Equitable for who?

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Sometimes I look at knotty neighborhood development questions and think, “If only we could bring a bunch of really smart people around the table and ask them what we could do.” Sometimes it happens!

I had the opportunity to see the future of the Mount Baker Light Rail Station Area as envisioned by five teams of college architecture, planning and real estate students last Friday courtesy of a national competition sponsored by the Urban Land Institute. ULI’s 2011 Gerald Hines Urban Design Competition netted 100 entries for review by a jury of development industry professionals. In the end four teams made the finals and came to Seattle to show off their development schemes. Teams from the universities of Oklahoma, Michigan (two teams) and Maryland took the mic and walked through their presentations in the Bertha Knight Landes Room Friday at mid-day. We were lucky to have a handful of Mount Baker residents in the audience (thanks for taking the time) to see the various visions for the future.  Each team had a slightly different take, but you’ll see the teams have a few things in common, too. Oh, and the teams caught a lucky break in the competition rules – they could assume all the property in the area was in single ownership.

§  Everyone tried to “tame” Rainier Ave. S.  One team (“Rainier Boulevard” from University of Oklahoma) widened the right of way in order to build a European-style street-within-a-street. Extra planting strips would separate a “local” street for cars and bikes from four lanes of pass-through traffic. Other teams also expanded the right-of-way in order to widen sidewalks, add parking, add bike lanes and have wider planting strips.

§  Most teams moved the Metro layover site to the west side of Rainier so the connection with the light rail station can be seamless (or Rainier-less).

§  Teams broke up the long, long Rainier blocks by creating pedestrian pass-through areas with great landscaping (imagine a wide sidewalk and trees slicing the Lowe’s parking lot in two).

§  A couple of teams re-engineered the intersection of MLK with Rainier in order to create better corners (and more controlled traffic and surface ped crossing movements).

§  Each team built up apartment buildings and condos in the station area, but there were differences of approach when it came to height.

§  Every team committed to neighborhood-serving, small-scale retail while also retaining the “big box” stores like Lowe’s by repackaging Lowe’s into a more urban space model.

The winning team came from the University of Michigan ($5,000 to the school, $45,000 split among the five team members) and they titled their presentation “Health Oriented Urbanism in Southeast Seattle” and measured their project’s success via criteria organized under the headings Community Health, Economical Health, Environmental Health and Individual Health. I thought this was pretty appealing from what I know of the community’s desires for a “town center” that is more than arterial space and parking lots.

The next day I participated on a panel discussion at Great City’s Equitable Growth Dialogues (held at Franklin High School). The panel was asked to reflect on the student visions which gave us a chance to tease out further some of the dicey conversations that come up around new development and who benefits when a new element like light rail changes people’s perceptions (and developer interest) about a neighborhood.  Not surprisingly, we talked about how to ensure low-income residents and small businesses are part of the station area future. We want people to live near light rail so people can have the choice to travel, live differently. In order to get housing near the station, existing buildings (mostly businesses right around the station itself) and their occupants have to move. At the same time, we want light rail to benefit, not shove aside, the people who live, own businesses and otherwise work in Rainier Valley now.

The pioneer, the early adopter, the tip of the spear at Mount Baker Station is ArtSpace which earned the nod from Sound Transit to purchase the old Firestone site between the light rail station and Rainier Ave. S.  ArtSpace will do 51 units of artist live/work space with some retail at street level and zero parking. This brings us back to knotty neighborhood problems. We need to tame Rainier in order for ArtSpace and later projects to succeed in helping us create the human spaces we say we want. We should take the ideas from the ULI competition and define new standards for how we want Rainier to look and operate.