Sunday, 31 May, 2020

New Bike Counters in Bellevue

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Bellevue Bike Counter
Seattle-bound commuter rides over the new bike counter.

The first two bike counters in the city of Bellevue were installed on the I-90 and SR-520 trails in the first week of March. The I-90 trail counter is located just east of the East Channel Bridge, while the SR-520 trail counter is located at the western end of Bellevue’s segment, right before the trail ends on NE 24th St.

The counters are loop detectors built across the trail (see image to right), much like those installed in Seattle on the Fremont Bridge and West Seattle Bridge, but without the visual interface. Some parts of Seattle already have similar bike counters that forego the visual interface, including one on the west end of the I-90 floating bridge.

Funded by Washington State Department of Transportation, the two bike counters will monitor bike traffic at the two locations and help guide Bellevue’s future bike infrastructure investments. More bike counters are expected to appear throughout the city later this year through a grant provided by Cascade Bicycle Club. The future sites of these counters is currently undetermined.

How to Make an Attractive City

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Only a few cities in the world are truly beautiful—and none of them were built in recent history. At least, that’s what folks at the YouTube channel The School of Life say. In their video “How to Make an Attractive City,” they lay out six fundamental rules cities need to be beautiful. Below is a summary of their urban vision, and a response about what they get wrong.

Not Too Chaotic; Not Too Ordered

An ordered city has balance, symmetry, and repetition. When it’s a mess, it feels like no one is in charge—like a skyscraper springing out of a low-density neighborhood—while excessive repetition is harsh and bleak.

Cities should seek order and variety to create organized complexity. The city of Telc in the Czech Republic, for example, requires that every home is the same width and height but they are allowed to vary in form and color, allowing passersby to focus on a few key differences without being over stimulated.

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Homes in Telc, Czech Republic–courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

Visible Life

Modern cities are filled with brutal, anonymous office buildings on dead streets connected by cold freeways. There is no life or activity on the ground, even as colorful ideas percolate inside.

The streets we love are alive with activity. They are filled with people and lined with transparent storefronts that allow us to see people at work.

Imagine if a pipeline were placed across a scenic river—people would throw a fit (and they have). But the Roman aqueduct isn’t upsetting because it blends functionality with a beautiful form. It’s not the pipe we hate, but the ugliness.

Compact

We’re under the illusion that we want to live alone. “More and more people,” they say, “tuck themselves away in a private realm—and it’s been a disaster. It’s become deadly, cold, boring, and very, very wasteful on the environment.”

Beautiful cities have bustling public squares where people can drink coffee or read the newspaper. These squares should be intimate and enclosed enough to feel like an extension of your home, but large enough to give us relief from our cozy private quarters. They even offer an ideal size: 30 meters across. If it’s too large, we feel dislocated and out of proportion—you should be able to recognize a face across the square. It should feel contained, but not claustrophobic.

Orientation and mystery

We need small back streets to feel cozy and get lost with wide boulevards to help us navigate and establish a sense of place.

Close proximity to our neighbors is also important, since people are nicer when they’re always a bit on display.

Scale

The showpieces of a city show our priorities as a society—and currently it’s giant towers housing even bigger corporations. Often cities are known for their most iconic skyscrapers—be it the Sears Tower in Chicago, Chrysler Building in New York, or Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco. The big things show what we want because they demand our attention.

We should reserve the honor to symbols of our higher priorities. “Towers have to be worthy of their prominence. They must be aligned with our best ambitions and long term needs.” That’s why they propose a general height limit of five-stories with dense, compact development.

Make it Local

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The Pioneer Building in Pioneer Square features gray sandstone from Bellingham Bay–courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Each city has its own culture, character, strengths, and weaknesses. They should connect their character with distinctive local materials and forms. In Seattle, that might mean rich cedars and local sandstone. Setting a distinctive character gives a city a sense of place and a unique identity. If a city is too generic, there is no reason to live, work, or visit it over any other city.

The Two Main Obstacles

First, an intellectual confusion about beauty. “We think that no one has a right to say what’s beautiful and what’s ugly.” But this type of relativism is dangerous, and leaves the community vulnerable to the aesthetic whims of each developer.

We know which cities are beautiful, and we can tell by the crowds of tourists they attract. So we ought to develop a scientific approach to beauty and enforce it through government regulation.

That leads us to the second obstacle: a lack of political will. We’ve given over the responsibility to build beautiful cities to private corporations. “Beautiful cities have only ever been created when cities impose strict and ambitious regulations,” they claim.

The goal of building is to make us not regret the nature that’s been lost. People need to decide on their local flavor of beauty and gather the political will to enforce it. That’s how we’ll build the next beautiful city.

What they get wrong

The proposal suffers from tunnel vision—it sacrifices function for beauty, it forsakes the variety it claims is essential to good living, and it shoehorns other essential traits of great cities under an aesthetic umbrella.

Cities are human habitat. They need to be healthy, productive, enriching, and functional—not just beautiful. Active and bustling streets are important because they build strong economies, offer mental and social stimulation, and provide a density that makes public investments worthwhile. It’s hard to say a bustling street is beautiful, per se, and even harder to say it’s important primarily for that reason.

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First Hill Plaza–courtesy of seattlecondoloft.com

Most great cities did not arise from ambitious regulations, but rather formed organically over hundreds of years. It’s overly strict regulation that can stifle the complexity and variety that give a city its beauty and function. Regulations are great at keeping the worst of urban planning at bay. But they’re not responsible for bringing the best either. Many zoning laws are responsible for the very auto-oriented dead zones that the video decries in modern cities.

In talking about scale, they’re right in asserting that density looks and functions best when focused rather than peppered through a city. A skyscraper can stick out like a sore thumb in a low-rise neighborhood—like the 33-story First Hill Plaza that sparked a sharp community response and new zoning legislation. But the solution isn’t to enact five-story height limits. It’s to create and expand the urban village model that Seattle has become famous for. It’s to put density where it belongs.

Finally, cities must provide varying levels of activity and privacy for their residents. Many seek out urban environments for their bubbling activity and social nature. But some will always need and want a quiet, private place to relax and recharge. It is unfounded to say that we all secretly like being on display to our neighbors. And a city that operates on this assumption will be an unattractive home to many.

Conclusion

The video does a service in making the case for beautiful cities. Too often beauty can be lost to function, leading to soulless and uninspiring cities that leave people feeling lost and disconnected. But a beautiful city without function is its own vice. Finding a balance and respecting the variety of ways that can be achieved is the formula for a great city.

Join The Urbanist for “Ballard: A Walk Through Time” This Saturday

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If you’re interested in the history of Ballard’s development, be sure to check out “Ballard: A Walk Through Time” this coming Saturday (March 14th). Caelen Ball, Neighborhood Advocate and contributor to The Urbanist, will be giving a tour starting at the bottom of Ballard Avenue guiding attendees from Ballard’s past to present — and possibly its future. The walking tour will begin at the corner of NW Ione Place and Ballard Avenue NW at 10:30 AM. We hope to see you there!

No “Average” Transit

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Downtown Seattle supported by transit.
Downtown Seattle supported by transit.

Back in December, the Seattle Hearing Examiner issued a decision that threw out a City land use code interpretation that allowed reductions to minimum parking requirements. The City’s interpretation centered on projects in multifamily and commercial zones and within one-quarter mile of frequent transit service. When located within these areas, a project could be exempt from or reduce the number of required parking spaces onsite based upon averaged headways for frequent transit service. The Hearing Examiner, however, took issue with that specific interpretation and ordered the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to withdraw it.

This put a number of projects in doubt because without relief from the Hearing Examiner’s strict code interpretation. Some projects in the city may no longer be economically viable or could see their end product costs rise drastically. Onsite parking costs about $30,000-$60,000 per stall (depending upon site conditions and whether parking is located above-ground or below-ground) and is ultimately added to housing and commercial construction costs. In a time when Seattle housing costs are rising quickly and elected officials are focused on ways to reduce or manage housing costs, not requiring expensive onsite parking is one way to provide more affordable housing.

The definition of “frequent transit service” is key here. Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) 23.84A.038 “T” defines frequent transit service as “transit service headways in at least one direction of 15 minutes or less for at least 12 hours per day, 6 days per week, and transit service headways of 30 minutes or less for at least 18 hours every day.” The Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) issued Director’s Rule (DR) 11-2012 in September 2012 to further clarify “frequent transit service” for the purposes of determining whether projects in multifamily and commercial zones qualify for the reduced parking requirement.

DR 11-2012 provided two methods for developers to determine whether a project qualifies for reduced on-site parking requirements:

  1. Using DPD’s dynamic mapping service (GIS) to identify lots that are within one-quarter mile of frequent transit service. Development sites within shaded areas on the maps were presumed to be within walking distance of frequent transit service.
  1. The prospective applicant could perform an analysis of transit frequency in a DPD-provided worksheet format and submit the findings with the permit application. Instructions for this worksheet specified:

“Frequent transit service means transit service headways in at least one direction of 15 minutes or less for at least 12 hours per day, 6 days per week, and 30 minutes or less for at least 18 hours every day:

  • Four or more pick-ups per hour (15 minute headway) on average over 12 hours per day, 6 days per week; and
  • Two or more pick-ups per hour (30 minute headway) on average for 18 hours every day.” [Emphasis added]

The Seattle City Council, understanding that reliable transit service allows residents to live without personal vehicles, enacted rules exempting or reducing minimum parking requirements when certain land use and transit frequency criteria are met.

SMC 23.54.020.F.2.a in particular provides that: “In multifamily and commercial zones, the minimum parking requirement for all uses is reduced by 50 percent if the use is located within 1,320 feet of a street with frequent transit service. The distance will be the walking distance measured from the nearest transit stop to the lot line of the lot containing the use.” In short, if a project is within a quarter mile of frequent transit, then it need only have half of the on-site parking that would otherwise be required.

In the decision to the Appeal of Neighbors Encouraging Reasonable Development (Hearing Examiner File: MUP-14-006 (DR, W); S-14-001), the Hearing Examiner held that “had the Council intended that headways be averaged, it could have inserted the word ‘average’ in two places within the definition to indicate that intent. It did not do so, and neither the Director nor the Examiner has the authority via statutory construction to add the word “average” to the term ‘headway’ in the definition of frequent transit service. Doing so would change the clearly stated meaning and the impact of the definition. This can be accomplished only through legislation.”

In response to the Hearing Examiner’s decision, DPD recently released proposed Director’s Rule 6-2015. The key differences between DR 11-2012 and Proposed DR 6-2015 are:

  1. DR 6-2015 does not provide for a DPD-maintained GIS map of property that is presumed to be within walking distance of frequent transit service; and
  2. Computation of headways is not permitted to be averaged.

The impacts of the Hearing Examiner’s decision and of DPD proposed update rule are this:

  • A number of multifamily housing units that were already in the permitting process with and that had relied on DR 11-2012 were found to not qualify for the reduced parking requirements under the new rules. Some of these projects will not be built.
  • Project applicants can no longer rely on a map to determine whether a project qualifies for reduced parking requirements and must undertake an analysis which adds costs to the project.
  • Projects that are served by frequent, reliable transit with headways of 16 or 17 minutes during certain time periods and much shorter headways during other time periods would not qualify.

Ultimately, the best way to fix the uncertainty created by the decision is legislative action by the City Council. A solution to this would be for the Seattle City Council to make the change referred to by the Hearing Examiner and to allow averaging to be used by DPD.  Another possible solution would be for DPD to generate a map approved by Council indicating property that is eligible for reduced parking requirements.

What We’re Reading: Unaffordable, Overburdened, Decaying, and Dysfunctional

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The Puget Sound from above, courtesy of Doc Searls.
The Puget Sound from above, courtesy of Doc Searls.

Making doughnuts: A look at 66 metro regions shows that a inner cities are doing much better than inner suburbs, although a doughnut effect is taking hold.

Disparate tastes: Who knew Girl Scout Cookies differed so greatly in taste and quality depending upon where you live.

Overburdened suburbs: The cost of sprawl is more than twice the cost of compact development.

Getting restructuredSeattle Transit Blog details some of the University Link restructure plan, more to come this week. We covered this earlier in the week.

New micros: A Capitol Hill apartment could soon be converted to microhousing.

You’re all wrong: Why the left and the right are both wrong on affordable housing.

Octopus down!: An octopus at the Seattle Aquarium almost got away. Almost. Meanwhile, the Seattle City Council will let the Woodland Park elephants move to Oklahoma ($).

Challenging affordabilityDevelopers mount a challenge to stop the City of Seattle from adopting a linkage fee on new development.

An inconsistency: A city council candidate that wants to stop foreclosure on homes bought a foreclosed home.

Violators beware: Parking in bike lane? You might just find your car with bike lane paint on it in Germany.

Sprawl fallout: How sprawl is deeply hurting cities like Tacoma in Pierce County.

Stalling out: Seattle’s bike plummeting bike collision rate may be stalling out.

Still No. 1: New York still rounds out the top for the most economically powerful city in the world, check out the rankings.

Saving the rentals: Berlin is banning rental conversions to condos because the supply of rentals is dwindling quickly.

Launching the streetcar: City officials want to get the streetcar on First Hill moving soon, and to do that, they plan to incentivize the manufacture to expedite delivery ($).

Not good enough: The Design Review Board wants to see a better plan for the Whole Foods block in First Hill.

Designing Capitol Hill: How the Pike Pine Urban Neighborhood Council fits into the planning process for historic Capitol Hill. Is there really a part for them to play?

Transpo failure: The brief synopsis of the politics at play in the Washington State Legislature for a transportation package.

Rent burdened: Understanding New York City’s rent affordability problem.

Sunday Video: Transportation Funding

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Friday New Discussion: Trasnportation by Strong Towns on Youtube.

Former Mayor Mike McGinn gets a bit nerdy and talks transportation with Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns, Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog, and Kevin Shepherd of Verdunity.

Randomosity

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Picture 2

 

He’s the younger guy with the fro cut to look like he’s wearing a pair of headphones.
If it was ever a fashion, it came and went quickly, but I suppose this young man wears it as well as one can. Our discussion starts by my asking if there’s another 7 right in front of us or not. It’s just so quiet on my bus; we’re deep into Saturday night and no one’s out here. The city’s unpredictable, we agree, or to use his words, “hella weird, man…”
“The weather, the people,”
“Yup. S’pos’ta be crowded, then fuhggin nobody nowhere,”
“It’s like the Twilight Zone out here. Feels like I’m doin’ somethin’ wrong!”
He laughs.

I’m trying to gauge if he wants to keep talking. What is there to lose, I think, asking him if he’s always lived in Seattle.
“Born and raised. Well, mostly rural Washington mostly. Fife, Sumner.” We discuss his background and mine, and my being part Korean.

Now he’s pontificating on girls he likes. He frames people by type, considering people in categories of race. He is to Filipino girls as Aristaeus lusted after Eurydice– hungry and filled with longing. He’s telling me how a trip to the southern United States is necessary when searching for “them rrreal black girls,” as the ones he’s encountered here don’t quite stir his fancy– or rather, “they don’t got they muhfuggin’ head right. You gotta go down souf.” If I have anything to say about it, the man has a lot more African-American women to meet in the greater Seattle area before arriving at such horrendously broad conclusions! But I’m here to listen. He waxes poetic on an earlier, simpler time involving himself and his “fitty hoes,” in a mini-narrative right out of The Arabian Nights.

An overweight Caucasian gentleman seated several rows back has been listening. As if Aristaeus has only just mentioned rural Washington, he hollers out:

“Fife! You must know Graham then!”
“Yeah, I know Graham!” says Aristaeus.
I listen as they bond over how they used to play on competing teams. They conclude with confidence that nothing surpasses playing high school sports while simultaneously smoking marijuana. For my part, I’m happy to see him conversing with a white person, as he had made some frustrated remarks on the subject earlier (read: “tired of them muthafuckin’ white folks keep sayin’ we all muthafuckin’ hustlers, all criminals.” “Perpetuatin’ the lie,” I translated. “Yeeeah,” he said, approving the translation).

At the stop underneath I-90 I notice a man outside whom I recognize, standing listless under the sodium vapor lamps. I yell out his name– “Traaan! Heeyy!”
Next to Tran is another man who also recognizes me, and yells a hello himself. Neither wants the bus, but they’re excited– two tattered, filthy, Dostoyevskian figures lurking in the shadows, wearing the most luminous smiles… I love this job, I think to myself. The second man, about twenty feet away from the doors, half-heartedly shouts a request for a transfer, to which I say, “next time, my friend, next time I gotchu!”
We all wish each other well. I drive away smiling to myself.

Aristaeus, who witnessed the interaction in silence, says, “man, you cool as fuck!”
“Just a little!” I say in response, making the relevant gesture with my thumb and forefinger.
“Naw man, you are. What are you, Colombian?”
I laugh. “Korean!”
“Oh that’s right, you said that like five times. Usually it’s a bunch a racist muhfuggas.”
“I try to make up for those guys!”
“Well. You’re doin’ it.” Two elderly African-American women seated next to him concur. “Thank you,” they say. “We appreciate that.”

However, Aristaeus is bubbling over in a way they are not. He rises, saying, “whuus yo name?”
“Nathan.”
“Nathan, Jeremiah.” We shake hands. He declares, in a voice pitched as if I were thirty feet away, “I’m ’bout to go make babies with my girlfriend tonight, and I’ma name my new baby Nathan!”
“Wow. Wow! That’s an honor!”
“I’m feelin’ you tonight, man.”
“That’s huge!”
“I’m inspired!” He steps off the bus, glowing.

Did he just say that? “Now that I have not heard before!” I quip, after he’s gone. The old ladies crack up.

Something about all this compels the overweight fellow from further back to shout, “Hey! Can you apply for McDonalds online?”
Take it all in stride– “I’m not a hundred percent sure, but yeah, I think you can! I’m gonna say yes!”
“Okay. Cool.”
“You thinkin’ about lookin’ into it?”
“Yeah, I’s thinkin’ about getting a job again. I need to do somethin’ with my life.”
“Yeah, might be all right. Little bit a extra money on the side.”
I continue gently inspiring him. Just pretend it’s normal, all of this, to be yelling between the front of the bus and the middle of the bus about McDonalds versus Jack in the Box. I propose applying while also tactfully suggesting not eating fast food every day. He’s on board with both counts.

“You got me feelin’ talkative tonight!” he yells, turning to the person next to him– a demure elderly woman– and asking how much she thinks he weighs. He stands up to give her a better picture to guess from. “I bet you think I’m two fifty.” They’re discussing nutrition and weight fluctuation now, two people who couldn’t seem less alike, deep in earnest conversation. “I used to be one seventy five, but I max out at two eighty!”

The wheels on the bus, turning ever onward…

Update on Proposed U Link Bus Route Restructures

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A glimpse at Alternative 1 of the U Link bus restructure plan, courtesy of King County Metro.
A glimpse at Alternative 1 of the U Link bus restructure plan, courtesy of King County Metro.

Metro updated their website Thursday afternoon with the official proposals for changes to bus routes around new University Link light rail stations, scheduled to begin in March 2016. The Urbanist’s post from Monday has been updated to reflect those changes. The official proposals include many differences from what the Sounding Board saw in February–differences which are too numerous to mention here. Check out the full proposed route schedule and other details on the Urbanist’s updated post and on Metro’s website.