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Sunday, October 24, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Peerless Seattle: -- 10 Urban-Design Concepts That Can Take This City To The Next Level

Special To The Times

Money and growth are changing the Seattle cityscape in dramatic, often negative, ways. The stress of "success" shows everywhere around us - from jammed traffic to skyrocketing housing prices, from the homeless in our parks to the wild salmon vanishing from our streams.

Meanwhile, quiet neighborhoods, funky little enclaves, treasured landmark buildings - the things that give us our sense of who we are - seem to be slipping away. We desperately need new answers to the problems we face, but while Seattle's a great city, our particular strength has never been urban design.

In fact, we have a long history of lynching our visionaries, from the Bogue Plan to the 1970 Forward Thrust transit plan to Mayor Norm Rice's Urban Village Plan.

All that may be changing now. A new generation of public leaders, urban thinkers and committed neighborhood advocates is beginning to imagine a different future for our city. Their vision is of a city that protects the best of what it has, but weaves in bold architecture, ecological design, transportation choices and neighborhood innovations. Success is still very far off (in fact, in general, things are still getting worse) and the odds are long. But there is reason to hope that we are at least, and at last, facing up to the magnitude of the challenges we face. Here are a handful of the signs:

1.Seattle Public Library. The decision by library authorities to have Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, a standard-bearer for radical

architecture, design our new central library is more symbolic than impactful. Sure, we may well wind up with a bleeding-edge library, but more importantly, this move shouts out that Seattle is now willing to take some risks, to be bold. That's a big step.

2. Denice Hunt Town Houses. Public housing has a bad name in America, and, in general, it's worked hard to earn that reputation. But we have a huge problem on our hands here. Housing is insanely expensive. Young families, retirees and the working poor are being forced from the neighborhoods they've called home for years. Artists are getting crunched.

The Denice Hunt Town Houses is a public-housing project that works and show us one way we could start to change that. Comprised of thirty well-crafted apartments, arranged around a common courtyard facing 85th Street in Greenwood, these affordable housing units look better than many of the new high-end condos being thrown up around our city. While they're far from perfect - residents complain about lack of playspace for the children, for example - they do prove three things: that housing solutions can be found, that these solutions can be loved by the neighborhoods they're part of, and that "affordable" and "livable" are not antonyms anymore.

3. The Ace Hotel. Instead of griping about the loss of old buildings and the lack of cool neighborhood businesses, Wade Weigel and Alex Calderwood have done something about it. They've converted a historic Belltown building into a node of hip urbanism, featuring a Mod hotel, a newly-reimagined Cyclops Cafe, and a Rudy's barbershop. They saved the building, and brought life to the intersection of First and Wall. As we get denser and richer, we can only hope that more entrepreneurs have the insight to create such unique places, instead of more shopping centers comprised of plastic snap-together architecture and faceless chain-store "synergies."

4. Living Bridges. Architect Clint Pehrson has a plan, one that is as revolutionary as any in American design. Pehrson wants to take the I-5 overpass at Pike and Boren streets and convert it to what he calls a "living bridge": a mix of small stores and housing built onto the sides of the overpass, creating a street again where now there is only blacktop, a thin sidewalk and a small railing perched over the freeway canyon. This would reconnect the Pike-Pine neighborhood to Downtown and make the whole neighborhood safer and more livable. If he succeeds, living bridges could help repair other parts of our city split apart by I-5. Wallingford and the University District, for example, could be re-knit by a living bridge on Northeast 45th Street. One of the biggest challenges we face in dealing with growth is the legacy of urban wounds (like I-5) left by earlier generations. Living bridges are the sort of medicine that could heal them.

5. Growing Vine Street. Cities and nature haven't played well together in the past. Generally, we've pretty much given up on the ecological value of urban places, but that's now beginning to change. The Growing Vine Street Project is a good example: the plan, created by a group of Belltown residents and designers, is to turn Vine Street, from Denny to the water, into a sort of working park. Portions of the street would be closed to cars, and rain water would flow down it in a sort of urban stream, running through small ponds and over terraced steps, down past the Belltown P-Patch to the Sound. In the process, two things would happen. First, residents of one of our densest neighborhoods would get a much needed public green space. Second, the environment would benefit, with water that would have washed into the sewer system being channeled and cleaned by this little creek. With wild salmon on the ropes and our waters getting more polluted, Growing Vine Street is exactly the kind of new thinking we need to make "sustainability" more than a buzzword.

6. The Civic Center. Mayor Paul Schell's planned $224 million civic center project arrays our new City Hall and new Justice Center around a central plaza which, if built right, could become the heart of our downtown. Imagine a place for concerts, political rallies, sidewalk buskers and chalk artists, for outdoor lunches on a sunny days . . . in short, a real public place, something downtown now lacks.

To make this new town square work, though, it must offer reasons to be there beyond the filing of a permit application with some government bureaucrat. Ideas have been floated to site retail stores, a cafe and perhaps even the city's proposed arts resource center there. This would be great, giving the plaza a vibrant life of its own. This is our chance to build a civic gem. We shouldn't settle for expensive, unused paste.

7. The Alaska Building. Councilmember Nick Licata's support for converting the city-owned Alaska Building into artists' housing offers a solution to several problems. An arts enclave in the building would provide direly needed artists' spaces, help keep the cultural life of the city buzzing, and help add after-hours vitality to the downtown core. It's a brilliant combination, weaving together cultural life, civic inspiration and good planning.

8. Neighborhood Planning. The 38 plans created by neighborhood residents around the city represent some of the best urban design thinking we have. Many of these plans are bold. All have good ideas for restoring neighborhood retail cores, planting street trees and developing new parks, building new libraries and community centers, putting in sidewalks and curb bulbs and making our streets safer. Now the challenge is to fund them. Some pieces of the plans - for example, libraries - have been paid for already. Others will be funded from existing City budgets. But if the plans' true value is to be realized, a lot more money will need to be found, perhaps by putting the issue to the voters next year. If we do pony up the cash, though, neighborhoods around the city will find themselves more easily adjusting to new densities and becoming even better places to live. And that is one of the most crucial keys to managing our growth.

9. Light Rail. These are dark days for the Sound Transit light rail plan, but the dawn is not far off. While the planned light rail line has been mired in neighborhood contraversy from the Rainier Valley to the University District, there are signs that the trains are about to win through. This is particularly true in the Rainier Valley, where some residents have demanded that the line be sent underground or not be built at all. Now calmer heads are prevailing, and there are signs that the Sound Transit leaders are ready to do their part to make a surface-rail line work. A $50 million mitigation fund has been promised. Neighborhood planning has produced blueprints for street improvements and new ammenities. If Sound Transit goes the next step, and works with the City and County to insure that the new development triggered along the light rail lines includes truly affordable housing, promotes a mix of businesses and shops, and encourages people to walk and mingle, the Rainier Valley could see a real Renaissance, and the region as a whole could be one great leap closer to beating gridlock.

10. Laboratories of Invention. Seattle has many communities which have been forgotten in (or outright excluded from) our plans for revitalization: neighborhoods like Georgetown and South Park, or the Aurora Avenue corridor through North Seattle. These places get little of the help they need from the City, and urban designers and architects have tended to focus their attention on more prestigious projects and wealthier clients. Often these places suffer from dreadful past planning and broken promises. You can see it in prevelance of strip malls, aging stucco apartment buildings and drive-throughs; in the lack of parks, sidewalks and trees; in the heavily-polluted land around them and the overgrown parking lots in their midst. But the neighbors there persevere. They haven't given up, and nor should we. We ought to be making these embattled places our first priority, turning some of the most neglected areas of our city into some of the best. One solution might be to turn those "lost" neighborhoods which want new development into laboratories for innovative design. The City could begin by loosen zoning codes for new projects which meet strict criteria. Public agencies and non-profit housing groups could team up with young architects and planners to create edgy new forms of housing and retail shops. Some nearby industrial land - especially "brownfield" or polluted land - could be freed up for new kinds of mixed-use development. For one thing Seattle desperately needs is a zone of experimentation - a place where we can try completely new ideas and see if they work. Allowing some inventive land uses to flourish in hard-pressed neighborhoods would benefit us all, bringing activity and money to those communites and giving the region as a whole a sort of design testing ground.

These projects, though a modest start, provide a little glimpse of the kind of city we may become, if we have the courage. If we don't try new approaches, it is painfully obvious what will happen to us: gridlock, gentrification and the loss of Seattle's character. The paradox is that we can preserve the best of what we have - our single-family neighborhoods, our historic buildings, our home-spun funkiness - only if we are willing to reinvent ourselves. We will save Seattle, in the long run, only by being willing to change it. ------------------------------- Alex Steffen writes about urban design, technology and environmental issues. He is also the president of Allied Arts of Seattle, a nonprofit urban planning and arts advocacy group, and has served with several civic organizations. He co-founded the Livable Communities Coalition, an alliance of local smart-growth advocates. He is a resident of the Greenwood area of Seattle.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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