Photos from Northwest up

Just added two galleries of photographs from Bellingham, Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, and a few points in between: infill development and streets (the big one) and general urban/rural scenery. Some general thoughts (on urban design, mostly) follow…

Seattle and especially Vancouver have become justly famous in recent years as destinations for urban living. The mild climate and relatively healthy downtowns, plus planning efforts focused on replacing marginal industrial areas with higher density residential and mixed-use neighborhoods, have attracted tens of thousands of new residents to the fringes of both cities’ downtowns. Vancouver has obviously been more aggressive at fashioning entire new neighborhoods filled with glassy high-rises, either at the edge of downtown or around SkyTrain stations. Yet these new neighborhoods have a sterile, empty feel to them, even though many have apparently overcome the plague of high vacancies. (Many apartments were purchased by Hong Kong residents as 1997 crash pads in case the turnover went bad, but the expected crackdown by China never came.) While even marginal streets in the old downtown grid were lined with successful shops, streets lined with the new towers and their lush gardens often felt empty. People thronged to the large parks and the waterfront walkways, but not the smaller plazas and streets.

Central Seattle is a pleasantly urbane place, with a very sharp distinction in scale and activity between the lively downtown and the comparatively staid neighborhoods. (Even the busiest of the neighborhood shopping streets, like Broadway or the Fremont waterfront, looked like somewhat sleepy college town drags.) Downtown’s edges still remain ragged, with a substantial light-industrial ring remaining around the core. The south edge of downtown has seen blocky office construction near the train station and stadia; there doesn’t seem to be any single focal point for office, possibly because commuter rail wasn’t a factor until very recently. To its southeast, the “International District” (Chinatown, really, since the Japanese didn’t really return in force after WW2 internment) is a ragged shell with some new infill, but not at all living up to its potential. If the price were right, its relative proximity to both downtown and First Hill/Capitol Hill to its east should make it a prime site for gentrification.

The Belltown-Lower Queen Anne corridor, connecting Pike Place Market to Queen Anne Hill and embracing the 1960s time capsule (right on down to the original concrete pavers!) called Seattle Center, is the one exception. Surprisingly, much of the new construction has taken the form of 4-12 story midrises with high FAR and site coverage, rather than the thin spires found in Vancouver and, indeed, everywhere else. (Mid-rises must use the same expensive Type I construction as high-rises, but don’t have the same stunning views as high-rises. Then again, many of the buildings in Seattle were built atop ridges, which protect views to some extent.) More surprisingly, many of the newer buildings used modern dress — bright colors, metallic finishes, clean lines — rather than the pastiche of brick veneer, cold curtain walls, or bland precast concrete panels. Then again, the Craftsman architectural vernacular common for the region’s housing just doesn’t translate well to larger buildings.

Ongoing attempts to extend this redevelopment activity over to South Lake Union, from the failed Seattle Commons park to the current streetcar proposal, seem appropriate in this context. By contrast, the extreme slope and Alaskan Way viaduct (and surface road) very effectively cut off downtown from the Elliott Bay waterfront; I’ll be interested to see whether (and how) Alaskan Way gets rebuilt, and how many new stair climbs (as at Harbor Steps or Pike Place) can get built. That historic waterfront structures like those at Pioneer Square or Pike Place Market didn’t get demolished under urban renewal is either a testament to foresight and ingenuity or neglect — or maybe plenty did disappear under Alaskan Way, but there were plenty left to spare.

The high degree of social trust present in both cities may have something to do with a relative lack of racial diversity; Vancouver has a truly huge Asian population (I expected lots of Chinese, but it also has more Japanese and South Asian residents than any other North American city I’ve seen), but neither city has many Blacks or Latinos. Drivers in Seattle are almost unfailingly polite, stopping readily at crosswalks even though the pedestrians haven’t even stepped off the curb. My defensive riding techniques proved useless in the face of such demure driving. Vancouver’s aggressive drivers (zooming between stoplights in the city without freeways) were almost a relief after that. Similarly, pedestrians in Seattle were earnest and helpful to a fault, ready to strike up conversations. The outdoor benches in both cities didn’t have the bum-proofing that comes standard nowadays; in Pioneer Square in Seattle, even with homeless people in evidence, the armrests were so incredibly high that someone could easily lie underneath them.

Seattle had surprisingly little in the way of bicycle infrastructure; some lanes and some racks. The long bike racks are weirdly space inefficient, unlike the very compact Toronto post-and-ring (Phi), but do somewhat encourage folks to park parallel to the street and thus to not block the sidewalk. Vancouver had a mix of bike racks; it appeared that developers, not the city, provided the racks. Vancouver’s bike boulevard network is terrific, although it took a few tries to find it.

To get from Seattle to Vancouver, I took the Amtrak Cascades (with unboxed bike service and swanky Spanish coaches!) to Bellingham and spent the night there. Bellingham felt like an even more laid back version of, say, Asheville — an industrial city gone post-industrial in an outdoorsy, slacker/hippie way. From there, I scribbled down the rough outlines of a route north to the border that avoided I-5, the most direct route. Besides one detour from the wrong fork in the road (which sent me around, not through, a reservation), it was a pleasant, sunny, mostly flat ride through countryside, with the odd industrial installation — an Alcoa aluminum zap-pery, a CNG farm and power plant, the requisite Indian casino and fireworks extravaganza. Biking this section of the trip required me to pack very lightly and kept me from buying any books in Seattle, both of which were definite bonuses besides the chance to see the countryside.

2 thoughts on “Photos from Northwest up

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