by STEVE THORNTON (better known as Fnarf)

WSDOT via Orphan Road

Like Martin, and Frank over on Orphan Road, I am viewing the upcoming design unveiling for the space where the Alaskan Way Viaduct currently sits with intense dread. I am an unabashed Viaduct supporter; I love it to pieces, and think it’s not guilty of most of the charges leveled against it, which to my ears all too often betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what cities are for, but I recognize the reality that it’s probably coming down. So then what?

I feel that Seattle is under a decades-long assault to destroy its meaning as a city, in some ways just as devastating as the previous decades-long assault from the highway-builders (maybe even longer if you start with the monstrosity that is the 1928 Second Avenue Extension). Cities are civic places: but what the planners seem to have forgotten is what kind of civic places they are. Cities are markets; they are places where people gather to exchange goods, services, and ideas. Parks do not make cities. Boulevards do not make cities. Dense blocks of commerce make cities. Commerce, commerce, commerce. Rainier National Park is not a city. Manhattan is a city.

It’s incredibly fashionable right now to decry “consumerism”, and Seattle has a surplus of people bleating for parks and plazas, to overturn “the tyranny of the automobile”, to “restore Puget Sound”, to “connect to the waterfront”, to “focus less on consuming and more on families”. These ideas, when applied to central areas of cities, can be — almost always are — counterproductive. There are millions of examples, many of them right here in Seattle. We’re about to build another one.

I feel confident that each of the four finalists whose plans will be unveiled on the fifteenth will all feature gorgeous watercolors with a lovely forest green as the primary color, because we all want green. But those watercolors are always, always misleading. Green is not what we’re going to get, no matter how many trees they plant or happy skateboarders they draw in or feet of roadway they obscure. I have a list here of some things in particular that we don’t want.

More after the jump...

1. Boulevards. Boulevards do not unite cities, they divide them. Boulevards are easy; anyone could “design” a reasonably adequate one in our sleep, since they’re all pretty much the same. You just have to decide where to plant the trees. But boulevards are a nightmare to cross on foot, much worse than elevated roadways, not just because of the traffic but because of the sheer width of them — width that is filled with nothingness. Nothingness is the enemy of cities. Boulevards are surface highways hacked through cities. Anyone who’s been to Paris has felt the shock of realizing that the famed Champs d’Elysees is actually the most horrible thoroughfare in the whole city, unless you are a once-a-year bicycle racer, or invading army. And Seattle, honestly, is already packed full of might-as-well-be boulevards, thanks to our unfortunate street platting. Seattle has the widest downtown streets of any wanna-be-bustling city in America, much wider than those of Portland, Vancouver or San Francisco. Wide streets make communication between the opposite sides impossible, and destroy the “room of the street”.

Keep in mind that one side of this room is the waterfront, which does have a fair amount of civic use already. If you’re trying to “revitalize” this waterfront, but instead plant a hundred-yard-wide empty space next to it, you’re going to kill it, not revitalize it.

But we’re going to get a boulevard, I’m absolutely certain. 99 is a state highway, after all. Tunnel or no, we’re getting a monster boulevard of at least six lanes, which like all roads will fill with traffic. Tunnel or no, there’s still trucks that have to get through, and there’s those tens of thousands of cars who won’t want to pay the inevitable $10 toll to ride underground.

Not this… (wikimedia)

2. Parks. We’ve got plenty of parks. We’ve got too many parks. Yes, I know you want to ride your roller skates with your headphones on, and you want your dog to have vast uninterrupted acres to relieve itself on, and you want lots of space to have imaginary “civic conversations” with other like-minded civic idealists, and you want a “lush, healthy, functioning shore“, because you’re green — and who isn’t green?

Well, for one thing, flattening over huge parts of your central city isn’t green. The people who use these parks have to live somewhere, and every foot of living space in the city that is taken for parks is instantly converted by demand into ten feet of living space in the exurbs — land that used to be open space, millions of acres of it, all over the region, but are now covered with awful houses. People in Seattle sometimes tend to live in a bubble, and don’t see or think about the region as a whole, but if you get into your car and drive (don’t even dream of taking the bus) out to Covington, or South Hill in Puyallup, or the slopes of Marysville, or east as far as the eye can see to the Sammamish plateau and beyond, and even as far away as Orting, right in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, you’ll see what I mean. The real battle for open space isn’t taking place downtown; it’s out at and beyond the hopeless “urban growth boundary”.

…or this (wikimedia)

That’s where the real battle for Puget Sound is taking place as well. Trying to restore Seattle’s historic dock areas into pristine habitat isn’t green at all. It’s a fruitless endeavor as long as there’s a huge city right there, pouring its crap into the mud, and it drives development elsewhere. A very sensible book by John Lombard, Saving Puget Sound: A Conservation Strategy for the 21st Century goes into more detail on this topic, but basically, attempts to mitigate human impact, in light of finite resources, need to be concentrated not at the points of maximum human activity but at the periphery, to stop those maximum impacts from spreading everywhere. The fight for salmon isn’t taking place at Thornton Creek, where the microscopic runs are trivia, but on the Stillaguamish, where the battle is just now being lost. You save more salmon and save more Sound at the peripheries, not at the center. Cary Moon’s vision of a waterfront restored to pre-city conditions is a fantasy, and a deeply hostile one to the values that this city needs to put forth to survive.

3. Commerce-Free Zones. It doesn’t take much time spent walking around in other cities to realize that Seattle’s downtown core is absurdly segregated and empty compared to vibrant cities. Vibrant cities aren’t full of windswept plazas, they’re full of shops, and narrow streets, and billboards, and immigrants selling food, and crowds of people standing around and trying to push past. Coffeehouses, even, though to be honest those civic conversations people are always talking about are more likely to be happening amongst people standing around and pushing past than in coffeehouses full of hunched-over laptoppers.

This is called the life of the city. It’s what attracts people, draws them in. Boulevards can’t do that. Parks can’t do that (especially long, boring linear parks). Outdoor cafes. Open markets. Rows of shops, lots of shops, narrow shops all packed together, not giant block-long blank walls. Another book, my favorite for understanding how cities really work, even more so than Jane Jacobs, is William Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center, which looks at what really works in cities. These things are systematically being removed from Seattle, and there will be no place for them in the new waterfront plan, I fear.

Unfortunately, this is probably something that can’t be designed, despite all the clouds of hot air emitted by the so-called New Urbanists, who, like the people who will be deciding our waterfront’s future, talk a pretty good game but whose results are just as soulless as anything in Redmond. It definitely can’t be designed by the kind of people who recoil in horror at the sight of an advertising kiosk, a food cart, or an A-board on the sidewalk.

Why do the homeless congregate in these empty spaces we are filling our city with? Why are we so afraid they will congregate here? Because they’re empty. They’re not being used. There’s no one sleeping on the floor in the middle of the Pike Place Market, which is Seattle’s most genuine civic space downtown, one where all are welcome, from the hippest hipster to the dumpiest Peoria grandma, from the twitchiest meth-head homeless dude to the sleekest Microsoft manager. Yes, a lot of them are there only to stand around with their mouths hanging open, but they’re also there because of all the cool stuff to buy. Many of the tourists have ever seen such a place outside of a regional mall.

So, grandpa, I hear you ask, what’s your vision? What do you want to see on the waterfront? Well, as a semi-professional blowhard my job isn’t building things up but tearing them down, but I’ve mentioned a few ideas above. What I would like to see is above all a focus on functionality, not beauty. Enough with the watercolors already, and I don’t care what color the buildings are or what kind of faux brick you’re going to imitate or how awesome the fasteners on the awnings are going to be. Show me instead how wide the storefronts are (25 feet max, with lots of 15s, 10s, even six feet wide spaces (a crepe window, a shoe repair shop). Show me where all the food carts are going to go, and tell me how you’re going to fill them with hungry young immigrants looking for a foothold in this economy. Show me where the sidewalk cafes go, and the street vendors. Make the streets as narrow as the law will allow, or amend the law to make them narrower, like Pioneer Square alleys. Pack it in, pack it in. I know a long narrow space like this is not ideal for the two greatest urban street activators — T junctions and Y junctions, but find a way. At the very least, promise that your hideous boulevard will be no wider than Western Avenue, which is the only downtown street platted to a civil dimension. We can work around it if the shop spaces are small enough; look at places like Pender Street in Vancouver, where even the ugliest concrete monstrosities are alive at the street level, because the shops are narrow (and thus numerous).

Force all the designers to study The Italian Townscape by “Ivor de Wolfe” (Hubert de Cronin) and the street-and-block geometry lessons in Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Integrate the Market better, and integrate Waterfront Park nonlinearly, and the piers, and build more piers. All those empty ones are a crime. One of the things that’s sad about our waterfront is that, as in most cities, it really isn’t used for anything anymore now that shipping is done in containers and there’s no regular boat traffic besides a handful of tour operators and the behemoth ferries. The only thing that will ever draw significant numbers of people to the waterfront as waterfront is more water uses, which means boats. There are no boats anymore. The reason Sydney’s Central Quay works so well is because of the hundred small passenger ferries that arrive and depart every day (and guess what they have “blocking it off” — a giant highway (and train) viaduct).

That’s the whole point of this exercise, and the whole point of having a city in the first place: attraction. People go to places because there’s stuff there they need, and instead of driving for miles along a blank highway to the Home Depot, you can get them to walk past a hundred other shops, which means they have to be packed in tight because nobody’s going to walk all that far, even in Manhattan, you create a synergistic effect that is itself a new attraction. It’s called “traffic”, and while that word gives Seattleites the heebie-jeebies, to commercial real estate people it’s the Golden Rule. We want to make our waterfront a “100% Location”. This will benefit the entire city and the entire region.

Assuming there’s some transit to it, of course. But that’s another article.

233 Replies to “Build the Waterfront Up, not Down”

  1. interesting post
    would be nice to see less road, less plaza, and more commercial/residential development, fairly dense, above the tunnel

    especially if there will be no “management” of “undesirables” ..i can see that photo up top essentially becoming a huge Victor Steinbrueck Park

    1. The presence of undesirables doesn’t need to be managed in properly vibrant areas. The activity of desirables crowds them out. The presence of undesirables is proof positive that the space is poorly designed.

    2. Sure the park along the waterfront would be nice, but… DISPLACING all the cars, delivery vehicles, and other assorted vehicles that use the viaduct will be a HUGE problem… Think about where those displaced vehicles will be: 1st, 3rd, and 5th Avenues downtown? Double the vehicles on I-5? That’s the problem, not whether there should be a park along the waterfront… Well, there may be a PARK-ING lot everywhere else… But, where do you re-route the traffic? Nobody seems to take that factor as the NUMBER ONE ISSUE! Just saying, WHERE’S THE CONTINGENCY PLAN FOR THAT?

  2. Or, Seattle could line the new blvd with 20 story condos, tear down the old wharfs, and import a gazillion tons of sand — Poof! Miami Beach.
    Umbrella drinks, anyone?

    1. Actually building out condos on the water front with a public access boardwalk and ground level retail would be great. Not only do you increase the tax base ( parks are tax dead zones ) but you inject a lively waterfront atmosphere into what is a fairly sterile environment off-tourist season

  3. Chicago tried the Pedestrian Mall thing on State Street many years ago, turning it into a bus-only thruway.

    it KILLED State St. (look it up on google news)

    State street is only now rebounding 20-30 years Later

    Lets learn from a fantastic example!!

  4. Thanks for the dollop of reality. I always feel that there is some core element missing from these drawings, something that aches due to its absence. Through your post, I think i pinpointed the absecne as that sort of small scale retail activity. In the first image, why are all those people hanging about in a big brick wasteland? Why are they even there milling around?

    I dont know if I agree with the small scale, mideval street scale details. I lived for a time in Berlin, a very wide boulevard type of city, but Kurfürstendamm had a lot of ‘street life’ despite its monumental scale. I think the key pointis there was simply lot more going on at street level, no matter how wide the street was, and agree that this should by all means be an element of the waterfront.

    1. I’m sure there are lively wide streets in the world. My answer to your Kurfürstendamm example would be that Kurfürstendamm has city on both sides of it, and thus pedestrian traffic coming at it from both sides, and that’s where your street life comes from.

      Street life, to a certain extent, isn’t something that just happens by magic, and it’s definitely not something urban planners can just plop down; it exists in reference to the city around it. It happens for a reason. But it’s not clear to me that your average urban planner, not even your clued-in New Urbanist, knows what those reasons are.

      And it is posilutely, absotively certain that the people in Seattle who usually get called “stakeholders” in these types of discussions don’t know what they are, since those people, in this city, are so deathly afraid of of the possibility of commerce occurring that they will strive to stamp it out. That’s what I’m really afraid of here.

    2. Yes, the plaza in the picture above sucks. That’s because WSDOT uses that pink color to denote spaces that have not even started to be planned yet. No one, at all, is proposing just constructing the vacant plaza in that picture, don’t worry.
      Yeah, I don’t think a street absolutely needs to be narrow to be vibrant. There are plenty of great wide streets around the world. As long as we design this one well, it can work great.

  5. Thank you for this post! I disagree with many of your comments but it’s refreshing to read something on STB that isn’t 21st century statistical techno-twaddle.

    Neighborhoods have an economic and social ecology that develops over years of existence. When a large development or construction project goes in, the ecology is destroyed and a new social/economic system has to be started. An example of where this process went wrong is 3rd Avenue in downtown Seattle. Once the finest street in downtown, the building of the DSTT destroyed all commerce and normal social activity on 3rd Ave. The impact of the DSTT project was fatal to almost every business on 3rd, it was the equivalent of strip mining away the economic and social forest of 3rd Ave. Following construction, the city bought up a large chunk of the devasted real estate at rock bottom prices and converted much of the property to zero-income housing. Today, 3rd Avenue is, well…a place to avoid.

    Hopefully, a better result will occur along the south Seattle portion of LINK. Who knows what will happen on the waterfront?

    One of the biggest obstacles to creating the diverse, vibrant and unique commercial areas–like the Pike Place Market that you revere–is that zones like that don’t happen in new construction areas. The cost of building requires that tenants pay top dollar rents. So, the clients that move in to new construction areas are the Starbucks, the Subways and the chi-chi salons and spas that really have no vibe. The interesting stuff always finds older neighborhoods where rents are lower. Look at Georgetown 2010 versus Georgetown 1990. Of course rents are rising in G’town and it won’t be long until Starbucks, etc move in and drive the innovative entrepreneurs out to another forlorn community (South Park, Renton, Highland Park???), but that’s also part of the economic ecology that I mentioned above.

    More than anything else, Seattle seems to want to become its own suburb. I don’t want to see the viaduct rebuilt, I like parks and I love Paris. But thanks for your letter, it’s much appreciated.

    1. Excellent point about new construction rents. To me this is THE challenge of modern urban design, avoiding the new-construction ghetto look — and we are, so far, TERRIBLE at it.

      Take a look at what they did up in Lake City — they took out a row of crappy storefronts, old but serviceable, and full of interesting and useful shops, and replaced it with a textbook “mixed use” building, up to date with all the latest theories about living and working and shopping together, but they made all the retail spaces ten feet deep, so there’s nothing there now but a chain Chinese buffet place, a check-cashing store, a nail salon — the usual.

      There’s got to be a way around it. It’s not just rents — these nail salons everywhere are far from chi-chi, they’re cruddy. My personal belief is that it comes down to retail shop depth and width — lots of the former, very little of the latter.

      1. I wish developers understood how important narrow, deep retail spaces are. Unfortunately when I challenged a developer on this recently he said point blank “nobody wants those kinds of spaces.” What meant of course, is that they have to charge less for those spaces than huge spaces that might attract an Urban Outfitters or something. It’s up to the design code and zoning to either require or offer incentives to build that kind of retail space, otherwise we will never have cool, funky little shops in the future.

      2. When he says “nobody” he means nobody in a suit from the franchise expansion department of major retail corporations.

        One of the things I wish I had for this article was a series of photos I took in Vancouver recently, but they sucked, so I couldn’t really use them. They were taken downtown — the real working downtown, not Robson Street or Burrard, but streets like Pender and Dunsmuir, around Richards and Seymour. They’ve gotten it right — a mix of older buildings with newer concrete monstrosities, but even the concrete monstrosities have rows of shops, LOTS of shops, including little cubbyhole places, along the street.

        This is a meaning of “density” that gets short shrift. It’s not just about lots of people; it’s about lots of USES. It’s a synergistic effect — having one long store vs. having two medium-length stores vs. a whole row of narrow storefronts — each time you increase the number of uses within a given hundred feet, the traffic density goes up exponentially, not additively. The guy needing a new heel on his shoe interacts with the guy looking for a pizza slice and the guy wanting a magazine or a “Sleepless in Seattle” t-shirt or a bottle of wine.

        Downtown Seattle has very little of that synergy, and public opinion seems to be set against it. Hence the call for “more parks”. But parks are not synergistic; they can draw people (sometimes) but more often (and particularly long strip parks like this) act as barriers, not attractants.

      3. Yes, they are, but not particularly relevant to “downtown”. They’re neighborhood streets.

        They also serve as connectors, which is another thing Seattle’s awfully short on. Georgetown’s revival is awesome — let’s walk there from downtown! Er….

      4. Walking around parts of Downtown Vancouver, and especially the West End, though, gives me the creeps. You have towering buildings on either side of the narrow street, but absolutely no one on the sidewalk. It’s like Downtown Bellevue. There’s very little or no retail on the streets, and you end up having very few pedestrians. Vancouver is definitely not a perfect example of vibrant Downtown.

      5. The West End isn’t downtown; it’s a residential area. While there are some boring areas to the north, towards the water, and any of the areas where they’ve built the most egregious of their towers-in-a-plaza schemes are bad (there might be retail, but you have to dive down into a warren to find it), there are also plenty of downtowny areas that are plenty lively, and there’s far, far more retail on the streets than Seattle.

        Note also that Seattle’s downtown is much smaller physically, with fewer blocks, and many more obstacles on all sides — not just the viaduct, but the very street grid. There’s I-5, of course, but also the grotesque separation of the ID and upper Pioneer Square (seriously, walk the length of 2nd Ave. Ext. sometime and make special note of the vast emptiness in all directions at the intersections; there’s Dearborn, the stadiums, the impassable wall of Denny at the north of Belltown, which is itself horribly separated from downtown except at the very bottom (1st Ave.), and the vast vacancy that is the Regrade, where even when there are things you might want to go to you have to cross several blocks of nothingness to get there.

        Our downtown is imprisoned. That’s one of the reasons it has problems.

      6. “…but even the concrete monstrosities have rows of shops, LOTS of shops, including little cubbyhole places, along the street.”

        This is usually the first thing I explain to people who’ve heard great things about Vancouver as an urban space but have never been there.

        The high-rises exhibit every permutation of horrifically ugly ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s architecture imaginable, which makes Vancouver look like a wholly “new” city.

        But at the street level, they’ve made it all work. (My understanding is that the zoning regulations focus primarily on what becomes of the first two stories and is comparatively hands-off about what happens above.)

      7. “Take a look at what they did up in Lake City — they took out a row of crappy storefronts, old but serviceable, and full of interesting and useful shops, and replaced it with a textbook “mixed use” building…”

        How else do you propose to get more housing within walking distance of a regional bus line? What about the fact that Value Village, Fred Meyer, and Mieko’s fitness are also within walking distance? It seems like good place for an urban village to me. I don’t remember exactly what was on that block, but Seattle is full of one-story buildings from the mid-century that force you to walk further or drive to whatever you need. That’s the “suburban” part of Seattle.

        The biggest problem in Lake City is the uninviting oceans of parking in front of Safeway, the drugstore, and Fred Meyer. (And Mieko’s is also a one-story warehouse surrounded by a sea of parking, but at least it’s an independent company.)

      8. It’s not the housing that is crapping on Lake City — it’s the three-inch-deep retail spaces, because they built a parking garage on that level. Lake City used to have a functioning, if fragile and tiny, strip of retail. That’s all been destroyed now, and it’s not Freddies or Value Village that destroyed it, it’s the “urban village” they replaced it with. Note that they didn’t take out the Freddies or the Value Village — those Bellevue-style (only more run-down) superblocks are all still there. Instead of building on the one decent thing that gave Lake City a CENTER they destroyed it. Some urban village. You think the people who live there don’t drive everywhere? They have to drive to get their freaking DRY CLEANING done now.

        People accuse me of being too hard on New Urbanists, but there’s a reason for that. It’s the sound of disappointment. I hear them saying all the right things, and then destroying everything that’s good to make half-assed versions of the right things that turn out to be just as bad or worse that the disease they’re supposedly fixing.

        Lake City is a PERFECT example. “Urban village” — whoo hoo, I want one! But they tore out the ACTUAL villagey part, and built some condos on top of a parking garage with a thin strip of worthless retail space along the front edge. URBAN VILLAGE!DENSITY! Except it actually increases driving pressure. Walk? To where? You can’t even walk to the damn Fred Meyer — it’s a major project just to get across the busy highway.

      9. “It’s not the housing that is crapping on Lake City — it’s the three-inch-deep retail spaces, because they built a parking garage on that level.”

        That’s not urbanism, that’s an oversized parking requirement that detracts from urbanism. You may be right about wide vs deep storefronts. Although some spaces around 1st & Virginia seem excessively narrow and deep… bars that have to put the counter lengthwise and can barely squeeze a walking aisle next to it.

        I don’t know if the garage size is due to the developers or financiers, but I suspect they were just following the zoning law. The law has been relaxed a little bit, but those buildings went up several years ago.

    1. This town is getting bigger, and it’s not going to wait for your say-so. We have a choice to make: build up, or build out? Either way, it’s not going to remain the Seattle you’re used to. Either the city will die as the metro region expands its sprawling boundaries, spewing single-family homes farther into the mountains, or our downtown core will get bigger and the city will thrive.

    2. One could say the same of those who lament the fact that Seattle’s infrastructure isn’t more like Europe’s.

    3. Cities should be all commerce and no parks? You are nuts! Even Manhattan has a huge park. Parks are the release valve for city dwellers. Commerce is great, we all need to eat and wear clothes etc, but that’s not the sum total of life’s existence. If you want people to live in the city, you need places for them to play.

      That’s why I favor opening up the waterfront to waterfront uses, like hand launched boats. You could keep a kayak in an apartment across the street, if you had access to the water.

      1. Seattle has proportionally far more park space than New York already. There are massive parks all over the city. What New York does not have is a gigantic new park plopped down in the middle of its commercial center.

        Central Park when it was built was, despite its name, out in the country. There was development creeping up the avenues, but nothing remotely resembling the Upper West or East Sides existed then. The city was downtown. They didn’t put their giant new park downtown.

        Central Park is about as far from the Empire State Building as Volunteer Park is from the Pike Place Market. Wall Street is about as far as Mercer Island.

      2. Urban parks and the huge parks we have on the periphery of our city are completely different things. Discovery Park and Seward Park and Carkeek Park are wonderful places to experience nature. However, they are destination parks. You go to them if you have a few extra hours to drive out there and hike around. Urban parks, and, more specifically, the Waterfront Plaza, would rather be places for respite in the middle of the bustling city. On your way from Westlake to the Ferry Terminal, you might stop and sit for a few minutes, or you might go there to eat during your lunch break. Urban parks are extremely important for quality of life, as they provide space that is calmer than the rest of the city, even if you’ll only be there for a few minutes. And, as I say in my post at the bottom of the page, lots of places have lots of this kind of park, and they can be very successful.

      3. Good “city” parks are *surrounded* by small-scale retail. Look at Millenium Park in Chicago.

        Central Park in Manhattan is only a partial exception, and to be fair, it’s a destination park more than a city park.

      4. You know, Seattle has a whole string of waterfront parks already, that nobody knows about and nobody ever goes to. They’re not run by the city, but by the Port. You ever been to Jack Block Park? Terminal 18 Park on Harbor Island? Jack Perry Park at Terminal 30? Any of the lovely parks along the Duwamish on both sides? I’ll bet not, because if you had, I would have seen you, or somebody, when I was there.

        Nice parks. Nobody uses them.

        I’ll bet Seattle’s got more park space already — twice or three times as much in some cases — than any other significant city in the US.

      5. Yeah, and those parks are way out of the way of any urban areas of the city, down in industrial areas, so they are not useful as urban parks. And I’m definitely all in favor of a ton of retail on both sides of Alaskan Way, to help feed the new plaza. It’s absolutely necessary.

  6. “Parks do not make cities. Boulevards do not make cities. Dense blocks of commerce make cities. Commerce, commerce, commerce.”

    When I read this, I picture a high-ranking Chinese government official saying it.

    1. Good one. Although my favorite gem is “The only thing that will ever draw significant numbers of people to the waterfront as waterfront is more water uses, which means boats. There are no boats anymore.”

    2. A Chinese bureaucrat would have said “factories, factories, factories”. China is not a commercial country but an export-driven one.

      Though to be honest I think a row of factories would be much, much more valuable to Seattle than what we’re likely to get. If you thumb your way through an old city directory (I have the 1960), it’s quite incredible how many small businesses are clustered into downtown, not just around the offices but around the small manufacturing businesses, especially in the south of downtown and along the waterfront. Jillions of barber shops, lunchrooms, taverns, men’s clothing shops, cigar stores, and so on, cheek-by-jowl. All that’s gone.

    3. Sam is right. Wide open spaces are not going to attract anything except homeless hanging out. We need more commerce. Technically i do not know what the Seawall will allow as much of the City infrastructure, water, sewer, electrical, gas lines, steam lines run rampant under the surface. the City has to properly (best professional guess) plan for growth and environmental impacts 30 years from now. it is a mess under their now. Add global warming, increased service requirements and now additional commerce i bet it is getting tight and more expensive.

  7. This is a truly brilliant post. Fantastic insights that I fully share.

    I love Seattle not because it is a bunch of houses amidst a forest (that’s Carmel, and I hate Carmel) – it’s because Seattle is a true city, with a vibrant urban culture that is thriving and desires nothing more than to expand and coalesce in a sustainable and sensible fashion. The waterfront project should produce a realistic and usable waterfront, not impose some anti-person fantasy upon it.

    Good citation of Jane Jacobs; the war on cities continues.

  8. I agree with almost nothing in this article. I love cities like New York, Chicago, Paris and Vancouver because they have wonderful, giant urban parks in the middle of, or on the edge of, the downtown. These parks, especially parks along the water, are the jewels that attract people to live in the city. Seattle needs one too.

    1. Well we do have Denny Park, as small as it is. If you’re thinking of something like Stanley Park in Vancouver, Seattle’s own Seward Park is similar in appearance albeit farther away! The problem with these parks is that they’re isolated from businesses and are far outside from any walkable areas in the city

    2. Seattle is never going to have a large urban park on the edges of downtown. The closest to that concept is Freeway Park, which, IMHO, is an underused gem of a park–green, green, green, albeit small. I’d love to see the lid over I-5 extended, thus lengthening that space. Any “park” built along the central warterfront will be a plaza, not a park. Just like Westlake is not a park but a plaza. I actually like the fact that our major parks are out in the neighborhoods.

    3. Stanley Park is not SMACK DAB in the commercial center; neither are any of the other parks you allude to. Seattle’s downtown is incredibly small, and incredibly constrained, by both geography and that OTHER giant highway just to the east (I-5), plus the dead zone of highway interchanges at or just south of the stadiums and the bizarre wasteland of the Regrade.

      Stanley Park is reached from downtown by a stroll down the length of Robson Street, which could be compared to Capitol Hill, i.e., Volunteer Park, or Belltown, i.e. Seattle Center and Denny Park. It’s certainly not plopped down across the middle of the commercial district. If you wanted to build a new park along Pender Street in Vancouver, I think there would be an outcry.

      1. I didn’t allude to any specific parks – just specific cities. But since you brought it up, Central Park, Millenium Park and Lincoln Park are all giant parks located in the core of the downtown or directly adjacent to the downtown.

      2. If you refer to Lincoln park in Chicago it is not downtown. it is 1 mile from the magnificent mile which extends a mile away from the loop (downtown) not quite directly adjacent, it is in a high-rise district however, as the entire north waterfront is beautifully developed with towers. and honestly the parts where the trail is 20 feet wide are just as nice as the parts where it runs through parkland. The urban scene is just awesome.

        I haven’t seen near as many people in lincoln park as just on the lakefront trail.

        I in fact consider the north waterfront to be nicer than hawaii, (obviously a strange personal opinion)nevertheless. Lakefront Trail running North is far nicer than Maui or the big island, maybe better than Honolulu. and TALK ABOUT TRULY BEING SEPARATED BY A HIGHWAY. If you want to see a waterfront SEPARATED from its city, come to Chicago and enjoy Lake Shore Drive’s 8 lane OBSTRUCTION.
        Really, its a beautiful highway, and i’d never call for it to be taken away, but it makes it so that you can only access the lakefront about once per mile or 2 or 3 as a pedestrian. Yet still it is nearly impossible to bike at a reasonable speed on a nice day due to the enormous pedestrian traffic.

        And the south end of the trail is usually empty, why? there is no one living adjacent to it, no high-rises. If you want a lively waterfront, Build high-rises along it, put people RIGHT ON IT and they will come out and FILL IT. Get dense residences against it!

        IT would be wonderful to have tons of shops, but really, those aren’t as necessary as just a DENSE residential district.


        map 2

      3. Millenium Park is fundamentally a retail location.

        Build a park with that level of retail and I think the article writer would be all in favor.

      4. … and those parks make an amazing contribution to the livability of their respective downtowns. If you tried to convert them to commercial development, there would be an outcry.

      5. The arboretum is of similar nature, size, and distance to many of these parks, and is in fact easy to get to from downtown. Seattle has parks, it doesn’t need more on the waterfront, it just needs a good usage policy and dense housing

      6. The Arboretum is not adjacent to downtown, and people who live downtown would never consider the Arboretum as their own urban neighborhood park.

      7. The arboretum is closer to downtown Seattle than Lincoln park is to the Loop, or Central Park to downtown Manhattan.

      8. Lincoln Park is adjacent to downtown Chicago (not just the Loop) – I’ve walked into that park from downtown Chicago. Central Park is obviously in the middle of Manhattan – not to mention all the other parks on the edges like Battery Park and East River Park.

      9. buth they have viable mass transit–its easy, and relatively cheap, to get to central park from downtown by hopping on the subway. What are you going to do, drive to the arboretum? If that weren’t laughable enough, where do you plan on parking?

      10. What are you going to do, drive to the arboretum? If that weren’t laughable enough, where do you plan on parking?

        I don’t really follow your point here. Are you talking about the arboretum in Seattle, and are you being sarcastic? There’s tons of parking at the Arboretum: 125+ spaces at the Japanese Garden lot, 100+ at the Graham Visitors Center, and several other smaller lots. And then there’s all the adjacent street parking. It’s a very car-friendly park, right down to the scenic boulevard running right down its middle.

  9. What exactly is there to love about the viaduct? It’s noisy, it smells, it’s damp underneath it 365 days a year, and separates the downtown from the waterfront. Who in the world would express “love” for the viaduct – and why?

    1. this argument has never made any sense to me: what separates downtown from its waterfront is an enormous grade difference, not an elevated freeway. if anything the elevated freeway allows better pedestrian access between these areas — it’s incredibly easier to walk under traffic than to wait to cross it.

      1. The Viaduct is a beautiful Highway. It’s regular concrete piles create their own space, and it is covered in plants for much of its length, I would compare it to I-90 in Mercer Island, another BEAUTIFUL Freeway.

        Not every part of the city needs to be bathed in sun. Being under the viaduct is a nice place of shade, and it has a tunnel-like feel…. The Viaduct creates its own space.

        The Viaduct has NEVER EVER Stopped me from crossing between the CBD and the Waterfront.
        I do not understand how it divides the city, I agree with the person above, it creates a covered walkway.

        It implies a wall, but has no effects of a wall except visual. and it really is a darn pretty wall at that.

        That said, I am more in favor of building a tunnel, As long as they sell the land off under the viaduct to pay for it. and build more transit as part of the project, streetcars, light rail, all of it!

        (with immediate land sales, and future tax revenue from the highrises it would generate).

        Why not attach a second transit tunnel to it so we can have our westside Light rail!

    2. I had some more on the viaduct in my first draft, but Martin persuaded me to cut it out — off topic. I wanted to talk about what replaces it, not how lovely I think it is now.

      A viaduct with noise-reduction pavement (such a thing exists) instead of a three-inch-high ridge every twenty feet wouldn’t be as noisy.

  10. I agree with almost all of these points- and Moon’s idea for turning the waterfront back to nature is silly to the extreme.

  11. i’m strongly with you on most of you’re thoughts.

    but do you honestly think new urbanists are proposing building celebration florida in the heart of downtown seattle complete with quaint 2 story clapboard buildings? please. the new urbanists are quite involved with this project pushing to have the viaduct removed and make the waterfront more urban. it is pure new urbanist thinking to build buildings housing commerce rather than add yet more parks, as you suggest as if its some original idea.

    i dont understand people who slam new urbanism then suggest in detail everything new urbanism is about. believe it or not, new urbanism is actually a lot more than seaside, celebration and kentlands.

    i would bet good money most of the design proposals for this waterfront public space will be more in the vein of the trendy olympic sculpture park and the high line, designed as landscape urbanism complete with sloping ground planes and overgrown ‘natural styled’ areas roped off.

    1. The problem with this argument is the evidence. New Urbanists talk a good game, but when push comes to shove they build new suburbs with nothing different from old suburbs except the faux decor and cheesy “Victorian” street lamps.

      Seattle’s approach to fostering bustling neighborhoods has never extended beyond banners on light poles. West Edge! Whoo hoo!

      1. thats the myth, not the reality.

        have you heard of HOPE VI? that is heavily centered on new urbanism

        theres a lot more to new urbanism than the historic architectural styles. its a shame you dismiss the content of the book just because you dont like the cover jacket design.

        “victorian” street lamps are everywhere, they are hardly exclusive of new urbanist communities.

      2. That is completely a myth. You probably never hear of the infill New Urban projects because they are just that, they fit in so well with the environment that they never get mentioned as different. South Lake Union is New Urbanist, so is the Pearl District. But you never hear about them because they aren’t what everyone talks about in terms of major projects. It’s also heavily dependent on the Market and what developers want. It’s not all the same architecture either. I’m kind of tired of the stereotype actually. It’s quite annoying.

  12. I don’t see the either/or in this equation. Why can’t some of the waterfront be forest, while the rest is commercial development. Why can’t we integrate them?

    Seattle has a lot of nature, agreed. That doesn’t mean we have too much. The piers already have plenty of commerce, which means the park next to that commerce will be a lively on, like Cal Anderson. I say we develop a city park, like Olympic Sculpture park, but add some more trees and shops in the mix.

      1. Defend this ridiculous statement, please. A tree downtown attracts somebody to live there instead of in the exurbs, thus preventing development in rural land. How is that hard to get? Most people (clearly you are an exception) do not want to live in a place that doesn’t have trees. They are one of the easiest ways to create a high quality of life in the city, and the presence of trees and parks is one of the main reasons people choose to live in suburbs. Seattle has one of the lamest tree canopies of any city I have been to.

      2. You can’t attract people away from the exurbs by duplicating the conditions of the exurbs downtown. That’s what density is all about. If you make Seattle like a suburb, you will create suburban densities, and drive prices up, forcing people out to the sticks. That’s what Seattle has been doing for decades already; it’s time to reverse that trend while there still ARE some exurbs to save.

        This is a regional problem, not a city one. People used to fear that we were turning into LA; well, guess what? We ARE LA. The urban area is a hundred miles long now, and as wide; the growth areas are way out in the sticks. Seriously, get in your car and drive out to Marysville or Puyallup; you’ll be AMAZED at the quantity of urban-disaster housing that’s gone in in the past decade. You think the Mercer Mess is bad? Try exiting at the Tulalip Walmart/Home Depot/outlet mall up by Smokey Point on an average day.

        If Seattle doesn’t find a way to increase density INSIDE the city, that development will continue to spread and spread and spread until everything between the border and Centralia, the ridge of the Cascades and the ridge of the Olympics, is filled in with strip malls and shoddy single-family homes. It’s about 3/4 filled in already.

      3. Take downtown Tacoma as another microcosmic example. One of Pierce Transit’s largest transit hubs – commerce street between S 9th and S 11th streets – is grossly underutilized. It is right now a bus station, and only a bus station. It runs along a few parking garages and concrete walls. What if that space – two entire blocks of it on either side (although PT has a bus garage right there, it’s aside from the point) – had storefronts? There isn’t even a newsstand. Pacific avenue near UW-T has the right idea, but has tough transit access, and – surprise! – the sidewalk is buffered by an endless row of always-occupied parking spots (free, natch, though not for much longer). Other parts of downtown tacoma suffer exactly the consequences of the boulevard you describe – empty, unoccupied space, unwalkable streets, no business, no people. (Tacoma has its own unique problem set, too, but the city council has made it known that it intends to tackle them sooner rather than later.)

      4. I totally agree with you, but what does this have to do with trees? If building a park allows you to increase real density (not just zoned density) in all the blocks surrounding the park, then you’ve just used trees to create density. You can zone for high density, but who will fill up the apartments or even build the buildings unless you have good quality of life? First Hill, for example, is zoned for higher density than the most dense zip code in the country (in Manhattan)! Do you think it will ever be remotely built out to that level? No. Because not enough people want to live there and developers know it. If First Hill had a beautiful park in it (Freeway Park doesn’t count), then they could build out a lot more density. The areas around Central Park in Manhattan are more dense and generate more tax revenue because the park is there. We could have done that with the Commons and South Lake Union would be a lot more dense than it will probably ever be.

  13. Quote: Seattle has the widest downtown streets of any wanna-be-bustling city in America, much wider than those of Portland, Vancouver or San Francisco.

    Seriously? I always thought downtown Seattle streets were narrow in comparison to most other urban areas. First Avenue? Fifth Avenue? Most JCMSUP Streets? Fourth Avenue may be among the widest but it is certainly narrower than Market Street, SF.

    1. Narrower than Market Street, yes, but Market is THE major thoroughfare. Compare the other streets leading off of it in both directions, like Montgomery, Sutter, etc. They’re canyons compared to Seattle’s streets.

    2. Seattle definitely has overly-wide streets. That’s why we have to do all these road diets. The number of lanes has just been dictated by the width of the road rather than the number that produces a speed amenable to the neighborhood. That’s also why we have lots of useless center turn lanes–it’s just dead space because the road is too wide. This would be a great opportunity to widen sidewalks throughout the city if they had the money and will to do it.

    3. Seattle does not have wider streets than other American cities; it has narrower.

      Look south of Market in San Francisco. The streets are as wide as Seattle’s.

      Seattle has only two six-lane boulevards: Aurora and 15th NW. Other cities have more.

      Have you seen the one-lane streets in north Seattle, where you have to move into a parking space if an oncoming car is coming?

      1. I’m talking about downtown, not residential neighborhoods.

        And you’re just wrong about SOMA; the streets there are narrower than Seattle’s. They are; go look at them again. Except for Western, which is narrower. They also have stuff on both sides; in much of our downtown, we don’t.

      2. Have you been to Philadelphia? Most of Philadelphia’s downtown streets are 2 lane streets which each lane barely wide enough to fit a car. The only two major exceptions to this are Market and Broad Sts.

        What Seattle needs to do with those one-lane streets in North Seattle (and in every other neighborhood) is make them one-way. It still baffles me to this day why that hasn’t happened yet.

  14. HEY. Hey now.

    Say what you want about Boston’s Government Center (the second picture in section 2 with the awesome futuristic-looking City Hall building). I know a lot of people don’t like the vast empty space (except when they use it for free summer concerts, or Santa’s Workshop, or skateboarding championships, or plenty of other events where a large open central-downtown space is suddenly a great thing).

    But there’s one thing in that picture that Seattle could certainly use a lot more of. That zigurrat shaped bump at the bottom right? That’s a subway station — probably Boston’s busiest, in fact.

    Also, turn 80 degrees to the left and there’s a row of shops. Turn 180 degrees and there’s a busy 3-way intersection. Zoom beyond City Hall to what’s across the street — busy, bustling Fanueil Hall Marketplace and Quincy Market.

    Poor example, Steve. The plaza has a place in the city. It just shouldn’t replace every other city block. And for the record, Government Center didn’t replace a block of dense buildings — it replaced — wait for it — a huge intersection of BOULEVARDS!


    1. I know a few architects willing to step out on a limb to defend Kallmann McKinnell & Wood’s Boston City Hall (or at least its theoretical underpinnings).

      But this is the first time in my entire life I’ve seen anyone defend the brick desert that is City Hall Plaza.

      Oh, and Scollay Square contained nothing of the sort.
      Plotted in the early 19th century, it predated Haussmann and the very concept of the modern boulevard.

      1. Thanks. City Hall Plaza is the absolute watchword for urban renewal done wrong. Those shops? They’re about a mile from anywhere else.

        I am intimately familiar with the place; I lived in Boston for five years. It was ten times worse than the Central Artery they tore down; at least the highway protected you somewhat from the wind and the rain. The plaza is an unmitigated disaster, and destroyed one of the most exciting neighborhoods in the country.

        City Hall has won competitions for “the ugliest building in the world”.

      2. When I lived on the Green Line in Boston, Government Center was either a chore of a transfer stop when going home from Logan airport, or a chore of a transfer stop to go the Aquarium or North End. It was never a destination, never a pleasure, and it certainly never inspired. Combine City Hall Plaza with the horrific “West End” near Science Park, and a third of downtown Boston is an utter waste of both time and aesthetic consideration. Granted,and thankfully, the other two-thirds is so lovely that City Hall can be safely ignored. Thank God for Beacon Hill, Park St, Downtown Crossing, the Common, and Back Bay!

      3. Really? How long exactly are your miles? I use the old 5,280 foot definition. Apparently yours are much shorter than that.,-71.056416&sspn=0.005748,0.008154&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=&ll=42.360359,-71.058283&spn=0.005748,0.012242&t=h&z=17

        Note the flurry of activity happening in this terrible travesty of a plaza in the Google aerial image. I gotta say, this talk of “failure” falls flat.

      4. Flurry of activity? More like a handful of people lined up at temporary booths. Looks like a poorly attended event to me.

        Sorry, but I don’t think anyone wakes up and says, “Today I think I’ll hang out on a square mile of concrete.” (And yes, I realize it’s not actually a square mile.)

      5. I don’t think you’re really seeing that plaza for what it is. Look how vast it is. Yes, that aerial photo, which was taken in the middle of a summer day during some kind of special event, shows a fair number of people milling about. But I guarantee that if you divide that number by the square footage of that awful footprint, Government Center has the lowest density of humans by far of any part of downtown. Even at its peak use, it’s practically empty. Compared to what it used to be, it’s the moon. And check it in February sometime.

        Seriously, this isn’t news. Many books have been written about the destruction of Scollay Square and the travesty of that plaza. It’s FAMOUS for being horrible; it is the MOST horrible. As d.p. says, I’ve never heard anyone defend it before.





        Quote: “There is no square as bleak and horrible as this one.”

      6. I’m still looking at Keith cross-eyed for defending City Hall Plaza, but there is an interesting corollary to the point he’s attempting:

        By the standards of ultra-dense Boston, City Hall Plaza seems vast and imposing and terribly out of scale, even though it’s never more than 450 feet across in any direction.

        Not-particularly-dense downtown Seattle has holes in the ground nearly as big: [link removed; too long]

      7. Even better example:

        Our subway staging area is literally as big as City Hall Plaza! Incredibl(y stupid) but true!
        [link removed; too long]

      8. Sigh. That’s incredibly depressing. The first picture, especially — not just the obvious hole, but the less-obvious, but much worse (because finished) holes surrounding the other buildings — Columbia Center Death Star Plazas, the profoundly horrible missed opportunity of City Hall, the WTF stupidity of the County building, all the way up to the jail — it’s a moonscape of garbage space.

        I think that’s the key to my argument over Boston Common and how far away Park Street is from downtown; it’s not really about inches and feet, it’s about urban scale. Central Boston packs stuff in tightly together, in large part because of the limitations of its street grid, which really precludes the kind of mega-block development Seattle’s always been addicted to. It seems like you’re not allowed to build anything in Seattle that doesn’t take up an entire city block. And every block that gets built returns AT BEST 15% of its streetscape to the city.

        How did we forget how to do this right? The people who built the Colman Building weren’t any smarter or more ethical than developers and planners today.

      9. My father (an architect with no shortage of nostalgia for the city-building of old) has said that, regrettably, current American building codes, regulatory hurdles, accessibility requirements, and economies of scale make small-scale urban construction projects of any character and quality financially infeasible.

        If that’s an immutable reality, it’s even more depressing.

        Re: my second example:

        I’ve long thought it was crazy serve Broadway’s busiest intersection with a subway station that required tearing down most of the area. It’s just pulling dirt out of the earth, the quantity of which is limited at any given moment by the width of the tunnel-borer. Did they really need multiple square blocks? Or is the purpose to give themselves room for a gigantic “showpiece” station?

        But I’m shocked to realize the staging area is equivalent to City Hall Plaza, which has three separate subway stops (Government Center, State Street, Haymarket) on its periphery. We need that much space to build one?

        “It’s not really about inches and feet, it’s about urban scale.”

        Absolutely agreed. But that urban scale is about inches and feet, inasmuch as human walking speed remains the same. If you accept, say, Belltown or First Hill as “dense enough” (despite both being far less dense than their equivalents in many other cities), there will never be enough stuff within walking distance to put the feet on the ground.

        (Same goes for block-long subway stations that take 2 minutes just to enter.)

      10. First Hill is plenty dense, but has virtually no retail space — some blocks of Madison, a couple of feet of Boren, and not much else. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live there in one of those fantastic old residential buildings but with no services. Remember the Red Apple? There’s the QFC but that’s a long hike up a steep hill.

        I fear that First Hill is the future — huge complexes and campuses like the hospitals, that are technically urban — they’re in the city grid — but with no street presence, and the people who work in them have only the godawful cafeteria somewhere in the bowels to hang out at.

        Does the new Gates Foundation complex have an internal cafeteria? I’ll bet it does. It seems like it would take you a half-hour to get all the way out of that complex and into the neighborhood, so who’s going to bother? What a tragic lost opportunity that place is. It’s a giant FU to the whole idea of the city.

        The thing about inches and feet is that street attractants both lengthen and shorten them — you will psychologically walk farther along them because they stimulate the interest, and yet you generally need to walk shorter distances to meet your needs. Our dead streets were designed to be dead; Boston’s weren’t.

      11. “The thing about inches and feet is that street attractants both lengthen and shorten them.”

        Very true, and well put. A ten-minute nighttime walk down a desolate Ballard side-street (whose streetlights completely miss the sidewalk) can feel interminable, and is one reason the demand for one-seat bus rides (less frequent but closer to home) persists in here. The same ten-minute journey along a dense and landmark-filled stretch of a real city flies by.

        [link removed, too long]

        Unfortunately, even the “fantastic old residential building” areas of a place like First Hill aren’t all that dense. The buildings are low and wide and fall surprisingly short of the saturation-density necessary to psychologically maintain the streetscape. Add to that the high street-width to block-size ratio (which you have already addressed), and there’s a seemingly insoluble problem.

        Here’s triple-decker Cambridgeport, at the exact same scale as the First Hill image:

        [link removed, too long]

        Note how much more of the land area is covered by actual built space than on First Hill.

        We may be saying the same thing using opposing language. You say that inches and feet don’t matter as long as there are enough street attractants. I think that, in a situation where the excessive inches of road width and habitual placement of many feet between buildings may prohibit the infill of attractants unless we start acknowledge and measure the travel distances we ask of people.

  15. Simple solution: The city sells off the current land under the viaduct (which I assume they own) to a developer or two. These blocks are then built up with some housing/office/retail (but low enough of course to protect the views from the bluff). The East side becomes a nice, narrow alley with some cool shipping-dock-to-urban-cafe that everyone loves so much in Vancouver and Portland. The West side (Alaskan Way) perhaps gets narrowed with nice wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and ample crosswalks.

    Throw in some natural shoreline restoration, a little beach for canoe and kayak launches. And maybe a small plaza space or two, at the end of the harbor steps, or near PS with a few of the pillars from the viaduct still standing.

    The best part of this is, the city pays for all the additional amenities through selling off the land. Its one of those win-win-wins we all like.

  16. I totally disagree with the premise of this post.

    Spending $4.2 Billion of local and state taxpayer taxes on a project only to turn over the recovered land to the developers so they can make a personal profit is poor governance at best, and smacks of outright malfeasance at worst.

    Want to see what a developed waterfront would look like? Look at the section between about Piers 60/61 and the POS offices – sterile, dead, and heavily impacted by the location of Alaskan Way which is pushed right up against the sidewalk. It’s horrible urban planning.

    Folks, we are not talking about a lot of land here. Once you build the “Surface” part of the DBT project you’re not left with much. Turning what little is left over for large scale development would be a crime.

    And, contrary to what has been said on this post, there are not a lot of parks in DT Seattle. It actually is one or our current failings.

    Yes, density is good, but you don’t need to achieve density at the expense of every piece of open space. Great cities have density adjacent to public/open space. We should develop the upslope part of downtown, preserve the waterfront/seawall, and have at least SOME open space in between.

    Just my two cents worth.

  17. Baltimore’s inner harbor seems to be a highly successful waterfront redevelopment. What lessons could Seattle learn from Baltimore’s success that in turn could be applied to its own waterfront redevelopment? I’m not suggesting being copycats, just that it’s good to look at success stories (and failures) to help guide future planning & development decisions.

  18. I think this is much ado about very little. The viaduct takes up somewhere between 50 and 60 feet (it varies depending on how many lanes) which isn’t much space for anything interesting. We don’t have to _do_ anything to it. 50 feet of whatever’s there isn’t going to be any more of a barrier than what’s currently there.

    The one exception is the segment behind pike place, which takes up more like 100ft (since it does side-by-side). Just throw in a little market plaza to connect it to pike place or something and you’re done.

    1. Good point Stephen. Throw in a street car, cycle track and wider sidewalks and there won’t be much of that 50-60ft going to waste. This whole rant seems to be inspired by one unfortunate graphic that is not likely to resemble the actual plans but I guess we will see what they come up with.

    2. Completely agree with Stephen, we’re not talking about a lot of space. The Viaduct is already up against several buildings at the south end, I am sure they will be redeveloped into thriving commercial and residential communities once they are allowed room to breathe.

      1. Yeah we could have retail all along the east side of Alaskan Way in the ground floor of all those old buildings. And extending a couple blocks east from the viaduct down in Pioneer Square are a ton of old warehouses that are just begging to be turned into hipster lofts.

  19. Welcome to STB Fnarf. Stick around a bit, I don’t get around to the SLOG that much these days.

    I agree with most of what you’re saying, although I think you’re a bit rough on the new urbanists.

    To get a different perspective on things, people should check out the Moonwalk and Woldenberg Park in the Quarter. The Moonwalk while small is awesome, I have spent many an hour laying on the broad steps leading down to the river after a late night coffee at the Café du Monde and the obligatory stop at Sidewalk Astronomy*.

    Woldenberg Park… eh kinda sketch, I don’t go there at night.

    * Seattle needs more nightlife like this.

  20. Making a place open to development does not make said development magically manifest, nor does it make a destination. For every successful commerce-oriented redevelopment you point to, I can point to many more massive failures where “commerce, commerce, commerce” was the goal.

    More than that, the psychological barrier presented by the viaduct is far more detrimental than anything a boulevard would present, especially one that has traffic lights, trees and a variety of pedestrian-oriented amenities.

    1. Oh! And let’s not forget that there is already commerce and ample destinations down there on the waterfront. They’re just blotted out by a large grim-looking specter of a viaduct. Tens of thousands hop off and on the ferries, there are tons of shops, excursions and more down there.

      This all seems like a sneaky way to force commerce to gain a stronger foothold in this city in a place they’ve already run roughshod

      1. Seattle has less commercial activity downtown — streetfront store activity — than any comparable city I can think of. Maybe San Jose or Phoenix.

      2. Well, I’m sorry, I don’t have any actual numbers. I’m a walking-around guy. But I’ve walked every block in downtown many times, and what I see is a paucity of retail spaces compared to other cities or even this same city fifty years ago, and most importantly of all compared to what could be done. Not every skyscraper downtown replaced something awesome, but it is absolutely true that every major skyscraper project in Seattle over the last fifty years has given us woeful street spaces.

    2. This “psychological barrier” would be replaced by a geographic one. You realize that at Pike street, 1st Ave is seven stories above Alaskan Way, with no thoroughfare – pedestrian or otherwise – connecting them.

      1. Also, 1st & Pike down to Alaskan is 100 feet, which is more like 8-10 stories. For much of Downtown, I think the grade (~14% in this case) is more of a barrier than the viaduct is. Actually, I think the grade is why the viaduct is a barrier: when you’re looking down from 1st you usually don’t see the walkable area under the viaduct, you just see a hulk of concrete with cars whizzing by; to the mind, it looks like an obstruction. Personally, I’d like to see more visualizations of what the new waterfront will look like from Downtown, not from some hot-air balloon above the Sculpture Park. If we’re doing this to get rid of a barrier (psychological or otherwise) between Downtown and the waterfront, shouldn’t we see drawings of how it will look from Downtown?

      2. I think the view from downtown Might lose awesomeness without the viaduct. It helps create the space of downtown. It gives it a “picture frame” and the loss of that seems like it would be excessive bright-openness and light,
        to be fair to you all, this is coming from the person who thinks hanging out on the lower, and lower-lower streets of chicago is awesome or under the EL. Darkness as it relates to being under something with artificial light doesn’t scare me or bother me one bit.

  21. You rock [Fnarf]. I agree with every word you say, except the bit about how wonderful the Viaduct is (see [Beavis]’s comment) and New Urbanists. But then I’m not even sure I know what a New Urbanist is (isn’t it us, that think the best way forward is density?).

    Oh, and my view of the #1 factor killing cities? Fire engines. Since their invention they’ve become bigger and bigger, and land use codes change accordingly in the name of safety. I LOVE my little one-lane Queen Anne street as well as Pike Place, but there’s no way anyone would let us build a street like that anymore because the massive fire trucks can’t get through.

    Now, how do we get started on your vision? The only way is to make the state choose. You get one highway – if you choose to put it underground, then the street is ours. Zone the area to match nearby building heights, plat out the land with tiny non-linear streets, and require 80% of streetfront space to be <20' storefronts.

  22. Fnarf (Steve Thornton? Really?),

    You’ve lived here long enough to know that everything about Seattle is sui generis. Everything that is familiar to Seattleites is the only way that things can be done here, ever. Looking elsewhere for examples, ideas, and practical evidence is superfluous!

    How dare you impugn our “giant block-long blank walls?”


    I can’t imagine anything more stimulating than walking by that for two full minutes!

    And don’t lecture us about creating density…

    We obviously know what we’re doing!

    All of our new buildings have delightful courtyards and inviting “pocket parks” on the way to the three foyers we make you pass through to reach any retail. Haven’t you noticed how frequently all of these spaces get used?

      1. Mercifully little of what you see in the former image. (And what does exist of it is widely acknowledged as problematic.)

        And none of what you see in the latter image. Seriously, your coast has ruined the very word “townhouse” with your ridiculous garage-straddling vertical pillboxes nowhere near anything that feels like a “town!”

      2. Thank you, Anc. I was indeed already aware of that. Zed seems to err on the side of “as it is here, it must be no better anywhere” (as he does with Metro).

      3. I agree with your more general point, but if I might say a few words in defense of cookie-cutter “townhomes”.

        The Boston area does in fact have vast quantities of housing not too dissimilar to these. They’re not downtown, of course, but neither are ours. They call them “three-deckers”, and after a hundred years of hindsight everyone agrees they’re charming, now, but in the past they were subject to the same criticisms as our ugly new garage-straddlers.

        The simple fact is, aesthetics don’t matter. Everybody, especially architects, hates to hear that, but it’s true. The wave of townhouses from the last decade is already starting to recede into the background as we get used to them. As far as ugly goes, they’ve got NOTHING on the blocks and blocks of “dingbat” apartments in Ballard (4-6 units balanced on poles over front parking), or the gazillion hideous 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s apartment houses all over the city. You don’t see those anymore, even when you drive right past them, because you’ve gotten used to them.

        Aesthetic discussions in an urban context always devolve into intensely insignificant discussions about carriage lamps and paint palettes and so on. These things don’t matter. Getting people on the street matters.

        The hard part is making sure that street exists. In Seattle, it all too often doesn’t, not nearby.

        But this is more about neighborhoods than downtowns.

      4. If something looks bad, it looks like people don’t care about it, and if something looks like no one cares about it, it will help contribute to the decline of neighborhoods. A blank wall will get far more graffiti than a wall with a mural on it, simply because people are much less likely to vandalize something that people obviously are taking care of. In a different situation, people down in Pioneer Square were able to make the whole Nord Alley feel much nicer and safer just by cleaning up the back of one building, putting potted plants in the windows, and setting a table and chairs out in the alley. Bad architecture makes people think that the neighborhood has no soul, that people are just in the neighborhood, but they’re not really a part of it, and after a lot of it, home values start going down and vandalism picks up. On the contrary, unique, quality architecture gives neighborhoods their identity and contributes to create vibrant streets.

      5. Hmm… You’re right that the design-by-zoning-code-advantage-maximizing-algorithm “townhomes” aren’t any more of an aesthetic atrocity than Ballard’s (or worse, Fremont’s) 1970s buildings. But their inward-facing architecture is just as hostile to the street frontage that makes or breaks an area’s walkability.

        And I can’t for the life of me figure out why so many of them have been built, on such small lots, yet their residents remain so far from services, transit, or anywhere they ever need to be!

        Somerville, Mass., with its end-to-end triple-deckers, squeezes 74,000 people into a mere 4.2 square miles, supporting 3 or 4 major commercial squares and a dozen smaller ones, and amounting to one of the country’s densest municipalities. All with consistent street frontage on hundreds and hundreds of tiny streets. There are many objective criteria by which early 20th century triple-deckers clearly best early 21th century so-called townhomes for dense and effective urbanism.

      6. “And I can’t for the life of me figure out why so many of them have been built, on such small lots, yet their residents remain so far from services, transit, or anywhere they ever need to be!”

        Because the developer planned to get RICH!!! selling each unit for what he bought the entire property for.

      7. As Fnarf writes, “the people who built the Colman Building weren’t any smarter or more ethical than developers and planners today.”

        Analogously, the builders of dense, multifamily housing in other cities were looking to get rich too. But they managed to wind up putting a lot of people really near things! The Seattle-style “townhomes” manage to achieve a mathematical “density” but do nothing of the sort!

  23. It actually is important to have large parks near city centers. Manhattan would be a failure without Central Park–it would be soulless and a lot fewer people would want to live there. Most of us actually need nature in our lives and if we want people to live without cars that means bringing nature into the city or sending transit to the parks. Seattle does not have enough parks, contrary to this post. We have a scattering of decent parks way out on the periphery that are very hard to reach without a car.

    This is why the decision of Seattle voters to turn down the commons will go down as one of the worst decisions in our city’s history. That could have been our Central Park. Much like Stanley Park it would have been on the edge of downtown rather than the center (which I agree should focus on commerce).

    I agree the waterfront should be shops and smaller roads. Maybe there’s room to pack a road in each direction with small buildings in between? That area has Myrtle Edwards Park nearby, so open space is not really a priority. Like you say, commerce is much more important for the waterfront.

    In general you are right about this specific case, but you are totally wrong about parks. Great cities have great parks. Parks may not produce tax revenue, but they raise values in the whole city enough to more than make up the difference, and they draw residents from the suburbs to move here. You are also only right huge. Go to Shattuck in Berkeley where you have a nice wide boulevard with trees in the middle and two lanes in each direction. People cross it all the time, ignoring crosswalks, and people even sit in the median to eat lunch. It is actually very pleasant. More than 2 lanes in each direction is what creates a barrier.

    1. We already have Seward, Discovery, Lincoln, Camp Long, Magnuson, Myrtle Edwards, exactly how many more large parks do we need?

      1. You mentioned a number of out-of-the-way parks that everyone drives to, and completely neglected to mention Cal Anderson park, which is right in the midst of the bustle of Capitol Hill and a much more utilized and pleasant space.

      2. With the exception of Myrtle Edwards, which is also well-utilized. I know, because I go there a lot since I can walk there.

        Gigantic parks like Discovery out in Magnolia where if you’re lucky you’ll only wait half an hour for a bus are a waste of space. Smaller parks where the people are are what you want.

      3. Cal Anderson Park is a perfect example of a great park! It’s not downtown, though, is it? It’s also pretty small. The point is we have large parks that have both active recreation areas and trails through the woods where you can get some respite from the city, but they are very inaccessible unless you have a car and a lot of free time. Compare that to New York or Boston, or even Portland, where public rapid transit can take you to major parks at any time. We don’t have that here, and it’s a shame. I guarantee it leads to greater car use and ownership. Our transit in general is too focused on getting people to and from work and not enough on recreation, shopping, and other daily activities.

      4. None of those parks are in the city center. Great cities have great parks in their city centers. Seattle shouldn’t lose the opportunity just because we want to let a few developers make even more money.

        Let the developers in-fill with developments on all those pay parking lots instead — the waterfront belongs to the people and with the people it should stay.

      5. As I said earlier, it wouldn’t be a park as in Central Park at all. It would be a largely paved plaza. It would not be a greensward with grass and trees. Not to say it wouldn’t be a valuable breathing space asset, but let’s not call it a park.

      6. You won’t know until you see the designs, but there are many great parks that have large plaza areas with sufficient tree coverage to make them cool and inviting. A park doesn’t need to be all green space and no plaza space to be successful in either or both roles.

      7. I’m trying to think of a city that has a giant park in its commercial center, but I’m not coming up with anything.

        Boston Common is well to the side of downtown. So is Central Park. So is Golden Gate Park. Hyde Park. Jardin du Luxembourg.

        What cities are you thinking of?

      8. Grant PArk/Millenium Park, Chicago Illinois.

        but that is the only thing that remotely resembles nature in most of Chicago Proper.

        Every SINGLE thing in Chicago is placed where it is on purpose. Down to the very last grassblade, and some days it drives me nuts how there is NO NATURE WHATSOEVER in Chicago.

        Seattle on the other hand has nature abounding. The waterfront doesn’t need it so much, it especially does NOT NEED Manmade Nature. that cheapens the true nature that is outside the CBD.

        If you think our large parks are too hard to get to advocate better transit to them, don’t advocate Crap parks downtown.

      9. Park Street Station — the busiest and most central subway station in Boston — has an entrance literally on the common. If the common isn’t downtown, then where is it?

      10. Park Street is the busiest because it’s THE major transfer station, between the Red Line and four of the Green Lines. I used to transfer there every day, but rarely went up top. It’s way off to the side of the real downtown. Really, it’s not hard to find — look for the tall buildings. About a quarter-mile to the east.

      11. No, it’s really not. For someone who writes rather well about the importance of street-level commerce to central cities, you have a peculiar definition of downtown. Boston’s financial district is as dead as ours after hours, but Downtown Crossing is only 1000′ from Park St. If that’s not street-level commerce in the heart of pedestrian and transit investments, what is?

      12. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Boston, so I think I know where downtown is. :)

        Yes, Park Street (and Downtown Crossing, and State St, and Gov’t Center) is busy because it’s a transfer station, but also because it’s a destination. I went to Loews at the Common (which admittedly is closer to Boylston, but is still right near the Common, as the name suggests) way more often than I went to the financial district. The Orpheum, Downtown Crossing, the playhouses, Newbury St, Chinatown… all of these are in walking distance, if not line-of-sight, from the Common or the Public Garden.

        In comparison, the number of times that I went to the financial district (except on my way to South Station or the Aquarium) was approximately zero.

      13. Also, it’s about 500 feet from Washington/Winter (e.g. the old Filene’s building) to the Common. That’s not even far apart enough for two bus stops.

      14. What do those parks all have in common? They are far from the center and really hard to get to without a car. This is part of the legacy of the Olmsted plan, which was explicitly based on the idea that people would only ever drive to parks, that’s why we have the boulevards connecting many of them. Of course, they also had a robust streetcar system and may have taken it for granted that people without cars could always access the parks.

      15. The Olmstead plan was never finished. If it were, the parks would all have (narrow) boulevards connecting them, and we could have one trolleybus going to all of them.

    2. Fnarf’s rule of boulevards is generally correct, though there are absolutely exceptions.

      I’ve been lucky enough to live on,_Boston in my lifetime. As both a boulevard and a linear park, it is exceedingly well-used, successful urban space. It draws not just residents from the Back Bay’s denser streets and shoppers needing a respite from Newbury Street’s bourgeois overload, but also functions as a major all-weather pedestrian travel route.

      Brooklyn’s similar but far less ritzy works this way as well, despite lacking the wide and serene median.

      A linear park can work as a real transportation choice as well, but is subject to context. The waterfront doesn’t run between destinations (but rather parallel to them), so a linear park would be unsuccessful here. Ditto, which makes a good destination but is too far west to function as a mobility aid. Paris’s analogousée, on the other hand, is heavily used by commuters!

      1. I consider downtown to include Back Bay at least as far west as Copley or possibly Hynes/ICA. Sure Comm Ave is residential-boulevardish, but it’s pretty centralized.

      2. Yeah, the core of our Waterfront is about as far from Westlake (what I consider the core of our Downtown) as the southern edge of Central Park is from Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan. However, I would consider Central Park and Boston Common (and others) a whole different class of park; they are a centerpiece park, that, although it’s in the very center of the city, are so huge that they also become a destination.

      3. The Common is 50 acres, about the size of Volunteer Park. Central Park is 843 acres. The two are hardly in the same class.

        It’s precisely because the Common is so small — and because of the street vendors and near-constant activity inside — that its central location isn’t the obstacle that it could be. The relative lack of trees (and I say this as someone who really likes trees) also helps, since you can easily see one side of the park from the other.

      4. Does that 50 acres include the Public Garden which is just across the street? And just beyond that is the linear Commonwealth Avenue Mall. I consider both of those parks to be in downtown Boston.

      5. The Public Garden is another 24 acres.

        I don’t know how big the Comm Ave Mall is, but it doesn’t break up the urban fabric in nearly the same way as a regular park, and it certainly doesn’t have even close to the same impact as Central Park.

      6. The point isn’t whether or not they are downtown, but whether or not they provide a functional as well as a recreational purpose. Do they enhance a journey between two points that people would be making anyway, or are they perceived solely as destinations themselves? Do they enhance the natural flow of the city, or are they a respite from it?

        Comm. Ave., Eastern Parkway, and the Promenade Plantée all succeed as the former.

        The High Line and our hypothetical linear waterfront park are the lesser latter.

      7. Commonweatlh Ave. has fairly narrow road lanes, pretty wide sidewalks, frequent intersections, and a *super-frequent tram line running down the center*. That’s a bit better than your typical boulevard.

      8. Referring to the boulevard/linear park portion (in the Back Bay) for the purposes of this particular comparison.

        The Boston University segment is a commercial and academic avenue, also vibrant but a very different paradigm.

      9. That’s obviously relevant to why the city functions better as a usable urban environment. But I’m not sure it’s relevant to why that particular boulevard & linear park works well and a linear Seattle waterfront park might not. Those are a different set of distinctions.

  24. You make some excellent points. Usefulness and functionality should not be ignored in favor of a pretty green space. But why can’t we have both? Dense, narrow comercial shops & cafes with small parks and courtyards in between or on the periphery? Parks don’t need to be large to be great. Small well designed parks that are located close to shops and food venues are great -and much more useful than a large park seperate from everything. Seattle does have an abundance of parks already and we don’t need a new giant park downtown. But that’s not to say that we can’t include smaller parks and green spaces into a functional civic space like the one you’ve outlined. And let’s not forget roof tops. I think a street full of cool funky shops and cafes topped with rooftop parks and courtyard gardens (and maybe some roof top cafes or an open marketplace) would be pretty cool.

    1. That’s a very good idea. The sort of park with small shops and cafes embedded in it along its entire length…. that would actually be worthwhile.

    2. Small well-designed green spaces can also be used to pre-treat wastewater and grow food. Rooftop spaces in particular make great greenhouse locations, and can even be used for aquaponics. The nice thing here is you can use SMALL spaces for these things. Don’t have to have a bazillion square feet to make it worthwhile.

  25. I think you make some excellent points, Stephen. However, how do you encourage a commercial space where shops serving locals and not just tourists locate there? More Baltimore Inner Harbor than San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf?

    Of all the waterfront cities I’ve spent time in, I think Baltimore probably got it the most right, with the downtown coming right up to the harbor, and a good mix of open space and shops at the harbor. But even that development seems to lose attractiveness in some of the more expansive open spaces, so I see what you’re saying. Fell’s Point down the harbor in Baltimore – a much more organic waterfront, a row of old grungy biker bars that have gone mainstream – seems a more inviting place.

  26. OK, bummer – I see my first comment deleted. Setting that aside I have to commend Thornton for laying out the essential elements that make cities work, albeit with some strong rhetoric at times that maybe competes with the information he presents.

    Economies since humans began to civilize have depended on cities. To this day the worlds economies are not really national, but instead driven by cities.

    He’s right – commerce is essential first, and can be defined broadly to include economic activity, education, the arts, etc – anything that requires human interaction to thrive. An essential ingredient is the randomness and spontaneity that urban settings provide for – where new ideas are generated.

    Even with the internet cities don’t seem to be disappearing, maybe the physical result will be a leveling of the concentration of activity within a city – who knows? Digital communication isn’t really replacing direct human contact – it’s supplementing it.

    Connecting Seattle to the waterfront really shouldn’t be a vast park, let alone still disconnected by a wide boulevard.

    It would be much better to use the great width to drag commerce and activities down to the water’s edge. Use the width to split car/bus/bike/streetcar traffic in two, with another block of buildings housing a variety of human activities in between.

    The waterfront could be a regional entertainment venue – and why not infuse it with substantially more direct waterfront activities? Add a thousand boat slips. Provide space for the services that boaters need. Allow for some level of disheveled and disorganized activities – where chance is fostered.

    Finally, a tree in Seattle does not translate into fewer trees in Orting – there is room for a extraordinary amount of nature and open spaces in Seattle – while still providing for even greater levels of activity and development.

  27. I completely disagree with the vast majority of this post. There is this ridiculous idea that seems to have popped up here that parks and plazas are necessarily bad for the urban environment, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that you mention Manhattan while propogating this myth is particularly ridiculous, as Manhattan is practically the epitome of how urban plazas can work. No, I’m not even talking about Central Park, although I would disagree with your characterization farther up the thread of Central Park is not a downtown park while a Waterfront plaza would be. I’m talking about the incredibly successful 5- or 6-acre urban park-plazas scattered throughout Manhattan. From Bryant Park, right in the very core of Midtown Manhattan, to Madison and Union Squares, in the very-dense-but-not-quite-Downtown areas south of Midtown, to Washington Square Park right there in the heart of the dense, historic Greenwich Village, parks make Manhattan what it is. Manhattan even has a couple great waterfront parks, Battery Park, across the street from the towering Lower Manhattan skyscrapers, and Riverside Park, which has become successful even though it’s on the other side of a freeway from the rest of the island. In Portland, they tore down an elevated riverfront expressway to make way for a vibrant, successful urban park right in Downtown, and in San Francisco they tore down the Embarcadero freeway to create a waterfront boardwalk and boulevard that has won praises around the country and world.

    The opening up of Seattle’s Waterfront provides an incredible opportunity for us to create a vibrant space that everyone can enjoy. Yes, there are some awful, windswept plazas. In fact, there are a lot of awful, windswept plazas. But ours doesn’t have to be that. I listed above a ton of wonderful, vibrant parks in the middle of dense cities, but those are only ones I’ve been to; I’ve heard of tons of them around the world. We have to be careful when we design our Waterfront park that it doesn’t become a windswept plaza, but it is definitely possible. Mix criss-crossing walking paths with lawns, put in fountains and public art, provide plentiful seating, encourage street musicians and street vendors, work on filling the unused piers… the list of things we can do goes on and on. When the project is done, and we have our new park, if we do it right, it can be an incredible asset for ourselves, and for future generations.

    1. The essential ingredients of many of the more successful Manhattan parks you mention include: 1. An extraordinary amount of commercial activity on their edges, 2. Shallow depth of park relative to the adjoining street and 3. Huge numbers of people nearby that can be users of these parks so they are alive most of the time.

      Today, with good design commercial activity can be increased along the edges of Seattle’s waterfront – more to the west, must more to the east. The room to do that will be partly at the expense of the depth of the open space along the shoreline – and that’s OK.

      Huge numbers of users is tougher, since the topography and time impacts daytime users, and there is not yet a fraction of the residential density compared to Manhattan.

      That circumstance is addressed through careful programming – just like a shopping mall or park & ride creates artificial concentrations of people – an appropriate mix of activities can draw people from greater distances.

      1. except nyc parks havent always been successful despite those ingredients. 30 years ago people wouldnt go near bryant park. health of the neighborhood, public space management, safety and park programming are also vital.

      2. Public elevators and escalators would help with the geography, but that’s something I’ve only seen widely deployed in Hong Kong.

      3. There are several now on the waterfront, but you would need more. Something like the Mid-Levels would be awesome though, but you’d have to encourage some serious density to keep them busy during the day.

      4. I heard that Downtown office buildings that span from one avenue to another are required to have escalators and elevators in them open to the public so that people can get up and down Downtown even if they can’t walk up a steep hill.

      5. I don’t believe that’s an absolute requirement, but allowing public access gives a developer some incentive (height? FAR? I don’t remember).

    2. The essence of the waterfront is access. Commerce does not need the shoreline to be successful. Our shipping and fishing no longer unload down at this bit of waterfront. As it stands now, it’s no better than a postcard view vs what it could be. We don’t have to make the park wide, just provide access.

  28. To the person who mentioned Market Street in San Francisco, you have to recognize the reason Market Street is so lively is because it’s fed by tons of narrow, dense, super-vibrant and crowded side streets for miles. And even Market is geared far more towards bicyclists and pedestrians than Seattle’s downtown roads.

    The difference between downtown SF and downtown Seattle is night and day. SF is one of the most vibrant cities in the country, with tons of dense, packed in neighborhoods with narrow, deep storefronts and a true city feel.

    Seattle’s downtown feels like a shell. It lacks the vibrancy and energy of cities like SF and Chicago. The author is spot-on that wide street after wide street downtown is a major reason for this.

    To be honest, and many may disagree, I feel the Ave in the University District is actually the most successful urban environment in the city, in terms of how it’s built and how it *feels*.

    1. Funny you mention Chicago talking about how wide streets don’t work.

      State St. (4 lanes + Center turn), Dearborn St. (4 lanes) Michigan Avenue (6-8 lanes) Illinois St. (4 lanes). Columbus (4-6 lanes)

      As I said earlier, Chicago actually proved that pedestrian malls don’t always work, and that was a case of the pedestrian mall being too wide(state St.), giving the illusion that it was deserted, making it no longer a destination, because people like to go where there are lots of other people!

      Actually, as the vehicular lanes narrow on a street in Chicago, the pedestrian traffic drops off. Take, the transition from columbus to fairbanks for instance, or Rush and St. Clare compared to State, Michigan, and Columbus

      Seattle’s Streets are narrower than Chicago’s, and chicago’s wide streets bring thousands of pedestrians because they carry 10-12-15-18 bus lines on them, and a subway beneath them or above them with commuter train stations no farther than 6 blocks away from most of downtown.

      What those two cities have is Fantastic Transit and DENSE housing.
      That is what makes them busy and vibrant.

      and the biggest or second biggest shopping district in the country doesn’t hurt (N. Michigan Ave.. Magnificent Mile)

      1. Of course, there are wide streets in Chicago (i.e. Congress Pkwy) that suck for pedestrians. As I saw below, street width doesn’t really matter all that much to vibrancy, it’s other things that make a great neighborhood.

      2. And the double-decker Wacker is *definitely* a pedestrian-hostile obstacle in Chicago. Even in the Loop, with subways under and Els over, where pedestrians risk the masses of traffic routinely, the Wacker is intimidating to cross.

    2. Parts of Downtown are dead outside business hours, but much of Downtown Seattle is extremely vibrant all the time, and I love it. The whole area from Stewart to Union or University and from 9th down to 1st is a very successful, exciting urban environment, and it seems like people here aren’t really recognizing that. The core, between 5th and 1st and Pike and Pine, is just about as crowded in the summer as the crowded parts of Market Street in the summer. 1st Ave all the way from Belltown down to Pioneer Square is also quite lively at all times of day.
      And I think people are putting an undue emphasis on street width. Up to about six lanes, it doesn’t really matter how wide the street is, but rather what kinds of things there are going on on the street. If there are sidewalk cafes and street musicians on a wide sidewalk, and there is a row of parked cars and/or a bike lane between the sidewalk and six lanes of traffic, you can still have a great, vibrant street.
      I have done a lot of walking around San Francisco, and I can tell you, there are plenty of streets, wide and narrow, in the Downtown core that are dead. It’s not because they’re wide, it’s because the only thing on them is one door to access the lobby of a massive office building, and nothing else.

      1. i think downtown seattle is very vibrant too. granted downtowns in general arent what they used to be, but seattle’s is definitely among the best in the country in my opinion… retail core, pikes market, belltown, waterfront are real highlights. the downtown seattle office district is just like every other downtown office district in the country other than a higher percentage of starbucks. but office districts are more or less all the same across the country… alive M-F 9-5 and dead all other times. retail is what makes a downtown stand out.

        you can pretty much count on both your hands the US cities that have a downtown retail core left, so even if your city makes that list you deserve commendation. being one of the best and most thriving on that short list, as is the case with seattle, is deserving of even more praise.

      2. Somewhere between 4 lanes and 6 lanes, the two sides of the street get separated into two functionally separate areas which pedestrians cross only rarely. They may both be vibrant, or not, but they’re two separate streets for commerce purposes.

      3. “One door to access the lobby of a massive office building” is in fact the Seattle recipe, not the San Francisco one. I can’t think of a single block in the commercial core of SF that’s like that.

        And your “9th to 1st, Stewart to Union” area contains tons of blank walls and nothingness, and never even approaches the vibrancy of, say, Kearny and Sutter in SF. One reason is, SF isn’t made up of monolithic blocks, but has invariably many different (tall, narrow) buildings along each side of the street. And SF has dozens of little lanes and alleys which have been converted into fantastic usable space. Seattle’s alleys are full of piss and thousand-square-foot roaring HVAC vents.

        Ever been to Melbourne? Their downtown has some REALLY wide streets, but they alternate with both narrow ones (Collins Street has its Little Collins Street next to it, Bourke its Little Bourke, etc.), and the whole is threaded through with a hundred laneways, which are among the most exciting urban spaces in the world. They’re so tight they can’t even get the Google Streetview car down them, but look at this:,144.96608&sspn=0.002971,0.006925&gl=us&ie=UTF8&hq=crepes&hnear=&ll=-37.816438,144.967003&spn=0.005975,0.013851&z=17&layer=c&cbll=-37.816671,144.965446&panoid=ScAmygOzuDzrPnvs6daENA&cbp=12,240.53,,0,4.58

        That’s what I think the waterfront here should look like. And around that enticing corner? A water view. Boom.

      4. Oh, I can’t believe I didn’t include Melbourne in my original diatribe. It has a similarly sized and laid out downtown, similarly confined in its space by other neighborhoods and arterials that trail off at similar angles. And they have a waterfront, which is cut off ten times more thoroughly than ours by a massive railyard. And yet they have FIGURED IT OUT.

        Hell, I should just leave you to it and move there. Sigh.

      5. It’s not a “Seattle recipe,” it’s the “recipe” of a certain time period, and they’re plenty of it in SF as well as Seattle. For instance, this block and there are many more like it, especially around that whole northeast end of downtown. It’s especially bad south of Market up in that area. I’m not saying Downtown SF is bad; in fact, I love a lot of it. But I’m just saying that there are parts of Downtown SF that suck just like there are parts of Downtown Seattle that suck.
        That area does not contain “tons of blank walls and nothingness.” It has some blank walls, just like any part of any city has some blank walls, but they have enough retail and entertainment and destinations around them that even those blocks end up being vibrant.
        SF (along with Melbourne, of course) has done some great things with some Downtown alleys, and I definitely think that’s something we should emulate (we already have one of the most successful ones I’ve ever seen, Post Alley, and we should spread that around the Downtown core).
        But I guess we’re just going to have to agree to disagree about the vibrancy of Downtown Seattle, because I definitely find especially the Westlake-Pike Place area to be just as vibrant as the heart of San Francisco.
        (FWIW, a large train yard appears to separate that part of Melbourne from its riverfront, and although Melbourne looks like a wonderful city that I really would like to visit someday, I don’t think we should try to imitate their waterfront.)

      6. That is just an absolutely absurd statement. The Union Square, Chinatown, Tenderloin, North Beach, etc. area of San Francisco is exponentially more vibrant than Westlake, which feels contrived and bland. SF is a world-class city in terms of street bustle, it is known for its authentic vibrancy and street scene. Almost everyone from Seattle who visits SF talks about how much more exciting and vibrant it is. Its one of the first things that stands out. Not to mention, its nearly 2.5 times denser! In short, SF feels like a real city, Seattle’s downtown feels like an overgrown big town downtown.

        The wide roads play a huge role in that. SF has lots of neighborhoods with narrow streets, that are overflowing with businesses of all kinds, and are geared towrds pedestrians. It also has neighborhoods that run into each other and walkable connector streets that join everything. Seattle has some urban “nodes” but there are dead zones everywhere, with large, often difficult to cross roads hindering access.

      7. In short, SF feels like a real city, Seattle’s downtown feels like an overgrown big town downtown.

        I’m in San Francisco right now and I totally agree. Seattle’s downtown is so dead after 6 pm. There is no comparison.

  29. “Show me where all the food carts are going to go, and tell me how you’re going to fill them with hungry young immigrants looking for a foothold in this economy.”

    Why are you relegating food vendors to the young, hungry and immigrant? I’m not a recent immigrant, nor am I in my 20s. If my desire to enjoy legal status as a street food vendor puts me in common cause with a diverse group, all the better. I think we share the common desire to enjoy our city and share something enjoyable. At present, many aspects that make city living attractive and vibrant are forbidden.

    Weary of Subway = mixed use on the ground floor of yet another block of condos?

    1. Hey, you’re welcome too. The more the merrier. But immigrants do make the best food, particularly street food, and immigrants make CHEAP food, which attracts lots and lots of people. Most importantly of all, downtowns NEED immigrants if they want to be alive, and Seattle is driving its immigrants away as fast as it can. They’re all living in Kent and the far edges of Bothell, because that’s what they can afford. Even in the city, they can’t afford downtown.

      For instance, I think the Ethiopian restaurants up by SU are great — but in a better city they’d be downtown. But they can’t afford downtown rents, because the spaces are (a) huge and (b) brand new. So see if we can get them into carts.

      Or, alternately, if there were some blocks downtown that were divided up into AT LEAST twelve tiny storefronts, maybe they could afford to go in there. But no; instead we get thrilling places like the Elephant & Castle (oh, help me, Jesus):,-122.336707&sspn=0.010199,0.027702&ie=UTF8&hq=elephant+and+castle&hnear=&ll=47.610214,-122.335167&spn=0.010141,0.027702&t=h&z=16&layer=c&cbll=47.610133,-122.335079&panoid=pJUKynat9BOG9xt-Pq1NTw&cbp=12,242.57,,0,4.16

      1. Ok, you’re just showing that there are some places in Downtown Seattle that you don’t like, and extrapolating from that that Downtown Seattle sucks. But maybe also think about this or this or this. I’m not saying all of Downtown Seattle is great, but there are a significant number of places around that are quite vibrant, and it’s only getting better.
        “Immigrants do make the best food” haha what a ridiculous statement. Good cooks make the best food, some of them are immigrants and some have been here forever.
        The Ethiopian restaurants up by SU and up in the CD (there’s like seven between 23rd and MLK on Cherry, I like to call it Little Addis) are part of those neighborhoods. They wouldn’t be Downtown “in a better city,” they’d still cluster around the areas where the Ethiopian immigrants happened to come to when they came to Seattle. They serve a niche market. Also, there happens to be an Ethiopian restaurant Downtown, Pan Africa Restaurant down at 1st and Pike.

      2. Street food is cheap food, but the cuisine can be anything and more importantly, from anywhere. (I represent Bothell. Holla.)

        I think you’re understandably obsessed with specifics (immigrants = the exotic), although you’re on the right track in supporting antidotes to the usual anchor chains (restaurants) that doom new development. Perhaps this promised lack of development is designed to be a give back for what happened to Belltown? More likely, this blank waterfront a la Greenlake is presented in stark terms, to scare the public into begging for more condos and steak houses.

        It would more sense to tear down New Belltown and build mixed-use, mixed-income development right on the water. This would be the kind of social justice Sally Bagshaw pretends to like, with lots of al fresco.

  30. “Enough with the watercolors already, and I don’t care what color the buildings are or what kind of faux brick you’re going to imitate or how awesome the fasteners on the awnings are going to be. Show me instead how wide the storefronts are (25 feet max, with lots of 15s, 10s, even six feet wide spaces (a crepe window, a shoe repair shop). Show me where all the food carts are going to go, and tell me how you’re going to fill them with hungry young immigrants looking for a foothold in this economy.”

    Hear, f’in hear. And me five, or six, or whatever, on the condos. Whatever the street width, people will live here if you build them. Mixed uses will be the key to making this area work.

  31. Okay.

    How about this:

    You can turn all this into a park if it is clothing optional like the Englischer Garten in the middle of Munich. Oh yeah, and has a giant beer garden (2nd largest in the city) just like the one at the Chinesischer Turm.

  32. It’s good to see diverse viewpoints. I disagree with most of Fnarf’s points though. It seems like these changes would have the opposite effect from what he intends. I’m not sure if it’s a misunderstanding of urbanism or what.

    Urbanism is… like Pike/Pine/Broadway, University Way, downtown Ballard. All these neighborhoods have their flaws, but they’re generally walkable places where people can meet most of their daily needs on foot, and frequent/fast transit so they don’t need a car, and where the streets are alive with pedestrians at most hours, and chance encounters with neighbors.

    For instance, one Sunday I went to the Ballard Farmers’ Market but it hadn’t quite opened yet. I went to a cafe/bistro on 24th north of Market and sat at an outdoor table. A middle-aged couple sat next to me, and several times people passed by that they knew, and they said hi and chatted. I thought, “Wow, Ballard is so friendly.”

    “New” Urbanism essentially means the same thing, but is more about retrofitting post-1940s cities. And sometimes they’ve made mistakes. The problem with Redmond Town Center and Bellevue Square is they are private spaces. A private space just isn’t a public plaza or Main Street, no matter how much it’s made up to look like one. Fortunately, Bellevue was smart and built a park next to the mall. Some of the earlier new urbanist islands were retail-only like University Village, but later ones have mixed in housing as they should (Burien, Renton). Some have been totally new cities that have not grown as hoped, because it’s hard to plant a new city when people’s jobs and lives are tied to existing cities. (I don’t think there are any “new city” examples in the northwest.)

    Downtown is a different matter. It’s hard to get that neighborhood feel with skyscrapers. Greenwich Village isn’t in the skyscrapers, it’s adjacent to them. Lower Manhattan has undergone a residential renaissance since 9/11, but that’s exceptional. Vancouver’s downtown is so small that Yaletown and the West End blend seamlessly into it, but they’re still on the edges of it, as are our Belltown, SLU, and Capitol Hill.

    I was in downtown Seattle this morning, and the streets did not feel too big or inhuman. It feels like any North American downtown, and lots of people walking around 5th, Pine, and 3rd. The wide sidewalks are inviting, the three lanes of traffic aren’t excessive, and the buildings come right out to the sidewalk which is another urbanist thing. When I go to other cities, I’m struck at how frequent the boulevards are, and how wide the streets. So it’s ironic to say Seattle has wide streets.

    I don’t know about the waterfront. A park is fine, small-retail is fine, housing is fine, a boulevard is fine. Just add something for locals to go to, not just T-shirt shops for tourists. I’m not worried about an overbuilt, soulless park: people like y’all will make sure it doesn’t happen.

    The most soulless park in Seattle, by the way, is the grassy path over the I-90 tunnel in Mt Baker. That’s the equivalent of the Boston monstrosity pictured in a recent post. Just tell the city council, “Don’t make something like that.”

    Seattle’s waterfront has some inherent disadvantages that preclude it from becoming a Millenium Park or Portland’s riverside park. The steep hillside is a psychological barrier, more so than the viaduct. We’d need several prominent elevators to overcome that, more than the Pike Place parking lot ‘vators. Although they could be leveraged with a nicer landscape at the bottom, a bridge from the most convenient ‘vator to the Market, and more signs in and outside the market pointing to the ‘vators.

    The reason Seattle doesn’t have street stands and carts is not the wide streets, it’s City policy. The rules have been relaxed a little bit (a few hotdog stands outside clubs at night), but you’d need to overturn the policy completely to get stands downtown. And it would be better to have stands in the downtown core than way out on the waterfront where they’re isolated.

    Parks, parks. Seattle voted down a plan for grand parks in the 1930s, and again with the Commons. There’s no other place for a Central Park without massive demolition of productive buildings. A waterfront park would not be a Central Park or Millenium Park even if it took the whole length of the waterfront, because it couldn’t be wide enough without building it over the water.

    1. “I’m not worried about an overbuilt, soulless park: people like y’all will make sure it doesn’t happen. ”

      Wow, you really trust Seattle Transit Blog, don’t you? I’m kind of impressed that the blog has that sort of reputation among even one person….

  33. “every foot of living space in the city that is taken for parks is instantly converted by demand into ten feet of living space in the exurbs”

    There are at least a dozen condo projects in Seattle that are now empty apartment buildings, and more are on the way. And there’s tons of space for infill if/when the need arises. There’s a large development being considered at the stadiums, there’s still the Goodwill warehouse, etc. One more park won’t push people out of the city, and it may even attract them to move in.

    The main reason people live in suburbs/exurbs is they don’t want to live in an inner city, and one more or fewer parks isn’t going to change that. The secondary reason people live in exurbs is they want a detached house with 1500+ sq ft and yard under a certain price. They aren’t going to find that in the city, no matter how many empty condos are waiting for them.

    The only thing that will cause a massive exodus from the exurbs (and misery for those who can’t move) is high oil prices. But the best option in that case (and the one that would most satisfy the people who have to move) is to build islands of urbanity in the suburban downtowns — as every suburb is doing anyway. That’ll give them the smaller town they want but not guzzle as much fuel as they’re using in the exurbs. Seattle can’t fit 3.2 million people in any case, not unless you turn it completely into Manhattan. And Seattlites will never vote for that, not until peak oil is manifest. But again, Manhattan isn’t necessary, and maybe not desirable. The inner suburbs can build some highrises like New Westminster and absorb the exurbanites.

    1. People live in the exurbs b/c they believe it makes the most sense for them to do so. And it isn’t just subsidized oil that helps them come to this conclusion, but a host of other government interferences in the market that have been pointed out multiple times here. Not to mention outright ignorance.

      Lets start removing market restrictions in the inner city (zoning laws, etc) and subsidies for the exurbs (gasoline, roads, utilities, etc.) and then will start to see what people really ‘want’.

    2. Leaving aside the question of the economic slump, which is in origin a housing slump, and which renders this entire discussion moot if it continues, most of those empty condo towers are just that: towers. I am not a fan of towers, except for extremely narrow ones that create variety and interest on the street level (which is the only level that matters AT ALL). If you think I’m advocating for more tall condo towers, then I must not be explaining myself very well.

      You can, and should, create incredible urban densities with four-story buildings. Downtown, those buildings should have a multiplicity of narrow storefronts along the street edge, which should be close to the OTHER street edge on the other side of the street. The blocks should be short, with lots of intersections, each one of which creates an exponential increase in possible routes (not arithmetical).

      This is basic Jane Jacobs geographical math. It doesn’t mean “turning Seattle into Manhattan”, it means creating human-scaled but close quarters.

      I’m appalled that people think I’m advocating for towers. Towers are oppressive. Vibrant cities are the opposite of oppressive, they are warm and friendly and EXpressive.

    3. Anc– good point about the subsidies.

      Fnarf– The housing slump proved that we aren’t running out of houses after all. The “shortage” was fake; the flippers were counted as bona fide houselholds when they weren’t. Nevertheless, I think the three counties are still predicting a million new people over the next few decades because people still want to move here. So we have some breathing room for a few years but Seattle is going to have to absorb 300,000 new people to prevent them from going to sprawlsville — we agree on that. (And Bellevue, Tacoma, Lynnwood, and Everett also have to absorb a significant number, and the smaller suburbs their portion. The other cities have to grow up; Seattle can’t do it all.) But the new housing doesn’t have to be on the waterfront; we’re not that desperate. We just have to encourage the existing processes, hope ST2 stays on schedule, and confront the NIMBYs e.g., on Beacon Hill, and reward the YIMBYs in Roosevelt and elsewhere. There is lots of infill potential: every one-story building is a potential four-story or six-story if we need it someday. The NIMBYs will weaken as time goes on. Hopefully we’ll get to a situation like Vancouver where every rapid-transit station has its own cluster of density — including in the suburbs (New Westminster, Metrotown). It took three decades to build that in Vancouver and gain community acceptance.

    4. OK, I’ll tell you some reasons people live in the suburbs and exurbs (in general, not Seattle-specific) which you might not have thought of.

      (1) Desire to OWN one’s house, and therefore have the right to modify it to one’s wishes. It’s become very difficult these days to OWN an apartment, though it used to be more common. There’s a reason brownstones were popular, and frankly this is it: ownership could be combined with city living.
      (2) Closely linked to this, special needs in house design. Since the ADA passed wheelchair-accessibility in apartments has been on the rise, but this is still an example of something which can (in some cities) be hard to find in an apartment.
      (3) Price. As has been documented elsewhere, the supply of single-family outlying homes is large and the supply of downtown apartments is tight. So people who would rather live in apartments move to outlying locations.
      (4) School districts. It’s been documented that people with kids generally choose their housing largely based on school district. Disparities in historical school funding and quality therefore persist for generations, and we’re currently suffering from the disparities introduced in the 1950s through 1970s. (Note that this also keeps people out of *rural* areas who would prefer truly rural living.) This should really be fixed by statewide or nationwide school funding, since the property tax is a bonkers way to pay for schools anyway, but that’s getting rather beyond the scope of this blog….

      ….I’m an example of someone who is living further out of town than I otherwise would due to a severe shortage of wheelchair-accessible housing in my home town. Everyone I know with kids picked their house based on school district.

  34. As Mike Orr notes, we need city policy that will foster the kind of vibrancy on the waterfront that you envision. Overloading the streets Portland-style with food carts and street would be a welcome development. We need chaos and commerce and interesting shops. We need the opposite of the headlining picture above.

  35. Good read!

    Buddy of mine and I were driving NB over the weekend enjoying the view. We thought how sad it’ll be gone someday soon.

    I agree, cities are for comerce, dense living, not parks.

    But I don’t live in a city, so what do I know?

    1. How about a veloduct, a boardwalk, or a streetcar/light rail with a relatively unobstructed view?

      The viaduct belongs only to the car drivers, and the rest of us don’t get that view unless we catch the right express bus.

  36. “South Lake Union and the Pearl District are horrible.”

    What do you find horrible about the Pearl? (Expression of interest: I live in it.)

  37. “Horrible” is a bit of an overstatement (my specialty). But to me the Pearl is sterile and monochromatic. The vast amounts of new construction that have been built as infill is, to me, ugly, and more importantly runs counter to everything I’ve said here — superficially “urbanist” in street appeal, but with too many wide, shallow storefronts (concealing the fact that the ground level is really almost all parking), creating a streetscape that can never attain critical mass, never explode. There will never be more than one thing of interest per block, when there should be ten or fifteen. The buildings remind me not of the interesting old commercial blocks in downtown Portland but the other brand-new superficial buildings here in Seattle (including South Lake Union).

    To be fair, it’s all new, and it might be groovy in fifty years when some of the buildings start to crumble. Neighborhoods need crappy old buildings as well as shiny new ones. And none of us have any idea what’s going to be in those buildings at street level in fifty years. It’s a mistake to try to roll out perfection on day one. But you can set the conditions, and I think the Pearl is for the most part a failure there.

    On the other hand, Powell’s is just down the way, so you’re already ahead of anything we have to offer!

    1. I don’t disagree that most of it is architecturally uninteresting, with a handful of monsters (the Lovejoy, the Asa, in particular). I think the building I live in is sub-pomo bland, but not offensively ugly. And at least it’s cheap to live in. There are a few new building in the Pearl that I really do like though, particularly Ziba’s headquarters and 937 condos, both by Holst. And there are some very nicely done conversions: the AIA Center for Architecture and the Ecotrust, again by Holst; the Gerding theater by GBD; and of course Wieden+Kennedy by Allied Works. I find the landscape architecture best of all though – Jamison Square and Tanner Springs park are two complementary public spaces that are always busy in good weather. The boardwalk on 10th and Vera Katz ‘Park’ (really, a nicely landscaped sidewalk) are joys to walk along.

      However, it’s demonstrably untrue that there is ‘one thing of interest per block’. My building (dating back to 2004) has a grocer, a gift shop, a pilates studio, and a knit shop, as well as the leasing office on one half of the block. The other half has no retail, but it’s not parking either; it’s all apartments at ground level. The building next to me has a gelato shop, a wine bar/restaurant, a hair salon and a legal office. Okay, that’s a fairly yuppie list of businesses, but they are all locally owned and successful. It’s not the Greenwich Village of Jane Jacobs’ day, but there is literally nothing that I buy on a regular basis that I can’t find within a 10 minute walk. If wanted a tattoo I could go get in the building a few blocks east of me, and then go to an Evangelical church on the same block. Indeed, you could make the case (I won’t, but it could be done) that there are too many small retail spaces in the Pearl, as there are plenty of empty ones.

      I would like a more bars like the Low Brow and fewer like Vault, but that’s my own personal taste. I would like some of the late food carts that every neighbourhood east of the river seems to have. I would like a 24hr grocer where I can buy milk at 4am. I agree that the neighbourhood will evolve over time, but think it’s achieved a lot already. Businesses will come and go, some more marginal businesses will come in as the rents inevitably drop. New buildings will be built over time on the numerous remaining lots.

      And yes, we have Powell’s. But when Powell’s opened, it was the only retail business north of Burnside. And I think that’s quite an achievement.

    2. the ground level of most buildings in the pearl is not parking. it is retail.

      i also live there.

      “creating a streetscape that can never attain critical mass, never explode. There will never be more than one thing of interest per block, when there should be ten or fifteen.”
      thats entirely because the blocks are 200 x 200 feet as they are just about everywhere else downtown.

      what i like about the pearl is that most are designed as simple background fabric buildings, nice in their own right but not standing out or showy. they are designed to be part of a collection of similar buildings. this is what we appreciate about old urbanism, the plain fabric buildings with simple materials. there are some new hideous towers in the pearl that try to stand out and are out of scale.

      the beauty of the pearl district is that it already has a great collection of “crappy old buildings” in addition to the new buildings. many are untouched buildings still housing old businesses, others are untouched and decaying, many are old buildings cheaply adapted to new uses, while many are heavily renovated into practically new buildings.

      the pearl was built building by building, it was not built all at once. even in the new part of the pearl they put up one building at a time. sure there was a master plan but it was very vague in design and timeline. it was all about market demand, given the boom in the 2000s a lot went up then, not much rises now.

      you sound like you dont think any urbanism done today is acceptable.

  38. Boy are you lost… Do you think 30 million people fly to Paris every year because they have they can go to Tati and get a good deal on a shirt? LA has commerce and if it wasn’t for the water nobody would go there. Really I work there and it’s ugly. I’d go to Paris just to sit on the Champs de Mars and eat a croissant.

    Here’s a big surprise for you… people LIVE in cities they’re just not shopping malls.

    1. Perhaps the key to the success of the park is to have the croissant shop in the park, as a dozen of us seem to have commented. :-)

  39. alexjohn: “It’s not a “Seattle recipe,” it’s the “recipe” of a certain time period”

    This is an important point. It’s unfair to compare Seattle to cities that were built in different eras when other ideas prevailed. Seattle’s peers are Portland and Tacoma, not San Francisco, Vancouver, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, or Boston. Those just happen to be the six top cities in North America in terms of urban design (along with DC). So you blame Thomas Kincade for not being Rembrandt? We’re doing pretty well compared to most of North America. A #6 walk score isn’t that bad. And those other five cities just happen to be THE five with higher walk scores. (Excluding DC which is lower, and Vancouver which is not eligible for a US city list.)

    Seattle is just stuck between the great designs of 19th-century cities and the horrible garbage of post-1940s cities. Luckily we have a streetcar-era heritage. But the city was not built out large enough when the Aurora bridge opened in 1932 and the viaduct a few years later. Those were the first of several “suburbanizing” changes. The old city was large enough to survive them but not large enough to be as resilent as San Francisco, sorry.

    It’s fine to say, “Let’s have some road diets downtown, and take one lane from each street.” Maybe that’s a good idea. But to just say Seattle is assbackwards because it doesn’t have narrow two-lane streets downtown, that’s too much. The downtown streets were last widened… many decades ago, I don’t even know when. Apparently the people in the streetcar era didn’t think them too wide.

    Likewise, it’s fine to point to Central Park and Millenium Park and how well they function, and to want a lively park on the waterfront, or wish the Commons had been built, or recommend expanding Freeway Park. But it’s another to say Seattle has flipped the bird because it doesn’t have a Central Park. If the peripheral parks (Myrtle Edwards, Discovery, Seward, etc) are too hard to get to, better transit can address that. And be glad that there are a lot of peripheral parks.

  40. Pingback: Park City
  41. I’m surprised there’s no discussion of the parks that capped Boston’s big dig as that’s probably the most comparable project. Also Brooklyn Bridge park is the most recent example of a large, urban waterfront park. I’ve read some criticism of central artery parks along the lines of this post so it may buttress your case, but I’ve only seen raves for the Brooklyn park.

    Personally I’d like to see a bike trail along the water front that connects to the Burke-Gilman trail at the locks. Flat, very few street crossing so you don’t have to sweat turning drivers and you don’t have to start and stop -conservation of momentum is important on a bike.

    Finally, I think there’s lots of evidence of parks being catalysts to development, especially residential. Not just old city parks like Boston Commons or Rittenhouse Square but new parks like Centential Park in Atlanta or the Dallas Arts district. It’s quite possible that you could get higher total densities if you sprinkle parks every few blocks than if you give everything over to development.

    Also, Fnarf, I think your stridency in the comments has undermined the initial post. Basically you don’t seems to like any new construction, you want commerce but you don’t trust the people who actual would build the retail spaces, the re-grade is a wasteland but you hate the redevelopment of SLU (which to my eye was pretty similar pre-gentrification). As I think someone else asked: can you point to any new development you do like?

    1. “I’d like to see a bike trail along the water front that connects to the Burke-Gilman trail at the locks.”

      The BGT is supposed to extend to Golden Gardens but there’s a conflict with the industries on Shilshole Ave, where the trail and delivery trucks coincide. The companies claim a formal trail would cause more accidents than the de facto bicycle use of the street that occurs now.

  42. You forget about the oxygen-creation, air-purifying, and carbon-sequestering function of trees, the habitat for birds, and other benefits we may not understand yet.

    The bus situation is not the park’s fault. I would replace the three Magnolia routes with a 15-minute circulator to the 15/18, and later to Rapid Ride and Ballard Link.

  43. Oops, this is a reply to Matt L’s comment, “Gigantic parks like Discovery out in Magnolia where if you’re lucky you’ll only wait half an hour for a bus are a waste of space. Smaller parks where the people are are what you want.”

  44. Let’s just make sure they hire the best damn urban park designers/developers in the country. Period.

  45. I am also a supporter of the viaduct. It would be a much better idea of use the existing viaduct as both a park similar to the High Line in New York City, and shop area, with the bottom being a future possible site for light rail going up 99 or into West Seattle. Some structural support may be necessary, but using a previous incarnation of our history of highway overuse as a park and public transportation. We should use it to create an extension of Pike Place Market that would serve as a connection to the waterfront rather than a barrier. No tunnel, no new “boulevard”, the cars will work themselves out, the always do.

    1. Hmmm, as much as I’d like to see them sell off land and recover SOME cost off the project, that could be a very intriguing way to do it and really sounds EPIC.

  46. I’m an interested party in what happens with Seattle’s development, not as a resident but as a regular visitor. My husband and I live full-time in the San Juan Islands, but nice as island living is, it lacks a certain type of vitality that only real cities can offer. We come to Seattle to shop, see movies or a play, eat out, and just soak in the vibe of city life. (We refer to suburban and exurban mainland as “America,” and we get in and out of it as quickly as possible.)

    The assumption that all tourists want are “t-shirt shops” is false. Seattle attracts visitors from elsewhere in Puget Sound as well as from farther away. I can only speak from my own experience, however, so I’ll stick to that.

    Firstly, when we visit Seattle, we don’t stay downtown. The hotels are too big, too expensive, and there’s an vast emptiness to most of the downtown shopping area that’s a real turn-off. So we stay in Lower Queen Anne. LQA has so much of what we need and want from our city experience: small hotels, good local coffee shops, two grocery stores, Easy Street Records, Mercer Street Books, Uptown Cinemas, the Intiman, and lots of excellent restaurants. We can easily walk to the Monorail station and go downtown if we wish. From downtown we can explore further on Link, such as to the International District. We can also walk to Olympic Sculpture Park and thence to the waterfront, if the weather’s nice enough. So while LQA is a cool neighborhood to be in, it wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t close to the heart of Seattle.

    Important note: Tourists don’t ride public buses. Buses are crowded and dirty, the schedules incomprehensible. City planners should realize that any areas they hope to attract visitors to MUST have non-bus transit such as Link, streetcar, and yes, the beloved Monorail.

    It’s this density of activity that attracts us to Lower Queen Anne. People are on the street night and day, and because of that we feel safe walking around. It’s comfortable to be on the street year-round because the buildings are high enough to shelter us from the weather, but not so high that they cut off all views and light. There are no vast plazas to negotiate to get from one interesting place to another. There are no empty parks to attract “undesirables.”

    When my husband and I “discovered” Lower Queen Anne a few years ago, we felt the attraction of the area intuitively. This section of the city wasn’t planned; it is not the product of a committee of professional urban designers. It just works. I am now re-reading Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, and am aware that LQA functions as it does because of specific attributes: abundant, narrow retail spaces; mixed residential and commercial; good access to public transit; fairly narrow streets; no dead Soviet-style plazas or housing developments, nor soulless New Urbanist faux villages; lots of “eyes on the street,” etc., etc. These attributes are largely the product of organic development over time, in an area that seems to have always been an attractive place for people to live and work in.

    So can good city spaces really be “planned?” In one sense, they can’t, as good city spaces are more often than not the product of time and the fondness people feel for their city spaces. In another sense, one has to rely upon the possibility of planners creating good city space, because we can’t make time accelerate nor force people to love their city. But planners often get caught up in making things pretty rather than really looking at and analyzing how people live, work, and play. (That is, IMHO, the genius behind Jane Jacobs’ book: her powers of observation and analysis.

    So to the original points of this post: boulevards, parks, and commerce-free zones. All the darlings of urban planners, but things that really offer little real life in cities. My husband and I don’t come to Seattle for wide streets, parks, or vast, shop-free plazas. We come to see the bustle of busy people, eat great food, window-shop in interesting little stores, see a show, and sit in a coffee shop and people-watch. In short, we come for the City.

Comments are closed.