By Mona Lee
I recently read that the dream of the American suburb was born at the New York world’s fair in 1939. 1939 was coincidentally the year I was born too.
At the heart of the fair exhibit entitled “Futurama” was a huge scale model that showed what American cities and towns might look like with cars zipping down wide highways, stand alone houses with spacious yards and attached garages. So while street cars were still stopping in Columbia city with people getting on and off to do their shopping in stores along the sidewalk, the nation’s collective consciousness began zoning wide arterials like Martin Luther King Way, then called Empire Way, for the purpose of moving automobiles out into the suburbs. The result was the C1 (commercial one story) pattern of zoning with big box stores, commercial strips, and acres upon acres of parking.
So throughout my life time, the American suburbs spread out from the cities taking over the land. No questions asked. We built what I call “car world.” But in the mid 1990’s the architectural critic, James Howard Kunstler published an article in the Atlantic Monthly that reflected an emerging collective awareness that maybe this all had been a mistake. This emerging consciousness was called “new urbanism.”
New urbanism was expressed in the notion that car oriented arterials like Martin Luther King Way and Aurora Blvd. were really very ugly, unworthy of our affection. It was making us feel alienated and unhappy to sit in cars and look out at these expanses of concrete as we traveled from place to place. Besides this car world was polluting the air, warming the climate and using up the world’s limited petroleum resources. Actually new urbanism should have been called old fashioned urbanism because it said what we ought to do is go back to designing places like Columbia City built as it had been to accommodate a public rail transit system, with stores along the side walk for people to shop in before they walked home.
This growing new urbanist consciousness was what prompted Puget Sound voters to approve light rail and the city of Seattle to initiate the MLK @ Holly neighborhood planning process. At the time when, with the help of a City appointed consultant, a group of us neighbors gathered to develop this plan, Martin Luther King Way was zoned entirely C1. That meant only one story commercial buildings were allowed. So in order to turn this neighborhood into a potential walkable, transit oriented place, we planned in zoning overlays that would allow taller buildings with stores along the sidewalks and people living above them. The plan allowed for greater density because it was clear when you looked around car oriented suburban America that people only typically walked and took transit in places like New York where there were lots apartment buildings and stores along sidewalks. People don’t walk or take transit much in suburbia.
The MLK at Holly Neighborhood plan was approved by the Seattle City council in 1998. At the time there was no Othello. Well, I mean the place was here, but it didn’t have a name. No one called this place MLK at Holly, the city just named the plan that because here was a business district with no name. There was this public housing development called Holly Park on one side of the MLK and then there were residential districts on the other side that were supposedly called Brighton and Dunlap, but lots of people living there didn’t know that. So an important citizen action resulting from the plan was to try and help this nameless business district develop an identity. That was why we had a banner project and a naming project, eventually calling the place Othello.
The MLK @ Holly Neighborhood Plan called for another citizen action to develop neighborhood design guidelines. So shortly after the dawn of the new millennium, another group of neighbors, with the help of another city appointed consultant, created the Othello Neighborhood Design Guidelines which can be found on the Seattle’s Dept. of Planning and Development web site. Approved by the City Council in 2005, these guidelines take concepts of new urbanism and apply them to this neighborhood, directing developers to transition their buildings with respect for our single family residences.
If you look carefully at our first new corner building, the Station at Othello Park you will see features such as brick masonry, window designs creating variation and definition and other features found on page 12 of the Othello Neighborhood Design Guidelines. In other words, developers appear to be taking our neighborhood design guidelines seriously and building them into reality.
At this point I would like to call your attention to the A-10 recommendations on page 7 entitled Corner Lots. It says, among other things, to employ strong building forms to demarcate important gateways, intersections, and street corners. “Strong corner massing can function as a visual anchor for a block,” it says. Also recommended for corners are focal elements like art work, open spaces, or plazas. Parking lots on three out of four corners are anathema to this vision of a place that attracts walkers.
I have been told that new urbanist developers like Opus Northwest have been attracted to Othello because we have these guidelines. Unfortunately for Othello as for many other neighborhoods, the recession has resulted in restriction of funding for the kind of development projects that would turn Othello into the future Columbia City of the past. And as petroleum resources continue to diminish, the economy may get even worse. But population continues to grow and the suburbs will become more and more untenable. People want to live in the city. Othello is positioned to attract developers who want to build livable communities for the many urban dwellers of the future. So even if the economy doesn’t improve, people will have to live someplace, and they will want to live here.
Last year in 2009 we participated in a City sponsored neighborhood plan update process. The result is another document called the Othello Neighborhood Plan Updates. One of the new recommendations is that we conduct another process to also update our neighborhood design guidelines. I think it will be important to do this because the newly updated Othello neighborhood plan calls for even greater density which we will need to direct and control toward an attractive livable community for ourselves and the many new neighbors yet to come. So as soon as the City Council approves the new updates, I propose that we convene a group to update the Othello Neighborhood Design Guidelines as well, making sure that Othello becomes the new/old walkable transit oriented neighborhood of the future as we come full circle back the past.
Mona Lee is an Othello-area resident who has been organizing in the neighborhood for 13 years. She was voted Best Community Activist in the 2008 Best of SE Seattle Reader’s Choice Poll.