Monday, June 29, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities: Role Models for Bellingham?

A recent article in Crosscut was fascinating as it juxtaposed the positive and negative characteristics of two northwest cities, Seattle and Vancouver, BC.

What was really interesting was that expert representatives of each city had to advocate for the OTHER city!

That's an idea which requires serious role-playing and an honest effort to see, understand and support arguments and positions they would normally argue against.

Similar to a debating team format, where pro and con sides are selected in advance and the quality of arguments is monitored and rated by an audience and a jury, the method attempts to separate preconceived positions from rational concepts that can be widely understood and accepted.

Socrates would have loved this format, and probably would have been keen to argue both sides of the question himself.
It was that capacity for didactic argument and reasoning that made Socrates so unpopular in some influential circles, that were not at all comfortable with hearing opposing positions from the same person!

Yet that technique seems a very valuable one since it does identify legitimate pros and cons for reasonable consideration.
Here is a short list of good things about each city, remembering that the discussion is mainly about the built environments.

Vancouver, BC is great because it has:

Stanley Park

Real townhouses

No auto court six-packs

31 miles of mass transit

Consistent, visionary planning

More downtown residents

Skinny Towers that don't block views

More public waterfront access

Walkable neighborhoods

Bikeable streets

No downtown freeways

More cosmopolitan feel

More multi-cultural feel

More "granny flats"

Better new neighborhoods

Bike-borrowing program

More integrated design

More design focus on livability

Families downtown

Seattle is great because it has:

Unique neighborhood character

Downtown ferries

Pike Place Market

Hilly terrain

Local civic patrons

More money

Free downtown buses

Parking strip gardens

Olmsted legacy

Better residential architecture

More architectural risk-taking

Better downtown office towers

A less homogenized feel

More cultural institutions and events

University campuses integrated into the city


Major medical and research complexes

Westlake Plaza (Vancouver had no equivalent)

Seattle Center

As for the cons, both criticized their hometowns for significant failures.

Steinbrueck said of Seattle: "We've given up on families in the urban core."

Price said Vancouver's dirty secret was: "We've reached a very high level of mediocrity."

After the Q&A, the audience was asked to decide who won the debate. It was Gordon Price by a hair, which balanced things out nicely: Steinbrueck was voted the winner in Vancouver. Which produced the kind of result soccer cities can be happy with: a tie.

This topic -now being addressed locally by a housing 'toolkit' -is already of interest locally, as it has rightfully has been for a quite a while.

Examples include our Comprehensive Plan, including the 23 Neighborhood Plan updates [now 24], every annexation discussion, every development proposal of any size, design standards & guidelines, waterfront & other redevelopment schemes, etc.
And this good, certainly better than the public ignoring discussions that could impact the city and its neighborhoods in ways that may not be desirable.

But, there is also the feeling among some that even discussing such a topic is tantamount to opening Pandora's box.
They seem to feel that avoidance is better, that delay is preferable, that blind fear is justified, and that the 'City' cannot be trusted.
That stance is just so much BS!

Some opponents are avowed single issue advocates, some recall experiences in other places that purportedly caused huge problems, some are so focused on ADUs [accessory dwelling units] that they can't get past that block.

And, some advocates have the simple misfortune to be classified as 'developers'.

Both advocates and opponents are correct in that some risks will be taken, even if they turn out to be imaginary.

The bottom line is that if the City really wants to do infill better, it needs better tools to do it.
If this is only about mixed use and multi-family housing areas it falls far short; single-family homes must be part of the mix because there do exist lots that are suitable for modest additional housing.

The Real question is, as it has been, how far do we want to go in telling someone else what they can do with their property?
There are practical limits on what makes sense here, folks.

Besides, we have a professional Hearing Examiner to provide consistent review and compliance with City ordinances and design criteria.
Then, there is the neighborhood review process which gets the true input from those likely to be most affected.

Regarding the perceived 'complexity' of the proposed 'Toolkit', when has that claim NOT been made?
There has to be some thoughtful guidelines to be fair and consistent.

Besides, use of the Toolkit is voluntary, not mandatory!
The Toolkit is available for those who wish to use it, period.

So, what is the problem -really?

It is certainly NOT the loss of our single-family neighborhoods!
Did you know that the proposed Toolkit was essentially 'borrowed' from Seattle, a city renowned for the excellence of its neighborhoods.

Let's get serious about this issue and get on with the business of creating more design options, green practices, affordability and land use efficiency.
At some point, citizens will need to connect the dots that this exercise has not happened out of thin air.

This project has been the result of many public planning sessions, careful thought and hundreds of hours of professional staff time.
To dismiss it with knee-jerk reactions is simply not responsible or appropriate, and demeans the effort expended as well as the reasonable intent behind it.

To mouth the words 'I'm all for infill', and then badmouth reasonable attempts to actually implement it, seems disingenuous at best.
Every Toolkit, ordinance or guideline developed will never please everyone, although each will undoubtedly obtain as much public process and consensus as is possible.

I do hope the City will approve this Toolkit in some form after its planned due process, because it does represent a step forward for the City.
Otherwise, we are spinning our wheels and wasting everyone's time.

If, for some reason, the final version of the Toolkit proves unworkable or otherwise undesirable, it can always be modified or rescinded.
Let's don't forget that.