Saturday, 16 January, 2021
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City Council Mulls Franchise Agreement with Comcast

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The City of Seattle has entered into a proposed agreement with the Comcast affiliated entity called “Comcast Cable Communications Management LLC”. Comcast recently entered into a separate agreement with the City of Philadelphia that offered more concessions for social equity than was originally agreed upon here in Seattle. The Mayor used that agreement as leverage in negotiations and wrote a letter requesting that the Comcast agreement be adjusted to provide comparable concessions. Reportedly, Comcast has agreed to these concessions and the revised agreement is now on the docket for approval at the City Council.

The Agreement

In reviewing the draft agreement, it primarily concerns itself with the contractual operational relationship between the City and the franchisee, the provision of service categories, basic standards for technology, and maintaining state of the art in the investment. This could mean that high energy consuming, voluminous set-top boxes could replaced by low energy consuming solid state devices. It could mean that coaxial cable plant could be replaced by high speed fiber inside the premises. Or, given the vagueness of this agreement, it could mean nothing changes.

As established in the agreement, the City recognizes ten principles for the franchisee to adhere to:

(A) Ensure that Seattle stays at the forefront of technology by keeping the Cable System up to date with features meeting the current and future cable-related needs and interests of the community;

(B) Encourage the widest feasible scope and diversity of Programming and other services to all City residents consistent with community needs and interests;

(C) Encourage competitive, affordable, and equal access to advanced communications services of all kinds to residents of the City of Seattle on a non-discriminatory basis;

(D) Ensure that Seattle residents have the opportunity to view public, educational, and governmental Programming;

(E) Ensure that rates and charges for cable Programming, equipment, and services provided over the Cable System are affordable and consistent with federal standards;

(F) Ensure that Seattle residents receive high quality customer service;

(G) Ensure that the City receives appropriate compensation for the use of its facilities and property and that installation and maintenance of cable Facilities comply with all applicable City regulations, and do not interfere with the City’s legitimate use of its own facilities and property;

(H) Encourage competition among Cable Operators and between Cable Operators and other providers of communications services;

(I) Protect the City’s interests and the health, safety, and welfare of its residents; and

(J) Provide for timely mandatory Government Access to all Cable Systems in times of civil emergency.

What this agreement does not address are specific standards for customer relations, service standards — except non-discrimination based on protected class categories. It merely provides language that prohibits non-discrimination based on geographical location within the franchise area, but it is not clear that this obligates the franchisee to provide service to every building, or address in the city.

And ostensibly, the agreement does not cover any provision of Internet service within the franchise area. While Comcast will naturally offer this service, it will not be regulated in any way by the city. This leaves the city’s residents to the whims of the market which has behaved by consolidating, reducing competition, reducing investment, forestalling innovation and leaves the consumer to pay more and more for less and less.

Yet, there are positive aspects to this package. As agreed, the agreement will deliver:

  • 600 free cable modem Internet connections to non-profit organizations serving Seattle residents, valued at approximately $10 million. These connections help increase digital equity by increasing the number of sites where the public can access the Internet.
  • Approximately $8 million to support public, education, and government television cable channels, including the Emmy award-winning Seattle Channel.
  • Free cable television service to government and school facilities, valued at more than $2 million.
  • Discounted basic cable television service for low-income households.

Why This Isn’t Enough

The provision of Internet services should be provided in a ubiquitous fashion. It is critical to the continued success of Seattle as a top tier city for digital innovation.  

The City’s approach, so far, is to encourage providers to set up shop in the city and compete head to head. There are limited choices within the definition of “broadband” service. The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as greater than 25 Megabits/per second. As a result, it is left to Comcast and a smaller provider Wave Internet to offer “real” broadband service in the city, and of late, CenturyLink is offering Gigabit Fiber to the homes and business over their existing city right-of-way. The vast majority of Internet in the city is provided over DSL lines (through landlines and phone jacks) that no longer meet the definition of “broadband.” The City has also recently re-applied for Google Fiber service to be set up in Seattle.

The real problem to this approach is that there is no requirement that any of these providers provide consistent high quality service to every building and customer in the city. While there is a non-discrimination provision in the cable television portion of the Comcast agreement, it does not generally apply to the provision of Internet services. Indeed, it was the author’s personal experience in attempting to secure CenturyLink Fiber Service for a business installation (CenturyLink unilaterally backed out of providing this service for financial reasons) that led to the conclusion that without a regulatory regime, these companies will “cherry pick” the installations of their services. It would be ideal that such provision should be regulated but there appears to be no legal framework for cities to regulate internet installations and standards of service directly. The authority for cities to regulate cable television franchises is established in Federal regulations and law.

Uber Launches a New Commuter Service in Seattle, But Will It Last?

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Non-stop uberHOP from Ballard to South Lake Union.
Non-stop uberHOP from Ballard to South Lake Union.

Uber is launching a brand new ridesharing service in Seattle today. uberHOP, as it is known, is a first-of-its-kind pilot for the company globally, and joins the company’s growing suite of innovative offerings, including uberPEDAL, uberPOOL, and uberCOMMUTE. The service is built around the concept of connecting riders with Uber drivers on some of the city’s most popular routes. Essentially, Uber drivers will operate a fixed route service much like scheduled transit does.

The model itself is pretty straightforward. Pickup and dropoff locations will be designated, meaning that riders can’t just hail a pickup or dropoff at a whim midway along the routes. Instead, riders have to book their trip ahead of time and share the ride with others. Typically, five or six riders will be matched with an uberHOP departing at a common time and location. Perhaps most importantly, riders have to arrive to the pickup point prior to the departure time, or face a fare charged to their account and forego the ride.

Payment is no different than any other Uber service. Riders pay through the app upon booking their trip. Flat rate fares are set at $5 per trip, meaning that rides will be incredibly competitive with other options.

Uber is banking the success of this new service on commuters. The company plans to run the services on weekdays only during the morning and evening rush.

Three initial corridors have been chosen for the uberHOP service:

  • Ballard (15th & Market)– South Lake Union (Mercer & Terry)
  • Fremont/Wallingford (Bridge Way & Stone Way) – Downtown (1st & Seneca)
  • Capitol Hill (14th & Pike) – Downtown (1st & Seneca)

Supporters of transit might wonder what all of this means. Indeed, the planned corridors of uberHOP are in direct competition with existing service from public transit and private transit operators. There’s little doubt that Uber hopes to poach some of these riders with comfy, guaranteed seats. Yet, other ridesharing companies like Lyft are actively marketing their service in major cities across the country as complimentary to transit. It’s too early to tell how much, if any Uber will actually impact transit ridership, or if any beneficial relationship will bear out from a service like this. Uber, of course, hopes to have this service scale and take it elsewhere.

But this peak-oriented service means that Uber will be moving riders through major chokepoints at some of the most trafficked hours of the day, calling into question how competitive it will really be over the status quo. On top of that, riders are forced to start and end their trips at two points, meaning that the overall utility of the service is greatly reduced by few destinations and walksheds.

Similar private fixed route services like uberHOP have been met with mixed success in urban metros across the United States.

Leap Transit, a private bus outfit from San Francisco, provides a cautionary tale where going the route of fixed transit service doesn’t necessarily pan out. The company was built upon the foundations of the Bay Area tech culture as a disrupter of the status quo and an innovator with a lavish du jour. Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times explains:

Leap, which raised $2.5 million from some of the industry’s best-known investors, charged riders $6 to get across San Francisco, nearly three times the cost of riding a city bus. Its primary draw was luxury. Each bus had a wood-trimmed interior outfitted with black leather seats, individual USB ports and Wi-Fi. The buses also offered a steady stream of high-end snacks, sold via app.

Leap struggled though, in part because of its antagonism toward the people it set out to serve:

Leap’s troubles started early. It began a private bus service in San Francisco in 2013. Even though it had no valid city or state license, the company decided to use city bus stops to pick up and drop off passengers — a practice that earned it immediate scorn from city officials and cast the service as part of the tech-versus-everyone-else narrative of gentrification in San Francisco. The company went on hiatus in 2014 while its founders worked with state and city officials to win a preliminary certificate to operate.

When Leap began operating again in March, the company struck a sour note with the news media, embracing so many techie stereotypes you could be forgiven for thinking it was cooked up by the writers of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

Eventually, state regulators sent a cease-and-desist letter to the company causing the operator to curtail service, and ultimately never starting back up again.

New York City dollar van network mapped. (The New Yorker)
New York City dollar van network mapped. (The New Yorker)

Yet in New York City, “dollar vans” have become increasingly popular ridesharing services. They’re a refreshingly informal, low-tech, no-frills solution to the transportation needs of many New Yorkers. For only a few bucks, riders can get to the far away fringes and hard-to-reach areas of the outer boroughs from key transportation hubs of the New York Subway. Most of the routes don’t directly compete with frequent, high capacity transit offerings, and schedules are fixed with no way to use apps to hail a pickup. Aaron Reiss of The New Yorker documented the origins and success of this phenomenon:

In 1980, when a transit strike halted buses and subway trains throughout New York’s five boroughs, residents in some of the most marooned parts of the city started using their own cars and vans to pick people up, charging a dollar to shuttle them to their destinations. Eleven days later, the strike ended, but the cars and vans drove on, finding huge demand in neighborhoods that weren’t well served by public transit even when buses and trains were running. The drivers eventually expanded their businesses, using thirteen-seat vans to create routes in places like Flatbush, Jamaica, Far Rockaway, and downtown Brooklyn.

Today, dollar vans and other unofficial shuttles make up a thriving shadow transportation system that operates where subways and buses don’t—mostly in peripheral, low-income neighborhoods that contain large immigrant communities and lack robust public transit. The informal transportation networks fill that void with frequent departures and dependable schedules, but they lack service maps, posted timetables, and official stations or stops. There is no Web site or kiosk to help you navigate them. Instead, riders come to know these networks through conversations with friends and neighbors, or from happening upon the vans in the street.

uberHOP is neither of these, of course; it’s an all tech, low-frills, and honest-to-goodness approach to moving small groups of people to common locations. But will it be successful? And how, if any, will it change the way that the masses get around Seattle?

Incentive Zoning Helps Bring In $45 Million For 809 Affordable Apartments

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Seattle’s Office of Housing is set to make the largest annual investment to affordable housing in its history, as Mayor Ed Murray’s office announced via this press release.

The 2015 award is the largest ever annual investment in affordable housing by the City. Last year, the Office of Housing awarded $22 million. In his 2015 State of the City address, Murray pledged $35 million to support the recommendations of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) advisory committee.

Mayor Murray credited developers for allowing the city to surpass his pledge by $10 million.

This year’s extraordinary funding level is due to significant contributions from developers who have benefited from the recent building boom. Developers who participate in Incentive Zoning provide payments to the City’s affordable housing fund, which the Office of Housing uses to leverage other state and federal funding.

It’s a nice sentiment that developers, the city, and housing advocates are all working together. That said, developers certainly acquired a benefit for themselves through incentive zoning programs. It’s not exactly charity. Still, kudos to them for participating.

Project Name/SponsorPopulation to be Served HomesIncomes ServedLocationCity Funds
"Building 9" Mercy Housing NorthwestLow Income Families and Individuals14830%, 50%, 60% AMISandpoint$11,988,699
"1511 Dexter Apartments" Bellwether HousingLow Income Families and Individuals7150%, 60% AMIWestlake$7,274,656
"Estelle Apartments" DESCChronically Homeless Individuals9130% AMIMt. Baker$4,286,072
"Chinatown/I.D. Workforce Housing" Inland GroupLow Income Families and Individuals24760% AMIInternational District$9,950,000
"Rainier Court Phase IV" Southeast Effective DevelopmentHomeless Youth & Young Adults9350%, 60% AMIMt. Baker$4,048,000
"New Ground Sand Point" Friends of YouthHomeless Youth & Young Adults730% AMISandpoint$247,653
"Sandpoint YouthCare" YouthCareHomeless Youth & Young Adults1930% AMISandpoint$468,229
"University District Apartments" Bellwether HousingLow Income Families and Individuals13330%, 40%, 60% AMIUniversity District$6,610,000

Murray said the $45 million investment would create 809 affordable apartments. That works out to an average cost to the city of $55,624.23 per unit. The city is not the exclusive source of funding on these projects. Some cities have done a lot worse—Chicago Housing Authority comes to mind—in efficiently administering their affordable housing programs.

University-Apt-1
Bellwether Housing is planning this 7-story, 133-unit building at 15th Avenue NE and NE 50th Street in University District with first floor retail and 113 underground parking spots. It will replace the University Christian Church’s surface parking lot. (Bellwether Housing) More info at Seattle in Progress.

Mayor Murray has promised to build 20,000 affordable homes over the next decade—that’s 2,000 per year. At a 809 home per year pace, incentive zoning programs alone aren’t a strong enough funding mechanism to get to Murray’s goal as currently devised. That’s why the press release segued to the need to renew the Seattle Housing Levy:

The Seattle Housing Levy remains the most consistent and important funding source for affordable housing in Seattle. Starting in 1981, voters have approved one bond and four levies for a total of $388 million dollars. These funds have been instrumental in providing more than 12,000 income- and rent-restricted apartments in Seattle. The Seattle Housing Levy is up for renewal in 2016.

Murray said he wants to expand the levy, and some advocates are pushing the city to double it. As the most dependable funding source of affording housing, it’s crucial the levy remains and expands to meet the growing housing shortage. The city estimates it has a shortage of almost 60,000 units: 23,500 units for households at 30 percent AMI; 25,000 units for households at 50 percent AMI; and 9,300 units for households at 80 percent AMI.

This is a sketch of Bellwether Housing's plans for its 71 affordable apartments at 1511 Dexter Avenue.
This is a sketch of Bellwether Housing’s plans for its 71 affordable apartments at 1511 Dexter Avenue. (Bellwether Housing) More info here.

The levy is the backbone of affordable housing but the city has already looked to put more meat on the bones. Last month in an unanimous vote the city council passed for the framework of the “Mandatory Affordability Program,” which is the official name of the commercial linkage fee program. The Urbanist delved into that program here. To summarize, the city allows commercial developers to build a few stories higher by easing zoning restrictions (upzones) in exchange for either directly building affordable housing or paying into the affordable housing fund.

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)

Potentially, the Mandatory Affordability Program could create a substantial amount of affordable housing once it goes into effect, which is whenever the city council passes the upzone for the respective neighborhood. I will let our resident urban planner Stephen Fesler explain the legalese:

As it is devised, the Commercial Linkage Fees will only become effective when formal changes to increasing zoning or development capacity in a targeted area directly refer back to the Commercial Linkage Fee ordinance (Chapter 23.58B), or are subject to certain contract rezones. South Lake Union and Downtown Seattle are the first likely locations where the this would be instituted, and according to Councilmember Mike O’Brien, that’s slated to happen in the first half of 2016.

The city is celebrating a success with incentive zoning securing $45 million for affordable housing through private development, but much works still needs to be done. First, the city council needs to pass upzones in South Lake Union and Downtown before the commercial linkage fee will go into effect. Second, the Seattle Housing Levy needs to be renewed and hopefully expanded in 2016. Third, we need to continue to innovate and come up with new solutions to tackle Seattle’s affordability crisis.

Lidding I-5 in Downtown Seattle: Design Guidelines and Moving Forward

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A visualization of I-5's complex weave of ramps and lanes. (Graphic by the author)
A visualization of I-5's complex weave of ramps and lanes. (Graphic by the author)

In yesterday’s article, I went over some of the characteristics of I-5 in Downtown Seattle and offered some temporary solutions for mitigating the effects of the freeway. In this final installment, I will summarize my recommendations for each phase, propose a number of themes, and provide information on how you can get involved to make this project happen.

Design Guidelines

Synthesizing all of the information in the case studies, the site analysis, and the history of I-5 resulted in a set of general themes and specific design guidelines for each lid section. The guidelines take the form of both strict parameters and suggested features that should be considered by designers, elected officials, and the public. However, a more detailed technical review and rigorous public process will be needed before developing an official plan for the area.

A diagram of design concepts. Click to enlarge. (Graphic by the author)
A diagram of design concepts. Click to enlarge. (Graphic by the author)

A key theme is facilitating neighborhood connections that have been severed for over half a century. The break in the street wall between Downtown and Capitol Hill is a jarring experience for people walking between the two. There is a long pause between any chance of finding welcoming, human-scale places where spontaneous socializing and commerce can happen. Freeway noise, rivers of cars, and exposure to the elements make pedestrians feel vulnerable and isolated. Bringing new low-scale buildings, awnings, trees, and cozy public spaces to the street edges will provide cohesion between neighborhoods and heal the urban scar left by I-5.

Another theme is the “pedestrian spine”. This concept envisions a unified walking experience throughout the series of lids between Madison Street and Olive Way. This spine should have consistent design elements and accessibility, including wide paths, mid-block crosswalks, and, as previously suggested, new ramps for accessing Freeway Park. Such a path would work well both for people walking and people bicycling. The spine theme works in concert with the “emerald chain”: because the lids will be built in phases, each must be an independent park space. Each emerald should shine on its own but work with its neighbors as they are built later on.

What follows is a summary for each lid section in the order they should be developed:

  • Section 2A (east side of the Pike Street/Boren Avenue intersection, 0.3 acres): This lid section should be built first because it is small, it can serve as a prototype for the other sections, and it will be timely with the Washington State Convention Center (WSCC) expansion across the intersection. It can also integrate with the existing Plymouth Pillars Park adjacent to the freeway. Design suggestions include a small plaza, a performance pavilion, and an extension of the neighboring dog park. The intersection itself should be raised to prioritize non-motorized traffic.
  • Section 6 (Madison Street to Spring Street, 1.5 acres): The Spring Street on-ramp must be removed to build a full lid that is flush with the surrounding streets (the alternate ramp is six blocks away at James Street). This lid should primarily be a park space, but retail buildings would be appropriate on the east side to preserve a southerly view towards Mount Rainier and activate 7th Avenue. A combination of hardscapes and softscapes can provide a large, versatile event space. Crosswalks and sidewalks are needed on the four sides where they are missing.
  • Section 5 (Spring Street to Seneca Street, 1.5 acres): The Seneca Street off-ramp will need to be removed to create a more useable and pedestrian-friendly park surface, along with more space for retail buildings (the alternate ramps are at James Street and Madison Street). This section will also need to integrate with the Naramore Fountain on 6th Avenue. Another major design opportunity is to punch through Freeway Park’s old planter boxes on the south side of Seneca Street and transition into a flatter and more useable space on the new lid.
A conceptual section drawing of a Pike-Pine lid. Click to enlarge and see additional drawings. (Graphic by the author)
A conceptual section drawing of a Pike-Pine lid. Click to enlarge and see additional drawings. (Graphic by the author)
  • Section 3 (Pike Street to Pine Street, 2.5 acres): This lid may may become the crown jewel. It should be developed to fit into the Pike-Pine retail corridor and connect to the WSCC facilities on either end of it. A pedestrian shopping street is envisioned down its length (see the rendering at the top of this article), with terraced lawns and roof decks along the periphery taking advantage of the slope. A staircase between the Paramount Theatre and Plymouth Pillars Park could create a new pedestrian route away from busy streets. This lid has the potential to attract a wide array of visitors while also becoming a new place for Capitol Hill residents to relax and socialize.
  • Section 1 (Olive Way to Pine Street, 2.6 acres): This area is the the largest and so should be developed last. The steeper slope here is best negotiated with a terraced surface that can be designed with a tight weave of ramps and stairs from top to bottom, facilitating more passive activities and providing a more relaxing park environment. Any commercial activities should be limited to the top tier of the park, which will have a commanding view to the west and which can connect to existing development on the east side of the freeway.
A conceptual site plan of the primary lid sections. Click to enlarge. (Graphic by the author)
A conceptual site plan of the primary lid sections. Click to enlarge. (Graphic by the author)

The recommended areas for lidding total 8.4 acres, resulting in the earlier cost estimate of $250 million. This bites a significant chunk out of the Center City’s 13-acre open space deficit.

The rest of the study areas are not recommended for lid development:

  • Sections 4A and 4B (Freeway Park gaps, total of 1.5 acres): These two gaps in Freeway Park’s coverage should not be developed. Freeway Park has significant historical value in its original design, and it provides a view of the unique University Street ramp and the curving freeway mainline below. More practically, the gaps can likely provide natural tunnel ventilation, negating the need for some of the costly and space-consuming mechanical equipment that may otherwise be needed throughout the study area.
  • Section 2B (west side of the Pine Street/Boren Avenue intersection, 0.1 acres): This area is not a lid candidate because the WSCC expansion will cantilever over the freeway at this location. The latest design iteration proposes retail space and building entries at this corner, which will be a positive change from what is an otherwise desolate pedestrian experience.
The preferred WSCC expansion design hangs over the freeway at the west corner of Pine Street and Boren Avenue. At street level this corner of the building will have small retail spaces and building entries. The building's exterior will also have much greater transparency than the original WSCC facility. (LMN Architects)
The preferred WSCC expansion design hangs over the freeway at the west corner of Pine Street and Boren Avenue. At street level this corner of the building will have small retail spaces and building entries. The building’s exterior will also have much greater transparency than the original WSCC facility. (LMN Architects)
  • Secondary north (Olive Way to Denny Way, 4.2 acres) and Secondary south (Madison Street to Yesler Way, 15.5 acres): These secondary areas should only be considered for lidding after the primary study areas are fully developed. They are not in a trench that is easily covered, with retaining walls only on the eastern side. In the south a portion of the freeway is also elevated above city streets. If lids were built with open colonnades on the downhill side, the environmental impacts would be substantial. Underneath Freeway Park, for instance, the traffic noise reaches a deafening 85 decibels. Solid walls would be necessary, essentially creating a concrete case. This is likely a costlier proposition that would present little visual improvement unless other measures, like embedding private development into the side of the case, were implemented. But with all of this said, these two areas are quite large and could support a wide variety of park features and private development in the more distant future.

Moving Forward

People live in cities for the access to other people, jobs, shopping, entertainment, and events that only urban environments can foster. Over the past century, that environment has been threatened by a concerted effort to focus less on natural and efficient means of access (that is, walking, bicycling, and transit), and instead make cities more accessible by private automobile. Compared to the rest of North America, Seattle has actually been relatively spared from the most dramatic effects of auto-oriented planning. The city has even managed to stitch some of the tears in its urban fabric. But a gaping hole still remains in the heart of the city where, over 60 years ago, I-5 sliced off Downtown from the bustling Capitol Hill and First Hill neighborhoods. It’s time to close that gap and refresh the urban experience that draws people and businesses to Seattle.

The next step is to form an organization of community members to pressure the City Council and local state legislators to take charge on lid planning. Business leaders, civic figures, neighborhood advocates, and other interested groups must come together as one voice to demonstrate that the status quo is not acceptable. The organization will need to develop a common vision, expand on the interim solutions presented here, and propose an actionable long term strategy. Ultimately, it will be vital to host an open, public process and be transparent about costs and benefits. This could help avoid repeating the 1995 electoral loss of Seattle Commons, a similarly ambitious park proposal that would have made South Lake Union appear much different than it does today.

The early signs of such an movement are here. A group of design and development professionals under the name Lid I-5 started meeting in 2010 to discuss feasibility and sketch out lid concepts. However, that group is currently idle and is waiting for a political spark.

More currently, the Pike-Pine Urban Neighborhood Council meets frequently to discuss how the WSCC expansion can give back to its neighbors with good design. The topic of freeway lids has come up as part of the WSCC’s public benefit package and the group is planning to speak to the Seattle City Council at an upcoming event. On December 16th at 12pm, there will be a “lunch and learn” where members of the public can speak with the Council about lidding the freeway. I have been invited as a speaker to the event and will share details about costs and funding.

Patano's conceptual lid proposal. Click to enlarge. (Patano Studio Architecture)
Patano’s conceptual lid proposal. Click to enlarge. (Patano Studio Architecture)

Architect Chris Patano recently proposed a two-mile long, 45-acre lid stretching north from roughly Pine Street to Lakeview Boulevard. It would be a park integrated with housing, a museum, a hotel, and the sports arena that Seattle and Tukwila are jockeying for.

I met Patano earlier this year to discuss the concept, and I find his idea bold and exciting. Of the freeway, he told KING 5, “We might as well contain it and turn it into an asset instead of a detriment”. However, his vision is much more complex than what I am proposing. Patano’s early cost estimate is $800 million ($17.7 million per acre), about four times what I estimate it would cost to lid I-5 just in the Downtown core. It’s also located where the freeway is not in a trench, an area I had in my first proposal but later withdrew because of the topographical challenges. Regardless, Patano’s renderings have successfully gained media attention and he is stirring public discussion. This should be capitalized upon to further the conversation.

Downtown Seattle and its surrounding neighborhoods are well developed and still growing even more. The time for freeway lids is now, and the price is manageable in the face of overwhelming benefits. We can create the grand central park that Seattle needs while also reducing I-5’s impact on the people, transportation, and built environment of Downtown. Seattle must seize this opportunity to transform the core of its public realm and create a lasting investment in the lives of future generations. Strong leaders are needed, but it begins with a grassroots effort. Let’s begin refining and advocating for this project today to ensure Seattle has an even brighter tomorrow.

To that end, I have created a Facebook page, an e-mail list, and a new page on my website for interested people to discuss the idea. Whether you support freeway lids now or still have some concerns, sign up to hash out ideas and get updates on this proposal. In the following months, I will be seeking partnerships with other local professionals who can provide more of the detailed financing and engineering analyses that are needed.

For a full version of my thesis on this topic, download a copy of the paper (20 MB PDF).

This article is fourth and final installment in a four-part series on lidding I-5 in Downtown Seattle. A version of this series originally appeared on The Northwest Urbanist.

Roosevelt BRT Needs to Be BRT and Serve Bikes

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SLU Exclusive Lanes

Last night, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) held an open house on the Roosevelt HTC project. It was revealed that the overall project aim has shifted from the earlier stages. SDOT neither plans a streetcar extension nor implementation of full bus rapid transit (BRT). Instead, the transportation agency is planning “targeted enhancements” to Metro’s RapidRide service, what they’re calling “RapidRide+”. Essentially, this will be better than RapidRide, but without all of the bells and whistles of Madison BRT, the region’s next gold standard for BRT. SDOT hopes to have the new BRT corridor up and running some time around 2020.

Exclusive lanes in South Lake Union.
Exclusive lanes in South Lake Union.

Among the enhancements Roosevelt RapidRide+ will receive are:

  • Exclusive lanes or BAT lanes in South Lake Union;
  • Queue jumps and signal priority for much of the route;
  • Electrification from South Lake Union to Northgate.
Exclusive lanes please?
Exclusive lanes? Yes please!

SDOT is still teasing out other options for the project. At the top of the list are bicycle lanes. Some options included them, some didn’t. Many of the audience members present were clearly bicyclists, and they were out in droves to push SDOT to provide better biking facilities along the corridor, in the spirit of the Bicycle Master Plan. Ultimately, a final plan will almost certainly include new bicycle lanes, but the issue comes down to the degree at what cost to other modes.

Two other primary issues that SDOT is hashing out are exclusive lanes elsewhere and a shared bus fleet with the Madison BRT project. SDOT staff think that other parts of the route may necessitate exclusive bus lanes. Indeed, adding these at chokepoints and throughout the corridor would speed up overall bus service and encourage more riders. Pinning down where to make this happen will be key for the next phase of the project. Meanwhile, there’s a very real possibility that Roosevelt BRT buses could be shared with its sister corridor on Madison. Those buses will be electrified with doors on both sides, opening the potential for calling at stops to the left or right; one possibility even includes serving stops along the South Lake Union Streetcar corridor.

Almost no bus lanes on Eastlake.
Almost no bus lanes on Eastlake.
Crossing the Mercer Mess.
Crossing the Mercer Mess.

Yet, SDOT staff are facing some challenges, including:

  • Very limited funds for the project;
  • Narrow right-of-way (five lanes wide) on Eastlake meaning that difficult choices will have to be made to fit cars, bikes, and buses; and
  • Difficulty getting exclusive lanes through the intersection of Eastlake Avenue and Mercer Street.

Get Involved

The potential “exclusive lanes” issue is where fellow urbanists, bicyclists, and transit riders come in. SDOT is open, more or less, to priority for bicycles, buses, or bicycles and buses, depending on demand from the community. We need to work together on this to demand bus and bicycle priority for the entire route, insofar as it’s possible to do.

There is one more meeting tonight (December 10th) at UW Tower in the University District. If you care about bus and bicycle access in Northeast Seattle, and want to make the most of our Proposition 1 dollars for bicycle and transit priority, please come to the open house and make yourself heard. And if you can’t do that, fill out the online survey.

Lidding I-5 in Downtown Seattle: Site Analysis and Interim Solutions

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Klyde Warren's Park's street edges are activated with food trucks, clear sight lines, and flexible seating. (Photo by the author)
Klyde Warren's Park's street edges are activated with food trucks, clear sight lines, and flexible seating. (Photo by the author)

Yesterday’s article went over cost estimates and offered three freeway lid case studies across. In this third piece on lidding I-5, I will summarize a site analysis for Downtown Seattle and suggest interim solutions that could be used to build support for expansions of lids on I-5.

Site Analysis

One completing review of freeway lid case studies, my work focused on developing a comprehensive study area site analysis in Downtown Seattle. The site analysis focused on some of the key elements of the case studies, such as traffic and topography.

I affirmed the prime location for lidding is between Olive Way and Madison Street, where I-5 runs in a deep trench between the surrounding streets and buildings. I used the existing divisions of freeway airspace to parcel this area into sections numbered, 1 through 6. I also looked at possible redevelopment opportunities around the freeway. At the suggestion of my faculty adviser I expanded the scope into secondary study areas, which are north to Denny Way and south to Yesler Way. Because of their topographic situations, I considered these areas in much less detail.

The study areas. (Graphic by the author)
The study areas. (Graphic by the author)

Using public data and my own feet on the ground, I documented characteristics like predominant land uses and landmarks, trees and vegetation, traffic volumes, noise, views, and the freeway’s configuration. King County’s topographical data and WSDOT engineering drawings were used to find the rough dimensions and slope of each study area. I determined that the lid surfaces will need to be sloped or terraced due to grade changes between the sides of the freeway trench. I found no examples of similar challenges in the lid inventory, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be done as long as columns are able to be located within the medians.

Lids will also facilitate a few beneficial changes to freeway ramps and city streets. The Spring Street and Seneca Street ramps duplicate the functions of nearby ramps, for instance, and could be demolished to streamline east-west traffic flow and enable lids to completely cover the freeway airspace. Seneca Street and Olive Way can be converted to two-way traffic to create better vehicle and transit flows. Sidewalks and crosswalks need to be added in a few key locations where they are currently missing.

Eight Reasons to Make the Roosevelt BRT Corridor Safer

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The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is gathering public input for the Roosevelt to Downtown High Capacity Corridor Project. SDOT is embarking on a process to evaluate options for bus rapid transit (BRT) along the corridor. In preparation for this, a study to capture existing conditions of the corridor was produced revealing a massive trove of important data ranging from population density to sidewalk conditions and collision rates to right-of-way uses. Again and again, the data points to a common thread: a need for safety improvements that benefit people walking and biking. Here’s eight reasons why:

1. Car-lite households. Within 1/2 mile of the Roosevelt BRT corridor, 30% of surveyed households don’t own a car. Compare this to 8% non-car ownership for the rest of Seattle.

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2. Dense car-lite neighborhoods. Where are all of those zero-car households? Much of the corridor; the darkest maroon areas have greater than 10 car-free households per acre.

Zero vehicle household density. (City of Seattle)
Zero vehicle household density. (City of Seattle)

3. High pedestrian and bicycle collision rates. The corridor that Roosevelt BRT will serve had a high number collisions within a 5-year period. 657 in total collisions occurred between 2010 and 2015, and one-third (184) of those involved a person walking or biking. Safety should be the first priority for Roosevelt BRT.

Pedestrian and bicycle collisions. (City of Seattle)
Pedestrian and bicycle collisions. (City of Seattle)

4. High density corridor. More than 13% of Seattle’s population lives within 1/2 mile of the future Roosevelt BRT corridor. Naturally, the population density of this corridor makes it critically important for movement of people.

Population density. (City of Seattle)
Population density. (City of Seattle)

5. Accessibility challenges. The worst sidewalks along Roosevelt BRT corridor are located within South Lake Union, Eastlake, Roosevelt, and north University District neighborhoods. These neighborhoods make up core segments of the corridor.

Current sidewalk conditions. (City of Seattle)
Current sidewalk conditions. (City of Seattle)

6. Low vehicular traffic volumes. Vehicle counts for the corridor are pretty low. Road rechannelizations are recommended for streets where vehicle volumes are under 20,000 to 25,000 per day, making this corridor a prime candidate for change.

Average daily traffic in 2015. (City of Seattle)
Average daily traffic in 2015. (City of Seattle)

7. A reconfigurable corridor. Much of the Roosevelt BRT corridor has 4 lanes (two in each direction, including the Roosevelt/11th couplet), which can easily become 3 or 2 lanes without delaying drivers.

Schematics of roadway along the corridor. (City of Seattle)
Schematics of roadway along the corridor. (City of Seattle)

8. We’ve traditionally focused on the wrong thing. SDOT has devoted a whole section in the Roosevelt BRT study to corridor Level of Service (LOS) and vehicle speeds. LOS is how transportation engineers measure congestion for cars. There’s a completely separate section analyzing average speed for existing buses, meaning the LOS section is entirely focused on car and truck movements. LOS should be our absolute lowest priority in trying to move people safely through this corridor.

Level of Service today. (City of Seattle)
Level of Service today. (City of Seattle)

SDOT will be holding two public meetings tonight and tomorrow; one in Eastlake and one in the University District. Meetings will include a brief presentation on the project, which starts at 6:15 PM each night. This is your chance to weigh in on the future safety and multi-modality of this corridor, so let SDOT hear that you want safer walking and biking facilities!

Wednesday, December 9
6 PM to 8 PM
TOPS School, Cafeteria
2500 Franklin Avenue E
 Thursday, December 10
6 PM to 8 PM
UW Tower, Cafeteria North
4333 Brooklyn Avenue NE/td>

A version of this article originally appeared on Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.

Lidding I-5 in Downtown Seattle: Cost Estimates and Case Studies

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A conceptual pedestrian lane over I-5 between Pike Street and Pine Street, tying into the Pike-Pine commercial corridor and proximity to the busy Convention Center. Click to enlarge and see a before-and-after view. (Graphic by the author)
A conceptual pedestrian lane over I-5 between Pike Street and Pine Street, tying into the Pike-Pine commercial corridor and proximity to the busy Convention Center. Click to enlarge and see a before-and-after view. (Graphic by the author)

Yesterday, I covered the need for lid parks in Downtown Seattle and what they should be used for. In this article, I look at (very rough) cost estimates for lids based on existing and proposed projects across the United States. From those projects, I select handful to study in-depth and make recommendations on design and operations of future lid parks.

Lid Inventory and Cost Estimating

In analyzing a lidding of I-5, my next step was to build a list of completed and proposed lid projects in the United States. To my knowledge, I am the only researcher to have done this and this is the first publicly available database. I sought data on completion year (to adjust costs for inflation), original costs, and size. Most of the data was acquired through online sources or by contacting local and state officials. Significant gaps remain where, for various reasons, these officials did not have the information.

The map below identifies completed lid projects in red and proposed in green. (Please contact me if you have suggested additions or corrections.)

The average cost of completed lid parks comes in at $13.2 million per acre. Proposed lid parks have a higher average cost estimate of $25.1 million per acre, a number skewed upward by large, unofficial proposals in Austin, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The average cost between completed and proposed projects is a modest $19 million per acre, a number comparable to the latest project in Dallas which came in at $21.5 million per acre. Locally, Seattle’s Freeway Park and the Aubrey Davis Lid on Mercer Island both cost about $18 million per acre.

Contrast these numbers with the exorbitant estimates of two related studies. In a 2009 report (15 MB PDF) for the City of Seattle, engineering firm CH2MHill estimated that lidding I-5 just between Spring Street and Madison Street (1.5 acres) would cost at least $70 million per acre. In a 2013 study (47 MB PDF) of the Convention Center expansion, design firm LMN Architects estimated a 1.1-acre lid between Pike Street and Pine Street would cost $52 million per acre, and a 2.3-acre lid would cost $102 million per acre. These numbers are three to five times greater than real world examples. While Seattle certainly has unique challenges that may increase costs, these estimates are far removed from the reality of actual lid projects and should not be used moving forward.