Category: Maybe Metropolis

Maybe Metropolis: Seven Must Dos for Seattle’s Recovery

Public right-of-way isn’t just for cars anymore.

by Josh Feit

In a recent opinion column for the Seattle Times, Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rachel Smith and Downtown Seattle Association President and CEO Jon Scholes published “7 ‘must dos’ for downtown Seattle’s recovery,” a prescription for renewing downtown after the pandemic. Their list is premised on the idea that, “Every great city has a great downtown. Downtowns are the heartbeat of a region.” In other words, downtowns make the city go.

I like a lit-up downtown as much as anyone, but their column represents pre-pandemic thinking. The focus on “saving downtown” that’s emerging right now (most recently as a nascent local campaign issue) is a revamped version of a bygone Seattle policy agenda dressed up as urbanism; while it appears to be about bright lights and big cities, following this fussy narrative will simply drag us right back to where we’ve always been stuck: In a mindset that promotes suburban seclusion within the city itself.

There are certainly some important ideas on Smith and Scholes’ list, especially their calls for a robust transit system and for keeping shovels in motion on major infrastructure projects (which repeats the mass transit shoutout). Additionally, two of their seven agenda items, which I see as intertwined—activating public space and making it easier for entrepreneurs to set up shop—are also smart.

But these concepts are more urgent and relevant in the rest of the city; promoting them as downtown ideas runs the risk of reiterating and re-instituting a false dichotomy that has set Seattle off course for decades: The old-fashioned idea that downtown, not the rest of the city, is the only place for growth and energy.

The post-pandemic focus for making Seattle vital again should be on harnessing the new neighborhood energy—not sending it back downtown.

What we’ve actually learned during the past year not spending much time downtown is this: neighborhoods are the magic quadrants of cities. I don’t mean this in the trite, anti-downtown tribalist way of the old neighborhood movement, which saw every public-private partnership as some elitist conspiracy to crush the Wedgwood Community Council and rob the city of its authenticity. What I mean—as I’ve documented before—is that the past year has energized business districts outside the city center and alerted us to a new Seattle model. The post-pandemic focus for making Seattle vital again should be on harnessing the new neighborhood energy—not sending it back downtown.

Our past strategy of channeling city action to core neighborhoods such as downtown and Capitol Hill has prevented density in other sectors of the city, which has led to a housing shortage, and thus untenable housing prices. It also makes for dull neighborhoods.

The good news is: There are signs we’re moving in a new direction. Talk of sticking with outdoor street dining is already afoot. And just look at one of the key items on the DSA/Chamber list: “Completion of major infrastructure projects.” This item (unwittingly?) pinpoints where the real focus already is and should be.

Their first example? Light rail expansion. Well, light rail already exists downtown. The bulk of the expansion is coming to the non-downtown neighborhoods. Starting this year, that means the University District, Roosevelt, and Northgate. In 2023, that means Judkins Park (perhaps the most underrated and overlooked transformative capital project in the city!) After that, it means four stations from SoDo out to West Seattle and nine stations from the International District out to Ballard.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Seven Must Dos for Seattle’s Recovery”

These Streets Were Made for Walking

by Josh Feit

Due to the popularity of closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars—and opening it for walking, biking, and rolling only, as SDOT did during the recent Thanksgiving weekend and over the summer: one mile of the northern portion of Lake Washington Blvd from Mt. Baker Park to Stan Sayres Memorial Park will be a no-car zone this Friday, December 18 through January 3.

Apparently, the popularity of these closures is causing some angst. People who oppose closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars took their case to the joint Board of Parks Commissioners and Park District Oversight Committee meeting last Thursday night.  At the online meeting, SDOT floated the concept of making some of 2020’s COVID-19-era pedestrian-and-bike-only streets permanent. Lake Washington Boulevard isn’t currently under consideration for permanent closure, but SDOT’s anxious critics, intent on nipping the idea in the bud, pointed out that the vaunted Olmsted Brothers originally designed Lake Washington Boulevard for cars. Specifically, they said, for “recreational…pleasure drives.”

I love it when city officials are able to turn original intent arguments back against NIMBYs, and Parks Commissioner Tom Byers did just that. Byers, former deputy mayor under Mayor Paul Schell, pointed out that the typical car speed when the Olmsteds designed the boulevard was 12 mph. Today, it’s 25 mph. (Seems more like 30 or 40 if you’ve ever been biking there and had a car up in your business, but still.) For the past decade, the city has traditionally closed Lake Washington Boulevard to cars on Sundays during summer months. 

This past summer, responding to people’s need for daily recreational opportunities in their neighborhoods during the pandemic, SDOT restricted car access on 26 miles of neighborhood streets, creating bike-and pedestrian-friendly zones known as “Stay Healthy Streets” to create more room for people to walk, bike, and roll while maintaining at least six feet of distance from others. SDOT also teamed up with the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department for four additional miles of closed streets (I consider all these open streets), near Alki Point, near Green Lake, in Goldens Gardens Park, and along Lake Washington Boulevard, to expand park footprints. SDOT called these park-adjacent no-car zones “Keep Moving Streets.”

SDOT is now surveying the public to decide where to make 20 miles of these car-free streets permanent. It’s all part of the department’s pedestrian-centric response to the pandemic, which also now includes 150 sidewalk, converted parking spot, and street permits that neighborhood coffee shops and restaurants have used to set up outdoor seating. That popular program, known as “Safe Starts,” has been extended through October 2021.

In the first installment of this column a couple of months ago, I wrote about all these programs combined, arguing that the ad hoc emergency response was energizing Seattle’s neighborhoods and providing a surprise opportunity to rethink how our city should be planned and zoned.

The notion of re-upping the Lake Washington Boulevard car-free pilot as a pedestrian and bike thoroughfare (thanks for bringing it up, guys!) is a prequel to the overdue debate over reallocating public right-of-way. It’s time to retrofit our growing city to human scale.

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SDOT’s idea isn’t about tradition. It’s about change. And ultimately, that’s what Byers’ “12 mph” quip was getting at.

“I’m really excited about the future potential of these streets,” Seattle Parks District Oversight Committee member Deepa Sivarajan seconded.

Sivarajan, a policy manager at Climate Solutions by day, went even further. “Let’s not prioritize historical intent and historical preservation when thinking about these streets,” she said. “A lot of historical preservation in Seattle tends to preserve an era that was de facto segregationist. Thinking about the historical intent of a ‘driving street’ is not the biggest factor we should be considering.” Sivarajan argued that the city should consider equity above original intent, and her own priorities seemed to also include health and safety; she cited collisions and pollution as something the Olmsteds didn’t consider when designing boulevards for “pleasure drives.”

Sivarajan’s social justice angle served notice on the opponents of SDOT’s potential plan. In addition to the goofy original intent talking points, the preservationists had also been arguing that closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars would be unfair to communities of color who, they claimed without presenting data, rely on the boulevard to access the city and parks from the Rainier Valley and beyond.

Opponents of a car-free Lake Washington Boulevard also got an earful from Parks Commissioner Dennis Cook, who’s African American. “I’ve walked the lake [for] many, many, many years,” he said. “During the pandemic, I’ve seen more people of color walking Seward Park than I have in the last five to ten years. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful to see because people are out there greeting people and their neighbors, and it’s building community.” Cook noted that the area in question is in the 98118 ZIP code, where the population is 25 percent African American. Seattle is 7 percent Black overall.

Continue reading “These Streets Were Made for Walking”

Maybe Metropolis: Night Vision

by Josh Feit

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget eliminated a position that the city’s cultural community believes is essential, particularly as the COVID-19 crisis is strangling city nightlife: The Nightlife Business Advocate, also known as the Night Mayor. Fortunately, city council member Andrew Lewis took quick action to restore the position last month, getting four more council members—a majority—to sign on as cosponsors to his budget amendment.

The $155,000 save is on track to be part of  next week’s budget deal. I point out Lewis’ pivotal role because he’s the youngest council member (he just turned 31 this week), and still values nightlife as an attribute of city life. “It’s always bothered me that nightlife is seen as something that needs to be managed,” Lewis told me. “I think it’s something that needs to be cultivated.”

That’s essentially what the position, a formal liaison between nightlife businesses and city regulators, was created to do: Nightlife Advocate Scott Plusquellec helps music venues navigate the city’s complex licensing and permitting bureaucracy as well as helping with state regulators such as the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. (Plusquellec was a legislative staffer in Olympia before coming to work at the city.)

The position was created in 2015 and housed in the Office of Economic Development’s Office of Film + Music under the office’s then-director Kate Becker. A veteran of Seattle’s music scene (and its storied battles against things like the Teen Dance Ordinance), Becker was both a founding member of all-ages venue the Vera Project and the Seattle Music Commission. When Becker left in early 2019 to take a job with King County Executive Dow Constantine as the County’s first Creative Economy Strategist, Plusquellec lost his high-level ally.

Becker was never replaced. After Becker left, Plusquellec reportedly had to write up a memo explaining his position to Mayor Durkan’s new OED director Bobby Lee, who started heading up the department in the summer of 2019. Judging from the mayor’s proposed cut, the new regime was not convinced.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Night Vision”

Maybe Metropolis: Improvising in the Time of COVID

by Josh Feit

A dazzling array of posters adorns the entrance to the Crocodile, Seattle’s destination music venue on 2nd Avenue in Belltown. The colorful posters are an eerie museum of ghostly show bills announcing 2020 concerts that never happened: Wye Oak March 20; Vundabar March 30; Lords of Acid April 13; Patoranking April 26; Juana Molina May 5, Gioli & Assia May 6.

For your convenience, I made a Spotify playlist called “Museum of Lost Shows” commemorating the Crocodile’s spectral season.

“A survey of 51 King County music venues revealed that in the first few months of [COVID-19] 2,100 events were canceled, 650 staff were laid off, and 17,000 musicians’ paid gigs were canceled,” according to Keep Music Live, a relief fund started by local music community advocates who have a goal of raising $10 million to keep Washington state’s small venues (under 1,000 occupancy) open through and after the pandemic.

Their rallying cry that “music venues are hubs of a cultural and economic ecosystem that make Washington’s cities vibrant” is borne out by the numbers. According to the National Independent Venue Association’s 2019 Seattle impact report on live music venues, Seattle clubs generated nearly $67 million in direct economic impact, employed 1,200 people, and sold 1.3 million tickets last year. In short: When it comes to the defining attributes of successful cities, creative music scenes are on the list right alongside dense housing, jobs, universities, mass transit, restaurants, regional medical facilities, cultural diversity, and the fine arts.

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A line around the block for a music show is a political win for any city planning office. Be it Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan or a Saturday night out, SDOT planners and Kremwerk DJs are both trying to figure out how to make things last.

When it comes to the arts, you make it last by getting creative.

So, it’s with some Seattle pride that I note this bit of city planning news: Despite the empty stages, quiet dance floors, lonely box offices, and locked club doors, Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival is improvising this year’s programming by partnering with Town Hall Seattle, the Royal Room, and the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute to make sure the festival goes on with a series of virtual shows.

With outstanding local jazz acts like the Johnaye Kendrick Quartet (Friday, October 23), Marina Albero (Sunday, October 25), the Benjamin Hunter Quintet (Saturday, November 7) taking the stage for live feeds from the aforementioned venues, Earshot will be streaming a series of 25 shows over four weekends this month and into November. It’s a scaled-back version of the festival’s typical 60-concerts-in-30-days tradition, but the resilience of our nationally recognized festival, which debuted in 1989, is an example of Seattle’s crafty and incorrigible arts scene. Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Improvising in the Time of COVID”

Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model

By Josh Feit

Judging by the sheer number of permits the city has issued in the past five months allowing businesses to turn sidewalks, parking spots, and city streets themselves into places for people to hang out, there’s an unforeseen consequence of the pandemic: A citywide Seattle neighborhood renaissance.

Under a temporary program called “Safe Starts,” SDOT has issued 135 such permits since the COVID-19 crisis hit, with 73 more local business requests for permits in the queue. (The numbers, based on data through September, are actually much higher because the West Seattle Junction Business Improvement Association got an unprecedented single permit allowing all 230 shops and restaurants in the district to set up a single table and chair outside their storefronts).

Seattle’s neighborhood businesses are using all these permit options (they’re free) to turn neighborhoods outside the downtown core into people-centric hot spots. Just grab a table in the middle of the street on 9th Avenue N. between Thomas and John Streets in South Lake Union, and you’ll quickly get a sense of the new block-party atmosphere that’s helped redefine the city in recent months.

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Neighborhoods aren’t merely dedicating more public space for eating and drinking. The elevated energy is also being formalized on neighborhood side streets. As part of another SDOT program called “Stay Healthy Streets,” 13 stretches of neighborhood streets, totaling more than 20 miles, have sidelined cars in favor of people. Instead of reading “Street Closed,” SDOT signs barring cars could just as logically read “Street Open.”

The takeaway for city policy makers should be clear. While inveterate single-family-zoning advocates continue to decry urbanization in any form (in order to preserve neighborhood character, they say), Seattle’s neighborhoods are not as fragile as the naysayers have claimed. On the contrary, the uptick in neighborhood action seems to have amplified, rather than destroyed, neighborhood character.

Hilariously, one business that has chosen to convert sacred parking space into café seating, Café Javasti, was an adamant parking space patriot during Wedgwood’s retrograde fight against a protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE.

“I don’t understand why we’d ever go back.” — West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift

From “outdoor cafés to outdoor retail racks,” West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift said, the neighborhood has a “new cadence” and a “more European feel.”

She says she’ll be advocating to keep the permits in play through “at least 2021,” adding that she’d like the programs to stay in place longer than that. “I don’t understand why we’d ever go back,” she said, noting that her enthusiasm is “underscored by requests from the community… to continue to this new Seattle. We’ve gotten so many emails.” Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model”