Monday, 10 August, 2020

Fridaygram: Observations of Local Urbanism in Portland


Portland is awash in more than just craft beer. It’s a mecca of Pacific Northwest urbanism. The look and feel of Portland is very noticeably different from its sister city Seattle. Many residential neighborhoods have a greater mixing of housing types. Neighborhood business districts are much more plentiful. The scale of buildings and blocks ebbs and flows in places like the Pearl District. The character of neighborhoods seems much more cohesive, which is reflected even in newer developments. And everyday urbanism like playful green streets, sidewalk cafes, farmers markets, and street vendors just don’t seem forced.

Taking over the @urbanistorg Twitter handle for the weekend, I tweeted out a bunch of observations on Portland’s local urbanism. Instead of spilling too much ink, here’s just a few snapshots from the streets of Portland:

So what do you think of Portland’s local urbanism?

HALA Hearing on Commercial Linkage Fees and Upzones


The Seattle City Council held a public meeting this week regarding the commercial linkage fee and upzone proposals from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) report. Councilmember Mike O’Brien kicked off the meeting by discussing the resolution under consideration. He outlined the two-step process for implementing the Commercial Linkage Fee (CLF), clarifying that the full process would not be complete until 2017. After this brief introduction, public testimony began.

Comments generally fell into two different categories. The majority of commenters voiced support for the Commercial Linkage Fee with an upzone. Many of these supporters also voiced support more generally for the the entire body of HALA recommendations. Groups voicing support included a number of labor unions, Solid Ground, Puget Sound Sage, Futurewise, the Housing Development Consortium, Seattle Sierra Club, and many more. These speakers urged the Council to act quickly because of the affordable housing crisis facing the city.

Strangely enough, many of the people voicing opposition to the policy also cited a citywide housing crisis. At minimum, it seemed as if there was a consensus the city is seeing intensdisplacement and gentrification. There is some data to back up this claim.

Measuring Displacement

The personal stories people tell about gentrification and displacement are compelling, but some have claimed these stories are a myth, or at least overstated. This point of view is supported by the data comparing demolished units to built units. These numbers make it clear that new development is not causing an avalanche of displacement by demolishing buildings. Yet these numbers don’t actually measure displacement for various reasons, one of which is that it doesn’t capture rent increases that cause people to be displaced. There have been a few stronger attempts to measure displacement and gentrification, some of which supports the stories people are telling. For example, data comparing the 1990 and 2000 census show drastic change in low income neighborhoods, especially those in South Seattle.

Seattle Gentrification Maps and Data2
(Governing Magazine)

Fewer neighborhoods qualified to be measured for gentrification between 2000 and 2010, but unsurprisingly, South Lake Union gentrified.

Seattle Gentrification Maps and Data
(Governing Magazine)

This research doesn’t make value statements about whether or not these neighborhoods are better or worse because of the investment they’ve seen. It also doesn’t quantify the number of people that had to move due to rent increases.

It does make it clear though that housing prices increased dramatically at a time in which incomes saw very little increase. It seems implausible to believe that this could happen without displacement. Furthermore, there is plenty of data showing gentrification is real. For example, the above maps show rising housing costs in traditionally non-white neighborhoods. It seems likely these cost increases are hitting residents that already struggle the most to pay for housing.

Seattle Housing Affordability  Key Background Data1
(City of Seattle)

It’s important to be critical of the stories people tell since exaggeration is often used as a political tool. But these stories seem sincere and they are bolstered by evidence.

Opposition To The Linkage Fee With An Upzone

Even though the linkage fee would be used to mitigate displacement, the policy under consideration didn’t sit well with everyone. Most of the critics at the hearing focused on dead horse arguments against upzones:

  • The upzone and linkage fee don’t include 1:1 replacement of existing market rate affordable units;
  • Drawing causal relationships between rent increases and upzones;
  • The city is losing tree canopy; and
  • The HALA recommendations are a product of developers.

These criticisms have been debunked previously:

  • Requesting 1:1 replacement is a nice talking point, but a practical policy that would work is vague at best;
  • Rent increases that happen at the same time as upzones may have happened anyways, or have been worse, without upzones;
  • Living more densely means less sprawl which ultimately protects forests and can even free up city space for parks;  and
  • The HALA working group clearly had a diverse spectrum of stakeholders.

The last criticism is especially interesting considering the turnout for the event. No private developers testified in support of the the upzones, let alone the linkage fee. This should be surprising to people who see developer fingerprints all over the HALA recommendations.

This also touches on another interesting criticism. Some have voiced concern that the HALA recommendations are at risk because Social Justice and Affordable Housing Advocates won’t vocally support upzones. Your’s truly used a parallel argument, urging urbanists to support affordable housing subsidies in order to build good will among a larger coalition. Yet both an earlier HALA meeting and this one was stacked with various affordable housing, social justice, and labor organizations advocating for the entire HALA package, including upzones. There were some urbanists in attendance speaking in favor, but no private developers. In fact, one of Seattle’s lobbyists for developers, Roger Valdez of Smart Growth Seattle attended the meeting but didn’t testify. Instead, Valdez spoke critically of the proposals while being interviewed by King 5.

Two other notable topics were raised during testimonies. First, there was a clear, organized effort to have the University District upzone delayed until the linkage fee is passed. This would mean that the fee would apply to those upzoned properties. Second, a number of testimonies specifically asked the city to consider bonding to build or acquire more affordable housing.

Overall the hearing was good for supporters of HALA. There was clearly a majority of support from a broad and diverse spectrum of advocates.

How Seattle’s Mandatory Affordable Housing Program Will Work

Where the MHA-Commercial program will apply. (Seattle DPD)
A graphic of how the commercial program would work. (Seattle Department of Planning and Development)
A graphic of how the commercial program would work. (Seattle Department of Planning and Development)

The Seattle City Council is considering a mandatory affordable housing program linked to commercial developments. The program is no longer just a commercial “linkage fee” (otherwise known as an “impact fee” in Washington state), and now consists of two options: developers either pay a fee for building affordable units, or build the affordable units themselves. The program aims to build 6,000 affordable units for households earning 60 percent or less of the area median income (AMI) over the next decade. This is just one policy of 65 recommended by a committee of housing experts and advocates convened by Mayor Ed Murray last year.

2015 General Election Endorsements


The general election is just a month away. We’ve whittled down our choices for City Council from 47 (!) to 18 candidates, but only nine will make the cut — seven serving districts across the city and two serving the city at-large. We took the time to sit down with each of the candidates and ask about their vision for housing, transportation, and equity. From our interviews and the subsequent campaigns, we’re excited to release our endorsements for the general election. We believe these candidates represent a comprehensive vision for a changing and growing city. Together, they represent an urbanist Council.

There are also a host of important ballot initiatives, from campaign finance reform to transportation funding. We believe each of the four considered measures embodies our values of creating vibrant, healthy, and equitable communities.

Position 1 (District 1): Shannon Braddock

Shannon Braddock

Shannon Braddock will bring political experience to this West Seattle race that has not seen any incumbent contenders. She is Chief of Staff for King County Council Member Joe McDermott and holds a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Washington. She strongly supports planning ahead for future populations by ensuring infrastructure is prepared for new development and by breaking down barriers between city departments. She supports the urban village land use strategy and is open to the whole toolbox of of affordable housing options, particularly accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single-family areas. On transportation, she is supportive of multi-modal and safety projects, such as increased bus service on the popular Route 120, a road rechannelization on 35th Avenue SW, and a Ballard-West Seattle route in the Sound Transit 3 package.

Along with being supportive of family and child issues, such as childcare subsidies and closing the technology divide in schools, she is motivated by the needs of economically displaced people and Seattle’s homeless population. She supports policies that provide greater services and opportunities to marginalized people. She also wants to foster better relations between neighborhoods and the Seattle Police Department.

We believe Shannon has the community experience and vision for West Seattle that will benefit both her constituents and the city as a whole. We support her for District 1.

Read our original interview with Shannon Braddock.

Position 2 (District 2): Tammy Morales

Tammy Morales
Tammy Morales

Tammy Morales will provide a unique voice for urban issues in Southeast Seattle. As an advocate on food access, she championed policies that give residents healthier, fairer, and wider access to quality food choices. On land use and development, she wants to see a broader set of choices for housing and building types. Tammy thinks that the City should reevaluate the urban village strategy, particularly in Southeast Seattle, so that it can better align with the infrastructure investments like light rail.

As a fighter for working families, she will work to bring more family-sized units to the housing market. She’s also concerned about the welfare of renters, supporting policies that give them greater stability. She’s an unabashed supporter for the City’s Vision Zero program, calling for bold action on a safety redesign of Rainier Avenue. She wants to expand transit and Pronto bike share throughout the city, including a new light rail station at Graham Street.

Tammy is also a total planning wonk; she’s a planner by trade with a degree in Community and Regional Planning from the University of Texas, Austin. We think that will work to her benefit in dialogue and advocacy on a wide range of social, environmental, and economic issues.

Read our original interview with Tammy Morales.

Position 3 (District 3): Kshama Sawant

Kshama Sawant
Kshama Sawant

Kshama Sawant is well known for her successful campaign to raise Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, and her urbanist credentials are no less impressive. She believes solutions for affordable housing must meet the scale of the problem before us. To that end, she supports the maximum linkage fee, using the city’s bonding capacity to build high quality, affordable units, and, central to her campaign, rent stabilization measures. Building on her principles of standing up for working people, she believes the City needs a strong tenant’s bill of rights. She also appreciates the way marginalized communities, like LGBTQ folks and people of color, are especially impacted.

Kshama understands the strong connection between housing and transit, and the need to accommodate growth without causing excessive displacement. She understands a successful transit system serves trips beyond rush-hour work commutes. She is as committed to Vision Zero as anyone we talked to, asserting that the City should not tolerate traffic deaths any more than we would accept them in our own life.

We love that Kshama is unafraid to propose big, urbanist changes, and after 15 Now, we believe she can make them happen.

Read our original interview with Kshama Sawant.

Position 4 (District 4): Michael Maddux

Michael Maddux
Michael Maddux

Michael Maddux is a renter, a bike-commuter, the only openly gay candidate, and a true-blue urbanist. A long-time local activist and organizer, Michael knows how to achieve large policy goals, like establishing the Seattle Park District. His current goals are even more ambitious and just as admirable. He wants to turn parking lots into affordable housing. He wants the elimination of traffic deaths on municipal roads to be the city’s highest priority. He wants to investigate new progressive revenue options, including a capital gains tax on property transfers to target property speculators. He supports a new LGBT community center to address growing community needs, including a spike in hate crimes. He wants to invest in infrastructure, like safer road design and high-capacity transit. And he wants to invest in people, too, by funding apprenticeship programs (like the one at South Seattle College) that can help to give young people a way out of poverty.

Though he’s running for a district seat, Michael rejects parochialism. He wants what’s best for the city, and especially for its most vulnerable residents, regardless of where they live. We heartily endorse that sentiment — and we heartily endorse Michael’s candidacy.

Read our original interview with Michael Maddux.

Position 5 (District 5): Debora Juarez

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 8.58.57 PM
Debora Juarez

Debora Juarez has spent her life’s work fighting for the little guy. Her experience in the legal field has focused on bringing justice to marginalized groups. She’ll continue in that spirit on the City Council by championing programs that deliver equity.

One way that she plans to do that is through community development policies. She has a vision for the city future where whole communities are built — places that provide for every income and household type, contain all of the amenities needed to live, work, and play, and meet community-wide sustainability goals. Debora also wants to provide opportunity in every sense of the word. She believes that people should have the tools to innovate, learn, and get ahead. 

Debora recognizes that her district in particular has serious transportation issues, which in many ways is the result of late annexation to the City. She staunchly supports measures that will create safer streets, provide better facilities for people on foot and bike, and enhance local transit. Debora will fight hard to bring a new light rail station at 130th St.

Debora embodies the best values of her district and will bring a thoughtful and sensible voice to the City Council.

Read our original interview with Debora Juarez.

Position 6 (District 6): Mike O’Brien

Mike O'Brien
Mike O’Brien

Mike O’Brien understands inclusionary zoning and spearheaded the linkage fee policy, for which he received considerable pushback. He could have limited his efforts to accessory dwelling unit and detached accessory dwelling unit reform but instead committed to solving the real problem: raising revenue to expand access to urban benefits. It is clear he understands the intersection of land use and inequality. He doesn’t gloss over issues with ‘growth is good’ talking points, but rather aims to make growth work for everyone. Mike is chair of the Select Committee on Housing Affordability and has actively implemented Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) advisory committee proposals, recently introducing legislation with Mayor Murray, to deliver 6,000 affordable homes through a commercial linkage fee and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing for new multifamily developments. As chair of the Council’s Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee, Mike has shown a dedication to keep growth equitable and circumvent reactive opposition by community members.

On transportation issues, Mike is equally strong. He’s been a strong advocate on the Sound Transit Board, supporting transit oriented development and equity. But more importantly, as a person who bikes, he understands the urgency of walking and biking issues.

The city that The Urbanist wants in the future is the city that Mike O’Brien is working to shape. His knowledge, experience, strategy, and tone are invaluable.

Read our original interview with Mike O’Brien.

Position 7 (District 7): Sally Bagshaw

Sally Bagshaw
Sally Bagshaw

Sally Bagshaw represents both the ultra-dense urban living of downtown and the car dependent single-family neighborhood of Magnolia, giving her a moderated vision of urbanism. As a bike commuter, she depends on protected bike lanes for her commute, noting how much time the new 2nd Avenue lanes save her. She’s the local representative for Seattle’s “Downtown interests,” but displayed a willingness to push back where she anticipated backlash — pointing, for example, to the positive impacts bike lanes have on nearby businesses.

On growth, she noted there’s “no silver bullet, but there is a silver buckshot,” including a range of social investments from pre-K to nursing services for new parents. Sally fought for and won the right for 20 mph speed limits on city streets — a crucial component for our Vision Zero plan. With an eye towards equity, she wants to create a one-stop shop for low-income programs from the ORCA low-income fare to Seattle City Light’s utility discount. Paired with her recent votes against a series of anti-density amendments on low-rise development, she’s shown herself to be a vote we can count on.

Read our original interview with Sally Bagshaw.

Position 8 (At-Large): Tim Burgess

Tim Burgess
Tim Burgess

Tim Burgess has been a leading voice on the City Council since he was first elected in 2008. He led the way on the voter-approved pre-K education initiative and currently serves as City Council President. His diverse job history, including stints as a journalist and detective for the Seattle Police Department, has given him a grounded and moderate perspective on city politics. Throughout his tenure on Council, he has supported numerous urbanist policies, including: two recent tenant protections policies giving renters 90 days notice before eviction, a remodeled employee head tax to lessen congestion, a business development incentive for local small music venues, and the HALA “Grand Bargain.”

Tim is a strong supporter of density, upzones, and progressive taxation. He’s shown an authentic willingness to reconsider past policies — from the employee hours tax to micro housing. Tim is a leader, he shares our values, and he will continue to be a voice for our issues on the City Council.

Read our original interview with Tim Burgess.

Position 9 (At-Large): Lorena González

Lorena González
Lorena González

Lorena González is a tried and true leader with life and work experience that will provide wisdom and a needed perspective to the City Council. Raised as a migrant farmworker in the Yakima Valley, she worked her way through college to become a civil rights attorney, President Emeritus of OneAmerica, and President of the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington. She displays an understanding of and dedication to social justice principles and has a pragmatic eye for how to implement those principles city-wide.

Lorena will be an aggressive advocate in obtaining state and federal funds to build more low-income housing while searching for progressive and reliable revenue tools to ensure the City can fund its priorities. She supports mandatory inclusionary zoning, transit-oriented development, tenant protections, and accessory dwelling units. She believes that the City should aspire towards Vision Zero and challenges the primacy given to neighborhood aesthetics at the cost of greater housing.

She’s as comfortable in the weeds of wonky policy as she is giving a 30,000-foot values-based analysis of her political priorities. She’s a fighter, a tested and proven advocate, and a grade-A urbanist.

Read our original interview with Lorena Gonzáles.

Honest Elections (I-122): Vote Yes

Yes I-122 Honest Elections Seattle campaign logoInitiative 122, also known as Honest Elections, is a thorough and pragmatic attempt to limit wealthy influence in Seattle elections and amplify the influence of individual citizens. The initiative would trigger a number of changes like prohibiting politicians from lobbying the City shortly after leaving office and preventing donations to elected officials from businesses that win City contracts.

Honest Elections goes further than most election reform laws. The signature change is a policy called Democracy Vouchers. This portion of the initiative would provide a $100 in vouchers to every voter in the city. The vouchers can be given to any candidates they choose, allowing individual citizens (including people who don’t have money to spend on politics) to become more engaged in the political process. Further, even if a small number of citizens used their vouchers, it will reduce the marginal benefit of money from special interests, likely reducing the incentive for special interests to spend enormous sums on elections.

You can read a more detailed take on the proposal from the Sightline Institute, including their entire coverage, addressing inaccurate criticisms and additional benefits. Overall, this initiative has the potential to spark a change in the way elections are managed across the country. Seattle would be the first city to enact Democracy Vouchers. A small increase in property taxes could transform elections.

We encourage a “yes” vote on Honest Elections initiative.

Transportation Levy to Move Seattle (Proposition 1): Vote Yes

Let's Move Seattle campaign logo

The Levy to Move Seattle is a $930 million, nine-year measure to fund essential transportation investments across our city. As our city grows, our infrastructure must keep up.

The measure funds a host of new transit choices, including seven RapidRide+ corridor projects and improved light rail connections, like a new stop at Graham St in Southeast Seattle. It offers more options for people who bike and walk. Over 50 miles of protected bike lanes, 60 miles of Neighborhood Greenways, new Safe Routes to Schools, and a pedestrian bridge across I-5 at Northgate will be funded by the package. It also addresses our growing maintenance backlog by repairing 225 blocks of sidewalks and seismically reinforcing vulnerable infrastructure including 16 bridges — to name just a handful of projects.

Some naysayers have decried the price tag and raised concerns about accountability. We say those concerns don’t match the facts. To start, this levy represents a mere $12 per month increase for the average homeowner. The real cost comes from hours spent sitting in traffic and lives lost due to unreliable infrastructure and unsafe intersections, which this measure will mitigate. But even if the price tag is large, we believe big problems require big solutions. Regarding accountability, City’s transportation department has a track record of over-delivering. The Bridging the Gap Levy, which this measure would replace, met or exceeded nearly every goal, including: 48 new Safe Routes to School (goal of 30), six bridges replaced or rehabilitated (goal of three to five), 90,000 replaced street/regulatory signs (goal of 50,000), and 50,000 hours of new Metro service (goal of 45,000). Paired with an oversight committee and annual reporting metrics, we have every reason to believe this measure will be another success.

Passing this levy is essential to keep our city moving. Vote “yes.”

Best Starts for Kids (Proposition 1): Vote Yes

On the King County ballot, Best Starts for Kids (Proposition 1) is one of the first initiatives of its kind in the nation to comprehensively address early childhood development. The proposition will fund early intervention and prevention programs to improve health and well-being outcomes.

Although much of King County is prosperous, geographic inequalities including higher incidences of poverty and infant mortality impact child development. Best Starts for Kids is informed by evidence that brain development is most critical from ages 0 to 3, with early intervention being the most effective and economical approach for addressing serious health and social problems. Proposition 1 is critical for enhancing educational, social and economic opportunities for children regardless of geographical location or socio-economic background. Presently, 75% of King County’s General Fund is dedicated to the criminal justice system to deal with the negative outcomes of mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, incarceration and homelessness, through law enforcement, courts and jails. This proposition aims to focus investment on preventing these negative outcomes and reduce the costs and consequences of treating people later in life.

To boost services to support the cognitive, emotional and social development of children, King County is asking for $65 million per year, funded through a property levy of 14 cents per $1,000 assessed value, over six years. The levy would support a range of health and educational programs, particularly for children under 5, including nurse home visits for new parents and babies, prenatal support, mental health and developmental screenings. Funds would also be directed to prevention of child and youth depression, substance abuse, developmental disabilities and homelessness. Place-focused interventions include increasing access to healthy and affordable food, and expanding economic opportunities and affordable housing. 

We recommend a “yes” vote for Best Starts for Kids.

Community Transit Now (Proposition 1): Vote Yes

Community Transit service before and after. (Community Transit)
Community Transit service before and after. (Community Transit)

Transit in Snohomish County could be radically transformed for first time in nearly a decade if voters approve Proposition 1. The measure is slated to increase transit funding by 25% and transit service by roughly 100,000 hours annually, all for a new 0.3% sales tax. Proposition 1 is built upon two fundamental pillars: making existing transit services better and creating brand new service where there is strong demand. Community Transit has always been a good steward of taxpayer resources and made tough choices during the economic crisis by eliminating over 37% of service. Since then, the agency has made targeted investments through fleet upgrades, improved route efficiency and reliability, and increased service by more than 47,000 hours — with another 21,000 hours programmed for addition — all without asking for more funding.

Proposition 1 will deliver immediate and longer-term investments that increase daily trip frequencies–particularly during midday and evening hours — across the local bus network, restore more Saturday, Sunday, and holiday service, introduce late night service, and boost service on in-demand commuter routes to Downtown Seattle and the University District. Wasting no time in implementing enhanced transit improvements, the first round of changes would begin in early 2016 with continued service expansion at least through 2018. But the good news doesn’t stop there.

Community Transit will introduce brand new routes, too. Building upon the massive success of Swift, a bus rapid transit service, at least two new corridors will receive similar high quality service treatments. The first new Swift line is planned from Paine Field to Bothell via Mill Creek; three other corridors are contenders for the other new Swift line. High on the list for new local bus service is a Marysville-to-McCollum Park route, which will roughly follow SR-9 and SR-96 to offer more neighborhood-to-neighborhood connections in suburban communities. Community Transit will also invest heavily in the popular vanpool program that provides alternative access for commuters and commit to even better DART service for those with accessibility challenges.

Proposition 1 investments will undoubtedly position Snohomish County on a stronger social, environmental, and economic footing by allowing people to get to work, school, and other places, often without ever having to use a car. We recognize that transit is imperative to creating healthier, walkable, and sustainable communities. We give our strongest possible endorsement for this sensible and comprehensive approach to local transit.

Vote “yes” on Proposition 1.

The Urbanist Editorial Board consists of Owen Pickford, Stephen Fesler, Ben Crowther, Sarah Oberklaid, and Scott Bonjukian.

With a Little Help From Our Friends


We arrive twenty minutes late at the food bank on Rainer. It’s just closed. A streetwise couple hoping to go there steps off, dejected but uncomplaining. If you’re two minutes late in an affluent neighborhood, you’ll get an earful. People don’t really do that out here; bigger fish to fry, perhaps. I usually don’t apologize for being late, as it’s not something I can control, but I do to them given the circumstances.

“Sorry we got here late, you guys.”
“It’s cool. You’re just doin’ your job.”

They wander out of the bus as if in a daze. I would too, if my one source of food for the day was taken away from me. Where does one go now?

One of the great things about the utter chaos of food bank day is that some passengers will either pay me with food instead of fare, or just give me food, if they’re feeling so inclined. I grab a carton of pound cake off the dash and run after them. I don’t need pound cake in my life. “Guys, hey!”

They turn around, initial consternation quickly supplanted by appreciation. They’re too exhausted to be vociferous in their thanks, but we understand each other. As she took the carton I caught a look on his face I’ve seen before.

It was the look you and I made more often as children, the look of watching something new, something we didn’t expect, and in that moment taking in the fact that this is how the world works sometimes.

I only wish I had more food to offer.

Seattle’s Aurora Bridge Needs a Safety Redesign

The crash scene on Thursday morning. (KOMO News)

On Thursday morning, a tragic crash on Seattle’s Aurora Bridge between an amphibious Ride The Ducks tour vehicle and a charter bus left at least five people dead and 52 people injured. While the investigation is only beginning and many factors could be at play, the design of the bridge is almost certainly a key cause of the crash. The Aurora Bridge must be redesigned to address the simple but critical safety issues of lane width and speed.

Officially named the George Washington Memorial Bridge, the bridge that carries Aurora Avenue opened in 1932. It’s 70 feet wide, nearly 3,000 feet long, and carries six lanes of traffic on Washington State Route 99.

A 2010 article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reveals the crux of the bridge’s safety problem: “Lane width on the bridge from west to east is 10 feet, 9 feet, 9.5 feet, 9.5 feet, 9 feet and 10 feet. The speed limit is 40 miles per hour, though drivers often break that.”

I am a frequent advocate for urban lane widths less than the rural highway standard of 12 feet (which is WSDOT’s preference); down to 10 feet is ideal for city streets, but 11 feet is fine for routes frequented by buses and heavy trucks. Anything less than 10 feet at highway speeds is dangerous. Additionally, roadways with more lanes encourage drivers to break posted speed limits.

A view of the bridge's roadway and sidewalks. (Google Earth)
A view of the bridge’s six lane roadway and sidewalks. (Google Earth)

Early eyewitness reports indicate the two vehicles were traveling in opposing directions before the crash, although it is unclear what lanes they were in. One rumor is the Duck vehicle blew a tire. Regardless, with the opposing lanes only 9.5 feet wide, other lanes as narrow as 9 feet, and without a central barrier on this high volume, high speed roadway, the type of collision that happened Thursday morning was inevitable. The fact that both vehicles involved were wide (buses are 8 to 9 feet wide) multiple-passenger vehicles compounded the chance and horror of this collision.

I’ve been considering making this post for some time, but today it is suddenly and unfortunately relevant. The solution to preventing this from happening again is simple: rechannelize the lanes on the bridge and add a central barrier like the rest of Aurora Avenue. The resulting extra space must be used to widen the bridge’s sidewalks for safe passage by people walking and bicycling, and could also be used to provide a wider median than proposed. A best guess of the current design and one possible redesign is illustrated below.Aurora Bridge-01-01Other possible solutions are to channel the roadway into five lanes, with the center lane being reversible based on traffic flows using signals or a movable median barrier. This is what is done on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco (see this video of how it works) and the three-lane Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver, B.C.

Aurora Bridge-02If these aren’t enough options, the official recommendations from WSDOT’s 2003 corridor study should be implemented. The study says, “The lanes are so narrow that buses and other large vehicles sometimes straddle two lanes while traveling on the bridge. The combination of narrow lanes, lack of a median barrier, and driver actions (speeding, following too close, etc) creates a risk for sideswipe, rear-end and head-on traffic accidents.”

The study suggests, “The proposed bridge improvement (Figure 6-6) would widen the lanes from 9.5 feet to 11.5 feet for the curb and inside lane and 11 feet the middle lane. A median barrier would be added to the bridge and approaches, and would connect to the existing barriers at the N. 38th Street and the Halladay Street intersections. The proposed additional lane widths and median barrier would require relocating the sidewalks below the bridge deck. In addition, the sidewalks would be widened to 10 feet to provide for multiple users and non-motorized vehicles.” The Seattle Times reports that Washington state lawmakers did not provide any funding to pursue these changes.

Aurora Bridge Redesign
A possible redesign of the Aurora Bridge would support wider lanes and a median barrier by relocating the sidewalks beneath the bridge deck. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

Issues of traffic congestion and cost are insignificant compared to the potential and realized loss of life on this bridge. The state has shown a willingness to improve the bridge already; in 2011, a $4.8 million suicide barrier was built along the edges of the bridge. In the long term, the Aurora Bridge likely needs to be expensively retrofitted or completely rebuilt (which the WSDOT study estimates would cost $200 million in 2003 dollars). It is over 80 years old and functionally obsolete.

A safety redesign will fulfill Seattle’s Vision Zero strategy for eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. Reconfiguring the Aurora Bridge will be one of many big steps towards improving traffic safety in Seattle. Local and state leaders must act now to prevent today’s tragedy from happening again.

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

Seattle City Council Notes: HALA Work Plan, MFTE Extension, and SR-520 Resolution


The Seattle City Council met yesterday afternoon for the regular full Council meeting to vote on important policies affecting housing. Sitting first on the agenda, the Council considered a resolution (Resolution 31609) to set the overarching policy framework and implementation timeline for the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Living Agenda (HALA) recommendations, desire for new affordable housing tools from the State, and larger housing goals through 2025. An amended version of the resolution passed on unanimous consent of the Council, although amendments were limited to the Council’s HALA Work Plan itself.

Timeline for action on HALA items.
Timeline for action on HALA items.

The adopted legislation sets out three broad policy goals:

  1. Implementation of the Council’s HALA work plan, which begins with fast-tracked policy development on Commercial Linkage Fees and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing regulations this year and wraps up with legislation to allow conversion of single-family homes into multi-dwelling units and reduce and/or remove certain parking requirements in 2017.
  2. Begin efforts to lobby for new tools to provide affordable housing for households at or below 60% of area median income. Tools that the Council would like, include: authorization for a 0.25 percent increase in the Real Estate Excise Tax to fund affordable housing, increase in the Housing Trust Fund, and new preservation tax exemption to create rent- and income-restricted affordable homes in existing buildings.
  3. A concurrence with the Mayor’s recommendation that 20,000 new rent- and income-restricted housing units and 30,000 new market rate housing units be made available by the end of 2025. The Council set a goal of implementing strategies that will ensure at least 75% of rent- and income-restricted units are affordable to households earning between 0% and 60% percent of the area median income.

The Council revisited the Multi-Family Tax Exemption (MFTE) Program (Council Bill 118505) to consider some policy changes and a program extension. (The MFTE provides tax exemptions to property owners of multifamily residential projects in targeted areas of the city if 20% of units are set aside for income- and rent-restricted households. Property owners are eligible to participate in the MFTE Program for up to 12 successive years.) Three primary changes were enacted, including:

  • Establishment of different affordable unit set-asides for projects with fewer than four units with 2+ bedrooms (Small Unit Program) and projects with four or more dwelling units with 2+ bedrooms (Family Sized Unit Program);
  • Expansion of program eligibility areas; and
  • A new MFTE Program sunset provision.

The following table is a comparison of the current MFTE Program and new options available to developers and property owners. The changes bring promised revisions to MFTE Program provisions for Small Efficiency Dwelling Units (SEDUs, aka microhousing units) and the graduation of requirements by housing unit type (e.g. congregate units, 1-bedroom, studios, etc.)

Current ProgramNew Family Size Unit
Program (Projects
with 4 or more 2+
bedroom units)
New Small Unit
Program (Projects
with fewer than 4,
2+ bedroom units)
Affordable Unit Set-Aside20% of all unit
types, 25% for
20% of all units25% of all units
Maximum Area Median
Income (AMI) for
Affordable Units by Unit Type
SEDU – 40% AMI
Studio – 65% AMI
1 BR – 75% AMI
2 BR – 85% AMI
Unchanged, except:
Congregate Units – 40% AMI
3 BR – 90% AMI
Unchanged, except:
Congregate Units – 40% AMI
3 BR – 90% AMI

If the Family Sized Unit Program is chosen, fewer MFTE dwelling units are required, but a minimum number MFTE dwelling units consisting of 2+ bedrooms kicks in. O’Brien added the provision in committee to incentivize more dwelling units geared toward families. Four such MFTE dwelling units would be required as part of the first 100 units in a project. Additional 2+ bedroom MFTE dwelling units would be required depending upon the total number units in a project as shown in the table below.

Family Sized Dwelling Units required in MFTE projects. (City of Seattle)
Family Sized Dwelling Units required in MFTE projects. (City of Seattle)

Areas eligible for the MFTE Program were revised in two ways. The first change revised program eligibility boundaries as shown in the map below. The second change adds provisions to allow any land zoned in the future for multifamily housing to be included for program eligibility thereby overriding mapped boundaries of the MFTE Residential Targeted Areas.

Targeted program eligibility areas. (City of Seattle)
Targeted program eligibility areas. (City of Seattle)

Councilmember Nick Licata offered two amendments to the legislation: one to extend the MFTE Program to December 31, 2019 and another to add an annual reporting requirement to analyze rent level information for affordable units.

The amendments and ordinance passed on unanimous consent.

Separately from housing policy, a vote on the SR-520 resolution (Resolution 31618) was originally scheduled for the meeting, but was pulled last minute from the agenda. A separate vote will be set for next week when the full Council meets again. The resolution is a particularly important policy document because it is the last best chance to make the SR-520 rebuild better for people walking and biking on and near the corridor. The Washington State Department of Transportation is set to make substantial investments to build city streets, bicycle and walking, and transit infrastructure in the coming years, so getting the policy language right now is imperative.

At last week’s Transportation Committee meeting, eight amendments were proposed by Councilmember Rasmussen and Councilmember Mike O’Brien — with seven gaining approval. One amendment proposed O’Brien stirred a prolonged discussion on the merits of requiring protected bike lanes directly on Montlake Boulevard from E Roanoke St to the University of Washington Station. Rasmussen suggested that the amendment be put on hold pending feedback from the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board (SBAB), leaving the amendment without a vote in committee. On Friday, the SBAB produced a letter giving their full support for the concept saying:

The Bicycle Advisory Board has consistently advised having Protected Bicycle Lanes on Montlake Boulevard from East Roanoke to the Montlake Bridge as a direct access route for people of all ages and abilities riding bicycles in addition to the other bicycle facilities in the SR520 project. Separated, protected bike lanes are an imperative in this location and in other city locations to meet the Bicycle Master Plan Goals of Safety and Connectivity. The Bicycle Advisory Board has been advising and will continue to advise Protected Bike Lanes throughout the city, including Southeast Seattle, West Seattle and Downtown, to address all high needs of safety improvements for people of all ages and abilities riding bicycles, to achieve the goals of Vision Zero and to insure that the Bicycle Master Plan Goals of Equity, Connectivity and Safety are met.

With this kind of unequivocal support from the SBAB, the O’Brien amendment is likely to find friends on the Council for adoption.

Regional Initiative to Create 700 Affordable Workforce Housing Units


Transit centers across the region could see a huge boost in affordable housing over the coming years. Under a new regional initiative, some 700 affordable workforce housing units could be developed on or near light rail stations. King County Executive and Sound Transit Board Chair Dow Constantine revealed the $83 million plan yesterday. A central goal of the initiative is to create walkable and economically diverse communities around light rail stations.

The initiative is essentially a cooperative program that will be developed between King County and Sound Transit, although it’s likely that other regional agency partners will be involved as it progresses. The Executive’s initial plan identifies three potential funding streams:

  1. King County Housing Bonds. Using new taxing authority, the Executive will introduce a measure to increase the lodging tax and create or preserve some 500 units of affordable workforce housing. The measure is estimated to generate up to $45 million in revenues over the next six years if passed by the King County Council.
  2. REDI Funds. Another $18 million is already committed to the Regional Equitable Development Initiative (REDI) Fund, a revolving loan program that provides strategic acquisition of land and buildings for affordable transit-oriented development. Up to 200 units of workforce and mixed-income housing could be created over the next five years.
  3. Sound Transit 3. In the recent statewide transportation package, legislation requires* the creation of funding for affordable housing** near light rail stations should Sound Transit 3 gain voter approval next year. The Executive plans would dedicate an additional $20 million toward a REDI-like revolving fund over the next four years.

Taken as a whole, this represents a substantial public investment that will spur more than just 700 affordable housing units around transit centers. King County Housing Bonds and REDI Funds alone could produce the requisite number of affordable housing units to meet the Executive’s goal. Sound Transit 3 funding could be an added bonus. By delivering up to 220 or so units, Sound Transit 3 could increase the affordable housing number to 920 units***. And while funds are specifically targeted at affordable housing units, there’s ample room for coordination with private developers to create whole communities that range in income levels.

Northgate TOD concept plan. (Via Architecture)
Northgate TOD concept plan. (Via Architecture)

This initiative is in line with work that King County and Sound Transit are already doing. Many affordable and mixed-income transit-oriented development projects have been completed by the two agencies in recent years, including: Redmond Downtown Transit Center, Renton Metropolitan Place, Thornton Place at Northgate, and Village at Overlake Station. But more is also on the way with projects at South Kirkland TOD, Capitol Hill Station, Othello Station, and Northgate.

Affordable housing units under the program could begin to become available to individuals in the next two to five years. As this initiative unfolds, the Executive will work with the King County Council to determine where the housing investments go.

*Sound Transit must contribute at least $4 million annually over a 5-year period to fund affordable transit-oriented housing with contribution beginning by the third year.

**Under state law, affordable housing must be provided to those making 80% of the area median income or less.

***Based upon the $90,000 average unit cost estimated for King County Housing Bonds and REDI Funds.