Sunday, 12 July, 2020

As if it Was the Last Ride

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I help a young black American family with the wheelchair seat at Fifth and Jackson. He’s carrying laundry in tattered oversized Target plastic shopping bags. She’s got her baby in one arm and a stroller in the other. I get out of the seat and make room for them, lifting up a chair or two in the front area. They’re my buddies. I’m used to such textures on the 7, of life lived check to check, dirty clothes and smiles, relaxed standards for rules and language–it’s a vernacular one gets comfortable with, but from the outside I imagine it can seem pretty uninviting. As I walk back up a young Chinese man by the front doors asks if I go downtown.

“We are downtown,” I say. “Where downtown do you want to go?”
“Um. Uh.” He motions for a young woman of thirty and her father to come over, at which point he vanishes.
“Come on in, come on in,” I say to them in an impatient tone, thoughtlessly, hurrying them up. Why was I so concerned about making the light? What an unnecessary way to think!
“Hi,” I say to her. “Where do you want to go?”

She and her father are Chinese too, very clean-cut. They’re both crisply dressed, she in shades of cream, he in gray and blue, and they possess that distinctly Asian quality of demure, professional politeness. I’m reminded of my relatives. Not only are these two definitely not from around here, and lost on top of that, but they’re clearly very much out of their depth on this bus and its distinctive milieu.

In a labored accent she asks, “do you go to 6th Street?”
“I go to 6th Avenue…where on 6th Avenue do you want?”
“Um, the Sheraton?”
“Come on in,” I say in a friendlier voice, trying to mitigate my tone from earlier. “Do you know where on 6th Avenue that is?”
“It’s on 6th avenue….”
“Do you have an address? It’s a long street.”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.”

She’s stressed but quiet, looking it up on her phone. “It’s so hard to take a cab here.”
“Yes.” I feel bad for rushing them–for how it makes them feel, but also for how it makes me feel. Out of character.
“I’m sorry,” she says again as she waits for her phone.
“Maig wun tshee,” I reply. No problem.
“You speak Chinese!”
“Just a little!” Pause. “How is your day today?”
“It’s fine. We are just lost.”

We sort out where it is, and I tell them I’ll let them know when we get there. Meanwhile, the bus fills up while emptying out, that glorious sensation you get on through-routes, where as you traverse downtown, there’s a double load on the same bus: the crowd getting off from riding the 7, and the crowd getting on for the 49. A humming bustle of activity. I think about how they must be seeing all this, taking it in for the first time. This will live as part of their memory of Seattle. This crowd, and myself, represent Seattle for them right now. I should’ve been nicer when they got on, I’m thinking. We visited Seattle and were lost and uncomfortable, and the bus driver was in a hurry and didn’t seem to want to help…. How boring. How predictable. I make a point of making it a good ride through town. Throw all your energy into it, and don’t worry about having energy for later–that’ll come of its own accord, compounded on the good time you’re having now. Do it like there’s nothing between you and death except this ride. Shouldn’t I at least try to make this the best bus trip they’ll ever have in Seattle?

I put an extra pizzazz into the announcements, letting the enthusiasm grow and build, greeting everyone with focus, waving big at the other drivers, feeding off their energetic responses. Leave the stress behind. There’s more to you than that. We weave up Third Avenue, smooth, and I use the mic to keep people informed of the locations, the time, the turns, and underneath it all, my gratitude and enthusiasm at being here. Hyper-present.

At 4th & Pike I stand up, blocking the incoming masses, getting their attention again–“So this’ll be the one for you!”
“Oh, thank you,” she says. “Let’s go out the back,” she motions to her father.
“Oh, come on up it’s okay, I’ll show you which way to go.”

After explaining how to get to the Sheraton, I say, “welcome to Seattle!”
“Thank you!”
“Thank you! Tsai-chiyen!”
“Tsai-chiyen!”

Her demure smile expands richly, ebulliently, eyes lighting with recognition at hearing her native language. There she is. I miss the traffic light and am glad for it. A few more runners make the bus, and this is good. Let me flow with the people, not against them. I watch the pair cross the street, daughter and father. They’re looking up now, in a direction I can’t see, marveling at the city. No longer lost, they can pay attention to their surroundings in a different way. They tarry on their walk, taking everything in, feeling comfortable now that they know where they’re going. Acceptance. I tap the horn as I drive past. She looks over just in time to see my big wave.

Upcoming event: U District to discuss neighborhood open space

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Editor’s Note: The Urbanist will be meeting up at this event next week instead of holding a regular working meeting at Roy Street Coffee & Tea. Feel free to show up earlier to chat before the forum. Our next working meeting at Roy Street Coffee & Tea will be held on October 14th.

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Construction is underway at the University District light rail station.

The U District Partnership will host a community forum on Tuesday, October 7th at Alder Hall (1310 NE 40th Street) from 7pm to 9pm. The Seattle planning and parks departments will be on hand to discuss public open space in the University District, one of Seattle’s most populous neighborhoods. Despite being adjacent to a major university campus, the neighborhood’s parks plan identifies a significant deficit in the recommended park and open space for the neighborhood–only containing half of what it should have. An under-construction light rail station and impending upzone have prompted debate about how to ensure future residents and employees have adequate open space.

The U District Partnership is an organization of local business and university leaders focused on creating a vibrant neighborhood. A separate group of residents under the umbrella of U District Square are specifically advocating for the construction of large plaza. Their vision is for the plaza space ideally located on top of the subway station, which is scheduled to open in 2021. Meanwhile, they are also leading the effort to construct an adjacent parklet on NE 43rd Street.

The City of Seattle is also considering the feasibility of converting NE 43rd Street and NE 42nd Street (east-west streets connecting with the university campus) into “green streets“, which would include significant landscaping and pedestrian improvements. Brooklyn Avenue NE, near the subway station, is being studied for traffic calming and bicycle improvements. It may even be designated as a festival street for a farmer’s markets and other frequent events.

The University District does have a number of open spaces. Three of the big ones (besides the university camp) include Cowen Park, University Playground, and the University Heights Community Center’s parking lot–which is slated to become future park space. In addition to these, there are at least two P-Patches for community gardening and a large median along Campus Parkway that is pedestrian accessible and eyed for major improvements.

The forum will continue with two additional events on October 30th and December 3rd.

Scott Bonjukian is a graduate student at the University of Washington’s Department of Urban Design and Planning. He writes about local and regional planning issues at his personal blog, The Northwest Urbanist.

Tweet of the Week: Sidewalks should get priority, too

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Community Transit made an excellent observation that we put so much emphasis on fixing potholes and repairing streets, but broken sidewalks and playgrounds get the shaft. Maybe it’s time to give attention to other public facilities.

Urban Indians II: Represent

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So much of what we as urban Indians do is stymied by study and data.

In the 19th Century it was the Indian Agents and Commissioners. In the 20th anthropologists (see Vine Deloria Jr.’s Custer Died for Your Sins for more on that). Today? It’s some of all of the above plus vetting by committee, panels and the gauntlet of public opinion.

It used to be–and still remains the case–that in ndn households, extended families, clans, bands, tribes and nations, we’d get an idea, talk about it for a minute, look around at each other and agree it was good. Then we’d do it. Things seem to run smoothly in this way. Sometimes it takes a while to get done, but we can wait out the process.

On the other hand when it comes to the world beyond our snug cultural niche things seem to get a lot more complicated.

Take the case of a certain bus. We all agree within our community that, although it runs a little too infrequently, the bus just works. That’s it. This bus gets us to where we need to go and we’ll fill in gaps if they arise. Unfortunately this bus isn’t “efficient” enough when it’s serving the ndn community and service is slated to be rerouted quite a haul from where we need to get to. It’s confusing because here’s a service that just works well enough and it might be going away.

Such is the way, it seems.

Another case is with proclamations. Many in our community want to move to acknowledge us on a day in October. Simple! Vote, sign, done. Except, that’s not how it’s working out. Apparently there wasn’t enough media around it so we need to go through a process now. First, a committee gets it. Then a council. Then someone signs it. There’ll be a speech, some photo ops, maybe someone in a regal eagle feather tsa?nika will end up the backdrop to some fine fine election lit.

Now, I get it. I get that we need to promote better representation of ourselves, and certainly this is doubly true in a somewhat diverse city, however the process all seems so tortured, and even a bit foreign to us given a shortage of Native American representation at the City and County level. So when we say “this is the way it works” and we hear “well, we’ll just let a study or a committee figure that out, thanks” it’s just frustrating.

Then again, we survived lots of things, even committees.

So we deal with it as it comes to us.

Next time: words from people that help us deal with all this.

Third & Pine, Center of the Throbbing Universe

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I pull up to the Third and Pine island stop, outside McDonalds. We’re in the vortex, the nerve center. Every major city has an intersection like this, but few are as colorfully and ferociously egalitarian. Class and status groups rub shoulders an onion-skin hairsbreadth from each other, a melting pot bubbling high, just this side of boiling over. You feel as if the intersection is so stuffed with humanity it can hardly contain all it carries on its stage. The scattered crowds jaywalk with aplomb, and somehow this is oddly appropriate: isn’t this after all the human organism unrestrained, unfettered, a swimming morass of stories and lives, and how could all that be held back by something as artless as a colored light?

You have the commuters, dressed for the office, the market, or outdoor labor, adding a sense of purpose to the undulating horde. Tourists alongside amble and sashay, stargazing in their fanny packs and visors, short-sleeved eddies in a stream of locals. Canvassers fight to get a word in edgewise, using friendliness or guilt; thumpers and witnesses vie for attention, preaching judgment. Figures on the ground all the while, with scraps and guarded eyes, they were like you once. The police presence highlights the more explicitly nefarious chicanery, but happening simultaneously are more discreet shenanigans– look for the high-class call girls, once an hour or every two hours, passing through the crowd to that elegant side doorway you’ve never noticed before, each time with a new client.

Right over here, where we are, is the infamous southeast corner. It’s a 24-hour institution, the fellows who hang around. Some aren’t even interested in drugs, but ah yes, some so definitely are. Supplies and demand wax and wane continuously all day, with various illegal goods and services becoming available at different times. The hoodlums, dealers, dopers, users, laggers, burnouts, hopheads, pushers, Sampsons, cookers, daddies, fences, hangers-on; aspiring deliquents with their heads in the clouds, people doing things in the shadowy recesses I’ve never even thought of. Faces in the dark like Francis Bacon. You’re reminded of the diabolical corners of a Bosch or a Gustave Dore.

Some call Third and Pine the Blade; others the Hive; or simply McDonalds, giving that innocuous company name completely new meaning. I call it the Center of the Universe. That there aren’t serious crimes happening constantly here is a testament to all the people. The Scientologists are more likely to interrupt your day than the hardened–and usually fairly distracted–folks at the corner.

Then there are the homeless and low-income, not to be confused with the buyers and sellers. If those were the will-nots, these are the have-nots, and though they might be indistinguishable visually, or may once have very well been the same, their aims couldn’t be more opposed. The grammar of these lives is different. Let us not prejudge these folks trying to get a leg up in life, rushing for buses to appointments and interviews, meeting their case managers, their minds trafficking in the whirlwind blur of waiting lists, shelters, social service calls, deadlines and dwindling dollar amounts, work release programs…. Their hustle is the harder one, with higher stakes.

Tonight a boisterous group of African-American men is in the island stop shelter, huddled around playing dice, their culture’s answer to a cluster of old Chinese surrounding a game of Mahjong. I tap the horn and one steps out of the road and back on to the sidewalk, consumed in the game. Another steps onboard, still enthralled, yelling through the windows, “That ain’t money! Those are coins! Are you serious?”

I’m pulling slowly forward, preparing for the famous left turn on Third. This has to be done at a snail’s pace. I love it. The bus in slow motion as people dash out, wander out, saunter– the speed and alternating paces of a dream. You’re enormous but precise, slower than walking speed, a blue whale in a school of fish as the crowd swims past. Everybody’s watching. There are surprisingly few deaths each year at this, the jaywalking capital of the world. Because you expect it. Behind me now people are shouting on the McDonalds corner. I ignore it, thinking I’m no Looky-Loo, but wait, it’s building to a crescendo, people shrieking, clumps of groups glancing at each other. Are they yelling at me?

Then, louder than ever, I hear, “WASSUP! AY! AY!”
I turn my head all the way back. We’re in the middle of the intersection, inching forward, starting to turn the wheel.

That’s not a brawl breaking out. It’s Sho Luv, hollering a warm hello at me, overwhelmed with goodwill. Absolutely beaming. Next to him are a couple other brothas, one watching me and smiling.
From the bus window I extend my arm, howling, “HEYYY! HOW’S IT GOING? MISTER SHO LUV!”
I think he said, “Sho Luv in da house!” Those gold teeth flashing brighter than ever, reflecting off the sodum vapor lamps, blowing up the orange night.
“Iss a pleasure!” I scream.
“Das mah boyee!” I hear him hollering into the night, as I drive away.

What stayed with me most about the interaction was not Sho Luv, but that young man, his friend or whoever it was, the kid who was watching. He was unsure what was going on, curious as to my response, and then thrilled at my excitement. I saw him just long enough to see the smile forming on his face. What a beautiful light. Two different worlds met in that greeting, and instead of a collision, he saw a warm glow. His world got a little bigger in that moment.

A woonerf on Eighth Avenue may soon be a reality

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8th Avenue Woonerf South Perspective
If all goes to plan, Seattle will soon have another woonerf making its way to a street near you. Vulcan lodged two related project proposals in South Lake Union along 8th Avenue N back in October 2013. The project went through a series of design reviews which analyzed alternatives for a Green Street or woonerf. But 8th Avenue already has plenty of other projects that have been developed to the Green Street standard, too.

The length of 8th Avenue N between John Street and Mercer Street was previously identified as a Green Street. More recent plans by SDOT/DPD have instead redesignated the street as a woonerf. Green Streets provide enhanced pedestrian environments, which can include streetscape features like wider sidewalks, street trees, landscaping, and appropriate furniture emphasizing pedestrian movements. These streets tend to be very boulevardesque with areas for seating, attractive landscaping, and thinner lanes to slow through traffic.

Woonerfs take this concept a step furtherer by strictly emphasizing non-motorized traffic movements. They are created through shared spaces that give visual cues and implement physical elements to encourage automobiles to yield and slow to other users. Woonerfs employ many of the same elements prescribed by Green Streets, but are more than just pleasant, wide green streets. An example in Seattle is the Bell Street Park, which presently runs for four blocks between First Avenue and Fifth Avenue on Bell Street.

SDOT and DPD have gone through an evolutionary shift of how 8th Avenue N should function as a local transportation path. First designated as a Green Street and now as a woonerf, the street can provide additional safety for pedestrians and cyclists, new active and passive open space, and implementation of important environmental goals like onsite water quality enhancement, tree canopy cover, and more porous permeability. All of this can be achieved while maintaining an access for through traffic in cars and providing space for parking.

8th Ave Woonerf Aerial

Vulcan was the first property development company to actually propose a woonerf along 8th Avenue N. Past projects chose to pursue Green Street elements instead–for a combination of reasons like former Green Street policy, developer choice, and responsibility for only half of the right-of-way width. Vulcan’s 300 & 333 8th Ave N (project permits 3014981 and 3014982) project straddles both sides of 8th Avenue N and is proposed to construct two new 6-story linear office buildings (as seen in the first image) for Amazon. This project offers a unique opportunity to do work on for the whole right-of-way width of 8th Avenue N between Harrison Street and Thomas Street.

Vulcan’s Green Street and woonerf street design alternatives were equally supported by the West Design Review Board. The Vulcan architecture team thoroughly explored the woonerf option as the preferred design option throughout the design review process. Between what the Vulcan team has indicated publicly and the investment in designing the woonerf space, it seems incredibly likely that it will be the chosen alternative unless SDOT rejects the right-of-way plans.

As you can see above, the street is angled along the length to give it visual termination points leading into the buildings. This meandering street pattern in itself is a way to reduce traffic speeds. But if that weren’t enough, Vulcan has included pockets for street parking (perhaps ideal spots for future food trucks?), physical barriers like outdoor seating and low blocks/walls, street trees, and expansive green areas. The street is also elevated from the intersections north and south meaning that drivers have to drive up gradual ramps, another cue to keep it slow. Materials for the street are intentionally chosen to indicate how the spaces are subtly divided up. Ultimately, the pedestrian and cyclist experience should be vastly improved with a new park-like space.

Recent projects underway or constructed

A project dubbed 8th + Republican (home to Glazer’s Supplies) completed Design Review in December 2013. A the Recommendation stage, the project proponent was supportive of a Green Street concept for their half of 8th Avenue N. The project proponent focused on three primary ways to address the street: a wide sidewalk, two large bulbs projecting from the sidewalk with on-street parking situated between them, and an expansive, but well designed public plaza with low lying vegetated landscaping and outdoor seating.

777 Thomas St is a project located just south of the Vulcan site and completed Design Review in July. At the Recommendation stage, the project proponent had only tacitly attempted to address the Green Street requirements for 8th Avenue N. A small bulb is proposed for the northwest corner and a set of planter strips at the edge of the sidewalk. Despite this, the Design Review had been very receptive of the plan and only requested that the project proponent extend the bulb further into the street.

The University of Washington Medicine Lake Union campus comprises a multiplicity of builds and two block on 8th Avenue N. The project was planned in phases and proposed simple Green Street elements to calm traffic: end-of-block bulbs from the sidewalks, wide sidewalks, a mid-block crosswalk with treated pavement and bulbs to reduce the walking length, and dynamic planter strips. So far most of the elements have been implemented, particularly on the east side of 8th Avenue N while they have been partially implemented on the west. Completion of the planned street improvements are pending construction of the other project phases.

Where we go from here

Despite the fact that more than half of 8th Avenue N has been redeveloped (or proposed to be) in recent years, it still has ample properties ripe for redevelopment. This means that there are future opportunities to use the Vulcan project as a standard for how to design the remainder of the street.

Future project proponents along 8th Avenue N will have the opportunity to choose what street typology they prefer–Green Street or woonerf. Hopefully project proponents will be naturally inclined toward providing a woonerf as part of their frontage improvements. But it’s not all on the project proponents. The public, development review staff, and West Design Review Board all have a part to play in ensuring that the vision for a 8th Avenue N woonerf street becomes a reality. At the project level, supporting alternatives that include a woonerf during design review is one way to do this. Another is to directly contact DPD, SDOT, and the City Council to support the expansion of a woonerf along this street (and other streets for that matter).

An upcoming project to watch (and comment on) is 401 8th Ave N (design review document), which is scheduled for its first Early Design Guidance on October 1. To follow all projects that are proposed, under review, under construction, or completed in Seattle, see my Development in Seattle map.

Space-decoding the elements of urbanism

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First in a series of illustrated ruminations from the South of France.

According to the New York Times‘ Roger Cohen, France is struggling with changing times, including how perception of classic physical space is evolving as the role of cyberspace expands. Ambiguities range from the changing nature of central State political power, to the incongruous starting place of Tour de France 2014: not in France but in England.

As Cohen wrote in early July about one prospective premise for the current French struggle with modernity:

[N]owhere else is the particularity of place and the singularity of a person’s attachment to it more important.

In continuing my focus on the baselines of today’s urbanism, Cohen’s apt statement explains why I am writing on an occasional basis from France through November. There is nowhere better, in my opinion, to see the old world basis for the role of urban places, and how they define who we are in the urban context.

In the narrow streets and pass-through places of old world urban cores, latent answers to urban riddles await our quizzical view. These answers are worthy of histories, sensational fiction and last, but not least, the inquiry of urbanists.

Consider a Dan Brown approach to the study of cities, something we could easily call “place-decoding”.

Place-decoding, like the Urbanism Without Effort I have written about before, is the necessary prerequisite to placemaking going forward. The observational lessons of place-decoding illustrate embedded patterns within the urban form. Many such patterns need notice and forethought based on their precedent and inevitable recurrence.

We need only a few late summer photographs from the historic center of Aix-en-Provence and the small Corsican port of Erbalunga to further set the tone.

Each photograph suggests an element of placemaking for further consideration, around which a city will grow (as shown by surrounding modern development only a stone’s throw away).

Each shows latent human behavior and natural and market forces in process–all of which can lead to consequent debates about policies, plans and regulations.

Require setbacks to preserve light and air? Assure safe passage for the elderly? Honor the walkable places of the past, present and future? Foster successful interactions of private business and public ways? Create safety at all hours for street diners and children at play?

We will not find the answers to these questions in solely the printed word, or in assumed approaches to urban life. Rather, these are the riddles of the old world worth illustrating and asking again, in places where their inspiration remains on eternal display–begging for rediscovery, decoding and translation to modern life.

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Coming next: a model for altering human senses in a public space

Images composed by the author in Aix-en-Provence, and Erbalunga, Corsica, France. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2014 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

Community Transit adds service, other changes begin today

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Community Transit Route 130.
Community Transit Route 130.

Service changes for Community Transit begin today, and in this round, the agency is adding new service hours. New annual services will including 7,500 beginning today with another 25,000 hours slated to be added in 2015. Next year may see the reintroduction of Sunday service, better evening frequencies and later buses, and improved Saturday service. This service change will see a combination of routing changes, frequency improvements, bus stop relocations, and the elimination of one route. In brief, the below are the affected bus lines.

Route changes: Routes 110, 112, 113, 115, 116, 120, 130, 201, 202, 220, 230, and 232.
Bay changes: Routes 112, 113, 115, 116, 120, 130, 410, and 416.

Summary of route changes

Route 110 (Edmonds-Mountlake Terrace) – Eliminated due to low ridership, service hours redeployed to other routes.
Route 112 (Mountlake Terrace-Ash Way P&R) – Sop change for northbound buses at the Lynnwood Transit Center, Bay C4 to C5.
Route 113 (Mukilteo-Lynnwood) – Route is extended from 164th Street via 36th Avenue  to Lynnwood Transit Center, no longer serve Ash Way Park & Ride.
Routes 115 (Mariner P&R-Aurora Village) & 116 (Edmonds-Silver Firs) – Both routes will serve Alderwood Mall Parkway, which means they will no longer serve 36th Avenue and Swamp Creek Park & Ride.
Route 120 (Canyon Park-Edmonds Community College) – The route will be extended to Edmonds Community College from Lynnwood Transit Center, additional trips are added, and bus stop location changes take place at both Lynnwood Transit Center and Edmonds Community College.
Route 130 (Edmonds-Lynnwood) – Mid-day service frequency on weekdays will double from hourly to half-hourly. Stop change at Lynnwood Transit Center from Bay C5 to C4.
Routes 201 & 202 (Smokey Point-Lynnwood) – Combined frequency between Smokey Point Transit Center and Lynnwood Transit Center will be 15 minutes with the addition of 23 new daily roundtrips. Both routes become express via I-5 from Ash Way Park & Ride and Lynnwood Transit Center nor longer serving Alderwood Mall Parkway. A minor jog in limited stop routing occurs in Everett.
Route 220 (Arlington-Smokey Point) – The first and last stop in Arlington is moved from Gilman to Broadway and Burke.
Route 230 (Darrington-Smokey Point) & Route 232 (Darrington-Smokey Point) – Route 232 is deleted and consolidated into Route 230 which will maintain full service between Darrington and Smokey Point. The schedule has be revised significantly due to the consolidation.
Route 240 (Stanwood-Smokey Point) – The Stillaguamish Senior Center will no longer be served the route. The route will be truncated at Smokey Point.
Route 410 (Mariner P&R-Seattle) – Buses will serve Bay 3 at Ash Way Park & Ride during PM trips.
Route 416 (Edmonds-Seattle) – Buses will be moved from Bay 4 to Bay 2 along Railroad Avenue at Edmonds Station.

For full details on the changes, be sure to check out the handy Blue Bus schedule book or online schedule pages for each route.