The city as we know it is collapsing. The virus is forcing us to reckon with the depletion of the buildings that comprise the city and the systems that had conceived each city for itself. Basic activities are separated by kilometres of distance, and the enclosed envelopes–galleries, churches, stadiums–where we used to gather do not allow crowds anymore and hence are unvisitable. Places that are little more than human capsules stacked on top of each other in towers without access to open spaces, common areas, nor nature and where practically does not exist human contact with outdoors will become increasingly dysfunctional over time.
The pandemic threatens to irreversibly harm the social bridges and relationships that subsist, and at the same time, paradoxically, poses a latent opportunity to remedy our cities’ preexisting ills. How we do that is not through a topical and superficial treatment that pretends to recycle models to return to the same point in which we were before, but through a drastic change forward, one that leads us to think on a transformation beyond what is proven, implementing deep therapeutic interventions, experimenting with reimagining existing structures, along with propagation of new entities and urban habitats.
An urban paradigm shift is imminent. Post-COVID-19 circumstances rule our spaces, but outbreaks of social cohesion and places of exchange are bound to develop. Other laws and prescriptions of architecture will allow a reconfiguration of the city on a footing that cannot ignore the magnitude of the diagnosed problem.
As a result of the mandatory stay-at-home orders, fewer people are flying, fewer people are commuting to work, and fewer people are using their cars for recreational purposes. Seattle experienced a noticeable reduction in emissions, as stay-at-home orders led to 40% fewer car trips. The congestion that plagues the entire region has been on the minds of many locals and legislators for quite a while. If you’re enjoying the speedy freeway travel times right now, you may want to check out Washington State Deprartment of Transportation’s Cascadia High Speed Rail project.
On a typical day, the average traffic delay in Seattle rush hour is 40 minutes, the equivalent to a 34% increase compared to free flow rates. The state of Washington estimates that congestion costs over $3.2 billion annually. High speed rail in the Pacific Northwest would absorb at least 20% of intercity trips including auto, air, and bus travel. That means reduced congestion, and faster travel times for both high-speed rail passengers and those using the highway, including freight. The project is also expected to reduce the region’s carbon emissions by six million metric tons.
With the help of a 2019 business case study released by the Washington Department of Transportation, we can start to imagine our cities in the Pacific Northwest connected by high speed rail, perhaps by incorporating tracks along highway corridors in Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, British Columbia. A high-speed rail line can transport 32,000 people per hour, which is more efficient and economically sustainable than expansion of highway infrastructure.
More Trains, Less Freeways in Portland
In Oregon, Portlanders are experiencing traffic and environmental impacts from regional growth. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has been considering expanding Portland’s downtown stretch of I-5, hoping that more interstate lanes will ease congestion. At the price of $795 million to expand 1.7 miles of road, the Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion has had project costs increase by 66% in three years, according to No More Freeways, a grassroots organization opposing the expansion. ODOT’s reasoning was that if there are more highway lanes, travel times would be shorter, and cars would have lower emissions. Studies show, however, that highway expansions lead to increased car usage and increased emissions.
What if there was a more affordable solution? For the Cascadia corridor, highway expansions would cost three times as much as building high speed rail. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) estimates building high speed rail along the I-5 corridor to cost $24-42 billion, while adding one lane of highway along the same route would cost $108 billion.
Over this series of articles, I have laid out an argument that Seattle should mix industrial uses in our residential and commercial neighborhoods. A long history of exclusion keeps interesting and useful things out of our communities, an absolute loss for building a vibrant and vital city. Now is the time to change this because the lines have disappeared between the places we work, create, build, and live. Right now, every neighborhood is mixed use.
Read part two showing how zoning has been a terror since it was permitted in the United States.
Read part threeshowing that the way we apply zoning through a broken and malignant use table is a joke.
Read part four showing what a cool neighborhood industrial use can look like, but recognizing the heavy legislative lifting to make it happen.
Which begs the question, why does a terrible zoning ordinance or the potential of a cool new building necessitate change? We have spent a century putting industrial uses in very specific places. Seattle seems to be chugging along pretty well without having haberdasheries and cobblers on every street corner. Why change that now?
Because our city’s not actually chugging along very well. Our zoning perpetuates many of the problems we’re experiencing, from expensive housing to declining industrial jobs. All this is exacerbated by coronavirus. The most basic foundation of zoning–the hard separation of uses–actually breaks the city and makes every discussion of development into a death match.
The Zone of Maximum Conflict
We have an idealized image that urban development should taper up to more intense uses, with stages of growing height and heavier use going from a hinterland to a dense urban core. We imagine urban development being a spectrum. This is supported by everything from the original development scheme in SimCity through our current infatuation with the Missing Middle typology.
While we imagine this spectrum of density, the way we write our zoning ordinance prevents gradual intensification. We create groups of disfavored uses, defined broadly and outright banned. We impose hierarchies that conflict with one another. We carve out exceptions that are so narrow as to only impact a single building. We whittle down zones to specific lot lines, then lock those restrictions into perpetuity. We defer design decisions to the neighbor with the most restrictive zone.
The result is that the vast majority of land in the city defaults to the most exclusionary use: single family detached housing. This presses the disfavored, intense, or expansive uses into small clusters and forces competition for land between uses that shouldn’t be competing. Officials can talk all they want about saving good paying industrial jobs, but it’s mainly lip service if zoning forces big-box wine shops and mini-storage on industrial land.
More acutely, our zoning puts low density homes right against the uses zoning was designed to separate. By removing the ability to gradually intensify, we’ve caused more conflict. All of the pressure that could be dissipated with gradual increases condenses into a zone of maximum conflict.
Such segregation of uses pushes necessary, vital businesses far from most of the residents that use them. However, this does not stop the uses from appearing in neighborhoods. It sucks to drive across town to do stuff we like, so we bring stuff we like into our homes. Industrial uses are all over residential areas. From catering kitchens to massage parlors to climbing walls. From distribution centers to gyms, workshops to metal forges. Everything is allowable, if it’s wrapped in a single-family detached house.
This is the inherent paradox of zoning: insular single family homes violate the zoning that protects them. Having an otherwise excluded use raises the value of the most exclusive homes. Zoning does not separate residences from noxious uses. Zoning simply atomizes noxious uses into private compounds, while pushing services out of the area. This makes the whole neighborhood wealthier and poorer at the same time.
We can do so much better. The same uses that get built into ritzy vacation homes should be permitted in any residential zone. Eliminating the bright-line exclusion of industrial uses from neighborhoods is fundamental to reclaiming a green, fair, and vibrant city.
A Greener City
Neighborhood industrial is a foundation of the green economy. Bringing useful things into our neighborhoods allows all of the benefits we can expect from reducing commutes and parking. Creating a community that is active all day evens out the demand on electricity and water. Neighborhood industrial will use the infrastructure we have throughout the entire day, and not leave behind empty homes being cooled or long pipes filled with water and waiting until the evening demand.
The mechanism with which we allow neighborhood industrial is also a way we green our communities. We cannot rely on industrial zoning to simply sweep smelly uses out of sight. Neighborhood industrial will require management plans to identify and mitigate potential sources of noise or discharge. Manufacturing and industrial processes, including everything from the water outflows at a brewery to a chalk eater at a climbing gym, can be monitored for how well they’re controlling pollution. With neighborhood industrial, we will expand our pollution testing and monitoring systems.
Right now, the most local real-time monitoring we have in the city is morning and evening traffic reports. These change behaviors, making people choose different routes or delay their commutes. It also says a lot about what matters to us. Our counts are about how many cars are going by particular points. They’re not measuring the spewed noxious gasses. They’re not measuring the lives lost in crashes. Without measuring a problem, we deny it exists.
Management plans in neighborhood industrial will let us do better. Connect the sensors and monitors required by these management plans to create dashboards for every neighborhood, making real-time testing and reporting of air, water, and noise not just possible, but a priority. That way we can adjust our behaviors, just like we do to avoid a traffic backup. It should not take a special study to track particulates. It should not take a decade to figure out an ongoing dumping conspiracy. Real time reporting will allow residents and businesses to make meaningful decisions about their own activities to flatten the curve, to coin a phrase. And if you’re a business owner in the neighborhood you live, your decisions will be particularly meaningful. By bringing neighborhood industrial uses into communities with management plans, we will build the mechanisms to track our progress.
A Fairer City
Data-driven responsiveness will make our city fairer. By defaulting to single family residential across so much of the city, zoning simultaneously tries to sweep all pollution into a tiny corner. Out of sight, out of mind. Except for the predominately black and Hispanic populations that live in the distressed communities directly down wind.
To understand a zoning code is not some great insight in urbanization and human society. Instead, it is peeling back onion layers of institutionalized racism and calculated bias, with all the weeping that entails. Americans try to manage the city through zoning, because zoning is the bluntest tool available. We insist on throwing it against every urban problem specifically because its wide margins cloak the racist impacts with economic justification. Zoning is not a tool, it is a weapon.
Neighborhood industrial will disarm that weapon. Allowing for a ground floor candy shop is not going to solve racism. But we bundle together race and class and a thousand other biases when we talk about “neighborhood character” and “nature of the community.” Neighborhood industrial is about uncoupling real, measurable pollution and nuisances from the thin justifications of character and desirability. It shortens the list of excuses for sweeping people of color and smokestacks into the same corners of the city. If that makes some folks confront that their actual desire is keeping brown folks out of the neighborhood, all the better.
The fairness also works in other directions. Our current industrial areas like Interbay and SoDo are located because of water, highway, and rail access. Businesses that need this expensive publicly funded infrastructure should not be forced into competing for the same space with mini-storage and big box stores. Whole Foods and Michael’s are not looking for access to marinas, they’re looking for favorable zoning.
It happens small, too. Surrounding the new four story loft West Woodland Business Park on the 1200 block of NW 52nd Street, there are three breweries (another around the corner), the RAD electric bicycle shop, and the relocated Serious Pie outlet. This would be an incredible block in any neighborhood and should be constantly busy with lots of homes right there. But we have relegated it to an industrial zone between a Vaupell plastic prototyping and Bardahl Manufacturing. These businesses take a full block of our precious industrial zoning, separate from most of residential Ballard, and add to land value pressure on nearby industries. That’s unfair to Bardahl, unfair to the breweries, and unfair to us. And every one of those breweries is very good. Making space for them in our residential zones would be an all around benefit to the community.
A Vibrant City
But mostly, neighborhood industrial uses are awesome. That’s why people put them in their homes. We love making stuff. We love watching stuff get made. We love buying stuff that our friends make. We go on vacation to places where people make stuff. As the sign says downtown–at Seattle’s mixed commercial, industrial, and residential Pike Place Market–we love to “Meet the Producers.” And it’s pretty cool to live next to them too.
Communities that make things are beautiful. And we have some very good examples. Hackeschen Hofe in Berlin is a early-20th century low-rise apartment building. Inside, the series of connected courtyards are surrounded by small workshops and shops selling things they make. As shown in Sightline, there are American examples of residential communities forming in industrial areas in Portland and Denver.
It’s easy to see the key to this development in reused industrial properties. In Baltimore and Boston, abandoned mill buildings are converted to offices and apartments. In San Antonio, the old Pearl Brewery has turned into a mixed use development. In San Francisco, reclamation of Pier 70 is underway with industrial, retail, and residential development. In our own Pioneer Square, old loft manufacturers are now apartments. These high-ceilinged, well built structures are full of windows and wide open spaces. These are beautiful places built from factories. The structures offer a flexibility that is just non-existent in the buildings we construct to fit current, confining zoning ordinances. It’s a flexibility in structure that we’re going to need moving forward.
The Recovered City
Which brings us to the current pandemic. We cannot close out any discussion today without recognizing that we are all at home. Far too many of us have seen our businesses and workplaces close, some permanently. If we are lucky enough to work, we are doing so from our kitchen tables or desks in our bedrooms. We’re told that we’re going to restart, that we’re resilient. It’s hard to see when we’re separated by a virus that makes busy urban places a fantasy.
These changes are not possible in the zone of maximum conflict. Recovery is not possible if we keep our hardline, inflexible zoning.
This may seem to contradict our need to fortify our homes. While an understandable reaction, the pandemic shows that we pay for our safe little fortresses in other ways. By making everyone go to the exact same place for toilet paper, or meat, or church, our screwed up zoning creates massive vulnerabilities to coronavirus. The zone of maximum conflict concentrates low wage employment, promotes long distance travel, and disjoints social networks.
Neighborhood industrial can begin to mend these issues by addressing the underlying failures of zoning. We can dismantle and address the historic prejudices that drew broad rules to exclude disfavored people and uses. We can scrap the terrible use tables that are less regulations and more footnotes and exceptions. We can install mechanisms of flexibility and data driven responsiveness to stop hiding pollution and start protecting residents and the environment.
Cities take work and can be exhausting. We spent a century looking towards zoning to streamline the difficulties; to sweep the noxious uses out of sight, to demolish the slums, and to sequester the different people in an effort to “protect” the neighborhood. But in doing so, we cut to the quick and eliminated the buffers and extras that can only be found in cities. We don’t have the other store or the small workshop to iron out the bumps when the huge supply chains fail. In the name of efficiency, we ended up erasing the redundancies that actually protect the neighborhood.
Neighborhood industrial corrects the ways we overused zoning and scraped communities down to the residential bones. As we spend each day in our homes that are doubling as workplaces, gyms, schools, broadcast studios, craft galleries, and screaming booths, we can feel the places where our neighborhoods are thin. Coming out of this pandemic, let’s correct that. We may not really need to have a brewery on every corner. But the pandemic is showing how our most resilient communities have the flexibility that allows for one.
Puget Sound transit agencies are beginning to restore service and fare payment is returning on some services. Pierce Transit and Sound Transit have released their initial recovery plans that will begin as soon as May 24th. Community Transit also plans join the other two transit agencies in implementing fare collection, at least on the Swift bus rapid transit network initially.
King County Metro recently added back some bus service on in-demand bus routes to address crowding issues that were leading some riders at the curb due to social distancing capacity protocols. The restoration of service and fare collection across transit agencies will likely continue to come in waves as summer approaches and people return to work. Metro still hasn’t selected a specific date to resume fare collection, though fare-free rides could end after May 31st—the day that Metro has formally extended fare-free rides at this time.
Pierce Transit service changes
Pierce Transit has promised a modest slate of service restorations. Normal weekday schedules will return to Routes 1, 2, 48, 58, and 500 with Route 1 receiving enhanced service. Weekday frequencies for on about two dozen routes will match that of Saturdays, but with start and end times typical of weekdays. Routes 3, 4, 10, 11, 16, 28, 41, 42, 45, 52, 53, 55, 57, 100, 202, 206, 212, 214, 400, 402, 409, and 501 fall into that service category. Route 63 will maintain a reduced and modified schedule on weekdays and Route 497 will be aligned with the Sounder commuter rail schedule on a reduced schedule. Pierce Transit plans to keep Route 13, 102, and 425 canceled until further notice.
Riders can expect revised Pierce Transit schedules to be posted on Wednesday. The transit agency plans to operate the service schedule until the next service change in mid-September. Beginning on June 14th, Pierce Transit will fully restore fare collection on bus and shuttle services. Riders will need to board from the front of buses and pay fare by the operator. Fares can be paid with by cash, ORCA card, or the Hopthru app–the latter two options effectively being contactless methods.
Sound Transit is planning a wider set of changes that will affect a much larger share of transit riders, but in two rounds of changes. Coinciding with Pierce Transit’s service changes, Sound Transit will roll out changes on May 24th to ST Express service based in Pierce County and King County. That will then be followed with increased Link light rail service and fare collection resuming on light rail and commuter rail service on June 1st.
While some are in a rush to rebuild aging bridges and expand car capacity, less is more when it comes to car lanes. Instead we must prioritize people walking, rolling, and biking on our bridges.
In a city as surrounded by water as Seattle, bridges are an obsession. Every campaign season they become a hot button issue as local candidates make the case their local bridge is a regional–if not national–priority.
The Magnolia Bridge is a great example of this phenomenon. Serving a peninsula with some 20,000 residents and two other bridges over the Interbay railyard, nonetheless we are to believe the third bridge serving this quiet enclave that fought inclusion in the city’s urban growth strategy is essential. In fact we are told it must be a “1:1” replacement (if not larger) to let the cars flow at high speeds and avoid a whopping 1.2-mile detour. That’s exactly the wrong strategy, especially when it comes to meeting our climate goals and designing a just and green rebound from the Covid recession. We can find a lot better ways to spend the money.
The City’s Magnolia Bridge study included a more modest replacement option that shortens the bridge span and provides better connections for buses and people walking, rolling, and biking while costing significantly less to build. Nonetheless, most of the local discourse remains laser-focused on a full 1:1 replacement which the City estimates will cost $420 million.
West Seattle can make a better case for the 36-years-old but crumbling West Seattle Bridge since it serves a larger area with fewer reasonable alternatives. And perhaps that will spell delay for the Magnolia Bridge as West Seattle leapfrogs it on the priority list.
Design bridges for the traffic you want
But again, keeping every single lane of car traffic (or adding even more) makes the case for replacing a bridge weaker, not stronger. For one it jacks up the price tag. It also locks in higher levels of carbon emissions. Highway boosters have us convinced that congestion relief is just around the corner if we build roads wide enough, but instead congestion returns and it’s always just another road widening project that’s around the corner. By chasing level of service for cars, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever increasing vehicle miles traveled and greater car dependency.
As our city starts to open back up, several issues are becoming quite apparent in our urban villages. In many, there is inadequate space on sidewalks to adequately social distance. There is also inadequate space to order and wait for food from restaurants for pick up. And given that restaurants will be extremely limited in the number of patrons that can dine in them, they will need to utilize the space in their parking lots or adjacent streets to allow dining with proper distancing measures.
This is an opportunity to prioritize businesses and pedestrians like none we’ve ever seen. We will need space so that our small businesses and restaurants can survive Covid. And given that we may be over a year away from a vaccine, these changes could not only be long-term, but the impetus needed to vastly improve livability in the densest parts of our city.