Getting it Right: Making Intelligent First Wave Construction Choices


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The Seattle Light Rail is slated to begin service by the end of the year. Within 10 years, the Seattle Department of Transportation is estimating that nearly 43,000 daily passengers will be making use of the system.

Although many Seattleites agree that the public transportation project is a much needed solution to our public transportation woes, some have begun to worry about what challenges -- like gentrification and cheap, pop-up construction -- this new mobility will bring to the inner-ring suburbs.

Some think the first wave of construction will be opportunistic and built with poor quality materials. Last summer, Ben Schiendelman posted his thoughts about what might soon happen along Martin Luther King, Jr. Way to the Seattle Transit Blog:

MLK's one story strip malls, populated by a rainbow of independent groceries, restaurants, nail and hair salons, do not stand a chance against such an onslaught of money. Not even Seattle's pervasive fear of the "south end" (read: people with various shades of skin colors who are clearly all Out To Get You) will stop the growth of poorly designed, vinyl-skinned faux mixed use, sporting spacious high end first floor coffee shops with brand new factory-aged furniture topped with shoddy apartments and condos at astronomical prices...
This happens everywhere. The market doesn't build new buildings with the intention of housing small businesses - they can't pay the rent of new construction. New buildings house high-margin, often cookie cutter businesses, with the exception of those helped along through local government (artist lofts, subsidized housing) or rare business partnerships (Vivace). It is only when those buildings age that the space in them gets cheaper; the business diversity that makes cities great appears only where small and unique becomes affordable.

Since this summer, we've seen Schiendelman's predictions come true. For proof, all you have to do is drive down MLK. Or simply head to Flickr to find a handful of photographers who are snapping pictures to record the process (see some great examples here and here).

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Is this our destiny? Must we wait until the market gives us the type of neighborhoods we want for our city? Instead of waiting, perhaps we can re-imagine construction regulations and subsidies so that we get first wave right the first time around. Some solutions I see to this are to set some regulations that will help decrease the amount of "opportunistic and poorly built" construction and create neighborhoods where people from all income levels can live. Here are a few key steps for building neighborhoods with character:

Create Mixed Housing and Strong Community
Place requirements on developers that ensure a percentage of the future tenants will be of different ages and income levels. This can help to create not only affordable housing, but also a mix of housing options, from single-family detached homes to rowhouses to apartment buildings. In addition, require that a percentage of the development's total value go toward social infrastructure, like landscaped open-to-the-public space, public art, community centers, schools, arts facilities. Set regulations that help, not hinder the natural evolution of communities.

A great example of this comes to us from Roxbury, Massachusetts. Once an auto-body shop and an abandoned theater, The Egleston Crossing buildings in Boston's Roxbury and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods have now been refurbished using green building techniques. They also "provide new amenities and much-needed affordable housing. The energy-efficient design and materials, combined with the project's proximity to public transit, use less energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and save residents money," according to the Environmental Protection Agency's 2008 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement.

Set the Stage for Local Character to Blossom
Mixed use development engenders density and walkability. When more people walk instead of drive, it becomes easier and safer for shoppers to frequent stores that are close together. To further increase neighborhood character, we could enact anti-chain store regulations already popular in cities throughout the country. This helps preserve neighborhood character and levels the field for local businesses to prosper.

Last summer, in Los Angeles, the city council passed a year long moratorium on fast-food restaurants for a large portion of the city. The city council stated that its intent was not to limit choices, but to increase the opportunities to eat healthier food and help local groceries and restaurants flourish. In San Francisco, the board of supervisors passed an ordinance banning chain stores from certain neighborhoods and requiring a review process for chain businesses in others.

Concerning the impact of placing chain stores in communities, John Petro, in his article, A City in Chains, quoted New York Councilmember Gail Brewer who said, “(the process) destroys neighborhoods; it destroys families.” Another result is a bland landscape of endless blocks filled with stores no different than those in any other city, suburb, exurb, or rural town center."

Making Intelligent First Wave Construction Choices
Growth along the light rail corridor will happen. It's up to us to decide what we want that growth to look like. Do we want our neighborhoods to be bright, vibrant culturally diverse centers? Or do we want bland blocks of chain stores housed in cheaply constructed buildings? Do we want to walk to the store or drive? We must take responsibility to imagine and build the just and sustainable city we want to live in now, before the first wave comes.

Image credits: Flickr/rutlo, CC License.

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