October 2009 Archives

here comes the rain; there goes the stormwater


I'm a bit obsessive about stormwater and what it washes off of our city streets into the Bay. It's a recognized problem. SPU (Seattle Public Utilities) wrote a new stormwater manual to comply with EPA and Ecology rulings. New projects, including new road projects, above a certain square footage size limit are required to infiltrate or manage stormwater to the "maximum extent practicable" - or "feasible", I think is the term in Seattle. So far nothing seems to be feasible for our urban city streets, and it's very discouraging. SDOT is a perennially underfunded agency - I really don't know how they can get anything done - and there has been no enthusiasm shown on their part for trying to figure out the problem of urban (as in downtown) stormwater. Nothing has been designed for our situation of urban streets, there aren't any off the shelf solutions, and I can't really imagine what such solutions might look like, myself. I don't have to imagine the consequences, though. Stormwater from roadways carries enough pollution from auto fluid leaks into the Sound to equal the Exxon Valdez spill, every two years.

We've had to waste a lot of recent opportunities to do something about the polluted water coming off of our streets. All of the repaving that was being done for the Bridging the Gap work was designed before the new stormwater rules were in effect. That work will last for 50 years, without any added stormwater treatment. There is a big new plan for Denny Way that includes lots of "green" but no stormwater treatment. I haven't gotten a satisfactory explanation why. I had thought the work for the new RapidRide bus bulbs on 3rd Avenue would have stormwater filtration designed in. The draft version of the stormwater manual required added filtration anytime there were significant curb changes. It proved to be too hard, or too expensive. Then there is the coordination between SDOT, SPU, and adjacent property owners; no one ever really owns the problem and nothing gets done. I think we can do better, and really, we have to, somehow - but as I said, SDOT is an unloved and starved agency. It's up to us in the end, isn't it?

Oil and Water

Cross-posted to Inside Belltown

its right up your alley


The humble alley has been getting a lot of attention lately - from Igor, last week; and now this more favorable article from Northwest Hub about the Pioneer Square alley behind the Nord building. Alleys are spatially interesting. Alleys have a lot of potential. Alleys belong to us, to me and you. They are public rights-of-way, although because of problem behaviors many of our Belltown alleys were posted against trespassers. The Belltown Neighborhood Plan even calls for alleys to be used as pedestrian and bike routes. If the alley is well maintained and interesting, it can be a preferable route because there is little vehicular traffic. Because many extant Belltown structures were built without parking, there are some very appealing alleys in Belltown that see some positive, active use (the negatives have been very present, as well, but there has been much improvement).


Some cities take alley cleanup and use seriously. Alleys get new fancy names with "mews" or "lane" attached, and become a new type of urban street. You see this in new development too. A big new condo building goes in, and a sign is put up reading "Post Alley North" (where I live) or "News Lane" for the 1521 building. It's a way of adding cache to a big project, and to the units on the named alley. Everyone knows Post Alley through the Market. Belltown has alleys that have a sense of that character, of having many uses, becoming almost a secondary street.



This alley is a fascinating place, with wrought iron balconies and the skateboarding skeleton, thanks to Black Dog Forge, which operates here. Dead Baby Bikes was here, as witnessed by the artwork on the roll-down door - which remains, although the bikes are gone (to Counterbalance Bicycles in Uptown). This is a fabulous alley, even more interesting because the one-story storefronts (home of Roq la Rue and Halogen galleries) become two-stories on the alley. Note the old brick pavement still in place, too.

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Via Tribunali is on the corner of the alley behind the Crocodile. It's a great new addition to the neighborhood and created an amazing transformation of the alley, in conjunction with the Clear Alleys program. (For photos of the transformation, see Evolution of an Alley). I admire their moxie, but wonder how well it's been working for them, as they keep doing things to increase traffic - sidewalk sandwich boards, adding a streetside roll-down door, then putting up this illuminated arrow. Wags has moved to this alley too, and the people at Mama's seem to be thinking about expanding into the former Import Doctor garage, but that's uncertain. It seems odd, but even with the new uses in this public alleyway the "NO TRESPASSING" sign is still in effect. It helps in policing unwanted alley behavior. There have been a lot more people walking through these active alleys just to stroll or to get somewhere, and that helps too.



Bathtub Gin opened in the alley behind the Humphrey this summer. They operate in mysterious ways, covering the alley door with plywood during the day and not advertising their hours of operation, in speakeasy style. I hope that's working for them. The Humphrey also has a unique and wonderful courtyard restaurant, La Fontana. All of these uses are possible because the building doesn't have parking - it wasn't needed in 1923 and people do without it now. Wags was on this alley previously, with their nice sign. I don't know who is responsible for the "I Am Pabst" mural. I'd like to see artists turned loose in one of our alleys, doing something similar to the murals on the Vogue (Vain), or like the rooms in the hostel, or even like the alley behind Rendezvous. There are actually, sometimes, funds for that sort of thing; alleys are public spaces and artists need to be paid.

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I live on north Post Alley. I had been there for some time before I realized that, across the alley, was a building I had studied in graduate school, the John Carney building, SRO replacement housing designed by Michael Pyatok. It's a small world. Anyway, this building has no parking, so the alley was used for double-height artist studio lofts, or live-work spaces. I don't know if artists live there or not, but there the units are. We build more residential parking right now than we actually need, because banks don't want to give credit (or didn't, when it was available at all) to developers unless they build parking - they think the market demands it. Others think the demand is not there, and the parking below our new buildings will be converted to some other use. They may even become the new industrial artist work spaces for Belltown, someday. 


Cross-posted to Inside Belltown

practice moderation; practice moderately

My brain doesn't seem to be engaging its moderation filters properly. Maybe it's because I'm absolutely, physically exhausted to the point where I can't sleep and have constant tremors. Anyway. It came up at work today, and I was asked to think about how to save the suburbs. I wasn't moderate; I suggested turning them back into farmland. That in turn brought back all kinds of memories about our old family farm, the land, half a county's worth, that my great-grandfather and his uncles and brothers assembled for purposes of resource extraction - farming, timber, ranching, hunting, mineral rights - you get the picture. Part of that land was a former town. It wasn't much of a town, a family that hoped to expand, named the place something-ville, after themselves, I think. It was on a dirt road that had once been the equivalent of the interstate highway, that ran along a railroad track. By the time I knew the place there were only two or three old houses left that my family was using for hay and equipment storage. I still have an old cheese cover that my grandmother dug up at one of the houses. I'm tired, I'm daydreaming. But remembering that made me think that there are historic cycles of abandonment and renewal, and now may be a time of abandonment and retrenchment.

In a previous post I was blasting off immoderately and being offensive, which is never good. Part of my professional work will be working with suburbs, making them better, making regional connections work better. Some places may be returned to nature, too. The President even has an initiative that has identified 50 cities that may need to shrink to survive. That means clearing parts of the cities and condensing what remains into a smaller, more compact area, to keep services more efficient (and maintain any hope of civic service at all). We are not just changing current development patterns; we are radically remaking or unmaking what has already been done. This is something that may continue and spread. Carol Coletta speaks of the migration of the young creative class between cities. Out of 50 cities, 16 have gained the 25-34 year old population; 34 cities have lost. There are implications to that which I am too tired to work. I'm not 34. I'm old, and feel a lot older than I actually am right now.

artwalk in belltown


I've been enjoying the 2nd Friday Artwalks in Belltown. It's been a pretty good summer overall in Belltown, actually. Or maybe I'm just learning to appreciate it better. This is the current installation in Suyama Space, Grotesque Arabesques by Dan Corson. The arabesques are modeled from the topology of caverns, a very earthy precedent, but the application in cool, ethereally glowing colors makes it feel more like a walk through the fabric of the universe. It was an intriguing and captivating spatial experience that was worth spending some time to take in.

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Buskers have started showing up for Artwalk. This is a very encouraging, positive sign for the neighborhood, and very entertaining, too. This flame juggler was here for the September artwalk. He was traveling through and didn't stay in town for long - just long enough for the Busker Festival in the Market, I think. There was a big crowd outside the Hostel, anyway, and the parking lane was closed to traffic, which expanded his stage (good thing, those flames were hot). Maybe that worked for him, I don't know.


This guy is fairly new, I've seen him in the Market over the last few weeks. This is the first time I've seen him in Belltown. I sat at Bedlam and watched for a while before coming to take his photo and give a tip. I don't know if this was a good location, here by the vacant lot where the Speakeasy was (I really miss that building - is it possible to miss something you never actually saw?). It's kind of a dead corner, but there isn't a lot of room for juggling elsewhere, now that the parking lanes are occupied again. I hope it worked well enough that he comes back, or that others will. It's ever so much better than having the drug dealers on the corners.


can you, should you, practice what you preach?


I sat in on two presentations yesterday. I was very disappointed in both of them, quite unhappy, in fact. Obviously it still bothers me. The first, which I thought was to discuss sustainable stormwater infrastructure, was instead about constructed wetlands and blackwater treatment systems. I was quite rude and walked out early. I lived in Austin in the decades when constructed wetlands were being designed. I was part of that whole live-off-the-land, be a part of nature ideology. But even the groups I was involved with then came to realize that true sustainability means getting more people to live in cities, in dense urban arrangements, rather than sprawling across the countryside putting engineered systems in place and calling it "natural". I sold my undeveloped country property and became an urbanite; I don't know how many of them did the same. Some people tout a new ideology in order to keep more people from moving out to where they live - an "I've got mine but you can't have yours" philosophy. When confronted with this presentation on systems I had moved beyond long ago, it was incredibly discouraging. Do we never learn from past mistakes? Will every generation repeat itself? No, because if they do human civilization won't survive.

That presentation was naive and dangerous greenwashing. Last night I went to another presentation, one I thought would restore some sense of hope and sanity. It was by David Owens, author of The Green Metropolis. His thesis is that Manhattan is the most sustainable city in the country, and our goal should be to live more like Manhattanites. He was preaching to the converted. I agreed with most (not all) of his points (I might want to live more like Londoners than Manhattanites, especially where traffic is concerned, for example). This is what he was preaching; but he lives in a big old farmhouse in a village in Connecticut and has no desire to move back to Manhattan. At times he seemed more concerned with the people moving out to where he lives creating sprawling development; he would rather have those people move to Manhattan instead, I think. It's more of that "I've got mine - you stay away and don't spoil it" philosophy. He preaches a great message but doesn't practice it. Wouldn't that be considered hypocrisy?

I get upset with people I work with for the same reasons. I hold people in our profession to a higher standard, especially since all the firms I've worked for have been in urban practice, designing multi-family mixed-use buildings in cities, not single-family homes. Yet almost every person I've worked with lives in a single-family home - especially at the last large firm. At one time I was the only person there, out of almost 200 people, who lived in a multi-family building. What kind of example are we setting? We tell people how they should live, and build so that they can live well that way, but we don't choose to live that way ourselves? Sheerest hypocrisy. It's "I've got mine you can't have yours" in spades, and it makes me crazy. Hence this rant. 

green street art space



The Green Streets in Belltown, the east-west streets that run down towards the Bay, have special design requirements for landscape, public space, and public art (in other words, private property is required to contribute to the public realm - what a novel concept). While not requiring art specifically, the street fronts are required to be activated in some way. Because the streets below 1st Avenue are steeply sloping, it is difficult to put active storefront use on those sides; that space is most often required for a parking garage, as well. So, in addition to landscaping, the garage facades get decorated in some way. Some buildings put up event posters. Some have a permanently applied art detail of some sort. One of the more intriguing applications is on the Clay Street side of the Avenue One condo building: the CoCA Belltown gallery space.

When I first saw this I thought of it as the "art locker". There was one excellent exhibit in there for a very long time, which I assumed was permanent, until it went away and something else came in. It is a changing exhibition space. The current exhibit is called Visual Poetry, by Haris Purnomo. It's much more sinister looking now; you really should go see it, if you'd like to stretch out your Artwalk tonight. I always walk up Clay Street to get to 1st Ave; this art space makes the hill climb more worthwhile. Some photos of this and other recent exhibits:


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Some other (not as interesting) Green Street treatments:

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Cross-posted to Inside Belltown

another chapter in the drug saga


It was too good to last. Now that repaving of 2nd Avenue is done, and the construction crews and attendant police officers have gone, some all too familiar faces are back. There doesn't seem to be a way to keep them off the streets, off of our sidewalks and corners. They went elsewhere when the Honduran gang took over (the Hondurans were violent to the competition). Some of the Hondurans were selling under coercion, threats to their family, that sort of thing. One morning I was walking to work in business attire. Some poor soul was looking at a potted orchid lying on the corner of Second and Battery; he looked up and asked if I was buying. There was a police officer standing on the opposite corner watching, but of course there was no drug transaction from me for him to capture. That was the caliber of the coerced Honduran sellers, though. He didn't care if he was caught, he didn't want to be there.

There was a big gang bust that took care of the Hondurans (thank you SPD). Then there was all the construction activity going on for Bridging the Gap, and we were having crowds of visitors out for the beautiful summer weather, and all was well. It started to look like a nice, normal, and even popular and safe neighborhood (if you ignore gunfire from drunks). But then there were signs of trouble. One bright Friday morning young men start showing up on the corner of Second and Bell, throwing gang signs at each other, menacing. Gang chops start showing up everywhere, even more than usual, especially on the parking meter stands. They were marking their turf.

Then the construction crews cleared out and the old crowd came back in, just like that. There they were on the street corners again - and by old, I mean older men as well as them being long-time sellers. I don't know what their relationship to the young gang toughs is, if they're working together or not. Tuesday night they started beating up some guy, he was rolling around on the ground. The good thing is that people were calling it in to the police (but why does it end up in the news when it happens in Capitol Hill, and not here? I guess people just pretended to call). The guy wandered off, not wanting to get caught himself; they were probably rousting him for non-payment. The drug deals are blatant on the sidewalks in front of businesses, again. Business owners are calling it in, again. It's the same old thing, all over again, deja vu.

I don't know what the solution is. It's been a couple of days since people were calling the police about drug deals and fights, and I haven't seen the dealers in that time. Maybe if people keep calling in, it works, eventually. There are more people there to witness and call now, maybe, more businesses, more legitimate activity. These cycles have gone on for a very long time, though, and it is hard to hope. The Parks Department will start tearing up Bell Street again late next year - that activity will give us a reprieve for a while, too. But after that? Who knows?


plain, old, and of great value


Part of the Heart of Belltown series

It's a fairly non-descript building, built in 1923, later altered and modernized. The alley side, as the alley so often does, gives clues to a productive past. The older signs read "Niels Hansen Mfg Co" which was there in the 1930's, along with North Bend Stage Line, Brown Sheet Metal Works, and the Cash Register Exchange. Superimposed over the older sign is "Sportcaster Makers of the Best in Rainwear", from a 1950's tenant. The storefront tenants these days are: Shorty's; Buddha Belltown, and Belltown Feed and Seed. A papered-over storefront has a new sign for Creative Bottle and a web address that is not yet active. It's a new mystery. A doorway leads upstairs to a theater practice and performance space, with advertisements for Freehold Theatre, Open Circle Theater, and Macha Monkey Productions.


I shop for my cat at Feed and Seed. One of the proprietors told me, some time ago, that there was a guy in back who repairs musical instruments. I mulled over it for almost a year, the whole mysterious idea of a back-of-house business. In the meantime, Whiskers opens in a room behind the Feed and Seed. My cat boards there for two weeks, has trouble remembering who I am, and seems quite content to stay. Then Wags moves into that back-of-house alternate universe, too. People start driving through the alley to drop off and collect their dogs.

One day my curiosity overrides caution. I ask the Feed and Seed owner if the musical repair guy is still in the back, and if he has a card. She tells me that he's in, to go on back. I enter the world of "back-of-house", a longish hallway with a surprising number of doors. One door is ajar; I knock and peek in. I explain my mission to the man inside; yes, he does repair clarinets, and he hands me a card. Granlund Woodwind Repair, Scott Granlund, proprietor. I thank him and leave.

After more weeks of deliberation, I return with two clarinets in hand - one to be overhauled, one for spare parts, old, cheap instruments. I once had a professional concert clarinet; now I only play to please myself. The old English bore instrument has a dark, throaty sound that suits me; old and cheap will do. Old and cheap can produce beauty and value, like this old building. If I were to design a building like this, or write guidelines to promote its many uses, I would call it an "incubator" building. But here it is, having evolved without any help from me. I leave the clarinet and go back down the hall.

The Wags dogs have moved into the former cat room; cats are now in another room. A basset hound is laying on a couch. I stop to visit. I miss the dogs from the Dog Lounge storefront since they left. The Wags keeper comes out; she was just at Tula's next door, where I had lunch, and she ordered a garden burger. The waitress delivered it over here for her. The Tula's building and this one are owned by the same family. These plain old buildings provide value that isn't easily quantified, a different sort of value from the money to be made in redevelopment of old properties like this.


Some people I work with saw this photo and asked me where it was. They were surprised when I said it was 2nd Avenue. They had expected some exotic destination, a special place that people travel far to enjoy (or they may have been fooled by the palm tree). This is that kind of place. I've traveled far to get here, visited many great places in many cities. This place is special and unique, and is part of the neighborhood I live in. It has seen worse times. It could be better than it is. What makes it unique could also be irretrievably lost. I just enjoy it now, while we're both here, me and this old neighborhood.

Cross-posted to Inside Belltown

a citywalker steps into it


As the screen name suggests, I walk in cities. I walk in Seattle, and in my neighborhood of Belltown - which is a real honest to goodness neighborhood. People live here, work here, play here. A lot of people, mind you. I walk every day, on sidewalks with many other people. I have walked many, many miles on hard pavements over (too many) years, and now my feet often hurt. Then I sometimes ride a bus or my bike, which is not so hard on the feet. Because I live in an urban neighborhood I can get where I need to go without having to invest too much heartache over transit and transportation issues. I do anyway. Walking is a transportation issue, and walking is a much better experience when there are fewer cars to contend with. (Disclosure: I do own a car.)


I'm not predicting mayoral choice. I don't know what we'll end up with as a viaduct replacement, although right now my bets are on the deep bored tunnel. I'm not a fan of big expenditures for new auto infrastructure. What I am in favor of, as a pedestrian, are fewer cars on the streets where I walk every day. 

When the eight viaduct replacement options (before the deep-bore) were being considered, every one of them failed on pedestrian/bike issues largely because they put more than 25,000 vehicles per day on too many downtown streets. The surface options generated worse numbers than the options with a bypass (new viaduct or waterfront tunnel). The 10mgb report is here. The surface hybrid option that was being considered in the end had several transit proposals to mitigate traffic, but there was still too much traffic. There would have to be even fewer cars for our downtown neighborhoods to be good pedestrian places. That could only happen if enough alternative transit options were already in place, or had funding for rapid implementation, which we know is not the case. Even the 1st Avenue streetcar is now considered "optional" because it has no funding.

The streetcar would be desirable for many reasons. It offers many people a better alternative to driving. It increases pedestrian usage (transit users are pedestrians). I know not all the business owners will agree, but a streetcar is very good for storefront businesses, and the streetcar plan that was proposed wouldn't have resulted in a great net loss of street parking. Funding is the problem. An LID (Local Improvement District) is probably not the best solution for a streetcar through Belltown. LID funding is good for an area that needs to be redeveloped, but we don't need more development pressures in Belltown. An LID would result in higher business rents and threaten the small businesses that make Belltown such a great neighborhood.

As a pedestrian I'm not concerned here with traffic mobility. Any option would still move sufficient traffic, fast enough, and we are moving towards a future where fewer people have to or want to drive. But in the meantime, it's the traffic numbers that greatly affect quality of life for people who live, bike or walk in downtown neighborhoods. Above a certain margin, traffic volume has a negative effect on pedestrian and cycling usage and safety, and on sidewalk and neighborhood life. Think sidewalk dining, seeing someone and stopping to talk, trying to have a conversation. Traffic volume and accompanying noise and fumes can make these things difficult and unpleasant; it's bad for storefront businesses for the same reasons. It's also harder to get across the street safely. For most of the affected downtown streets, that margin of acceptability stops at around 25,000 vehicles per day on any given street. The surface options put the numbers far beyond that on too many streets (many streets are already at or above that number). The traffic would still move, slower, yes. Yet quality of life is lost, people are discouraged from walking and cycling, and I believe that those things matter a great deal, especially where I live. Maybe that's NIMBYism - strange to think of that coming from a neighborhood with no backyards. To all of you who don't live in Belltown, or Downtown, or Pioneer Square - what would you do if all those cars were heading through your neighborhood? Those of us who live in urban neighborhoods accept certain conditions that come along with it, like coexisting with traffic - but should we just quietly accept anything that so reduces the current quality of life in Belltown?

Cross-posted to Inside Belltown 

the heart of belltown (part 2)

Thanks to Jesse at Bedlam for telling me where to find these photos. They are also on the wall at Bedlam.

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2nd and Bell looking south, 1920. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Divison.

By 1920, 2nd Avenue had a lot of landmarks that are still familiar today. The wood frame two-story buildings on the corner now house A'jhang Market and Bedlam Coffee House and were built in 1907 and 1900, respectively. In the righthand distance are the Rivoli and El Rey (1910) and the 1909 Commodore (then Nelson) hotel, which was demolished in 2007. In the near left is the building that now houses Tula's, only one year old in this photo. Beyond that are the Castle Apartments (1918), the Palladian (1910), the Moore (1907) and the Josephinum (New Washington Hotel, 1908). The streetscape was different in that there were numerous big fancy streetlamps, but no trees. Oh, and there were streetcar tracks.

On Wednesday mornings I usually find Corinne Porch at 2nd and Blanchard, waiting for the new edition of Real Change from the office in the Rivoli. I used to see her at the Market every day, but both of our daily paths have changed since then. Corinne and I grew up in the same part of the world. Among other things, we talk about cornbread and what goes best with it - buttermilk? Turnip greens (her favorite) or mustards (mine)? Corinne had a brief appearance in a Kurt Cobain documentary, for which she was paid the grand sum of twenty-five dollars.

Tula's recently began serving lunch. The lunch I had there was incredibly tasty, satisfying, and inexpensive. There's not much of a lunch crowd, yet, but people were calling in their dinner reservations. The building has been altered and is not considered historically significant. Inside the age and ambience are in plentiful evidence.

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2nd and Bell looking north, 1920. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division.

Oddly enough, there appears to be a fenced-off hole in the ground at 2nd and Bell in 1920, where the new Noel House construction is taking place today. More likely it was a horse pasture. The backs of the Barnes and Austin A. Bell buildings are visible. The gothic roof of the old Bell Hotel shows up behind them. The Austin A. Bell has since been rebuilt with new construction behind the restored historic facade.

During all the recent Bridging the Gap repaving on 2nd Avenue, the Merlino people dug up half of the old streetcar crossties that were under the pavement. These were laid shortly after the 1903 regrade. They were untreated, presumably heart of cedar because they were very well preserved. The streetcars helped to shape the urban form of Belltown and the other urban village neighborhoods. The first electric streetcar started service in 1889. The last of the historic streetcar runs was in 1941. A new streetcar line was proposed to run on 1st Avenue as part of the mitigation for the Alaskan Way viaduct replacement, which raised the ire of some Belltown business owners. That line has not been funded in the budget for the city's share of viaduct replacement costs. It is "optional", which I suppose means that it will be built if someone volunteers to pay for it.


Cross-posted to Inside Belltown