Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Walking down Capitol Hill in the snow. The traffic is backed up for blocks and some people are walking in the streets. I've been watching this for days but have yet to write anything (though others have made excellent observations).

My mind starts wandering...maybe we need a critical mass for pedestrians. Or wouldn't it be great if a group went out one day with air horns and honk back at the cars -- dirty looks don't exactly work.

As I approach downtown, I see the throngs of Christmas shoppers flooding the sidewalks. The police are holding back the cars and letting pedestrians cross in every direction. Some jackass in an SUV is blocking the crosswalk and I "accidentally" slam my arm into the little plastic bug guard on his hood then give him a dirty look. A low point for me, I admit.

If only all these people lived in the city instead of coming and going all the time.

I see a proposed land use sign across from the Paramount Theater: 40 story building with above grade parking. Parking? Blah, but above grade is the worst because it creates a wall. Take a look at the Cosmopolitan and tell me it has a positive interaction with the street. Where are the "eyes on the street" that Jane Jacobs tells us makes a neighborhood safe? Why do we need so many parking stalls downtown?

And not to be a sourpuss, but what's up with the fins on Olive 8? I feel like the architects realized this huge smooth glass box was impinging on the street and decided it needed a little texture. Looks cheap, I'd say.

As I'm walking back across I-5 on Pine, the sidewalk is packed. I look over the railing at the gaping hole that is I-5: it is nearly empty and the snow has all but disappeared from this moat that bisects our city. I want to stand on the bridge and yell to every passing car that the action is here, in Seattle, that they should park that car and stick around for a bit.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Participation vs. Consumption: The Search for a Contemporary Vernacular

In a chapter titled “The Lessons of Vernacular Architecture,” Victor Papanek writes, “it may be helpful to start from a process-oriented rather than a product-based viewpoint” when seeking to understand vernacular architecture (The Green Imperative, 118). Though this paper is not a study of the vernacular, the idea that architecture can be understood as part of dynamic processes rather than a purely material form is incredibly powerful, and can be used to envision an evolution in city-building that I will call a contemporary vernacular.

Consider the current development process in which buildings are produced (conceived, designed, and constructed) by professionals to be consumed (purchased or leased) by anonymous end-users: This system more closely resembles Henry Ford’s assembly line than it does a traditional community building process such as, say, an Amish barn raising. Therefore, if one is interested in designing built environments that contribute to the well-being of the natural world (including humans), rather than perpetuating mass-produced simulacra, it is a worthwhile endeavor to explore the processes that separate the former from the latter.

One such process is the participation by the end-users and community that is central to the barn raising and absent from typical construction projects. This participation in the social realm is rare in contemporary city-building and can be related to ubiquitous patterns of mass consumption where “the fixation on (obtaining) personal goods has denied the necessity of sacrifice beyond the family” and “has allowed little space for social conscience and confined aspiration to the personal realm” (An All-Consuming Century, 3). The idea of trading collective power for personal spending power is expressed neatly in Henry Ford’s five-dollar/eight-hour day, where production workers agreed to submit to extensive managerial control in exchange for a generous salary. By abandoning their right to organize and, instead, focusing on personal material gain, the workers set the stage for the atomized social structure famously described by William Whyte in The Organization Man, where social bonds are formed over common individual struggles rather than coalesced into a collective movement.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, one can turn to the ideas and accomplishments of the great community organizer Saul Alinsky, who asserts that “the complete man is one who is making a definite contribution to the general social welfare and who is a vital part of the community of interests, values, and purposes that makes life worth living” (Reveille For Radicals, 17). His conception of democracy is founded in the masses – which he considers the substance of society – and is defined as working from the bottom up.

The question then becomes how to elicit participation in a society that is increasingly insular and has moved from the social halls of yesteryear to the shopping malls and suburban homes of today. One answer can be traced back to Marx’s Grundrisse, where he notes that technology is a force that can overcome what seems to be an impassable limit and therefore exposes it as traversable barrier (Interview the David Harvey, n+1, issue eight, 45). With the widespread use of technology within the design and construction industry – Building Information Models (BIM), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and online collaborative environments used for construction administration and project management – and the general computer fluency among the masses – manifested in what has been termed Web 2.0 and includes blogs and social networking sites – it seems that cyberspace would be an ideal venue for participation between end-users and professionals. The goal of this paper, then, is to explore the available technology in use today in both the professional and the public realms, examine any overlaps that may already be occurring between the two – paying special attention to research into increasing participation via technology – and, finally, building a scenario where end-users are an essential part of the development process, therefore tilting the process of development toward a new contemporary vernacular.

Professional Technology

One of the most exciting emergent technologies in the architectural and engineering world is Building Information Modeling, or BIM. A BIM model is a three-dimensional computer model that organizes information from all the major design disciplines involved in the construction of a building. Each team member can upload and download information pertaining to their portion of the design, generate construction drawings, and check for conflicts between the building systems. BIM can also generate images that show the interactions of various systems, which can be very useful for designers trying to visualize complex relationships.

According to feature articles and advertisements in architecture and structural engineering magazines, BIM is the tool that is changing the industry. “BIM has great potential for helping produce better architecture, faster and for less cost” (Building Team Views Technological Tools as Best Chance For Change, http://www.enr.com); an ad for Bentley’s BIM system informs the reader that Change Is Good and urges the potential customer to make change good for themselves by using Bentley; Walter P. Moore, an elite structural engineering firm, uses BIM as an advertising and recruiting tool – BIM. It’s not about Buildings. It’s about people – and prizes itself as a leader in the revolution.

The cover of the November 2008 issue of Modern Steel Construction reads, “A Healthy Dose of BIM” and features several articles about the use of BIM for healthcare projects. This is fitting because design teams working in the healthcare sector stand to benefit from the collaborative nature of BIM, due to the complexity of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems that are the infrastructure of a modern hospital and must fit within the space allocated by the architecture and structure. For this reason, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, another industry-leading structural engineering firm, has adopted BIM for all healthcare projects.

Another technology that promotes collaboration between the design team and the contractors is the online project management environment. It comes as no surprise that Autodesk, the company behind the ubiquitous drafting program AutoCad, and the most popular BIM system, Revit (Top Criteria for BIM Solutions, AECbytes, 3), has also created Constructware. This software is a web-based environment where members from each discipline can upload and download drawings, sketches, photographs, meeting minutes, etc. A basic use of Constructware that increases efficiency from the structural engineer’s perspective is answering requests for information (RFIs) from the contractor. Whereas this process has been conducted chronologically through mail, fax machine, and most recently email, with the architect serving as intermediary between the contractor and engineer, Constructware now serves as a virtual meeting place where the questions can be asked and answered by the appropriate parties.

Moving beyond individual buildings and into broader realms such as planning, infrastructure management, and ecology, one will find that a dominant technology is the Geographic Information System (GIS.) The real power of GIS lies in its ability to link maps – geographic data – with data sets such as land use, infrastructure services, or pollution levels, and thus creating a simulation of past, present, or potential future landscapes. GIS also has the capability to produce images such as specialized maps, three-dimensional renderings, and animations, all of which make scientific data more accessible to a nonscientific community. Apropos to the subject at hand, spatial data from a GIS can also be shared over the Internet, making it available to users in different locations (USGS GIS Poster, http://egsc.usgs.org).

While both BIM and GIS are powerful tools that could be used to include the public in the design process, they are, unsurprisingly, very expensive. Moreover, special training is required to implement, operate, and understand the both the structure of the systems, as well as the content that is input and produced. One technical solution to both of these problems would be the creation of an accessible interface that could utilize the power of these systems without requiring the purchase of the entire software suite or specialized training. The Internet is a likely avenue by which this sort of distribution could occur.

Public Technology

With the rise of Web 2.0 – that is, the Internet as a platform for expression and participation – millions of people have found new ways to spend their leisure time. For example, Wikipedia, the open source free encyclopedia has more 684 million visitors annually and at least 75,000 active contributors; Facebook, a social networking site, is the fourth most heavily trafficked website in the world and has over 120 million active users. Popular musical artists such as Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and Beck, have all held remix contests where different portions of their songs are released online for hobbyists to assemble in new ways and upload to the artists’ websites, where the public can listen to them and vote on their favorites.

Jeff Howe christened this process of tapping into the abilities of the masses crowdsourcing in an article for Wired (The Rise of Crowdsourcing, June 2006). Much of his article focuses on the economic aspects of using nonprofessionals for stock photography and research and development, namely the cost savings of using output from people who are producing out of sheer enjoyment. As a warning to any organization eager to implement crowdsourcing, he offers a list of common attributes of the participants, of which the most applicable to this study are the dispersion of the crowd, the fact that the crowd has a short attention span, and the tendency of the crowd to self-regulate so that the best “products” are acknowledged. These criteria should be kept in mind when constructing a framework for online participatory urban design.

Of course, there are pronounced differences between spending time online for entertainment, for work, or for more serious social activity that lies somewhere between these extremes. One example of a more politicized version of online activity is the authoring of weblogs, or blogs. For example, Huge Ass City (http://www.noisetank.com/hugeasscity) is a blog published by a Seattle urban planner that addresses issues such as transit, housing density, bicycle infrastructure, sustainable design, etc. In the last six months the site has had almost 42,000 unique site visits. While the site attracts many readers who are interested in these urban topics, and could very well influence their positions on these issues, it stops short of any Alinsky-esque organizational activity that could hope to influence policy. Blogs also serve as a one-to-many information distribution system, more like the radio, which Horkheimer and Adorno accuse of turning “all participants into listeners (consumers) and authoritatively subject(ing) them to broadcast programs which are all exactly the same” (The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, 122), than a forum for discussion, or active participation, even though many have a feature where readers can comment on posts.

These examples reflect the power of the Internet to build communities. In their paper, Community-Driven Place Making, The Social Practice of Participatory Design in the Making of Union Point Park, Jeffrey Hou and Michael Rios focus on the community building process as an essential predecessor to “predominant participatory design approaches that focus narrowly on the binary interaction between designers and users” (Journal of Architectural Education, 2003). Their findings will be further explored in the discussion of real-life participation.

Public Participation via the Internet

Some technology-focused academics understandably see the Internet as an ideal platform for public participation. In his article Internet GIS for Public Participation, Zhong-Ren Peng discusses the need for public participation in environmental planning, the capabilities of a web-based GIS system, and proposes both a taxonomy and a system architecture that could implemented to involve users in the planning and decision making processes.

In his introduction, the traditional use of GIS as a presentation tool, rather than an interactive design tool, is discussed. This top-down method of participation, in which the public is only able to comment on what has been prepared by professionals, has been considered both elitist and antidemocratic, mainly due to the fact that the layperson has no exposure to GIS. An evolution in participatory capabilities, which has been termed Collaborative Spatial Decisionmaking (CSDM), accepts public input for the GIS model but encounters difficulty with equal access across socioeconomic groups and often requires a facilitator to operate the system efficiently. According to the author, the next evolution is the Internet GIS, which will be as powerful as the systems that professionals use but will include a user-friendly web-based interface that allows users to evaluate and comment on designs, select alternatives, and ultimately build their own alternative scenarios. He does not elaborate on how detailed the user input should be or how users will be educated to build practical scenarios but, assuming this could be done in a narrative format, it would be a democratic way to bring end-users into the design process.

The author argues that Internet GIS can overcome two obstacles that occur in traditional public forums: the vocal attendees that dominate the meetings and the inflexibility of meeting time (attributed to Kingston et al, Web-based public participation geographic information systems: an aid to local environmental decision making, 2000). Also promoted in this model of participation is the interactivity between users: the sharing of scenarios and analyses through chat rooms and discussion boards. The only downside mentioned is the ever-present problem of equal access to the Internet. While it is true that such a web-based system, accessible from the comfort of one’s own home, during one’s leisure time, is certainly convenient, this arrangement, paradoxically, seems to privatize public participation. Granted, such a system could be a valuable tool for generating interest or eliciting feedback during the conceptual stage or between benchmarks of the design process, but to suggest that ordinary citizens should virtually congregate in cyberspace to participate in city building seems to encourage further segregation of an already atomized society.

Peng’s proposed system evokes Baudrillard’s conception of the hyperreal – neither the real nor the unreal, but the continual simulation and electronic discussion of plans and scenarios that will likely never exist outside of the computer model, and which are not necessarily based on existing reality. However, a hybrid approach of web-based and real-life participation, such as CSDM – the previous evolution in GIS – more closely resembles a process that that is both human and social, and therefore part of a contemporary vernacular.

From Online to Reality

Though the Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) does not keep statistics on the number of public comments it receives per project, it does publish this quantity in final land use decisions (personal correspondence with the DPD Public Resource Center), which are available online (http://web1.seattle.gov/dpd/luib/Default.aspx). While it is beyond the scope of this paper to sort and analyze the types of responses given for specific projects, it can be noted that larger projects – such as a new multistory mixed-use building in the Wallingford neighborhood (40 attendees at the public hearing), or a three-story office building in Queen Anne (24 written letters in the two week comment period) – tend to generate the most public concern, often regarding traffic congestion and loss of habitat. Projects that require the subdivision of lots for multifamily construction are popular but often only receive minimal comments, if any. Meanwhile, consider that the aforementioned blog Huge Ass City has averaged about 235 unique hits daily over the past six months. Though these numbers cannot be directly correlated, they do suggest that online interest in the developments around Seattle outnumbers actual social-political action that could actually influence what is (or isn’t) built. Therefore, a phenomenon worth exploring is the process of translating online interest to real-life action.

One example of a web-based group that spurs real-life activity is MoveOn.org (http://www.moveon.org). With over 3.2 million members nationwide, and funded solely by the donations of members, MoveOn endeavors to bring “real Americans back in to the political process” by circulating petitions, notifying members of upcoming ballot initiatives which could be influenced by constituents contacting their representatives, and organizing parties to watch films about current events. Another poignant example of the power of organization via the Internet that results in real-world consequences is the terrorist attacks of September 11th. According to an article in the Spring 2003 issue of Parameters, the US Army War College Quarterly, “evidence strongly suggests that terrorists used the Internet to plan their operations for 9/11” (Al-Qaeda and the Internet: The Danger of Cyberplanning). The article continues to illuminate other uses of the Internet for organizing terror attacks, gathering information about targets, recruiting, or using the web as a conduit for disrupting business or communications through hacking – all of which are mirror images of productive activities that could be undertaken by technology-based participatory design process: organizing real-life meetings, gathering information about the site of a proposed project, attracting new participants through social media, and using the web as a conduit for the exchange of design ideas.

It is these leaps from the virtual world to the real world where participation via technology begins to gain some momentum, where the hyperreal could be escaped and more process-oriented city-building practices could be developed. Peng’s proposed Internet GIS could be used in this context to “hook” potential participants via blogs, online versions of design magazines and newspapers, etc. Though I have not found any evidence of this transition in the context of urban planning, I have found two intriguing examples of integrating technology into the public forum.

In his article Public Participation: Technology and Democracy, Kheir Al-Kodmany, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, describes a method of using technology to increase public participation in the design process. Capitalizing on the power of the image as a way to understand the environment, the team used a GIS and an artist trained in depicting urban scenes, to facilitate discussions with citizens from the blighted Pilsen district of Chicago and explore revitalization goals, which included the development of a familiar incarnation of consumption: commercial tourism. Over four consecutive Saturdays, the group met in a church and, using GIS and digitized hand-sketched images projected on a screen, explored design options that help revitalize the neighborhood. The GIS proved to be a valuable resource because of its ability to display problem areas graphically, as well as data that reflected problems, such as the frequency of pedestrian and vehicle collisions in areas without sidewalks; besides sketching the new neighborhood that the citizens described, the artist, in one instance also helped extract local knowledge when she sketched some trees that residents knew could not be planted due to a shallow underground sewer system. Through this interactive mode of design, the team ended up with a plan that reflected the ideas of the professionals and the community, and could not have been generated by either group independently.

Of course this type of design process relies on many externalities, such as an interested and available group of citizens, a meeting location, the required equipment ranging from the GIS system to the projectors, and the expertise and availability of planners fluent in GIS. The author also notes other issues encountered such as the duration of the meetings, the transport of the equipment, the marginalization of communities without access to such technology, and the possible misuse of the technology to “blacklist” certain areas based on socioeconomic data. Regardless, the synthesis of the professional and local knowledge, coupled with the use of high technology and old-fashioned public participation, is a model that could form the backbone of a contemporary vernacular.

Another development in GIS that can be used to empower the public is the introduction of user-produced qualitative information into the system. Al-Kodmany mentions both narratives and oral histories as next generation data that “increases not only the richness and diversity of the information available, but also comes closer to the ways in which communities perceive their spaces.” In an article primarily authored by Steve Carter, titled Public Participation, GIS, and cyberdemocracy: evaluating on-line spatial decision support systems, the research team studies a Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) that was created for use over internet but was first tested a local fair, where the users could be observed. The GIS included a map of the English town of Slaithwaite and data fields that are activated as one clicks on features such as the river, buildings, or roads. After selecting a feature, the user can input unlimited text describing it, how they relate to it, or suggestions of how it may be improved.

These studies were successful because they connected the public to the design process using a language that transcends socioeconomic differences: the language of images and stories. Through this more level playing field, it seems likely that collective interests could materialize, as they did in the Pilsen study with regard to the need for sidewalks. The authors of the Union Point Park study refer to these “shared meanings and definitions that people bring to a situation or problem” as cultural framing, and note that social movement theory considers it one of three major factors behind social change, along with mobilization structure – “the formal and informal vehicles through which people mobilize and engage in collective actions” – and the more ephemeral political opportunity. Technology, as it has been described in this section, would thus be both a tool for mobilization and a method by which to discover shared interests.

What about BIM?

With the similarities between BIM and GIS, that is, the synthesis of graphic and descriptive data, it is feasible that BIM could also be used to include the public in the design process. One can envisage a scenario where a conceptual design of a public building, say, a library, is brought to the public in a fashion similar to the Pilsen neighborhood revitalization. The citizens could voice their concerns, a designer could digitally sketch out alternatives, and – borrowing the Slaithwaite example – comments could be archived in the system either at the meeting or afterward via the Internet. The advertised depth of BIM – the ability to coordinate the design disciplines – would not be utilized at this point, but a new dimension of user input, which could be encouraged by BIM’s power to generate images, could be incorporated. Virtual walkthroughs, “fit” of the new building into the neighborhood context, impacts on the view and more could be presented to the public, to help them understand the effects of design decisions. After all, as John Pastier, a former architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times says, it is the city – not an architect or the city elites – that produces great buildings. Unfortunately, I could find no examples or studies of BIM or similar technologies being used for participatory design of buildings.

One factor that could likely be an explanation for this lack of public participation could be the relative newness of BIM within the construction industry. Consequently most of the discourse in academia and professional publications concerns the barriers that must be crossed to use BIM to its full potential. In a paper authored by Carrie Dossick, the researcher concluded that the main barriers to widespread implementation are organizational, and revolve around “trust in leadership, information, technology, and skills of others” (Analyzing the Ramifications of Building Information Technologies for Collaboration in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction, 2008). It should be noted that part of her study is based on the observation of real-life meetings that incorporated a BIM model operated by one of the attendees, thus resembling the Pilsen revitalization meetings but with professionals instead of the community.

In the November 2008 issue of Modern Steel Construction, one of BIM-related editorials address this issue of trust as well as the financial investment required to purchase, train at least one office expert, and disseminate general working knowledge to employees (Technical Solutions are Just the Half of It). Another reason that is unrelated to BIM but pertains to participation in general could be that many buildings are developed by private companies, and thus are less likely than a public project, such as a park, to involve the public. However, despite these factors, the field of facilities management provides a great opportunity to incorporate end-user data into buildings that have been designed and built with BIM.

In a study of the renovation of the Pentagon, researchers from Pennsylvania State University note that the BIM model records performance data of all the mechanical and electrical systems but does not solicit feedback from the occupants (Pulling User Feedback into Renovation Design at the Pentagon, Dahl, 2006). The author proposes a using a post-occupancy evaluation (POE) to add subjective data to the information collected by the BIM system. Though his proposal is to use a survey that is separate from BIM, he suggests implementing a feedback system that directly links to end-user input to the model. However, building on Carter’s PPGIS and Clare Cooper Marcus’s work in San Francisco (Pink Palace to Rosa Parks Towers: High Rise Rehabilitation Using Environment and Behavior Research, 1988), which utilized interviews to obtain information from residents, a more powerful POE that captures a narrative of the everyday experience could be employed online. For example, building occupants could describe the fluctuations in temperature during the day and provide information that may not be collected by sensors connected to the BIM system, such as reflected sunlight off adjacent buildings. The Internet platform for project management that was introduced earlier is a good example of a venue where multiple users could provide both textual and graphical information. Of course, the interpretation of such information would be more involved than a simple survey, but could be employed after seasonal or operational changes to gain a clearer picture of the resulting environment. As such tools for the collection of qualitative data are developed for post-occupancy situations, similar tools could be used to involve the community in the design process.

A Contemporary Vernacular

It should be evident that while technology is certainly a tool that can be used to increase participation in the design process, it is not a panacea that will solve all of our design woes. It cannot substitute for social engagement and should evolve in such a way that it can be used by an average citizen who lacks the specialized training required to operate and understand complex systems such as BIM and GIS. This evolution will hopefully revolve around two attributes that are accessible to the majority of people: images and narrative.

A contemporary vernacular could be modeled on two of the research projects described in this paper. An effective conceptual framework could be based on the Hou and Rios paper that emphasizes community building as the step before any public participation. While this could have a significant online component, it is paramount that the transition is made to the real world, especially given the unequal distribution of Internet access and the fact that many groups, such as the elderly or non English-speaking immigrants, would likely be passed over if the organization depended too heavily on technology. Another lesson from Union Point Park is that many groups with varying interests came together over shared interests that resulted in a large pro-park presence.

A participatory design process such as that utilized in the Pilsen revitalization project would be an effective way to combine the social and technological experiences. It would be in this arena that images and narratives could be synthesized into a representation of how the community envisioned its future. In this study, the University played an integral role by providing the technological expertise to operate the GIS system, but this responsibility could perhaps be shifted to a non-profit organization that focused on community design.

It must also not be forgotten that after the building is built, or the park is constructed, end-user feedback should be constantly acquired in order to learn what design features were effective. As Paul Walker Clarke asserts, “it is false to assume that, once a physical evocation of (social) values is constructed, the desired sociability and participatory citizenship will ensue” (The Ideal of Community and Its Counterfeit Construction, Journal of Architectural Education, 2005). Rousseau says men create and government and government informs the next generation of men; Lefebvre says the same about space, but it must be recognized that public reactions will not necessarily be what was intended by the designer. A post-occupancy evaluation that can be completed online or in person would be one way to understand the success of the project.

Finally, referring back to the ubiquitous American culture of consumption, it should be noted that all of these processes require a certain amount of activity that cannot be easily classified as work or leisure. Participation falls somewhere between these extremes and likely resembles the former more than the latter, but that does not mean it has to be drab. As Papanek professes, “form follows fun”: A park or library meant for the enjoyment and enrichment of the community should not be discussed in stuffy church basements but, rather, in an environment and fashion that evokes the intended finished product. It is this sense of ritual in creation that Walter Benjamin attributes to real art, and given that one function of art is to reflect the current social situation, what better way can this be accomplished than by the democratic creation of places by the collective social body?


So, it has been a while since I last posted. I've had computer problems (solved by the Apple Care program) and a research paper due for a class I was taking at UW (ARCH 598 -- Environmental Design and Well-Being). I'll post the paper shortly.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Another Point of View

Contrary to popular opinion, not everyone in Seattle is delighted by Obama's victory.

Architecture in the Age of Conceptual Reproduction

In 1936, Walter Benjamin wrote that "even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where in happens to be." As anyone with two eyes and any aesthetic sensibility will note, the two bastardizations of Pb Elemental's 12th and John Residence are anything but even a satisfactory reproduction of the the style of the original. As for presence in time and space, I suspect that for years to come, perceptive individuals will be able to see the authentic work and the copycats; they will be able to discern that which came to be through the "ritual" of creation from those that were hastily modified on the exterior to play off the original.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Election Night

Below is a short video I made documenting the election night celebrations on Capitol Hill and in downtown Seattle (and in case you were wondering, it was picked up by the website for Ebony and Jet magazines!). The only camera I had at my disposal was my Nikon digital camera in video mode. I filmed everything from my bike so please excuse any shakiness; I was trying not to crash.

I had never attempted to make a video before but I'm pleased with the results of using this small camera and iMovie. I'm currently having daydreams of a sort of public art projection project that could adorn the blank walls that so many buildings offer the streets. As for content, I was thinking themes that would likely be of concern to readers of this website like nature. Maybe we could start by showing clips from Andy Goldsworthy's Rivers and Tides on the blank side of the Sheraton and then move on to make something of our own? Click here for an example of projection on public buildings (though there are many out there).

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Urban Election

While watching Obama's short program last night, I was reminded of this post on BLDGBLOG, which raises the question of the importance of small-town values when our nation (and the world) is becoming more urban all the time. Check it out.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Argonaut Folly

I'm not sure how many visitors to this site have read the "manifesto" that launched it. The original intent was to form a group of like-minded individuals who would develop a green, multifamily cooperative in which they would live, similar to a family buying a plot of land and having a contractor build them a house. In an effort to keep people's attention and not just say, "hey guys, let's do this," I have spent the majority of my blogging time commenting on projects around Seattle and trying to express my thoughts on what makes cities livable. However, I just finished reading an article in n+1 about similar projects throughout history, starting with Jason and the Argonauts and continuing up to actual co-housing projects as well as being manifested in the comic book, X-Men.

You should read the article; it was written by Joshua Glenn and is titled The Argonaut Folly. The Seattle Public Library has a subscription to n+1 and you can find the essay in issue five.

The gist of is argument, which is counter to what I've written, is that the group need not be all that similar. The only real point about which to rally is freedom from the quotidian. While this is a little more loose than I had initially imagined, it makes plenty of sense. All I'd ask is that our loose band of rebels/misfits/dreamers has the means to uphold their end of the project, and is committed to constructing a seriously eco-friendly abode. Sounds simple, right?

Mr. Glenn ends his article with a plea for anyone with similar feelings to contact him by letter. That's exactly what I'm doing here, electronically. With that said, I'm going to write the gentleman a letter this weekend. Maybe you'll write me an email.

Friday, October 10, 2008


A recent announcement from Allied Arts of Seattle:

Pike/Pine neighborhood conservation open house

Tuesday, October 14th
5:30 pm - 7:30 pm
Seattle Central Community College Room 1110

Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen invites you to an open house to discuss neighborhood conservation and the future of Pike/Pine. City staff will provide information about the first phase of proposed Land Use Code changes intended to continue the implementation of the Pike/Pine Neighborhood Plan and to protect the special character of Pike/Pine.

The Pike/Pine neighborhood of Capitol Hill has had a special zoning designation since 1995. This zoning, known as an "overlay district," has promoted the development we have seen, with commercial buildings on the ground floor, and housing above. Unfortunately, the development has caused the demolition of unique buildings and the loss of small local businesses that make Pike/Pine a unique and affordable neighborhood. The proposed Land Use Code changes will address these issues.

For more information contact Councilmember Tom Rasmussen at (206) 624-8808 or tom.rasmussen@seattle.gov

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Not So Huge

I took these photos back in August while walking from downtown to lower Queen Anne. The first is a construction photo of the Alex Condos, which likely looks completely different now, and the latter is the headquarters of Pensar Development, an engineering company. Though these buildings serve different purposes, they are similar in size and that's what draws me to each.

In the era of (hopefully dead) block-long developments and worse (Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards -- see Dissent article here), it is so refreshing to see something at a more reasonable scale. Take Pb Elemental's 151 Lofts: would you rather live in a wonderful building like this or, as the narrator says in Fight Club, a filing cabinet for widows and young professionals, like the offensively reactionary (not to mention intrusive with respect to the sidewalk) Olive 8? And in all honesty, I'm not even that into the modernist aesthetic. It just happens that several of the projects at the scale I cherish were designed in this fashion.

I was reminded of Jane Jacobs' dislike for large projects while recently reading about the Kelo v. New London (2005) Supreme Court decision that upheld that city's right to exercise eminent domain on the grounds of spurring economic development (the city subsequently handed the land over to private developers to execute the redevelopment plan). Before you freak out, as I did -- I thought eminent domain was only used for projects that served the public -- rest assured that the case didn't set any precedent for such behavior. It basically says that economic development for depressed areas is beneficial to the public and that cities must exercise caution and not play favorites, etc.

Anyway, besides pointing out these questionable uses of eminent domain (fifty years earlier), Jacobs discusses some negative sides of huge projects. A major one is how they attempt to change an area immediately (cataclysmic money is thrown at an area rather than gradual money being slowly invested) when the process of true community building takes time. Another downfall is that block-long developments, like the Sheraton along 7th Ave, are bland visually while areas made up of small, diverse buildings, like Fremont, are interesting.

While the Alex Condos may never develop into a full-fledged "community," I'd bet the residents feel more like one than those in the high-rises; and though skyscrapers atop podiums are all the rage, they certainly don't offer much to one experiencing the city from the sidewalk.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

New Economy

I'm left wondering if a good old-fashioned economy, based on local production and consumption, is exactly what we need?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Wise Buildings

No, not Smart Buildings, though the concept is very important, but wise buildings. Many would not consider the Convention Center that special, other than the fact that it's big, spans the highway, managed to expand amidst the WTO protests, and has public restrooms and exceptional recycling bins. But take an escalator up to the second level -- where it opens to freeway park -- to find a dizzying display of aphoristic wisdom.

A few gems I recorded today:

Automation is deadly
Humanism is obsolete
Private property created crime
Expiring for love is beautiful but stupid
Abuse of power comes as no surprise

I think of this as anti-advertising; like HAL or a benevolent Big Brother hidden away in the back corner of one of our public spaces. I'm not sure who the artist is or where the quotes come from, but I feel like they are getting away with something, sort of like Fred Seidel's poems that found their way into the Wall Street Journal (see Phillip Connor's article in n+1 number four).

I'd like to see a more visible public installation of art like this and I would love to document people's reactions to it. Think of the tourists riding the escalator in the library, only to be disturbed by the voices of Braincast saying, "I want more...more...more." That could be all of us, shaken awake by an actual message in lieu of an advertisement.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Thanks (8th and Seneca)

In the spirit of the old-fashioned alcohol-fueled diatribe of Hugeasscity (just kidding, Dan), I'd like to like to stand at the corner of 8th and Seneca and yell at the developer Levin Manzies, for leaving the Alfaretta Apartments partially demolished, when they owe us (though I'm not sure we want) the Seneca Towers.

In all fairness, I don't have the inside scoop as to what is happening at this site but it looks like it has been abandoned. Does anyone know what's going on?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Fifth Ave. Recycling

While I recognize that we in Seattle are ahead of the most big cities in the public recycling race, I have a few concerns, mainly concerning what can be recycled in these receptacles. To start it off, we are all likely familiar with the standard container for cans and bottles (plastic and glass). Often these are overflowing with newspapers and paper coffee cups, the latter of which, to my knowledge, are not recyclable anyway and are specifically forbidden by the sign. I believe I've seen one of these that welcomes paper but I can't be sure (see below for the final verdict).

Across the street and a block south, one can find a newer incarnation of the mixed recycling container. The signage is not very descriptive but I presume cans and bottles are permissible. But what about newspaper or office paper?

But wait, another block south and one will find two new discriminating containers in front of the IBM building, a full block apart.

So, now I'm receiving mixed messages. It seems that a block ago I could dispose of aluminum and plastic bottles in the same bin but now I must separate them out? What about glass?

Turning to the internet for answers, as I often do, I find that only aluminum and tin cans, plastic and glass bottles can be recycled in all containers, regardless of what the sign says or doesn't say. All paper coffee cups (Tully's has compost bins for these in their stores), newspaper, and food waste goes in the garbage can. Okay, I can work with this but what about those walking the streets who haven't looked this up? Or the tourists?

And then there is the issue of how well we office workers understand the recycling programs in our own domain.

I share with you a photo of the newest issue of Arcade, which is chock full of articles about recycling, reuse, composting, etc., perched precariously on a garbage can in my office. I returned it to a more visible locale so that it could hopefully be read before being recycled but its true fate may have been the landfill.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Disaster Precedes Development

Evidently the site where United Flight 93 crashed is becoming a tourist destination. The story is familiar: the local economy was once dependent on production (mining, the steel industry) and is currently pursuing an economic boost through consumption (tourism). Though the visitors will likely be from a different economic group than those coming to Seattle to patronize The Four Seasons and Seattle Art Museum, the same idea of tourism-produced development is in full effect. It will supposedly be classy affair, the antithesis of the tacky Old Faithful gift shop model, but only time will tell. I find this gruesome but maybe I'm just no fun; feel free to disagree.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Livable Cities

I present to you as evidence of Seattle striving to become more livable: The Crocodile Cafe is reopening in early 2009.

Scroll down for less exciting but more relevant posts.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Cultural Problem

Following is my attempt at responding to a comment/question by Spencer (who also comments here) on Hugeasscity, regarding the new, public/private stairway that graces the back/front of the new Four Season, as well as my trying to sort out some of my own thoughts.

His comment reads:

"so, if this is a cultural problem, who is responsible if the developers and owners are not willing to give appropriately back to the public?"

Architecture, urban planning and city building are cultural problems precisely because they are expressions of our culture, just like movies or novels. Some, like Charles Mudede, think of this building, or buildings grouped together in a city, in the same vein as these other forms of expression; that is, as art. After reading Jane Jacobs, I'm comfortable saying this is reductionism at its finest because art is an interpretation and/or representation of life, that is controlled by the artist, while a building is a piece of a city, which is complex and functional and, as Jacobs says, is the actual life that art represents (or, more broadly, it is space that serves as the setting for all our interactions and commerce, as well as the output of interactions and commerce -- see Henri Lefebvre). She goes on to assert that trying to convert a city into art is "attempting to substitute art for life." That said, I think it's clear that cities and art are indeed closely related, as forms of cultural expression, but the former is more democratically complex (it affects more people than, say, this Friday's production of Shrek, The Musical).

I think most everyone would agree that the dominant contemporary American culture is consumption, and this portion of the city is the epicenter of an incredibly lucrative form of consumption: tourism. Like Dan wrote, the improvements to this part of town -- read as the Seattle Art Museum expansion -- have made it even more valuable and were undertaken to provide nice, clean, upscale venues for expensive tastes (i.e. revenue). I was reading part of gentleman's dissertation about public art in Philadelphia and, among many other things I've mentioned here, he was discussing the special packages available to tourists that included fancy accommodations, dinners, and tickets to a Cezanne exhibit: I'd bet that as soon as the hotel opens, there are packages available that include a room at the Four Seasons, dinners at The Brooklyn or Capital Grill, and unlimited access to SAM. Oh, and the Lusty Lady surely remains as a token of a less dignified, more working-class and production-oriented past.

I bring this up to point out that the developers and city really aren't that interested in giving anything palpable or experiential back to the public: we just live here. We always contribute to the economic well-being of the region. I'm not sure who that makes the responsible party but I suppose it's all of us, for letting increased levels of consumption be the gauge by which we measure success.

The argument about consumption and capitalism and emulation is nothing new but I think this is a perfect example of where it leads. I'm not calling for a township rebellion either -- though that might not be the worst thing to happen -- I'm just trying to figure things out.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Greenbuild 2008 – Seattle Delegation

A quick reminder that the USGBC Greenbuild Expo is coming up from November 19-21 in Boston. If you’re planning on attending, note that the early registration deadline is this coming Monday, September 8th. After this date, it will cost you another $100 to attend (it already costs $600 if you’re a member of USGBC).

As of last night, the hotel rooms in the reserved block were all taken. There are reasonably priced accommodations still available via hotels.com but they will likely be going quickly too.

The creators of Konstructr are organizing a “Seattle Delegation” that will meet before the conference, at the conference and after we return to Seattle. With myriad educational sessions offered, it is impossible to attend every one that interests you so this will be a great chance to share information and ideas with others, as well to partake in some good old-fashioned social networking. I also hear they might be making t-shirts…As an attendee last year, who returned to Seattle excited and full of ideas only to find that I was the only person I knew in attendance, I can say this will be a great opportunity for both social and intellectual exchange. Visit (and join!) Konstructr or send me an email and I’ll pass your contact information along.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Goats Again

The goats were still on Capitol Hill this morning and, as promised, I had my camera.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Goats, Chickens and Cheap Shit Condos

The one day I left my camera at home I stumbled across some authentic "green" behavior on the border of Capitol Hill. Between the dog park on Pine -- directly East of I-5 -- and the highway there were about twenty goats grazing on the grass that slopes down to the freeway retaining wall. Evidently the steward of the dog park had contacted Rent-a-Ruminant to trim the grass in the most natural way possible. I apologize for the lack of photos but see SLOG for an ongoing quasi-discussion. From now on I never leave my camera at home.

This reminds me of something else I've recently heard about but have yet to explore. Backyard chicken ranching would certainly be a "green" feature that would fit into my vision for a co-op.

And in the spirit of honesty and directness, I bring you the newest Seattle residential/land use blog to hit the internet: Cheap Shit Condos. Thanks to urbnlivn for linking to it and adding some laughter to my evening.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Design For Livability Forum

I just received another email from Allied Arts about a three-day livable city design extravaganza. I'm actually going to the Austin City Limits Music Festival that weekend but I'd would attend at least part of this forum otherwise.

Design For Livability Forum
September 25, 2008 - September 27, 2008

For more information contact Ezra Basom

Three Day Conference on how to design and advocate for great cities

How will we design our communities to accommodate enormous population growth, yet respond to critical climate change issues and improve our environment, economy and standard of living now and for future generations?

How do we change the American Dream from a society that chooses poorly-planned, sprawling development to one that prefers vibrant, walkable well designed neighborhoods?

AIA Seattle, the Cascade Land Conservancy and Allied Arts are joining together to present a three-day symposium on the questions of sustainable cities and how they can work.

Please join us for all or part of the conference. We'll kick the discussion off with a Thursday evening conversation with Carol Coletta. Friday is geared towards professional training for design professionals, planners and policy makers, and the Saturday Taking Action Day is public advocacy training for everyone to learn the skills and hear success stories about what it takes to shape your community.

The schedule:
Sept. 25, Town Hall Seattle. Changing the American Dream: Public Lecture with Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities and host and producer of the nationally syndicated public radio show, Smart City. $5 members, $10 non-members,registration required.

Sept. 26, Seattle Center NW Rooms. Doing Density Right: Full Day Summit for Design, Development & Policy Maker Professionals. AIA Credit: 8 LUs / 3 HSWs; Cost $165 for members, $85 Government and non-profit, $35 students, $260 non-members, registration required.

Sept. 27, Seattle Central Community College. Taking Action: Half Day Public advocacy training that unpacks a grassroots organizer toolkit and teaches you how to develop a message, pitch the media, and lobby your government. Learn how to apply these skills to issues you care about with briefings on the Seattle Waterfront, Arts Neighborhoods, and a Neighborhood Building Project. Free admission, registration required.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Lost Time and Density

A few weeks ago, I walked past the Joshua Green Building and saw some workers toiling with the Carroll's Jewelers clock out front.

As one would suspect by looking at this photo, the clock has since been moved. According to this blurb on the DJC site, the shop closed in the spring and the clock was donated to the MOHAI.

I always liked this clock because it reminds me of the cover of The Adventures of Augie March, and the famous clock on Marshall Fields in Chicago.

At times I'm a sucker for nostalgia. Obviously, the need for public clocks has long since evaporated but the patina on the Chicago clock, as well as the dense crowds occupying the sidewalk on the Bellow cover, transport me to a time when city life seemed to be bustling rather than emptying out after standard working hours. And, true, the photo on the Bellow cover was taken a few years in to the Great Depression -- a time to which I'd rather not return -- when the density was about 25% greater than it is now. I can't say what Seattle would look like with a 25% increase in density but I suspect that it would probably be a good thing.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


I'm about due for a positive post so let's visit the corner of 14th and Pine on Capitol Hill, specifically the building on the southwest corner.

I think it's fair to call this the apotheosis of functional diversity; on the ground level it houses an Italian restaurant, a furniture store, an architecture firm, a salon, a children's clothing store and a gardening store, all of which are capped by what I assume are apartments. Spatially this building is not overwhelming; it takes up about a sixth of the block on which it sits (as opposed to the Braeburn Apartments, which take up half of an identical block and are a story taller at the corner, and, thankfully, house the Online Coffee Company). Economically, I would say the retailers in this building are reasonably priced though not exactly appealing to a different "class" of consumer (they are all independent outlets, to my knowledge).

Take a step back and you'll notice that the entire corner is diverse. I took this photo from in front of Online, across the street from a caterer to the west and a church to the south. Not to mention that there is also a fire station, a watch shop, a piano studio, a real estate office and the sales office for the mythological Cameo Condos (more on this later) on the same block.

Granted, this corner isn't bustling with activity throughout the day. I think that is due to the fact that it is bounded on two sides by primarily residential areas and by a major road (Madison) a block away to the south. Regardless, this type of building -- modestly sized and functionally diverse -- seems like a better building block for the neighborhood than, say, the Press Condos, which take up an entire block of Belmont north of Pine and only offer the community a snooty restaurant/bar with a misspelled name that I can't even bring myself to type...oops, there is that negativity again.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Retail Diversity

In Response to Jennifer Langston’s article in the Seattle P-I “Seattle’s small shops…”:

“Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration,” writes Jane Jacobs in the final sentence of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her critique of postwar urban planning, which is often celebrated and frequently cited in the academic world, yet seemingly ignored in practice. Published nearly fifty years ago, her seminal work – which stresses, among other things, the importance of diversity, active streetscapes and buildings of all ages – remains incredibly relevant in the “world-class city” we are ostensibly trying to build. However, as Jennifer Langston shows in her article on the displacement of established independent retailers by shiny new mixed-use developments in West Seattle, Jacobs’ wisdom has again been relegated to the bookshelf while developers continue to homogenize our city in the name of expediency and low-risk returns.

Whether one is concerned with twin-tower condominium projects downtown, mid-rise and mixed-use condo projects on Capitol Hill or the ubiquitous townhouse rows that Lawrence Cheek described as “The Townhouse Scourge,” a poignant unifying theme is the disregard for diversity. The extent of this disregard is, paradoxically, remarkably diverse. It ignores both economic and aesthetic diversity: groups of varying income levels, living in or patronizing establishments diverse in function and form, are replaced by new groups in visually indistinctive, often block-long developments, which are affordable to only a small subset of the population. Spatial and temporal diversity also fall to the wayside: extensive redevelopment of an area isolates the new architecture in time, leaving it disconnected from the history of the area and often becoming the dominant style, which overpowers any remaining buildings. Traditional distinctions between public and private spaces are also blurred: a new project may, much like a shopping mall, provide intentional or de facto “public space” for the surrounding area, but if one attempts to partake in an old-fashioned public activity, such as handing out pamphlets or staging a political demonstration, the security guards will likely come running.

In the case of Funky Janes, the West Seattle consignment shop profiled in Langston’s article, which lost its first lease because it appealed to an alternative demographic, this disregard for diversity might better be described as paternalistic or even authoritarian, both adjectives that would probably make most businessmen, including developers, cringe.

On the other hand, developers like Dunn & Hobbes, who have helped propagate diversity on Capitol Hill with the Agnes Lofts and Pacific Supply Company hardware store restoration, show an authentic concern for the current residents, as well as the future residents whom they are hoping to attract. Returning to the spatial aspect of development, the modest size of these projects speaks volumes about the intent of the project: rather than attempting to transform the area via sheer magnitude, as in the case of block-long projects, they simply cut out a small parcel and become another integral part of the increasingly vibrant urban fabric; as for temporality, where the larger developments seek rapid change, the smaller are part of a slower organic evolution. Fremont was not built in a day.

We must remember that one of Seattle’s finest points is that it has not been overrun by big-box retailers and chain restaurants, at least not yet. Ensuring that small, independent, and diverse enterprises can continue to thrive is of paramount importance as we strive to create a vibrant, livable and sustainable built environment.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Facebook for Design Professionals

Today I received an email from a reader of this site referring me to Konstructr, a social networking site for those involved in the construction industry (Designers, Planners, Financiers, etc). The site is still new and the creators are looking for feedback, but I would recommend that anyone with similar interests/career paths take a look.

Saturday, August 9, 2008


While walking past 1700 Olive on Friday, I noticed this Energy Star sign in the window. I don't have any familiarity with this ranking system but I was happy to see the sign.

This building is home Clise Properties, who, by the way, owns quite a few properties in the Denny Triangle area, some of which is for sale according to this map. In fact, the purpose of my walk was to try and photograph this area where Westlake bisects the bland grid of downtown. This area, which begins at the back corner of Westlake Center, where Fifth crosses Olive, has been my favorite part of Seattle (visually) since I moved here three years ago.

This sort of layout is exactly what Jane Jacobs is talking about when she says, "a good many city streets (not all) need visual interruptions, cutting off the indefinite distant view and at the same time visually heightening and celebrating intense street use by giving it a hint of enclosure and entity." This photo of the Medical and Dental Building doesn't do the area justice, but it shows how nonorthogonal streets, coupled with visual interruptions can make for a more interesting district.

Moving North and returning to Clise, we come to 7th/Westlake/Virginia. Not too long ago there was a rendering of a future building atop the white billboard in the upper left corner -- if you look closely you can see the poles that supported the sign -- but perhaps they are not continuing with the project. According to the aforementioned map, this property is for sale.

Another property that is not, at least to my knowledge, for sale is the eyesore of a McDonalds at 6th/Westlake/Virginia.

I love the small triangular lot on which this abomination sits and think it would be a fantastic location for a building shaped like the long lost Hotel Seattle or Pb Elemental's Trophy Building.

(rendering taken from Pb Elemental's website -- http://www.pbelemental.com)

I can't help but see the potential of this area and hope that future developments are small and diverse, rather than huge monoliths like Insignia Towers, under construction a few blocks away (on a former Clise property).

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Land Lease, Perhaps?

As previously mentioned, my mother's aunt owns a house over in Fremont, on a lot that is zoned L-2. She and her husband have moved to a retirement home and the house is for sale. The price is high, of course, because it's in a terrific location, but they haven't been getting many calls; no surprise really, with the slow economy. However, I'm wondering if pursuing a land lease could be an option for building on this site.

For those who have never heard of a land lease, it is an arrangement where the owner leases the land for, say, 99 years and the developer else builds on it, then pays the owner a monthly rent. Unico does this downtown on the Metropolitan tract; in fact I work in one of these buildings. Anyway, it's an interesting scenario that could possibly lead to lower prices.

Check out this article from the Wall Street Journal for some pros and cons of buying a co-op that has a land lease.

Any lawyers or real estate professionals out there with experience in land leases?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Friday Night

The text below is from an email I received earlier today from Allied Arts. I heard Mark Hinshaw lecture at UW earlier this year and it was very informative, so I recommend this presentation to anyone reading this site. I was planning on going to the Capitol Hill Block Party tomorrow night but I may end up at Weber Thompson instead.

Downtown Streets:
Places for People or Designed for Cars?

July 25, 2008
We'll start at 6:30 p.m.
Program begins at 7:45
Event Location:
Weber Thompson
225 Terry Avenue N. Suite 200

RSVP: 206.624.0433

What makes a downtown street work for people? Is it just well-designed sidewalks next to cute shops? Or is the juxtaposition between vehicles and pedestrians important? Can we accommodate trucks and buses with people and bikes?
The Governor is talking about getting rid of the curb-parking on downtown avenues - what would that do to the human experience? Should we ask the trucks that use the Viaduct to move to 2nd & 4th Avenues? Are we being forced into a "devils choice" between a pedestrian oriented downtown and a great waterfront?

Different streets meet different needs: green streets, main streets, transit streets, walking streets, boulevards, commerce streets, and café streets. What's the right mix of streets for Center City? How could our city creatively use public art and open space funding to make our streets match our status as an international city?

What ideas do you have from your visits to other cities? What do you think Seattle does well and what could we do better?

Join us for a fun look at what will make our downtown streets work for people. We'll hear from a panel of experts who will discuss the many ways we can find clever ideas to create a vision for Seattle as a place with inspiring public spaces.

Panel & Presenters
Mark Hinshaw, Author, True Urbanism, and Director of Urban Design, LMN Architects
Gary Johnson, Center City Strategy Coordinator, City of Seattle
Peg Staeheli, Principal, SvR Design
Moderated By: Brian Steinburg
Senior Associate and LEED AP, Weber Thompson

Hosted By: Weber Thompson

Allied Arts Beer and Culture Nights

Allied Arts was founded in 1954 under the name of "The Beer and Culture Society." More than fifty years later, we still like that name so we're honoring it with our "Beer and Culture Nights."

By convening groups of smart, energetic and public-spirited citizens in an informal setting and by providing snack food, beer and a hot topic, we hope to inspire free-ranging and uninhibited discussion that will be enormously fun and can lead to civic action.

Attendance to the event is free -- all donations are appreciated, regardless of size. Your contribution supports Allied Arts.

Allied Arts of Seattle | www.alliedarts-seattle.org
RSVP to: ezrab@alliedarts-seattle.org or (206) 624-0433

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Homeowner's Association Meeting

Though my wife and I only rent a unit in a condo building, I decided to go to an HOA board meeting last night. The purpose of my attendance was to inquire about composting food waste (coffee grounds, paper towels, vegetable scraps, etc). I had been told by a member of the board that several residents were interested and that I should attend to talk about the issue, so I did. I was also interested in seeing how many residents attended and witnessing the dynamic of the group.

Attendance was paltry. The board was there in full force (five members), as were the property manager and the onsite caretaker, plus three homeowners and myself, for a grand total of eleven (I believe there are seventy three units in the building). The agenda wasn’t too long but the composting discussion was the last item of new business, and therefore occupied the final position of the night.

A detailed account of the discussion that lasted two and a half hours before we got to composting would scare off any reader so I’ll just hit the highlights:

1) A two-sided form, prepared by an impassioned resident and former board member, which was to be distributed to all residents soliciting interest in low-flow toilets and building wi-fi, was presented. Much discussion ensued about the wi-fi portion and the costs associated with the installation ($27,000). Maybe twenty minutes later reason triumphed, and the form, with any mention of money removed, was approved. Oh, and the low-flow toilet proposition was to be “spun” to seem “hip, green, and sustainable,” since “that’s cool these days,” while the board’s true concern was over the water bill.

2) A revision to the 2008 budget was proposed by the treasurer. Evidently, a certain amount of money was allocated for miscellaneous expenditures and the treasurer wanted to insert it as line items where it had actually been spent, therefore reducing the negative variance. For example, there is one unit the association owns that had not been leased until May, though the budget counted on income beginning at an earlier date. Consequently, this line item appeared over budget when in fact some of the money allocated as miscellaneous could have been used to cover the cost. Another half-hour discussion ensued about the politics of presenting the budget to the homeowners and the appropriateness of modifying it midyear (evidently budgets are set annually and are not to be changed, even if the money is just shifted within, during the year; they are only to be reflected upon when the new budget is being determined. Interesting.) It was decided to approve the revisions, but not before one of the board members had left and the aforementioned impassioned resident (who opposed the revisions) yelled out, “where is he?!!”

I’ll skip the discussion of the new hardscape in front of the building that is cracking and the dealings with arborists about the trees in the rear courtyard and get to my immediate concern, the composting.

The impassioned resident proposed building a worm bin with about $100 of association money, which sounded great to everyone: we have lots of planters and flower beds so the new soil would be useful. I asked how long it would take and suggested maybe disposing of food waste in the yard waste container for the interim, at a cost of $5.35 a month, with a one year commitment. I was immediately shot down by the impassioned resident who said that what the way we are currently disposing of food waste (in the garbage) is free and he didn’t care if it was ten cents a year for city pickup. He asked how long I’d lived there (1 year, 3 months) and said it would take a very long time to get the bin built and operational. And with that, the meeting came to a close.

Evidently seniority as a resident and concern over the funds trumps progressive behavior – no surprise there. And it seems that one impassioned resident, who talks the loudest and lets emotion trump reason (fanaticism in lieu of intellectualism, says Paolo Freire), can maintain the status quo when at least sixty two other people, with varying opinions, surely, are holed up and not participating in the decision-making. It’s too bad, really.

I’ve since discovered that Madison Market has a composting area that I can use for my food waste, so my conscience can be clear. I’ve also asked the caretaker and the board whether I can order the cheap curbside pickup for all interested parties while the worm bin construction progresses. We’ll see where that goes.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Quick update on the Medhane Alem church sale and 13th and Olive: though I still have not heard who bought it, I can faithfully report that it is not coming down. My wife spoke with one of the workers painting the windows last week and he said it's there to stay. I snapped this photo of the exterior scaffolding today as we walked past en route to the Broadway Sunday Farmer's Market and the Imagine Capitol Hill festival.

Secondly, though I respect Charles Mudede's opinion wholeheartedly, a comment of his on SLOG, most likely written in haste, has been haunting me. Responding to a post on Hugeasscity criticizing his take on the new Four Seasons building, he said:

I couldn’t care less about the street and what the building is doing to it.

Granted, he was defending his article, where he celebrated the "coding" of the new structure, but every time I think about his comment, I think of this hideous stretch of 7th Ave, between Pine and Pike.

To me, this is the apotheosis of architecture that complete ignores the context in which it is constructed. I spit in the general direction of the Sheraton (and I'm sure Charles does too).

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Return to the Land

On my road trip to and from Denver, I listened to most of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (purchased at The Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana). As you may know, I'm a proponent of locally grown organic food so this audiobook was especially interesting. It reminded me of an orchard that my aunt owns down in Rufus, Oregon, about 100 miles east of Portland. I have yet to visit, or to even meet her, but I'd be lying if I said I never have daydreams about growing organic fruit and free range eggs to sell at farmer's markets in Portland.