Thursday, 27 February, 2020

What We’re Reading: Solvable, 15-Minute City, and FBC

False Creek waterway and embankment in Vancouver, British Columbia.
False Creek waterway and embankment in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Solvable: Janette Sadik-Khan says that car crashes are an epidemic that we can solve.

New Pershing Square: Los Angeles’ central park, Pershing Square, could get a big makeover.

Higher frequency: Could Sound Transit’s Connect 2020 light rail service been more frequent?

Upgrades needed: New bike lanes in Washington, D.C. are already due for more upgrades.

Underwater: A new study says that Miami has a lot to lose with climate change, and perhaps the most vulnerable global city.

Parking sagas: New York City is taking on the issue of what to do about on-street parking, perhaps changing the paradigm.

Vegas HSR: Virgin Trains USA has a big site in mind at the south end of the Las Vegas Strip.

15-minute city: Paris’ mayor wants to create a “15-minute city”.

Redeveloping: An old gas station site could become a mixed-use development on 15th Ave E in Capitol Hill.

Onboard: San Francisco’s mayor is backing a decongestion pricing charge.

Car-free LA: Los Angeles is looking at the possibility of its first major car-free street on a 1.5 mile stretch of Broadway.

Bike WA: Washington state could finally wind up designating its first scenic bikeways.

Increasing compliance: Chicago’s mayor wants to make it easier to ticket people who park in bike and transit lanes.

Changing tourism habits: Amsterdam may repackage its erotic and cannabis scene for tourists.

Busted: Tim Eyman’s legal troubles continue to mount as he flagrantly disregards the law ($).

FBC: Cleveland is trying out a form-based code pilot to spur walkable districts and relegalize old development.

Blame abound: Automobile loan companies deserve a lot of blame in the increasing car violence in America.

Lacking revenue: Transportation funding nationally would need to increase by billions to support proposed congressional plans.

Big biz tax: A new version of a business tax proposal for King County has been introduced ($) in the state legislature.

Service threatened: Ferry service from Anacortes could end up dead in the water ($) without more funding.

Assessing fire risk: Wildfire risks are growing across America due to climate change, but are there better models to assess them?

Mayor Durkan Stresses Pragmatism over Systemic Change in State of City Speech

Mayor Durkan delivers her state of the city speech at Rainier Arts Center. (Credit: Seattle Channel)
Mayor Durkan delivers her state of the city speech at Rainier Arts Center. (Credit: Seattle Channel)

“Being progressive means actually making progress, and we have done it,” Mayor Jenny Durkan boasted in her annual State of the City speech on Tuesday. Halfway through her first term, Mayor Durkan rattled off accomplishments, but laid out a cautious agenda for the year ahead.

Durkan announced a plan to launch census assistance centers to aid in the 2020 Census taking. She also mentioned replacing the soon-to-expire Seattle Transportation Benefit District which augments transit service–although it remains unclear if the Mayor intends to partner with the rest of the county on a ballot initiative (as has been floated) or keeping going it alone.

Meanwhile, the new initiatives Durkan teased were relatively small, like a $300,000 emergency fund for small businesses and a job training program for Seattle students.

“We need to help small businesses like Muy Macho, my favorite taco truck in South Park,” Durkan said. “[L]ast year, Muy Macho faced some hard times. Fortunately, the City was able to help. Judith [the owner] qualified for a $25,000 grant through our emergency Stabilization Fund, so she could replace her coolers and keep serving her customers and get the business back on track.”

The two programs could stabilize a dozen struggling business and help a few students lucky enough to score one of the 40 paid summer internships at leading employers like Amazon, Expedia, and SEIU 775 and another 80 internships at the City of Seattle. Keeping the Mayor’s favorite taco truck from going under is nice, but the stabilization program is tiny band-aid in a city of 750,000 residents and counting with skyrocketing rents for storefronts and office space.

Housing needs and the payroll tax fight

The Mayor also heralded wins on housing and homelessness.

“Since becoming Mayor–again–we have invested in nearly $1.5 billion of affordable housing,” Durkan said. “Now, that is progress. But that’s not enough. We need more tools as a region.”

Durkan then segued into her plan to work with state legislators to authorize a “progressive business tax,” effectively a payroll tax on large employers. If successful in Olympia, the King County Council could pass the tax and raise $120 million per year–perhaps more if amended–for housing and homelessness-related services countywide.

That plan hit a speed bump this week as the original bill offered died in committee, but a new iteration that funnels 0.1% proceeds to the State is still alive via a cutoff exemption for bills with state budget implications. The payroll tax rate is up slightly to 0.25% in the latest version. That reprieve won’t last long though, since the legislative session will end on March 12th. The contentious issue of preemption of further Seattle business taxes still looms; it’s not yet in the bill, but much of the business support of the effort has been conditioned on its inclusion.

Seattle Council Reforms Encampment Rules and Permits 40 Tiny House Villages

Volunteers building and painting tiny houses at Georgetown Village in March of 2017. (Photo by the author)
Volunteers building and painting tiny houses at Georgetown Village in March of 2017. (Photo by the author)

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council passed legislation that increases the number of tiny house villages allowed throughout the city. The bill, introduced in draft form last August but delayed by State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) appeal, was sponsored by Councilmember Kshama Sawant.

The new legislation makes a number of changes to the permitting process for transitional homeless encampments, chief among them are:

  • removing restrictions on which zones encampments may reside in;
  • increasing the maximum number of encampments permitted as interim uses from three to 40; and
  • allowing encampments to renew their permits in perpetuity.

The bill passed six to one with Councilmember Alex Pedersen casting the lone vote in opposition (Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena González were not in attendance). The public comment period on the bill was well represented by members of the public, residents of Nickelsville, and employees of the Low Income Housing Institute. The bill also drew support from a number of advocacy organizations, from Real Change to the American Institute of Architects (the latter group being one that I am personally involved with).

Once signed into law, Council Bill 119656 has the potential to greatly expand the number of transitional encampments throughout Seattle, although without a provision for new revenue that would fund the construction and operation of new encampments (and with no specific properties mentioned for siting them) it may be some time before tiny house villages start popping up in every neighborhood.

Nevertheless, this week’s vote is a big step forward for the City which currently oversees eight authorized encampments and hasn’t permitted a new one since 2018.

City’s Plan for Pre-approved Backyard Cottages Shouldn’t Require Uncompensated Labor


It has been nearly two years since Mayor Jenny Durkan directed the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections to fast-track pre-approved designs of backyard cottages. At the time of the announcement, the Mayor’s Office stated, “The City will hire architects to develop several standard architectural plans for backyard cottages that could be built and permitted more quickly and at a lower cost to residents.”

Geared to entice more homeowners to add a backyard cottage, pre-approved plans were a component of the City’s accessory dwelling unit reform enacted in 2019 the City which aimed to generate an additional 2,460 homes over a decade.

In July of 2019–more than a year after the Mayor’s Office announced the City would hire architects to do this work–Mayor Durkan signed an Executive Order that stated this intent again: “Directive to Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to fast-track pre-approved designs for Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs) by hiring architects to develop several standard architectural plans for backyard cottages that could be built and permitted more quickly and at a lower cost to residents.”

By the fall of 2019, that statement – to pay architects for their labor –had been eliminated, to a call for submissions. The submittals were due on February 17, 2020. Those submissions will be reviewed by a number of people, including fellow planners and architects. The report on the selection process states that six to ten submissions will be approved. For this level of submission, entrants are required to submit the following items:

  • A 150-word description of the project;
  • Narrative of how project meets the submittal design guidelines;
  • An estimate of construction costs;
  • Dimensioned floor plans;
  • Building sections showing wall and roof assemblies;
  • Building elevations;
  • 3D views for marketing;
  • Major materials lists;
  • A list of mechanical systems; and
  • Price for the plan (maximum of $1,000), with how much the hourly rate is for further work (e.g., siting and landscaping).

That’s quite a bit of unpaid labor for a designer to submit. But it actually gets worse. If, on the off chance your submission is accepted, the City will require even more uncompensated labor from design firms. Accepted sets will require a full permit-ready set must be submitted for approval, including following items:

Columbia Street Two-Way Bus Corridor Opens Saturday


A new transit pathway in Downtown Seattle opens on Saturday. Local officials say that a two-way bus connection on Columbia Street will benefit more than 26,000 daily bus riders, providing easier and more reliable service between the city center and areas to the south. West Seattle, White Center, and Burien riders have been hit hard by the Seattle Squeeze, particularly since the new SR-99 tunnel opened and deconstruction work on the former viaduct forced reroutes to surface streets through SoDo and Pioneer Square. King County Metro all but issued an apology to riders at the end of summer over mounting delays, some approaching a full hour, due to interim routings on 1st Avenue without dedicated bus lanes.

Transit riders on a dozen bus routes will be moved off of 4th Avenue and nearby streets passing through Pioneer Square to the new pathway. King County Metro is planning for Alaskan Way to be new transit pathway along with Columbia Street, where buses will travel along a four-block stretch with the new bus lanes and transit signals. That should speed buses to and from 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue transit spines through Downtown Seattle. The new transit pathway will also have other benefits for riders, bringing them closer to light rail, ferries, and eventually streetcar service.

Riders should be aware that bus stops between Madison Street and S King Street may be moved. Stop pairs will be clustered on Columbia Street between Alaskan Way and Western Avenue as well as on 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue between Madison Street and Columbia Street. The changes will affect riders on Routes 21X, 37, 55, 56, 57, 113, 120, 121, 122, 123, 125, and the RapidRide C Line.

Mid-Session Check-In on Equitable and Sustainable Legislation


With a short legislative session, Democrats and Republicans have been moving swiftly to get bills through the legislative process. Several major bills affecting environmental quality, housing, land use, and transportation have seen significant legislative progress with a major cutoff point looming today at 5pm. However, a many bills that are still alive may not make today’s cutoff and could wind up dead unless later deemed “necessary to implement the budget.” Legislators have flexibility in keeping bills alive by having a revenue impact that generally benefits the state budget.

Bills That Are Still Stuck

A long list of bills that have made it to the respective Rules Committees or house floors could end up dying today. These include the following:

  • Companion accessory dwelling units bills (House Bill 2570 and Senate Bill 6617);
  • A broad urban single-family zoning reform bill (Senate Bill 6536);
  • A new community preservation and development authority for Interbay (House Bill 2882);
  • Growth Management Act reform to delay the effective date for actions like removal of forest land, expansions of Urban Growth Areas, and creations of new fully contained communities (House Bill 1544);
  • A bill to make annexation of unincorporated areas easier (Senate Bill 5249);
  • Broad authority expansion for the Washington State Department of Ecology to limit greenhouse gas emissions on entities that produce or distribute fossil fuels (Senate Bill 6628);
  • A variety of sales tax, real estate excise tax, excise tax on wealthy big businesses, and property tax options for affordable and low-income housing (House Bill 1590, House Bill 2907, Senate Bill 5676, Senate Bill 6126, Senate Bill 6212);
  • An extension of the multifamily tax exemption for an additional 12 years in eligible Urban Growth Areas in exchange for rent-restricted units (Senate Bill 6411) and
  • Additional protections for residential tenants facing eviction and damage claims by landlords (House Bill 2520, House Bill 2453, and Senate Bill 6378).

Planter Boxes in South Seattle Bike Lane Removed After Complaints


The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has abruptly removed most of the planter boxes that it had placed on Wilson Ave S in the Seward Park neighborhood to provide a buffer between a new protected bike lane and a lane of free street parking.

The increased hazard for people biking caused by the removal of the planters appeared to take a backseat to the desires of other community members in making this decision, which was announced on a Friday and completed by Sunday. SDOT’s Ethan Bergerson told The Urbanist that they were “removed at the request of the people who live in the neighborhood.”

In response to a question about what prompted their removal, Bergerson continued: “For context, we originally added the planters between the flex posts based on requests from the Wilson Ave S neighbors who wanted something more visually appealing than just posts. However, after the planters were installed, these same neighbors said that they no longer wanted them because they didn’t have room to open their passenger car doors and they weren’t as nice to look at as they imagined. We also heard reports of numerous cars bumping the planters into the bike lane and creating obstacles for people on bikes.”

Proposed design for Wilson Ave S as installed last year. (City of Seattle)
Proposed design for Wilson Ave S as installed last year. (City of Seattle)

15th and Columbian Way Gets Another Chance at Redesign


We reported that community pushback had sunk a proposed redesign to a dangerous intersection next to Mercer Middle School in Beacon Hill and led to grant funds being returned last year. However, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has released new plans that are inspired by that design, and it says it plans to install them later this year as part of a repaving project. The intersection at 15th Ave S and S Columbian Way sits just south of the automatic speed camera that issued the most tickets during the last school year.

The updated design takes away many of the best aspects of the project, leaving the over-engineered roadway mostly in place. It retains only one signalized crosswalk in place on a long stretch of roadway. And it only provides space for people on biking to use the intersection by riding on the sidewalk, a disappointing choice for a bike network being designed in the year 2020. The design does, however, rechannelize the lanes for southbound traffic, trimming the number of lanes that funnel onto S Columbian Way. This should have an impact on southbound speeding.

The latest design for 15th Ave S and S Columbian Way. (SDOT)
The latest design for 15th Ave S and S Columbian Way. (SDOT)