Saturday, 22 February, 2020

The Metro Neighborhood: A Renewed Vision for Downtown Seattle

Rainier Square in Downtown Seattle. (Photo by the author)
Rainier Square in Downtown Seattle. (Photo by the author)

The University of Washington (UW) is one of Downtown Seattle’s largest landowners, but you wouldn’t know it just by being there. The university controls about eleven acres of prime real estate where the original campus was founded in 1861, known as the Metropolitan Tract, and owns over 1.5 million square feet of office space there. The portfolio includes icons like the modernist Rainier Tower and historic landmarks such as the Fairmont Olympic, the city’s only 5-star hotel. The recent expiration of a ground lease is prompting plans to redevelop the Rainier Square shopping center (pictured above), but the concept is little more than just another office tower with pricey condominiums. The Tract’s lack of contribution to Downtown life prompted a group of graduate students to propose better alternatives.

Myself and eight other students were part of the annual urban design studio at the university’s Department of Urban Design and Planning. Under the direction of Professor Ron Kasprisin, we began in Spring 2014 by collecting basic information about the site and building a large context model (pictured below). When asked for drawings, data, and their guidance, the UW Real Estate Office actually told us to stop and find another project. We pressed on anyway.

Model of Downtown Seattle building form. (Photo by the author)
Model of Downtown Seattle building form. (Photo by the author)

In the fall, we reconvened to do additional site analysis as a group and share comparable case studies. I found the CityCenterDC project to be an applicable example of downtown redevelopment. There, about ten acres of an old convention center site are being built up with mixed-use blocks within reconnected streets, pedestrian alleyways, and new open spaces. I also looked at the pedestrianization of Times Square. I took these ideas to my own full site redesign, presented below. But first, a little history.

The university decided to relocate in 1895 after a special legislative committee found that “The grounds of the university are…neglected and forlorn, and have been for years. An old ramshackle fence surrounds them, and often in places…cows invade and trespass.” It was determined that more ample grounds far from the growing city were needed, and that the campus is “…best removed from the excitements and temptations…” of city life. Of course today, the 600-acre UW campus is surrounded by one of the city’s densest neighborhoods. The state legislature allowed the university to retain rights to its original campus, which was a financially sound decision. Today, the UW earns $8 million per year from the Tract, bolstering the university’s capital projects and building fund.

The proposed boot-shaped tower on the Rainier Square site. (NBBJ New York)
The proposed boot-shaped tower on the Rainier Square site. (NBBJ New York)

Intriguingly, we learned that the UW actually owns the land beneath some Downtown streets, an unusual arrangement in any city. Included are parts of University Street, Fifth Avenue, and the alleys behind the Skinner Building and Financial Center. The UW simply permits the City of Seattle to maintain these corridors as public right-of-way, and can revoke the permit at any time. The City’s only attempt to resolve this was over 100 years ago when they managed to obtain an easement over Fourth Avenue; in 1987, the City successfully sued to assert its air rights and force the UW to tear down a skybridge over that street. However, the portions of the Tract north and south of Fourth Avenue are considered to be large contiguous parcels, and so the rest of the streets count towards floor-area-ratio (FAR) limits. The tract is zoned Downtown Office Core 1, which allows unlimited heights but restricts building floor area to 20 times the site’s size.

My colleagues have a mixture of backgrounds, some having little or no design experience at all before the studio. But each proposal was impressive in its own right. Several looked at the role of topography in the urban landscape, with one proposal to form new buildings through historic contours and another to establish an engineered ground plane ten stories above the street level. Others looked at maximizing leasable square footage by sinking development underground or going tall within the existing urban fabric.

I was following the ongoing saga to establish a Downtown elementary school, which is currently on hold, and realized that this site is an opportunity to vastly increase residential capacity and make Downtown a 24-hour family-friendly neighborhood. This would require residential towers to replace existing buildings, so my first step was to look at which structures were worth preserving and which could go. Simplistic criteria based on architectural significance, economic productivity, and social contribution found that much of the site could be wiped clean. The Olympic Hotel, Rainier Tower, Skinner Building, Cobb Building, and Financial Center would stay. I assumed the federal post office and a private parking garage along Third Avenue would be acquired.

Site of the Tract. (Image by the author)
Site of the Tract. (Image by the author)

Working within these constraints, I began focusing on the human scale. On the two largest blocks, I envisioned restored 20-feet alleyways to connect the site and to create mid-block pass-throughs for pedestrians. The ground floors of almost every new building will be required to be lined with retail (a total of 136,000 square feet), ensuring the alleyways will be active and vibrant places. The ground floors are also indented to create triple-width alley entries, giving passerby more time to consider entering (12 seconds versus 4 at walking pace) while providing small gathering spaces and weather shelters. With the Tract currently lacking adequate public space, I also designated five sites for larger plazas and parks throughout the site. Their widths will be 75 feet, about the maximum distance that humans can recognize facial features.

Tower form diagram. (Image by the author)
Tower form diagram. (Image by the author)

From there, a recent trip to Vancouver spurred an interest in the “podium” style of skyscraper, in which a tower is placed upon a wider, shorter base that is more relatable to people at the street level. I developed a form-based code that dictates the dimensions of the skyscrapers: two podiums are required, with their height being half the fronting street width and the setback being a quarter of the width. This results in the street wall being three to five stories tall, which forms a comfortable pedestrian realm. The tower heights are limited to one (low-rise), five (mid-rise) and ten (high-rise) times the street width, which varies between 66 and 96 feet. Study models showed the issues with putting towers too close together, so the various tower heights are distributed throughout the site. But all of the rooftops and podiums are accessible for any number of uses, such as outdoor dining or private play space for residents. And other than the ground level, all of the podiums’ floors are designated as “flex space” and open to any use permitted in Downtown. There is some 590,000 square feet of flex space, a net gain for possible office space after Puget Sound Plaza and the IBM Building are demolished.

The setbacks result in towers that are between 35 and 90 feet wide, which is ideal for a mixture of residential unit sizes. The narrower and shorter towers could contain microhousing or lodging, while the larger units will be big enough for three- or four-bedroom family apartments and condominiums. After considering varying unit sizes, mechanical floors, and hallway space, I calculated that the overall design can support 4,700 new units. With Downtown averaging 1.37 people per household and having a 3.8 percent vacancy rate, this new “Metro Neighborhood” could be home to over 6,000 new residents. This will support the included retail and further solidify the downtown as Puget Sound’s center. It will also exploit existing infrastructure; the Downtown transit tunnel has an entry on the site at Third and University that will provide connections to the UW campus, the airport, Bellevue, and beyond.

The form of the Metro Neighborhood. (Image by the author)
The form of the Metro Neighborhood. (Image by the author)

There are a number of other interventions in the plan. Across from the Central Public Library, an eight-story parking garage is demolished to make way for a 100,000 square foot elementary school in the podium of a residential tower. The Rainier Tower’s curved concrete base is enclosed with glass walls to create an indoor plaza or an architectural museum. Next to this is a low-rise retail building with a sloped roof-park that will provide impressive views of surrounding streets. Diagonal from that is also a terraced low-rise in front of the Financial Center that will have extensive outdoor space for shoppers. The Skinner Building’s two wings are modified with residential towers, while its central 5th Avenue Theater is untouched. The site plan also shows complete street layouts with parking, crosswalks, street trees, and all of the protected bike lanes that are designated in the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan.

The studio was a worthwhile exercise in exploring how a major Downtown site could be transformed to better serve people, the city, and the region as a whole. Though the UW’s management of the Tract is conservative and risk-averse, I’d argue that the Metro Neighborhood proposal is among the more feasible options and would certainly generate more revenue than the current portfolio.

This article is a cross-post from The Northwest Urbanist.

Seattle Ranked As A Top LGBT-Friendly City


Seattle received a perfect score on the 2015 Municipal Equality Index (MEI) for the fourth consecutive year. The report, compiled by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), ranked 408 municipalities nationwide on their LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender)-inclusive laws and policies. A record 47 cities earned a perfect score, up from just 11 when the Index began in 2012.

“While this has been an historic year for equality, we are constantly reminded of just how far we still have to go,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “In too many communities, LGBT Americans continue to face barriers to equality, overt discrimination, and even violence. We believe those challenges make full equality and strong legal protections all the more important, and [this] report makes clear that hundreds of local communities throughout all 50 states wholeheartedly agree.”

Joining Seattle with perfect scores were Bellevue and Olympia. Tacoma was close behind with a score of 99. Other Washington cities reviewed on the report include Pullman (59), Spokane (71), Vancouver (64), and Vashon (79). Major West Coast cities, including Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles, also received perfect scores.

Seattle's 2015 Report Card. (Human Rights Campaign)
Seattle’s 2015 Report Card. (Human Rights Campaign)

The report emphasized the ways in which cities are uniquely positioned to address the challenges facing the LGBT community, often leading the way on inclusive policies and laws. Many of the top-ranked states offered more inclusive protections than the states in which they reside. In total, an estimated 37 million people have more inclusive non-discrimination laws at the municipal level than at the state level.

The benefits work both ways, with studies showing the benefits of vibrant LGBT populations to cities and businesses, including, “higher levels of income, life satisfaction, housing values, and emotional attachment to their community as well as higher concentrations of high-tech business.”

Cities were ranked using 41 criteria that fell into five categories:

  1. Non-discrimination laws (e.g., employment, housing, and public accommodations)
  2. Municipal employment policies (e.g., transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits, city contractor non-discrimination, and city employee non-discrimination)
  3. Inclusiveness of city services (e.g., LGBT liaison for the Mayor’s Office, anti-bullying school policies, services for LGBT youth, seniors, and homeless)
  4. Law enforcement (e.g., LGBT police liaison/task force)
  5. Municipal leadership on matters of equality (e.g., positions and policy efforts of people in leadership, an openly LGBT person in leadership)

The size of the city didn’t appear to predict the MEI score. Small cities of fewer than 100,000 claimed 10 of the 47 perfect scores. Though eight of the top ten largest cities in the nation received perfect scores, with Houston, Texas (48) and San Antonio, Texas (90) as the two exceptions.

Having an openly LGBT person in leadership was a significant predictor or MEI score, with these cities scoring 83% higher on average. They were also 3.5x more likely to offer transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits, a key criterion in this year’s report. Indeed, the number of cities offering transgender-inclusive healthcare to their employees has risen rapidly, up from five in 2012 to 42 in 2014 and 66 in 2015.

Sunday Video: Shipwrecks of Lake Union


The Center for Wooden Boats (CWB) shares a piece of Lake Union’s hidden history. Long a place of maritime industry, and now home to new industries and uses, the lake once served as a place for shipwrecking. The CWB takes a look at what local archaeological research has turned up in recent years.

What We’re Reading: Tall Timber Towers


Tall timber tower: Lever Architecture has proposed a 130-foot timber-framed tower in Portland’s Pearl District. It would be one of tallest wood towers in the US.

Other Tall Timber Towers: Paris and Stockholm plan to push timber-framed buildings into the 30-story range.

Civic Square: Triad has sixty days to find a new developer for the prime parcel or perhaps forfeit the property rights.

Rainer Avenue: Are we going far enough to fix this dangerous street?

Seeking A San Francisco Housing Villain: A morality play performed by San Francisco schoolkids hamhandedly turned techies into villains of the housing crisis. The Atlantic suggests San Francisco property owners and preservationists could take a long hard look in the mirror.

Zone Alone: Daniel Hertz argues that zoning is just the first step for leading the cities into the 21st century.

Link to Tacoma: Frank Chiachiere contends the I-5 alignment is the superior light rail option to reach Tacoma.

Decline in Homeownership Rate: Old Urbanist delved into homeownership data and contends an aging population is masking a homeownership decline.

Japan’s Vacant Housing Epidemic: The Atlantic looked in Japan’s growing vacant housing problem as its population continues to shrink. The US could face a similar problem as Baby Boomers age.

Housing Production SlowdownCrosscut covered Seattle’s 2015 housing numbers which indicate a slackening in overall housing production but an uptick in single-family home production.

“Production of single family homes, townhouses and small apartments is up by over 20 percent – single family homes specifically are up 13 percent.”


I’ve Been Sainted



That isn’t me talking. As you may have guessed. It’s Mr. Weyling, described in an earlier story. The important thing to reiterate is his deafening volume, all the more heightened in tonight’s otherwise completely silent midnight bus ride, and also the hoarse and raspy nature of his benevolent roar.

He says the line above a second time, at exactly the same level of intensity. This time he shrieks a post-addendum: “MINNESOTA, BABY!”

Weyling finds a seat near the middle door, practically snarling with pugilistic glee: “IT’S GOING TO BE GOOD.” I’m smiling at his complete lack of self-awareness, envying the uncomplicated pleasure radiating from his face. He grins up at the fluorescent bulbs, envisioning the coming slaughter. His slaughter visions would later prove to be accurate; in a couple days’ time the score would be 38 to the Vikings’ 7.

“THEN NEXT WEEK IT’S SAN FRANCISCO,” he positively bayed. “THEN AFTER THAT, PITTSBURGH.” I love hearing ordinary sentences screamed at ear-splitting levels. It’s actually kind of rare.
“You know it,” I said, referring to the schedule.
“I KNOW THE WHOLE SCHEDULE.” I need to point out that he doesn’t speak quickly. Every word gets its proper due in the sun. Schedule is enunciated in its entirety, down to the ‘y’ sound between the ‘d’ and the ‘u’, as well as the ‘ew’ pronunciation of the ‘u’ itself, as in the French style. There may be three million people in the greater metro area, but only one of them talks like this. I’m enjoying it.

“EVERY LITTLE DETAIL,” he adds. If we ignore the volume and the rasp, the enunciation has a childlike aspect. “THE PLAYERS AND THE TEAMS. I KNOW THE WHOLE SCHEDULE!”
“Yeah ya do!”
“That sounds nice!” I half-yell in reply.
“Lots to be thankful for.” I’m trying to dial him down, speaking now in a quarter-yell, if you will. But my subtle efforts are of no use. He’s on a roll now:
“EVERY DAY I THINK GOD I HAVE A HOME TO SLEEP IN AND FOOD TO EAT.” Proper grammar. Enunciated syllables. Cain-raising cacophony. A one-night-only performance.

He really wants to get his point across. “I THANK GOD EVERY DAY I HAVE MY OWN BED. NOT LIKE THE MOORE. THEY HAVE BEDBUGS. I DON’T KNOW IF THEY STILL DO, AND I DON’T WANNA FIND OUT! EVERY MORNING BEFORE BREAKFAST I THANK THE LORD GOD.” He stands up. “THIS IS HOW I THANK THE LORD,” he explains, offering a visual demonstration, taking a stance in the aisle and prostrating himself, howling the appropriate phrases.

If we were on a bus with a less-notorious reputation, all this might be too uncomfortable or bizarre for the other passengers, and the pressure to maintain some decorum might feel stronger. That isn’t necessary here. We’re on the 7. At night. Like the old 358, there’s no meaningful expectation for normalcy. The passengers see that number proudly emblazoned on the front of the bus, and they know what they’re signing up for. When riders get on and notice kids laughing each other silly in the back, they don’t get worked up. They just roll their eyes. There’s nothing to be done about it, and they know it. Drivers on mellower routes have the luxury of being able to get frustrated by things like passengers lying on seats, eating, or talking on their phones. That’s not an option here, unless I want to grey my hair faster than the president. There are bigger fish to fry.

“That’s excellent, Mr. Weyling, you’re a good guy. Thank you.”
“Hey, that’s a good idea.”

Oh dear. Toeing the line, toeing the line, toeing the line….


Aaand we’re calling it. God-fearing gay-bashing is not allowed on the Nathan train.

“Alright, Mr. Weyling! Inside voice, Mr. Weyling, inside voice, thank you!”

He turns to Silent Weyling mode. The show is over. “Thank you,” somebody says. He doesn’t speak again until he steps out. “YEAH, GO AHEAD AND LAUGH,” he says to someone snickering at his shoes, which are tattered and worn. “I GOT MINE. THESE SHOES BELONG TO ME!”

At day’s end he’s a child like the rest of us, trying hard, trying ever so hard to protect himself from this confusing world and all the hurt it has to offer. Every emotion we see in others is a manifestation, a friend once told me, a seed of which we ourselves have also experienced. I’ve been excited, thankful, and made fun of, as he just was on this bus ride.

Thirty minutes later, buried somewhere out in Rainier Valley, a resident came forward before deboarding. He’d been sitting right behind Weyling. “Is he a regular? Seemed like you kinda knew him,” he said.
“Yeah, he stops in every now and then. Some days he’s better than others!”
“You’re a fuckin’ saint.”

Not a patron saint, mind you, not a martyr nor confessor– just one of those lowly, humble “fuckin’ saints,” to use his coinage. I understand they’re a bit lower on the hierarchy!

Map of the Week: Natural Hazards in Seattle

Earthquake fault zone and likelihood of experiencing major earthquake. (City of Seattle)
Earthquake fault zone and likelihood of experiencing major earthquake. (City of Seattle)

The Cascadian Region is formed from its very active, and occasionally violent, natural environment. It’s seismically active, floods, has land slides, and sometimes large waves inundate coastal areas. The past month has served a reminder of this fact. Rivers across the Puget Sound experienced major flooding in early December. Bluffs collapsed on the land below them. And just this past Tuesday, a 4.8 magnitude earthquake struck in the Haro Strait between Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands.

Seattle happens to be susceptible to all of these hazards (and more). Recently, the City of Seattle published a comprehensive map service to explain where, why, and how natural hazards are likely to strike in the city.

Earthquake fault zone and likelihood of experiencing major earthquake. (City of Seattle)
Earthquake fault zone and likelihood of experiencing major earthquake. (City of Seattle)

The whole of the Pacific Coast is well known for earthquakes. They’re incredibly common occurrences due to plate tectonics, the slow movement of landmasses that can cause the earth to noticeably shake. In the Pacific Northwest, the Juan de Fuca Plate plays a major role in shaping our coastlines and geography. Hundreds of small earthquakes happen every year near the Cascadia Subduction Zone as the Jaun de Fuca Plate dives under the North American Plate; most of these go unnoticed because of very low magnitudes and their depth of occurrence. These earthquakes can happen anywhere along the local fault lines that emanate from the plates. Damage and severity of earthquakes are amplified along faults, although the effects of an earthquake are widely felt as ground waves radiate violently from an epicenter.

Seattle has the misfortune of a very local fault zone running through West Seattle, Duwamish industrial area, and Southeast Seattle. The Seattle Fault, as it is known, could experience an earthquake with a magnitude up to 7.5. While all areas of the city will feel a significant earthquake if it hits the region locally — whether on the fault or not — the level of ground shaking will differ greatly depending upon location and geology. In regards to the map above, the data represents the kind of ground force that the city can expect in a given earthquake event, and is explained by the City in this way:

…[T]hese maps show the amount of earthquake-generated ground shaking that, over a specified period of time, is predicted to have a specified chance of being exceeded. Ground shaking caused by earthquakes is often expressed as a percentage of the force of gravity. For example, the seismic hazard map…shows the percentage of the force of gravity that has a 10% chance of being exceeded in 50 years. Based on such a map, if you were living in the same house for 50 years, and that house was in a zone labeled “20% g”, then there would be 1 chance in 10 that (at some point during those 50 years) an earthquake would shake your house at a level of at least 20% of the force of gravity.

To appreciate why these values of ground shaking are expressed as a percentage of the force of gravity, note that it requires more than 100% of the force of gravity to throw objects up in the air. In terms of felt effects and damage, ground motion at the level of several percent of gravity corresponds to the threshold of damage to buildings and houses (an earthquake intensity of approximately V on the Modified Mercalli scale). For comparison, reports of “dishes, windows and doors disturbed” corresponds to an intensity of about IV MMI, or about 1.4% – 4% of gravity. Reports of “some chimneys broken” correspond to an intensity of about VII MMI, or a range of 18% to 34% of gravity.

Needless to say, areas like Interbay, Pioneer Square, the Duwamish industrial area, and even Magnolia and Queen Anne hills present serious risks to anyone within them during a major earthquake event.

Potential extent of tsunami inundation from a major earthquake in Seattle. (City of Seattle)
Potential extent of tsunami inundation from a major earthquake in Seattle. (City of Seattle)

Surprising as it may be, Seattle is susceptible to tsunamis, but not from the Pacific. Due to the the shape of the Salish Sea and coastal landmasses of the Washington Coast and Vancouver Island, Seattle is fairly safe from any major tidal action associated with a Pacific Ocean tsunami. But the city is at risk from localized tsunamis. A major earthquake on the Seattle Fault could generate a tsunami in the Puget Sound and affect some shoreline areas of the city. Seismologists created a model using a 6.7 magnitude earthquake on the Seattle Fault — a very likely maximum magnitude on the fault in the near future — to see what extent of tsunami action could result. What they found is what you see above. Areas on the Elliott Bay could experience up to 5 meters (16 feet) tsunami, although the number is likely considerably lower. Pioneer Square, Interbay, and the Duwamish industrial area are the mostly like locations to experience the brunt of a localized tsunami.

For a bit of perspective, it’s worth noting that Seattle has experienced a tsunami before, but it was many centuries ago. Research has shown that one tsunami event was generated by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake on the Seattle Fault somewhere around 900 C.E. That magnitude is very likely the maximum expected on the Seattle Fault, but the chances of that occurring are incredibly small (about 1:5,000 in any given year)

Areas prone to liquefaction during a localized earthquake. (City of Seattle)
Areas prone to liquefaction during a localized earthquake. (City of Seattle)

Large swaths of Seattle are prone to liquefaction. Buildings that are built upon liquefaction zones could sink, topple, or even be overturned during an earthquake event. That’s because soils in liquefaction zones typically consist of sand, silt, and gravel that are highly saturated with water. The shaking of ground can cause the solid sediments to then separate and liquify (think quicksand). It’s also common for the soils to create muddy flows that spread laterally; this can cause extensive damage. Liquefaction zones tend to be found closest to waterbodies, and often those that have been filled in.

Many may be familiar with Seattle’s major regrades in the early 20th century. Those efforts resulted in sluicing of hillsides and the dumping of fill into Elliott Bay and the Duwamish estuary. They also happened to provide for the massive expansion of Pioneer Square and the Duwamish industrial area. Naturally, the latter are at high risk of liquefaction. In the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake, Pioneer Square experienced the worst damage from the 6.8 magnitude earthquake, and perhaps the region due to minor liquefaction. Other areas of Seattle also are at risk like Interbay, certain stream corridors, and the edges of shorelines.

Areas prone to landslides and past locations of known events. (City of Seattle)
Areas prone to landslides and past locations of known events. (City of Seattle)

Built upon seven hills, Seattle has some steep geography. Queen Anne, Magnolia, Beacon Hill, and the central hills of Capitol Hill and First Hill offer plenty of evidence of that. Heck, many of them have “hill” in their name! Hills and saturation from rain don’t mix well. Very often during wintertime, landslide events are prevalent in Seattle. These can happen anywhere on a slope, but most typically are the result of shallow slides on sloping topography; debris commonly sluffs on down the hillside, but it’s not always seriously dangerous.

But more seriously, 18%+ of all landslides in Seattle are the result of deep-seated landslides where where whole chunks of land will slide to the toe of a slope. Given Seattle’s dense development pattern, this can come with serious consequences. Buildings and structures can collapse or even be crushed through landslide events. The City estimates that at least 8.4% of the land in the city qualifies as landslide prone.

Looking at the map above, coastal areas where bluffs are common and the back sides of Queen Anne and the central hills exhibit the highest concentrations of landslide events.

Areas prone to river, coastal, and urban flooding events. (City of Seattle)
Areas prone to river, coastal, and urban flooding events. (City of Seattle)

Seattle tamed much of the natural environment early on its city-building days. Wetlands were removed, streams covered or realigned, hilly features regraded, and damming waterbodies. So in many ways, Seattle has removed risks to series floods aside from temporary flooding of street in intense downpours. Still, Seattle is a city built around water, and because of this is at occasional risk of coastal flooding, localized river flooding, and problem spots for major urban flooding.

Lake Washington, Salmon Bay, and Lake Union are fortunately managed by the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, which release water as needed. The risk of flooding is minimal at worst along those waterbodies. But, some small streams like Pipers Creek through Carkeek Park can and do cause flooding. This is particularly a problem to the blocks north of the creek that experience localized flooding. Major tidal events, like King tides, can also cause shoreline flooding along the Puget Sound. And though the risk is low, the Duwamish River is supplied by the Green River. Halfway to the source of the river, roughly Kanaskat, is the Howard A. Hanson Dam. There is a very real possibility that the dam could fail1, which would result in extensive lowland flooding along the river valley and Duwamish.


  1. The Howard A. Hanson Dam did undergo recent improvements due to seepages found in the dam during 2009.

The Urbanist’s Year End Wrap Up: 2015


2015 was a big year for The Urbanist. We passed our 1,000 post mark, incorporated federally as a nonprofit organization, and jumped into the local political arena with endorsements for the Seattle City Council (thanks to Ben Crowther, our Policy and Legislative Affairs Director).

We’ve put together walking tours, held special talks, encouraged public comments on official plans, and have seen growing attendance at our weekly (soon moving to monthly) meetups. We also presented at the National Planning Conference, telling a room full of curious planners how resources like The Urbanist can contribute to policy decisions and public participation. And recently, I (Scott Bonjukian) presented to the Seattle City Council on the need to lid Interstate 5 after publishing a series of articles making the case.

A weekly meetup in South Lake Union. (Photo by the author)
A weekly meetup in South Lake Union. (Photo by the author)

We’re proud to say our readership is growing: we tripled our reach over 2014. We have over 2,400 followers on Twitter, 1,150 followers on Facebook, and 470 followers on Instagram. We cannot express our humbleness and gratitude for our supporters enough. It’s folks like you that we depend on for inspiration, commentary, and action. Stay tuned for additional ways to get involved and how you can continue supporting our work.

Our most viewed posts covered a variety of topics. Here’s a quick recap of our most popular work this year (click the titles to view):

  1. “Why Urbanists Must Support Linkage Fees And Inclusionary Zoning: A Scalable Policy For Affordable Neighborhoods” made a very extensive economic and social equity case for affordable housing impact fees (not for the feint of heart!)
  2. “Downtown Seattle Transit Capacity Is At The Breaking Point” examined why Sound Transit is looking at building a second downtown transit tunnel.
  3. “Seattle/King County: 3rd Largest Homeless Population In 2013 HUD Report” presented a sobering breakdown of the homeless population in the United States, but the numbers show there is reason for encouragement.
  4. “The Seattle Times On Single-Family Zoning: Inflammatory And Factually Inaccurate” slammed our local newspaper for bad reporting on a mayoral committee’s recommendations for changes to low-density residential neighborhoods.
  5. “Light Rail in ST3: A Region-Defining Decision” by Anton Babadjanov analyzed the different options for high-capacity transit in Seattle that will be coming to a public vote next year.

Impressively, four of the top five articles were written by our Executive Director, Owen Pickford. Thanks for your tireless efforts Owen!

Standing out on its own was the Baugruppen series by architect Mike Eliason. His series captured the imagination of many readers by showcasing an alternate residential development model which is popular in Europe; it even had a mention on Vox. We also enjoyed the design insight offered by Sarah Oberklaid, our Creative and Design Lead, in her work on Pike Place Market and other local projects.

And the articles that garnered the most reader discussion:

  1. “Why the HALA Single-Family Upzones Died” by Robert Cruickshank analyzed the war of words and differences in advocacy tactics between neighborhood preservationists and urbanists.
  2. “Spot Fix: Put People First At Pike Place Market, Ban Cars” by Stephen Fesler argued why Seattle’s iconic market should be more pedestrian-oriented.
  3. “Metro Proposes Bus Restructures Around New Light Rail Stations” by me broke the news about King County Metro’s proposals to redesign the Capitol Hill and Northeast Seattle bus network.
  4. “Will Linkage Fees Keep Properties Off the Market?” by Michael Goldman discussed how impact fees affect local real estate markets.
  5. “The Case for a NE 130th Street Station” by Renee Staton made an argument for an infill light rail station in north Seattle, something that Sound Transit may be coming around to.

And with that, all of us here at The Urbanist wish you a very happy New Year! We’ll be back next week.

Update on South Lake Union Streetcar Transit Improvements


Rider AlertThe Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and King County Metro (Metro) announced today the start of the construction phase of the Westlake Transit Improvement project, as we previously covered.

Beginning on January 4, 2016 through March 26, 2016, service on the South Lake Union Streetcar will be severely curtailed in order to allow for new station platform construction and relocation.

From January 4th thru the 17th, SDOT will be upgrading the transit stops along Westlake Ave at Mercer and Harrison Streets. Expect short-term sidewalk and lane closures.

During this time, the South Lake Union Streetcar will not operate on Monday-Thursday between 9:00 AM and 3:00 PM, on Fridays after 9:00 AM, or at all on Saturdays and Sundays.

In addition, SDOT states that the new transit lanes on Westlake Avenue as well as traffic and parking restrictions may go into effect as early as February 2016 when Metro begins testing new routes and training their drivers.

South Lake Union Streetcar Operating Schedule

JAN 04 - MAR 26, 20166AM - 9AM9AM - 3PM3PM - 1AM
Monday - Thursdaynormal serviceCLOSEDnormal service
Fridaynormal serviceCLOSEDCLOSED

Metro advises affected riders to use the Route 70 or Route 40 buses in the interim. And as for all large-scale projects, the schedule is subject to change.

For more information, please visit SDOT’s project page.