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.
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”.
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).
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.