Revisiting Sustainable Housing, Politics and a Basic Pride of Place

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In Seattle, the recent recommendations of the Mayor’s Housing and Livability Agenda (HALA) Advisory Committee have dominated civic discussion, particularly a small part of the HALA report that emphasizes more flexible housing types in single-family neighborhoods (e.g mother-in-law apartments and detached accessory dwelling units).

To some of Seattle’s mainstream media, images such as the one above—depicting a longstanding triplex in a Seattle residential neighborhood—are forgotten. Instead, Rome is burning, or, perhaps, with subconscious memory of the changes brought by the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, drastic change stands looming from the brown lawns of the historic heat wave of 2015.

In response, here is a timely republication of a post from last October, that also appeared in the Huffington Post, and, as digested, in Planetizen.

I began with a core question, and answer, about where and how we live: “What do the politics of urban housing have to do with a seasonal caravan park in Provence? For me, the answer is clear. Our political discussions, mired in jargon and positioning, often lose sight of a human pride of place inherent in even the simplest forms of shelter.”

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A major American urban theme, today, addresses the challenge of maintaining housing affordability, and determining who should pay to insure available residences close to work and necessary services. Other themes include scrutiny of residential configurations, and debates over how small is too small for today’s dwelling unit size. In Seattle, various stakeholders, from elected officials to developers and nonprofits, continue jousting over an arguably not-ready-for-prime-time housing linkage proposal and new limitations on the size of micro-housing units. A new Advisory Committee will attempt a varied tool-based cure [as of October, 2014].

I recently keynoted a Seattle housing non-profit’s annual breakfast. There, I had to answer a big question: What, exactly, is affordable housing? My answer simply stated that people need affordable access to the sought-after elements of urban life. To paraphrase, people need affordable access to homes of whatever size and shape that they can take pride in.

When people take pride in where they live, their homes’ appearance shows a bonding with the place, often with considered ingenuity.

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This ingenuity is clear at the Domaine du Pin de la Lègue (a 53 year-old caravan park near Fréjus, France). From the Domaine, I asked myself last month, why not focus on how to see and decode the expressions of people’s pride in and around the walls and ceilings that protect them?

I am talking about the basic decorator and landscaper within us all, our human tendency to create a sense of comfort with the outside world so that we blend more easily with where we live.

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The Domaine du Pin de la Lègue is, in American terms, a seasonal manufactured housing community. Some stay almost all year but most people are in residence for short vacations. Either way, there are a range of services nearby, including a grocery store, a produce store, a butcher and deli, a hairdresser, restaurants and more. There’s an outdoor cinema, tennis courts, a lending library, several pools, boules (or pétanque) and plenty of summer events.

Most importantly, there is the pride of place surrounding the small living spaces in the homes all around, from clever retrofits to landscaping and rockeries befitting the best of single-family neighborhoods.

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On a stroll, this pride is clear throughout the Domaine, where caravans become palaces amid dignified grounds. In the ways called for among some urban redevelopment movements today, small-scale innovation is on display—it’s a locale where the plot-based, lean, and pop-up urbanism movements of the United Kingdom and the United States merge with some admirable diversity.

Admittedly, it’s more campground than the best of Paris, and that’s really the point, as the illustrations here make clear. But unlike a campground, the surroundings are not disassembled. Rather, like a neighborhood, the homes become nurtured, planted around, and modified in functional ways.

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People don’t need expensive building materials, identities, or complex regulatory tools to find a pride of place. Rather, we carry with us the ability to mine pride from place, even in places that are, perhaps, least expected to shine.

This is a cross-post from Chuck Wolf’s myurbanist blog. Images composed by the author in Seattle, and at the Domaine du Pin de la Lègue, outside Fréjus, France. Click on the images for more detail. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

The Urbanist Relaunched

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Today, The Urbanist is launching a brand new theme for our website. It’s not only brighter and cleaner, but it also has tons of new functionality and features for readers. Here are just a few of the things that you’ll notice in the redesign:

  • A new “Features” megamenu neatly lays out our key topics;
  • Recent articles on the main page have a 50-word preview with a featured image;
  • A more powerful search function displays results in-page on-the-fly;
  • “The Urban Mixer” gives readers a glimpse at our special series;
  • A responsive layout is presented across all desktop, tablet, and mobile device formats;
  • Superior integration of social media;
  • A refreshed navigation bar that better connects readers with our content;
  • Our best articles of recent note rise to the top in “The City Picks”;
  • Related article suggestions are featured at the bottom of articles; and
  • Recent videos take center stage in their own pop-up menu.

We’ve put a lot of collective work into arriving at this point and hope that you’ll like the website redesign. But our work is not yet finished, it’s still a work in progress. Over the coming months, we’ll make tweaks to perfect the theme and add new content to make the experience even better for our regular readers and visitors. However, we could also use your feedback on the changes to help us improve the website theme and functionality. Let us know what you thoughts in the comments or shoot us an e-mail!

Sunday Video: Before I Die

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Artist, designer and urban planner Candy Chang has conducted interactive projects in neighborhoods around the world which engage people about their thoughts on life, secrets, memories and dreams. She demonstrates the power of public spaces in allowing people to have a voice and share experiences with each other.

What We’re Reading: Wrong Side of the Tracks

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Unconventional: CHS digs deep into the details of the Convention Center expansion proposal; Curbed Seattle has the cliffnotes.

Staying tall: New York City wants to keep building tall, but with community desires in mind.

Poisoning the well: Governor Jay Inslee is actively considering a swallowing the “poison pill” in the statewide transportation package; this would kill over $1 billion in active transportation funding, but allow the Governor to pursue climate change goals.

Swank design: Capitol Hill is looking at some swanky new development projects.

Wrong side of the tracks: A series of maps across the US that show how highways and railways really do cause racial segregation.

‘Tactical urbanism’: Not the best term for it, but First Hill shows off some new street furniture and activation features.

Infographic: How Seattle spends your tax dollars.

Clutter reducing signs: Sydney is trying out new electronic signs that can implement parking restrictions on-the-fly.

Rezoning 23rd and Union: An update on the rezone proposal for the commercial node at 23rd Ave E and Union St.

Unmedicated traffic: Seattle Bike Blog reported this week that Seattle has a serious traffic safety emergency that needs immediate attention.

Turn off the lights: “The old suburban office park is the new American ghost town.”

Wind struck: London’s Walkie Talkie tower is making many unhappy with its downdrafts.

Metro rebrand: The case for better-looking buses.

Extreme urban art: Karlsruhe is trying out some extravagant and extreme art to spruce up a construction site.

Timeline: The legacy of rails-to-trail in a digital timeline.

The San Fran Effect: An explainer on how San Francisco went from America’s progressive mecca to unfathomly unaffordable.

Not an accident: “We don’t say ‘plane accident.’ We shouldn’t say ‘car accident’ either.”

Mortgaged: An op-ed in Vancouver, BC on how mortgages and foreign investment a major players in the inflation of housing prices.

Road addiction: Politico asks why America is spending so much money on roads despite a national funding crisis for transportation and looks into one Wisconsin city addicted to highway megaprojects.

Urban Pope: Five ways that the Catholic Church and Rome have put the Pope Francis’ urban and environmental ethos into action.

Designing for light: New York City thinks that buildings can be built tall without sacrificing light.

I-5, it is!: The Sound Transit Board chooses an amended I-5 alignment for the Federal Way Link extension.

Community Transit Sends Transit Expansion Measure to Snohomish County Voters

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Snohomish County has an opportunity to vastly improve bus service if voters pass a sales tax in November. A sales tax increase of 0.3% would deliver up to $25 million annually for new transit operations and infrastructure investments throughout Snohomish County and select inter-county routes. Community Transit gave a small preview of possible investments that might come from new revenue. The biggest of these would be a second Swift bus rapid transit line, a new SR-9 route linking outlying communities to the urban center of the county (I-5 and 128th St SW), and increased frequency and span of service on local routes.

This measure was only possible by the passage of the transportation package signed by Governor Jay Inslee last week. Community Transit had lobbied hard throughout this year’s legislative session to get new taxing authority. Local legislators, members of the Snohomish County community, and Community Transit staff visited the state capitol on numerous occasions to urge support for new taxing authority. In the wake of Inslee signing the bill, the Community Transit Board of Directors wasted no time; they went to work the day after to pass Resolution 08-15. If voters approve the proposal, Community Transit’s 0.9% sales tax will rise to 1.2%, a 25% increase. Despite the seemingly large tax increase, it’s important to put things into context.

In the recession, Community Transit was hit hard by the volatility in tax revenues while strong demand for transit service continued. The agency faced tough decisions about how future operations would continue. Multiple rounds of service reductions were enacted between 2009 and 2012, which resulted in the loss of 160,000 service hours (37% of the total service hours). Sunday and holiday service were eliminated, span of service trimmed, and routes deleted. Service cuts aside, Community Transit has largely lived within its means since 1990, the last time the agency asked voters to pay for service expansion*.

Ridership spiked 8% last year on Community Transit routes and 47,000 service hours have been deployed since 2012. Another 7,000 service hours are planned to be added annually between 2016 and 2019. But, even with these increases in service hours, Community Transit will remain 87,000 service hours short of its 2009 high.

What’s in the proposal

Diagram of Swift I (blue) and Swift II (green).
Diagram of Swift I (blue) and Swift II (green).

The centerpiece of the proposal is Swift II, a bus rapid transit (BRT) line that would link Paine Field and Bothell via Mill Creek. Community Transit projects that the 12.5-mile line would attract up to 3,300 daily riders on the first day of operations. The corridor itself would connect with key local routes like the 101, 105/106, 115/116, 201/202 and commuter routes as well as its sister service Swift I on SR-99. 14 station pairs would dot the alignment and be anchored by two transit hubs; one at Canyon Park Park & Ride and the other at Boeing’s future Seaway Transit Center at Paine Field. Community Transit could deploy the route as early as 2018 if state and federal funding flow to the agency to purchase buses and make the proper infrastructural investments. Community Transit is already actively working with local jurisdictions like Snohomish County and Mill Creek to implement some aspects of these investments.

Community Transit strongly supports the BRT service typology because it has been successful in capturing large numbers of riders at all portions of the week and day. In fact, Swift I is by far Community Transit’s most used route. According to ridership numbers, over 16% of Community Transit riders use Swift on weekdays and more than 30% on Saturdays. But if that isn’t impressive, consider that the 31 stops of Swift I account for nearly 20% of all ridership for the agency, despite having more than 1,500 stops.

With larger stop distances, faster travel over distances, clear branding and station amenities like real-time arrival notification, off-board payment, and high frequencies (as frequent as every 10 minutes on weekdays), it’s little surprise that Swift I has been a shining star in Community Transit’s route network. And, this is exactly what Community Transit hopes to replicate with Swift II. But the agency doesn’t want to stop just there with BRT, an additional four corridors could get future BRT treatments by 2030.

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SR-9 route from Marysville to McCollum Park.

Community Transit also wants to enhance services in other ways, too. A top priority in the measure will be to deploy a new SR-9 routes. One possible route that the agency would pursue in the corridor includes an alignment running from Marysville to McCollum Park via Lake Stevens, Snohomish, and Silver Firs. McCollum Park is a large county park and park-and-ride facility just east of I-5. This routing would have the benefit of connecting with Swift II, local routes, and future light rail if the Sound Transit Board sends light rail to I-5 and 128th St SW (Mariner Park & Ride or McCollum Park Park & Ride).

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Limited network in Stanwood and Arlington.

Additional local service would be deployed in the communities of Arlington, Monroe, and Stanwood in order to neighborhood access to centers of jobs and education. At present, these areas have relatively few bus routes serving them and the frequency is very low. For instance, Route 240 between Stanwood and Arlington’s Smoke Point Transit Center is a weekday only service running at most hourly during daytime hours. Meanwhile, Arlignton’s local routes like the 220 (nearly hourly on weekdays) and 230 (twice daily on weekdays) are incredibly low despite a sizable urban community.

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Monroe route network.

Even Commuter routes to Downtown Seattle and the University of Washington would also get a boost under the proposal. Community Transit will presumably up the number of specific trips for these routes where there is crowding and demand. However, the service hours will eventually be converted elsewhere in the network when the Lynnwood Link extension opens in 2023. The opening of the light rail alignment will also likely result in significant route network changes within southwest urban portion of Snohomish County.

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Service in Snohomish County’s Southwest Urban Growth Area.

East-west connections are also planned for an upgrade. Community Transit wants to reorient how service operates, particularly in the Southwest Urban Growth Area of Snohomish County. Service in the area is generally north-south with a complicated series of routes that provide east-west connections. New and modified routes are possible solutions to the network issues.

Finally, the other proposed service improvements include: increased frequency on local service and expanded hours of operation for all days of the week, more vanpools, and expanded DART paratransit service. Community Transit CEO Emmett Heath says that if the measure is approved by voters, new service could arrive as early as March 2016 — the next soonest service change after the November election.

*The last tax increase in 2001 was merely an offset for the funding reductions resulting from the repeal of the motor vehicle excise tax (Tim Eyman’s I-695) approved by voters statewide.

Ode to the 7 (Cascade of a Thousand Colors)

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Rainier and Forest, southbound. A mild-mannered Caucasian man in his twenties noticed I was the driver upon my pulling up and opening the doors. “Oh fuck yeah,” he said to himself.

I’ve been driving the 7 at night, five nights a week, for an entire year straight. I love it. I loved it when I started driving it on and off in 2009, and I love it even more now, to the point that at the past several shake-ups I could see no reason to pick anything else, though I could easily do so, when instead I could be driving the one and only 7. To everyone– and this ‘everyone’ is one huge number of people– who has offered discouragement over the years, who has thrown barbs at the workplace, explained away my happiness with trite excuses, done their best to belittle me bit by bit, day after day, to this great sea of naysayers I believe I’ve earned the right to say the following in a respectful but okay, entirely dismissive tone:

Puh-leeeeeeeaaze!

I can recall riding the 7 shortly after I’d started at Metro and chatting with the driver. In my later childhood I’d grown up using the route, and felt energized as always by its hive-like microcosm of humanity, the earthly globe in all its glorious and terrible wonder compacted into a single vehicle.

“I can’t wait to get to drive this,” I said to the operator.
“Well, be careful what you say,” he murmured. “Give it a try before you say stuff like that.” His trepidation was unfounded, as we now know, but he was right to express it. Nobody loves the 7. He had no way of knowing where I was coming from.

The great sea of naysaying bus drivers has subsided over the years. Now people just know I’m crazy. I’m crazier than the passengers I pick up. I get excited when we turn the corner at Pike and a big mob is waiting. I feel humbled and honored to drive alongside so many operators who accept and tolerate my attitude, my enthusiasm which hardly makes sense, but which keeps bubbling out. Thank you for waving at me, for taking me in despite my gleeful malady of happiness. I don’t pretend to understand it, except to say the joy I feel while out here in the vortex is completely real, and utterly soul-satisfying. We yearn to feel whole in this life. And for fleeting moments when directing films, or clicking the shutter, or taking the S-curves at Andover, greeting this new set of eyes and watching them fold into a smile…

A good friend recently rode much of my shift, which was the 7 and the 49 combined (my heart will crumble a little when these routes eventually get split), and she commented on how much more visibly excited I got once we turned into the 7 and the 7 passengers started getting on. I had never realized a change was visible!

One late night we were at the southbound zone underneath I-90. I was outside the bus, helping a man who was carrying a few upholstered armchairs. We were lifting them on through the back doors of the coach. While we were both back there he gave me his fare, which I took up to the front and paid, bringing him back a transfer.

As I walked up and down the aisle to do this, I had to resist the urge to just sit down next to all the people and ask how they were doing. Dim fluorescents illuminating a cascade of a thousand colors, different moods and tones, lives on their way, the tired and disenfranchised, those who have suffered but hide their bruises, those who recognize kindness and those who don’t, a motley marginalized crew of society’s unloved, speaking in their native tongues.

These are the people I most wish to spend time with while I’m at work.

All of which is to say, you youngsters, if your heart is set on something and the old guard tries to dissuade you, consider their opinions, but listen also to yourself. Remember they can only offer their own experience and perspective, which aren’t the same as yours. You might be on to something.

That was the ecstatic section. Now for the bummer paragraph: It is with some sadness I write that I’ll be on different routes for the summer. I’m taking reduced hours to focus on writing, filmmaking, and artmaking, which necessitated being on call. Find me on any trolley route (quite possibly the 7 itself) during the midweek rush hours. All this will have no real impact on the stories I post here, which will generally continue to be stories from the evening 7, as there’s currently a huge backlog of such. Naturally I’m excited to see faces new and old on the other routes (especially the 3/4, another baby of mine I’ve been away from for too long), but you know me well enough to know it goes without saying I’ll be back on the great one and only before we can say, “next stop, Henderson Street!”

What’s the Most Important Acronym on Seattle Streets?

The Seattle ROWIM or Right Of Way Improvement Manual may be the most important acronym guiding the development of Seattle streets today.

How wide are sidewalks required to be? Where can driveways go? What sorts of street lighting do developers need to provide around new condo buildings? These questions are always important, but they are of critical importance now.

You might be forgiven for not knowing that more than 10,000 housing units are in the works in Seattle and $2.8 billion worth of projects are under construction, but you have been sleeping if you have missed the 40+ big cranes massively  transforming our city in Ballard, U-District, South Lake Union, First Hill, and downtown.

Fortuitously, Seattle is also mandated to do a 10-year update of its Right of Way Improvement Manual.

The current ROWIM was written before there was much attention paid to bikes as transportation, parklets, street furnishings, or safe and healthy street architecture for people who walk. Note that the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will also be updating its Complete Streets Ordinance as it updates the ROWIM.

The City of Seattle hired the Toole Design Group as a consultant on the project and expects to complete the ROWIM update as a web-based on-line document by the end of 2015. Expect the new and improved Seattle ROWIM to have some of the same flavor of Boston Complete Streets Guidelines that Toole worked on last year. We hope to see lots of new street typology in the ROWIM — greenways, historic boulevards, protected intersections, festival streets, play streets, home zones and maybe even the elusive woonerf.

A group of Seattle people who are passionate about the wonky aspects of streets began meeting in December of 2013 to discuss the ROWIM. The group represents people in Seattle who serve on City Boards & Commissions, people who staff active transportation advocacy groups, students, and interested community members. They met because they all believe the ROWIM has the potential to reflect the aspirations of a Vision Zero, carbon neutral, equitable, healthy city that prioritizes people who walk, bike and use transit.

The ROWIM community comments are summarized in a 9-page document, with highlights below. Some comments are about policy, some are really digging into the weeds. We hope you find them all helpful. Read the complete community comments here.

  1. Mode hierarchy. Choices about mode hierarchy will happen from now on with every project. SDOT has uncompromising standards for level of service and safety for the movement of motorized vehicles. We need to invest in equally rigorous standards for safety of all modes and a have clear expectations for level of service for all modes of travel. Our recommendation is to place the comfort and safety of people walking and biking at the top of our mode hierarchy.
  2. Build to Vision Zero standards. Safe streets are SDOT’s number one concern. The ROWIM needs to include information on traffic control devices, intersection safety, traffic calming on arterials, and traffic calming on residential streets.  In order to reach Vision Zero by 2030, every project — especially every major capital project — needs to be designed first to achieve zero deaths and serious injuries in the ROW, not just “improve” safety conditions.
  3. Reflect anticipated land use strategies on a 20-year timeframe. Seattle will be denser and greener. We will thrive without prioritizing the use of single occupancy vehicles in the allocation and design of our limited right of way resources.
  4. Be context sensitive. Make street improvements be context specific. There is a huge difference in residential, commercial, industrial property, yet many street uses have a one-size-fits-all approach for street trees, curb ramps, sidewalks, intersections, signs, driveways, lighting and so on.
  5. Demand excellence. Allow SDOT to innovate and encourage pilot projects.  Seattle is known as an innovative city.  We’ve embraced NACTO, and we’re one of the most highly educated cities in the nation. Our ROWIM should allow us to continually experiment and learn.
  6. Make safe streets legal. We want to see new concepts and ideas in this version of the ROWIM. There are a variety of street classifications, safety tools, livable street elements, and intersection treatments that need to be defined and permitted for future use.
  7. Collaborate interdepartmentally, with other agencies, and with the public on right-of-way improvements. From a community perspective, public land is public land. We don’t much care if it is managed by Parks, SDOT, SPU, Schools, Libraries, Metro  etc. It belongs to all of us. Let’s start making plans and rules for our public spaces collectively. This approach will be needed if we are to build a new connected, citywide grid of low-stress biking and walking routes.
  8. Format the ROWIM for easy use.

This is a cross-post and originally appeared on the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways blog.

Engage Seattle Design Review In A New Way

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Interacting with design review just got better in Seattle. With the launch of a new interactive mapping system called Shaping Seattle: Buildings, the Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is embarking on a new way for public involvement in the planning process. Mirroring many of the features already present in Ethan’s Seattle In Progress app, Shaping Seattle: Buildings should prove useful for informing the public of the development process, garnering feedback on project proposals, and keeping people abreast of where significant projects stand in the review and construction stages.

Users can tap into the DPD’s extensive project data by pursuing the interactive map and clicking on the blue dots. An individual project screen will appear to reveal a suite of project details, including: a primary project image, project location, permit number, and a short summary of the project proposal. Latest design review proposals appear front and center for easy download. Users can also view the project timeline, any associated documents on the proposal and land use application, fill in a comment box with their feedback on the project, find out if any future meetings are on the horizon, and share the project out across social media with the click of a button.

It’s worth noting that most projects will not have a scheduled meeting indicated. If a project is still under review, absence of a future meeting should not be taken to mean that there won’t be one scheduled down the road.

The DPD wants feedback from users, and plans to provide updated features in the future. So make sure to help them out and get involved in the design review process.

Project screen with tabs collapsed.
Project screen with tabs collapsed.
Project timeline.
Project timeline.
Opened tabs for project documents and public comment.
Opened tabs for project documents and public comment.