Slog: News & Arts

RSS icon Comments on Why Downtown is No Place for Families


Seattle should do what Chicago has done: build dormitories downtown. Several Chicago colleges (Columbia College, De Paul, Robert Morris) teamed up to create dorms right in the center of the Loop. The presence of lots of young men and women and their buying needs increased the number of grocery stores and other retailers, and turned downtown from a ghost town during the evenings to a lived-in neighborhood. This in turn attracted empty-nesters and some families, and new developments at the south end of the Loop (though one dates to the '70s) include single-family homes, townhouses and lots of yards and green space in what was once railroad yards and industrial dumps.

Urban centers can be liveable places as well as places to work and panhandle.


Posted by bill | October 17, 2006 1:22 PM

When I lived downtown for a short time with DJ, my son, I thought it rocked. We played catch in Westlake, walked to that weird proto-gameworks on the waterfront, and biked the paths to Myrtle Edwards Park. Grocery store? Uh, Pike Place Market?

We do need a large downtown park, though. Something like, you know, the Commons?

Posted by Dan Savage | October 17, 2006 1:32 PM

Families and bachelor types are mostly conflicting lifestyles, aren't they?

Vancouver is currently suffering from having all but one huge venue have to close down slowly but surely because the families that moved into Vancouver's very vertical and more spacious downtown are complaining about the slightest sound coming from a venue blocks away at 11pm at night.

Most of the venues in Seattle are in Capitol Hill now, but there are still a few in downtown, and having a family friendly downtown essentially boils down to a music-unfriendly downtown.

If you care about live music, that is. Or perhaps any activity that can generate noise.

Speaking of families moving in, when are all those boutique shops and rug dealerships going to close down and make room for the families? We can't have families if we have all these fashion boutique businesses in the way, or any business that is not family friendly.

Posted by matthew fisher wilder | October 17, 2006 1:39 PM

Dan, the Market isn't open after 6 pm and thus is not a viable grocery-shopping option for anyone who works regular hours. If you're downtown and without a car, you can haul groceries by bus from Lower Queen Anne or Uwajimaya, or pay way too much at for no selection at the mini grocery marts like Ralph's. Proximity to a good, 24-hour grocery store was the main reason I moved up onto the hill.

Posted by Amy Kate | October 17, 2006 1:41 PM

I think the article has it a little backwards. The housing market is mostly a result of demand, not so much a static barrier to families looking to live downtown. People don't generally move their families the Northwest to live in an urban core, anyhow.

It’s always mentioned San Francisco’s lack of families compared to most cities (where I’ve been since 2000), but after living on Capital Hill and Downtown in the decade before that (where you can almost forget children exist as a part of normal life), it was a big culture shock to start living shoulder-to-shoulder with so many families.

Posted by Dougsf | October 17, 2006 1:44 PM

The crackheads, meth dealers and gangs are reason alone to keep the kids outta the city. Working down here is enough. Living down here would be a mistake. I witness at least 3 drug deals each time I walk around my building. Clean up the downtown FIRST! Wise up Mr. Mayor! Your city is filthy and chock full of drugs!

Posted by Done | October 17, 2006 1:59 PM

If we're talking about making dense living more family-friendly, I think we have to expand the discussion:

  • From downtown to the neighborhoods.
  • And from condos to condos+townhouses.

It's so much easier to move away from the single-family house paradigm if you're moving to one of the neighborhood centers rather than to downtown. Places like Green Lake and Greenwood and Ballard just have this feeling of being away from the rat race that makes them much more approachable for families. (I do believe South Lake Union does have some potential on that front.)

And while I wish that builders would build more 3+ bedroom condos and make them more affordable, and while I wish people would get over this peculiar American desire to have a yard (i.e. "private outdoor space"), I feel like townhouses merit a fairly reasonable compromise, especially if you do like Vancouver does and have a mix of townhouses and condos. Adding condos to the mix makes the neighborhood denser and more walkable, and the families living in townhouses can benefit from that.

I do have to second one statement Erica makes: For one thing, almost none of the condos that are going on the market now offer floor plans with more than two bedrooms; the few that do charge a million dollars or more.

Sometimes I fantasize about raising a family in Portland's Pearl District, the neighborhood South Lake Union is trying to emulate. Very few properties listed in the Pearl have three or more bedrooms, and those that do run in excess of $700K.

Yeah, I wish Americans would get over this preconception that you can't raise a family without a single-family home with a yard and the automobile dependency that comes with that. But there is this chicken-and-egg thing. Which comes first, the development or the demand?

Posted by cressona | October 17, 2006 2:08 PM

The Whole Foods on Denny & Westlake is opening next month. Sure it's a rip-off, but it is a grocery store.

After living way (way) out in Sammamish for the last year, my wife and I couldn't take it anymore and are moving back downtown in a few months and bringing our new baby with us. Perhaps we're being foolish, and we'll end up fleeing back to the Eastside, but I'm optimistic. Both my parents grew up in the city (San Francisco & New York), and neither of them seem all that damaged from the ordeal.

Posted by Mike | October 17, 2006 2:10 PM

Well, it all comes down to parks - or the lack of kid-friendly ones.

I love living in Fremont - amongst all the apartment buildings and townhouses.

My son's lived with me there since 1999, and he likes it too. But when I think about the time I lived in Vancouver (East Van, Burnaby, New West), the thing I miss the most is all the playable greenspace AMONGST all the very tall highrise inexpensive apartments.

We don't have inexpensive apartment buildings downtown. We don't have lots of playable parks for kids (except behind massive gates for private use). And there's no schools to speak of.

Posted by Will in Seattle | October 17, 2006 2:13 PM

I'd like to speak up for the crackheads and drug dealers. They were all very polite to me and my kid. I know in other cities there are a lot oh, oh, drug-decimated neighborhoods that are extremely dangerous for kids. But when you walk around downtown Seattle with a kid, the druggies cut you slack and a pretty wide berth. I actually detected a note of sentimentality in the way we were treated—they didn't want to fuck with us, lest they traumatize my kid.

Now when I was alone it was a different story.

Posted by Dan Savage | October 17, 2006 2:19 PM

You made your bed, Density Proponents. Now lie in it.

Posted by Gomez | October 17, 2006 2:52 PM

But to give this topic a more serious answer, Amy Kate hit the nail on the head what the problem is. No basic amenities like grocery stores and schools. Plus, yeah, the cost.

When everyone was so density, density, density, no one bothered to keep the developers in check and make sure they implemented these family necessities.

Posted by Gomez | October 17, 2006 3:07 PM

One more item: in the case of development... realtors and properties will reach out to sell their homes. In the case of condos, I believe to create demand, you need to create the item. So unless developers build affordable 2-3 bed pads, you're not gonna see a demand for them.

Posted by Gomez | October 17, 2006 3:12 PM

Grocery Store? We have delivery now. (and other stores I am sure...) It's like 10 bucks and they deliver it to your door (and you dont tip, against policy for them). So you can get all the "staple" items for cheap, and then go to the great markets in the city (pike place, uwajimaya, trader joes, whole foods)to get specialty items. I used to live in the internation district and found myself trying more diverse foods since I wasnt so close to a QFC, etc.

As for parks? There are more parks and green places then you can shake a stick at. Sure there are druggies at some of them, but that is anywhere. And as Dan said, they aren't going to harass you if you have a kid with you. Christ on a cracker, people need to get some balls and deal with "real life" (which includes people of all income levels). I'll raise any kid that I have here in the city, rather than stick them out in the suburbs.

Posted by Monique | October 17, 2006 3:13 PM

I'll second cressona's point. The urban centers (Ballard, Greenlake, Sandpoint, etc) may be a better choice for raising young children then the heart of the urban core.

What would make such a situation more tenable is the restoration of the citywide urban rail system (which created these urban cores in the first place.) That way, parents can still make it in where the jobs are, but also have a bit more breathing room, green-space, and family-centered services around their home.

Posted by golob | October 17, 2006 3:14 PM

My response after reading the PI story yesterday was, "So what..."

The whole point of concentrating high-rise developments in places like downtown was to protect the sprawling single-family neighborhoods from that kind of development. I think it would be foolish for the city to build (or to provide tax breaks for) the kinds of family-friendly amenities mentioned in that article.

Zoning rules already give unnatural protection to the kinds of sprawl that families are thought to like.

The only way to get city money for playgrounds and such would be to gut the already paltry funding for low- or moderate-income housing coming from downtown housing developers.

I trust that eventually some of the older condos downtown will drop enough in price so that families (or developers) could combine two or three of the original units into "family" spaces. If that happens and people with kids want to move there, then fine. Give them the amenities that want. But let the pioneer families determine what those amenities are.

Posted by Robin | October 17, 2006 3:55 PM

A grocery store isn't an amenity: it's a requirement.

I lived in Belltown for 2 months when I first moved to Seattle a year ago and there were no grocery stores within walking distance, only high priced convenience stores. Or I could walk an extra long way to high-priced Ralphs. Ridiculous.

Posted by mapletree7 | October 17, 2006 5:22 PM

Okay y'all, there are several grocery stores in the planning stages in and at the edges of downtown. Besides the new Whole Foods opening up on November 8th, a new grocery store will be opening up on 2nd and Pine in two years. Also, M Street is opening up on 8th and Madison. It's a start. Isn't there a new type of QFC opening up on 5th where the old Tower Records is located? Yeah, they'll be a bit expensive, but many of the people who are moving downtown are upper income folks. Uwajimaya is downtown and the Market is great for staples if you make the time for it. As for parks, I'd like to see more. The new OSP is opening in January. That's one more park downtown, but the city needs to put the parks we have to better use and some folks around here need to get over the street element. It is not all that bad or horrible. I mean, you could opt for Ballard or Greenwood. How about Columbia City? Sheesh, people around here act like the sky is falling or that life is so so hard in Seattle.

Posted by Jean Energy | October 17, 2006 6:13 PM

To Done, post #6:

If you think that downtown has a more significant crack, meth, and gang problem than that of less-than-affluent King County suburbs (Lake City, Kent, Renton, Federal Way, parts of Bellevue and Kirkland, etc.), you couldn't be more wrong. There's a density in parts of downtown that tend to force these issues out into the open, but they're are no more severe than areas that were once escaped to for that very reason.

Posted by Dougsf | October 17, 2006 6:20 PM

Seattle has so many suburban-like neighborhoods, what's so bad about downtown being kid-free? What's so bad about childless professionals and empty-nesters?

Posted by cite | October 17, 2006 7:51 PM

Also -- isn't Vancouver quite expensive? I recall reading that it is one of the most expensive places in Canada - is that not true? How do ordinary families afford those downtown townhomes in Vancouver?

Posted by cite | October 17, 2006 8:19 PM

Downtown Seattle overrun with drugs? Give me a break. Whoever said that must not have lived here for very long.

The mid 80's (after Penney's closed and before the Alexis Hotel opened) were the dark days for downtown - when First Avenue, from the Federal Building up through the Pike Place Market, was seriously nasty.

Nowadays, downtown is a cake walk.

Posted by Catalina vel-duray | October 17, 2006 9:51 PM

I love it when the irrationally fearful suburbanites post about downtown. There's probably more drug dealing and gang activity going in within three miles of their over-mortgaged castle than there is downtown.

Posted by let's get some shoes | October 17, 2006 10:15 PM

I agree with what Cressona stated earlier and also believe that we as Americans need to get over the peculiar desire to our "private outdoor space". Even thought this thought is very understandable, I think it's extremely important to know that you can raise a family without a single-family home without a yard in the suburbs. There is numerous evidence which proves this is still true today. I myself grew up in the city and loved it. Maybe Downtown Seattle may not be the same as downtown New York, maybe it doesn't have the amenities as NYC and the needed school system to support quality education for children. But this is definately somethin we as a state can work to improve. I just believe that it's extremely important to know and remember that this "mind set" we have that the city is a wrose environment for raising children is wrong. Why not give the city a chance?

Posted by jambajuice | October 18, 2006 12:39 AM

What Gomez stated is understandable and may be true. Downtown Seattle may not have the basic amenities such as grocery stores and schools to fit the requirements for establishing a family. However I think the view he took was a little too extreme. He is making it seem like there is no hope for families to strive in the cities but obviously we all know that's not true. We have countless amounts of people who grew up in the city. They may not have a "back yard" or "a single family home" but does that really matter? I agree that Downtown Seattle definately isn't up to par regarding how much better it could get, but I definately don't want to make it seem like that the conditions are just impossible, maybe a little tough right now.
There is so much us as a society can do to help this place become a better family environment, maybe fund for more schools, clean up the area a little bit, the dormitory idea sounds good as well. A better railway system? All of these are great ways to enhance the city life to make it more suitable for families. I just want people who read this to know that we shouldn't take extreme views but more accept other views and try to expand off of that to come to a solid solution.

Posted by jambajuice2 | October 18, 2006 12:46 AM

I don't think downtown Seattle is dealing with that bad of a drug problem. I have lived all over the country and Seattle is by far one of the nicest and safest cities I've lived in. You go to places like Boston or Philadelphia, and there are areas that are a lot worse than anything I've seen in Seattle (although I can't say I'm an expert of the area or anything). But I tend to feel pretty safe when I walk the streets at night.

Furthermore, I agree with Cite. Seattle is completely surrounded by suburbia, do we really need to make more room to build parks for what seems to be a small portion of families that live in the downtown district? Downtown is more of a commercial area if anything, I don't really see the need for there to be some type of family attraction. We have the Space Needle/Seattle Center/EMP/Green Lake for that.

Posted by Eric | October 18, 2006 1:17 AM

To answer the question about Vancouver being expensive: no, it's not. You can rent quite cheaply. It's only expensive if you want a big house with a big yard or a fancy condo with a view.

Seattle has always been far more expensive from my personal view - as someone who's lived in both - than Vancouver.

Posted by Will in Seattle | October 18, 2006 10:00 AM

One of the primary reasons that you were able to rent so cheaply in Vancouver, Will was because of the tremendous amount of development that was allowed and encouraged on the former railroad property within the downtown.

These high priced luxury condos sated the demand that previously had driven up prices and rents in the West End. Talk with Gordon Price or Larry Beardsley: they'll tell you that the biggest single factor in the creation of affordable housing was encouraging the development of non-affordable housing.

Of course, the same has not and probaly never will happen here in Seattle. The leaders of our city are spineless against the NIMPS (Not In My Precious Seattle), who often out of little more than pure jealousy, attempt to prevent any and all development that doesn't serve the neediest of our citizens (and even then, they'll only give their support as long as that housing isn't being proposed anywhere near where they live).

They're rallying cry is "Seattle is just fine the way it is and we don't need any more 'condo-rific' development. Meanwhile rents and sales prices creep higher and higher as more and more people chase the same number of apartments/homes.

It's the voice of uniformed, narrow-minded citizens like Gomez above (who appears to blame density for everything) that will slowly but surely bleed our city of all affordable housing within 20 miles - except for that which is funded by the taxpayers.

Posted by Condo dweller | October 18, 2006 11:48 AM

LOL people love making disparaging remarks about me. ::waiting for the obvious comeback of, "Well, you make it so easy."::

Also, a curious question for Will: why, then, did you leave Vancouver?

Posted by Gomez | October 18, 2006 12:19 PM

Also, re: Seattle being 'surrounded by suburbia'... if you go to nearly any city in the US, you'd find that these cities are not surrounded by, but covered in, 'suburbia'.

Tract single-family housing is the rule, not the exception, sadly.

Posted by Gomez | October 18, 2006 12:21 PM

Take heart, Gomez - the proponents of density at all costs (and despite any and all impacts) aren't gonna let reality intrude on their fantasy world any time soon.

Posted by Mr. X | October 18, 2006 12:28 PM

Comments Closed

In order to combat spam, we are no longer accepting comments on this post (or any post more than 45 days old).