Photo by the Author
Photo by the Author

In many North American cities a growing number of parents choose to stay downtown after they have children rather than immediately flee to the suburbs. Thanks to the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and their Emerging Professionals Travel Scholarship, I was able to travel to a handful of these cities to learn the secrets to creating a family-friendly downtown. I dug into issues of neighborhood design, urban housing, recreation, and transportation. I also looked carefully at the incredibly important link between education and housing for parents, as Jon Scholes recently described.

Through a series of interviews and neighborhood visits, I noticed a series of trends that are happening nationwide. One such trend is that these new urban parents are organizing to change cities, hoping that they can stay in the downtown neighborhood they love while still supporting the needs of their growing family. They are using their collective power to fundraise to build playgrounds and make their voices heard at school board meetings and city council meetings. I also came away from my travels with a number of suggested policy and design solutions to help make cities, including Seattle, more family-friendly. Those research findings are compiled in a Family-Friendly Urbanism exhibit currently on display at AIA Seattle’s gallery space* through April 26th.

More importantly for the future of Seattle’s family-friendliness, AIA Seattle, the Seattle Department of Planning and Development, the Seattle Planning Commission, and the Downtown Seattle Association are co-hosting a day-long forum about the topic. Ingredients for Designing a Family-Friendly Downtown will take place at City Hall on April 11th. International, national, and local speakers will be in attendance to discuss housing, education, recreation, transportation, and the market realities of retaining families with children in urban neighborhoods.

Will you join us on April 11th to further the conversation?

*1911 First Avenue, open Tuesday through Friday from 10 am to 5 pm.

25 Replies to “Towards a Family-Friendly Downtown”

  1. I still have one school-age kid living at home and there are plenty of reasons we wouldn’t even think of living downtown, but creating a downtown public school and introducing the elements that make downtown living acceptable for multi-generational families would be very healthy investments for the city. I’ve often looked at the Seattle Center campus and wondered if it could be transformed into an education and activity center focused on children and teens. I think it would be a great location for a full K-12 program.

    I’d like to say more, but it’s time to get my kid off to school school. See you on 4/11.

      1. The Center School is a public high school on the top floor of the Armory. It’s been running since 2001. It’s certainly not a full regular Seattle high school, for instance the cafeteria is simply the food court, but it exists.

      2. Yes, the Center School is a high school, but downtown lacks an elementary school. John Hay on Queen Anne and Bailey Gatzert in the ID are both over capacity.

      3. Looking at the heat maps, it’s pretty clear where we should be building and re-opening schools. Where there are lots of kids, and where there aren’t currently schools. I’ll leave those locations as an exercise for the reader.

        You don’t build them where you fantasize that kids will suddenly appear.

    1. The Center School only has around 300 students, and is an alternative school (the standard school for kids in this area is to travel all the way to Ballard). I’d love to see Seattle tear down some of the old buildings and build a real urban high school (3 floors or so). There’s already a sports field, a food court, and good transit.

      1. For most of the day the Seattle Center is an empty wasteland that attracts nobody except a few wandering tourists escaping from the Space Needle and EMP. With great transportation and the amenities listed above by Matt, the Center space could be a fantastic campus for the entire school district to use and imagine the opportunities that a re-opened Queen Anne HS at Seattle Center would offer. Think of the music, theater and science programs that could be located there.

        If the new Sonics area is built in SODO, that could be the start of a real opportunity to transform Belltown and LQA into neighborhoods that would be attractive to families with children. If the new arena is built, Chris Hansen is planning to develop a nightlife/party area adjacent to the arena which would, hopefully, remove the party scene and its undesirable consequences from Belltown. A new arena in SODO would also remove the 17,000 seat arena from the Seattle Center grounds and eliminate the nights when LQA is overwhelmed with concert-goers or sports fans attending whatever event is scheduled (Rihanna’s playing tonight, let’s see how traffic fares around the Center). I think LQA would be a much better neighborhood if it scaled itself towards symphony and opera sized crowds instead of trying to live off intermittent spectacles at the Key Arena/Coliseum. Transform the Center into an educational campus by day and an arts center by night and I think we’d be on our way to building a world class downtown area that would be very attractive for families with kids.

      2. Buying back the condos on top of QA would require keeping the 4N which would send some of the regular writers at this blog into conniptions! Best to start over.

  2. There is no more timely topic for Seattle and many cities in the US. It is hard to imagine what life will be like a generation from now. Throughout the life of most “boomers” there was a stigma attached to living in the “inner city”. That stigma seems to have been erased or never even formed in a significant portion of the US population. Not to say this a fait accompli, but it is easier than ever to imagine that living downtown will be a life goal for thousands of Seattle families, and that the children of those families will have greater exposure to art, culture, and the working world than their suburban counterparts and forebears, an advantage that will likely bear fruit throughout their lives.

  3. A short list of things that would go far towards getting there in my opinion:

    1) More affordable larger (2 bedroom or larger) units. Fix this through more construction. Advertise the place as family friendly.
    2) More safe places for kids to play. Fix this by including play areas in development. Rooftop playground with safety netting? Make these facilities open to the public in exchange for other concessions by the city such as we see with the public spaces downtown? Integrate playgrounds in to parks more? The options here are endless.
    3) Safe, reliable, and spacious public transportation. Need to be able to get around with small children and their associated baggage without problems. I would imagine this is not easy on a bus – too small a space, often stairs to climb, and who wants to wait at a cold outdoor bus stop with a freezing kid? Solution here is high quality rail with indoor stations. Cars Link size or bigger.
    4) Easy access to amenities like the grocery and drug store. Should be able to walk there with the kids.
    5) Safe walking and biking facilities. This should focus on slowing cars down as much as making the built environment safe. Kids don’t always look both ways before crossing and it is hard to stop in time when going 40.
    6) Schools. Other countries and cities can do it, why can’t we? Should be able to put a school on a city block, just build it up, not out. The International District and South Lake Union seem like good candidates off the top of my head.

    Any comments or other ideas?

    1. IMO, we’re making good progress on:

      #2 Westlake Play Area, Seattle Center, Bell Street Park
      #4 New Via6 grocery store, Kress, LQA Met Market/Safeway, Pike Place Market
      #5 Downtown generally has great sidewalks, and implementing the BMP should help safety considerably
      #6 The SLU school could still happen, and I wish we could reopen Queen Anne High :)

      We’re not doing so well on #1 and #3.

    2. #1 is the key stumbling block I see. Anyone looked to see what a 3 bedroom rents for in downtown/SLU/Belltown recently? It is not pretty. When my family can buy a 4 bedroom house near Bitter Lake for $325K, why would I pay that same amount to cram into a 2 bedroom apartment in Belltown? I mean, then add in the long walk to Pike Place or Target for groceries, the lack of any playgrounds (park space is great and all, but kids need swings and climbing structures), and the whole drunken screaming people at 2AM, and choosing someplace far from downtown is a no-brainer. But even if you had grocery stores and playgrounds and quiet at night, the affordability issue is still a deal breaker for most families.

      1. How much can you walk to in Bitter Lake? How frequently do the buses come, and how often do you have to add a half hour to your trip to go somewhere else to transfer? How much are your kids isolated and eager to drive when they turn 16, because you’re living in Bitter Lake rather than Belltown or Fremont?

        I’m not saying that negates all the advantages of living on the north border of the city. I lived briefly at Haller Lake as a kid, and while it’s not ideal for me, it has significantly better transit/grid/destinations than most of Bellevue or Renton. And we should improve transit frequency and crosstown service in north Seattle/Shoreline, which Link and RR E are two steps toward. But there are advantages of Belltown that remain. When I (as a high schooler) visited friends on the top of Queen Anne, we could walk to Seattle Center or Fremont in half an hour, which you can’t do from Bitter Lake.

      2. I think the idea is to figure out how to get spaces that a family will want that rich childless people won’t want to pay extra for. At the moment, my thought is that families really care about number of rooms more than number of square feet, while childless people probably care more about square feet than number of rooms. Thus, if developers were to start building small 3br and 4br apartments in spaces that used to fit large 2br ones, then that will naturally be better for families. They may not be one’s dream house, but it’s the way to get what a family needs without being so attractive to everyone else that the price skyrockets. (As long as the building owner can charge the same rent that they would have for the apartments that would have taken up the same footprint, they should be happy.)

  4. Downtown, like any other neighborhood should seek to improve living conditions for its residents, which includes having strong public schools and good parks in a safe environment. However, we should be realistic about the extent to which downtown, as an expensive and land constrained location comprising a couple square miles (generously defined) of our 84 square mile city, can effectively and affordably house families with children. I do not agree that it is advisable to mandate “family” housing downtown, as that effectively constitutes a huge opportunity cost in terms of public benefits dollars consumed, dollars that could be used for affordable housing, or open space, or TDR, or any number of other things.

    1. Agreed. We should acknowledge that when we talk about making downtown friendly for families, the cost of residences downtown means that we are talking about making downtown friendly for well-off families. Because, they are the only ones who are likely to be able to afford downtown living in our lifetimes.

  5. Unless the state begins to pick up their full and constitutionally mandated portion of k-12 funding, I just can’t support spending scarce money on building brand new schools downtown when we can’t afford to staff or maintain our current schools, which are bursting at the seams with sometimes 30 kids per teacher.

    It falls under “nice to have but not a priority.” There are several schools rimming downtown that are certainly do-able for the currently very small population of school age kids. The places that are currently, right now, overflowing with kids that are being housed and taught in portables all over the district should be our priority, not spending a hundred million on downtown real estate in the hopes they will some day come in sufficient numbers to justify ignoring our present sps budget crisis.

  6. I stopped by the AIA office this afternoon and took a look at their wall displays. It’s an excellent presentation and it’s full of intelligent ideas. Briefly, some of the things that made the strongest impression of me:
    *When neighborhoods work for kids, they work for everyone; when a neighborhood is scaled to accommodate kids, it can accommodate everyone,
    *Polycentric cities have more opportunities for affordable housing options. If most of the jobs are located in the central city, then housing prices will radiate away from the single jobs center and sprawl will result because of more people seeking cheap housing in faraway suburbs, despite the cost of commuting. If there are more jobs centers, there will be more options for a variety of employment and a greater variety of housing stock available.
    *In new condo/apartment construction, Vancouver BC requires that 25% of the market rate units must be built with 2+ bedrooms and subsidized housing must be built with 50% 2+ bedrooms.
    *Many of the neighborhood buildings are only 3 stories tall and not all of the buildings have ground floor retail.
    *Schools should be built to integrate with the neighborhood from early morning until late at night. Most Seattle schools aren’t part of the neighborhood except during school hours. Why aren’t the facilities designed to be common community space during the hours that schools are closed?
    *Today, 13% of kids walk or bike to school; in 1970, 66% of kids walked or rode a bike to school.

    This initiative is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. Even if you don’t have kids/don’t plan to have kids/never were a kid yourself, you should pay attention to this project–it’s full of excellent ideas.

  7. The picture is Vancouver, I believe, right near David Lam Park. This is close to Yaletown and False Creek– that is, in the land of hi-rise condos. I doubt there are any 2BRs in the immediate vicinity under $700,000 (and very few under $1,000,000).

  8. So we need to do two things simultaneously. Push for the long-term vision of more schools and family amenities downtown-ish. But not push for constructing expensive schools right now. Just lay the groundwork for future growth in this direction, and create an atmosphere of inevitability, that “Of course families will increasingly live in Center City, as they did in the early and mid 1900s, when all those apartments that currently have singles and DINKs had families with children.”

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