What We’re Reading: Free Transit, Bike Portland, and Sprawling Carbon

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Free transit: Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union talks free transit.

NEC improvements: There’s a new plan for the Northeast Corridor that could improve passenger service.

Rebuild or not: Should Washington, D.C. rebuild the pedestrian bridge that recently collapsed over an urban highway?

Revamping Burrard: In Vancouver, SkyTrain’s Burrard Station will close in 2022 for big upgrades and expansion.

Opposition: Opposition at a city council meeting was vigorous to the Portland South Park Blocks Plan.

New safety requirements: Washington, D.C. has added a new safety review requirement for larger development projects in the wake of the Surfside, Florida condominium tower collapse.

Reduced parking requirements: Denver has reduced parking requirements for affordable housing projects.

Out of reach: Most Californians live very close to the beach, but access is very inequitable ($).

New life: Could deserted parking garages get new life as affordable housing?

Rebuilt Fairview Avenue Bridge Opens Saturday with Walking and Rolling Event

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The new Fairview Ave bridge taking shape earlier this month. (Photo by Mark Ostrow)

After years of construction and reroutes for people using all modes, the replacement for the Fairview Avenue N is finally about to open. The new seismically sound bridge replaces the only timber bridge that was part of an arterial street in the entire city. On Sunday, July 25th, the new bridge will open to vehicle traffic, eliminating the detour via Aloha Street to Eastlake Avenue that people biking, walking, driving, or riding the Route 70 bus have had to take since 2019. Before that though, on Saturday, July 24th, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is holding an opening ceremony where people outside of motor vehicles can check out the bridge for two hours, from 9:30am to 11:30am. Update: King County Metro has also announced that the Route 70 will start using the old Fairview route starting at noon on Saturday. Additional update: SDOT tells us that’s not quite right, and that buses will start to use the bridge as late as Sunday, but possibly before.

Rendering of the new Fairview Ave bridge with the two-way protected bike lane highlighted. (SDOT)

These two hours may be the only opportunity anytime soon to experience the Fairview Bridge completely free of cars, but the new bridge will be a big improvement for people walking and rolling 24/7. The old Fairview bridge didn’t have any bike lanes, though one of the southbound traffic lanes had been converted to a path as an alternative to the only sidewalk along the east side of the bridge behind a barricade. It was a pretty unpleasant place to be.

The old configuration of the Fairview Avenue bridge. (Google Maps)

In Order to Achieve Tree Equity, the U.S. Must Plant 522 Million Trees in Urban Areas

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This busy stretch of Broadway Avenue E. in Capitol Hill benefits from the presence of street trees. The Tree Equity Score, created by nonprofit American Forests, strives to quantify whether urban areas have equitable distribution of tree canopy. The particular census block group where the photo was taken has a perfect score of 100. (Photo by author)

Recent data published by the nonprofit American Forests shows stark racial and economic inequity in tree canopy coverage. How did the Evergreen State compare to national trends?

There are certain visual clues that identify the socioeconomic status of an urban neighborhood, and in the United States one of these is the presence — or absence — of trees. Trees flourish in areas of American cities with high levels of investment, whether by affluent property owners, flourishing local tax revenues, or committed neighborhood advocates. However, in urban areas that suffer from longstanding disinvestment resulting from high concentrations of poverty and environmental pollution, trees, and the life-sustaining benefits they bring, tend to be rare. Because of the American legacy of environmental racism, exclusionary zoning, and disparities in intergenerational wealth, communities of color are disproportionately likely to lack tree canopy.

To examine gaps in tree canopy coverage in urban areas and understand how these gaps relate to factors like the race and socioeconomic status of inhabitants, nonprofit American Forests has created a new measurement tool called the Tree Equity Score (TES). Combining GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping data with information provided by the United States census on population density, demographics of residents, health trends, and urban heat indexes, the TES uses quantitive analysis to determine whether locations have enough trees to provide optimal health, economic and climate benefits to residents.

The initial launch of TES assessed data from 150,000 different American neighborhoods and 486 metropolitan areas. It found that in order to make up for discrepancies between levels of tree coverage in neighborhoods lacking resources and more affluent, often White majority neighborhoods, the United States must commit to planting 522 million trees in urban areas. On average, American neighborhoods home to a majority of people of color have 33% less tree canopy than majority White neighborhoods. Among lower-income communities, the disparity is evident as well: according to TES data, neighborhoods with 90% or more of their residents living in poverty have 41% less tree canopy than communities with only 10% or less of the population in poverty.

Growing concern over the dangers of urban heat island effect, a phenomenon exacerbated by the unfolding climate crisis, has led to awareness of the critical role trees play in preventing temperatures in urban areas from rising to dangerous levels during heat waves. The danger posed by such heat waves should not be underestimated. In the most recent heat wave that struck the Pacific Northwest, nearly 100 people died in Washington and Oregon because of related causes. In the Canadian province of British Columbia, the heatwave is thought to have contributed to over 700 sudden deaths in a single week.

Although, the need for tree equity in urban areas has never been more pronounced, data from the United States Forest Service indicates that loss of tree canopy continues to be a problem across the country. In fact, their data shows that approximately one tree is lost for every two trees planted or naturally regenerated in urban areas, hindering cities’ attempts to increase tree canopy coverage. If tree canopy continues to be lost at this rate in urban areas of America, it will decline by 8.3% by 2060. Tree loss is mostly attributed to natural disasters and the stress urban areas place on tree’s growth and disease resistance, but improper planting practices and the removal of trees for new development also contribute to the problem.

It’s Time to Overhaul Design Review

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With Covid-19, Design Review has moved to an online format. Housing in the pipeline stills need to continue to be built. (City of Seattle)

Fifteen housing advocates applied for 15 open seats on Seattle’s design review boards this winter. A public records request revealed that all 15 were shut out as the City opted instead to appoint mostly architects with connections to major firms or past or current board members, even in seats set aside for non-architects. For housing advocates, that rejection underscored how at odds the review program is with their goals.

“Design review is a continuation of practices like exclusionary zoning and redlining that are used to keep out unwanted neighbors and separate communities,” Laura Loe of Share The Cities said in an email. “We aren’t getting a more beautiful city, it isn’t more climate friendly, and it isn’t more affordable. We have a choice here to take care of a laundry list of reforms for design review or maybe we just don’t need it at all.”

The City’s eight design review boards are composed entirely of volunteers, but they wield great power in the housing approval process. For multifamily projects that meet design review thresholds, a recommendation from the local design review board is an essential step in getting a Master Use Permit (MUP), which is itself a necessary hurdle to get a building permit. The threshold to trigger full design review in most cases is exceeding 35,000 gross square feet of development, which hits nearly every large apartment project.

A map of the eight geographic districts represented by Seattle’s Design Review Boards. (Credit: City of Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections)
A map of the eight geographic districts represented by Seattle’s Design Review Boards. (Credit: City of Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections)

Design review meetings take place on weekday evenings and can run three hours or longer, which makes it hard for working-class parents or service workers to participate, especially since the work isn’t compensated (outside of being a resume-builder for architects). Relatedly, design review membership is overwhelmingly White, with just four members of color participating before the latest round of recruitment. Five boards currently remain all-White even after the new batch of recruits. The Central Area design review board is the only one with Black members.

The boards can call a project back to as many design review meetings as it wants if they’re unsatisfied with elements of the project. Theoretically, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) can override a design review board and issue a MUP without a board recommendation, but that rarely happens in practice.

In December, The Urbanist put out a call for urbanist applicants in hopes of reinvigorating the board with new perspectives and perhaps moving them in more pro-housing direction. With all the applicants from this call rejected, it leaves housing advocates instead look for structural reforms to avoid predatory delays and boost housing production. Making design review less of a hurdle could involve raising the thresholds so fewer projects go through design review and capping the number of design review meetings. Other ideas include streamlining design review guidelines and packet requirements so less paperwork is required.

A tool of predatory delay

Developer Maria Barrientos of the firm Barrientos Ryan agreed it’s high time to reform design review.

“There are projects that I believe are just fine that work well that end up going to three, four, and five design review board meetings that doesn’t, in my head, really make a difference in the experience for people who are going to live there,” Barrientos said. “All it does is add time and money. That to me is a little mindboggling — I gotta say. I don’t understand it. That’s where the comment that design review is being misused as a tool to stop or slow development rather than encouraging good design — and good design is so subjective.”

Her firm is all too familiar with the pitfalls of the design review system. Their high profile Queen Anne Safeway project has been tied up in the design approval process since the Bush administration, albeit with a big chunk of that under a previous design and developer. While the Queen Anne project now has its design review recommendation, Barrientos reports that the building permit still isn’t forthcoming due to lengthy correction rounds and a slow-to-respond City planner tasked to them.

Barrientos has found that boards can be swayed to delay a project, but rarely weigh positive feedback as seriously. “If the neighborhood is negative, that influences the board, but if they’re positive in support of a project that seems irrelevant to the board,” she said.

Urban Growth, Safety and Transportation Up for Discussion at Mt. Baker Mayoral Forum on Tuesday

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Home to a Link light rail station, the Mt. Baker neighborhood faces diverse challenges and opportunities. At the mayoral forum on 7/20/21, attendees will be able to ask questions of mayoral hopefuls in a relaxed outdoor setting in the amphitheater of Martin Luther King Jr. Park. (Photo by Mt. Baker Hub Alliance)

In partnership with the Mt. Baker Hub Alliance, Mt. Baker Mutual Aid, Disability Rights WA, and Mercy Housing, The Urbanist is sponsoring a mayoral forum on Tuesday, July 20th, from 6 to 7:30pm at the amphitheater of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park. The event will also be broadcast on Zoom for attendees who prefer to tune in online. Either way it’s highly recommended to RSVP in advance to let the organizers know how you plan to attend and if you need any accommodations. The event will move inside to the Allen Family Center’s Community Room in case of poor weather.

Six mayoral candidates will be in attendance, including: Colleen Echohawk, Jessyn Farrell, Bruce Harrell, Andrew Grant Houston, Lance Randall, and Casey Sixkiller. 

The event will feature questions that address specific challenges that face the growing, mass transit-connected community of Mount Baker, and also other similar Seattle neighborhoods. From opportunities for affordable transit-oriented development, to dangerous conditions for pedestrians and cyclists on Rainier Avenue South, to questions about the potential impacts of new residential and commercial development, the Mount Baker neighborhood offers a compelling microcosm of where Seattle sits relative to many of today’s most pressing issues.

A view from the Mt. Baker Link light rail station of the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. and Rainier Avenue S. in Mt. Baker. Disability and active transportation advocates have highlighted the dangerous street conditions for people seeking to access transit at this site. (Credit: Mt. Baker Hub Alliance)

That’s why Mount Baker has been no stranger to coverage in The Urbanist. Here’s a list of featured articles focused on the neighborhood that offer readers the opportunity to learn more about this dynamic community.

Sunday Video: How To Design Streets For Everyone

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Dave Amos talks about how the principle of universal design as applied to street design can make streets better for all users.

Sound Transit 3 Affordability Gap Shrinks by $1.4 Billion, But Difficult Decisions Remain

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The financial outlook for Sound Transit has greatly improved over the second quarter of the year. On Thursday, the Sound Transit board of directors were briefed on updated financial projections. Helped by an improving economy, the affordability gap through 2041 for Sound Transit 3 (ST3) has come down another $1.4 billion since April. The affordability gap now stands at $6.5 billion; earlier this year, it was as much as $11.5 billion. With the new financial projections, realignment of the ST3 program could be a little easier and perhaps a little less painful.

A less painful realignment plan?

During the meeting, Board Chair Kent Keel said that project timelines would be able to move up a little in his realignment plan. “The $1.4 billion improvement in our financial outlook means, in my mind, that we can improve upon the estimated completion dates for projects,” he said. “So as an example, staff tell me that we can improve the delivery of dates of all of our Tier 2 light rail projects and their supporting systems by a full year. This means we can finish the entire ST3 light rail program, including the infill stations, one year earlier than we anticipated with a $7.9 billion affordability gap.”

Keel also said that the improved Tier 2 schedule approach — of a four-tiered plan — was just one option and that he was interested in hearing if any boardmembers had differing ideas in how to allocate the new financial capacity.

Chair Keel’s realignment scenario with notations on why some projects are experiencing delay unrelated to finances. (Sound Transit)

Based upon the Tier 2 improved schedule approach, that could mean Link light rail projects are delivered as follows:

  • 2036 instead of 2037 for all three Seattle infill stations;
  • 2037 instead of 2038 for the SODO-Smith Cove and the second Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel projects;
  • 2039 instead of 2040 for the Smith Cove-Ballard project;
  • 2041 instead of 2042 for the Southwest Everett-Everett project; and
  • 2044 instead of 2045 for the South Kirkland-Issaquah project.

Still, Keel’s plan means that many ST3 projects could be delayed by many years and in some cases decades barring additional financial capacity.

Hot YIMBY Summer

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Urban Zilla (Art copyrighted by Chad Crowe, used with permission)

There has been quite a lull in pro-housing advocacy opportunities since the controversial Mandatory Housing Affordability and Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda rezones of 2019. But thankfully things are starting to HEAT UP.

Here are the top things we think you should know about in Seattle. This list is for YOU if you’re someone who wants to end the apartment bans and end the “keep Seattle like a 1970’s suburban dream” nostalgia that grips our opposition in most land use meetings.

  1. Design Review Reforms
  2. Industrial Maritime Strategy
  3. Racial Equity Toolkit for Mandatory Housing Affordability
  4. Residential Name Change
  5. Comprehensive Plan pre-planning 
  6. Equitable Development solidarity efforts 
  7. Tree Canopy legislation
  8. Elections! 

First, An Explainer

What is “Yimby”? YIMBY, Yes In My Backyard, is a term used to describe housing advocates that focus on exclusionary zoning and pushing back on people who want to say “No” to apartments in their neighborhoods. These days, even the White House is talking about the harmful impacts of exclusionary zoning as did the Obama administration before it.

Not In My Backyard, or NIMBY, are the people YIMBYs are pushing back on. In Seattle, we are pushing back on NIMBYs who want homeless sweeps, and NIMBYs who don’t want apartments near their neighborhoods. 

PHIMBY, Public Housing In My Backyard, is a term we love. It has sprung up to explain a movement for public housing that rejects housing as an investment vehicle by developers or individuals, and instead focuses on a right to housing. This story by KQED explains these tensions in Bay Area housing discussions. 

8 Ways to Yimby Your Summer

  1. Design Review Reforms

We are working with Seattle For Everyone and have come up with an 11-page recommendation report to fix Seattle’s Design Review. It’s pretty wonky. We are looking for non-wonks to help us develop a communication, advocacy and education strategy to promote these critical changes. We attend one design review meeting a month. Volunteers are needed to speak up in favor of critical housing efforts in low displacement risk neighborhoods. Connect with us to help.

  1. Industrial Maritime Strategy

The Urbanist has published a fantastic series of articles from Ray Dubicki, who has focused on the many ways our industrial lands could be improved and how our planning around these lands remains stuck in last century thinking and planning. This fall the city will open their plan to public comment and we hope you’ll respond to action alerts. Want to get involved sooner? There’s a lot of reading homework to be done. Happening now: Scoping the Industrial Maritime Environmental Impact Statement. The public comment period for this phase will last from July 8th to August 9th at 5:00pm. 

  1. Seattle’s Urban Villages Equity Analysis

Our current city executive doesn’t deal in nuance or duality so well. “MHA is a resounding success” is the overly simplistic message coming from the city. We agree that the framework of Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) brought a critical funding source for subsidized housing. At the same time, it only applied to urban village upzones, which mirrors the map of formerly redlined communities. This meant that communities of color have undergone tremendous change while other, whiter and wealthier communities, have not. This is not fair or good. The long-awaited Urban Village Strategy Racial Equity Analysis has been released. It documents these inequities and allows our city to have an honest conversation about equitable growth. The Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) report focuses not just on YIMBY actions, but has quite a bit about PHIMBY work that needs to be done. We can’t plan for the future if the current racist and classist land use patterns in our city aren’t exposed. Learn more at tinyurl.com/UrbanVillagesEquity.