Doing density right

The residential megablocks of the past few years didn't work out financially or in terms of urban design. Here's a better idea, crafted to a Capitol Hill opportunity and inspired by an Amsterdam neighborhood.
T.T.Minor property on Capitol Hill

T.T.Minor property on Capitol Hill

The Jordaan neighborhood in Amsterdam

The Jordaan neighborhood in Amsterdam

Stand in the shadow of any giant residential megablock in Seattle and you can't help but wonder: Isn't there a better way to do this? The reality of massive buildings now being auctioned off at fire-sale prices seems proof that bigness alone is neither necessary nor sufficient a condition for successful development in Seattle.

Developers have long crowed — and local politicians have cowed to — the notion that "we can't make money in Seattle unless we build six-storey buildings." After a round of developer-driven upzoning we now behold the post-bubble result: fleets of full-block behemoths standing half-empty, unsold, even half-built.

Across the street from Capitol Hill's lively Cal Anderson Park stands a development that appears complete and appealing until a look inside reveals that the skin is finished but the innards are hollow — exposed joists, wires, and rafters — another buttoned-up ghost of the Great Recession waiting for a better idea.

What will we make of this enforced economic pause? Will we carve out urban and mental space in which to think about growing smartly and sustainably instead of just bigger and faster? Or will we simply wait for the banks to resume shoveling debt so the bulldozers can resume shoving dirt?

A few blocks up Capitol Hill from that shuttered project is a place that could change our thinking about Seattle urban density. It means we have to set aside preconceptions, re-tweak some zoning, and steal some a few great ideas from elsewhere.

T. T. Minor Mews. Near the crest of Madison Street where Capitol Hill meets the Central District sits the site of T. T. Minor Elementary School. If the school board ultimately prevails, T. T Minor will soon close up shop. The site is a 3.5-acre chance to do density differently in the middle of one of the most dense parts of the city. It includes the school, a park, and a parking lot with plain old neighborhood on three sides. It has abundant transit connections and a multitude of shops, restaurants, and grocery stores within 3 to 5 minutes walking distance.

It is an ideal spot to explore a dense, diverse development model as an alternative to the Seattle norm. That better model would be something like the Jordaan neighborhood in Amsterdam, one of the most dense and paradoxically most pleasant urban neighborhoods in the world.

It is an urban planning cliche‚ to wish that if only every city would be more like Amsterdam. (The New York Times' David Brooks muses on that idea.) However, Seattle is a city that could pull it off, politically, in a neighborhood where it actually makes sense to try it.

The concept is straightforward: create high-density/low-rise living spaces in a neighborhood built for people before cars. The City Design Library web site gives an overview of the Floor Area Ratio concept and the value of using less of the land space for vehicles and more for human living. This won't work everywhere, not even in most areas of Seattle. At the T. T. Minor site (A possible moniker: T. T. Minor Mews) pursuing these ideas could work terrifically well. Here's what it would take.

Plan on a smaller scale. Keep streets to a single lane wide enough for a firetruck with sidewalks on either side. Keep those sidewalks at street level to make handicapped access, biking, scootering, and carting all easier.

Double the grid density. Remember, twice as many streets means four times as many street corners.

Build shorter, narrower buildings with smaller spaces. Limit building heights to four storeys and set the fourth storey back a bit to let more light spill into the streets. Keep most units under 1,000 square feet or so to keep the rental and purchase costs more affordable, but make certain to offer a range of sizes and plans.

Keep the first floors tall (12 feet) and flexible-use, so that they can evolve from residences to shops to offices to garages and back over the years. That means that the garages will need to be street-level, few, and far between. Eliminating the need to build vast underground catacombs of parking will go a long way toward affordability.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jun 17, 7:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Good ideas. I'd love neighborhoods at that scale. Parking below-ground of course, and in limited quantities...

Funny how fire truck access requirements contribute to the wide streets that make suburbia less safe for kids, and the perimeter driveways around many other buildings that mean you have to cross a driveway to get anywhere...

PS, those "megablocks", meaning half-blocks and sometimes full blocks, will always be cheaper per unit. Considering today's economy an indication of anything is like burning soup, then crossing out the recipe.

mhays

Posted Wed, Jun 17, 9:37 a.m. Inappropriate

One of the reasons the Amsterdam neighborhood works so well is the narrowness of the streets, no big front yards. The doors open up to the street, people mingle. It is a pedestrian atmosphere alive with sights and sounds, and smells, unique to older urban areas that have not been planned around modern zoning regulations - and virtually impossible to reproduce in Seattle, or any major west coast urban area, where streets are required to be wide enough not just for a firetruck to drive down, but wide enough for a firetruck to make a U-turn. Good luck getting that changed.

Posted Wed, Jun 17, 10:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Perhaps the reason for fire-sale prices is that there is too much development? In which case more development might not be the best approach.

I am not familiar with the situation, but maybe if the school closes there could be some interim use for the property that creates employment or community or adds something to the neighborhood? And then in the future (once existing development has been digested) this sounds like a great idea.

spock

Posted Wed, Jun 17, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

This is one of the better pieces of the many folks writing and blogging on these issues here, in seattlepi.com or for promotional reasons in the business or trade press. However we must be very careful to consider the cultural context of the models we create and avoid mindless adaptation without regard to the forces (social, economic, regulatory, anthropological or otherwise). You do a more thoughtful job than most...but recall we still are not descendant of a medieval City, Dutch culture and all of the rest.

Posted Wed, Jun 17, 2:21 p.m. Inappropriate

One thing that they've been doing in the Netherlands (and elsewhere in Europe, Japan, and recently in New England) is add woonerfs to city scapes, a kind of social integration of pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars that is esthetically pleasing (and typically raises property values) and safer:

http://www.livablestreets.com/streetswiki/woonerf
http://www.metropolismag.com/story/20060417/streetless-in-seattle

Requiring developers to integrate woonerfs and woonerf-like improvements to street-level access to their properties would help a lot, too.

The problem is that SDOT seems very into ugly things chicanes and excessive signs and less (if at all) into integrated/holistic approaches to streetscape design.

smacgry

Posted Wed, Jun 17, 2:29 p.m. Inappropriate

As to "Doing density right", the way to see it done wrong is in the CBD of Mercer Island- a newly built collection of ineptly designed multi-stories. JG

Posted Wed, Jun 17, 3:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Woonerfs only work when cars are few and slow (emphasis on slow), and lots of people walk. Otherwise they become like any other driveway, road, or parking lot.

mhays

Posted Wed, Jun 17, 5:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, woonerfs are installed in ORDER to slow down cars and reduce volume; it is a traffic mitigation technique that has been far more effective in cities where it's been used (including London) than other techniques. Woonerfs also INCREASE pedestrianism dramatically because people perceive the area as walkable (and safe).

You don't put a woonerf in where traffic is slow, car volume is low, and foot traffic high already; you put a woonerf in order to slow traffic down, to improve the pedestrian experience, and to make the streetscape more esthetically pleasing.

smacgry

Posted Wed, Jun 17, 6:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Come on up to 13700 block of Roosevelt Way N, 3 blocks north of Ingram HS. There, the district has sold land to a "developer", and it has sat dozed flat for a couple years. You'll love the pre-car open ditches and sidewalks promised when the hood was annexed 55 years ago are coming any time.

Time is a'wastin'
Make your dream a reality!

Fact is that the price of land is so freaking high, and the endless permitting process, has developers betting on what could maximize the cost and delayed return on investment.

Mr Baker

Posted Wed, Jun 17, 7:41 p.m. Inappropriate

smacgry, it depends what you mean by "woonerf." If you mean a place without sidewalks where pedestrians and a large volume of cars basically mingle together, a woonerf is a horrible idea for pedestrians. If sidewalks are still there, then great.

mhays

Posted Thu, Jun 18, 2:03 p.m. Inappropriate

I have lived in the neighborhood and raised both of Garfield grad daughters here. By the way they both are college grads too.

This school is a key piece of the community identity and the only neighborhood school there. District planning for the school and the program placement there have been chaotic over that last 10 years while the area has rapidly revitalized This reference area has the highest birth rate of any reference area in the Central Cluster and the fastest growing number of children under age 5 of any reference area in the entire city. Should the school district buy anther parcel of property and build another school in the same area? Our families and our neighborhood deserve a neighborhood school as much as any other group of families.

It is a beautiful school with skylights that provide a lot of natural light and high score for educational function. If you are so eager to for this site to become something different then why not just propose shuttering all the schools and sell them to developers, especially in neighborhoods with very viable demographics such as the TT Minor area.

Schools are owned by the public and are a public asset to be used in the public interest. Schools should not operate in the interest of short term profit of investors. Children, families and communities need long term stability for their schools,

joannac

Posted Thu, Jun 18, 3:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Have parking on the edges of the development and have the interior streets car-free. Automated bollards can be used for access for delivery and emergency vehicles.

racc

Posted Thu, Jun 18, 6:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Just who writes these articles and what kind of background do you need to have? English as a native language? Please, this kind of sheer masturbatory fantasy cannot be left standing unchallenged.

To be an eloquent advocate of any kind of city planning, you need to have a professional background, preferably with a degree. You need to have work experience in the area. (Naturally, if you're educated in the Pacific NW and work here, that is insufficient to qualify you in view of the fact that the local urban environment is simply halacious).

Moreover, if you're going to make comparisons with, say, Amsterdam, you need to know something about it. Is this asking too much? Amsterdam, like most of the Netherlands, is flat and below sea level. The primary historical form of navigation was via the canals. As in all major European cities, the street form is historical -- not imposed by government fiat.

Does this strike you as being a good model to emulate? Sometimes I think this city is truly lacking in individuals with any kind of broader critical thinking skills. Granted, the city is severely lacking in intellectual leaderships and instead is rich in failed business executives ranging from Gates to Allen to Killinger, etc, but this free form thinking without any connection to reality and posited in some Arcadia free of vehicles and the inconveniences of modern life would simply inspire titters at any major school of urban design (say, GSD).

This is a city that clearly will simply wait for the Viaduct to 'pancake' to death multiple drivers as a result of a 'force of God' earthquake, point fingers in recriminations, and then blithely go on its way to the next Mariners game. The future of this city, which we can see already in the crime infested jungle of (one example only) the International District, will make Blade Runner a hallucinatory vision -- but not of LA, where there has been tangible progress in the last decade -- but of Seattle, which is steadily sinking from the indifference of its population and failure of leadership of its governing elite.

TomL

Posted Fri, Jun 19, 10:44 a.m. Inappropriate

TomL, regardless of the merits of this idea, do you honestly stick by your assertion that "to be an eloquent advocate of any kind of city planning, you need to have a professional background, preferably with a degree"? If I remember correctly, Jane Jacobs graduated from the Columbia School of General Studies (of which, incidentally, Isaac Asimov was also an alumnus). She had no MUP or the equivalent, nor ever worked for government or, to the best of my knowledge, a planning consultancy, but I think she was a rather eloquent advocate nevertheless.

I suppose you could say this is the exception that proves the rule, but in general the idea that only degreed professionals should have a voice in issues that are within their field is disturbing, on many levels.

Posted Fri, Jun 19, 12:09 p.m. Inappropriate

As to: "I suppose you could say this is the exception that proves the rule, but in general the idea that only degreed professionals should have a voice in issues that are within their field is disturbing, on many levels". I agree completely with author Benjamin Lukoff. Wiseness does not always/often come with advanced schooling. Real world experience is often better training in effectiveness.

Posted Fri, Jun 19, 12:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Please contact GO TEAM for TT Minor at 206-323-7413
School Board President Michael DeBell on May 23, 2009: "Bring me 300 students, and you can have TT Minor Elementary School."

Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson on May 20, 2009: "I believe in neighborhood schools, and every community deserves one."

Advocates for TT Minor Elementary School are actively pursing an International Program focusing on the study of language and culture with a global perspective to prepare students for success in a global village. During the intitial pursuit of the idea, they received an out-pouring of support in theTT Minor community and have met with District officials regarding taking the first steps in the development of a comprehensive, K-5 international education.

You can be a part of creating a culturally diverse community of life-long learners with engaged students developing advanced skills in communication, international language and technology. The plan would lead to immersion programs in Spanish, Japanese and English with an Advanced Learning Opportunity Program. TT Minor would continue its partnerships with Seattle Music Partners, Pratt Fine Arts, Chess Club, Math Club, Language Clube, French Class and After School Child Care and activities.

In order to join the team please contact the number below. Your help and talents will be needed to create a forum of parents and community members to meet with the District. Let's make this happen.

Please contact GO TEAM for TT Minor at 206-323-7413

joannac

Posted Sun, Jun 21, 10:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Matt,

I think you're on the right track here. Big block developments suck when they go edge to edge. A great contrast is the neighborhood-crushing senior housing that just went up at Denny and Fairview, compared to the permeable Alley 24 at John and Pontius a couple of blocks away.

European and Asian cities have plenty of alleys that are too small for fire trucks, let alone fire trucks plus sidewalks. Are those neighborhoods simply resigned to death after the first flames take hold? Or are there tactics and technologies for fighting fires when only a small path bisects a block? I've never found an acceptable answer for why it's okay for them and not us.

Anyways, I think there's a huge flaw in your specific site plan. You're proposing that we get rid of playground and park space and turn it over to private development. I just can't get behind that idea, no matter how wonderful the development might seem. And that structure must still be in usable condition... apply the "reduce" (encroachment on nature), "reuse" (old structures), "recycle" (construction materials) mantra for buildings as well!

Let's say you find a better site...

I also would like to challenge you to push the limits even farther on your design. Why does it have to be a four-story pyramid? Let's look at one or two-story development, or at least breaking up the site with one-story commercial alleys.

(For a great example of new alley development, check out this "street" built on a former parking lot by an insane/visionary private developer : http://tinyurl.com/ls5yt6 , or if you don't read Japanese, settle for an entry I wrote: http://tinyurl.com/mmrnyr )

And if we have to let fire trucks drive through our site, do we really need space for sidewalks *and* roadway? How about a road that fits the fire truck with the minimal necessary clearance, like this one: http://tinyurl.com/n4cwvk ?

If you're talking about the roads around the site, then I agree with other posters - let's just make a woonerf. If cars drive through, it's their problem, like the idiots who go down Pike Place. Pedestrians will move about as they please, like this: http://tinyurl.com/mp6t8w

Sorry for all the links today :)

Rob K

Posted Mon, Jun 22, 7:30 a.m. Inappropriate

With TT Minor gone and the middle school at Meany moved, where will all the children go to school that live in this new community?

A community is not a community without schools.

There will not be any schools within a reasonable distance of this development.

Taylor

Posted Wed, Jun 24, 1 p.m. Inappropriate

I live 1/2 block from TT Minor. It's a great neighborhood -- utterly walkable, and even with the density, street parking is still possible.

If we lose the school to development (which I hope we don't), we should not lose the green space to the west of the school. There's very little green space in our neck of the woods. Any attempt to do so will bump into serious community resistance.

Joe

jsperry

Posted Mon, Jun 7, 10:33 p.m. Inappropriate

What family can live in 1000 square feet these days? Not even just me an my dog.

Reality. We have got to get planners and dreamers back into the world of funcionabilty.

Do you know why Wyoming has the fewest foreclosures and a low unemployment rate? Because they think for real people. And they demand functionability at all times.

jonleland

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