Who says the newspapers only carry bad news? There have been a few recent stories concerning moves by the Seattle City Council and King County Executive Ron Sims that offer encouragement. At the risk of seeming like a moss-free Pollyanna, I thought I'd point some of them out.
The city council took steps to stop the scourge of the mega-houses that have been gobbling up some neighborhoods in recent years. One positive of the credit crisis might be a slow-down in over-sized development and, I hope, a trend toward saner consumption (I'm not holding my breath). But bank failures aside, Richard Conlin and others have been looking for a way to keep homes from getting completely out of scale and erasing yards and open space.
Whether you want to see Seattle's neighborhoods as livable collections of bungalows or have them get denser and more urban, monster houses are a blight, fitting fewer people into more square footage at the expense of trees and gardens. The new code, which passed unanimously, attempts to keep houses proportional with lot sizes in single family neighborhoods. It also tries to limit street-facing garages that can have a real deadening effect on street life. I've seen a stretch in Wallingford where neighbors who once chatted in their front yards on the weekends have been displaced by a wall of garage doors.
Such measures can be problematic. In suburban Vancouver, B.C., a couple years ago, people protested that rules against mega-houses were racist because it was claimed to be a way older, white families were attempting to keep out East Indian immigrants who had much larger, multi-generational households and needed bigger houses. There doesn't seem to be any sign of that here, but there are cultural components to issues like scale. Nevertheless, the council's move is a good step in trying to right-size housing footprints and preserve neighborhood character and the environment.
The city council also passed new rules that would make it easier to open sidewalk cafés in Seattle, a city that has been reluctant to allow them to flourish. The new measure would lower the cost of permits and speed up the process by which restaurants can get approval. Mayor Greg Nickels has been pushing for this, too. In the past, it's not been just the city that's been hesitant or obstructionist: Some condo owners' associations have also opposed them. Condo owners don't want the noise or commotion outside their windows or near entrances. One irony is that many downtown condo owners don't really take advantage of the streets much anyway as they are only part-time residents or they sneak in and out of their glass towers by car via underground parking. They really do want a kind of safer, quieter city even while they profess to enjoy the urban edge from their penthouses.
Seattle struggles between its urban and suburban urges, and I sympathize. But one of the benefits of urbanization is more street life, and I've long been struck by how other cities foster this with more creativity and liberality. In San Francisco, you can find downtown alleys that have been turned into wall-to-wall outdoor eateries where people can stroll and pick where to eat as if they were strolling a sit-down version of Bite of Seattle. Most of these also have overhead canopies and heaters that are useful in inclement weather.
As someone who made his living for many years from distributing newspapers in boxes, I have long been irritated by the over-zealous efforts to "clean the streets" by trying to Kirklandize downtown Seattle by limiting — or eliminating entirely — freestanding newboxes (this kind of over-protection is bad for places like Kirkland too, though not as bad as the overabundance of cutesy animal sculptures that plague their downtown). Seattle streets could use more boxes, more kiosks, more news vendors, more benches, more pay phones, yes, even more clutter. A Disneyfied city gives us the worst of two worlds: a bland, mall-like downtown with all the density and none of the mitigating excitement.
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