How low can you go?

In Kansas you won’t find a lot of dams. The terrain is flat, with no rivers coursing down mountains. The Pacific Northwest is a different picture, with lots of both—combined with snow and rain, in case you haven’t noticed the latter. Thus, hydropower makes sense here but no so much on the Midwest plains.

While I have my doubts that a Grand Coulee could be built today, given currently strong opposition to new hydro projects, we should nevertheless appreciate the tremendous value of the New Deal mega-structure, which provides much of the electricity that we consume today

It is this opposition, coupled with the political influence of the wind power industry, that ignored new hydro projects in the language of Initiative 937, narrowly passed by Washington state voters. It’s a measure that I supported, though I lobbied for different wording. I preferred this simple text:

Utilities will meet all load growth through cost-effective conservation, first, then by renewable resources.

As the language now stands, utilities may not count new hydro projects in complying with the initiative’s mandate. However, the law does not prohibit utilities from building such projects, as some people have mistakenly contended.

The principal reason that I support conservation and renewables is my concern for climate change, a subject on which I’ve commented frequently. Both are either zero- or low-carbon electricity resources. If not having to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity (a “negawatt”) is the least carbon intensive resource, how do other resources compare?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued several reports over the years, including numerous technical appendices. The Panel answered the above question here. I’ve prepared this graphic based on their data (pg. 982):

Carbon intensity

Though it’s never easy to be green, readers should acknowledge that we have lots of water in the region and much of it flows down hill. We don’t have to rely on coal and gas plants, which is a very good thing if you share my concern about global warming.

Quality of life

The Everett Herald‘s editors opined on the county’s quality of life, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. The paper cited economists at a recent event sponsored by the Economic Alliance of Snohomish County. They were asked how Everett and the area might reduce the risks of another recession. “Be a place where people want to live,” reported the editors.

Downtown Everett, which should be such a place, appears to be struggling with its identity. Historically supported by maritime interests along the port, including a series of pulp and paper mills, their demise presents new and potentially interesting challenges for the powers that be. What to do?

There are always those who believe that “the market” will and should dictate the appropriate answer. But laissez-affaire probably got us into the Great Recession and inhibits economic recovery. The so-called “job creators” have only enlarged their bank accounts while leaving the Rest of Us to struggle with uncertainty, low wages, and diminished expectations. Why should a hands-off attitude work here?

A proper vision may be necessary but hardly sufficient to build a place where people want to live. No matter, there are absolutely no visible signs that public officials and business leaders care a whit about attracting people to downtown and keeping them here. Yes, there are new apartment buildings and more to come, but they are neither attractive nor part of any integrated pattern of development that promises economic vitality.

My daughter and her husband live on Capitol Hill. They are just a few blocks from everything they need, including grocery stores and upscale restaurants. Public transportation can be had at the closest corner. Their combined incomes afford them a not-so-cheap home and walkable access to amenities that have so far eluded denizens of Everett.

Okay, you may not wish to buy in Seattle. After all, prices are much higher than here. How about renting?

As it happens, my wife and I looked briefly at that possibility. Would you believe $2,700 for a two-bedroom unit? Yikes.

Rents, like house prices, are subject to market forces. Property owners can extract such sums because demand is sufficiently high. And why is demand higher in Seattle than Everett? Because more people want to live there.

Seattle escaped the Great Recession relatively unscathed. Its unemployment rate is lower than the state’s and much lower than the that of the nation as a whole.

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Seattle itself experienced 4.8 percent unemployment as of January 2014. More likely than not, those who live in Seattle work in Seattle. Also, their incomes tend to be higher than Everett’s households. The combination of work, play, and home encourages dollars to exchange hands with greater frequency than in less affluent areas like Everett.

The Herald‘s editors:

In an era when the best paying jobs are going to scientists and computer whizzes, a community needs to invest in the things that attract not only those kinds of businesses, but also those kinds of workers. Recreation and entertainment “infrastructure” can be as important as transportation or communications infrastructure. Excellent schools and libraries can be as great an economic boon as a streamlined regulatory or tax system.

County leaders should take the lesson to heart. Quality of life is not a mere byproduct of prosperity ­­— it can be an important catalyst for it.

Still, what to do, and who goes first?

I believe that government officials, including mayors and city council members, should pay attention to the built environment. How things look and fit with each other attracts would-be residents.

Yet, design standards seem nonexistent in Everett’s code. A search of “setbacks” for example in the city’s online document entitled “Design and Construction Standards and Specifications” came up empty. Setbacks, as any urban designer will tell you, are important for pedestrians and commerce. Now let’s take a look at a new apartment building constructed along Pacific Avenue, one of the city’s major arterials.

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While the sidewalk is wide and the building entrances recessed from the front, there is no buffer between the heavily travelled street and sidewalk. The same property owner is erecting a massive set of buildings a couple of blocks away. They, too, will lack buffers.

Pacific Avenue consists of two travel lanes and a left-turn lane in each direction. It was not designed with pedestrians in mind, though in 2006 the city adopted a plan (pdf) to one day convert the arterial into a “boulevard.” The document is eight years old, and there is no evidence of progress toward its realization.

To be sure, the “Downtown Plan” is littered with pleasant words. Take, for instance, the document’s “goals and objectives”:

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To be fair, I absolutely love the plan. It’s clear that those who fashioned it know that Everett needs a lot of work and that they have good ideas on how to proceed.  Yet, I fear that the document sits somewhere on a shelf. Remember that the plan is almost a decade old. The final section is about implementation. Here is “Step 2. Plant a Seed”:

Initiate a High-Visibility, Transformational Project

(Begin planning within one year; complete within 3-4 years) [my emphasis]

The purpose of this action is to show significant City commitment to downtown with a project that will foster substantial development and/or add a new dimension to downtown activities. Two recommended projects meet these criteria: a major streetscape improvement of Rucker Avenue (Action S-2) and the development of a multipurpose focal park or plaza (Action O-3). Since the Rucker Avenue improvements are directed toward fostering a new in-city residential neighborhood, this project might be timed to coincide with substantial mixed-use residential development along that street. The City might begin planning and design of the street and commit construction funds when the private investment occurs. Creating a unifying central park or plaza is directed at adding a whole new set of activities, recreational attractions, and business opportunities in downtown. The construction of the new park should be complemented by joint City and private efforts to program events for optimizing its use and to address security and maintenance needs. The success of downtown parks is as dependent on good management as it is on good design.

Here’s a photograph of Rucker, that I recently took.

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The city is way behind.

Speaking of downtowns…

In my previous post I decried the conundrum that confronts most cities: how to get people to live downtown when you have few, if any, people-supported amenities? I suggested that without leadership demanded by dissatisfied citizens, mediocrity prevails.

As it happens, the Seattle Times ran a piece this morning on ways to improve a particular downtown corridor, this one about a Pike-Pine (streets) “Renaissance.” Here’s an excerpt:

The area’s last major transformation was in the 1990s, when developer Matt Griffin and a group of investors raised $175 million to create Pacific Place at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Pine Street. Griffin and his partners also struck a deal to have Nordstrom open its flagship store in the historic Frederick & Nelson building next door.

Since then, despite numerous studies and piecemeal efforts, the Pike-Pine area’s streets and buildings have yet to blossom into a coherent, harmonious whole. There are blocks of prominent retail space such as Pacific Place and the renovated Westlake Center followed by blocks of mediocrity.

A group of dissatisfied citizens, designers, and architects offer suggestions like these:

There are small things the city can do now to start changing the character of the corridor, [landscape architect Shannon] Nichol said. Some ideas: A “market-to-market scramble,” or family-friendly fun run from Pike Place Market to Capitol Hill’s Melrose Market; a summer outdoor garden festival; and a 5K loop for tourists and convention-goers who enjoy running.

Others are medium-range goals, like changing street grids to include bicycle lanes.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of GGN’s [a consulting group] recommendations would be gradually phasing out tall trees from east-west streets, to expose views and building facades. Only north-south avenues would be lined with trees, a visual cue for pedestrians roaming downtown.

“We have great vistas to the water from these east-west connections,” said Susan McLaughlin, urban design lead in the Seattle Department of Transportation’s street use and urban forestry division.

Everett, too, has some potentially great vistas from Colby Avenue (which runs along the high spine of the Everett peninsula) to Port Gardner Bay. I am fortunate to have such a view from my apartment, if you’re able to look past the foreground clutter.

Room with a view

Room with a view

 

However, the streets themselves that could be visual corridors to the water leave much to be desired. Here’s an example:

Looking west along Everett Ave.

Looking west along Everett Ave.

Takes your breath away, right? Here’s another:

If you can look past…

If you can look past…

The barren area this side of the water is the site of the former Kimberly-Clark plant, which shut down last year. Far in the distance is Hat Island, home to private residences and accessible only by boat. Again, not a view that brings tears of joy.

At least Seattle is in a conversation. I hear nothing from Everett’s public officials.

Sow’s ear

I was seated in my dentist’s chair a few weeks ago awaiting several minutes of drilling when I was asked a question, to which I couldn’t respond given all the paraphernalia lodged in my mouth. “How would you go about revitalizing downtown Everett?”This is a good question, not just for Everett, but for any city.

Those of us who live in downtowns, should I be allowed to presume, prefer close proximity to restaurants, cultural venues, green space, attractive architecture, and work. But suppose your city seems stuck in dreadful development patterns, with barren edifices adjoining sidewalks, shuttered storefronts, and a proliferation of pedestrian-deterring enterprises (banks come to mind)? Who would want to migrate to such places and take up residence? How to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?

Which brings us to the inevitable Catch-22. People need to live downtown to support local amenities, but there are few if any existing amenities to entice residency. The resolution of the conundrum answers the question at the top.

I, for one, would lean on local government to create, first off, aesthetic standards. One need not reinvent the wheel; look elsewhere for vibrant downtowns, though they are few and far between. Second, relax building regulations that restrict housing in downtown corridors. Third, city officials should not confuse ‘historical’ with either ‘attractive’ or ‘character.’

Let me say a word about the last item. Everett’s city council created an historic district along Hewitt Avenue, which runs east and west. The buildings’ external features will be preserved, which might be a good thing. However, these buildings are old and, for the most part, in disrepair. Their owners have yet to make financial sense out of fixing facades and upgrading interiors. Indeed, at least two such buildings have been recently gutted by fire, resulting in a couple of deaths, despite a city order to install safety improvements.

None of the suggested remedies can occur without that elusive quality leadership. But leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Citizens must demand it; and they won’t demand it unless they express dissatisfaction with the status quo, what I will call ‘a sow’s ear.’

Yesterday I took my new camera for a walk through parts of downtown Everett on my way to the marina. I snapped a lot of pictures. Here are a few.

Outside the Everett Post Office

Outside the Everett Post Office

A typical old house, this one on Grand Avenue

A typical old house, this one on Grand Avenue

A lovely apartment building (NOT)

A lovely apartment building (NOT)

Ugly along the bluff

Ugly along the bluff

I believe that it’s important for citizens to take notice of their built environment. Does it oppress or invite? Do you feel comfortable or forlorn? Would you like to live here?

To be sure, there is some movement toward replacing the old and ugly with new and quasi-attractive. But there is still no coherence in their design and function. Erecting a new apartment building does not revitalization make, especially if the street level is occupied by banks.

Yet another bank, right on the corner below apartments

Yet another bank, right on the corner below apartments

 

A terribly apt analogy

Regardless of who builds the ovens, babies will burn. So we might as well be the builders.

That thought came to mind while reading this from the New York Times:

The long-awaited environmental impact statement on the project concludes that approval or denial of the pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, is unlikely to prompt oil companies to change the rate of their extraction of carbon-heavy tar sands oil, a State Department official said. Either way, the tar sands oil, which produces significantly more planet-warming carbon pollution than standard methods of drilling, is coming out of the ground, the report says.

 

Obama’s inconvenient visit

Okay, I realize that it’s not all about me, or my wife, or thousands of other people trying to head north through or from Seattle yesterday afternoon. But as we approached the freeway onramp after departing Benaroya Hall (Verdi’s Requiem, I should add), my wife and I were greeted by light meters, which control the volume of entering vehicles. Huh? The express lanes should have been open and traffic should have been flowing easily along I-5. After all, this was a Sunday afternoon. Ah, I said aloud, “Obama’s in town.”

Well, not quite. As the Seattle Times reported this morning, Air Force One didn’t set down at Sea-Tac until dusk, about a half hour or more later. But the cops and state patrol were tending the overpasses and not a soul was traveling the express lanes.

This was not an official visit by the president. He was in town briefly to raise lots of money from Puget Sound plutocrats, one of whom, Jon Shirley, formerly of Microsoft, hosted Obama in his modest 27,000-square-foot home in Medina. (My wife and I later wondered just how big that might be. I suggested 27 apartment units of a thousand square feet apiece, about the size of ours.) By the way, while we could have robbed from our retirement account to buy a couple of dinner plates, my wife and I thought $32,500 a bit steep for a meal and photo-op.

Had this been Kansas rather than Seattle Obama might have been confronted by the Tea Party faithful. Here, the protesters were all about the proposed Keystone pipeline. After all, Seattleites just put a socialist on their city council.

I like that.

Checking the boxes

I confess to a hiatus in viewing Bill Moyers; I recently resumed watching. I really can’t say why I stopped or why I returned. But after seeing the last two episodes I suspect a possible explanation for both: The societal needs are as large and numerous as my abilities and energy are inadequate.

You may have noticed that I checked multiple categories for this post. I could have checked more. While it would be comforting to believe that all’s well, any sentient being with an ounce of compassion cannot escape the sobering conclusion: America, at least, sucks.

Surely not for the One-Percent, of course. They’re doing just fine and actually increasing their wealth. The Rest of Us, however, appear to be stuck, along with the economy, which may have entered a new normal of “secular stagnation.” Let’s look around to consider the state of affairs.

Our politicians refused to pass a simple piece of legislation that would have provided “Medicare for all.” Instead, they succumbed to the moneyed interests. As a result, we have a labyrinthian Affordable Care Act that actually transfers more dollars from the Rest of Us to the health care industry. Worse, whatever the benefits of ACA, and there are some, Obama was too busy elsewhere to ensure and insist that implementation be effectively executed. His signature legislation was held hostage to an easily distracted president who always finds time for other things, like spying and killing and golf.

Millions of Americans can’t find a job, even those who did what they were told by securing college degrees. Unemployment remains staggeringly high, and this Congress couldn’t care less.

And speaking of Congress, our government structure is obviously broken. A tiny minority known as the Tea Party can and does control what bills get passed, which don’t see the floor for a vote, and who assumes an office or a position on the president’s nomination. I think they’re crazy, but just enough citizens, aided and abetted by diabolical gerrymandering, elect and retain them to stymie major, and sorely needed, efforts to put people back to work, repair and improve public infrastructures, and provide sufficient income for all, including retirees.

While scientists accumulate evidence that the planet faces catastrophe without urgent and immediate action, the aforementioned Tea Party and almost all Republicans either deny the science of climate change or steadfastly believe that we shall somehow overcome through God’s will or exotic geoenginnering. Or we’ll simply adapt, though the details of how escape description.

On his last program, Moyers interviewed two physicians who are “fighting the good fight.” Both have been arrested multiple times for acts of civil disobedience. Here’s an excerpt from the exchange:

BILL MOYERS: So what do you do when you write a statement that the press ignores, or you organize rallies and events where maybe, five or six or ten people turn out and the press, again, totally ignores you? What, how do you feel about that?

MARGARET FLOWERS: Well, the mass media press is not going to cover this movement. They’re not covering it. I mean, there’s a very vibrant movement going on in this country right now. And that’s why we created PopularResistance.org. It’s a daily movement news site where we cover those protests.

BILL MOYERS: And what do I find if I go there?

MARGARET FLOWERS: You’ll find news stories about protests that are going on in the United States and around the world, as well as informational articles about current events that you’re not going to hear in kind of, the mass media. And you can go there and find articles about what’s going on. If you want to start learning about strategy or how to organize in your community, there are tools for that.

If you want to connect with resistance groups, and we try to uplift the groups that are in the frontlines of struggle, that are actually taking on these challenges very effectively. You can plug into those or the alternative is create, creating alternative systems. We have information about that too.

What gets me is that Bill Moyers has been interviewing political activists for decades, and almost invariably he asks how they keep going against insurmountable odds. Without exception his guests mention this or that protest group or organization that is working valiantly to make a difference.

What difference has been made? As I said, Moyers has been at this almost since he left the White House as LBJ’s press secretary. He’s got to admit that things have only gotten worse across a wide array of checked boxes, from poverty and war to civil liberties and health care. Yet, each week he sits across the table from very concerned citizens who throw out facts and figures that paint another dire picture of what ails us. What to do? Well, organize, protest, and otherwise engage in this or that struggle. After all, they are all struggles and they’re all against heavily entrenched interests.

Depressing as this comes across, Moyers interviewed John Nichols and Robert McChesney the week before. Their recent book, Dollarocracy, describes a political system ruled by the dollar rather than the people. Each page presents evidence to support their subtitle’s message: How the Money-and-Media Election Complex Is Destroying America.

Destroying America. Hmmm.

I don’t doubt the conclusion. I just wonder if America was ever privileged. Though I’ve often referenced “the relative halcyon days” of the 50s and 60s, the country at the time was rife with conspicuous racism, codified in draconian Jim Crow laws. White northerners exhibited hostility to people of color; they were just a bit more subtle about it. Women were generally treated as second-class citizens, forced to submit to dominant males, many, if not most, of whom were living their own lives of quiet desperation and anxiety. Oh, and it was not a good time to be a red, if ever there is.

Meanwhile public education is being attacked. It’s once again in crisis, a repeated offense. This time we’re all about testing the hell out of kids, even before they enter kindergarten. After all, we need data. For what purpose? The cynical goal is to trash public schools themselves, teacher by teacher. Then what? Since this is America, everything is about making money. Billions of dollars are spent each year educating children. Much, if not all, of that could be siphoned off by private entrepreneurs proclaiming the virtues of markets and competition and choice and all those presumed virtues that have delivered the world’s greatest economy.

Which brings us back to the beginning. How could it be great when it serves so few?

Okay. I feel a bit better. On with the struggles.

Then and now

I enjoy Paul Dorpat’s “then-and-now” feature in the Sunday Seattle Times Pacific magazine. He’s gotten access over the years to an array of historical snapshots of mostly Seattle venues. He then compares today’s views of the same places.

I’ll offer my own admittedly feeble attempt. This one of the intersection of Colby and Hewitt in downtown Everett, Wash. Here’s a panorama shot using my iPhone, taken in the middle of September.

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Looking NE from the SW corner of Hewitt (east and west) and Colby (running north and south)

There are banks on the three visible corners. Behind me is yet another financial institution—a mortgage broker.

On occasion I step into the Silver Cup café, which is located a couple of blocks north from this view along Colby. Inside the lobby patrons are treated to a wall-sized photograph of the same intersection, circa 1920-30. Look at the difference between then and now.

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What immediately jumps out is the hustle and bustle of the “then” photograph. Lots of people and lots of cars. Busy. Busy. Busy.

At the foreground on the left is the NW corner of Hewitt and Colby, with the photograph looking north along the latter. We see a “billiards” sign on the adjacent building, with a Western Union office just a door beyond. Farther north, in the largest building, is J.C. Penney (the building now houses—what else?—a bank). Even farther north, but on the other side of Colby, we see a sign for Sears Roebuck. To the far right, just up the block from the NE corner, are what seem to be two hotels, one The Fisher the other the Hotel Colby. Out of view to the right is a fountain/drug store.

It pains me to report that the Silver Cup Café is next door to—you knew this was coming—a bank, Key Bank, to be precise.

 

Dem banks

Last month I wrote a bit about the proliferating banks in downtown Everett.

One thing downtown Everett (Wash.) doesn’t need: another bank. Yet, over the last couple of months the city will have added two, People’s Bank and Homestreet Bank. My problem with this is that money goes into these businesses but, judging by the state of downtown, stays there; it is not invested in improving the built and cultural environments.

It seems that I’m not alone in my misgivings about banks choking off commerce in urban cores. Yesterday the Seattle Times ran a piece on revitalizing Rainier Square, home of the giant pencil. (I’m dating myself: I moved to Puget Sound before the tower was built. For a while it was the happening center of retail activity, replete with a grand piano in the lobby with an open invitation to sit at the keyboard.) I was struck by these words in the article:

What the block’s corners definitely don’t need, Outcalt and Johnson [consultants] said, is more banks, even if they’re the ones that can afford the leases.

Downtown Seattle has nine key retail blocks, and banks occupy too many corners, they said. “Those folks aren’t traffic generators,” Outcalt said. “They’re not enhancing retail vitality.”

Imagine that. Banks don’t generate pedestrian traffic and fail to enhance “retail vitality.” Duh.

As anyone who has read Jane Jacobs can attest, a city succeeds in proportion to the number of people and windows on the streets.    Banks just won’t do it. Yet, Everett’s political and business leaders, such as they are, seem intent on preventing such success. Indeed, they give every indication of being completely ignorant of the ingredients necessary to develop and sustain vibrant cityscapes.

I give you one example of an Everett bank prominently located in what could be part of a vital urban core.

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You get the picture.

 

It’s Mom’s fault

Suppose that our political beliefs are inherited, at least in part. If true, then negotiating with your ideological enemy, as Obama is wont to do, may be fruitless.

Writing for the New York Times, Thomas Edsall explores the heritability of politics, that our genes may be responsible for some or most of our attitudes toward such topics as gay marriage, immigration, taxes, and, of course, Obamacare. There is a new category of scientific inquiry, genopolitics, which studies the biological component of political views. So far, there is little consensus in the scientific community about the conclusions drawn from the research, but advocates press on, as they should, in my opinion.

Edsall concludes:

If genopolitical analysis holds up under continued scrutiny, its explanatory potential is enormous. Not only can the field add to the understanding of polarization and the sources of conflicts that have now shut down the federal government, but analyses like these might also shed light on the logic of, say, supporting abortion rights while opposing the death penalty, or opposing food stamps “giveaways” while supporting subsidies to agribusiness.

With so much riding on political outcomes — from default on the national debt to an attack on Syria to attitudes toward climate change — understanding key factors contributing to the thinking of elected officials and voters becomes crucial. Every avenue for understanding human behavior should be on the table: How do we evaluate our goals? How should we judge trade offs? And just how do we actually make decisions?

The Times also features a who’s who of Congress’s whacko wing nuts. If DNA is behind their extreme persuasions, then perhaps we should tinker with the gene pool. (Just kidding.)