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This is an open thread.

71 Replies to “News Roundup: Reforming”

  1. Jeez, 1201 First Ave (née the WaMu Tower) is “one of Seattle’s most beloved skyscrapers?” Send that piece of sandstone-and-blue-glass crap back to the fields of North Carolina where it belongs. The Russell Investments Center is so visually superior it’s not even funny.

    Personally, I like the approach of gradually stepping down the height limits as you approach Lake Union. Actually, “gradual” is a misnomer—I’m thinking a logarithmic growth curve, where four-to-six story buildings sit at the base of the lake and we quickly grow up from there, then start to taper the growth until we reach the downtown core.

    There’s no reason to smother all our natural features with buildings as long as we take advantage of density where it makes sense.

    1. Really? I think it’s awesome to walk around, and it’s not like this city’s got a ton of great skyscrapers.

  2. Ugh, I’m tired of people calling Apple’s proposed HQ anti-urban. Of course it is its being built in suburbia! Apple has good reason for wanting employees to all be near each other.

    While we’re at it Microsoft’s Redmond campus is pretty anti-urban too.

    1. Just about all the big suburban office campuses are anti-urban. Almost aggressively so. They’re large, sparse, single-use, and private-use. This includes, yes, Microsoft’s Redmond campus, and Google’s Mountain View campus. Probably the new Facebook campus, also? I forget its particulars. Almost everything in Silicon Valley is that way.

      Apple is currently a notable comparison for Amazon because it, like Amazon, has new plans in flight. Were some other company of Apple’s stature (Microsoft or Google) doing something similar it would receive similar attention.

      To be sure, it’s hard to blame Apple exactly — regulations on development in most of the Bay Area make it hard to do much of anything else.

      1. That’s not totally true, Oracle’s got a huge, walkable campus in Redwood City. EA’s is around there, too, near the bart station at the end of the line.


      3. Single-use campuses are typically walkable internally. They’d fail pretty massively if they weren’t. But I’ve lived in Silicon Valley — I never spent much time in Redwood City, but I know what the crossings of 101 are like, and I know about how walkable the super-wide arterial roads leading there are. And, so, as a result, I can guess the mode-share of walking and biking to the campus. Walkability from the outside is pretty important, too, because it’s pretty hard to make an efficient transit system that stops in every nook and cranny of the cul-de-sacs of Silicon Valley.

        Urbanism isn’t just about transportation. It’s about people coming together and creating a city that’s more than the sum of its parts. Cul-de-sac campuses concentrate people from one company in a place, excluding everything else.

        Again, I haven’t really been on the ground in Redwood City; it might be pleasant or whatever. From a satellite view it looks like most of the rest of the Valley: crowding without density.

      4. “Cul-de-sac campuses concentrate people from one company in a place, excluding everything else.”

        I think that is the general nature of corporations. Castles and Fiefdoms.

      5. Microsoft’s old Redmond campus is distinctly not walkable. The buildings have huge setbacks, are surrounded by tons of surface parking, and the streets couldn’t be less activated.

        It’s a stark contrast with Microsoft’s newer buildings. The new West Campus is centered around a walkable commons; there’s still lots of parking, but it’s all structured or underground, and buildings are much closer to each other and to the street. And, of course, the Online Services Division is headquartered in downtown Bellevue, which is about as urban as you get on the Eastside. (Over 80% of Microsoft’s employees live on the Eastside; as such a large company, it would be irresponsible of them to shift all their operations to Seattle all at once.)

        So yes, there is a difference between walkable and non-walkable suburban campuses.

      6. @Aleks: Absolutely. Office space in downtown Bellevue is a lot different than an unbroken square mile of nothing but a single company’s offices. Architecture and design may create a more pleasant space but they cannot create an urban space — real urbanism comes from different people coming together and using the space for different things.

        I don’t think you can build a large campus (that is: a place where many workers can easily travel between each other’s offices, which is important for many companies) that supports meaningful mixed use at all without density. I think it’s one of those “pick any two” rules (among size, sparseness, and mixed use). Small companies (or small offices belonging to big companies) can exist in sparse mixed-use spaces (many small towns and old suburbs have patterns like this… Cody, WY is an example); big campuses can exist in mixed-use spaces if they are dense (Amazon’s new campus is going for this, and it’s the traditional mode for downtown headquarters of law firms and banks); and big, sparse campuses can exist without meaningful mixed use (Silicon Valley).

        Apple is probably stuck with its size (probably wants to have its engineers all in one place), and unless it moves a really long way it’s probably stuck with its sparseness. Even if it wasn’t intent on building a circular version of the Pentagon, it wouldn’t have much of a chance at mixed use.

      7. @Andrew Smith
        The fact that one can walk between buildings on Oracle and EA
        “campuses” in Redwood city, isn’t really very meaningful, because the campuses are still smack-dab in the middle of a concrete-covered insanely car-oriented hell area of 75-lane roads and strip malls, and still surrounded by a metric fuck-ton of parking.

      1. It’s classic Le Corbusier. A geometric form surrounded by acres of landscaped nothingness that are supposed to be soothing but will in fact be abandoned at all times.

        The irony is that, when restricted to a single constrained plot, Le Corbu was capable of integrating some fascinating-yet-functional forms into their surroundings (see: Harvard University’s Carpenter Center). But on any macro-theoretical scale, his plans would have been disasters (leveling Paris and rebuilding in an ultra-use-segregated fashion, leveling Boston and rebuilding in an ultra-use-segregated fashion), and the descendants of his ideas that actually came to fruition HAVE been disasters (Brasília, the high-rise projects of New York and Chicago, the banlieues on the outskirts of every European capital, and yes, the flagship headquarters of many a Fortune 500 company).

        “Apple: The More Things Change…”

      2. DP: I’ve not been to Brasilia, but I don’t think it’s fair to label it a failure. It was built to be a modernist national capital, and as far as I know its form doesn’t make it any more or less dangerous than if it might be in a different form.

        New York’s high-rise projects include some rather successful examples, such as Stuyvesant Town. Sandburg Village in Chicago is a similar example.

        Both Chicago and New York had rather different experiences with low-income high-rise projects, and it’s fair to note that the towers-in-the-park concept likely exacerbated existing social ills. But inappropriate design was only one of the many problems of these projects.

      3. Any more or less dangerous? I guess, as long as you don’t walk anywhere. Back in engineering school I was shown a film about Brazilia, specifically citing it as a failure of narrow vision. Of designing a car-only city in a country where most people walk or take the bus. The film showed groups of people climbing over walls to run across high-speed highways at a dangerous curve. Here are the pedestrian trails in the center of the city.

      4. What Matt said/linked about Brasília.

        Stuyvesant Town, like L.A.’s Park LaBrea, have not been total disasters, partly because they did (unlike many Le Corbusian plans) increase the total housing supply on their footprints, and because they were built with actual street frontage (no matter how unattractive) as opposed to being entire set back or set askew from the cities to which they belong.

        Nevertheless, they contain no internal services and their rigorous geometry can make it hard to get in and out, rendering city life and “place” less easy to access. With the former tenements to the south having rebounded, Stuyvesant Town now contains some of the least desirable housing in its immediate area.

        Anyway, check out how Corbu would have destroyed Paris.

        Also, Matt, have you ever seen or read about what Nelson Rockefeller did to Albany? It is so deeply fucked up, though the result has been to create some of the most absurdist liminal spaces in the world (Click on this and then spin around!)

      5. Wow. That’s a very beautiful form of terrible. I imagine that vast plaza sits mostly empty most of the time?

      6. Needless to since, especially since the weather is terrible in the winter, the plaza is exposed and windswept, and beneath it are three floors of protected interior corridors (though wayfinding within them is notoriously awful).

  3. Since this is an open thread.

    What constituency is fighting to maintain the current FRA(?) regulations forcing rolling stock / locomotives to be built like Sherman tanks?

    1. It stems from the American attitude that everything is big and large here, so trains should be big and large. I understand the safety concept but we also don’t have the signal system that other nations use that prevent incidents…

      1. The inertia likely due to the tension between Amtrak and the Class I railroads that host passenger trains. The Class I roads are indemnified from any responsibility in the event of collisions involving passenger trains. Amtrak and its insurers are totally responsible, so Amtrak really has no incentive to move away from the Sherman tank/Superliner style of railcar that we see in North America.

        The Talgos are not fully compliant and had to get a waiver from the FRA to operate on the Cascade corridor. The waiver was granted but the FRA didn’t change any of the rules. If you want to dig through old FRA archives, you can find Talgo’s testimony to the FRA and it’s clear that Talgo looks at train safety from a completely different perspective from the FRA. As Brian mentioned above, North America doesn’t have the signal system (Positive Train Control or even cab signals) that would prevent many accidents. Most train regulators in other countries take the attitude that preventing accidents should be the paramount focus in train safety. But for years the US railroad industry was in sharp decline and there wasn’t money available for modernizing tracks and signal systems, so it seems that the FRA adopted the attitude that “accidents are inevitable, let’s limit the damage by making everything as heavy and indestructible as possible.” Since the rebound in freight rail and the renewed interest in passenger railroading, the FRA has taken a few steps to re-examine regulations; but very little change has actually occurred.

      2. The ballast added to the Acela turned 100,000 mile maintenance procedures into 20,000 mile maintenance procedures. Not only does it mean we have to have custom equipment but it means it costs a great deal more to operate. On the Coast Starlight run it costs about an extra $70 per passenger to pull around Superliner cars than say a TGV Duplex car and that’s using the same diesel locomotives we have now. Not to mention since diesel locomotives are fairly weak having lighter cars could drastically improve performance and/or increase the number of seats.

        Anyone who things a Superliner is sufficiently tough to handle head ending a freight train is a little off anyway. Not having Jacobs bogies increases the likelihood of cars ending up all over the place in an accident anyway. I don’t think the FRA thinks too hard about safety, they think about maintaining rules.

  4. Recently I had the opportunity to work with Rhonda Dixon at ST regarding an issue where dump trucks carrying tunneling debris were losing part of their loads at a stop light by my place of business. The muck had built up on the sidewalk for months but really only became a problem recently due to heavy rain (when will it stop?!?!??)

    It took a few emails and phone calls with Rhonda to properly explain the scope and severity of the problem, and Rhonda was great to work with. She was able to get a crew to come out on multiple days to thoroughly and completely clean up the mess from the street and sidewalk.

    Thanks, Rhonda and ST for taking care of this!!

  5. How would Amazon’s campus be better for the neighborhood if it were taller? The area would still go dead at 5:30. You are asking the wrong question.

    1. I think it would be better for shadows if it were taller and more narrow, but you have a good point.

      1. Different, narrower but longer. Being this far north the winter shadow grows at greater than a 1:1 ratio. It also affects sight lines from much farther away. But the biggest drawback is distribution of shared space, like elevator shafts over less square feet per floor. Also can place constraints on use. One of the issues I’ve heard quoted with the Columbia Tower is that large clients that are in the market for class A space want to be able to centralize more people on a single open floor plan rather than having to travel between floors.

      2. That’s a good point, winter is when we should be optimising against shadows, if for no other reason that sanity’s sake.

      3. @Aleks… Yep, typo. As for shadows, it’s all shades of grey (or gray). With a narrow silhouette it passes quicker but it’s easier for a developer to buy/mitigate a lower wider building’s shadow and avoid 2nd order implication.

    2. The neighborhood would be better if there were more residents and more amenities geared towards residents, which would be more likely to happen if there were more space available for entities other than Amazon. All those extra floors could potentially get used for apartments or condos.

      Not saying that would automatically happen, but it is a possibility.

    3. It needs lots more residential units and attendant services to get rid of the ghost town effect. But there is also the feeling that one is intruding on someone’s private compound when walking around SLU.

    1. Awesome. When I lived there I’d have to drop my wife off to buy groceries and circle the block until she was done. I remember one parking garage charged $14.25 per quarter hour (and this was a decade ago). Even the Blockbuster charged $4 to park in their lot, even if you were a customer. Finding a street parking spot was like finding a $5 bill on the sidewalk, both in terms of rarity and money saved.

      “all parking revenues are used for mass transit” How do we get that deal here?

      1. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (also known as SFMTA or San Francisco MTA) is an agency created by consolidation of the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni), the Department of Parking and Traffic (DPT), and the Taxicab Commission.

        SFMTA was established by the passage of Proposition E in November 1999, a measure which amended San Francisco’s charter and established the semi-independent agency to combine and run Muni and DPT. The measure, promoted by the transit riders’ group Rescue Muni, among others, established service standards for the agency and made a number of changes to the laws governing it.

        Not sure if you could replicate this in Seattle unless King County Metro were split up. That said, the Council could choose to create a policy that dictated all parking revenue go to transit capital improvements, which would be a very useful policy. I seem to recall, though, that much of the commercial parking tax revenue (and possibly meter revenue) was already bonded to pay for other stuff a few years ago.

      2. I’ve always thought Seattle needed its own transit authority anyway. At first Metro could keep the buses, and we’d run streetcars. Once we worked the bugs out we could start absorbing ETBs and urban-only buses, then the future urban-only subways. I’d probably build off SDOT, giving them better funding and authority.

      3. The genesis of KC Metro Transit was from the the bankrupt Seattle transit authority. It wasn’t financially viable for the city to go it alone. But there’s a large block of voters in Cedar County that would like for it to happen.

      4. [Bernie] It wasn’t quite that simple. It’s the same old “no new taxes” goofyness that still plagues voters in WA. We refused to pay more than a nickel for fares so the monopoly that ran the streetcar system wanted out. We paid triple its value to buy the system, and had to pay this debt (and the capital improvements) using fares alone since the state supreme court ruled that streetcars couldn’t be subsidised.

        Here’s the story.

      5. Seattle’s battle with private ownership of the streetcar system has many parallels to the State take over of the ferry system. Misguided public policy but Seattle’s bus system dug their own hole. The City eventually defaulted on the loan used to purchase the streetcars even after renegotiating the price. Sinking ridership by 1971 exacerbated by the Boeing bust (Seattle was pretty much a “company town”) did them in along with crushing debt accrued because of benefits (where have we heard that before). Actually found all the yearly budgets can still be had.

      6. Interesting stuff. I’m not sure it’s so much that Seattle’s bus system collapsed (it didn’t), as much as Metro was given sales tax authority.

        I also didn’t know that Forward Thrust failed because it had to pass a 60% popular vote. Very little in this world that’s even slightly controversial passes a 60% vote requirement, and it’s always a bad idea since you’re letting the minority rule.

      7. The best history I’ve had recanted to me was on one of the MEHV tours by a driver working for Seattle Transit at the time. They really were on the verge of not making payroll. There’s more scraps of history in this PI article:

        When North Seattle was annexed in the 1950s, adding 10 square miles to the city, the 40,000 new residents were promised transit service. But Seattle Transit, the city’s then-private transit company, was in financial straits and couldn’t afford to extend the trolley lines to the new city limits. Instead, many of the overhead power lines were dismantled and trolleys were replaced with diesel buses.

        Poor North Seattle, still waiting for the sidewalks they were promised. The Seattle Transportation Commission (the streetcar people) operated the public transit system from 1939 to 1951; the Seattle Transit Commission operated the bus system from 1951 until 1971. It and the private company Overlake Transit Service on the eastside were subsumed by Metro.

      8. People have looked into the alleged promises of sidewalks and found that there is no contemporary evidence of any such promises. It appears to be an urban legend.

  6. Does anyone know if the new Nordstrom rack in westlake restored the connection to the station?

    1. I assume so, but haven’t seen it myself. Check out the discussion and picture half way down the page here. Notice an actual sign that says “transit tunnel” next to the escalator.

    2. The connection was restored at some point recently; I used it about 2 weeks ago.

  7. I went to the Phase IIb King Street Station kick off event today and managed somehow to drift into a tour involving Mayor McGinn to the second and third floors of the station. I seemed to be the only ‘unknown’ at the event and probably the scruffiest. Everyone else was in a power outfit!

    This was a day for a lot of top brass to see and be seen with Joseph Szabo, Federal Railroad Administrator in town, along with Paula Hammond from WSDOT, Jim McDermott, congressional rep. for most of Seattle, another executive from WSDOT whom I spoke to afterwards and Mayor McGinn representing the Emerald City.

    I usually always enjoy these events and almost gushingly so and today was no exception. We got to see behind locked doors to see some of the improvements and used the ‘grand staircase’ to reach the second and third floors. Sadly we did not get to go up the clock tower as we had done four years ago when we first bought the station for $10.

    Since then we have clearly done a lot with our purchase – repaired the clocks, restored most of the Jackson Street plaza, restored the roof, repaired most of the exterior awnings and windows and added an elaborate green heating and cooling system. A new brick walkway and drive way outside the main doors is there but not in use yet. New ticket counters and baggage handling facilities have been added but are not yet open. As Mike Lindblom said in the Times this morning, this project is seemingly ‘endless’. To paraphrase a Dylan song: “It’s not done yet, but it’s getting there”.

    Much work remains to be done of course with everyone waiting most for what the restorers will do with the main waiting room. New lights and paintwork and other restorative features are all part of this ‘biggest’ phase yet of the work. Lights will also be added to the plaza, and all of the work already done will finally open.

    Maybe the second and third floors will open – lots of potential there but lots of work still to be done I’m afraid. Some 100 jobs will be created over the duration of this phase, but I think and hope we will like it after all of this effort and time.

    I asked the representative from WSDOT about adding overnight trains between Seattle and Portland so that travelers can arrive at first light in the respective cities. No decision has been made but I think red eyes would be good? In addition, I asked about the possibility of special Amtrak trains for Sounders FC vs. Portland Timbers games in both cities and I am sure everyone will be pleased to hear that this is certainly something WSDOT is considering and thinking about but nothing definite as yet. They know that the demand is there, but…. Fill in your own gaps here!

    If I heard correctly, Amtrak Cascades trains are taking up some 25% of the passenger flow between SEA and PDX which is impressive considering that they only have 4 trains plus the Coast Starlight currently between the two cities against the twice hourly flights between the two for most of the day.

    Yes, the Point Defiance Bypass is going ahead at the environmental stage but WSDOT is apparently sensitive to the concerns of our friends in Lakewood who must be the only people in the United States right now complaining that Amtrak trains go or will go too fast!

    So all in all an impressive event and in case you are wondering, I thought Mayor McGinn was quite charming in his remarks and quite dapper in an outfit from the earlier great hayday of King Street Station. Virtually all of the politicians there today praised President Obama’s committment to rail if one can call having to shelve his $8bn high speed rail project a committment? Jim McDermott gave a great defense of earmarks for Seattle and seemed almost angry talking about the ‘tea party’ in the House thwarting just about everything worthwhile that comes out of the Senate and presumably sending trashy bills up to the Senate in return.

    A good event today but a lot of work remains at our mainline Station but they have a year and a half to do it in. It will get there…..

    1. There was an escalator with a neon sign saying “Electric Stairs”. Will that be restored too? None of the updates have mentioned it.

      1. They pulled that out – didn’t see any new escalator today, so I think that is gone for good. Other than a new elevator, I think they want to keep the station as close to what it was like in 1906 as possible.

      2. When I asked them if I could have the “Electric Stairs” sign when they did the renovation (at a meeting a long.. long.. time ago), they told me it was supposed to be going to MOHAI.

    2. The work has been progressing slowly. I was there maybe 10 years ago and there was a small display about renovating it but no real work had started. A lot has been done since then, but a lot more needs to be done.

      1. I-695 ruined a lot of the funding for the renovation and set it back years. Sound Transit of course did well to fund new Sounder-related work at King Street, although of course, its passengers don’t use the main station complex to reach Sounder trains.

      2. If you had seen the area under the Jackson Street Plaza before SDOT started the project, quite a lot has been accomplished. But the most visible, the waiting room, is the only part the public gets to see.

        Come to think of it, that’s all the Amtrak folks get to see, too, since SDOT got the keys when they started this, so Amtrak didn’t have the run of the place like they used to.

        Of course, they’ll get their sets when it opens up.

    3. Time to buy those brand new Wisconsin Talgos that Governor Scott Walker is about to mothball.

    1. Don’t write IOU’s to cover the pension fund! KC Metro has a much better record of keeping financing on the up and up. ST too has been open and relatively conservative in budgeting. I think both agencies have wasted a lot of money but at least they do it responsibly :=

  8. For those of you that live on Capital Hill, raise your voice about this. The Council is considering allowing more storefronts in low-rise multifamily zones. If this were my neighborhood, I’d love it – allowing the market to add supply always brings down rents, get more stores and services to choose from, and you get more retail variety since lower-profit businesses should survive better.

  9. I attended the Link North Corridor meeting in Edmonds today. It was just two reps, two patrons and some small maps — basically a little chat.

    The rep said ST has no absolute limit on the number of stations, although the starting point is four. In discussions it seems 4-6 stations is most likely. The original proposal was NE 145th, NE 185th, 236th SW, and Lynnwood TC. The alternatives are NE 125th, N 155th, and 220th SW. The board will decide in April which stations to study in the EIS, and a draft EIS is expected next year.

    I plugged the 130th station, saying it would be best for an east-west bus route. He said the further south the station is (125th or 130th), the greater need for a second station (possibly 155th). 125th seems the least likely. 145th doesn’t seem to be a shoo-in, in spite of the P&R there. But of course, in the end the P&R could end up trumping all other considerations. :(

    I asked about the 220th station. He said it was a bit surprising since it wasn’t in the earlier plans, but the community asked for its consideration. Its advantage is basically Premera, and ST would probably add some parking if it builds that station. He said 220th is the least likely station to be chosen, and even if it is chosen it may end up being deferred; i.e., put at the bottom of the budget.

    175th is not mentioned anywhwere; he said it was apparently dropped in an earlier phase.

    I asked how big the stations would be, whether they’d all be large and elevated like Mt Baker and TIB. He said they’d be smaller than those, and probably some elevated and some at-grade (i.e., at the freeway’s grade).

  10. Hopefully the recent Supreme Court smackdown in the Prometheus case will help get rid of the patent trolling. Eventually.

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