Architecture
April 4, 2008

New Stuff 4 – Seattle Townhouses

Down to Seattle last weekend: dismal weather, but an opportunity to see some of the city’s newest development.

It’s a good news/bad news story.  The new light rail line connecting Downtown with the Airport is nearing completion.  At least there’s enough on the ground to get a sense of what’s coming – and “on the ground” is the operative phrase. 

To much objection, the rail was run at grade through the Rainier Valley along Martin Luther King Jr. Way.  (‘Other parts of the route will be in tunnels; why not us?’ asked the residents and businesses in this predominately Black part of the city.)

But remarkably, not only is the rail in place but so is the residential redevelopment – built and occupied before the service even starts.

These mixed-use projects look nicely scaled to my eyes, even on a gloomy day, and I presume they incorporate a percentage of affordable housing.  Most unusual to see transit-oriented development occur on this scale before the line is even open.

Not so good is the new townhousing popping up in Seattle neighbourhoods as the city tries to find ways to provide appropriately scaled densification.  The idea is good; the execution isn’t.

Here’s just one project (they all pretty much look the same, at least in the Ballard/Phinney Ridge area).  First the front view:

At least I think it’s the front.  You can see the garage door and driveway tucked in below the main floor – and hence the problem.  Because there is no underground parking (no doubt at considerable savings), the house does not address the street in a traditional way. 

But worse is the cramped massing on the site, made even more problematic by the wooden fencing, cheap in appearance and doomed to age badly, that may give privacy but only at that expense of neighbourhood civility.

Same on the side, facing a heavily travelled street:

And worst of all, the lane at the back:

It’s a mystery to me why the parking is not accessed from the back.  While this lane may be eventually paved, this is not a route anyone is going to want to use, particularly at night.  Just waiting for the taggers.

Altogether, a very unhappy illustration of how ground-oriented housing can be fitted into existing neighbourhoods. 

By comparison, here are some Vancouver examples where design has been a priority, and underground parking required.  First, Towne near Oakridge:

And this charming complex on Oak at West 37th:

Design and parking aren’t the only big differences, of course.  The differential in cost between the Seattle and Vancouver examples, I suspect, is huge – and hence the dilemma of affordability.

UPDATE: Town Homes Spark Neighborhood Debate (Seattle Times)

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It’s just one element along the finished seawall next to what will be the Athlete’s Village for the 2010 Olympics (and then Millennium Water) – but it’s a grabber:

Yes, it’s a bridge.  But since passage is limited to those on foot and paw, I prefer the French term – passerelle.   Though they have a long history (the Pont des Arts of 1804, for instance), they are among the most interesting blends of architecture and engineering to be found these days. 

The idea behind this one: to evoke the image of a sea-going kayak, including the straps across the deck. 

For the record:

These crossings are particularly favoured for narrow rivers in Europe and Australia (see Price Tags 93 for examples), where they can be integrated into bike routes and greenways.  From Calitrava to Foster, big-name architects are adding these kind of bridges to their portfolios – for instance, in London, the Millennium Bridge:

And in Paris, the Simone de Beauvoir Passerelle:

Now the obvious question: why is there not a passerelle across False Creek?  The need is obvious.  A low-level bridge that connects both banks would be an elegant solution to the Burrard Bridge problem.  The cost alone – now $50 million – to widen the structure over the objections of the heritage community justifies a look at other options.

The problem, apparently, is that a low-level bridge would block the passage of sailboats.  But perhaps it’s time to ask the question: why should we sacrifice a solution that could serve thousands of people every day, support sustainable transportation, add a landmark to the city and save a lot of money to instead serve a few recreational craft that might, with adjustable masts, still be able to navigate the creek?

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This week: recent development around the region – in this case, the Cascadian region.

Starting at the top, Whistler’s new library:

Whistler works because it contains fantasy within a real place.   Yes, the village is a stage set, a place to let go – on the slopes, in the bars, in your head.  The sometimes cartoony quality of the architecture matches up pretty well with the mood of most visitors.  But it is also home and workplace to people who live all too real lives.  And they need real services.

The library, designed by Hughes Condon Marler, picks up on the post-and-beam aesthetic of Whistler, uses natural materials in a contemporary way – and it all looks real.  The beams actually hold up the roof!

Of course, it’s free – not a small consideration in a place that has a price for everything else.   And it offers a retreat in a place of extreme experience.

The library is built on top of an underground parking lot – like the village itself.  And this is what makes the urbanism of Whistler succeed.  The car is put away, out of sight, so that there is no need, and no allowance, for surface lots within the tightly knit fabric of the village. 

Someday they’ll get to the point where they don’t need parking at all.  But the widening of the Sea-to-Sky highway, without any real option, sends just the opposite message: drive.  (However, once at Whistler, park the car and forget about it.  This place is made for walking.)

Whistler has also reflected its priority on health and recreation in the design of the garage itself.  There has to be an elevator for the disabled, of course, but look at the stairs as an option:

Wide, well-lit, beckoning.  And at least they charge for the parking. 

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From Architect Online

That the Bilbao effect became a wildly successful urban development strategy for resuscitating declining cities throughout the world, and then a de rigueur formula, is a familiar story, if one that is not completely played out. The “build it and they will come” approach still remains unsubstantiated by the evidence.

On a single day last December, The New York Times carried two unrelated articles in different sections of the paper. One reported on the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, a sprawling and costly—$461 million—complex by Cesar Pelli that opened in late 2006 to high urban hopes but which is currently struggling to find an audience. (Its propensity to devour the municipal budget has earned it the nickname “Carnivorous Center.”)

The other concerned a $66 million zinc, glass, and steel art museum scheduled to open in November in smaller Roanoke, Va., designed by the Los Angeles architect Randall Stout, a Gehry protégé, which is viewed by boosters and detractors alike as one of the biggest gambles in the city’s history.

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February 3, 2008

Everyone (at least who reads this blog) knows Portland has a dynamic urban culture.  Naturally, there’s an online site – Portland Spaces – that brings together sources and ideas.  And within that, they have the Burnside Blog.
Here’s a taste.

Urban Uprising: The Buildings

Take your average residential lot in Portland (That’d be 5,000 square feet), build a house that fills the space from corner-to-corner, stack it on top of itself 22 times, add some nice details, and you’ll have something that resembles this tower (West Burnside at 13th Avenue) being developed and designed by Skylab. Proposed for a site just behind the Crystal Ballroom, it’s skinny, it’s sexy – and in this market, very speculative – but I hope to God it gets built.

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Greg Hamilton sends along an article on the latest plan for St. Petersburg:

“The heart of the city quarter will be a new civic space under a unique glazed roof. ”

“This unique crystalline glass tensegrity structure will imbue the space with a delicate lightness and changing light, reflecting the weather, time of day and the passing seasons. This will be a major destination in the city where people can meet, shop, eat and be entertained whilst being protected from St Petersburg’s hostile winter climate.”

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Every urban-design and architecture critic I read has a highly cultivated cynicism. Christopher Hume, he of the Toronto Star, is always good for an articulate scathing of TO.
But his recent column on the competition results for a new park at the foot of Jarvis Street on the lakeshore is almost optimistic:

Ah, the waterfront, the waterfront. Does one dare believe in what it could be; or does one succumb to the cynicism of the day?
The latter may be tempting, but it’s too easy. Besides, there is reason for optimism, especially when one sees the final-round proposals for the Jarvis St. Slip. Chosen through an invitational design competition, the three schemes are so good, each one should be built. That’s unlikely, of course, but one can always hope.

This is interesting for two reasons: the results of the competition really are rather good. Check ’em out – and remember them for the SFU City Program discussion on the state of Vancouver’s architecture and urban design on February 1. Details here.
Secondly, there’s a video with the story on the Star’s website:

This is, of course, the best way to ‘read’ a visual story – and something newspapers are increasingly adopting for their online versions.
Two questions: why not more competitions in Vancouver for our urban design, and why not more videos in our newspapers?

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January 21, 2008

Sun writer Frances Bula has a blog – City States – where she can put pieces that don’t make it into the paper. (Which raises the question, why not? In cities that have papers which focus more on local issues and urban development, they would.)
However, in the case of her piece on Downtown South, The Sun gave it good play.

Vancouver’s new mini-Manhattan is here
I have a feature in tomorrow’s paper on a downtown neighbourhood that no one ever talks much about, even though everyone who comes to the central city drives through it. It’s just 34 blocks in total, but it will soon be home to 24,000 people.
Downtown South is fascinating because it’s a living laboratory that shows how Vancouver’s “Living First” model for a residential downtown works outside of the carefully sculpted megaprojects in Coal Harbour and False Creek North.
It’s home to more regular Vancouver folks and more young people than the new projects, but it’s also suffering from the pressure of success. Developers have gone crazy in the area, putting up towers faster than the city can nail down a little bit of space for parks or daycares.

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