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Sunday, February 2, 2003

Changing Visions

Bring it on, rapidly

I would highly recommend "How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken" by Alex Marshall, who basically comes up with the same theory that you have so far. I applaud Washington on taking a stand on sprawl and passing the Growth Management Act. But I think Seattle should do more.

I think a rapid transportation system is important for the city. We can't survive by buses alone. Buses get stuck in the same traffic that cars do, plus they are pretty unreliable and don't come often enough. The monorail or the light rail (or heavy rail such as a subway, which will never happen in this stingy city) is needed to connect Seattle neighborhoods and the airport to allow for rapid movement. Personally, I would love for the state to pass a moratorium on road building in Pierce and King counties and only explore mass-transit solutions for both of those areas. Rapid mass-transit solutions preferably.

I also believe that we need more affordable housing for the middle class and more schools. For some reason we only build either low-income housing or luxury apartments. I haven't seen anything in between unfortunately.

We should also stop subsidizing the roads with public money. The price of gas should be raised to accommodate road upkeep instead of using property and other sale taxes to support the road infrastructure.

— Felix Sukhenko

Cities are for living

So much of the historic Seattle style of journalism is pure criticism and cynicism; it's great to see a forward looking critical piece on the state of the city. Especially that it appears as pro-density argument, which is a tough stand to take. For some reason, Seattle needs to be periodically reminded that people do live in cities. Cities aren't just postcards for driving through to get back and forth from business parks to single-family-residence neighborhoods. They aren't just a purgatory of office buildings and parking garages that empty out every day at six o'clock and lie staring silently over the water and hills into commuter's rear-view mirrors until morning. Cities are great and lively places full of people who choose to live, work and play in them.

With the exception of a proportionately small number of individuals dedicated to living in the city's core neighborhoods, this region has always been decidedly anti-urban. It's preferred downtown be a place for tourists and shoppers, rather than living. And Seattle has suffered for it through decaying infrastructure and shrinking political voice.

It's great to see some revitalizing attitudes leaning toward more density and steering the city toward a better urban future and less of a Lost Angeles dystopia. I've lived on Capitol Hill off and on for a decade, working downtown, without a car, and I can walk or bus everywhere I conceivably need to get to. It's great, even if it's only a tiny couple square miles of the city. I won't be trading in my fire escape and noisy neighbors for a lawnmower and a commute anytime soon.

— Ben Nechanicky

Power to the masses

Personally, I am not in favor of getting rid of the Viaduct altogether and letting nature take its course, by having people move closer to downtown. I am, though, a big proponent of mass transit. So let's build the monorail, light rail and commuter rail. They will help traffic a lot in Seattle, especially in the downtown area, with so many stops from the monorail plan.

I find this "urban village" concept quite trendy and useful. If it cannot go horizontally, have it go vertically. And more efficiently. Other cities are doing the same things. Recently I was in Vancouver, B.C., and there, too, they are building skyward structures with fewer parking options.

Write on.

— Augusto Romano

Families are struggling

I'm not college educated. I've lived in Spokane where housing is more affordable, but where there's not high-paying jobs. I've lived on the Long Beach Peninsula, where there's affordable housing, but not high-paying jobs, either.

Now I live in Auburn where there's more affordable housing. I'm married and we have a 3½-year-old son and two 1-year-old daughters. We live in a manufactured home in a park, which is better than living in an apartment that we could afford. I work in Issaquah where I have a job that pays $14.75 an hour. Good for a single person — bad for a family of five. No cost of living for me or pay raise in the near future.

My wife is a homemaker. If she worked, she wouldn't be able to make enough to pay for daycare for three children. Thank heavens that the children are covered with health insurance through DSHS. I pay for insurance coverage for my wife — $65 every two weeks. We also are on WIC. We go through a lot of milk, eggs and cheese. We have two cars, an S-10 Blazer with 137,000 miles on it and the family van — $202 a month for 4 more years. We could use a lot bigger house. I don't foresee it in the very near future. A quarter of a million dollars plus for a house. I'm not sure how people do it. I'm not sure how I do it, either.

— David Loudenback

Share costs, keep single-family option

Unless we hit the Delete Button on "New Urbanism" and the associated Growth Management Act, Seattle will look like Hong Kong by the end of this century. About four years ago, Bruce Babbitt and Al Gore proposed a compromise scheme called the Livability Agenda in which 20 percent of newly developing areas was purchased by the government for parks, playgrounds, small farms, and game preserves. The idea is to accommodate growth with the preferred single-family dwelling but without the carpet sprawl, typified by Atlanta. Rhode Island has a pilot project showing how it is done.

If you read the opinion piece published on The Seattle Times Op-Ed Page Nov. 29 on how to improve Urban Mobility, you can see how to prevent the catastrophe now underway due to the Growth Management Act. The damage already done, alluded to in your article, is irreversible.

— Dave Petrie
Petrie Transit Consultants

Put us in skinny cars

Read your piece in the magazine with interest. So, concerning the fourth alternative, congestion and high density:

I think that we need some truly imaginative solutions. We do not need the public-transportation solutions of the 18th century and we cannot have the behemoth-car society of the 20th century. We need high-density living and high-density roads and high-density parking. As best as I can tell, Americans want to go from A to B by getting into their vehicle and driving there, and parking. Besides that, they seem to be mightily disinterested in car-pooling/sharing. They seem to want to drive alone.

In general, they don't want to walk in the rain to a transit station and wait for a public transport vehicle that goes to some destination different from their plan and take several transfers and walk, etc. So, give folks what they want. Driving from A to B alone and parking! But, it has to fit the urban landscape.

SO. . .

We need our urban environment to RESTRICT ALL VEHICLES (except for delivery trucks and service vehicles during off hours) to SMALL, SKINNY VEHICLES. The maximum width of an urban vehicle shall be 3 feet or less. If two people occupy the vehicle, they can sit front to back. The length of the vehicle can be no longer than 8 feet. The vehicle footprint would be about 25 square feet or so. Many current single-commuter SUVs have a width greater than 6 feet and a length greater than 15 feet, resulting in a footprint of 100 square feet or so. Restricting sizes to these smaller footprints would gain a factor of 4 in parking space. Skinny cars could use driving lanes that are only half the width of current lanes. Thus, arterials could handle at least twice the traffic.

Of course, people want to use big vehicles to get out of the city and to do chores that require more capacity than the skinny commuting car. Fine, own a big vehicle, but keep it at the periphery of "urban villages" for shopping, hauling and trips to the countryside. They can use the designated large-vehicle lanes (normally used by trucks, etc.) for necessary trips that involve hauling/delivery.

Of course, this small-skinny car solution would save massive amounts of fuel and work toward adopting new technologies like fuel cells. The air quality would markedly improve, too.

Now, the problem is to get these small-skinny cars produced. We should start on this by converting components of Boeing to the task. This way we also solve the unemployment problem as an additional benefit.

— Bob Albrecht
Professor Emeritus
Electrical Engineering
University of Washington

To contribute your comments e-mail or write to "The Big Squeeze," Pacific Northwest magazine, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.

Make room for children

Your article was well written, and did a fine job at addressing most sides of the issue. My main concern and comment has to do with the raising of children. I don't believe you put enough emphasis on the negative impact of raising our children in the city that we are becoming. Personally, I hate the idea of raising our children in condos. The outdoors had more to do with my upbringing than the inside of my home. The outdoors is where children explore, exercise and socialize. Little playgrounds wedged between high-rise buildings is not a satisfactory solution. I own a house in Seattle that has a small yard, but at least there is a safe place for my child to play outside. Also, there are parks, within walking distance, that provide more room to run. This city needs to have these resources to remain livable.

If we want a city designed for retirees and DINKs, then the direction we are headed is fine. Unfortunately, I am hoping for a better solution, one that is more appropriate for children. Let's not cram more houses on skinny lots, and let's not tear down all of the single-family homes to build high-rise condos. Let's leave some space for our children to grow.

— Noel Whorton

Live in, get connected

Maybe some Seattleites grew up with middle-class dreams, but there is more "cool stuff" to Seattle than that. I came to Seattle to find out about a large group of people who have been cultivating other kinds of dreams — of sustainable urban development. Sustainable Seattle began in late 1990 as a volunteer civic forum to figure out the best possible, sustainable, future vision for Seattle and its region. Hundreds of citizens created the Indicators of Sustainable Community, 40 measures of trends in the city's culture, economy and environment, which they measured in 1993, 1995 and 1998. Sustainable Seattle was one of the first such efforts and received massive interest and acclaim around the world. Although considerably less interest was generated by Sustainable Seattle at home, the possibilities here for civic engagement toward a new kind of city are endless.

Change for sure, but change that adds to the lives of all, not just the boring, frightened, suburban middle class. What is so scary about apartments and condominiums? The heat, materials, and land efficiencies of sharing walls with one's neighbors is the coup de force of urban sustainability. Who will miss the trouble and waste of a private yard if all can access community parks, gardens and a city-wide network of trails? Commuters, welcome back to the city! We here in our "boxes" need you to get a serious urban-transportation system to work, to push harder for a revised building code, and encourage the community-based design-review process. To create a sustainable urban economy with better, more fulfilling, less predatory jobs. And to help create and fund innovative, cooperative housing opportunities.

Seattle's Planning Department, during the time of the Comprehensive Planning Process, was a diligent, committed and visionary group of people who passed a plan with foresight against all political odds. Its public-participation process was second only to Neighborhood Planning, which followed. The maligned idea of urban villages is only planner-talk for honoring and preserving the diversity and vibrancy of Seattle's. The Comp Plan accomplished the required increased density with no changes to existing zoning and resulted in political fallout that made the dissolution of that office necessary. The Neighborhood Planning Process picked up the slack so Seattleites could "get their fingerprints all over the Plan," in the words of then-Mayor Norm Rice.

Nor was Neighborhood Planning Seattle's first attempt at populist planning: First came the 1973, Seattle 2000 Commission and the 1989 Citizens' Alternative Plan. If the Comp Plan and the Neighborhood Plans look more like the U.S. Tax Code than like the Ten Commandments, it is because Seattleites have no delusions of being Moses, or even Robert Moses. Trade-offs exist between planning that is pat and dry and planning that is broad-based, collaborative, and sensitive to all different aspects of urban life.

Wake up, Seattle, and be grateful for the potential of change. Here, we have several reasons to hope and engage ourselves in this change. We have a history of open and progressive government, neighborhoods that work and even plan together, and a sometimes-subliminal understanding of how we are part of this massive, magnificent landscape we live within, not on top of, nor instead of. Our lives may well become more exciting, if we all set our intentions properly.

As for life becoming more disturbing and angst ridden: If there exist those whose disturbance- and angst-free bubbles have yet to be burst, welcome to your city, your region, and your country; welcome to the 21st century, welcome to the opportunity not to opt out. Some may have called their bubble of stasis peace; I would call it denial.

— Meg Holden

Build a body politic

I read the first three-fourths of your article with the growing suspicion that it was against the form of growth that is happening in Seattle. This may or may not actually be the case, but the idea that increasing density is bad for the city's families, in particular, seems to hinge on a couple of assumptions about family housing. First, that "family home" means "single-family house." And second, that aggregate housing, such as apartment and condominium housing, is wholly inappropriate as a home for families. If you do not assume these things, and consider Seattle's growth with the notion that a family can make a functional home in a condominium or an apartment, then the future looks quite rosy for Seattle. With families, grown-up Seattle isn't a community of twenty-somethings and DINKs, but a community of all kinds.

Population density combined with mixed-use neighborhoods is also a boon for the body politic. In a compartmentalized suburban environment where people live in one place, work in another, shop in another, and seek entertainment in another, there is little time left over for anything except getting between the different localities where different components of peoples' lives are centered. Due to the distances involved, getting around means getting around by car, in isolation from the hundreds of thousands of other people who are also trying to getting around. Where growth has caused people to live with work, home, church, groceries and entertainment within walking distance there is an opportunity for a proliferation of social contact. Because it is not necessary to spend hours each day getting around, there is less pressure to conserve time. And because transit does not involve isolation, people will encounter their friends, business associates, and the many familiar strangers who are neighbors. This type of situation is ripe for the development of strong social networks within city districts, and with it, a body politic in which people both have opinions about their communities and have the means (a strong social network) to reconcile them.

Considering Seattle's current political gridlock, the advantage here should be obvious.

— Nate Riffe

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