Seeing Seattle (viii) Misc street observations

Visiting other cities reveals so many subtle differences in how something can be done. It breaks my assumptions — often implicit — that things “just are that way” as a matter of course.  So rather than look in depth at some significant urban planning diffences, which will be subject of future stories (drainage swales, bus stops, etc) lets look at a few miscellaneous differences.

Here’s a few examples.

Seattle’s Chinatown, being remonikered as the International District, seemed to have a heavy import-export-industrial flavour to it, rather than being a restaurant row. There was the requisite Chinatown Arch, albeit much more modest than Ottawa’s Royal Arch.  An Arch in central urban areas is visible only from limited perspectives. Somerset Street, for example, is one of our few curvy streets, and many blocks of Chinatown are out of its sight. Seattle reinforced the Asian them with post-mounted dragons, in various colours.  I’d love to see some of these at each end of our Chinatown:

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Street signs in Seattle are regularly put at waist height, rather than towering 10′ up in the air.  I presume some of our height fetish is for snowplowing (surely a cheaper solution is fewer signs, but I degress). But take a look at these:

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Our engineers would have a fit that the sign might be hit by a car door. And note the round disk set in the pavement. It’s a magnetic sensor that identifies if a car is in the parking spot. I wondered if this was linked to the pay-and-display parking as it could theoretically sense if a car was there over the time limit (which in Seattle, ranged from 3 minutes to 10 hours).

And don’t you just love this heavy duty cast metal lamp post? Old ones abounded, and new ones were being installed too.  Makes the phrase ‘Urban Delight” take meaning. And those bollards, set right into the cement, not the decorative plastic ones Ottawa bolts to surface of the sidewalk. So many American cities defy the stereotype by actually controlling cars seriously.

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I frequently saw push-buttons for requesting a walk light mounted in a convenient location at the crossing.  Overall, I think buttons should be done away with (suggestion for our frugal mayor…) :

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Ottawa has several street staircases, and I love them.  I really value that I live on one such street, Primrose. And we had to fight hard to keep the stairs, as the city tried to remove them a few years ago. I guess if cars can’t use them, they must be valueless.

I took an architectural walking tour in one neighbourhood. The tour leader said Seattle has 630-some street staircases!  Not all were in super condition. These two new ones were in the downtown core area, and were finished with pride:


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Not every staircase had an adjacent elevator for equitable access. The ones in Ottawa on Primrose and Empress seemed to escape Ontario’s accessibility rules (maybe grandfathered?).

But an active proposal for a new stair off Somerset Street onto City Centre Avenue at the Domicile condo site (presently occupied by a paint store and an antique dealer) is running into difficulty complying with the rules. If the stair is installed (and Domicile is enthusiastic about incorporating that into their condo site, kudos to them!) then the city thinks it has to install an elevator too. And since sometimes elevators break, maybe a pair of elevators? Alas, to fit them into the space is proving difficult, and suddenly mission creep is upon us, and they are looking at moving the underpass, building a new one, changing road grades, contorting walkways…  Possibly a case of perfection being the enemy of the good. [you're getting older Eric and more decrepit yourself, so don't knock that elevator you might want it for your wheelchair scooter -- editor].

At this stair near the downtown train station(s) the outdoor stairway, blended into a adjacent infill condo project, had one of these stair lift elevating devices installed, instead of a full elevator:

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Intensively tree-lined streets in Seattle wasn’t reserved just for high profile areas. In this suburban industrial park near my apartment, note how the street is one lane for motor vehicles, a bike lane, a set-back sidewalk with trees and underplanting, and in the centre, the boulevard is heaped up with dirt and intensively planted.





In other sections the centre boulevard was planted with trees planted quite close together. Streets like this are rare in Ottawa, but upon venturing out to see Ottawa’s Eiffel Tower (knocked over on its side) ie the new bridge out in the boonies, I got detoured through Barrhaven onto Leikin Street and discovered it to be just as nicely landscaped. When can we see this treatment for Booth? Albert? Lees? and other urban streets.

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Throughout the US and Europe I see lots of artistic effort put into making retaining walls and sound barriers attractive.  Pictures have been featured here numerous time before. This was a common west-coast design:

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Where street planting isn’t possible for some reason, vertical green walls can be employed. This example is a simple wire trellis with vines on it and it really softened the hard landscape.

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Seeing Seattle (vii) Cultivating trees as if they were wanted



The picture shows a typical older street. The walkway is set back from the vehicle curb. There is a row of trees planted between the walk and the curb. Between the trees is asphalt, concrete, or pavers. The trees are tolerated but paved surfaces dominate. This would still rate as excellent by Ottawa standards, should we be so lucky as to have a boulevard of trees on a street.


Here’s a newer installation, in front of an infill midrise apartment. Here’s another:



Notice too the steel frame and glass panels that partially shelter the pedestrians from rain or drizzle. The photo below shows some existing street trees that were protected during construction of the adjacent mid rise infill. There is a parking or bus bay curbside, thus the paved crossing of the plant zone.

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Another  picture of the same block. Note the lushness of the planting, the curbs that protect the planting beds, the bike post, the underplanting… and that paved block area has wide gaps between the pavers to permit water and air to enter the soil. The pavers are not pseudo-concrete sidewalk set in compacted stonedust that forms a waterproof shield.

The installation show below is perfectly typical for Seattle. One side of every street is being converted to a planting strip.

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Turfstone works in damp climates like Seattle. It was invented in Germany, which also has frequent rains. The stuff was all the rage in Ottawa in the 70’s, but the installations did not work well in our continental climate. The concrete wicks the moisture to the surface to evaporate, the planting material dries out, dies, and is drowned/smothered in salt and grit during the winter. Plastic turfstone works better here. The Seattle installation shown below is in front of an office building. You’ll recognize the bike lanes from the August 19th story on Seattle bike lanes.


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In front of the apartment building part of the block, someone was caring about the plants.


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Don’t you just love this band of decorate tile along the front of this building?


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In Ottawa, the old Bank of Nova Scotia building on Sparks Street had giant granite slabs forming the sidewalk in front of the building. They provided a great foreground to the majesty and solidity of the bank. They survived the first incarnations of the Sparks Street Mall, but were ripped out in the 80’s when the current red brick pavers were put down. I’m not so sure about the taste of whomever thought disposable pink concrete pavers were better than giant slabs of granite with a lifespan measured in centuries.

The slabs were cut down into pieces, and used to form parts of the kayak course down on LeBreton Flats. Until the City decided to “stabilize the slopes” about 10 years back, when the granite disappeared from there too.

Cities do tend to become dominated by cars and the interests of motorists. Seattle is no different. But it is fighting back.  In this location, hefty rocks were installed to protect the base of trees from damage. They are decorative too. This is an older project, as evident by the small planting hole around the tree.

IMG_1019Here’s a newer version of that tree+rock scenario:



Can you imagine Ottawa planners permitting something this nice? Why someone getting out of a car might twist their ankle on a stone and SUE US. Or their car door might hit a rock and SUE US. Or sit on a rock and find it uncomfortable, and SUE US.

Someone Might Sue Us is the true mating call of the Planner Ottawensis. It obviates the need to ever innovate, do something different, or make a decision that isn’t already in the motorist’s rulebook.


Seeing Seattle (vi): real trees in the downtown

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I was really struck by how green Seattle is. Not just green-grass green, but how respectful it was of large-scale green plants. The picture above is not a typical street. Much of Seattle has been yielded over to the almightly motorists who seem to have a real hate-on for trees. But there were quite a few neighbourhoods and areas of the downtown with lots of trees.

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Imagine Sussex Drive or the Market with trees of this size. Trees do grow just fine in cities, not that one could guess that in Ottawa, but they require decent size planting beds, some care, etc.

I was once advised that Ottawa requires 3 cu metres of soil for a new tree; Toronto requires 11. Guess who’s trees thrive and who’s last an average of 7 years before they are dead?

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I noticed significant sized trees with large canopies, even on streets with overhead trolley wiring. That’s a decent sidewalk too.  Ottawa planners always tell me we can’t have those here because our street rights of way are so small. I always respond it’s a matter of priorities: you could have those wide sidewalks and trees (even if just on one side of the street) if we removed that row of parking or one lane of car traffic. Quelle horreur or something!

If you haven’t seen the proposed redesign of Queen Street for the post-LRT age, when additional  thousands of pedestrians will be using the street to access the stations, don’t worry. It doesn’t look much different from today, except with smoother asphalt. The wider sidewalks were eaten up by turning lanes, parking bays, taxi stands, delivery zones, hotel drop offs, etc.

At a recent planning meeting here in Ottawa, developing a new people-oriented facility, they had Two foresters and Two landscape architects, plus the usual engineers, planners, minders, etc. Exactly as per the normal, the Architects and Foresters start out by cataloguing all the vegetation they are going to remove, for reasons of safety, health, growing zones, etc etc. In this case, it was about 1/3 of the existing trees had to go.  It was much much later before we could get to talk about what new saplings might be planted in leftover spaces. With studied avoidance of my question about the amount of soil being put under that tree.


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Whether on the outer edge of the right of way or a downtown median, there were trees:



In many neighbourhoods there were aggressive new tree tree installations. Note the lengthy soil trench, to let in air and water, the underplanting of shrubs, the closely planted trees. There was no space left beside the curb.




This pic below is of a recently rebuilt downtown arterial (think Lees Avenue type of thing) and notice the centre boulevard of trees, underplantings, and overall lushness. These landscaping elements were normal features of reconstruction. Any bets we will see this along Lees?




I was also astounded at how many private buildings put out floral displays. These baskets are strung along the side of an older, modest apartment building in an Elgin Street type of neighbourhood. The horizontal black cable is really a irrigation hose that waters those baskets. And no worries about them dripping onto pedestrians. Or falling onto them. Greenery like this was common.

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Rather more extraordinary was the greenery on this old building. I couldn’t see if was a rotting roof supporting greenery or a deliberate planted green roof. But it sure was nice:

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Seeing Seattle (v): signs you don’t see in Ottawa

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The above signage was painted onto the sidewalk, at an intersection, just as I wondered which way I was to cross the street. Several downtown walking paths were identified. If in Ottawa, they could guide one to Parliament, or the ByWard Market, etc.

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There weren’t very many of these red signs, but where they were they were obvious and useful. Wayfinding is a reasonable municipal expenditure in areas with lots of visitors. Ideally, they would also be found in other neighbourhoods, useful for visitors and locals alike.

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Seattle has a mild climate, and street people naturally gravitate to nice places with nice climates. However, street people were not the omnipresent and aggressive plague they are in Vancouver, BC. Note that this sign does not prohibit overnight sleeping on sidewalks, just interfering with deliveries in the day.

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Another form of directional sign, with useful information on it.  Seattle is very hilly, and can be confusing. For example it was necessary to walk uphill from the downtown shopping area to get to the  harbourfront attractions because of an intervening hill. Signage helps a lot.

You have all heard me complain about the missed opportunities with the Little Italy signs that are very nice but primarily decorative rather than useful. No signs point out the parks, walking paths, cycle paths; or lead users of those paths to the businesses. Missed opportunity.

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Note the walk figure on the street sign.  It indicates that the street is a pedestrian street. Either because it is too steep for motorists and thus closed to vehicles, or because it is a staircase.

Here in Ottawa, there are no street signs where paths cross local streets, since only motorists need to know where they are.

And no one on paths needs a locational reference if calling 9-1-1, etc.

And none of street signs are designed for anyone except motorists, so a sign will say “dead end” or whatever even if it is open to cyclists or pedestrians.

We have a signage system designed for motorists, and ONLY for motorists. Peds and cyclists just go away and shut up.

I really appreciated the simple way pedestrian and cyclist  needs and wants were incorporated into the regular municipal vocabulary of Seattle.


Directional sign to washrooms. Amazing. Americans have to go pee. Canadians apparently don’t, since the WC’s are hidden away or non existent. On the Ottawa Downtown Moves advisory committee, I brought up the idea of signs identifying washroom locations so locals, but primarily tourists, could find a WC.  It went over like a proverbial lump of … lead.

Someday those planners will be over 55 years old, and much more interested in washroom locations. Or maybe they will spend their pension money on diapers. It Depends.

We have all seen the proliferation of signs in parking lots reserving spots first for the handicapped. Then later came ones for Pregnant People.  Then came ones for Parents with Small Child. I saw all these in one parking lot in Seattle. And more:

There is no end of useful categories of people deserving preference. This lot offers spaces for the environmentally noble. Since fuel efficient cars and e-cars are primarily bought by the more affluent (seen the price of a Tesla recently? you could spot one on almost every block in Seattle) these parking spaces also reward the affluent.

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But what if that fuel efficient vehicle was a big one, like a fuel-sipping Lincoln Navigator? Never fear, there was another preference for efficient vehicles that were also Compact:

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the parking lot with the ridiculously extensive list of priority spaces also had a bike rack near the front door. Whew.

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Some of the Ottawa Hydro access-hole covers are really very attractive. I saw many different designs in Seattle for the electric utility:



Don’t you just delight in the image and the reminder that electrification is progress, is good, not something we need to hide from or assuage our guilt by turning off our lights on certain nights.



A few years back I was on the advisory committee for the Preston Street streetscaping. I suggested they get a donation of some access hole lids from Rome, Italy, it being somewhat related to Italian culture, etc and their lids have the fabulous SPQR written on them. They would be noticed mostly during Italian Week when the street is closed.

That suggestion was as popular as the WC signs. Two thumbs down. Feed him to the lions.


I can get it for you, RETAIL

aug 27 2014 268I can understand why people buy a condo apartment or townhouse to live in.  People like the sense of control. Of ownership. Permanence. And once it is paid off, you don’t have to earn the (taxable) income to pay rent.

I also understand that renting is cheaper, and the tax benefits similar, if you invest the difference between renting and saving into the stock market, preferably in low-cost ETF’s. But then you are a tenant … and some people don’t thrill to that.

But that is not what this is about.

It’s about people who buy condos for investment purposes. If you started up a store, or any sort of business selling something, would you buy your product retail? Course not; you’d find a wholesaler, allowing you the opportunity to have a markup (and hopefully a profit, that is a surplus of revenues over costs) as you bring it to buyers.

Condo developers have lists of investment buyers. Many invest in real estate every year. In return for being low-maintenance buyers (they don’t fuss about floor plans or finishes, they  buy the smallest units and wait til they can resell for a profit) these early investors get the lowest prices. These pre-sales help the developer get the project off the ground. Then the developer opens a swanky public sales office, and the game is on.

Selling costs for that sales centre and staff run around $30,000 per condo unit sold. And up.

If someone buys a condo, either brand new from the developer, or resale, the purchase price includes a contribution to the marketing costs. And to the legal costs of creating and registering the property (freehold house buyers face similar costs, of course).

The one-off retail buyer (that’s you or me) probably has only the one investment property. So the pressure is on to break even from the first tenant. Investors with multiple properties have  opportunities to equalize revenues and costs amongst their portfolio of properties. So they can, if necessary, subsidize the rent for a time in anticipation of later benefits.

But if someone buys a whole building, rather than individually titled units, they are buying the building wholesale. Economies of scale come into play. The investment is also a lot less liquid (ie, harder to sell, as the costs are high, and you are dealing with professional money people).

With interest, I noted in OBJ on Sept 9th  that Kanata Lakes Apartment II just sold. This a whole building, sold at once. It is very recently built. There are 152 units in total (129 one bedroom; 23 two bedroom) with an average size of 950 sq ft. For the purposes of this argument, I am assuming these units are comparable to condos on the market.

New condos in Ottawa sell in the $450 per sq foot range (with or without parking?  just play along here for a bit….). The Kanata apartments sold for $320,000 per suite. Divide that by the average square footage, and the transaction price was $336/sq ft.

That $336 for a wholesale apartment is a lot less than buying it retail for $450. Which is why I think individuals should be very cautious about buying condos at retail to rent. You are competing against the professional landlords. The pro’s, running a business, also have different tax rules (guess what, they don’t favour the retail investor) and can spread the risk over many apartments and often many buildings. And they won’t be ruined by a single tenant from hell.

I have no doubt some people can make money buying condos retail and renting them or flipping them or reselling them. But they have to be very savy. Which I think the average “bright idea, let’s buy a condo and rent it” investor isn’t.

Buying real estate, whether on the ground or strata rights (condo) can be a good move for some people, at some times. Push ownership as a form of economic stimulus (see Clinton, Bush et al) and there is risk of a bubble. The current “pause” in the real estate market generally, and condos specifically, may have something to do with the number of people trying to make a quick buck. But there was no grand plan to stop having children in 1990 so the population continues to grow, people will need a place to live, and condos and apartments will be around.

The sudden reticence of novice investors to buy condos doesn’t mean apartment buildings won’t continue to be built. Cranes will continue to dot the skyline. The City’s community design plans will continue to designate more land for more highrises.

Caveats:  I don’t own condos or any investment properties. I do own REIT’s (shares in companies that own apartments). The above numbers come from a general interest newspaper story. The “average size” number in particular is subject to interpretation. I am not your investment advisor or real estate pseudo-guru. I do own my own house, it was the right course for me, when I did it;  I am not so sure that is an advisable course of action today. 


Seeing Seattle (iv): the Burke Gilman trail (the more urban bits)

As the Burke Gilman trail moves eastwards it approaches Fremont. First, it climbs some hills. Shown here, it sort of merges with a concrete sidewalk (note the sign, which I carefully cut off, with courtesy instructions):



This section had no yellow line:





the view from the hill was fine:


Linkages to other loops and paths were marked out at various points:




We passed a chocolate factory with a sign telling people it wasn’t a retail store. Fortunately, that part was nearby, albeit not with the benefit of useful directions from the factory. Admire our perseverance:





the path became more nicely landscaped, with separated pedestrian and cycling paths, moving alongside the Ballard ship canal, which is a big-brother version of the Rideau canal, with tugs, barges, and ocean-going ships up right close:


It squeezed between some old warehouses and the canal. The warehouses, augmented with new bits,  were converted into hi tech offices (including Adobe, whose outdoor cafeteria is shown below). Alas, these are the converted industrial buildings with character that are so rare in Ottawa, given Greber’s bright idea and the NCC’s mandate to eradicate any signs of physical labour and industry:



The canal teemed with salmon. And seals eating them. The path gets greener …


and passes a famous, trendy park located on the site of a former gas plant, which decorates the park with huge hulking ruins:


I saw some nifty innovative pavement configurations along the trail. This concrete slope, or curb cut, informs the cyclist of the road crossing without going over a nasty curb. The yellow bit is raised dots for the benefit of blind cyclists and others not paying attention. Did you ever notice how often things installed “for the safety of cyclists” in Ottawa end up being impediments to riding, real inconveniences? This crossing was slick and smooth AND safe:



This section of path has a slightly elevated concrete sidewalk for pedestrians on one side, and a shallow drainage swale on the left side, which is the start of a down slope to the left.  Very nice.




Here’s where the “separated” uses disappear as the path leaves the densely built up block:




textured pavements warn users of a change of condition without necessitating a reduction in speed:




Here’s another view. Note the discrete little bike and stick figure painted on the surface to help guide users to the right spot.




This tiny cabin perched on the edge of the cycle track, offering coffee and a few snacks. It was also accessible from the other side by vehicles from a very minor road. While I see animation like this on Dutch and other European cycle facilities, they are invisible in Ottawa. Might disturb the scenic majesty and beauty of the frustrated golf course lawns bordering the Ottawa Commuter Expressway:




While we didn’t eat at the either the porno bar / beer garden or the timber shack, we did have a great lunch at this brew pub. Location wise, think City Centre @ Otrain MUP. The patio has been “carved out” of the building by constructing a niche into the facade. Typically for old industrial properties, they were built to the lot line and / or curb line.




The trail runs right through waterfront Republic of Fremont, although we visited Lenin, the rocket ship, and the Fremont Troll on a separate visit. Here, bits of industrial heritage, sure to offend the NCC:




We continued along the pathway past the hospital complexes, where the path disappeared amidst some construction, and we somehow ended up on a sidewalk near the  U Dub (why isn’t it DubU?) Husky Stadium. Apparently a better aligned riverside portion of the path is being constructed. We then cycled along the north end of Lake Washington to some very pleasant residential suburbs. We lost interest, turned, and headed back to Ballard to return our rented bikes.

While this path is high touted in the guides to Seattle, I suspect the path is primarily of commuter value, and its scenic value will improve over time. The surface varies tremendously in quality and design, with some parts downright primitive. It is not the pinnacle of good, contemporary bike path design. It is functional, and makes a great ride for people interested in urban grit and gentrification. There were only two bike rental shops along the trail, car parking was expensive, and bike rentals not cheap.