Can green urbanism make its case through public housing?
Seattle has thousands of citizens who understand the connection between sustainability and walkable, compact neighborhoods. It has architecture firms that are international leaders in green building design. And it has a mayor who came from the Sierra Club and a home-grown urbanism advocacy group, Great City.
One thing it lacks, though, is a singular standout example of how bright green development can transform a neighborhood into a walkable, sociable, prosperous district. Portland, Ore., has the Pearl District. Vancouver, B.C., has its entire downtown cluster of residential towers and street-level shops and schools. Such an example in Seattle might be the most powerful way to convince the rest of the city to relax its skepticism toward density and mass transportation, according to proponents.
The idea that Seattle needs a trophy development comes from Marshall Foster, the city's planning director, a veteran of one of those leading architecture and planning shops (Mithun). He understands that for all the enthusiasm in the green urbanism crowd, the city still has a lot of single-family, suburban style neighborhoods. It's a place where "Lesser Seattle" and "Keep the bastards out" took root as catchphrases against big-city growth aspirations. It's a place where a parking rate hike became a "war on drivers."
"If we can get [a standout development] on the ground, people will be able to see and feel and touch an example of the kind of city we can become," Foster said at a brown-bag forum on land-use in the city this week.
He's got an unlikely suggestion for where it might work: Yesler Terrace, a worn-down public housing project perched on hillside along Interstate 5. The 28-acre site is slated for a wholesale redevelopment to make better use of an enviable location within a few blocks of downtown, the First Hill medical cluster, and the Little Saigon commercial district.
The development currently houses 561 families in squat duplex-style homes. The Seattle Housing Authority says the redevelopment will keep the same amount of "extremely low-income" dwellings and add about a thousand somewhat-low-income subsidized units, plus several thousand market rate homes, ground-level retail and office space to serve the nearby hospitals.
"Yesler Terrace's key asset is that it will include a range of incomes," Foster said later.
As other attendees at the lunch suggested, people are naturally suspicious of showcase projects that are accessible only to the city's upper crust – like Vancouver's Olympic Village and much of Seattle's South Lake Union redevelopment.
The Yesler Terrace plan – still under review – does a number of other smart things. It reconnects the neighborhood to the surrounding street grid, correcting a "garden community" model in the 1930s that tried to keep a suburban-style project separate from the surrounding city. A planned streetcar line would link it to the crowds in Capital Hill and the International District. A district energy system would heat multiple buildings from a centralized, efficient source. A district water system would use graywater for flushing toilets and cut water use by half.
Everything is still tentative – a final environmental impact statement is due in March, with a planning decision scheduled for April. If the project succeeds, it could be a useful case study for showing that smart design doesn't have to be a luxury amenity.