The Right Tool for the Job: King County

King County Metro has a very specific function.  Their voter base is spread throughout the county, and it is their job to provide the highest quality transit service to the most of these citizens that they can.  If you were in charge of the county and you started from scratch, with no buses and just a map and some data about the county, how would you design transit?  First, you’d look at where most people lived and worked, since you know that commuting is a very strong transit need.  You’d see that the largest job center was downtown Seattle, with Bellevue and Redmond as secondary job centers.  And you’d see that a third of your citizens live in Seattle, but two thirds live elsewhere in the county.  Then you’d consider your transit options.

Appropriate use of transit technologies (Matt Gangemi)

More after the jump.

Continue reading “The Right Tool for the Job: King County”

Visit to Jakarta: BRT was a bad idea

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road. 

I’ve just returned from an Indonesian vacation.  My trip started and ended in Jakarta, and I had a chance to try out their transit system.  I love big cities.  I’ve visited many of them, and I had yet to find one I didn’t have some love for.  I hated Jakarta.

Jakarta is a city of 10 million people, with another 18 million in the metro area.  It’s an old city, but one that has grown very quickly in the past six decades.  Its transit system consists of buses, “bemos” (small private buses), taxis, tuk-tuks, and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

First, a word about Jakarta in general.  In Jakarta, the car is king.  As a pedestrian you will find yourself walking on narrow (~3′, sometimes less), poorly maintained sidewalks.  These sidewalks have a dual function of being mostly-closed sewers, and the sidewalk forms the cover of these sewers.  Every curb cut the sidewalk abruptly drops half a foot, and rises again at the other end of the curb cut.  Many times per block you’ll come across a concrete manhole, which is often broken or missing.  As cars are king, crossing the street is a very dangerous activity – cars will not stop for you, even if you find one of the few crosswalks.  They may slow down slightly or swerve if you’re directly in front of them, but it’s best wait for an opening and run across the street.  Of course, there are far too many cars on the roads and a trip 1/3 of the way across town to dinner took over an hour.  The trip back also took over an hour.  If you need to go anywhere, bring a good book.

Now BRT.  Unlike Seattle’s new BRT system, Jakarta has real BRT – tall buses with multiple doors and few seats that dock at pre-paid fare stations, ride in exclusive lanes (often with concrete barriers, usually in the center of the road), have signal priority, and even have two operators – one to drive the bus and one to operate the doors.  BRT is often considered a cheap way of doing mass transit.  Whenever a light or heavy rail system appears on a ballot, expect to hear a call from the tax-averse to put in BRT instead.  They will tell you it’s just as good as rail, but cheaper.  They are wrong.

Notes about Jakarta’s BRT:

1. Being a car city, every road in Jakarta that can fit more than a lane or two of cars has become a highway.  BRT added exclusive lanes in the middle of some of these highways, complete with concrete barriers to keep the cars out.  This has also had the effect of taking pedestrian crossings from difficult to impossible.

2. Since the stations are in the center of the road, it is difficult as a pedestrian to enter and leave.  Some stations have pedestrian bridges, but these add two sets of stairs to your walk.  Others just have crosswalks.  This adds time and danger to your trip.

3. In order to keep buses moving fast, the stations are never really where they need to be.  They’re limited to where the big roads are, which aren’t always close to the interesting sights.

4. They are all over capacity.  This might not be true for a city of Seattle’s size.  But a city of 10M people needs real mass transit.  The stations were completely packed when I visited – in the late morning of a weekday.  The buses came every few seconds, but the ones going anywhere interesting were like sardine cans.  At one point our bus was so full that all of the handholds were taken and people relied on the squeezing force of their neighbors to remain upright.

5. Signal priority isn’t enough.  With buses being so frequent, at some point the signals need to cycle the cars through and make the buses wait.  This means in 90 degree weather with no air conditioning and far-beyond-capacity passengers, we waited at many intersections for several minutes, queued up behind other buses.  We certainly made it through the intersections faster than the cars, but grade separation would have made our trip much faster.

Our 5 mile, one transfer trip from our hotel to the long-distance bus station took well over an hour.  It was uncomfortable, slow, and difficult.  Although our hotel was in a tourist area we needed to take a taxi to get to the bus station.

Simalarly sized Delhi was just as much a 3rd world city in 1998 when they built their subway system. Now it’s easy to get around there and tickets start at $0.15. Jakarta backed the wrong technology.

How to improve Seattle’s sidewalks.

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Seattle is covered in broken, dangerous sidewalks.  I always assumed our sidewalks were terrible for the same reason that our roads are terrible – because WA is too anti-tax to fund anything properly.  But today I found out that homeowners and businesses are actually required to maintain their own sidewalks.  Not just rake and shovel our sidewalks, but if there’s a sidewalk outside your house and it’s cracked or a section is raised more than 1/2″, you are required to repair that sidewalk.  There’s even language that allows the city to fix it for you, then bill you and put a lien on your home until you pay.

So with the death of the $60 car tab, how do we fix Seattle’s sidewalks?  Simply have city workers wander our sidewalks looking for any cracks, roots, or damage, and require the adjacent homeowner to fix it.  It may not be a popular move, but it would certainly be effective.  All without raising taxes.

Because the 1% don’t take the bus

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Occupy Seattle protesters get it.  I love that in yesterday’s Bank Transfer Day protests where they blocked traffic at a downtown intersection, they let buses pass through.  Sure, almost everyone affected by the backup are in the 99%.  But likely nobody in the 1% were on those buses.

 the police (who were cool as cucumbers) and protesters figured out a way to let buses through without leaving the intersection.

Story here.

The Ballard Spur… As a Gondola Line.

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

There’s an idea going around (read the comments here) that a logical extension of Link in Seattle would be to just make a turn West at Brooklyn Station, and serve Wallingford, Phinney or Fremont, and Ballard.  This is a great idea, and a way of serving some high-demand routes with our new rail infrastructure.  However, there are some significant barriers to implementing this plan:  we’re out of planned train capacity in the downtown tunnel, it’s claimed Northgate needs all of this capacity, branching a major trunk is rarely a good idea, and there would be two deep (expensive) stations.  Conventional wisdom is to save our pennies and someday serve Ballard with its own light rail line coming up from downtown.  There are benefits and disbenefits to both strategies, and I don’t plan on settling the debate here.

But consider for a moment running a gondola spur line.  We can have high capacity, very high frequency transit without giving up train capacity in the downtown tunnel.  We provide future connectivity between the current and future light rail lines, if one is built.  We give at least 18,500 riders (the 44, 15, 18) a faster way around each day.  And we do it all for much less money than a light rail line.

Let’s run the numbers for converting this spur to a gondola line:

At 3.2 miles, if we use a single cable gondola (14mph)  that’s about a 15 minute journey.  That’s probably too slow.  So let’s pull out the big guns and go with a 3S system (two support cables, one drive cable, 24mph).  Now we’re looking at 8 minutes, plus time at stops, so about 10 minutes end to end.  That’s more like it.

Looking at capacity, a 3S system will have plenty.  We can get between 4,000 and 6,000 passengers per hour per direction (and possibly more).  That’s the equivallent to between 40 and 60 buses in each direction each hour.

Probably a terrible idea…

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

…and it’s far too late anyway.  But what if instead of light rail over I-90, we just connected downtown Bellevue and downtown Seattle via gondola?

The two are just 6 miles apart.  Yes, that’s huge for gondola distances.  And over some deep water.  But I feel like crunching some numbers, so humor me.

Speed

We’d definately want to use 3S technology – that’s two support cables and one drive cable.  This would allow us to go 24 mph.  So that would be a 15 minute journey.  Hey, that’s much faster than Link’s 20 minute journey!  Of course, South Bellevue station and Mercer Island would increase in travel time, but everything north of Bellevue won’t be affected much (transfer will surely take less than 5 minutes, when a car leaves every 30 seconds).

Capacity

So a gondola would win in terms of speed.  What about capacity?  East Link will have a maximum of 4-car trains every 8 minutes going to the east side.  If each car can hold 200 people, that’s 6,000 people per hour per direction.  But wait, Whistler’s 3S system can carry 4,100 people per hour per direction.  And with larger stations we could add more cars, bringing that number up.

Cost

This is the big unknown.  Gondola systems are cheap compared to light rail systems, but keep in mind we’re really only comparing the section of light rail crossing I-90 (though this is probably an expensive stretch of rail).  We would need to keep the rest of the planned system, even adding a storage and maintenance area, because East Link will serve much more than Bellevue.  Also, we’d be crossing a deep lake.  I have no idea how much towers going down 200′ to the floor of Lake Washington would cost, but I’m quite sure it wouldn’t be cheap (there’s a reason we use floating bridges around here).  We could have high towers on either side and skip mid-lake towers (the lake is only 2 miles across), but that could be expensive too.

Thoughts

Well, I’m a day late and a dollar short on this one.  Our entire region’s already agreed on a plan, and it’s likely a better plan than mine.  Plus leaving the east side light rail disconnected from the west side light rail system kills all kinds of efficiencies.  Then again, maybe I’m not thinking big enough.  Why not branch out from Bellevue with gondolas?

SLU / UW Ferry

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

FYI: There’s a mini-ferry running between South Lake Union and the University District (near Agua Verde).  The trip is $5 and takes 20 to 25 minutes.  They leave UW on the hour and SLU on the half hour, every day from 8am to 6:30pm, with an extra three hours on Fridays and Saturdays.  The boat carries 14 passengers and two bikes.

They’ll run the ferry through October (weather permitting), and will start back up next year in May.  They’re also planning on connecting SLU to Fremont.

(via The Sun Break)

High Rise Buildings Are Sooooo Expensive

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One issue that comes up frequently when discussing “towers” compared to shorter buildings is cost.  Yes, taller buildings cost more.  But not much more.  And what you spend on construction can come back in saved real estate costs (since you can build more units with the same land).

Here’s some typical cost data from the 2011 RS Means*:

Apartments, Low Rise 1-4 story, $84/sf, $95,000 per unit

Apartments, Mid Rise 5-7 story, $107/sf, $118,000 per unit

Apartments, High Rise 8-24 story, $116/sf, $115,000 per unit

Don’t get too excited that the High Rise unit is actually cheaper than the Mid Rise, it’s clearly a smaller unit.  The per sf number is more important.  But either way, that’s a very small difference in price.  And let’s compare that low rise number.  It sure sounds cheap, but let’s run some numbers.  Let’s compare 3 buildings: a 4 story, a 7 story, and a 24 story, each on the same piece of land – let’s say a 15,000sf piece of land (around 3 SF homes) that cost $4M to buy and clear.  Let’s assume each unit is 1200sf.

4 story: $4M land cost, $5M construction cost, 50 units = $181,000 per unit.

7 story: $4M land cost, $11.2M construction cost, 87 units = $175,000 per unit.

24 story: $4M land cost, $41.8M construction cost, 300 units = $153,000 per unit.

Even at a higher per sf construction cost, the tall building wins.

*”The cost figures… were derived from aproximately 11,200 projects… they include the contractor’s overhead and profit, but do not generally include architectural fees or land costs.”  These are also national averages – Seattle has a location factor of 105, so 5% should be added to any number.

City Builder Book Club

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I happen to own a copy of Jane Jacobs  The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  I was several wonderful chapters in when I lost it, and only recently found it again (it was zipped away in the pocket of my suitcase).  As I work through the other 4 books I’ve started, it has sat on a shelf.  Even the few chapters I read expanded my understanding of what makes a great neighborhood.

But I’ve found a great reason to pick it back up: the City Builder Book Club.  The Center for Urban Projects, the same group that created The Gondola Project, is starting up an online book club specifically for those of us that wish to understand cities in greater depth.  And just my luck: their first book is The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  If you’re a reader here I highly recommend signing up and reading along.

Today’s Bicycle Journey

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Just to highlight Seattle’s struggling bicycle infrastructure, I thought I’d describe my bicycle experience today.  My wife and I took our 2yr old son on a ride from Gasworks Park to the Lake Forest Park Farmer’s Market.  The ride started off great – the Burke Gilman Trail was packed with bikers, joggers, and rollerbladers.  But when we were close to Lake Forest Park we came upon a sign saying that the BGT is closed in 2.5 miles, and there’s a detour.  Fairly sure the Third Place Commons was less than 2.5 miles away, we continued onward.  But I had miscalculated – the BGT was closed about a mile from our destination.  With a choice between turning around and riding 2.5 miles to the detour and just finding our own way, we chose the adventurous route.  This led us to a push-your-bike grade of hill.  Ok, a few of them.  In the hot sun, but we eventually ended up on Bothell Way NE.  This road (actually a highway), is 4 lanes of unforgiving, high-speed traffic.  It’s no place for a bike with a child seat, even downhill.  So we chose the sidewalk, until it suddenly ended.  We found a side street up and down a few more hills, and we were there.

Arriving at the market, we couldn’t find any bike racks.  I figured the town’s city hall should have at least one, and I finally found it – covered in plants from a vendor.  I asked if I could move some off it (and the vendor agreed, after some passive-aggressive banter about charging me for the spot, and how he’s going to complain to the market’s coordinator), but a recently added ballot box was installed so close that a bike couldn’t fit.  So we headed off and found people leaving the other bike rack we could find.  But another vendor was using the water spigot – located right where our bikes would go.  We eventually found another bike rack at Third Place Books.  We took a bus part of the way home, for fear of having to ride uphill Bothell Way NE.

Overall I had a great time and I love Third Place Commons.  But that was despite the lack of respect shown for bikes along the best bike path in the region.

Significant observations:

  • If I were in a car, there’s no way they’d close the only highway connecting two cities for multiple months without a realistic second option.  If the BGT really has to be closed for months, do it in the winter.
  • If you’re going to just end a sidewalk, at a blind corner with nothing but high speed traffic, at least add “sharrows”.  Actually, no.  Get rid of a lane and build sidewalks.  I can only imagine being a pedestrian – or a pedestrian in a wheelchair – in such an environment.
  • If I were in a car, businesses would go out of their way to make sure I had a parking space.  In fact, they’d devote far more than half of their entire land space to my vehicle.  Yet despite being across the street from the BGT, they can’t offer more than a handful of poorly designed bike spaces?

Dow Constantine wants your wasted heat

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

You turn on a shower.  Your hot water heater takes water that’s the same temperature as the ground (roughly 50F, depending on the season) and heats it up to around 120F.  The water runs in pipes through your walls (losing some of this heat to the outside), then you mix it with some cold water to bring it down to 105 or so (an unnecessary increase of entropy, which wastes energy), it runs by your body once, then you dump almost all of that beautiful, expensive heat down the drain.

But King County Executive Dow Constantine, working with the FreeHold group, wants to take some of that heat you’re wasting and heat other buildings with it.  They are also using ground source heat pumps, adding a smart grid, supplying district heat and cooling, recovering methane from landfill waste, harvesting rainwater, and even want to add a new Sounder station at Interbay.  The entire Interbay project will be mixed use with offices, retail, and industrial all sharing the same campus and sometimes the same building. 

Check the project out (PDF of features here, sales PDF here).  Want to save some of that wasted heat yourself?  Consider shower heat recovery.  It’s just a coil of copper tubing around your shower drain, and pays back quickly for new construction, and in a reasonable number of years for many retrofit installations.

Proposed Anti-Tunnel Strategy

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The tunnel debate is over.  Long live the tunnel debate. 

This week’s vote may have settled the tunnel debate for now, but that’s no reason for anti-tunnel advocates to give up.  No multi-billion dollar yet-to-be-funded-or-started project can be considered a done-deal until opening day.  Consider the Superconducting Supercollider, which started off as a $4.4B project and was finally cancelled once they were nearly finished but the price had risen to $12B.  Or the Monorail, which failed while shovels were hovering over the ground. 

Consider that the tunnel has to dig under a Federal Building, who’s owner has refused to let the state dig under their building.  Or consider the potential increase in the cost of borrowing now that the US has an AA+ credit rating.  Or consider the fact that this project is still not completely funded, nor are several other multi-billion dollar road projects in this state.  No, I’m not hoping for massive financial failure of this project – much of my resistance to it is because of how much it will cost us.  But if an unavoidable roadblock should occur, those that prefer no Highway 99 through downtown should be prepared.

Here’s my proposed strategy.  Have a campaign ready to go to the council, to the then-Mayor, and to the then-Governor.  The campaign message: let’s try life without the tunnel first.  Temporarily add more transit, close the thing down for a month, and see what happens.  Mayhem, madness, and gridlock?  Ok, you’re right – we will have to deal with whatever massive roadblock is in the way.  But if nothing happens, would you consider just tearing the thing down and saving billions?

Why the Roosevelt tiny 10% upzone isn’t enough

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Several Roosevelt neighborhood plan supporters are claiming that Roosevelt’s new zoning will triple the existing population within 1/2 mile of the new rail station.  At first I was tricked – triple the zoning is at least a win for Seattle, and probably as much zoning as I would have asked them for.  But some of the numbers didn’t quite make sense. 

Architect John H. Adams ran a density study, which is where these numbers come from.  But even though that study seems to indicate a tripling of density, it still has numbers like 1,000 new units.  Can there really only be 333 units currently?  And then I saw it – Mr. Adams is comparing current population with future zoning – not current zoning vs. future zoning.  Reading into his study a bit, it’s clear that the new zoning only increases potiential units by 10%.

Why this matters is that we clearly won’t get anything close to the number listed in future zoning.  The only way to do that is to bulldoze the entire area to the ground, and build up a maximum number of units on every single property.  Except in major urban renewal projects (which is clearly not called for here), this doesn’t happen.  How development works is that over time inefficient buidings (say, a 1 story building in a 6 story zone) become worth less than the potential profit that comes by building up.  That new building still rarely comes anywhere close to the maximum number of units, because as a new building it’s generally marketed as high-end and includes large units.  Over time, most of the buildings that are widely different than their potential height are replaced.  But what about the 4-story units in a 6-story zone?  It would take a very high price per unit or very low construction cost to make money on bulldozing that building, since (profit) = (value of additional units) – (construction cost) and you aren’t adding that many new units.  So the end result of upzoning by 10% isn’t a tripling of units – it’s probably an increase by about 10%.

Ok, but how much upzoning does the Roosevelt area need?  I’d argue that Seattle needs to at least match WA’s rate of growth if we’re able to even keep up with sprawl, much less reduce it.  That means every single neighborhood is due for at least a doubling of their current zoned capacity, since WA’s population has doubled since the mid 70’s while our population has stayed roughly constant.  And that’s ignoring the fact that this is a light rail station, which should have a large potential for growth.  But doubling the zoned capacity should be an absolute minimum.

DBT Adds 47,500 New 60W Incandescent Light Bulbs

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Seattle PI reports that the DBT will use quite a bit of energy – specifically 25 million kilowatt-hours per year.  Running a quick calculation, that’s equivalent to 47,500 60W light bulbs burning all day long, every day.  That’s like every single Seattlite leaving an extra non-efficient light bulb on for about 2.5 hours a day.  47,500 is a big number and is hard to visualize, so I’ve done it for you.  Here’s what 47,500 light bulbs looks like.  I recommend dark sunglasses.

American homes are over twice the size of European homes

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

According to the BBC, the average new US home is 2,300 square feet, while the average new UK home is 818 square feet.  Yet they seem to get by just fine in life.  Let’s take a look at those numbers.

First let’s compare two homes with the same weather conditions in somewhat cold region.  Seattle isn’t too different from rainy England, so we’ll use a cold Seattle winter day of 35 degrees F. 

  US UK
Wall Area (sf) 2170 1293
Window Area (sf) 542 323
Roof Area (sf) 1380 490
Heat Loss (kBTU/hr) 12.8 7.3
Electricity (kW) 4.6 1.6

 

So you can save 43% on heating and 65% on electric use by having a UK sized home. 

Assumptions:  To be fair, I assumed the same building codes exist. I assumed 20′ tall (at the exterior walls) 2-story homes with a window-wall ratio of 20%. I looked only at heat conduction – factoring in air loss would show more energy savings in the UK model. I used 2009 WA energy code values for walls and windows. I assumed 2 W/sf for electrical energy – this is a very rough estimate, and more useful for percentages.  Electric use is assumed to scale linearly with square footage because lighting typically dominates electric use, and a larger home will typically have more electric equipment.

Server homes

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Let’s look at two buildings.  In the winter, a condo complex is busy burning natural gas to heat up all of its 50 or so units.  The condo is fairly efficient, but Seattle is a cold place and the building still uses a lot of fuel to keep people warm.  Next door there’s a server farm.  It’s filled with high-end computer components whirring and computing and using a huge amount of energy.  The heat that results from this energy is dumped outside, as computers want to be cold, not warm.  The obvious solution is to connect the two – build residential over server farms.  The farms don’t care about the view, and the residents can benefit from all of the free heat and high-quailty network connection.

Microsoft (in their suburban-loving way) has looked at this for individual homes.  But breaking this into 50 pieces is crazy – you need 50x the network runs, multiple times the installation cost, maintenance would be expensive and would involve visiting multiple homes, and security would be a nightmare.  I’ve actually seen something like this done for large office buildings – our own SAM has a similar setup with the WAMU* building it’s attached to.  But connecting a server farm to a multifamily building would be perfect – offices need very little heat in comparison, since they run during the day and have high internal loads (from all of their lights – and computers!).  Homes need heat all the time in the winter, and have much smaller internal loads.

* I’m sure it has another name now.

Need directions? Look for a parking meter.

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

SDOT is trying out new smart parking meters.  Besides spitting out parking tickets, they also have maps and “wayfinding”.  Now if we could only get them to dispense and recharge ORCA cards we’d really have something.

A Tale of Two Streets

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

In the US our streets started out slow and safe before cars existed, and have become increasingly dangerous.  We’re lucky in Seattle in that much of our roads were built before modern road standards.  These standards have pushed roads to be wider for visibility and to fit large fat fire engines, remove stop signs in favor of signals prioritizing the faster road, and provide gentle curves in order to accomodate faster speeds.  Let’s look at two streets.

This is in one of Seattle’s many “streetcar suburbs”, built over 100 years ago around streetcar stops before cars were much more than a toy.  There’s one lane for cars, shared by both directions, two lanes for parked cars, two areas for trees and plantings, and two sidewalks.  A car driving here can go around 5mph and feel very safe, and at about 8mph they start feeling in danger of hitting an opening car door.  As a result, there’s little car noise and streets are very safe.  Even if an accident occurs, the car is travelling a maximum of 10mph.  There’s an alley between streets for garages and garbage (and playing soccer, or learning to ride a bike).  There are turning circles every few blocks.  Yes, it takes a while to get around at 5mph, but in the city you aren’t often travelling far.  Arterials are built for 30mph, but I think we would be better off with narrower arterials as well.

This is a suburban street in Atlanta.  I’ve had to zoom out a bit because it’s not very interesting up close.  This street was designed for cars.  Your car can get from your driveway down the street at 30mph, and onto the main road where you can drive 50mph until you hit the freeway and drive 70mph.  It’s also just a few blocks from where a local woman and her children were hit crossing the road – that wide one on the left.  Charges were dropped on the drunk, medicated, partially blind driver that killed her son and injured her and her infant.  But she was charged with vehicular homicide for jaywalking and is facing three years in prison.  There were no crosswalks within half a mile of her bus stop, and her home was across the street.  She was tried by a jury of her “peers” who only drive cars and don’t take transit.

When you build sprawl you necessarily move destinations further from origins, and car trips become longer.  When car trips are longer the logical decision is to design roads to speed up these trips.  But speed kills.  Which road would you prefer to cross with your children?

Nominated for best chart of the year

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

It’s not the fanciest graph in the world, but it’s shocking.

This graph is from Clark Williams-Derry’s ongoing series Dude, Where Are My Cars?  Our state road building machine is kind of like an optimistic weatherman during a drought in Ethiopia.  Just wait – any day now the rain will come.  They’ve been building and building roads all with bad predictions about future car use.  Despite predictions, we keep driving less.

My favorite quote: “I could have included another projection from the 2006 [DEIS]… But it was getting hard to fit all the wrongness on a single chart.” 

If we didn’t have a constitutional requirement to spend all of our gas tax money on building more roads, perhaps these predictions might not have been so optimistic?

You own this.

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

One fator that often brings down the livelyness of a city is dead, empty buildings or vacant lots.  Sometimes this happens because an owner is waiting for the right market to sell, or because of some legal issue that’s being worked out.  There are many blocks near my office with no street life despite being in a dense part of the city.  Let’s take a look at one of them:

 This is the “Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco – Seattle Branch.”  Or was.  Until our government decided they could save money by moving out to the suburbs and selling this high-value property downtown.  And in 2008 they did just that.  Except they didn’t follow their own process and perform an Environmental Impact Statement before they sold it, so they were sued (perhaps by the neighbors across the street) and in 2010 a federal judge told them they didn’t actually sell it and they still own it.  So what was potentially going to be a large new skyscraper is now an empty mass of concrete.

For the past three years this building has sat, in a high value area in the middle of the city, empty.  It’s very short for the area, has no retail or useful street activation, and has been rejected by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board as a landmark. 

It’s true that this building added little life to the street even when it was functioning.  And this is just one building.  But add together enough of these dead blocks, and it can harm the city.