Sunday, 31 May, 2020

Sunday Video: Shed The Monster

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It’s summer time, get out there and bike; you’ll be glad you did.

 

 

What We’re Reading: Going All In On Timber

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Woodframe construction in Portland.
Woodframe construction in Portland.

This week in design: Finland goes all in on its first big cross laminated timber project, Vancouver is going super boxy for a new tower, and New York may end up with a modern Brutalist meets modern glass and steel.

Two Cap Hill projectsDesign review has begun on the old Piecora’s and Hugo House sites in Capitol Hill.

What’s in a name: The Sound Transit Board settles on station names for East Link, some are likeable, others are, well, lame.

Garbage no more: Seattle is taking its crap seriously and completely redefining what “garbage” is with new composting rules.

Highway fights: As driving continues to plummet across the country, there’s a backlash rising against superfluous highway projects.

No muni broadband: A report out this week by the City of Seattle claims that building municipal broadband is too expensive.

Growing housing, growing rents: Since 1998, the number of apartments in Capitol Hill, First Hill, and the Central District have climbed 80% yet rents have shot up 40% in real terms.

Biking news: Tom at Seattle Bike Blog gets into the weeds of the Broadway bikeway extension on a block-by-block basis, highlights two Ballard greenways that will finally intersect, and breaks the news of a citywide Pronto expansion plan.

Long commutes: Thanks to our socially unequal society, the poor get the brunt of long commutes and pay a disproportionate amount for them.

Map of the Week: Locations of every film ever made in New York City mapped block by block.

The power of an M: 77 different versions of the letter “M” all representing a “Metro”.

The Barcelona plan: A look at how Barcelona was planned but took a completely different turn when it was actually realized.

Moving on in: Bike Portland compares metropolitan cities across the region to see just how much housing has been built near their centers since 1990.

Tough nut to crackThe Seattle Times discusses the challenges facing Seattle for affordable housing and some of the ideas out there to tackle the issue ($).

Toronto fail: The City of Toronto had an opportunity to finally be rid an unsightly and unhealthy an expressway, but instead chose a hybrid option in their development plan.

Amsterdam style: Amsterdam wants to build 18,000 homes for 45,000 residents with at least 30% being affordable; to do this, they’re constructing 10 islands.

Big money, big towers: The money that’s behind all of the luxury towers going up globally.

Tower cities: Toronto is trying to figure out how to deal with the 1,200+ ageing highrise towers that house more than 500,000 residents, many of whom are low-income, by creating a mixed income and diverse districts.

Plunging homeownership: Millennials (ages 25 to 34) in King County just aren’t getting into the whole homeownership thing with only a one-quarter owning ($)–half the rate of 1980 for the same cohort at that time.

Segregation is alive: A look at McKinney, Texas where segregation is alive and well despite efforts to eliminate it.

Pulling us apart: Emily Badger of the Washington Post says that our cars, neighborhoods, and schools are pulling us part socially.

Speaking Up For Lowrise Housing

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lowrise-zone
An example of the mixed uses possible in a Lowrise zone. Several single-family homes, occupied by renters, across from traditional apartment buildings and a brand new micro-housing building via Google Street View.

Given the challenge posed by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s directive to add 50,000 new housing units in the next ten years, you might think it would be a strange time for the city to be contemplating code changes that would restrict new housing construction. Yet, legislation is currently working its way through City Hall that could do exactly that.

Next week, the Seattle City Council’s Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee will send a set of revisions to lowrise zone code regulations to the full City Council.  Depending on how the legislation is amended in committee, the result could be a significant reduction in the amount of housing that can be produced in lowrise zones in the coming years.

The Backstory

First, some background: Lowrise zones (ranging from LR-1 to LR-3) constitute about 10% of Seattle’s gross land area and offer a middle ground between single-family neighborhoods and midrise zones featuring larger apartment blocks. Instead, lowrise zones allow small apartment buildings, townhouses and rowhouses, in addition to single-family homes. They are often found near arterials well-served by transit, making them an ideal place to channel growth.

The current legislation is partially a response to complaints arising from a 2010 rewrite of lowrise zone code regulations that, along with Seattle’s current housing boom, were successful in spurring the construction of new housing. (Between 2011-2014, more than 4,000 new housing units were built or permitted in lowrise zones.) Complaints about the scale of new projects and their impacts on neighborhoods led City Council to instruct the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to review the new regulations, and DPD responded with draft legislation in 2014. Following an unsuccessful 2014 appeal of DPD’s environmental review and additional review of the proposed legislation by the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee, Councilmember Mike O’Brien introduced legislation that imposes some of the DPD-recommended new requirements on lowrise construction.

Proposed Legislation

O’Brien’s proposal represents a good-faith effort at compromise to address some of the challenges associated with Seattle’s lowrise zone growing pains without drastically impeding new construction. Notable proposed changes include:

  • Limiting the number of townhouses and rowhouses that can go on a lot in LR1 zones; in some cases the code currently allows an extra unit on two subdivided lots than it does on a single unified lot of equal size. This legislation corrects that discrepancy.

  • New upper-level setback requirements; on buildings taller than a certain height, the top floor would be required to have a setback from the street-facing side of the building unless the designer can show a better way to address concerns about a building’s perceived scale and bulk. The idea behind this requirement is to attempt to minimize the perceived bulk of new construction while continuing to allowing it to reach a similar height.

  • New design review requirements for LR2 zones, which could impact buildings with as few as eight units.

Making It Worse

It’s likely that even as written, the proposed rules will result in a modest decrease in the number of new housing units produced compared to the last several years. Unfortunately, for a vocal group of neighborhood activists long-opposed to “out-of-scale” development in lowrise zones, the changes included in the current legislation don’t go nearly far enough. This group, who call themselves Seattle Speaks Up, packed last week’s hearing on the proposed changes, likening Seattle’s lowrise zones to a modern reinterpretation of Stalinist apartment blocks seen in gloomy Eastern European capitals. (Erica C. Barnett covered the hearing at The C is For Crank.)

Seattle Speaks Up is asking for a series of changes to O’Brien’s legislation which would both make new housing more costly to build and allow less of it. Proposed changes requested include eliminating height and density bonuses for partially below-grade buildings, a variety of new setback requirements, and onerous new design review processes.

One of the most impactful amendments sought by Seattle Speaks Up is a change to how a building’s Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is calculated. (FAR is a measurement of a building’s floor area compared to lot size; the greater the FAR, the greater the density.) The group is seeking to include more unusable living space such as exterior stairways, breezeways, and basement storage areas in FAR calculations. (O’Brien’s proposed legislation would include some exterior hallways in the FAR calculation, if they are at least 50% enclosed.) Because buildings in lowrise zones must abide by maximum FAR limits, this change will means that builders will not be able to include as many units in new construction projects. Fewer projects will be started, and the ones that are started will include fewer units.

What makes this situation even more troubling is that several councilmembers, including retiring Tom Rasmussen and Nick Licata, have expressed support for these requested provisions and pledged to push for amendments that would add them into the legislation.

Why It Matters

This new threat to housing in Seattle couldn’t come at a worse time. By 2040, the Puget Sound region is expected to add as many as 1.4 million new residents. Those unable to find housing in urban, transit-accessible areas like Seattle lowrise zones will often end up living further away and relying more on automobile travel. That’s not an effective strategy for fighting climate change, congestion, or the urban sprawl that threatens our nearby farms, forests, and wild places.

Any additional restrictions on new housing in lowrise zones will also exacerbate our affordable housing crisis. Mayor Murray’s stated goal of 50,000 new units in the next ten years will be difficult to attain even without onerous new restrictions that disincentivize new construction. With population and job growth expected to remain strong in coming years, continuing to allow new supply in lowrise zones should be an important component of any strategy for keeping Seattle housing prices from spiraling permanently out of control.

If you’d like to show the City Council you support continued housing growth in our lowrise zones, please consider a) emailing the City Council expressing your opposition to further amendments to O’Brien’s legislation, and b) attending the PLUS Committee meeting on Tuesday, June 16th at 2:00 PM.

Jesse Piedfort is Chair of the Sierra Club – Seattle Group.

Editor’s Note: The original publication included a photo that was not from a Lowrise zone and omitted the fact that many buildings in Lowrise zones are single-family homes, occupied by both renters and homeowners.

Seattle 2035: Toward A More Equitable Growth Plan

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Article Note: This is the first of two pieces by Alex Brennan on the Seattle 2035 growth alternatives. Next week, he’ll share his vision for an Alternative 5. You can read the second part in full here.

Figure 1: Current Urban Village Boundaries
Figure 1: Current Urban Village Boundaries

Determining where and how we want our city to accommodate future growth is the central purpose of the comprehensive plan process mandated by the State as part of the Growth Management Act. The state develops population and employment growth projections that are passed down through the regional councils and eventually end up allocated to specific cities. Those cities then have to decide where the growth they have been allocated should go within the city. In 1994, Seattle created its first comprehensive plan, which identified “Urban Villages,” places within the city where growth should be directed. The plan gets a major update every 10 years (we are a little late this time). Seattle has grown and changed a lot since 1994, but our Urban Village boundaries remain essentially the same. When you are in the urban villages surrounded by construction cranes and streets closed for construction it is easy to forget that, in most of the city, the vast majority located outside of the urban villages, there is almost no construction or physical change at all. That massive disparity is thanks to the Comprehensive Plan and the zoning and neighborhood plans that flow from it.

If we want to be an affordable city, a racially equitable city, an environmentally sustainable city, and a great place to live, getting the comprehensive plan right is really important. Seattle is at a critical juncture in the comprehensive plan update process. The City has released four alternative growth scenarios as part of the draft environmental impact statement. Until June 18, you can give input on which alternative you think is best or if you think the existing alternatives do not represent the best way to meet city goals and a new option needs to be added. I’m going to argue the latter.

These plans come with a lot of aspirational language about all sorts of things, but it’s important to focus on the real power of the plan, the location of population and employment growth. There are two main variables to look at. The first is should we grow a little bit in a lot of places or a lot in just a few places? The second is where within the city should those places be? Let’s take them one at a time and then together.

Should we grow a little bit in a lot of places or a lot in just a few places?

The gut urbanist response to this question is often that we should concentrate growth in fewer places. Growing a little bit in a lot of places sounds like sprawl. Growing a lot in a few places sounds like the kind of compact development that is associated with walking, transit, and a complete community. That’s true at the regional scale, when dispersal means new car-dependent suburbs replacing farms and forests, but not when allocating growth within a central city.

All of Seattle has the potential to be a compact complete community. If you concentrate growth in just a few neighborhoods either you get the wholesale redevelopment of that neighborhood, essentially a market based version of 1950’s urban renewal, or you get highrise (over 70 feet tall) buildings that for safety reasons must be built in an expensive way (or you get both like in South Lake Union). It can be hard for the people and culture of a neighborhood to make it through overly concentrated growth. I see this in the residents and small businesses in Pike/Pine that have been sandwiched between multiple construction projects with sidewalks closed on all sides, trucks and construction noise blaring for most of the day. Spreading growth out more, on the other hand, allows neighborhoods to change more gradually, use a mix of lower cost building types, and, in many cases, build up the critical mass to become a complete community with basic goods and services, community gathering spaces, jobs, and homes all nearby.

The high cost of highrise construction is really important for thinking about affordability, displacement and who can live in Seattle. RSMeans, a construction cost data provider, offers some rough estimates online for cost comparison. Building the first 5 stories (RSMeans says 3, but as far as I can tell they are referring to type 5 construction which in Seattle you can build up to 4 stories on its own and 5 stories on top of 1 or 2 stories of more expensive type 1 construction) costs between $146 and $159 per square foot.  The next two stories inch up a little bit $160 to $175 per square foot. After that it jumps to between $196 and $214 per square foot and when you get above 7 stories you have to switch construction types for everything, so the first 7 stories go up to $196 to $214 per square foot along with the higher stories (though again it’s a little unclear if this is already factored into the added cost).

Construction costs vary by site and are only one part of housing costs. Land costs (among the many additional costs) also play an important role. The benefit of building higher is that you have less land cost per square foot of construction. Cities like Vancouver, BC are expensive in part because they combine single family neighborhoods that have high land costs per square foot with highrise neighborhoods that have high construction costs per square foot.

This decision about the concentration of growth also has environmental implications. Making low density single family neighborhoods in Seattle a little denser has a much bigger benefit to walking, biking, and transit than making mid-rise neighborhoods become even denser highrise neighborhoods. This is born out in countless studies whether they look within cities like this one:

Driving v Residential Density

Or compare different metropolitan areas like this one:

Urban Desnity and Transpo Energy Consumption

The comprehensive plan DEIS alternatives offer a range of options between continuing to grow in the same limited area we have been growing in since 1994, Alternative 1, even more concentrated growth, Alternative 2, or more dispersed growth, Alternative 3 and especially Alternative 4 (see Figure 2). In regards to the issue of concentration or dispersal, Alternative 4 is the clear winner and Alternative 2 is the terrifying loser. If you take away anything from this post, it’s that Alternative 2 is bad, really bad.

Figure 2: Alternatives 3 and 4
Figure 2: Alternatives 3 and 4

Many residents do not want their neighborhoods to change, especially single family homeowners in middle class and wealthy neighborhoods (more on that in the next post). Constraining growth to our current urban villages has only made the option of becoming an urban village appear more overwhelming as more and more growth is squeezed into the same limited area. Thus, the longer we wait to expand the urban village boundaries, the harder it is to do politically.

For these reasons I am proud that the planning department (with, I can only assume, the support of the Mayor and City Council) took the politically difficult step of including expanded urban village boundaries in not just one, but two, of the four alternatives released a few weeks ago.

Where should we grow?

Even if growth becomes more spread out, it is still likely to be focused to some extent. Should it be focused around certain criteria?  The current proposed Alternatives identify two primary criteria, equity and proximity to recent transit investments.  Unfortunately, these two pieces of criteria conflict. Proximity to transit investment (in this context!) is a flawed metric, bad for equity and bad for the environment. First, here is some background on the equity analysis.

The planning department has conducted a terrific equity analysis that provides data and maps on displacement risk and access to opportunity. The City Council recently identified equity as a major guiding principle for the update. Despite the date of the linked announcement, it was not meant as an April Fools joke, but the equity analysis shows the limitations of the Alternatives currently on the table.

Figure 3: Notice any correlation between the new Alternatives and the displacement map?
Figure 3: Notice any correlation between the new Alternatives and the displacement map?

In Alternative 3 all of the areas suggested for urban village expansion, with the exception of a small slice of Roosevelt, also have high risk of displacement. Alternative 4 is better, it adds expansions in some lower displacement risk areas like Ballard and West Seattle as well, but the expansions are still concentrated in the high displacement risk areas. While the calculations for displacement risk and access to opportunity are complex, they essentially show us where poor people and people of color live and where wealthy people and white people live.  While transit access does not have to be correlated with neighborhood wealth and race, in practice it usually is.

People of color, and even more so poor people, are more likely to use transit, so they are more likely to live in neighborhoods well served by transit. Transit agencies want good ridership and are therefore more likely, all else being equal, to locate new transit investments in poor neighborhoods. This is especially true if we are thinking about low density neighborhoods, the neighborhoods not already part of an urban village. Therefore, the only low density neighborhoods likely to have good ridership are almost inherently going to have a high displacement risk. When Sound Transit decided to locate its first light rail segment through the Rainier Valley, it reinforced this bias, exacerbating the displacement risk of Alternatives 3 and 4.

Viewed through this lens, the decision to consider expanding urban villages near recent transit investments, and only near those investments, could contribute to furthering displacement. Alternatives 3 and 4 suggest that the poor should be the ones to deal with the discomfort of growth. They also focus development in the areas with the cheapest existing housing stock contributing to a more rapid erosion of that stock. This is not a new decision for Seattle or the US.

It is easy to forget now that South Lake Union was one of the poorest (and most affordable) neighborhoods in the city before Vulcan and Amazon were given the zoning capacity to transform it. Yesler Terrace, and the preceding public housing redevelopment projects in High Point, New Holly, and Rainier Vista, are other examples, not only of our cities decision to grow in poor neighborhoods, but of federal policy supporting that decision. Light industrial areas, and the working class jobs they provide, are also often targets, think South Lake Union again, as well as current hotspots of development in the West Seattle Junction, Pike Pine, and Stone Way which were all once centers of warehousing and light manufacturing.

The City’s equity analysis of the alternatives suggests that Alternative 2 has the least risk of displacement. As mentioned earlier, Alternative 2 takes all of the development and focuses it (even more than our current comprehensive plan) in just a few places where buildings can go very high and accommodate a lot of growth – downtown, the U District, and Northgate – the urban villages designated as “urban centers.” These areas are identified as having lower displacement risk and there are fewer total places, so the thinking goes that displacement will happen in fewer places.

The problem, as I mentioned before (and as noted in the equity analysis but I think underemphasized), is that development in these areas will be highrise development, the most expensive kind of development. If we only allow the most expensive type of new housing, in the long run will that really prevent displacement? Most people are not directly displaced by their building being torn down for new development; they are displaced by rising rents for them and the family, friends, goods, and services that make up their community. Alternative 2 is the rising rents Alternative. Underemphasizing this point is one of two critical flaws in an otherwise incredibly useful equity analysis.

The equity analysis leaves us with a choice between the lesser of two evils. We can choose Alternative 2 that keeps development and growth out of vulnerable communities, but will drive up housing prices across the city or we can choose Alternatives 3 or 4 which spread out development, but only into our most vulnerable communities.

We have a regional housing supply crisis on our hands. People want to live in walkable, centrally located neighborhoods and we have not been building enough housing for them.  We have a global climate crisis worsened by rich countries and their sprawling, car dependent development patterns. We have a fiscal crisis exacerbated by the same sprawling development and its high infrastructure costs.  Poor people are disproportionately hurt by these problems too. They are disproportionately hurt by not allowing growth in the central city. Stopping growth is not the answer either.

The equity analysis takes the need to accommodate growth and the bad growth Alternatives currently on the table and attempts to resolve these conflicts through mitigation measures. At this risk of simplifying the analysis, the mitigation measures focus on economic opportunity programs and anti-displacement regulatory strategies. It also mentions a strategy of “equitable access to all neighborhoods” where it argues, as I have been arguing, that growth needs to be spread out to middle class and wealthy neighborhoods to take the pressure off of poor neighborhoods.  However, here we get to the second critical flaw in the analysis. The scope of the equity analysis is only to look at the four Alternatives. If we really want “equitable access to all neighborhoods,” if we really want to spread out growth enough that communities can healthily absorb that growth, especially our most vulnerable communities, then we need more space to grow, we need new urban villages in other neighborhoods, we need an Alternative 5.

What could an Alternative 5 look like? Stay tuned. That’s the subject of the next post.

2015 Seattle City Council Election, District 7: Gus Hartmann Interview

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Article Note: The Urbanist is publishing a series of interviews with a selection of 2015 Seattle City Council candidates. In June, we will release our endorsements.Gus

Gus Hartmann is a Google engineer and political newcomer, running for the first time in District 7. He’s lived in the district for 13 years and has a passion for well-run cities. He believes his experience in the tech industry makes him a good match for the district’s quickly changing demographics and wants to see Seattle successfully grow into a big city.

What would you do to make housing affordable to everyone in Seattle?

When asked this question, Hartmann said he would rather see more guaranteed affordable units, than paying into a fund. This might mean requirements to build units in specific areas because it’s more valuable to have permanently affordable units in neighborhoods than it is to have a large affordable housing fund. He also noted that transit plays a critical role in affordability, expanding the affordable areas of Seattle with access to jobs. He specifically mentioned that he likes streetcars because they are more permanent investments and people can rely on the transit lines existing in the future.

He noted one way the city could achieved affordability is to expand the footprint of what ‘feels like Seattle,’ or the urban areas of the city. As an example, he pointed to how light rail made Columbia City more accessible. Since it has the feel of an urban area it is a good alternative for people that want this type of neighborhood, and it is seeing growth, development and investment. This is the same as reduced housing costs for people seeking an urban area but couldn’t afford other parts of the city. He didn’t overlook the drawbacks though, acknowledging displacement and saying, “displacement can be mitigated but not eliminated.”

How does planning, transit policy, and development affect racial, social, and economic inequalities in our city? What policies and efforts can make to combat these inequalities?

Development, transit policy and planning are not separate issues when it comes to inequities. Hartmann noted that bad efforts in any of these disciplines are responsible for isolated and impoverished neighborhoods. Poorly connected areas reduce desirability, leading to less development and investment. Ultimately, this creates a vicious cycle in which marginalized communities don’t see the investment that is needed and then are continually reliant on bad transit. But if new investment and development don’t take into account this dynamic, growth can displace people.

Council District No. 7
Council District No. 7

Seattle’s Vision Zero plan aims to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injury by 2030. Do you think that target is achievable? Why or why not?

Hartmann said that Vision Zero was achievable some years but not all and it is a ‘laudable’ policy. He went on to note obstacles to Vision Zero and specifically mentioned at-grade light rail in Rainier Valley. This design is not conducive to Vision Zero because people make mistakes and it might take ‘a generation’ for people to get used to transit. Another obstacle he mentioned was that Seattle has a much more car-dependent culture than Sweden, where the policy was first pursued.

He praised aspects of the policy, for example lower speed limits. He said that people are much more likely to survive collisions when the speed of a vehicle is 25 as opposed to 30.

How best should the city accommodate the next 20 years of growth?

His primary observation was that a better job needs to be done identifying where growth would be good. He discussed South Lake Union, comparing its current state to what it looked like previously, and noted that hardly anyone would think auto dealerships were a better use of downtown land. One idea he mentioned was for the city to identify brownfields that could be redeveloped. This could be used to expand the area that feels like Seattle. He’s a big fan of mixed-use neighborhoods and points out this is largely necessary to get the local businesses that everyone loves in Seattle.

He talked a little bit about specific areas that might be prime for growth, pointing south towards the industrially-zoned area of the city. He says many of these areas could likely be better used, for example areas around SODO, but also acknowledged the political pushback that would likely be seen from the port. As the pressure to build more housing grows, this political battle will likely become easier.

What is the most important transportation project in your district?

Hartmann immediately pointed to the Westlake Cycle Track. He said he strongly dislikes the current design that crams pedestrians and bikers into the same, small space. Additionally, the path has many areas that are completely unusable for people who bike due to old railroad ties. When asked about the tunnel, he said that it is a ‘complete nightmare for the seventh.’ He said the viaduct is ultimately going to go away but the people who currently commute and use downtown exits get basically nothing from the tunnel.

Read our interview with other District 7 candidate, Sally Bagshaw.

2015 Seattle City Council Election, District 5: Halei Watkins Interview

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halei-watkins
Halei Watkins

Article Note: The Urbanist is publishing a series of interviews with a selection of 2015 Seattle City Council candidates. In June, we will release our endorsements.

Halei Watkins is a community organizer with Planned Parenthood and previously worked on the marriage equality campaign. She is also a renter, living in the fifth district with her husband who is working two jobs while attending school. She dedicated most of her career to issues she cares about, focusing on community organizing because she believes it empowers people. She is a political newcomer in the sense that she hasn’t been elected to any prior office.

What would you do to make housing affordable to everyone in Seattle?

Watkins responded to this question with specific points about many of the policies being discussed. She mentioned there’s an array of tools but focused in on three. First, she said the city needs to examine the MFTE program. She pointed to legislation the Council passed extending the MFTE program to people making just 40% AMI living in small efficiency dwelling units (i.e., micro housing) and indicated that lowering the threshold for larger units below 60-85% would be good. Furthermore, she thinks the program could be expanded.

The second area she said needs improvement are the city policies on ADUs and DADUs. She suggested that the city could do a much better job encouraging these. Specifically she said the city could reduce parking requirements, permitting burdens and setbacks.

Lastly, she noted that she supported the linkage fee because it is important to have mixed income neighborhoods and the city desperately needs more revenue for affordable housing.

How does planning, transit policy, and development affect racial, social, and economic inequalities in our city? What policies and efforts can make to combat these inequalities?

Watkins said that we simply can’t talk about transit and planning without discussing equity and that she views policy through a social justice framework. Referring to her own district, she said that Lake City is one of the lowest income areas in the Seattle and has poor transit connections. Additionally, many of the areas that are missing sidewalks or have poor drainage are low income areas and this is the result of inequitable investment.

She said that transit serves a critical role of reducing boundaries in the city, providing access to investments and opportunities for people with lower incomes. Furthermore, planning directly affects whether or not the city sees mixed income neighborhoods and she is a big proponent of efforts to encourage these communities.

Council District No. 5
Council District No. 5

Seattle’s Vision Zero plan aims to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injury by 2030. Do you think that target is achievable? Why or why not?

Watkins said, “Yes,” Vision Zero is achievable but the city will need to make the right investments. The first step to doing this would be adopting the Move Seattle levy. She is cautiously optimistic that this money could be used on investments to achieve Vision Zero. For example, the intersection of Lake City Way and 24th is being worked on now to make it safer.

How best should the city accommodate the next 20 years of growth?

Watkins said that ‘first and foremost’ we will need to build a lot more housing. She said growth should be Transit Oriented Development and North Seattle has a ton of potential due to light rail expansion and under-utilized parcels. She is personally hoping for a station at 130th street in order to help accommodate much of the expected growth. Additionally, she thinks Lake City has a ton of potential. Keeping all this in mind, it is absolutely necessary Seattle builds affordable housing near transit. When asked about the comprehensive plan options, she said that she would like choose option three or four.

What is the most important transportation project in your district?

Watkins thinks that the Northgate Bike and Pedestrian bridge is the most important project. The bridge would help connect a community that is severed by the highway and expand access to a light rail station. She noted that the bridge would cut some walks from one and a half miles to half a mile. Essentially, this small investment expands access to one of the largest investments in her district, light rail.

Read our interviews with other District 5 candidates, Sandy Brown and Debora Juarez.

Driverless Technology: Still Not Ready For The Future City

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It wasn’t until the last two centuries that the advancement in mobility really took off globally. Before then, the mainstay of fast land-based mobility was the horse. If you were lucky, you could afford one; and if you were independently wealthy, you could afford enough of them to pull you by carriage. Most people had but their own two feet to get around on a day-to-day basis. Nevertheless, the 19th Century saw the introduction of major mobility changes: the locomotive in 1804, the bicycle (lovingly known as the velocipede) in the mid-1800s, and then the first electric streetcars in the 1860s. These were earth-shattering advancements in their own way because they expanded the speed and distance at which people could travel setting the stage for the rapid growth and industrialization of cities like New York, Cleveland, and even Spokane. It was the age of the city.

Meanwhile, the 20th Century took a completely different turn, so to speak, by transitioning to the car economy. Henry Ford’s Model T offered the first real independent alternative to shared modes like locomotives, streetcars, and horse-drawn carriages for mid- to long-distance travel. Not only was it durable and quick, it was relatively affordable to individuals. From there, the car industry grew rapidly and constantly refined its product for the masses. Cities again responded to the new changes that came with the car through the establishment of speed limits, separation of modes in right-of-ways, the institution of laws to impede the rights of pedestrians, and ultimately the decline of other modes. It was the age of the car.

Now, motorized vehicles are taking another big leap with driverless technologies.

There’s a lot to like about these advancements no matter how pro-walk, pro-bike, pro-transit, or pro-urbanist you are. A driverless future promises some really great things: elimination of human fallibility, a lower ratio of private vehicles to people, less emissions, additional street capacity, and reduced costs of vehicles. Stick with me and consider that driverless cars actually have complementary urban benefits to an existing public transportation, walking, and biking system.

Like Uber or Car2Go, a shared driverless car network could provide a means to move many people around independently or together along a shared route. It’s conceivable that as mobile app technologies improve, this capability will be in a wide usage. In fact, Uber is already trying shared rides as part of their service in some markets with relative success. As an outgrowth of the sharing economy, the driverless car network is a natural fit given people’s willingness to not only carpool with co-workers, but couch-surf abroad with people they’ve never met.

Another brilliant aspect of this is that the desire for both redundant numbers of private cars and the storage of them (parking) will dramatically decline as shared driverless cars increase. In Seattle, data from Car2Go alone has shown that thousands of members have ditched their cars entirely. We have every reason to believe that this would hold true for a shared driverless car network. Meanwhile, from a cost standpoint, the absence of direct labor to managing driverless cars (that is, physically driving them) would extend to all sectors of the market that employs driver: transit, logistics, taxis, and more.

But perhaps the most compelling reasons for why driverless cars will be complementary to cities is their safety. People are inherently flawed: they break laws intentionally and unintentionally, they make poor choices like drinking or texting, and occasionally they simply become distracted or incapacitated. In all of these instances, there are chances for tragedy to strike. If programmed correctly, technology can serve the safety of all much better than any one individual can even on their best of days. The typical human flaws are not present in the decision-making and handling of a car operated by a computer. Instead, the car operates by the rules set by the manufacturer, local regulations, and upon the surrounding conditions.

Despite this though, it’s possible that driverless cars will be a victim of their own success. For one, declining vehicle ownership will directly impact the bottomline of car manufacturers and retails. For another, there are still limitations to what driverless cars can do. Like any mode in a system, there is a maximum carrying capacity for it–no matter how efficient it may be. But there are other reasons to give us pause for concern.

Eric Jaffe of CityLab penned an article last week that discussed a fairly dystopic vision for city streets being researched by a group at MIT. Researchers of the project known as “DriveWAVE” want to create fast, signal-free intersections. But, they went about it completely the wrong way by neglecting to consider that people also, you know, don’t always drive. Here’s what Jaffe had to say:

The first thing to notice is how truly terrifying it would be—at least initially—to ride in a driverless car going that fast through an intersection. Seriously: pause the video at 44 seconds and see how narrowly the car turning left avoids being slammed by another going straight. When you ride in a self-driving car, you quickly learn to trust it; in fact, Google has said its early test riders trusted the car too much on highways. But having faith in a computerized intersection overlord to orchestrate so much city traffic at such great speeds will require a steep period of public adjustment.

The second thing to note is far more important: Where are all the pedestrians and bike riders? (Hat tip to Columbia University planning professor David Kingfor bringing this to our attention.) Keep in mind this wasn’t some remote crossing being modeled; it was the intersection of Massachusetts and Columbus avenues in Boston. Here’s the Google Street View, complete with cyclists and walkers:

There’s an obvious reason why an “intelligent intersection” would want to eliminate people crossing on foot or by bike: they’d slow things down. But it would be a huge mistake for cities to undo all the progress being made on human-scale street design just to accommodate a perfect algorithm of car movement. If the result is that driverless cars need to move through cities at sub-optimal speeds, then so be it. We won’t be losing as much productivity to traffic as we do today, anyway.

Perhaps most bizarrely is that the MIT researchers hail from Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the most urban and vibrant places for walking and biking in the Boston area. But maybe the goals the researchers aren’t as charitable as Jaffe conjectures. At best, their model is an algorithm for fast, seamless driverless car travel which could sound attractive to the average driver mired in daily congestion. At worst, there are greater goals of returning us to the same pattern of suburbanization, which has had dire consequences on an incredible range of environmental, social, and economic realms.

It’s doubtful that most cities would succumb to the dystopic future offered by DriveWAVE. In recent decades, there has been a huge resurgence in demand for dense, walkable cities and districts. Fundamentally, people want streets for all purposes: bike lanes, woonerfs, more safe crosswalks, smaller lanes, and even parklets. They aren’t asking for more segregation and less safety brought by the car. But let’s not be naive, there are some places that share the DriveWAVE dream. And for that reason, it’s worth challenging cynical ideas like DriveWAVE before they ever have a chance of hitting our streets.

Still, another thought-provoking point was raised by Tanay Jaipuria who discussed the ethics of driverless cars through the lens of “The Trolley Problem”. Despite all the advancements in mobility technologies, is this the fundamental issue that we face in the future city of driverless cars?

Say a trolley is heading down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks are five people tied down who cannot move. The trolley is headed straight for them, and will kill them. You are standing some distance ahead, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley switches to a different set of tracks, on which there is one person. You have two options:

1. Do nothing, in which case the trolley kills the 5 people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, in which case the trolley changes tracks and kills the one person on the side track.

What should you do?

2015 Seattle City Council Election, District 5: Sandy Brown Interview

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Article Note: The Urbanist is publishing a series of interviews with a selection of 2015 Seattle City Council candidates. In June, we will release our endorsements.

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Sandy Brown

Sandy Brown is running for Seattle City Council in District 5. Brown has been a leader in the faith community for 30 years, and a social justice advocate for 15 years. He was a founding member of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, and helped lead the campaigns in favor of R-74 (marriage equality) and I-594 (expanded background checks for gun purchases).

What would you do to make housing affordable for everyone in Seattle?

Brown believes that the city’s top priority should be providing housing for people earning between 0-30% of the area median income (AMI). He called for strongly subsidizing this type of housing, through measures such as an expanded housing levy, reuse of surplus city/county housing, linkage fees, real estate excise taxes, and using the city and county’s surplus bonding capacity.

For people earning between 30-80% of AMI, Brown believes that we need both subsidies and supply increases. He supports the multi-family tax exemption. He thinks that the solution will require both public and private efforts, and he wants to find ways to encourage the development of market-rate workforce housing.

Brown also mentioned that he is a proponent of “well-done apodments”, saying, “Maybe we don’t all need to live in 3,500 square foot houses with 3-car garages”.

How does planning, transit policy, and development affect racial, social, and economic inequalities in our city? What policies and efforts can we make to combat these inequalities?

Brown observed that while many people think of North Seattle as predominately white, Lake City has the third-highest population of people of color in Seattle. He noted that the relative lack of effective east-west transit makes it hard to effectively connect communities like Bitter Lake and Broadview with Lake City. In his words, “diversity everywhere is good for us”. He believes that better transit is key to promoting blending and interaction, and that high-quality transit will enable people to find affordable housing while still being able to access jobs in the center city.

In addition to better east-west transit, Brown specifically called for expanding the trolleybus network into North Seattle.

Council District No. 5
Council District No. 5

Seattle’s Vision Zero plan aims to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. Do you think that this target is achievable? Why or why not?

Brown does think that the target is achievable. He was a bit nervous from his experience with the Coalition to End Homelessness, which failed to meet its goal of ending homelessness in 10 years. Even so, he believes that Vision Zero is a worthy goal that should be pursued. He noted its similarity to gun legislation, stating that “if [Vision Zero] saves one life, then it’s worthy”. He praised the decision to launch Vision Zero in Lake City, stating that North Seattle needs pedestrian infrastructure more than anywhere else in Seattle.

Brown supports the city’s street rechannelization program (also known as “road diets”), as well as Move Seattle, particularly its full funding of the Safe Routes To School Program.

Brown believes that Vision Zero-style street improvements have benefits beyond safety. He noted that many Seattle residents told him how they dislike fast traffic along the residential streets by their homes. He believes that calmer traffic “opens up areas” and makes neighborhoods more pleasant, as well as reducing pedestrian fatalities.

How best should the city accommodate the next 20 years of growth?

Brown thinks that the city needs to go further than “mapping where density will be”, and needs to focus on the quality of the places where growth is being directed. He noted that “walkability is a quality that happy cities share”. He supports the creation of European-style pedestrian zones throughout Seattle, including one in Lake City around NE 125th St / 30th Ave NE, as well as others in downtown Seattle.

Brown worries that “passive” zoning isn’t sufficient to create high-quality places. He wants to see more “active” solutions, where the city calls out to stakeholders and asks them to build something that the community needs, like a grocery store in Northgate.

Brown supports transit-oriented development (TOD). He pointed to 130th St (near the proposed future Link station) as an example of a good location for TOD, and called for an east-west bus route along the street.

Finally, Brown noted that he is concerned about displacement, especially of renters who don’t have the ability to benefit from rising land values by selling their home. He believes that some sort of mitigation will be needed.

What is the most important transportation project in your district?

Brown pointed to the Northgate light rail station, stating that it will “change the face of the north end” when it opens in five years.

Brown also stated that Aurora Ave N is “crying out for something to happen”, and wishes that it had been included in Move Seattle. He cited Shoreline’s redevelopment of the corridor as a great example of what Seattle could do. He noted that there is a great opportunity for the state legislature to get involved, since Aurora is a state highway (SR-99). He observed that Lake City Way is in a similar situation.

Read our interviews with other District 5 candidates, Halei Watkins and Debora Juarez.