Wednesday, 18 September, 2019

City As Affordable Housing Developer?

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Guided Tour Youth Olympic Village at Jan 11th as part of the Innsbruck 2012 YOG
Passivhaus development in Innsbruck. Courtesy of Innsbruck 2012.

It should be painfully obvious by now that a ‘free market solution’ to low-income housing (and at this rate—even quality, affordable housing) in Seattle is getting further and further from reach. Seattle’s Office of Housing is doing what it can, spending roughly $34 million in 2012, with much of that stemming from the 2009 housing levy. While this is a good start, it falls well short of the critical need, and a large portion of that funding was loans to non-profit developers.

But what if we, the enlightened denizens of Seattle, pushed for the City to take on a greater role in the development of affordable and low-income units? Could the City itself become a non-profit developer of sorts, taking on construction, development and funding of large scale affordable housing projects? Could we position ourselves as a leader in addressing critical housing shortages while at the same time pushing innovative, high-quality, low-energy buildings for low-income residents? If this region ever decided this was a viable option (and I’d posit that it is), then perhaps Neue Heimat Tirol (NHT) could be a solid role model.

Neue Heimat Tirol is a non-profit developer jointly owned by the Bundesland of Tirol and the Tyrolean capital, Innsbruck. Founded as a for-profit venture in 1939, by 1968, after post-war construction slowed, the organization’s nearly worthless shares were picked up by the State and City. Today, NHT is one of the largest housing suppliers in Western Austria—providing attractive, clean and affordable social housing. NHT develops, rehabilitates and manages a variety of projects—rentals, condos, and elderly residences—with many incorporating secondary functions, such as kindergartens, schools, and community centers.

Lest you think I’m pulling this organization out of thin air, I do have some rationale for my choice. Presently, Innsbruck’s median condo cost/square foot prices are comparable to Seattle’s (approximately $340/sf for both). Tirol’s population (714,500) is also comparable to Seattle’s. Tirol also happens to have a phenomenal wood-based, low/mid-rise, digital fabrication and high performance building sector which should really be reason enough to imitate. Furthermore, the geography and labor costs are also comparable to our region. Over the last decade, NHT has seen tremendous growth, presently managing nearly $160M of construction per year—both in new projects ($120M) and energetically-focused rehabs ($40M).

More below the jump.

Sunday Video: 137 Years of Sprawl

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Los Angeles by NYU STERN URBANIZATION PROJECT on YouTube.

New York University Stern has studied 30 global cities and their urbanization patterns. So far the college has posted three videos on YouTube showing the rapid sprawl of Paris, Los Angeles, and São Paulo. I’d be curious to see what the sprawling pattern looks like for our very own Seattle.

What We’re Reading: 50 Shades of Green

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Volunteer Park Seattle

 Volunteer Park Seattle. By Dazzling Places.com Seattle – licenseoriginal

 

Half-funded 520 section through Montlake will get half-constructed starting this summer

The Plan That Could Finally Free New York City From Traffic Congestion

Low parking costs may encourage automobile use

Huge increase in crude oil by rail to Bay Area concerns local leaders

How British Columbia Enacted the Most Effective Carbon Tax in North America

Are Big, Rich Cities Greener Than Poor Ones?

The parklets are coming, the parklets are coming!

Seattle tax district would support parks and community centers

City main street networks show a drastic shift away from historic patterns of human-scale design

The 39th Ave NE greenway could soon reach NE 90th Street

‘The Simpsons’ Unveils a New Springfield Public Transit Map

Dangerous Madison Park crossing, 23rd Ave intersection, First Hill sidewalk considered for city fund

Is Your City’s Street Grid Really a Grid?

3 Charts: Bus Cuts Drive Riders Away

2013-2014 Amendments to Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan

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City of Seattle Comprehensive Plan Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan is a constantly evolving policy document. Beyond the state-required update every 10 years, amendments to the Comprehensive Plan can be made annually through the Annual Docket process. Proposed amendments can be initiated by the public, City Council, or the Executive departments.

The Department of Planning and Development works with the Council and the Planning Commission to determine which proposals should move forward for further review. Once this happens, there is consultation through the process with other departments and Council as the proposals are drafted. Council ultimately reviews and approves a set of amendments to the Comprehensive Plan.

For the 2013-2014 amendment cycle, DPD has evaluated a number of proposed changes with two given the green light for Council consideration. The areas within the scope of the review are the Central Area and Interbay. The proposed amendments for the Central Area would involve revisions to policy text and a future land use map designation change. Meanwhile, the proposed amendment for Interbay consists a future land use map designation change for three parcels.

On Tuesday, the City Council’s Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee held a public hearing on the proposed amendments. A follow-up meeting for PLUS is scheduled for April 18th, essentially the last step before a full Council vote can be held on the matter.

More after the jump.

5 Questions About Building Big Buildings

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South Lake Union Construction by clappstar on Flickr.

Seattle is experiencing one of, if not the greatest, building booms in its history. A short walk north from the central business district, yields sightlines filled with cranes eschewing in the beginnings of new high rise structures and large multi-family homes. Below the streets, deep and often massive trenches and excavation pits fill the ground like the great open pit mining operations of the American Southwest. Seattle’s northern skyline is stretching skyward, and it is doing so quickly.

For the average engineer and/or construction manager, this work has them anxious and excited for the present and the future. More building, means more business, and therefore more money and job security. But, for the average pedestrian waiting for the delayed 71 bus during rush hour on Fairview, 400 Fairview is a giant hole of questions, chaotic motion and a temporary distraction from yet another OneBusAway refresh update. As a construction management project engineer, I often find myself explaining to friends, family, and occasionally the random passer-by, the behind the scenes process for each of these projects. I could write ad nauseam about building a skyscraper from bottom to top, so instead I will discuss the top 5 questions I am commonly asked about large commercial and residential construction.

More after the jump.

Westlake Cycle Track Design Advisory Committee

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westlake
Attributed to: SDOT

The Mayor recently appointed a design advisory committee for the Westlake Cycle Track. If you’re unfamiliar with the history of this project and its struggles, the Seattle Bike Blog provides good primers on the saga. To summarize, this committee is the direct result of a lawsuit.

For community and grassroots activists, lawsuits are a conventional tool used to force government organizations to follow the law. Groups that have an interest in specific laws will often monitor whether the government is meeting its legal requirements and sue if they aren’t. Lawsuits are vitally important because they are often the last recourse when the government isn’t fulfilling its duties. For example, the ACLU frequently uses this tactic like in a recent case of suspicionless laptop searches at border control.

Unfortunately, many activist groups use lawsuits in a more disingenuous manner. Simply filing a lawsuit has costs to the defendant. These costs can be very high even if the suit is dropped or the defendant wins. The tactic is especially insidious when suing government organizations since they are generally risk averse. This means that lawsuits can easily be used as threats or bargaining chips to exert power.

A simple test of whether or not a lawsuit is reasonable is to ask: “If the plaintiff won, would they achieve their goals?”  In regards to the Westlake Cycle Track, a group of individuals opposed how the project was moving forward and filed a lawsuit to stop the Bicycle Master Plan. If you ask this question in light of this instance, the answer would be no. If the lawsuit proceeded and the plaintiff won, it wouldn’t stop the project. The plaintiffs simply used the lawsuit because it provided them leverage.

When the city was presented with the choice of delaying the Bicycle Master Plan but proceeding with the Westlake Cycle Track or ceding to the demands of this interest group so that they would drop the lawsuit, the City ceded to their demands. I can’t definitively say whether this was a good solution withoutmore intimate knowledge of the circumstances. But it deeply worries me for two reasons:

1. There is a greater danger that the Westlake Cycle Track will be implemented in a manner thatover-emphasizes this small group of stakeholders and doesn’t prioritize the safety of people first.

2. Other groups will see this as an effective tactic to get what they want from the City.

The first concern is illustrated a couple ways. First, take a look at who was chosen for the citizen advisory committee. The group filing the lawsuit was rewarded with two positions on the committee. This is in addition to the individuals that are representing similar interests. You can see a breakdown here:

SDOT   Westlake Avenue North Cycle Track
Attributed to: SDOT

Besides the composition of the group, SDOT also decided to take feedback via an online questionnaire from only residents and businesses on Westlake, rather than everyone in the city. The form had many questions asking specifically about motor vehicle access, including parking and driving. But it had no questions about safety or pedestrian and bicycle access.

That said, the advisory group has strong representation from people concerned about public access and safety. And the group is only advisory; all final decisions are left to SDOT.

It is unclear how much influence this group will have in the end, but their impact may be bigger than this specific project  — which leads me to my second point. The larger concern is giving into the demands of a group that files an off-topic lawsuit.

If we concede to the demands of a group that threatens suit over an unrelated topic, there is a serious threat to important projects. Whenever an interest group is not getting what it wants, it can attack its opponents with a lawsuit. This strategy usually means that bigger, more important priorities will come under threat. These projects provide the most leverage. Furthermore, this tactic can be used endlessly. Dropping the present lawsuit doesn’t preclude this group from suingagain if SDOT comes back with recommendations they dislike. If stakeholders use this strategy enough, it can result in a completely hamstrung and ineffective government.

An environment in which people are willing to prevent important projects in order to pursue their narrow interests is unhelpful to everyone. It’s important that we do not encourage these kind of tactics. To break this cycle, we have to demonstrate that disagreements over particular projects should remain within the scope of those projects and that there is a very big downside for groups that don’t accept this. The best way to accomplish this is to support the goals of the stakeholders involved in the Westlake Cycle track who didn’t use this strategy.

You can read more and advocate for a solution that puts safety and public access first by visiting the Westlake Cycle Track page.

Cats Love King County Metro, Too

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The Adventures of Fluffy: Too Many Cats, Not Enough Buses by Mark LaFalce on YouTube.

Cat lovers and transit lovers, unite! This video hits the point home that transit cuts don’t affect just cat riders, they affect all users of our transport network and the viability of our regional urban fabric.

That’s why we at The Urbanist encourage you to vote YES on Proposition 1. And while you’re at it, get all of your cat loving friends to do the same!

You can also help get the Yes message out by contributing to the Move King County Now campaign. Tomorrow (April 2nd) is a great opportunity to do this if drinks and food is your thing. Seattle Subway will be holding a fundraiser at Hattie’s Hat in Ballard. The event starts at 5.30pm with special guest Seattle Council Member Mike O’Brien in attendance. In tandem with the event, the Seattle Transit Blog plans to host a meetup. We hope to see you there! (But you may want to leave the cats at home.)

Subterfuge

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358 night

 

John (a different John, not the fellow from the 358 posts) seems to come from another age. Multicolored crumbs pepper his dry lips and beard. His eyes are glassy, sometimes present, sometimes far away. A gentle cloud of paraphernalia seems to drift ever around him- garbage bags on their last legs, the red handles stretched from overuse; backpacks and shoulder packs, hanging off this shoulder, or that one. Here is a man who needs three arms.

The better part of his wardrobe lays heavy on his back. Dark jacket over dark jacket weighing down his drifting figure, halftone layers of brown and gray, with a coating of grime unifying it all. He would sit at Rainier and Bayview in the summer evenings, barely able to talk, but always ready to smile.

You would wonder if he was lucid enough to be aware of your existence, and then he’d look you in the eye, responding graciously to your greeting. Today I’m at the 358 layover, my door open, leaning on the farebox with my book (Dumas), when John comes ambling by. He stops when he sees me.

“Heeeeey,” I exclaim, recognizing him.
“Hey, man! I need a taste o’ ‘caine!”
“Oh yeah?”
“Yeah, I’m just hunting’ for a little bit o’ ‘caine. Hey, congratulations on supervisor!”
“What, me? Naw man, I’m still just a regular old bus driver!”
“Aw what? They told me some young Chinese guy went supe.”
“Huh.”
“I didn’t mean to imply…”
“Oh, no, I like bus…” What was I about to say? Where am I going with this? I like buses? I’m not Chinese? Best to tack outward a little- “I’m glad you said hey! I see you got shoes now, that’s some good stuff!”

This is the first time I’ve seen him walking in something other than scuffed, oversize white socks. The bones in his feet seem fused awkwardly. They are large, and he’s unable to “walk,” in the traditional sense, but he gets by doing the shuffle.

“Yeah, I remember you from that 7 route!”
“Glad you’re still hangin’ around!”
“You moved up in the world, I see,” he announces, looking for the route number. “What’s this?”
“358s!”
“Oh.” Silence.
“I love it. It’s like the 7, long and straight!”
“Yeah, they’s some good ones. I like that one out by the arsenal.”
“Magnolia, yeah! 24, 33…”
“Mostly older folks.”
“Real quiet out there.”
“Yeah. Nice to get away for a second,” he remarks wistfully.
“Oh, the park’s beautiful.”
“Except them drills though.”
“Drills. What kinda drills?”
“The army guys, they run these drills, all kinds a hours…” Discovery Park is built on the historic grounds of Fort Lawton, and still contains adjacent military properties and housing. He continued, “I was out there real early one morning, and they surrounded me with quiet subterfuge!”
“Those army guys really like to play around out there, huh?”

Right when he said the word “subterfuge,” I felt the budding sensation of learning something new. Nobody on the street says subterfuge- except when they do. Who was I, to assume he didn’t know the word? There are facets and details in the lives of others we can’t pretend to fathom.

A blind senior passenger recently told me he was a chauffeur for celebrities back in his day (“Ah was that mista Daisy,” he explained), and although I was skeptical, I had to admit there was a very small chance that yes, it was in fact possible. Subterfuge. In that moment the word took on a new meaning- there are multitudes within me, despite my appearance. I, John, am not a homeless drug addict; I am a person who happens to be homeless and addicted, and there is more that defines me.

To have my belief in depth, regardless of appearance, confirmed, was profoundly electrifying, if such a reaction is possible. It’s the freeing feeling of an open door, and the welcome wave of understanding that no, you don’t know everything about this universe, and there is still space for pleasant surprises. I grinned out at John, unable to explain just why.

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