Call to Action: Support 133 Homes in Magnolia at May 26th Design Review

The latest rendering for the Magnolia Safeway project. (Credit: Bumgardner Architecture)

On May 26 at 5pm, the all-volunteer West Design Review Board will hear about a project at 2550 32nd Ave W that would house new neighbors and bring an updated grocery store to the heart of Magnolia. Plus, it’s a deep green building that is good for planet earth. Please join us in registering for the City of Seattle public meeting

What happens in Magnolia does not just impact Magnolia residents. Every green building is a step towards a better future for our whole city. We must do all we can, as soon as we can, for our climate. In our design review advocacy we prioritize green buildings. There are some adjacent neighbors concerned about an extra floor that is allowed under Seattle rules for the wonderful Living Building Challenge which incentivizes deep green construction practices, like rooftop solar panels and high energy efficiency standards. We wish that deep green buildings would receive expedited design review, since they are inherently a community benefit.

We have a dual housing and climate crisis. Meanwhile, Seattle’s design review delays add significant additional design costs, not to mention additional financing risks, that uncertainty injects into a project. Unnecessary design review delays aren’t just happening in Seattle. All those delays and extra costs are causing problems across the country. Henry Grabar recently wrote about this challenge in a Slate article titledGood Design Is Making Bad Cities, but It Doesn’t Have To” highlighting the work of the Sightline Institute and quoting their housing researcher Dan Bertolet.

“Similar standards in the city’s historic districts, Bertolet calculated, had cost Seattle more than 1,000 new homes over a period of a few years—and, because time is money, driven up the cost of the ones that did get built,” Grabar wrote.

One way to take action for more housing, is to speak up in favor of projects at design review meetings. Unfortunately future residents’ voices are often left out or ignored in land use processes, even though they are the ones most likely to be calling this building home. Please take action with us!

Seattle For Everyone, Share The Cities Action Fund and The Urbanist will be posting specific talking points for this project on our social media. In general, your comment should champion the green bonus of an additional floor. The bonus allows the building to contribute 133 new homes, and at least that many new neighbors, able to live in the exclusive community of Magnolia. Highlight that living above a grocery store means new neighbors will live less car-dependent and more ecofriendly lives. The builder has been very responsive to the community. They’ve prioritized a sunny plaza, as well as addressing shadow concerns with extra setbacks.

The new building will pull back from the southwest corner of the block to create a public plaza. (Credit: Bumgardner)

While not in the purview of the design board, our advocacy won’t stop at housing as we support bus frequency improvements near this project. We know that when housing and transit planning don’t sync up, there can be growing pains. Those temporary growing pains are worth it for a more climate-friendly city. 

There is room to be optimistic the project will be greenlit; several Magnolia’s local businesses appear to be supportive of this project based on Queen Anne Magnolia News’ coverage of a previous meeting in October.

Share The Cities Action Fund has created a guideline for public comment at design review and is mobilizing around this effort in areas of low displacement risk. Please consider sharing our Facebook event for the May 26 meeting, especially if you are a resident, or have a community connection to Magnolia. Our petition on Change.org has received over 100 signatures in support of this project. Please email info@sharethecities.org with questions. 

Skip Freeway Expansions, Rebuild Stampede Pass

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Stampede Pass in 1890 (Public Domain from Wiki)

In previous coverage, we discussed the possibilities for local rail across the state, but also mentioned the problems with getting Stampede Pass ready for passenger rail. Recently, the state has discussed a minor expansion to I-90 through the mountains and a major, $30.8 million widening of SR-516 in the Covington/Maple Valley area. As discussed before, road widening rarely provides much in the way of congestion relief and is very likely to increase greenhouse gas emissions. Going forward, we should avoid doing additional road expansions like this and instead invest in increasing rail capacity in places such as Stampede Pass. Such rail capacity improvements would provide far greater value than road expansions into the passes and mountain valleys.

The Stampede Pass rail corridor was originally built in 1888 as the Northern Pacific Railway’s route through the Cascade Mountains, making Tacoma the terminus of a transcontinental railroad and briefly a boomtown before Seattle got its own rail line and regained its advantage. In modern times, railroad routes through the rugged Cascade Mountains have become a rare commodity. The two primary routes are the two forks of the Empire Builder. The northern Seattle route connects Everett to Spokane through the Cascade Tunnel under Stevens Pass. The southern route tracks the Columbia River through the gorge to Portland. As the busiest east-west line in the region with 34 freight runs and two Amtrak passenger runs as of 2016, the Columbia line is already beset with congestion and delay issues. The Washington rated it an “E” just shy of an “F” rating in Level of Service. The northern route is rated a “C” at lighter traffic of 16 freight runs and two passenger runs per day on average. Our freight capacity is running up against constraints that need to be addressed.

Highlighted potential DMU route
Map of East-West Study Area with a cross-valley route that could operate before Stampede improvements are made highlighted in blue.

Opening up the old Northern Pacific route to significant traffic again would take some of the strain off the two Empire Builder forks. The new passenger rail corridor would also pull trips out of cars. The Northern Pacific route offers a superior connection to Seattle for a few key inland population centers. A quarter million people live in Yakima County and another quarter million live in the Tri-Cities (Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland) — that tri-headed metro area grew by more than 20% since 2010. It also goes through the heart of wine country and rich agricultural land that sees tons of seasonal farm workers.

Stampede Pass is now owned by BNSF Railway. As it is mostly single-tracked, has short tunnel clearances, non-signaled, and with steep grades, the corridor is used mainly for transporting empty rail cars in a single direction. All of these conditions along with its average speed of 26 miles per hour make it completely unsuitable for passenger travel and limit its use for freight. However, relatively inexpensive fixes could greatly boost the capacity and lower the steep climbing grades. The state should not just hand over these upgrades to a private company for free though. These upgrades should be viewed as an investment in the Stampede Pass route where either partial ownership (similar to Sound Transit’s arrangement with the Point Defiance Bypass) or permanent capacity easements (similar to the arrangement for Sounder service) should be negotiated for the significant investment incurred in the corridor.

Affordable Investments

Compared to tens of billions the state regularly spends on road projects, studies have repeatedly brought up relatively affordable projects that could greatly increase the usability of Stampede Pass. In a 2006 report, two options were presented:

  • Alternative A – East-West Capacity Expansion Project – Assumes a $350 million investment, shared between the State and the railroads, for selective capacity improvements. This will add capacity for approximately 25 percent more capacity December 2006 Statewide Rail Capacity and System Needs Study Task 10.2 – Washington State Rail Investment Plan 23 (from 100 to 108 trains per day to 124 to 132 trains per day). (Note that these train volumes include the UPRR’s Columbia River route capacity.)
  • Alternative B – East-West High Velocity Rail Corridor Project – Assumes a $1.5 billion to $2.0 billion investment, shared between the State and the railroads, for comprehensive capacity improvements. This will increase the east-west capacity by approximately 60 to 70 trains per day and lower operating costs.

While these are 2006 prices and some of these ideas have already been implemented — specifically added capacity along the Columbia River — it’s important to point out that Stampede Pass improvements have not occurred and the potential to add 60 or more trains per day is a lot of capacity for a relatively low cost that could be put to many uses. In Alternative B, there would be a new four-mile tunnel that would reduce grades from 2.2 to 1.6 for the route. Additionally, the 2020 East-West Passenger Rail study identified roughly $75 million in infrastructure cost to make bi-directional travel possible along the line which is quite a low price for work on such a long corridor. To make the most of this corridor, more expensive upgrades might be needed (full double-tracking, additional straightening and/or smaller tunnels closer to Maple Valley, electrification), but given the price points identified in the past, the costs may be well less than a full new rail line and are worth studying in conjunction with buying permanent access to some percentage of the throughput.

Here’s how this capacity could be put to use to relieve cross mountain traffic needs:

Former Planning Director Sam Assefa to Speak at Our May 11th Meetup

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Sam Assefa. (Courtesy of City of Seattle)

For our May 11th meetup we are very excited to be joined by Sam Assefa, until recently the Director of the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD). The OPCD is an office responsible for developing and implementing planning policies and programs to support Seattle’s current and future growth as envisioned in the City’s Comprehensive Plan. OPCD is also the City’s lead planning agency that coordinates cross-departmental functions in order to comprehensively and systematically address growth, prioritize investments, and assess how existing policies and practices encourage or discourage equity and future development. He will be speaking about his work for the people of Seattle, his thought on cities and planning, and taking your questions.

In addition to his time at OPCD, Sam has a wealth of experience in urban planning and design from cities around the country. Prior to his appointment to OPCD, Sam served as the Senior Urban Designer for the City of Boulder, Colorado; 2010, Deputy Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Chicago; worked in both the private sector as an architect and public sectors as an urban designer in San Francisco. He has also been involved in numerous civic and professional organizations and been a speaker at various conferences including the AIA, APA, ULI, RailVolution, the Dutch Green Building Conference in the Netherlands, OECD in Montreal, the Mega Cities Development Forum in Nantong, China, the National Urban Planning Institute in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the Public Infrastructure conference in Sydney, Australia. Sam is a graduate of MIT with a Master’s in City Planning, and the University of Illinois at Chicago with a B.A. in Architecture.

This monthly social event is free, all ages, and open to everyone. Call in if you want to meet other people who care about our city, network, or hear from an inspirational speaker. The line opens a 6:15pm for networking and discussion and the speaker starts at 6:30pm. We hope you can join us!

Register for the Zoom link:

60% Designs for Route 44 Add Some Pedestrian Improvements

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The Route 44 corridor (Credit: SDOT)

The Route 44 Transit-Plus Multimodal Corridor (TPMC) had reached the 60% design milestone, and last week the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) of shared their progress with the public. Originally promised as “RapidRide Market” in the Move Seattle Levy, the proposal was downgraded alongside Route 40 and 48 to the TPMCs being planned today. Nevertheless, the upgrades will improve conditions for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit along the existing Route 44.

The Rapidrides that got away (Credit: SDOT)

When we last covered Route 44’s upgrades in September 2020, SDOT had just released 30% designs. The 60% design bring minor tweaks to proposals introduced in the last reveal and a brand-new detailed improvement to the corridor in the U District. Akin to the last update, SDOT breaks down the corridor’s updates into Ballard, Phinney/Wallingford, and U District segments.

Ballard Improvements

Compared to the other two segments, Ballard received the most minor updates to its designs. At Market at 26th Ave NW to 24th Ave NW, the length of the right-turn pocket on NW Market St is updated to maintain some parking and loading zones demanded by adjacent businesses. SDOT used traffic modeling to determine the length of the right turn pocket. Outside of a new visual indicator that seems to indicate a concrete island being proposed on NW Market St between 15th Ave NW and 14th Ave NE to prevent drivers westbound on NW Market St from entering the Safeway parking lot, no changes are made to that block of the Ballard segment.

The biggest change between 30% and 60% design in this segment is to the intersection of NW Market St and 11th Ave NW. Two new curb bulbs seem to have been added to the design in order to shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians, and increase pedestrian visibility for incoming traffic. SDOT also notes that this update will provide more space for traffic signal infrastructure, which includes two stop signs on 11th Ave NE. New curb ramps for the proposed curb bulbs are included too.

Iterations of the intersection of NW Market ST and 11th Ave NW, scuffed inserts by author (Credit: SDOT)

SDOT and MASS Coalition Oppose Pedersen’s Bridge Bond Plan Ahead of Wednesday Committee Vote

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University Bridge is one of the bridges ranked in "poor" condition and in need of significant maintenance work. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

On Wednesday, the Seattle City Council’s transportation committee will vote on Chair Alex Pedersen’s amendment altering spending priorities for the $20 vehicle license fee (VLF). Passed by the Council in November, the fee is expected to pull in $7.2 million per year.

While Pedersen’s amendment appears to have five votes via the five sponsors backing it — Pedersen, Andrew Lewis, Lisa Herbold, Teresa Mosqueda, and Debora Juarez — a committee recommendation isn’t assured. Only Pedersen and Herbold are members of the transportation committee, while Juarez is an alternate. Plus, some sponsors could change their mind and oppose the plan. Six Council votes and the Mayor’s signature are needed to ultimately approve bonding, and it’s not clear he has them.

Pedersen’s plan asks the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to come up with a plan to invest $100 million in bonds, with at least 75% earmarked for bridge maintenance. After engaging with various stakeholder groups as directed by City Council, SDOT has proposed investing 24% of the new VLF revenue on bridge maintenance and 73% on multimodal priorities (3% was held in reserve). SDOT’s plan was calibrated to focus investment in Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, whereas most of the bridges Pedersen has namechecked seem to be in wealthier and Whiter areas.

SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe was critical of Councilmember Pedersen’s approach while testifying the at transportation committee on April 21 and followed that up with an email to stakeholders on Tuesday.

“We remain committed to the spend plan we developed with your feedback. Your time is valuable, your contributions are meaningful, and the needs of the communities you represent are important,” Director Zimbabwe said. “While we appreciate and share Council’s concerns about bridge maintenance, we are concerned that the proposed funding approach would not allow for sustainable investment in the many other needs you prioritized during the outreach process. We will continue to raise these concerns with Council and keep you updated as we learn more about the proposed amendment.”

Pedersen’s bonding plan would absorb the VLF revenues for 20 years to pay back bonds, which would get more money upfront but deprive SDOT of a funding source should new funding needs emerge later. It also locks in his spending priorities until the bonds are repaid. And while revenue at VLF’s scale could be a big deal to sidewalk and street safety projects, it’s a drop in the ocean of the city’s multi-billion-dollar bridge maintenance backlog, as I wrote about last week.

Breakdown of the spending plan by category. (City of Seattle)
Breakdown of SDOT’s spending plan by category, which Alex Pedersen is seeking to overwrite. (City of Seattle)

Zimbabwe also highlighted that bonding has some significant limitations in how it can be used. Banks and investors typically want collateral (such as a bridge they can toll) to guarantee the bonds, and sidewalk and safety work doesn’t really fit the bill. “Bonds are an important part of how we invest in our infrastructure but are not traditionally used for many of the things we included in our spend plan after consulting with you—like planning for the future, crosswalk repainting, sidewalk repair, bike lane maintenance, and even many of the investments we need to make in our bridges,” Zimbabwe said in his email.

Those compounding issues has pushed the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) Coalition, which includes The Urbanist and other like-minded groups like 350 Seattle, Transit Riders Union, Seattle Greenways, Disability Mobility Initiative, and Cascade Bicycle Club to oppose Pedersen’s amendment in public testimony and a recent press release. One issue the groups highlighted was climate delay and lack of equity and environmental justice lens.

“We find it deeply troubling that on the eve of Earth Day, Council is proposing cutting $80 million in multimodal funding. These are the transportation dollars that we need to reduce climate-destroying transportation emissions,” said Ingrid Elliott, from 350 Seattle, a climate justice organization. “Transportation accounts for 45% of our climate pollution in Washington State; infrastructure for low or no-carbon mobility like biking and walking is crucial to a healthy climate future, and makes our city a better place to live now. This is particularly true for the 1 in 4 residents who don’t drive. We support the original SDOT proposal that invests 75% in walking, biking, and transit projects and 25% in bridge repair. Councilmember Pedersen’s proposal to invert these investments is the opposite of what we need.”

Gordon Padelford of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways stressed the bridge funding was also being scrapped together at the expense of safe streets funding seeking to meet the City’s Vision Zero goal.

“As the Seattle Times reported in January ‘The latest numbers show once again Seattle is not making significant progress toward reaching Vision Zero, its stated goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2030.’ This is not acceptable,” Padelford said. “We must make it safe to walk, bike, and roll to bus stops, business districts, schools, parks, homes, work, and other community destinations. The best way to make meaningful progress towards keeping people safe is to increase funding for the data driven and evidence based Vision Zero program.”

Some people who donated their time to engage with SDOT on their spending plan also felt the rug had been pulled out from under them seeing a new plan that sidestepped the outreach process, as demonstrated by statements from Ellany Kayce, who serves on SDOT’s Transportation Equity Workgroup, and Patrick Taylor, who serves on the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board and Move Seattle Oversight Committee (in addition to being The Urbanist’s education and programming director.)

“We voted on multiple aspects of the transportation spending plan while centering ‘equity’ on all the financial decisions because of historical racism, displacement of BIPOC folx. For City Council members to agree with their amendment to utilize 75% for bridges, prior to the public hearing, undercuts all of our ‘equity’ work, time, and effort,” said Kayce, who is an enrolled Tribal member of Tlingit Nation/Raven Clan.

The MASS press release is in full below.

Take action: To contact City Councilmembers about the VLF spend plan, send an email to council@seattle.gov or look up their phone numbers here. Seattle Greenways also created a letter-writing tool as a quicker option. Even better, testify Wednesday at the City Council’s 9:30am transportation committee hearing. Register for a public comment slot starting at 7:30am Wednesday.

Freight Advisory Board Pushes Back Against West Marginal Bike Lane in Secret Meeting

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West Marginal Way SW along the stretch where SDOT is considering installing a protected bike lane in one southbound lane. (Ryan Packer)

The Seattle Freight Advisory Board devoted a significant portion of their April meeting detailing reasons that the City should not install a protected bike lane on a short segment of West Marginal Way SW. The presentation shown to board members was not reviewed by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) for accuracy, according to a department spokesperson.

While a link to the virtual meeting was available on a City website, an agenda for the meeting was not, providing no way for members of the public to even be aware that it was being discussed. The Freight Advisory Board has also not posted the minutes from one of its meetings since last last July, so who knows when the fact that it had even been talked about would be available as a matter of public record.

The short segment of protected bike lane is being considered by SDOT as part of the larger Reconnect West Seattle program, which is geared around calming traffic and improving mobility during the closure of the West Seattle high bridge. It would run less than a half mile between West Marginal Place SW (near the 5-way intersection at the west end of the West Seattle Bridge) and just north of the Duwamish tribe’s Longhouse. At that spot, southbound traffic is already reduced to one lane to improve safety conditions for people trying to cross at an unmarked intersection to get between the Longhouse and the parking lot across the street, frequently used during events. Later this year, SDOT will be installing a crossing signal at the Longhouse, but sightline issues will remain an issue for southbound traffic coming around the curve and there are currently no plans to add a second traffic lane back in.

The planned protected bike lane would utilize the outside southbound lane on West Marginal Way for a short stretch north of the Duwamish Longhouse. (SDOT)

In November, the Freight Advisory Board wrote a letter to Seattle’s Deputy Mayor in charge of transportation, Shefali Ranganathan (who has since left her job), asking that West Marginal Way be “restored as a five-lane facility” due to its status as a “Major Truck Street” — a designation that comes from Seattle’s Freight Master Plan. Converting the entire street back to five lanes would mean removal of the safety project at the Longhouse in addition to precluding the option of installing the protected bike lane north of there.

Sunday Video: Why 99% of Ocean Plastic Is “Missing”

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Vox looks into why plastic is “missing” in the world’s oceans.

The View From Nathan’s Bus: Belated Thoughts on Bus Driver Appreciation Day and What It Means During COVID

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I love that they have an actual day for this. There’s something endearingly old-school about it, and yet who can argue the value of its intent? With COVID upon us, there’s ever more reason to be thankful. Let’s hope the powers that be are working at creating Grocer Appreciation Day, Wait Staff Appreciation Day, Laundromat, Flight Attendant, Security, Janitor, Dishwasher, Garbage Collector, HVAC, Nanny Appreciation and countless more. These are the true stewards of modern life, these caretakers who keep animated our rumbling metropolis, feeding the sleeping giant at odd and swinging hours, ever moving, without expecting much in return.

We do this job with our sleeves rolled up.

Speaking for myself, I do it with pleasure. The question is put to me often: Why don’t you go supervision? Apply for chief? Rise up in the ranks?

I’d rather people who actually wanted those positions took them. My passion is here. Could you imagine that I have found something that gives me equal fulfillment to the heady thrill of directing a film? Printing in the darkroom, staging a shoot? Regularly it surpasses those thrills, if you can believe it, because as I age I find myself asking the question more intently: Where can I do the most good? What can I do for others?