown, are doing well while empty business districts have gotten crushed. Activity will solve the image problem, and activity is coming.
Deeper than pictures of tents is the reality of homelessness. The message for coastal cities from every ULI panel was housing housing housing. Every discussion of rent said that secondary cities were growing because they were affordable. Every discussion of labor used the phrase “despite the cost of housing” in coastal costs. There was not talk about overwrought building codes or expensive reviews or even taxes. There was only the need to remove limits that prevent development of dense, affordable housing.
TREND 3: Amenities
What do offices and neighborhoods look like post-pandemic? As said, the blip was too short to have a lot of change and there is a movement back to normal underway. Pushing that is how draining the pandemic experience was. Anthony Chang, Managing Director at Stream Realty Partners, pointed out that working from home is using up “cultural capital” of offices. These are the intangibles, trust, even inside jokes that a new employee gains from being around other staff. This is an amenity missing from remote work.
Those office agreements may look different on return. Speakers on office space trends did not think the small desk/space layout would change much, but mentioned responsibility for the amenities of the office were being reversed. Instead of community spaces or meeting rooms being the responsibility of individual tenants, they were being pushed onto the landlords. Some suggested property managers would move towards being hospitality providers, seeing concierge service, events, and bars for their tenants.
A fascinating panel on New Orleans’ work to become a child friendly city drew the word amenity to its widest use. Entering office in 2018, Mayor LaToya Cantrell promised to develop a Youth Master Plan. Pulling together transportation money with a community outreach program, the city asked kids how they get around and where they want to go. Then, based on the work of design and engineering firm Arup, New Orleans is building out a city for everyone.
Arup produced a report that breaks down child friendly cities into “everyday freedoms” and “children’s infrastructure.” The first is about getting to important things – socializing and play – with independent mobility. The latter is the network of spaces, streets and nature that make up for a healthy public realm. Together, they make a greener, safer, resilient place that retains healthy families. If this doesn’t sound like making a city better for everyone, catch up please.
What I heard throughout these presentations is a changing use of the word “amenity.” It’s always been something desirable, extra space or a special facility. What’s different is whether the amenity is an option or a requirement. Too many things have been put into the optional category, like safe places to cross a street, dependable transit, or clean water. Folks needing to fight for them are beginning to say that’s not enough. Post-pandemic, amenities are not optional.
What is the transformation?
The thing that stuck with me through the entire conference was the opening words of keynote speaker, former Obama economist Austan Goolsbee. He asked whether we will look back on the pandemic and see it as a journey or as jury duty. That is, will the pandemic go down in history as a transformational path to a new place, or an obligation that was endured. He was leaning more towards jury duty.
Goolsbee broke the trends into two flavors. Any trend accentuated by the pandemic will be accelerated. This includes online purchasing and work from home. Any trend reversed by the pandemic will be temporary. This is counter to the “Death of the City” thread, where we’re already seeing business pick up in downtowns as they reopen while business never left mixed use neighborhoods.
In short, we’re going to keep going the way we’re going, except where we’re not.
This is the exact same assessment that could be made on 99.995% of all days throughout 5,000 years of recorded human history. The remaining 100 days are what we learn in history books.
Of course, millions of words have been spilled on figuring out when those 100 days are coming, labeling them Black Swans and Tipping Points. It’s hard to ask for speakers at trends and outlooks presentations to predict absolutely singular points in human history ahead of time. Anyone who saw those 100 important days of human history beforehand are the ones we learn about on the next page of that history book.
What felt limited in the ULI conference trend discussions are how middle-of-the-road they were. They were revenue recovery and finding value in the rebound. Quiet coastal downtowns are ripe for picking up affordable real estate investments before they boom again. Interior secondary markets are currently a value, but rent and salaries are reaching parity. Leasing companies are having success in shorter contracts with more amenities.
Some presentations had discussions of breakthrough technology, but it was modular housing and 3D printed buildings that look very similar to what’s being built now. Some talked about big data and analytics that extrapolate current markets and trends. It was forward looking in the narrow context and service of housing markets and community systems that we see are set up to fail in the face of pandemic, climate change, and civic unrest.
The conservatism is understandable given many of the speakers work for giant real estate houses and accounting firms. They have a depth of knowledge and resources to see where we are on many historic curves. But if those curves are about to break, are these folks prepared to tell us? How transformative can their data be?
Perhaps that calls us to appreciate the deep dives, then look sideways through for real insight. We have to understand the coastal city pressures that have created a build-to-rent demand in the Sunbelt. We have to lower the noise of short-term perspectives to see the underlying issues leading to homelessness. We have to remember how people are fighting for necessities that others call amenities. And from that we can take an important lesson. A safe, affordable place to live in a great neighborhood is the most transformative idea of all.
The segment of NE 45th Street near Interstate 5 in Seattle does not provide a safe or comfortable connection for pedestrians and cyclists accessing the new U District light rail station from Wallingford and other neighborhoods to the west. Providing a safe connection has been a priority for years. However, a protected bike lane (PBL) being studied on NE 45th Street bridge over I-5 has been dropped by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) from plans for its Route 44 Transit-Plus Multimodal Corridor project. The agency points to concerns about impacts to vehicle and transit traffic, as well as cost.
Safe street advocates, including The Urbanist and a coalition of partner organizations, aren’t giving up yet, and are calling on SDOT to make good on promises to improve the corridor for pedestrians and cyclists, a priority laid out in the 2015 Move Seattle levy. Last fall, the Seattle City Council added $400,000 in funding, as requested by the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) Coalition, in hopes of adding the protected bike lane and a jersey barrier for people walking and rolling on the bridge.
The Route 44 Multimodal Corridor project is anticipated to go out to bid sometime in October. As it stands, planned safety improvements near the I-5 crossing are limited to pedestrian improvements at the intersection of NE 45th Street and 8th Avenue NE, located one block east of the I-5 overpass. These planned changes fall short of safety improvements that had been under consideration for the corridor, including a westbound PBL over the I-5 bridge, which the agency declared feasible in 2020 report, although the question of funding for the PBL remained up in the air.
In a letter submitted to the Seattle City Council, The Urbanist, Transit Riders Union, Cascade Bicycle Club, and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways have put forth three primary demands: a PBL connecting over the I-5 bridge, an interchange and wayfinding for cyclists at NE 8th Avenue, and added protection for pedestrians on the I-5 bridge.
However, in an official statement shared with The Urbanist, SDOT defended its decision to drop plans for a NE 45th Street bridge PBL, stating that the agency “ultimately determined that the bike lane concept was infeasible for a variety of reasons” after consulting with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) on the corridor study.
Downtown Bellevue is undergoing one of the fastest transformations our region has seen. By 2023, commercial office space is expected to double. This poses a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape the urban character of the city.
Bellevue has its roots as a city built around the car, but with forward-looking progressive city leadership it has adopted many urbanist features in recent years. Wide sidewalks, protected bike lanes, transit priority and designated pedestrian corridors are just some of these features. Bellevue’s Grand Connection, described by the City as a 1.5-mile “series of cohesive, connected and memorable spaces and pedestrian-focused experiences through the heart of downtown Bellevue” will advance these urbanist improvements further. The Grand Connection also is posed to reshape land use patterns throughout the corridor.
I have previously written about the Grand Connection and I am glad that recent developments like Vulcan’s 555 Tower are indeed implementing a pedestrian design that lives up to the highest standards I envisioned. This article is the first in a series presenting an in-depth look at every segment of the Grand Connection with the latest plans spanning public and private development, and crucially, ways to improve them further.
Let’s take a stroll!
Meydenbauer Bay Park to Main Street
On one end of the Grand Connection we start our journey in beautiful Meydenbauer Bay Park on Lake Washington. This park was completed in 2019 and was a dream for the city for decades. They actually acquired very expensive waterfront residential land to make it happen which is an amazing feat.
For this first leg of our journey, Lake Washington Blvd connects the park with Main Street. It is currently flanked by 70s/80s dingbat-style multifamily residential buildings (meaning open carport on the ground floor) to the east and a steep ridge to the west with no sidewalk there. Both introduce significant discontinuity between the highly activated pedestrian environments of the park and Main Street.
A number of strategies can improve the pedestrian realm here:
Widening the sidewalk on the east side and adding a green buffer where possible.
Creating a sidewalk and bike lane (since it is uphill) on the west side where neither exists.
Furthermore the entire row of buildings on the east side is ripe for redevelopment. Pedestrian realm improvements should be part of the zoning code for new builds. Ideally we would see mixed-use development with ground-floor retail and a larger setback. This can help extend the active pedestrian environment of Main Street towards the park.