Maybe Metropolis: Launching Seattle’s New “Neighborhood Character”

District 6 Councilmember Dan Strauss’ legislation is an acknowledgment that Seattle’s neighborhood character is changing.

by Josh Feit

City Council member Dan Strauss passed legislation this week that extends the city’s sidewalk and curbside permitting program for Seattle businesses for another year. Standing next to one of the semi-permanent “pergolas” that now line Ballard Avenue, Strauss said, “we want them here forever.” Mike Stewart, head of the Ballard Alliance, noted the “great symbiotic relationship between restaurants, retailers, and the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market. By supporting any one of those,” Stewart said, customers help support the neighborhood’s whole urban core.

It’s a good start. In fact, I inaugurated the “Maybe Metropolis” column during the tumult of the pandemic last Fall by seizing on the street seating program as a promising sign that the COVID-19 crisis was unlocking Seattle’s larger urbanist sensibility.

But…

Strauss’ legislation doesn’t fully capitalize on this pivotal moment. Public momentum is currently pushing Seattle in an urban direction. In just one year, the city has now issued 233 outdoor restaurant permits, compared to about 384 outdoor dining permits issued over the previous 12 years combined.

Obviously, part of that increase is related to that fact that the permits were free this year; ordinarily there’s a square footage charge and a $232 up-front free. Nonetheless, this year’s permits represent an increase of more than 700 percent over the previous years’ average—a tremendous spike.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s that Seattle’s “neighborhood character” has a different personality type than we thought. Long a coded excuse against everything from more mother-in-law apartments, to triplexes, to nighttime lights in parks, it turns out Seattle’s “neighborhood character” is far more malleable and exciting than Seattle’s reactionary reflex suggests.

If we miss this opportunity to transform Seattle’s non-downtown neighborhoods on a grander scale than simply allowing outdoor seating while failing to make our local communities places that actually support our lives—as opposed to supporting Stepford lives—we will have squandered 2021’s urban revelation.

Certainly, some of the pent-up energy is specific to the pandemic, but given that trends like working from home were already in play prior to 2020—teleworking in Seattle increased 113 percent between 2010 and 2019—it seems the pandemic has actually revealed, rather than invented, neighborhood needs and preferences.

For example, the jump in working from home was not a function of Seattle’s simultaneous population boom, as it dramatically outpaced other modes like driving (which actually decreased) and walking. The need for more neighborhood options to do business, shop, and go out nearby isn’t going away if people continue to work in greater numbers at home.

The pandemic has actually revealed, rather than invented, neighborhood needs and preferences..

The change in mood that has coincided with the need for more activated neighborhoods has certainly nudged the city to already relax some rigid rules this past year. In addition to making it easier for businesses to set up sidewalk and street dining, the council has also eased restrictions on small home businesses and made some streets pedestrian and bike only zones.

It’s a good look. But rather than taking a piecemeal approach, council members need to think comprehensively about making all our city neighborhoods more neighbor-friendly. This means recalibrating zoning (more density and uses), restriping existing pavement (more bus and bike lanes), and retaking the public right of way (with bioswales, bike racks, P-Patches, microparks, and closing streets to cars.)

In March, I published a list of seven neighborhood Must Dos for meeting this moment, which mostly focused on increasing housing density in non-downtown neighborhoods (end single family zoning, please!) and increasing the density of indie businesses as well. Along those lines, I wrote: “With hundreds of businesses getting street (or sidewalk) seating permits … it needs to be a permanent option.” Since the council seems to be responding to the zeitgeist, I’d like to take advantage of the momentum and offer some more necessary fixes for Seattle’s neighborhoods.

Because District 6 Councilmember Strauss is showing such leadership on this issue, I’m proposing Ballard, which makes up the bulk of District 6, as the first neighborhood to implement the following recommendations for acknowledging and activating our new neighborhood character.

We can call it the Ballard Action District, or BAD.

Ballard Ave.

First, while allowing multifamily housing in Seattle’s exclusive single-family zones must be central to any plan to reinvent our neighborhoods, let’s start by upzoning the real estate that’s adjacent to our neighborhood parks and schools, creating Parks Oriented Development (POD) and Schools Oriented Development (SOD).

Eighty-nine percent of the city’s parks and open spaces are in single family zones. Similarly, the vast majority of the city’s top-performing elementary schools are in single-family areas. Let’s give more people access. In order to redistribute these assets, let’s start undoing those single-family enclaves, which make up 65 percent of the city’s developable land, by prioritizing real estate around parks and schools for multi-family and affordable housing.

Second, to address the health needs of some of Seattle’s most vulnerable residents, let’s locate harm-reduction services in the neighborhood.  Almost five years ago, the Seattle/King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force recommended establishing supervised drug consumption sites as necessary infrastructure. Despite vocal support from politicians, the idea has languished. Ballard should step up, establish a site, and demonstrate how valuable these services can be.

Third, while I’m loath to encourage more driving, there are ways to make car use more efficient. Let’s establish a neighborhood parking-share program. It would work like this: With residential parking garages going largely underutilized, let’s allow buildings adjacent to businesses to give customers access to spots. You could park at the Odin Apartments, for example, while going to a show at the Sunset Tavern.

Let’s also sync up cars with transit by instituting first-mile/last-mile programs where commuters could simply swipe their ORCA cards for a Lyft or Uber ride between their house and their transit stop; a King County Metro/ Sound Transit pilot already demonstrated how successful this could be.

And lest you think I’m catering to car culture, let’s institute higher rates—that is, market rates—for street parking in the neighborhood and create a transit subsidy program for Ballard’s citywide destinations. For example, local grocery stores such as Fred Meyer, Ballard Market, Trader Joe’s, and QFC, along with cultural spots such as the Tractor Tavern and the farmer’s market, should stamp and subsidize transit fares—just as grocery stores already subsidize parking.

Fourth, add bench and seating infrastructure all over the neighborhood. A recent Seattle Department of Transportation public life study found that 61 percent of people who linger in public were standing, and 11 percent were sitting or reclining on infrastructure that’s not intended for sitting or reclining. These data points highlight a need for more infrastructure.

This is just a sampling of ideas to match Seattle’s new urban character by appropriately activating and retrofitting our neighborhoods for actual city life.

From supporting essential workers (reduced late-night bus fares) to supporting the arts (subsidizing rent for performance spaces) to basic infrastructure (more public restrooms and water fountains, free outdoor wi-fi) there are a slew of other policy ideas that could fit into comprehensive neighborhood action plan. Let’s unlock Ballard as a pilot to build the new Seattle neighborhood model.

Josh@PubliCola.com

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