Friday, 3 July, 2020

Commute Seattle Study Shows Only 31% of Downtown Commuters Drive Alone

Modal split for Downtown Seattle commute trips, courtesy of Commute Seattle.
Modal split for Downtown Seattle commute trips, courtesy of Commute Seattle.


Commute Seattle released new survey data,with the help of EMC Research, that shows a growing percentage of Downtown commuters rely on modes other than single occupancy vehicles (SOVs). In fact, 60% of commuters don’t drive at all, instead opting for transit, walking, or cycling.

The mode split by type has changed significantly since the last survey, which was completed in 2012. Nearly 4% fewer people drove alone compared to that survey and it seems likely that Seattle will reach its goal of 30% or less by 2016. The largest companies (100+ employees) in Downtown still had the lowest drive alone rate, but medium sized companies (20-99 employees) saw the most progress, reducing rates from 37% to 30% since the last survey. King County Executive Dow Constantine summed up this progress well:

More commuters than ever are taking advantage of the reliable transit service we provide to Downtown Seattle. Our region’s prosperity relies on people’s ability to get to and from work each day, so it’s critical that we build the transportation systems needed to keep up with our growing population.

Perhaps the most impressive statistic is that non-motorized modes have seen the largest increase. This is also great news for the city because it means people are living closer to work, which is likely only possible due to the immense amount of development that is occurring in Seattle’s downtown core.

Percent changes in mode share, courtesy of Commute Seattle.
Percent changes in mode share, courtesy of Commute Seattle.


Commute Seattle also provided the mode split going all the way back to their 2010 survey. Declining numbers for rideshare and SOVs are apparent. Perhaps the most interesting piece of data is that the total number of commuters driving decreased between 2012 and 2014 even though the number of commuters grew by 8,000 people at least 8,000 (the job numbers are from 2013 and we’re still waiting on 2014 numbers). This is different than The 2012 research which showed a decline in the rate of driving alone but an increase in the total numbers. With that said, even though the rates decreased the total number of commuters driving alone is the same as 2010 due to the increase in population. This explains why anyone who drives alone on their commute hasn’t seen any improvement in traffic. It also fits with the counter-intuitive research that has shown adding more road capacity doesn’t improve traffic, since reducing the percentage of drivers is similar to adding road capacity.

Comparative changes in commuting habits since 2010, courtesy of Commute Seattle.
Comparative changes in commuting habits since 2010, courtesy of Commute Seattle.

Update: The totals under 2014 for jobs are actually from 2013 and Commute Seattle will be updating them when they get the 2014 numbers. It’s likely this will mean the total number of people driving alone will increase from 2012.

Goodbye Red Robin, Hello Shiny New Apartments

The old Red Robin building, courtesy of Google Maps.
The old Red Robin building, courtesy of Google Maps.

The Eastlake Neighborhood’s north end has seen rapid redevelopment over the past few years, and 3272 Fuhrman Ave E is just the latest project in a long line of big residential developments to come to the area. Sited on the corner of Eastlake Ave E and Fuhrman Ave E, many locals will be familiar with this location as the former home of Red Robin. In 1969, the restaurant was founded here and grew to become a national chain. But after over 40 years of business, the restaurant closed its doors in mid-2010 and was demolished in May 2014. Now, the site could become home to 63 apartment units and 2,060 square feet of ground floor commercial space.

The site of the project has some serious topography issues with the ground quickly descending downward from Fuhrman Ave E to the hidden lane of Portage Bay Pl E below. The elevation loss from top to bottom is nearly 26 feet. For many projects, this could be problematic, but the applicants have decided to use this site constraint as a feature. Following the change in elevation, the project will be broken up into two semi-distinct structures with the smaller portion at the top and a second retained structure at the bottom of the slope.

Plan view perspective of uses, courtesy of DPD.
Plan view perspective of uses, courtesy of DPD.

Each of the three alternatives being explored in the Early Design Guidance Design Review phase are variations on the two-structure format. More than anything, the differences between the alternatives are the type of units proposed and minor changes in setbacks and massing. The applicant hopes that their third option will be endorsed by East Design Review Board. This option seeks to maximize the site by providing the most amount of units, retail space, and structure height.

As proposed, the project would deliver a fairly diverse set of units to the market. The plan is to mix units of different sizes throughout the buildings and provide 5 two-bedroom units, 40 one-bedroom units, and 18 studio units. The diversity of unit types is definitely a positive aspect of the project. Providing a range of unit types will help attract families and couples of different sizes and ages to the future development.

Elevation perspective of preferred massing, courtesy of DPD.
Elevation perspective of preferred massing, courtesy of DPD.

The smaller of the two buildings would be 4 stories in height, but only three of those would be clearly visible from street level. This is achieved by excavating one floor below Fuhrman Ave E and locating the lowest floor there. To keep the street level floor somewhat active along Fuhrman Ave E, the commercial space, main building entrances, and one unit would all be placed at this level. Floors above and below this would all be residential-oriented. Meanwhile, the second building would contain the bulk of the development and it shows. This structure would also contain 4 stories in height, plus a garage floor below. However, due to the site conditions, the bulk of the structure is somewhat neutered with only a few floors partially visible from street level.

At this point, B9 Architects have only developed alternative project massings, but they hope to create an attractive building. Their plans indicate a desire for durable and warm materials that will add life to the neighborhood. The building facades will be patterned to establish a rhythm while a variety of exterior materials will be applied to break up the scale of the buildings and highlight individual floors. Masonry is one material under particular consideration given that it is a common element throughout the Eastlake neighborhood. And of course, green is all the rage–the applicants want the new build to achieve 4-Star Built Green standards.

West of the property lies a no-man’s-land area held by the City for right-of-way purposes. However, the architects would like to create an open space area that could be maintained by the future property owners. The architects want to create a mixed hardscape and green space that all could benefit from while being partially activated by the ground floor commercial space; although firm plans have yet to be drafted up. Street trees are also in the mix and could be added along the frontage streets.

Aerial perspective of preferred massings of buildings, courtesy of DPD.
Aerial perspective of preferred massings of buildings, courtesy of DPD.

A very low parking ratio is proposed at a rate of 0.4 parking stalls per dwelling unit, or 25 parking spaces in total. But, a strong emphasis will be placed on bicycle parking with up to 70 spaces for residents. One detail that neighbors may not be keen on is the location of the parking garage access. The applicant wants to locate this at the bottom of the structure since the parking garage is naturally located at the lowest point of the site. This means that vehicles would enter and exit the parking facility from Portage Bay Pl NE. This, however, has the benefit of keeping cars off of the more trafficked Fuhrman Ave giving pedestrians and residents an unobstructed primary street frontage.

How To Get Involved

If you’re interested in attending the community design review meeting for this project, you can do so tonight. The East Design Review Board will meet at Seattle University in Room 500E of the Casey Building. The design review meeting begin promptly at 8pm. Alternatively, if you wish submit comments in written form, you can do so by e-mailing Carly Guillory, Project Planner, at and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) at

For more design review materials and upcoming meetings, see DPD’s design review page.

Seattle City Council Votes for Microhousing MFTE Changes


In a 8-0 vote in favor yesterday, the Seattle City Council approved a change to the Multifamily Housing Property Tax Exemption Program (MFTE) on small efficiency dwelling unit developments (more commonly known as microhousing). The MFTE is a voluntary program for housing developers to provide income-restricted units below certain Area Median Income rates over a 12-year period. During this timeframe, property owners are exempt from paying property taxes to the City of Seattle.

Councilmember Sally Clark introduced the legislation by saying why it was necessary: “With the small efficiency dwelling units, we need to adjust the income downward to ensure that we are not giving a public benefit, the forgiveness on property tax, without getting enough of a public benefit in terms of the rent level.” Essentially, the prevailing thought on the issue is that developers could end up with a windfall under current MFTE rules for small efficiency dwelling unit (SEDUs) developments. Under the MFTE rules, developers could charge a maximum income-restricted rent very close to or more than most market rate SEDUs. This of course would create situations where the “affordable units” aren’t actually more affordable than other units, and grant the underlying property owner significant property tax savings.

Prior to yesterday’s vote, SEDUs were treated as studios for the purposes of the MFTE. Eligible projects under the code were required to provide 20% of all studios as income-restricted units at or below 65% of the Area Median Income in order to qualify for the MFTE. This translated to a monthly maximum housing cost of $1,004 and maximum annual income of $40,170 as a single individual.

Two versions of the Council bill were floated. The first was presented in committee before being referred to the full Council. That bill explored a lower requirement for the number of income-restricted units in SEDUs. The committee identified a target of 20% of units as income-restricted. However, Councilmember Nick Licata felt that there needed to be a greater public benefit, which led him to propose his own amendment to the bill. Language in Licata’s amendment sought to increase the number of income-restricted units by another 5% for a total of 25%. Clark summarized the changes in detail during the Council legislative session by saying that:

This legislation would actually move the rent level, the affordability down to 40% of the Area Median Income for the set-aside units. In Committee, it was changed from a 20% set aside to 25% set aside. I’ll be very clear, the Office of Housing’s calculations indicate that a 25% set-aside is a stretch beyond what developers will likely use. Having said that, since we adjusted the rules for the small efficiency dwelling units, we don’t have any projects to base the projections on, and a bit of this is guesstimating, and trying to figure out what we think the market will do.

Essentially, the new MFTE SEDU rules set a maximum rental rate for income-restricted units at $618 per month and a maximum annual income of $24,720 for a single person. This number would certainly be below most market-rate units in SEDU developments. Although, there could be cause to revise the numbers upward or downward for SEDUs in the future. Clark hinted that this would likely happen anyway as the City would explore program-wide changes to the MFTE code later in the year. Additional revisions to the SEDU MFTE rules could happen at that time if necessary.

Before the final vote, Councilmember Kshama Sawant both praised and critiqued the MFTE program.

For every single building that takes advantage of this program, the City is giving a greater tax break than we are getting back in term of affordability. In every example, mathematically, we could make more affordable housing dollars available simply by collecting the taxes from developers and using that money to offset rents. And while I think we should try to make this program better for housing affordability, in reality, we have to be clear that this in many way just more of a corporate tax loophole than a real affordability program.

UPDATE (2/24/15 @ 3:03 PM):  It should be noted that Sawant’s comments could be misleading to some. The way property taxes work, the City should collect the same amount of total revenue to fund programs regardless of whether individual properties get tax breaks for programs such as the MFTE or senior housing. The taxes uncollected from individual properties should be spread across the remaining taxpayers.

In 2011, there was a controversy about whether or not taxes were lost or shifted. The final report by the City indicated that in 2013 the City failed to collect $354,000 of the $2.2 million that was exempted by the city through the MFTE, or 16%. With that said, there was an additional $726,000 collected from construction due to the impact on the City’s tax base. To put that number in perspective, it’s less than the $500,000 that the City is forgoing for the South Lake Union green street, which the Council approved in a 6-2 vote, Sawant and O’Brien casting the nay votes.

South Lake Union Green Street Gets the Green Light


On Monday, the full Seattle City Council approved a woonerf in South Lake Union along 8th Ave between Harrison and Thomas Street. The plan sparked a tense debate between Councilmember Tom Rasmussen and Mike O’Brien on the Transportation Committee two weeks ago. Ultimately Rasmussen won out with a vote of six to two (breakdown below).

Both Rasmussen and O’Brien started out the discussion by recounting their positions, summarized in our previous post. Rasmussen argued that the project was a steal for the City, with the private company Vulcan bearing the bulk of the cost to build a premium public amenity for the neighborhood. O’Brien countered that the project wasn’t enough of a public benefit to justify the $500,000 cost.

Councilmember Nick Licata offered a successful amendment to designate the corridor as a festival street. As such, Vulcan would be able to apply for an annual permit to conduct street activities such as dance and art festivals and celebrations. The stretch of 8th Ave will join just two other festival streets across the city—S Roberto Maestas Street on Beacon Hill next to the light rail station, and Nord Alley in Pioneer Square.

Nord Alley, courtesy of


In full debate, Councilmember Kshama Sawant called the project a corporate “infomercial” for Vulcan. She said the company wasn’t motivated by good will for the neighborhood, but by profit from the increased property value the premium amenity would bring—though it is unclear why an alignment of public and private profit is disagreeable. Ultimately the City would be giving up over $500,000 in street use fees to support the project—money that could be spent on affordable housing or sidewalk upgrades (excluding a woonerf, apparently).

Quick to rebut her point, Councilmember Jean Godden accused Sawant and O’Brien of being disingenuous for supporting Licata’s festival street amendment while voting against the full legislation. The project is good for the environment and good for the neighborhood, allowing them to shape their own community.

Finally, Councilmember Nick Licata, usually a dependable ally for O’Brien as one of the most liberal members of the Council, spoke in support of the project. While sympathetic to Sawant’s point that Vulcan was ultimately motivated by profit, not people, he knocked down O’Brien’s central message that the money would be better spent elsewhere. If this project were rejected, the $500,000 in revenue would go to the Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) general budget; it wouldn’t be earmarked for another woonerf. And even if it were, design costs alone would eat through funds. The question before the Council is not whether to support this woonerf or another; it’s whether to support this woonerf or none.

Denny Park, courtesy of Carl Paulaner Hefe-weizen via Flickr

Licata also tested O’Brien’s claim that the corporate project would taint the welcoming residential feel of the neighborhood. The new zoning allows for residential buildings up to 240 feet, allowing for what he called a “residential canyon street” with tall buildings lining both sides. This claustrophobic image is usually conjured by anti-density NIMBYs, making it a surprise to hear from Licata, who used it to draw contrast with the open and inviting woonerf.

The Council agreed with Licata and approved the woonerf plan. South Lake Union can now look forward to what may become the most engaging street in the city, with wide landscaped sidewalks dotted with street furniture, pedestrians, and cyclists, just a block from Denny Park.

Councilmember Vote District Running for Reelection?
Bagshaw Excused 7 Yes
Burgess Aye 7 Yes
Clark Aye 2 No
Godden Aye 4 Yes
Harell Aye 2 Yes
Licata Aye 6 No
O’Brien Nay 6 Yes
Rasmussen Aye 1 No
Sawant Nay 3 Yes


Mayor Leads Scripted U District Community Walk

Mayor Ed Murray out with members of the community.
Mayor Ed Murray out with members of the community.

On Saturday, Seattle mayor Ed Murray continued his series of “Find It, Fix It” walks with residents of the University District. The event drew a large crowd and media presence, and wound through the neighborhood’s core with a police escort. Though named after a smartphone application that lets citizens quickly report problems like potholes, graffiti, and broken streetlights, the event focused more on projects and important figures in the neighborhood rather than infrastructure. This left little opportunity for citizens to directly engage with the mayor.

At the event’s starting point, NE 45th St and Brooklyn Ave NE, the mayor pointed to the University District light rail station construction site behind him and emphasized that it is the catalyst for drastic neighborhood change. He expressed hope for preserving the area’s eclectic character while ensuring new development has positive impacts. Numerous other local leaders gave brief introductions, including City Council members Jean Godden and Sally Clark. A few words were spoken by Dave LaClergue, the city planner overseeing upzoning, green streets, and open space efforts here, and Sound Transit’s project manager for the station construction.

From there, the crowd moved north to a grocery store parking lot at NE 50th St, an infamous location for drug dealing, assaults, and other criminal activity. A couple of local activists took the microphone to celebrate a community mural on the wall of neighboring building and suggested it had helped lower nuisance activity in the area. The crowd then moved down University Way, where a neighborhood patrol officer discussed other efforts to reduce crime. A representative from the U District Partnership (UDP) detailed the plan to expand a business improvement district to increase funding for street cleaning and community events.

Down at 43rd Street, Cory Crocker from U District Square handed Murray a flyer and briefly discussed the neighborhood effort to built a parklet on that corner, next to a Pronto! bikeshare station. The project is funded and will likely be built later this year. Crocker told me, “[Murray] said that the city is all for the parklet and mentioned that the city would be making an announcement soon about allowing adjacent businesses to serve in the parklets in order to engage the public more and manage the spaces. He also volunteered that he’d like to see that particular intersection much more pedestrian-friendly.”

Media crowding the Mayor.
Media crowding the Mayor.


In the alley between 43rd and 42nd Streets, Murray introduced Kristine Cunningham, executive director of the ROOTS organization that provides temporary shelter to young adults who have been rejected by the foster care system. She noted that ROOTS is just one of many similar social services in the neighborhood, and the challenges are increasing. The alley has also become more of a social space in recent years, with a neighboring university building providing a voluntary setback for bicycle parking and pizza shop entrance in the alley. It complements a cafe that also has its entrance on the alley there.

As the tour wound down, the mayor led led everyone across 15th Avenue to a lawn on the University of Washington campus. There, provost and interim university president Ana Mari Cauce described her view of the school’s role in the neighborhood. The university is a large landowner, but she didn’t speak to rising student housing prices or the physical separation of the campus from the rest of the neighborhood.

King 5’s Dan Cassuto critically reported the event as highly orchestrated, with little opportunity for the mayor to speak to various business owners about crime or to see the large number of people living on the streets here. While it was my first Find It, Fix It walk, I’d argue that’s a fair assessment. The event was as much a mobile photo op for the mayor as it was community outreach, if not more so. But along with briefly meeting the mayor, I did get the chance to talk to three of the city and Sound Transit staff who tagged along, including transportation director Scott Kubly. They were fairly receptive to conversation, though weren’t too enthusiastic about being there on a Saturday morning. In the future, I’d suggest the mayor’s office reach out to specific community groups for focused and meaningful conversations.

We’re Moving! Our New Home is Vivace

Vivace at Alley 24.

We’re happy to announce that we’re making South Lake Union’s Vivace our new home. We hope that the very central location will better serve our membership by giving us more room to grow. There’s a lot to like about the coffeehouse: good WIFI, great coffee, beer on tap, and a wide selection of food. We’ve also scouted out the space situation: a fishbowl/study room, ample couches and coffee tables, and some bar tables could suit our needs on any given night. Whether you’re walking, biking, taking transit, or driving, most of our regulars should see this as a more accessible.

Of course, we want to express our deep appreciation to Roy Street Coffee & Tea for having us over the past year. Not only has the staff always been incredibly kind to us, the coffeehouse provided a great working atmosphere and topnotch beverages. We leave with plenty of fond memories, good conversations, and successful efforts that couldn’t have happened otherwise. And, it’s where we hatched this whole organization and publication. For that, we thank them.

Next Tuesday (March 3rd), we will hold our first meeting at the Vivace South Lake Union location beginning at 6pm. As is typical, the first half hour will be free discussion followed by our agenda and collaborative projects. Vivace is located in the Alley 24 complex at 227 Yale Ave N, right across from REI. See you there!

Painting the Town Red

The new 4230 11th Ave NE building, courtesy of DPD.
The new 4230 11th Ave NE building, courtesy of DPD.

A new 101-unit, 7-story apartment building is coming to the University District. The Arion Apartments will deliver a lot of color and whimsy to a block in serious need of it. The project is entering the Recommendation phase of Design Review tonight in order to respond to the concerns and issues presented at the Early Design Guidance stage. Back in July, neighbors expressed their views on privacy and noise, density, parking, and access of the site.  Meanwhile, the Northeast Design Review Board members applauded the extravagant design proposal and requested that the applicant consider issues like privacy of adjacent properties. Board members will have one more bite at the apple tonight to give their final comments and blessing on the development.

There’s no doubt that neighbors will either love or hate this gem by Johnston Architects, but the project is situated in an ideal location for this kind of density. The project is already flanked by apartment and condo buildings on all sides with hundreds of other dwelling units on the block. Two blighting residences will be removed to make way for the new apartment. However, future residents could benefit from excellent amenities like local retail services and entertainment, frequent transit service, employment and educational opportunities, and much more.

11th Ave NE before and after, courtesy of DPD.
11th Ave NE before and after, courtesy of DPD.

The architects have chosen to create a very modular, checkered, and semi-industrial looking building. The exterior will largely consist of red corrugated metal and nearly resemble cargo containers. The almost haphazard nature of the recessed unit facades makes for a very interesting and mesmerising honeycomb building from the public realm perspective. Residents get a big benefit from this design as large windows will fill the boxed frontages of the building while longer side facades will give a more measured and private appearance.

The applicant is not a proposing any vehicular parking for the project, but there will be a huge emphasis on secured bicycle parking on the ground floor. All of the units will be geared toward studios, but they will vary somewhat in size. Residents will have access to a rooftop amenity that will likely play host to social events and provide some measure of onsite open space. A small departure from code is requested for the size of the bay windows, but given the design, this shouldn’t pose an obstacle to the request of the applicant. However, not to be outdone, the applicant wants to flex their environmental credentials by building the structure to Built Green 4-star standards.

Ground floor plan view of the project, courtesy of DPD.
Ground floor plan view of the project, courtesy of DPD.

The property itself is zoned as Midrise (MR) which permits 6-story residential structures. However, the applicant has chosen to take advantage of incentive zoning, which grants one additional floor for development under current zoning. This has two great benefits: additional space for units onsite and more low-income housing provided through contribution to the City’s Housing Incentive Bonus Program.

How To Get Involved

If you’re interested in attending the community design review meeting for this project, you can do so tonight. The Northeast Design Review Board will meet at the University Heights Community Center in Room 209, located at 5031 University Way NE. The design review meeting begins at 6.30pm. Alternatively, if you wish submit comments in written form, you can do so by e-mailing Michael Dorcy, Project Planner, at and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) at

For more design review materials and upcoming meetings, see DPD’s design review page.

Sunday Video: Do our cities still work?


Do our cities still work? by The National on YouTube.

Brent Toderian, Charles Montgomery, and other Canadian urbanists talk about how sprawl is a problem for our health and financial stability. Juxtaposed, they speak about how real cities are a solution.