The Alaskan Way Viaduct always captures all the attention when we talk about transportation issues in Seattle, but I would argue that the Evergreen Point (520) Floating Bridge – specifically, how we configure the new configure the West Side connections – is the project that stands above all others in terms of difficulty.
In late January the Council sent a carefully worded letter to the Governor and to the transportation committee chairs in the State House and Senate. In the letter eight of nine councilmembers detailed a host of concerns about the State's most likely option for replacing the bridge (the perhaps inappropriately named Option A+). The letter stopped short of saying that option A+ should be discarded and the West Side process begun again. Generally, most councilmembers are resigned to a six-lane bridge as long as two of the six (one in each direction) are dedicated to transit. (We're mixed as to whether we're OK allowing HOV in those two lanes at least on a temporary basis.)
I find 520 particularly challenging because it is so many things to so many people. It's a much-depended upon corridor for many of us moving back and forth between work and home. It is a state highway through sensitive wetlands, cut through and stepping over Montlake, North Capitol Hill and Portage Bay. It is a swath of concrete originally plotted and constructed before the development of concerns about the environmental impacts of vehicle and storm water run-off from roadways. It's undeniably noisy. It's the opposite of bike and pedestrian space. To some it's an exercise in trust and compromise for pragmatism, while to others it's a hill to die on for bold environmental progress.
It's hard to be a true fan of any of the options studied. There seems to be no option devised in 12 years of study that satisfies everyone in terms of footprint, impact on the Arboretum, impact on the University of Washington, impact on fish, impact on Montlake and other neighborhoods, and impact on the state's (our) checkbook. Governor Gregoire has committed to replacing the bridge on time and on budget. Without a better option becoming evident very soon, it looks as though Option A+ is the closest option state engineers have for meeting that commitment.
After 12 years of discussion and as the clock ticks down to WSDOT's April announcement of a preferred alternative, we've reached a point where people contact me to urge one of two things: a) reject the current choices for the West Side interchange and start over, or b) make improvements to whatever preferred alternative is selected and get going before a major storm breaks up the bridge.
When I look at those options, I find myself in the camp that says we need to move forward to replace a dilapidated and dangerous bridge while diligently working to fix those issues our West Side communities identify as problems. In our letter the City Council asked the legislature and governor to collaborate for four months this winter and spring to solve West Side concerns. The State agreed. We developed a task list for a set of fresh consultant pencils and work is under way.
There are a number of thorny issues to work through, including:
- The height of the bridge. Right now engineers show the bridge at 30 feet off the water. That's too high of a profile. Recent action by the State House brings the height down to 20 feet – a step in the right direction.
- Transit connections are stretched, at best, in the current West Side designs. The ramps through the Arboretum. Personally, I'd like to see them gone. I understand the ramps may benefit traffic flow, but I'm not convinced the impacts on the Arboretum are acceptable.
- Mitigation guarantees and lane limit commitments should be clarified. Seattle needs to know that open space commitments won't be compromised during project engineering. Likewise, we should be assured that the bridge will forever be a maximum of six lanes and never more.
- A lot of attention has focused lately on the two bridge lanes that will be used for transit and HOV. A 2007 state law defined the 520 replacement project as having four general purpose lanes with two more lanes to take HOV and high capacity transit. Now some argue that those lanes should be transit-only with no HOV allowed. The Mayor would even like light rail running in those lanes when the new bridge opens in 2014. If we want the HOV part dropped, that would require a change in the state code. Personally, I'd like to see those lanes someday become transit-only, but in the short-term I support allowing carpools of at least 3 people to use those lanes. I'd also love to see light rail running in those lanes someday. That's a question for voters to consider, but for now I'd like to see us make good on our funded construction commitments running light rail to Bellevue and up to Northgate.
Running a train through Montlake and perhaps Portage Bay will require careful design and environmental review when the time comes. At the very least nothing we do in bridge construction now should preclude running light rail on the bridge in the future.
Over the next four months, I'm committed to working with my colleagues on the West Side interchange. If A+ turns out to be the best buildable option we have, we should push it to produce the best possible results for Seattle. Whatever the option the state chooses and builds, Seattle requires and deserves firm commitments from the state when it comes to project mitigation and the open space we stand to reclaim through lidding parts of 520.
The problems associated with replacing the 520 bridge are the toughest before us in any subject area. It's my intent that in the end we have a bridge reflecting our best efforts at safeguarding neighborhoods, moving people, goods and services, and reflecting our absolute need to get greener and smarter in transportation.
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Waterfront & seawall planning update
It's been an exciting start of the year in the arena of waterfront issues. The new mayor is jumping into the game with both feet. On the whole, that's a good thing. It's better than a mayor who doesn't realize the importance of the work we'll do in the central waterfront over the next decade.
If you're keeping score:
- The mayor proposed a May city-wide vote on whether to issue $240 million in bonds (backed by an increase in property taxes) to speed up replacement of the seawall by a year. At this point I don't see the votes on Council for the mayor's proposal to proceed. Councilmembers have committed to devising out a full schedule and funding plan for seawall replacement and surface Alaskan Way work, rather than breaking off individual elements. The seawall and the surface street/park are separate projects, but it's important to connect the design of each element. I think voters deserve a full picture of the work and the different choices for paying for it. I hope we have that information for voters later this year.
- The city accepted seawall design work bids from three teams then rejected them all due to a conflict of interest in the mayor's office. Teams were asked to re-submit and a winner – Tetra Tech -- was selected March 8. This is great news.
- This spring the state will take down the existing elevated viaduct from King St. to Holgate St. A new side-by-side, seismically sound roadway will take its place. Until the Central Waterfront portion of the viaduct comes down, the new roadway will connect to the old viaduct near King Street.
- The 519 project (it's important, but lives in the shadow of the more exciting viaduct replacement work) wraps up this spring. This is the roadway over the rail tracks on the north side of Safeco Field. Freight will then have a complete couplet of roadways over the rail tracks, a big benefit to Port freight speed as rail traffic continues to build in frequency, regularly closing the surface-level east-west roads in SODO.
- The Washington State Department of Transportation February 26 issued a draft "request for proposals" to four teams qualified to carry out the tunneling work. The final RFP goes out in May with bids due back in the fall. WSDOT will announce the winner in December of this year.
In the meantime, you can get involved with the early, early stages of planning for the surface street and open space that will result after the viaduct is torn down by keeping track of the Central Waterfront Partnerships Committee. This is a group of civic project veterans, parks advocates, good governance activists, Waterfront and Downtown business people, neighborhood representatives, labor and environmental leaders and others. Their job is to lay the groundwork for long-term oversight and funding for whatever we all decide should happen in the new space. It may not sound exciting, but it's the necessary precursor to talking about how many trees, skate dots, playgrounds, amphitheaters, beaches and how much public art and performance space we want and can afford.
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Committee on the Built Environment
Parking lots near light rail and in other parts of town
It's been a long-standing policy of the city to discourage stand-alone surface parking lots and garages in light rail station areas. This is also the case in the greater Downtown neighborhoods. In both cases you have a desire for super efficient use of scarce land to produce denser, more walkable, people-oriented places. Parking stalls are allowed as part of commercial and housing projects in these areas, just not stand-alone lots and garages.
This policy is controversial among some who would like to see parking garages for commuters in at least a few of our light rail station areas. I generally support the policy, but, at this moment, it's impractical due to the recession. Owners of parking lots in Rainier Valley won't see any economic advantage to building housing, shop space or offices for a few years due to the economy. In addition, I don't think we have enough and frequent enough bus connections to the stations. Oddly, I think the economy will improve before we see the increase in Metro service we need countywide.
Downtown we have the problem of delayed or abandoned buildings, ones that started with high hopes before the lending market shriveled up. In these cases we're looking for some way to put holes in the ground back into some kind of active use.
To address both situations my committee will be vetting and voting in the next couple of months on what we're calling "interim uses" legislation to make single-purpose parking lots around light rail stations and Downtown acceptable in some circumstances and with conditions. Draft conditions so far include:
- The permit to operate a single-purpose lot would be temporary -- up to 24 months, with an option to renew once for 12 more months (3 years total).
- Property owners can't tear down a building to replace it with parking.
- Property owners will need to landscape edges appropriately.
- At least in Downtown, but perhaps also in the station areas, property owners will need to incorporate some other kind of activity that's friendly to people walking around or who live near the parking lot. Elements under discussion include artwork or small kiosks for micro-businesses.
So far people I've spoken to in Southeast Seattle and in the transit advocacy community agree that allowing single-purpose parking lots isn't ideal, but is practical for now as long as we keep our sights set on smart community building in the long-run.
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Multifamily Code Update – Lowrise fun restarts
Improving he look, sustainability and livability of smaller scale apartments and town houses has been a priority of mine for a couple of years now. Last year we made some great changes to the rules for taller apartment and condo buildings. Now we're focused back on the rules for the smaller buildings, the ones that seem to generate the most accolades or criticism from neighborhoods.
The Committee on the Built Environment started this work last year, but ultimately we realized there were too many things about the original proposal that we wanted to change. We're taking what we learned from staff and design teams last year and refining a new approach to buildings in Seattle's lowrise zones. I've half-joked in the past that much of what we seem to do in the committee is try to prevent the worst land use outcomes. In this case, we're going to work at encouraging what people say they really want.
It's a different attitude and approach, but we still need your help on the details. From now until the end of July the committee will debate heights, parking rules, driveway location requirements, "locational criteria" (a wonky way of defining what makes L1 an L1 and what makes L3 an L3), how to use staff-level administrative design review and more.
If you'd like to contribute to the debate, please consider attending a special Committee on the Built Environment meeting this month.
Rowhouses, Apartments & Townhomes – New Rules for the Road
Special City Council Meeting in the Community
Saturday, March 20, 10am - noon
Taproot Theatre in Greenwood
204 N 85th St
At the meeting, staff will explain what's been discussed so far, and what outstanding questions remain. The committee will then turn to the attendees for feedback. You can find the ideas we've been reviewing on my website.
Following that meeting, we'll provide guidance to staff and new legislation will be drafted. We'll then put it through environmental impact review and then take a last couple of reviews in May and June, including a public hearing.
One of the recession's few silver linings is that new lowrise projects are few and far between, which means we can thoughtfully create smart standards that reflect what we want to see out before the next building cycle resumes.
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Sally spoke with residents at Bell Tower, a Seattle Housing Authority project, for International Women’s Day. She highlighted the history of women’s suffrage in Washington and the history of women in civil service in the City of Seattle.
Postcard from Havana
I had the great fortune to visit Havana last month as part of a State Department-licensed group studying historic preservation, urban agriculture and community-level democracy. When I tell people I visited Cuba I get a few people who say, "Cuba? Really? What could you possibly learn from them?" However, I meet far more people who say either, "I was there 10 years ago and loved it!" or "Cuba?! I'm dying to go to Cuba before it changes."
Thanks to the great people at International Sustainable Solutions and Global Exchange almost two dozen of us from around the U.S. saw Havana "before it changes." The focus areas of our week were historic preservation, urban agriculture and community-level democracy. Although I'm not actually a great traveler, I love being different places and Havana was challenging, beautiful, sad, defiant, and instructive.
Over the course of the week we learned about the battle against decay and collapse waged building by building in Havana's historic core. By one estimate this more than 500-year-old city loses two buildings every three days to the ravages of age, humidity, acidity and salt. Taking a page from a capitalism playbook, urban development leaders in Havana are taking profits from tourism and plowing those profits into building restoration, which saves the former Spanish colonial trade capital building by building, street by street, thus leading to more tourism and more profits.
Don't be surprised that they're profiting from tourism. Tourism is Cuba's third strongest "export," behind rum and cigars. I would say everyone else in the world considers Cuba for a vacation except U.S. citizens, but that wouldn't be true. There were plenty of U.S. citizens visiting Havana while we were there. Plenty of high-end hotels, plenty of "tourist" restaurants, but no shopping malls.
Frustrating to many of us on the trip, and to many Cubans I imagine, are the big city sustainability and livability problems accentuated by politics and poverty.
- There are indeed hundreds of 1940's and 1950's U.S.-made automobiles motoring around Havana – and they spew exhaust into the dense city.
- The power grid is antiquated and in need of greener generating sources to decrease the huge reliance on oil and diesel-fed generators.
- Homelessness is against the law (meaning you're guaranteed a place to live by the government), but housing is a scarce resource. Hurricanes, ineffective government housing campaigns, the U.S. embargo, and the lack of any financial incentive for private developers to get into production strengthen the scarcity. (Cuban housing policy wasn't a focus of this trip, but it is fascinating, tragic and motivational all at once. There are some great articles on the web about how the revolution's ideals have crashed into economic realities.)
- When the Soviet Union broke apart in the early 90's Cuban oil imports dropped quickly and dramatically pushing the city into a bicycle craze that excited urban advocates at the time. However, cars have roared back into primacy and Havana is currently no place to commute by bike. Bikes are seen as a sign of the "special period" when people struggled more than they do today. A car is a sign of relative success.
- Fresh produce was hard to find, a strange thing for a country that can have 5-6 harvests a year because of the climate. Cuba's "modern," machine-driven and chemical-filled agriculture also fell apart after the Soviet Union dissolved. Additionally, working in the fields doesn't have a lot of sparkle as a career when a few centuries of your ancestors were indentured servants hacking sugar cane. Working against the tide in Havana are a growing number of small urban farms providing produce to surrounding communities.
The rhetoric of the revolution continues even with Fidel Castro in retirement. We saw pro-revolution and anti-U.S. imperialism billboards, posters, and graffiti. At their best, the slogans we saw spoke to communal responsibility and opportunities for human development. At their worst, they were caricatures about former U.S. presidents and the life-threatening impacts of the embargo. Some lauded Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president who earns points with his people through old-fashioned anti-U.S. rhetoric and who appears on television in Cuba and other countries as an odd mix of Oprah and Rush Limbaugh.
I'm young enough to not have lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis or other high points of the Cold War so I may not "get it" and I don't mean to offend anyone reading this, but I don't see any remaining value to the United States in the embargo. Cutting off trade, restricting the travel of U.S. citizens, and limiting cultural and academic connections results in loss on both sides, but perhaps most dangerously to people struggling to live on the island.
Havana has more than 300 community gardens. The one we visited operates as a privately-owned organic cooperative. Working in agriculture doesn’t have much cachet in Cuba, but an increasing number of people want organic fruits and vegetables.
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