An architect’s perspective: The details of microhousing projects

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Editor’s note: This is a cross-post by David Neiman, founder of Neiman Taber Architects, a local architecture firm that designs microhousing projects. 

We recently designed a couple of micro-housing projects (one under construction and one about to begin) that have pushed the envelope in terms of small-unit housing. Both projects began with clients that gave us a mandate to design micro housing that would support and build community among residents, fit well into its neighborhood, and be a desirable place to live–not just a cheap one.

As the city council seems suddenly poised to regulate private congregate housing out of existence, we thought it would be a good opportunity to review these projects in some detail.

Marion Micros–1215 E Marion St

Marion Micros is one of the first micro projects to abandon the “eight rooms per kitchen” model entirely. Technically, this project is instead defined as congregate housing. The upper floors and the basement have 9-11 units per floor with a shared kitchen in the middle. Unit sizes vary from 150 sf to 240 sf. The majority of the main floor is reserved for very generous common areas–an open lounge, an event kitchen, a TV lounge, a study hall, and a laundry area. There is a single entry to the building. The pathway to get from the front door to the units cuts through the commons, increasing opportunities for the kind of chance interaction that builds community. The laundry area isn’t shunted off to a corner of the basement. It sits in an open glassy room next to the entry lounge, so that doing your laundry and waiting for it has the option to be a social experience, not just a chore. The commons is a space that can be programmed–it can facilitate organized activities like a shared dinner or a movie night. While the large commons on the first floor is a living room at the building scale, the kitchen provided on all other levels acts as a sort of “pajama commons,” where immediate neighbors can casually interact.

Marion Micros elevation

 

Marion Micros level 1

 

Marion Micros Level 2

 

Marion Micros Section

ICYMI: Bicyclist numbers triple on Second Avenue thanks to new bikeway

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With the introduction of new protected bike lanes last week, we knew that ridership in Downtown would skyrocket. We just didn’t know how much. From a press release yesterday, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) delivered some amazing numbers:

…[SDOT] released data for the new Second Avenue Protected Bike Lane that shows bicycle ridership has tripled due to the new facility. With the conversion of the former one-way bike lane to a two-way, protected bike lane, an average of 1,099 bicyclists a day used the new lane on September 9, 10 and 11 according to electronic counters. This is three times the daily number of cyclists that had previously used the former one-way bike lane.

To put those numbers in perspective, SDOT tweeted out a comparison graph of the new bike lanes versus the old bike lanes on Second Avenue. The graph below speaks for itself. Impressive ridership gains are seen for all hours of the day, but most dramatically during peak commutes. For more on the numbers and bike lanes, check out Tom’s analysis over at the Seattle Bike Blog.

Mayor Murray critiques Council’s microhousing legislation, threatens veto

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Mayor Ed Murray speaking on the topic of economic development by Ed Murray on Flickr.

Mayor Ed Murray sent a strong letter addressed to the Seattle City Council yesterday. In it, he dropped a big critique on Council’s approach to regulating microhousing. The mayor communicated to the Council that while he was tentatively supportive of the Council’s most recent microhousing legislation, he was deeply concerned about newly proposed amendments. His reasoning was brief, but clear: more restrictive rules could drastically increase costs to microhousing developments, and thereby future tenants.

According to Publicola, the Mayor’s letter has another dimension to it: veto threat to legislation crossing his desk. Despite the Mayor’s letter, council members still proposed and passed their amendments during yesterday’s afternoon Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee meeting. The full Council is not likely to vote on final legislation until October 18th, so further changes could occur between now and then.

The Mayor’s letter is below in full:

Dear Councilmembers:

As you know, I sent down legislation, C.B. 118067 earlier this year. My intent was to better regulate the development of micro-housing and congregate residences by defining this type of development within the Land Use Code; prohibiting micro-housing development in single-family zones (congregate residences are already prohibited); applying a design review threshold by the size of the building (not number of dwelling units); and providing notice to neighbors as part of the Design Review process.

These were the concerns I was hearing and that is why I responded quickly with legislation.

Wanting to conduct more outreach, Council convened a working group to dig deeper into the issues that were of most concern. As a result of that stakeholder group, a substitute bill was introduced.

For the most part, I was supportive of the proposed approach of C.B. 118201, to regulate small efficiency dwelling units and congregate residences, though I was mindful about how more restrictive regulations could make these types of developments too cost prohibitive to build.

Several amendments are being considered at today’s Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee. As you review the proposed amendments to the legislation, I urge you to keep the affordability issue in mind. I am concerned about indirectly regulating density through land use code standards related to storage space and other amenities, and the unintended consequences that may occur as a result.

Regulations are needed for this type of development, but our regulations need to help and not hinder the process and the outcomes we are hoping to achieve. And one of those achievements is more housing. That is a priority.

With that in mind, I look forward to working with you and the Housing Advisory Committee on the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda in the months ahead, and developing a bold and actionable suite of recommendations to increase housing affordability and options and neighborhood livability in Seattle.

Sincerely,

Mayor Edward B. Murray

Potential Fraud Provides A Good Time To Review The Carpool Incentive

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Fred Bonner is sitting in the center of this picture. The photo is courtesy of City of Seattle and credited to Mike Folden

Back in August, Kiro TV reported that Fred Bonner, a 25 year veteran of the Seattle Municipal Court, has likely been taking advantage of a reduced parking rate offered for people that carpool. Reporters from the news station watched as Judge Fred Bonner parked his car a number of days over a three month period and each day he was seen driving alone. After digging further, the news agency found that the paperwork used to apply for the reduced rate was not completely filled out, lacking the required names of the people Bonner was carpooling with. While KIRO’s reporting is not conclusive, it comes at an inopportune time. Bonner is seen as vulnerable in this year’s election against Damon Shadid, a Seattle attorney who practices criminal defense and immigration law. Additionally, the report raises some important questions about this incentive program.

Purpose Of Reduced Rate For Carpooling

The reduced parking rate for people who carpool is essentially an incentive to help cut down on traffic. The idea is that if there are additional benefits from carpooling, more people will do it and there were will be fewer cars on the road. While this is logical, if it were true, it seems likely that a large number of people would be carpooling without the incentive.

Both An Incentive And Disincentive

The financial gain from carpooling with just two people effectively cuts the cost of commuting in half. In fact, if the cost of parking were low enough, the additional incentive from the carpooling program might actually reduce carpooling. If you consider the time cost from picking up more riders, a car with two people that utilizes the incentivized parking may receive a large enough economic benefit that they would carpool regardless of the incentive, but not pick up any additional people if the gain was smaller due to the incentive. To demonstrate, here’s an example:

John and Jane work in the same office and commute separately into downtown Seattle every day, both paying $300 a month for a parking space. After talking, they realize that they could save $150 a month on parking by commuting together. At the same time though they each have to spend an extra about 10 minutes driving every other day, or about 2 hours each month. Jill is also interested in joining the carpool, but they ultimately decide not to add another person because their additional savings is only marginally larger, $50 as compared to $150, while the additional time is even greater, every third day they are spending 10 additional minutes commuting or an additional hour a month. 3 hours more of commuting simply isn’t worth $50 dollars in savings.

As you can see, there is only a marginal financial benefit from adding each commuter to the carpool. This dynamic is compounded by reducing the cost of parking with two people but not reducing it further with three people. In other words, there’s less and less of an incentive to each additional person to a carpool and the incentive is even further reduced by incentive programs.

Additional Problems

As mentioned in the KIRO article, this program suffers from a problem of enforcement. While the punishment for fraud seems pretty strict, it turns out that the fine is likely less than the benefit Bonner received over the years, estimated at around $12,000.

MISUSE OF PERMIT may result in a citation, vehicle impound, revocation of the permit, a $5,000 fine and up to one year in jail. Misuse includes, but is not limited to:

  1. Failure to comply with the “Basic Rules” outlined above;
  2. Falsifying information on the application or renewal forms;
  3. Duplicating a permit;
  4. Transferring a permit to persons or vehicles not registered to your carpool;
  5. Having concurrent, monthly parking at another facility;
  6. Receiving a carpool parking discount and concurrently receiving a transit pass subsidy.

Additionally, it’s not clear that there is any enforcement or if there were, how that would work logistically. Beyond misuse of the permit though, there are broader issues. First, traffic is a deterrent itself to further commuting by car. Encouraging carpooling may increase the capacity of our roads, but research has shown there is nearly a one-to-one relationship between road capacity and traffic. In other words, if we manage to increase the capacity of our roads, we don’t necessarily reduce traffic. Instead, more people just end up driving.

If this is true, we may be compounding our woes even further with the incentive program by collecting less revenue for the city. That revenue could be used for solutions that actually reduce the amount of traffic.

A Better Solution

The city should figure out how to increase the cost of parking. If the city increased the cost of parking, it would consequently increase the economic benefit from carpooling and riding transit. It might even increase the number of people who want to live in the city to avoid commuting and all its costs. There is a tremendous amount of research on the benefits of increasing the cost of parking.

The city has already done some good work on this but there is a lot more that could be done. For example, the city could probably craft taxes or fees that account for the negative impact of surface parking lots in downtown, which would encourage their owners to develop. Additionally, in the same way the city previously charged for business for employees that commuted alone, the city could have a similar fee for all car commuters. As a show of good faith, the city could use that revenue to provide transit passes for people who were affected.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect that KIRO tracked Judge Bonner parking his car over a period of three months not one month.

PLUS Committee to create final microhousing legislation today

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Footprint - Wallingford

Image: Microhousing in Wallingford by Footprint.

The long hard road to a new set of rules for microhousing may finally be coming to a conclusion. The Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee meets this afternoon and is expected to vote on a final set of changes (see the legislative brief and code language) to microhousing legislation before sending the bill to the full council. Capitol Hill Seattle has the details in an article today and says that:

The new rules pounded out after over years of debate will continue to allow microhousing development in dense areas like Capitol Hill while setting a new average size requirement for the apartments built in lowrise-zoned areas. Under the compromises forged by [Council Member] O’Brien, Seattle will end up with two types of microhousing. In areas zoned lowrise where you’re more likely to find single family homes or small apartments, microhousing units must average 220 square feet–though Tuesday’s amendments may adjust size thresholds.

Over the past two years, the process for developing reasonable microhousing regulations has been hijacked by anti-development single-family residential groups. The groups have consistently used the typical concern trolling tactics of raising non-issues and emotionally inflammatory arguments. What started out as simple opposition to perceived parking, building height, and density issues morphed over time by condemning developers, residents, and city staff.

The anti-development crowd in its zeal doubled-down to define what was a humane amount of livable space, how many people could use a kitchen, and what constitutes a unit. When that wasn’t enough, they proceeded to make specious claims that developers wouldn’t provide proper waste collection facilities and that every sleeping room needs a sink (or the world might just collapse in on itself).

When I first learned about the Department of Planning and Development’s effort to create a regulatory framework for microhousing, I had hopes for superior development policies like increased bicycle parking ratios, a review process for building design, restriction of vehicle parking to residents, and establishment of enhanced site development layout requirements. Indeed, some of these broad elements have been incorporated in the final legislation.

However, the concern trolling of neighborhood groups and endless council consternation largely won out in the end. It’s unfortunate that the microhousing legislation will come out as a mixed bag of rules that no one will be happy with. But to add insult to injury, the process reached far beyond the common interest of the public and instead into the bedrooms of future residents, the real victims in this battle for choice and affordability.

CHS hits the mark saying that:

Critics and some developers are not thrilled about the pushback. Capitol Hill microhousing developer Scott Shapiro–who also helped create the Melrose Market–recently told the council there is “no good policy reason to limit size” and called the regulation a “a de facto downzone” amid “a housing crisis” in Seattle. “Design review is broken,” he said and needs to be fixed before it is “imposed” on microhousing. Shapiro offered no opinion on the sinks.

Council Member Mike O’Brien perhaps summarizes all of this the best: “People living in smaller units is a choice. What we really care about is how big the building is on the outside.” It’s too bad we aren’t likely to give people a choice.

Rainier Needs a Road Diet

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Source: http://fireline.seattle.gov/2014/08/28/off-duty-firefighter-assists-in-heavy-rescue-in-columbia-city/

(Image: Seattle Fire Department)

It’s been a bad year for Rainier Avenue South. There are the usually numerous car crashes, sure, but that’s normal. The same goes for the pedestrian collisions–regrettable, but normal. An unfortunate but inevitable side effect of the automobile, and are generally accepted with little comment.

But in April, a car slammed into a nail salon on the corner of Edmunds and Rainier, after hitting a truck making a turn. Speed was a factor, unsurprisingly, as were both vehicles attempting to beat the light. Residents grumbled; tensions rose. A temporary wall was built to replace the one torn away so suddenly, and life continued.

And then it happened again in August, when a speeding SUV lost control and crashed into the hair salon just one block south of the first such incident–this time in the middle of the day. Seven people were injured, including a family of three who found themselves pinned between the offending car and a counter at the restaurant next to the salon. The SUV was eventually dragged from its resting place, with hydraulic jacks holding the roof of the now-uninhabitable structure aloft.

Residents did more than grumble, this time. Leaders in Columbia City organized a “walk-in” rally where protestors crossed Rainier repeatedly, showing how inadequate the crossing time given was while reminding drivers to slow down. Online conversations swirled around, and it wasn’t long until SDOT amended the agenda for the already-scheduled Neighborhood Traffic Safety Meeting to include “Safety on Rainier”.

A Rainier Ave Road Diet: Proposed since 1999 1976

It’s a welcome addition to the conversation, and a needed one, but you’d be forgiven for recalling the sound of a broken record: we’ve been here before. The dangerous nature of Rainier is hardly new, and recent events aren’t the first to bring it to a head. Columbia City’s most recent neighborhood plan (circa 1999) envisions curtailing the road’s lanes from 4 to 2, with a center turn lane–a configuration commonly referred to as a “Road Diet”, or rechannelization in traffic engineer speak–and according to the 2008 South East Transportation Study, road diets have been “explicitly and repeatedly recommended since 1976” for various sections of Rainier.

Source: Matthew Johnson

(Source: Columbia City Neighborhood Plan, Section 3 – Markup by Matthew Johnson) 

Event: Yes for Seattle Transit Campaign Kick-Off

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Save Seattle BusesIn case you haven’t heard, there’s a big proposition on the November ballot for Seattle residents called “Proposition 1”. The proposition is a transit-only funding measure bus service within Seattle. While the upcoming September service reductions are already set in stone, the future rounds can be cancelled with funding delivered by the proposition. Seattle faces 45 bus route deletions and revisions.

To aid the proposition’s success, a campaign is under way by Yes for Seattle Transit. The group has organized a campaign kick-off for Wednesday, September 17 (RSVP online). You’ll have the opportunity to talk with local electeds, meet the campaign staff, and learn how you can help spread the “Yes” message to Seattle voters. If you can’t make it, you can always signup to help later or donate to the cause. Be sure to “like” Yes for Seattle Transit on Facebook to get the latest details.

Fadó Irish Pub
801 1st Avenue, Seattle, WA
Wednesday, September 17
5pm to 7pm

UW’s New Link Station

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The future is now–and it smells like plywood, sawdust, and ozone? Perhaps not: the University Link project doesn’t open until early 2016. Regardless, Sound Transit offered members of the press (and one lucky Seattle Subway volunteer) the opportunity to tour the new University of Washington station as construction wraps up, and to hear about plans for how King County Metro and Sound Transit plan to work together to better serve the region when it does.

At the press conference, King County Executive Dow Constantine along with several area mayors and city councilors released a new Transit Integration Report, covering ways Sound Transit and King County Metro can coordinate service to save money while better serving riders. Our friends at Seattle Transit Blog have the wonky details (which you should absolutely read), but I will note that every great rail system in the world has a great bus system that feeds it, and that bus system inevitably blows the rail system out of the water when it comes to ridership and coverage. A great rail system depends on and deserves a great bus system, and it’s exciting to see real work happening to make that a reality in Seattle.

The press conference and station tour started where many potential riders will start their journey: on the skybridge crossing Montlake Boulevard. Once open, pedestrians and bicyclists will have easy access between the station itself, Husky Stadium, the University of Washington, and Burke-Gilman trail without having to cross Montlake itself. On the University side of the bridge, a long promenade will provide incredible views of Mount Rainier to the South, and east access to Red Square and the U-District beyond.