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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Re: Re: Re: Changes on Broadway

Posted by on March 21 at 15:40 PM

Weird. I don’t feel oppressed when I walk past the six-story building that sits at the corner of Broadway and John—which is “jammed right against heavily traveled sidewalks.” So is the seven-story tall Biltmore, which is a beloved local apartment building.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Pearl District, and I don’t recall many buildings with setbacks. I recall a lot of buildings that built up to the sidewalks—maybe they’re the older buildings, but they’re also the ones with street-level retail, cafes, stores, and restaurants. As for Vancouver, you’re right—there are lots of taller, skinny buildings that don’t fill their lots.

But we can’t have “tall, skinny buildings” in Seattle, because we set an idiotic six-story, 65-foot height limit. That being the case, we’re going to have to live with the kind of development that, yes, fills the lot, and builds up to the allowed 65 feet. If you want to see an example of ugly, short, and set-back, check out the short, wide, and set-back building at the end of Broadway. Most people think it’s the ugliest building in the city. So set-backs, nice as they are, don’t guarantee you anything. Neither does short.

Since we’re total pussies around here about height (hello, Peter!), we can’t jump on developers for building out to their lot lines—and I disagree with you, Erica, about how people feel about crowded sidewalks. The hustle and bustle of street life is one of the things that people dig about living in the city.

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Fully agreed. Now are we going to have to bribe you to post a photo of this thing?

Right on, Dan. It's amazing how many people in Seattle can look right at the most vibrant parts of this not-very-vibrant city, think to themselves, "yeah, like that", and then come up with the exact opposite solution.

Where are the setbacks in Pike/Pine? Belltown? University Way? Ballard Avenue?

The whole problem with the north end of Broadway in the first place is the street-deadening old QFC building and the partly set back old Safeway building. Those stone-dead blocks -- even before they were boarded up -- have been blighting that end of Broadway for decades. MAKE THEM MORE LIKE THE OTHER END.

agreed that a building meeting a sidewalk nicely is a good urban design move: creates vibrancy on the street and interaction between street and retail, but erica's point that a developer can pull their building back from the property line to create a more gracious, public area infront of the actual structure helps accommodate that vibrancy and public/civic orientation to the street. heck, pull it on back and you've got yourself places for art (benaroya and SAM), areas for sidewalk cafes(cafe septieme, and precious too few other places in seattle) or places to store/infitrate groundwater to help salmon survival. all good things, i think we can all agree, and not necessarily in opposition.



Hang on -- "places to store/infiltrate groundwater"? Huh?

Pulling buildings back destroys the continuity and coherence of the street. It neverevereverever "accomodates" vibrancy; it kills it.

I agree, sidewalk cafes would be nice. But you don't pull the building back; you move the sidewalks out.

Seriously, can't you just LOOK at a street that works for a sec and then DO THAT?

Septeime isn't pulled back from the sidewalk. Its outdoor seating takes up half the sidewalk, making what Erica describes as an unacceptably narrow sidewalk twice as narrow.

And it works. And people like it. But if you say "wider sidewalks," "plazas," "setbacks," "blah blah blah," it sounds so nice. People think it'll be nice. Gee, we're getting more public space! But it doesn't work—and it's not the kind of space that people unconsciously choose when they vote with their feet and dollars. There’s a reason why Broadway between John and, uh, the end of Broadway Market/QFC works. It’s all built out to the sidewalks. After the Market, Broadway is dead until you get to the far end, and the buildings are back out to the street. And it was dead even when the QFC and Safeway at that end of the block were still open.

Oh, but that sure is some lovely open space next to the Taco Bell, huh?

I would ask Erica what she thinks of the setbacks at Seattle Central. Quite a plaza, no? Lots of brick, very pedestrian friendly? Such a wide sidewalk, right? Erica, you're a great political journalist but a lousy urban designer.

Reading back through, I wonder if we're talking about the same thing. I wonder if Erica is maybe referring to, uh, I think they're called "STEPbacks".

That is, where a building rises from the sidewalk up X feet, then steps back for the next X stories, etc. So the block is full at street level, but as you go up the floorplan gets progressively smaller. This also creates decks for upper level units.

That's different than "setbacks", which is when a building reaches the ground well back from the edge of the sidewalk.

Or maybe I'm wrong, and she did mean setbacks. If it's the former, I agree; if it's the latter I don't.

I don't claim to be an urban planner or architect, but reading all of the various threads re Broadway has me thinking.

There seems to be a theme that density and vibrancy has something to do with height.

So what about San Fran? Probably the densest city in the US....not much height anywhere outside of the downtown core. DC? Ditto. Baltimore, New Orleans, Amsterdam, Belfast, Dublin? Ditto one and all. Yet all have great neighborhoods, with lots of street life and are way denser than Seattle.

Taller buildings (with or without setbacks) alone are going to do nothing for this city other than make it even more like "Mayberry with highrises" than it already is.

But SF also is mostly apartments—very little single family housing. And most of the two-, three-, and four-flats in SF don't have yards, front or back. Re-zone Seattle for that and, yeah, we can have density without height. But if you want to preserve—snore—most of Seattle's single-family zoned neighborhoods, then we're going to have to build up, Vancouver-style, in the areas that are zoned for taller, multi-unit buildings.

Oh, and about the photos: we only had print-outs, and they needed to be scanned. Since I'm a retard, I had to ask our production folks to scan 'em. Since it was production day—the day the paper goes to the printer—the production folks were slammed. So they weren't able to get to it. We'll get 'em up tomorrow for all to see.

Dan, I think the five or six people who read the slog religiously are a LOT more important than the silly paper you put out, huh!

As for height: we don't need to line every neighborhood street with 30-story buildings. But we need to stop with the single-story, single-use buildings on our main drags. Six stories is perfect; apartments above, shops below. Maximize the reasons for walking past, which is not done by any single means, but by attacking the problem in as many ways as civically possible.

It's true that most of the 4-to-6-story mixed-use buildings going up all over the city suck ass. That's because they've only hit a couple of the angles.

Ok. Here is an interesting issue: Density and height. I've spent the better part of a year working on the issue in Baltimore, where I live in Mt. Vernon, which is kind of like Capitol Hill (homos, young artists and alterna-folks (I think John Waters fits in all three categories -- or at least did while he was young) and some professionals,) just up the hill from the inner harbour. Mt. Vernon, however, has a lot of state and national historic landmarks, and is under historic neighborhood protections. And the neighborhood has gone from a total crack-infested whores' paradise to a more stable safer environment over the last 6 years or so.

The short story is that a crappy DC developer wanted to put in 300 foot towers, and because Baltimore has an ingrown culture of corruption the likes of which you generally don't get in Seattle, he thought it would be no problem and trotted out "density" as the argument why he should be allowed to go forward.

So, I had to think a lot about density and height. Most people equate height with density because assuming limited lot space, the only way to get bigger buildings is to go up. The idea is that bigger buildings = more residential units in residential neighborhoods. And so a lot of people who want to increase density, insist that tall is the way forward.

The equation of height and density is true to an extent, but it misses something very, very fundamental. You have to get a *lot* taller before the taller buildings make any material difference on density. In other words, we need to look at *why* we want density and then whether the density you get by going tall gets you there, and then what the costs of height might be.

(By the way, I grew up in Manhattan; I love it, and I have *no* problem with intense urban density).

What we found in Baltimore was that even if we built out every available lot to the maximum height that was being proposed, the impact on density was not going to be material (e.g., less than a 12% increase in residential density). Moreover, what really was at issue in creating a vibrant street life, stronger neighborhood stores and more restaurants/cafes was to improve public transportation in and out of the neighborhood and better parking facilities. That is, neighborhoods thrive based on how many people *use* their amenities, not just how many people *live* there.

This seems like common sense, but it is not captured in the density = height equation.

Look again at Manhattan. The neighborhoods commonly thought to have the most vibrant street life, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, the Lower East Side/East Village, and Harlem don't have tons of tall buildings. Most of their buildings are older 3-6 story buildings. What these neighborhoods do have is tons of street level retail/restaurant space, and great transportation and other attractions (movie theaters, universitys, blah, blah). The neighborhoods that have the least vibrant street life are the ones with the tallest condo/rental towers. Think about the Upper East Side, Kips Bay, and Midtown on the east side.

Anyway, there are lots of reasons to doubt that the density = height equation gets at what makes neighborhoods vibrant, and, at least in our neighborhood here in Baltimore it would have wrought a lot of damage by breaking through the historic character and qualities that attract folks in the first place.

For a little more info on Mt. Vernon, see

Thanks for speaking some real sense on this Jonathan.

What keeps even Capitol Hill provincial is the difficulty in getting there - no subways, no streetcars, just crappy buses.

And you can't drive there: no free or cheap city-owned parking structure, just street parking on just off Broadway.

So what you get is lots of people trolling for spaces, making it frustrating for anyone to come there.

As for building heights: the bible of time-tested urban planning for a vibrant city, A Pattern Language, recommends a four-story limit - directly abuting sidewalks / public squares that are wide enough and laid out well enough so people want to linger.

And not just on Broadway: all over the city. That's what makes places like Paris, SF vibrant: it's not just a few blocks here, but everywhere that's 3 or 4 (or in Paris, 6) stories.

As for setbacks: they're fine if, besides the 3 or 4 stories abutting the sidewalk, you want to put in a tower. Then yes - set the tower portion back, not the entire building.

Isn't that the way they do it in the best parts of Vancouver too?

Seattle liberals are pussys. Density and height are always a good thing. Tear down that crap on B'way and BUILD.

The Pearl District is a gem and got that way because Portland doesn't have all these lame building codes passed by whimpy liberals afraid of living in a real city.

Density = Good

If that's what you think, why not move to downtown Bellevue?

A signal example of the wrong way to build a dense downtown

Actually, looking this thread over, I think most of us are in agreement that density is great if you do it the right way: 3-6 stories abutting the sidewalk, with lots of shops, restaurants, newstands, theaters, public gathering places, coffeeshops, open university classrooms etc scattered throughout, served well by public transit and/or with offstreet parking, with stepped back highrise towers behind in some places.

The thing about high-rises is that they're expensive to build: they require excavation, steel frames, piles of concrete, etc. You can fit a lot of units into a high-rise, but even with height, the cost per square foot tends to be higher than a shorter wood-framed building.

We need to allow more height in the heavily urban areas, but we also need to allow more low-rise density (without $^&$#&^* expensive parking requirements!) in neighborhoods to keep the city affordable.

Jonathan hit the nail on the head.

Can we interest you in that one-way ticket back to Chicago yet, Dan?

And where do YOU live, height fan?

I think Dan Savage lives in West Seattle? I have always wondered where he gets off going on and on about urban density and living in some single family home in West Seattle. Maybe I'm wrong about that...I hope so

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