by PETER STEINBRUECK
STB’s posting last Friday morning challenged me on a couple of my comments at the recent Seattle Neighborhood Coalition breakfast meeting. I spoke and answered questions for 45 minutes– the brief quotes you picked up from PubliCola were only a small fragment of what I said.
First, let me be clear that “do density right” is not code language for keeping densities low. This is a dissing of caring, thinking people in our Seattle neighborhoods. There are many elements to “doing it right,” and one of the most important is having a thoughtful planning process that engages the affected neighborhoods, transit riders and community. For example, TOD should be planned and coordinated around the established neighborhoods, not the other way around. Well-planned TOD should and can be customized to the neighborhood it serves, using best practices proven to be successful to growing transit ridership and building walkable, livable communities.
Most citizens I speak to throughout the city support growth, but have legitimate issues that go beyond density. Density is a value-less term, and certainly not a panacea for curbing sprawl. Just look at the vast, sprawling metro regions of the densest cities in the U.S., Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles if you think that. Planning should be structured to put the community’s vision for true livability into play. Planning recommendations and decisions should be openly arrived at so ordinary citizens can have some confidence in the outcomes, and support goals for compact walkable communities.
It’s been my observation that most people in most neighborhoods accept that Seattle is going to grow. They hope it will grow sustainably, and I do too. The basic issue is where the new development is going to go, and its look, fit, and feel. I believe it should be channeled into Urban Centers and Urban Villages as called for in the city comprehensive plan. There is just no need to expand high-density development into traditional single-family neighborhoods. We have plenty of unbuilt capacity within the Urban Villages to support growth for decades to come.
Regarding rail transit, I enthusiastically support Sound Transit’s Link light rail program. In fact, I was on the Regional Transit Advisory Committee in the 1990’s, which urged moving forward with regional light rail. The Link system is creating a needed backbone of major trunk lines in the region’s densest corridors. Link will connect almost all of our major Urban Centers in ways that buses could never accommodate. But the rest of the transit system in our region will remain almost entirely buses, one of the largest transit systems in the country, serving thousands of daily commuters. Good, frequent bus service will always be necessary to connect the rest of our city neighborhoods and our light rail stations.
Successful urban transit around the country is always a multi-modal system, and it includes accommodation of pedestrian, cyclists and transit riders, both bus and rail. Good transit planning should identify the optimum mode in each corridor and not assume that rail (light rail or streetcar) is automatically the best choice everywhere we look. Density should then be planned sensitively to support transit ridership– light rail and buses- around established neighborhoods.
The author is a former City Councilmember and current candidate for Mayor of Seattle.