A design review conundrum: maximize housing or minimize parking?

Thanks to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection’s (SDCI) public service of sending out local project design review notifications via post, I was recently made aware of a new, substantial West Seattle residential project nearby my home that checks many of the STB readership must-have boxes: Less than one-quarter of a mile from a RapidRide stop, within an urban village boundary, and in a newly-upzoned area thanks to HALA (SF 5000 to LR3-M2). The project will sound familiar to readers of this publication: demolish three single-family houses on three lots to create 36 new residences across three buildings of varying size (but none less than three stories). The project proposes only 15 parking spots, all surface and accessed from an improved alleyway, and storage for 36 bicycles. It’s not perfect, and I’ll discuss why in a moment, but it is absolutely a net positive over the current uses and represents a pragmatic realization of exactly what HALA set out to do.

When I dug into the glossy design document provided by the developer, I found that community feedback largely supported the increased density, asked for a wide variety of unit types (including elusive 3-bedroom units), and called on the developer to create safe paths for pedestrians and cyclists near and through the site. Predictably, there was also the token shout-out to parking availability concerns, which the developer has attempted to address and which I do not personally believe are problematic living mere blocks from the project site.

Most interesting to me though is the fact that the design document included not only the go-forward plan, but also two other design concepts both larger than the preferred alternative: five stories with 59 units plus 18 parking spaces, and three-to-five stories with 57 units and 31 parking spaces (both feature parking shared between surface and below-ground). So, the developer’s preferred choice represents design concept minima in both residential capacity and parking — which also places a reduced upper-bound on revenue-generating potential of the site as well.

This is a difficult balance to strike, and to me, an interesting meditation on urbanism: if I could make a decision by fiat, which concept would I select? (Not the same thing as “if could build anything here, what would it be?”) None of the proposed solutions perfectly represent the dual facts that humanity faces a global climatological emergency and that Seattle suffers an immediate and dramatic gap in housing density and availability close to frequent transit. The developer chose the proposal with the least amount of parking in raw, but not parking-per-residential-unit terms. The proposal also doesn’t include any of the community-requested 3-bedroom residential units, which I consider to be essential additions to a densifying community. The design packet includes Floor-Area Ratio (FAR) percentages, and the chosen proposal is again, the lowest of the three at 77%. But, would the larger proposals (99.5% and 96.8% respectively) meet with enough community opposition that we’d end up with the smaller site plan in the end anyway, and everyone has just wasted their time? To me this is a classic illustration of the politics of compromise (and realpolitik) and choosing one’s battles wisely — and just how hard those things can be.

This situation shows that density battles have to be won in the wonky trenches of design reviews, something I believe this readership is well-positioned to influence. SDCI obviously reviews the comments it receives from the community during the comment phases of these reviews, and they seem to capture additional ideas not directly gathered by the developer during their own feedback-gathering process. So, I can’t stress this enough: when you see a Design Review sign nearby or get a notification in the mail (or see something nearby on SDCI’s handy GIS map), do the work to find the application design packet and send in commentsquickly. The comment period for most Administrative Design Review actions seems to be just two weeks.

Again, this project is a win in all respects over the status quo — but maybe it could be better, and that paying attention to the Design Review process and sending in comments is a path to winning density battles on the ground where good projects become great ones.

The ferries and Reconnect West Seattle


Souls Waiting to Board the West Seattle Water Taxi 27 Sept 2019

SDOT’s plan for replacing 4,800 cars per hour that used the West Seattle Bridge at peak includes 950 more people per hour using waterborne transit. Once Covid has receded to the point that most people are returning to work, how feasible is this?

The draft SDOT framework requires “options to increase capacity for waterborne transit.” The regular West Seattle Water Taxi boat (Doc Maynard) holds 270 passengers. It generally takes 35-40 minutes to do a round trip, meaning the best case capacity is about 400 people per hour in one direction.

Continue reading “The ferries and Reconnect West Seattle”

Is It Time for Systemwide All-Door Bus Boarding for Metro?

I believe that with the great surfacing of the buses, we have achieved the last of four required policy and network milestones necessary to implement all-door bus boarding systemwide for Metro and at all hours. This is meant to attempt to justify the capital expenditures required to install additional ORCA readers at rear doors, or more pragmatically, justify their inclusion in the next-generation ORCA implementation.

  1. We needed to streamline when fares are paid. This was affected when the Ride Free Area was eliminated, and now all fares are paid at boarding.
  2. We needed to eliminate fare zones based on destination. Two otherwise identical passengers no longer have two possible fares (one zone or two zone) to choose from upon boarding, and operators do not have to change the ORCA readers on an individual-passenger basis for this reason.
  3. We needed wide-scale ORCA adoption. The latest figure that I could find was in the 2016 Puget Sound Regional Council’s Transit Integration Report, which cites Metro’s agency-specific June 2016 ORCA adoption rate at 64% of fares. As Metro’s overall fortunes have risen since then, in conjunction with the simplification of fare policy and rollout of additional fare classes for youth and reduced-fare riders, I believe it is reasonable to hypothesize that the share of fares paid by ORCA card has also increased.
  4. Buses no longer operate in the tunnel, though this was less necessary than the others. The effect was a substantial loss of specialized right-of-way and an increase in the importance and visibility of reducing bus dwell times on city streets (with special emphasis on downtown peaks).

The cost-benefit analysis should be straight-forward:

  • Costs:
    • Capital expenditure for equipment and installation
    • Increased maintenance overhead
    • Predicted increase in potential for fare evasion leading to loss of farebox revenue
  • Benefits:
    • Reduced dwell time leading to service hour savings
    • Incentive to increase ORCA adoption rate
    • Reduce or eliminate need for peak-hour all-door card validator staff

To this point, it’s a math problem: If we can reduce systemwide dwell times by, say, 3%, what does that gain?

My institutional history is still somewhat limited, though, so feel free to note some other supporting or prohibiting factors I haven’t considered.

A New Streetcar Vision for 2017

It is tough to take the Seattle Streetcar network seriously these days. The reasons are well-known to the STB community and beyond, and are both obvious and many: right-of-way design choices that permanently handicap operations; outrageous cost overruns and design delays due to bizarre procurement decisions; service corridors that make little sense in larger plans; an inability to use political capital to design the system to truly work properly. Even our venerable leading advocacy groups don’t give much love to the streetcar.

Which is all very sad, because some of the world’s finest cities have expansive and useful networks, built for competitive sums of money that are highly effective and quite nice to use. We can, and should, do better. I want to see streetcars made a much more visible part of our transit future, and I believe that it’s possible.

Anecdotally, the existing lines — First Hill and South Lake Union — seem like solutions in search of a problem. How did we get here? And where do we go?

Continue reading “A New Streetcar Vision for 2017”

Call to Action: HALA Online Feedback Needs Your Input

West Seattle from the Air (Jeremy Reding – Flickr)

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) initiative is advancing through the cycles of public comment and feedback. One of the major venues is an online tool hosted at http://hala.consider.it, where each neighborhood’s proposing zoning changes are detailed and commented on individually.

Unfortunately, a quick trip last weekend through the current opinion “levels” in some of the HALA pages was disappointing — a whole lot of neutral or negative opinions in many of the places where ST train lines are already coming, and sooner (Roosevelt, Northgate) rather than later (Ballard).

One in particular deserves special mention for its markedly negative responses: the West Seattle Junction proposal, which roughly covers the two denser areas of the Triangle and Alaska Junction. The future of this area is unambiguous, thanks to the passage of ST3; there will be Link stations in the not-quite-so-distant future that can be predictably ballparked to center around the busy intersections of 35th/Avalon and Alaska/California — the two densest parts of the neighborhood. But looking at the zoning proposal’s response pages you’d never know it — a whole lot of SFH ranting and raving about how density will ruin  neighborhood “character” and destroy their property values (?!). West Seattle has a chance to be truly prepared for the arrival of the train lines given the ST3 time horizon, and a lot of people aren’t seeing it.

My point is simple: Seattle needs HALA, and now, HALA needs us, the urbanist, density-supporting community. Those opinion pages won’t be ignored; online comments (especially negative ones) tend to be taken pretty seriously by agencies around here. I want to call on the STB community to act, to take a few minutes and write comments in support of HALA’s proposals. The links below will take you directly to the response page for each neighborhood proposal.

West Seattle: https://hala.consider.it/west_seattle_junction–in-general-the-draft-zoning-changes-for-west-seattle-junction-accur

Roosevelt: https://hala.consider.it/northgate–in-general-the-draft-zoning-changes-for-northgate-accurately-reflects-the-princ

Northgate: https://hala.consider.it/northgate–in-general-the-draft-zoning-changes-for-northgate-accurately-reflects-the-princ

Ballard: https://hala.consider.it/ballard–in-general-the-draft-zoning-changes-for-ballard-accurately-reflects-the-principle

Transit Field Report: Amsterdam

I was on vacation last week in northern Europe, and this included a trip to Amsterdam and its impressive-if-slightly-mystifying transit system. (I apologize in advance for the lack of pictures — Google Images stands ready for you.)

Arrival: Thalys High-Speed Train via Brussels

The high-speed train ride from Brussels was just over an hour and a half, with only two intermediate stops in Antwerp and Rotterdam before arriving at Amsterdam-Centraal. (The train originated at Gare du Nord in Paris.) The line is well-taken care of, and moves quickly and on-schedule, but has some strange issues I’d think they would have worked out.

Platform operations were disorganized — not enough staff unloading, then ticket-checking and re-loading. There is also not nearly enough luggage storage — bags were spilling into the vestibule walking paths in every single car. As a result, each stop took longer than it needed to.

In the city: Amsterdam (GVB) Tram

Amsterdam’s tram (streetcar) network is extensive and mostly simple to use. There are 15 lines, run 7 days a week, with high-frequency (I never waited more than 7 or 8 minutes anywhere) and quasi-late (last trains around 12:45am) operations. They go almost everywhere, and most lines have a terminus at Centraal station, giving you a simple if not entirely convenient transfer point for many trips. All trains had automatic stop announcements (occasionally in English too, at attractions and major transfer points), and all had dynamic signage of some kind. (The newer models had LCD screens showing additional information; older ones had LED matrix displays only showing direction of travel and next stop.) One thing I noted is that the forward-facing sign boards not only had the route number and destination, but a semaphore-like color symbol unique to each route. I’m not entirely sure what they’re for, but it seems like a good idea.

Payment is via RFID card (“OV-chipkaart”, tap on and tap off) and cash on-board. Many (not all) trams had a fare agent on board, sitting in the middle of the carriage selling single cash rides, 24- and 48- hour passes. The day and two-day passes were disposible RFID cards — what a concept! Ticket vending machines, of which the Centraal station has exactly one (and to make it worse, it’s inside the station, away from the boarding area), aren’t in too many places and were not user-friendly. Given you can buy fares on-board from someone other than the driver, it wasn’t a big deal, except that the machines can sell tourist-friendly 72- and 96- hour passes as well, where the on-board fare agents do not.

My experience was mostly good. The system is highly functional during the day, but it has a few things I didn’t care for. Like many European transit systems, carriage doors open only on-demand, and the driver will only dwell for a hot second if no one on the train opens the doors to get off, or if no one on the ground responds fast enough. This left about 10 people rushing for the last train of the night…right as it pulled out of the station.

My biggest problem by far, however, was wayfinding. Maps were not easy to find or understand, and while basic efforts were made at each platform for local-area wayfinding, the only really good system map was the one seemingly posted only inside the trams themselves. This is an issue in Amsterdam, because much of the city is organized in a series of concentric circles thanks to their canal system where cardinal directions have little relevance.

Amsterdam has some rapid transit lines as well, but those mostly serve the outer neighborhoods of the city, with almost no stations in the center. As a result, I never had an opportunity or need to use it.

Getting out: Bus 179 and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport

Our next destination was Munich, which required a plane ride. Our 8:30am flight, however, required a bus ride at 6:00am. The 179 bus runs from the center of the city to the miniature city known as Schiphol Airport. 5 euros per person, every 15 minutes (including overnight) from the city center, the ride took about 35 minutes and drops you at the main Schiphol Plaza, where the entire airport converges. A bus ride, nothing special.

Amsterdam’s airport is one of Europe’s very largest and busiest, but nothing about it makes it a particularly unpleasant place. It’s mostly modern, signage is top-class, and amenities abound. Arts and culture have a notable place, too: the airport has its own public lending library and an annex of the Rijksmuseum. Both are, unfortunately, closed through the end of the year for modernization. Some of the concourses even have open-air rooftop viewing decks.


This was my first visit to Amsterdam, and for many reasons other than just a great transport network, I’m totally sold on the place. It’s a truly beautiful city that in many ways reminded me of Seattle. It’s a haul to get there (10 hours flight time nonstop from SeaTac), but well worth your time if you decide to make the trip.