You’re Foonie


Picture 2

“You’re a foonie bus-drivin’ horse master, y’ know thaht?”
“Oh yeah?”

I’m strolling back to my bus one morning at Aurora Village Transit Center, after using the restroom. My job is to take people who call me foonie bus-driving horsemaster seriously. This fellow, a passenger on my most recent trip, has approached me. He’s stockily built, but with the romantically scraggy locks of hair you expect to see on the front of pulpy romance novels. His terrific Scottish accent carries a tone ambiguous, a current of anger whose level I can’t quite place.

“Yeah, calling’ out THS. You might not wanna dew thaht.” THS is the methadone clinic. The letters stand for Therapeutic Health Services (“we know what that means,” some users and I joked when I once explained the acronym to a curious onlooker).

“But that’s where everyone’s goin’!” I reply.
“But they’re in treeetment, maybe they don’t want everyone to know they’re in treeetment,” he growled darkly.
“Oh, but they may not be goin’ there. Maybe they’re goin’ to the taco stand across the street…or hey, the smoke shop!”
He resigned himself to a chuckle. “You’re a foonie horsemaster!”
“Have a good one!”
He gave me the peace gesture, two fingers.

Later, he tells me again, under identical circumstances, a tinge of burly threat coloring his words: “I’m teeellin’ you, you got to stop sayin’ THS. I’m the only person got off there this morning and yew said THS, now everybody thinks I’m an ahddict!”

He sounded angry, but I pretended not to notice. “Oh man no, they don’t think that! They’re self-absorbed in their own stuff. You know I’m just callin’ out the local attractions! Maybe they think you’re goin to Aqua Quip, gonna buy a hot tub…” There, I got him to smile.

I knew I needed to pay a little more attention when he was next on board. Which is why the next time he rode, I glanced in the mirror before announcing, “this is 165th next, by THS. Also by the Credit Union and the auto shop, Shoreline Motel, there’s a U-Haul, let’s see…we got Dana Waterproofing right here…”

Never did 165th receive such a careful and studied series of announcements.  He indicated his approval by way of congenial silence. I imagine Dana and Sound Credit Union never dreamed they’d get announced as local attractions, but hey, everyone deserves a moment in the limelight.

Puget Sound Bike Share Launching Soon


Proposed Puget Sound Bike Share Docking Stations


It’s official: the Puget Sound Bike Share (PSBS) will launch in 2014! PSBS’s primary vendor Alta Bicycle Share has teamed up with D8 Technologies. D8 will provide Alta with the necessary software to run the docking stations and bikes. Alta will be responsible for delivering 500 bikes and 50 docking stations for Phase I of the system.

PSBS has created a crowdsourcing map to receive feedback on potential docking stations. As you can see from the map above, the green area is the service area for Phase I with blue dots indicating proposed locations by PSBS and green dots proposed by the public. Most of the proposed locations are heavy concentrations of docking stations along corridors and core areas.

Barclays Cycle HireWhen we consider what the launch plan for docking stations, we should look at successful bike share programs like Washington, D.C., New York City, and London for best practices. Each of these systems distribute their docking stations in a fairly balanced manner across city cores. Instead of over-concentrating docking stations (except in a few instances) in city cores and corridors, the stations are spread out to provide riders with many options and ease of access. Like transit riders, cyclists are only willing to walk a few blocks in any direction to and from a docking station. This means that docking stations need to be in residential heavy areas too, not just primary activity centers. Where docking stations are highly popular, the bike share provider simply provides additional docking ports at a station.

Capitol BikeshareLooking back at the map above, residents in Belltown, Eastlake, and the University District have clearly indicated that they want stations near them. If stations are too far away from residents in the University District or Eastlake, many will probably just walk, catch the next bus, or rent a car2go instead of bothering to use the bike share.

All of this is trial and error, of course. The Capitol Bikeshare program has been a constantly changing system since its inception. Planners have repeatedly recalibrated the system based upon data, demand, and comments. I expect that PSBS will do the same. But we want to strike the right balance on Day One so that we have a vibrant and well used bike share system from the beginning. Doing so will help make the case for expansion sooner, rather than later, much easier. So please be sure to provide your feedback to PSBS!

City As Affordable Housing Developer?

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

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

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

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

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

More below the jump.

Sunday Video: 137 Years of Sprawl



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

2013-2014 Amendments to Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan


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

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

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

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

More after the jump.

5 Questions About Building Big Buildings

South Lake Union Construction by clappstar on Flickr.

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

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

More after the jump.

Westlake Cycle Track Design Advisory Committee

Attributed to: SDOT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SDOT   Westlake Avenue North Cycle Track
Attributed to: SDOT

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

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

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

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

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

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