Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly referred to the “15-Minute City” concept as a way of recovering from COVID-19. In the September 19 Durkan Digest, the mayor said she had directed Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development to “explore the concept of a ’15 Minute City,’ as a potential framework for the next major Comprehensive Plan.”
The 15-Minute City is a sustainable cities concept developed by Sorbonne Professor Carlos Moreno, an advisor to several government and non-governmental agencies, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The concept is a city of complete, sustainable, connected neighborhoods, where every daily need can be met within a very short distance. The goals of a 15-Minute City include coordinated mobility, increased solidarity between residents, improved well-being, greener cities, more access to open space, rapid improvements to residents’ quality of life, and mitigating climate change.
As an architect deeply committed to decarbonized buildings and livable cities, I would gladly welcome a massive shift to a system this transformative and sustainable. However, Seattle’s next major Comprehensive Plan update won’t be adopted until 2024—meaning it would take over a decade to be realized. A framework that delays the transformation cities need to adapt to climate change (and COVID-19) for this long is neither climate action nor a path to economic recovery.
Seattle’s mayor, like nearly every other U.S. mayor, is not making a city for my children. Or yours.
Mayor Hidalgo, arguably one of the most visionary mayors in the world today, ran—and more critically, won—on a platform of massive ecological transformation during COVID. The ‘ville du quart d’heure‘ was a critical component of this. Under Hidalgo’s leadership, Paris installed 50 kilometers of pop-up bike lanes within a few weeks of that city’s COVID-19 lockdown in preparation for recovery. More recently, Hidalgo announced Paris’s iconic Rue de Rivoli will be car-free—permanently. The city is transforming streets from spaces for cars to places for people and nature, with plans to replace 72 percent of on-street parking spaces with public squares, playgrounds, and pedestrian and cycling zones.
I am a huge fan of pedestrian zones. These are urban spaces where cars are generally not allowed, with exceptions for deliveries, accessibility, or resident access. They can vary in size from a single block to entire neighborhoods. In European and Asian cities, they are being expanded to areas outside downtown neighborhoods.
1. A sharply divided standing-room-only crowd gathered last Thursday at 415 Westlake—an airy South Lake Union events center that ordinarily hosts weddings, fundraisers, and bat mitzvahs—and both sides came ready to shout. About 200 people (including former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant) crammed into the space, many of them jostling for standing room in the back, to hear a presentation on a proposed “tiny house village” in South Lake Union and register their support or protest. Representatives from a new group called Unified Seattle handed out fact sheets and glossy campaign-style signs to fellow tiny-house opponents in the audience—a stark contrast to the hand-drawn, crayon-colored reading “We Welcome Our New Neighbors” that supporters of another tiny house village, at 18th and Yesler, held aloft at a similar meeting last month. Unified Seattle—a group that, according to its website, includes Safe Seattle and the Neighborhood Safety Alliance and until last week also listed Speak Out Seattle among its backers—purchased Facebook ads to encourage people to show up at the meeting. “The City Council is trying to put a new shack encampment in our neighborhood. Join us to tell them NO!” the event page urged.
The “village”—a collection of garden-shed-like temporary housing units that will occupy a city-owned lot on 8th Avenue North and Aloha Street that was previously used as a parking lot—is the subject of a lawsuit by the Freedom Foundation, a statewide group that is best known for trying to thwart the Service Employees International Union from organizing home health care workers; according to the Seattle Times, the suit contends that the city did not adequately inform the community of the proposal, did not do a required environmental review, and has exceeded the maximum number of tiny house villages allowed under city law. The opening date for the encampment, (originally scheduled for July, then quietly bumped to November in the latest version of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s “bridge housing” plan) could end up getting pushed back even further.
As of January 2018, there were at least 4,488 people living unsheltered in Seattle; All Home King County acknowledges that this is an undercount, and that the total number is in reality higher.
Opponents of the tiny house village, which would be run by the Low-Income Housing Institute and would provide temporary shelter to about 65 people, focused on the fact that the encampment will not be an explicitly clean and sober environment; although drugs and alcohol will be prohibited in all common areas (and smoking prohibited throughout the site), LIHI will not go into people’s individual sheds and search for contraband, which means, in practice, that people can drink and use drugs in the houses. When Seattle homelessness strategy division director Tiffany Washington noted that this is precisely the city’s policy for dealing with people who live in regular homes (“If I’m using drugs in my house, how will you know?”)—opponents in the crowd erupted in shouts and boos. “The taxpayers don’t pay for your house!” someone yelled. “I provide my kids with rules,” a speaker said moments later, adding that if he thought they were up to no good, “I might search the room.” That prompted another shout from the back: “They’re not kids!”
Elisabeth James, one of the leaders of Speak Out Seattle, suggested that the city would be foolish to give up the revenue it receives from the parking lot where the village would be located. “I look at this parking lot that generates over a million dollars a year, then we’re going to give up that and pay to house people on a parking lot? That seems like a waste of money to me,” she said. Brandishing a four-page, folded color flyer that LIHI handed out at the meeting, James continued, “I look at this fancy folder that you guys have and I think this is a waste of money! And this is one of the reasons that the neighbors are so upset and frustrated.”
Another neighbor, condo owner and retired police officer Greg Williams, suggested that instead of allowing “the ‘homeless,’ as you call them” to live on the site and “destroy it,” they should be required to provide free labor as payment. “They can give us four hours a day. They can clean. They can do something for us to offset” what they cost the community Williams said. “We don’t live free. Why should they live free? If they want to do something, get that experience of a job. Get that experience having to be somewhere on time every day.” According to an annual survey commissioned by All Home King County, 20 percent of King County’s homeless residents have jobs; 25 percent cited job loss as the primary reason they became homeless; and 45 percent were actively looking for work.
Many people wanted to know whether LIHI or the city would be doing “background checks” on the people who want to live in the village, either to see whether they have active warrants inside or outside Washington State, or to determine whether they are local residents, as a way of weeding out homeless people who aren’t “from here.” The short answer to each question is that the city won’t exclude anyone, except registered sex offenders, from shelter because of their criminal history, and they can’t exclude people based on where they came from, because that would be housing discrimination. The longer answer is that homeless people frequently have criminal records because of minor, nonviolent offenses, either because they committed low-level crimes like shoplifting or because they violated laws against loitering, lying down, sleeping, urinating, or having an open container in public. (Open containers are illegal for everybody, but homeless people are uniquely unable to drink, or perform many other activities housed people take for granted anywhere but in public.) Basically any activity that housed people do in the privacy of their own homes becomes illegal when you do it in public; denying shelter to every homeless person who has been caught doing one of these things and locking them in jail instead would be a logistical and civil-rights nightmare, not to mention a tremendous burden on public resources.
Amid all the opposition, several people spoke up in favor of LIHI’s plan. They included Kim Sherman, a Beacon Hill resident who hosts a formerly homeless man in a backyard guest house through a program called the BLOCK Project; Mike McQuaid, a member of the South Lake Union Community Council; and Sue Hodes, a longtime activist who worked on the pro-head tax “decline to sign” effort. Hodes made an impassioned plea for the people who opposed the encampment to recognize that “poor people are people” but got shouted down when she pointed out that opponents of stopgap survival measures like tiny house villages and encampments are “mostly white, mostly middle-class.” “She’s saying nasty things! She’s attacking us!” members of the mostly white, mostly middle-class audience shouted.
2. The city’s Office of Planning and Community Development is proposing changes to the existing incentive zoning program for commercial properties, which allows developers to build taller and denser in exchange for building or funding affordable child care and housing. OCPD strategic advisor Brennon Staley presented the proposed changes, which are aimed at making the city’s various incentive zoning programs more consistent and easier to use, to the Seattle Planning Commission last Thursday.
Although most of the changes won’t have an immediate, dramatic impact on the street level in places like downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District (making it easier for developers to preserve historic buildings and affordable housing through transfers of development rights, for example, will have the result of keeping the streetscape the same), one change that could make a visible impact is the proposed update to the city’s privately owned public space (POPS) program. POPS, which developers are required to provide as part of any new development, are often hard to find, hostile to the general public, and inaccessible outside business hours. (The quintessential example is the 7th-floor plaza at the Fourth and Madison Building, accessible only from inside the building and marked only by a small sign at the building’s base. Thank former city council member Nick Licata for that modest marker!)
The proposed changes would provide more flexibility for developers to build smaller, more flexible open spaces, allow cafes, movable seating, and games to help “activate” smaller public spaces, and require that all privately owned public spaces be open between 6am and 10pm, the same hours as public parks. One commissioner, Amy Shumann, suggested that OCPD require larger signs than the small, green-and-white markers that currently point pedestrians to these spaces; another, David Goldberg, asked whether developers might be able to pay a fee instead of providing open space on site, an idea Staley shot down by pointing out that when the city has tried to do this kind of program in the past, they’ve ended up having to give the money back because they haven’t been able to collect enough money to build the spaces elsewhere.