Urban Design

Rail-Volution 2012 -- It's (almost) All About the Bike

Rail-Volution is a national transit -- and by default -- urban livability conference that was conceived in Portland, Oregon during the 1990s. Initially focused on transit and how transit can lead to more compact and sustainable development, Rail-Volution has expanded into what must be one of the most diverse urban livability get-togethers in the nation. And naturally, bicycle transportation is figuring more prominently every year. A cycling enthusiast myself, I seized the opportunity to join two (of at least four or five) mobile workshops centered on bicycle transit, and its current and future prospects in Southern California.

The first tour was in Santa Monica, and featured a taxing ride along the Santa Monica Pier and the beach promenade. Our docents included folks from the city, as well a local bicycle advocacy group -- all who voiced great optimism and support for the integration between bikes and transit both currently and in the future.

Along the Santa Monica beach, the city has built a skills course, pictured above. If you look to the upper right of the image, you can see painted lines, replicating those one would ordinarily find riding on the street, but presented here in safe, car-free environment where beginning cyclists can comfortably practice the skills required to ride in traffic. The skills course, which was several hundred yards long and maybe a dozen wide, also had cones and painted, maze-like lines, where one could test and improve one’s stopping and handling abilities. Our docents told as that the skills course was requested by the community, and has been a huge success with those who have utilized it saying that it gave them the courage to ride in traffic, and ultimately leading to a significant increase in new bike commuters. What a brilliant idea.

The well-organized tour also included other infrastructure enhancements that not only encourage cycling, but achieve other sustainable goals Santa Monica has. Pictured above is what we were told was the world's (well, at least California’s) first living street. Features included a woonerf styled profile, where all uses -- including pedestrians, cars, and bikes, share the same, curb-less plane. Parking was over sand set- porous pavers, and the asphalt itself was porous. The three block, formally crime ridden street was built a few years back, and since its completion has been a centerpiece of the neighborhood's revitalization. A particularly nifty feature were the solar-powered street lamps, shown below surrounded by native, drought tolerant plantings that help treat road run-off using with phytoremediation. Also note the typical street signs whose dignity is raise at least a notch or two by steel frames, painted to match the street lights.

And (I suppose) what would be a sustainability-themed bike tour without a farmer’s market. Indeed. The group enjoyed a great lunch at Santa Monica's, which had bike parking for what seemed to be hundreds of bicycles; a welcoming sign, to be sure.

Our tour concluded at the Santa Monica Bike Center in the heart of downtown. A private enterprise, the Center rents bikes and sells bike schwag. Germane to our tour, the Bike Center also has a subscription-based bicycle storage facility, showers, and locker rooms. In the near future, they plan on also being a bike-share location. A great combination of services as well as a model for other aspiring communities, as the profits from the bike rentals offset the lack of profits from the bike storage and showers, allowing for the assemblage to actually turn a profit and have the proprietors not only consider an expanding, but to open other locations as well. Just look as those sexy Saris double-decker racks in the storage room.

Another day found me on a bike tour of downtown Los Angeles. Contrary to popular opinion (including my own), downtown has a rapidly emerging downtown scene, with an intensity and density that was surprising and sure to match or even exceed my beloved Seattle's in only a short time. And it is not only about the new; in fact, what impressed me most about downtown LA (which is where I stayed for the conference, instead of at the conference hotel in Hollywood), was the legacy of outstanding buildings be they 50, 60, or even 100 years old; so much for the myth of LA being only a post-war, automobile oriented city. Give it a decade or so, and LA will be one of our nation’s hippest down-towns to live in. Please allow me to digress a bit, and share a few images of some pre-war, pre-freeway images of downtown that I had a chance to take prior to the conference, that merely hint at downtown’s urbanity.

Especially rewarding were to explore were the many pre-war office building lobbies, the design and materiality of which speak to Los Angles’ industrial and corporate might during the early 20th century (and to this day). I absolutely love the profile of the chemical plant above the entry doors to the former Standard Oil (Exxon, in today's parlance) lobby, which has been repurposed into the tres hip Standard Hotel.

End of digression -- back to the bike tour. Though nascent, LA's bike program is off to a robust start, and reflects California's entrepreneurial spirit. On Spring Street, pictured below, one can see one of LA's test, green painted bike lanes. Still in the vetting stage, we rode on several surfaces that LADOT is evaluating for performance. Just look at the width of that lane -- a full 6 feet as I recall. And one would never guess, but there was barely and outcry, or so said the docents, when a parking lane was removed for its creation. Although I don't recall from what low, bike commuting has increased 200% in total numbers and 600% among women since the lanes were debuted.

Discussion along the way included the late 2012 launch of LA's bike share program, which will begin downtown and feature bike frames made of 100% recycled aluminum. As we meandered our way on bike lanes, soon to be bike boulevards, and other such inspired bike infrastructure I could not but think how impressed I was with the speed, social acceptance, and political will required to execute such ambitions in a city as large -- and auto-oriented -- as Los Angles. While it is true that the weather is simply superb for cycling, and the terrain a bit more hospitable on the whole than say Seattle's is, if a city such as Los Angeles can vision and implement a bike program with such speed and alacrity it speaks well to the movement as whole.

Park(ing) Day and Urban Agriculture

  schemata workshop and amaranth farms

Schemata Workshop has participated in National Park(ing) Day for the past three years. We continue to participate in this national event because it is a fun and creative way to engage our community about public space and the entitlements we currently give cars.  For one day we demonstrate what our city could look like if we transformed even a small number of our parking spots into public space.  We chose our theme this year because we believe Urban Agriculture has a place in our city and we are in the process of designing a Cohousing Project for our current office location that will include a Rooftop Farm. (http://www.schemataworkshop.com/work/on-the-boards/urban-cohousing/)

Urban Agriculture provides resilience to our food system by diversifying where our food comes from.  Local economies will grow and expand when urban farmers begin to succeed in the city.  City farms improve our environment with increased biodiversity and often utilize innovative farming techniques that use less water and fertilizers. Urban Agriculture and Farms fosters community by providing space to host farm dinners, inspire community kitchens, and teach young and old about their food.

This year, as in past years, our Park(ing) spot received enthusiastic community support.  We had folks stop by who were out on a ‘tour’ of all the parking spots in the city, but we had many others who were just walking by and decided to sit and stay for a conversation about anything from the weather, to the state of the economy. The local preschool came by for milk and cookies and decorated the sidewalk with imaginative art. We also had five chickens (owned by a Schemata staffer), that were a hit, not only with the kids but with adults who wanted to know more about getting their own urban chickens. Overall, it was an exciting day and we all got to know our neighbors a little better while having some inspiring conversations about the future of our city.




Thank you again to Scratch Deli, Ragen & Associates, and Amaranth Farms for partnering to make this a fun and engaging event! Also a shout out to Sugar Bakery for bringing cookies, music, and the party with your mobile Park(ing) Day Party and Portage Bay Grange for leasing us straw bales.

Our awesome Partners, check them out!

www.ragenassociates.com www.amaranthurbanfarm.com www.yelp.com/biz/scratch-deli-seattle www.sugarbakerycafe.com http://portagebaygrange.vpweb.com/Home.html



Chicken laid an egg just for Park(ing) Day.

urban agriculture Park(ing) Day

Friends and neighbors stopped by for great conversation.

sugar bakery Park(ing) Day urban agriculture schemata workshop

Sugar Bakery stopped by with tricked out bikes that brought music and cookies! Fun.

Local preschoolers hope the chickens will lay another egg.


urban agriculture

Conserving Authenticity in Capitol Hill's Buildings and Streetscapes

The ongoing debate on the Hill as to the value of conserving our so-called ‘character structures’ (buildings over 75 years-old) is heating up. It is fueled in part by recent development proposals that choose to incorporate (or not) such buildings into their project. Much of this debate — and the value placed by developers on preserving any particular character structure — centers on the merits of a building’s architecture and whether or not the building in question is great, or even good. All too often, however, such a focused valuation of building-as-object ignores the real value embodied in everyday buildings, and dismisses the contributions these buildings make to the urban fabric. Those who focus on building-as-object overlook how neighborhood character is defined as much by the ordinary buildings one encounters as by the extraordinary ones, especially when those of ordinary qualities comprise an assembly that weaves a complete, cohesive, and convivial urban fabric. While there are many impressive vintage structures on the Hill that deserve preservation outright — regardless of the surrounding urban fabric, such as the one at Pine and 11th pictured below, there are certainly many more buildings that actually contribute more to the character of Capitol Hill’s enviable streetscape, even if paling in comparison to our most beloved buildings as singular architectural objects,  While a building’s particular architectural pedigree may be important, it is arguably more important to value the contribution a good collection of ordinary buildings makes in achieving neighborhood character.

11th and Pine, Capitol Hill

Pictured below are some traditional streetscapes that are an absolutely first rate, despite of (or perhaps because of) their being defined by average buildings. In these European examples, the adjacent streets inevitably lead to piazzas surrounded by architecturally magnificent secular and religious buildings that are the standard fare in that part of the world. Yet, it is a neighborhood full of streets just like those pictured below, defined by their average and ordinary buildings, that fosters the qualities which make these cities great. And it is ultimately  this kind of street fabric that creates the quality spaces residents and visitors cherish just as much, and perhaps to a greater extent than, the grand buildings so often featured on the postcards we send back home.

Mantua, Italy

Bruges, Belgium

Back on Capitol Hill, let us suppose we have the same relative ratio of average buildings to grand buildings leading to a similar high quality built environment. With an understanding that the average does as much as the grand in creating our neighborhood character, there is no better representative assembly of such buildings on the Hill than those along 11th Avenue between Pike and Pine, pictured below. No individual building is particularly grand or distinguished, but taken together they form one of our great streetscapes. By paying attention to the cumulative effect created by such a collection of buildings, one is able see their value in establishing the kind of desirable character that many of us on the Hill cherish. Criticalto our current debate, this character is fully compatible with new development. Conserving our character structures while simultaneously building new structures is the kind of balanced development approach that will continue to inject fresh ideas into our built realm, while paying due deference to the urban qualities that attracted us here in the first place. To foster the positive outcome of a balanced development approach it is incumbent on members of the Capitol Hill community to effectively communicate to developers that they must take time to understand the value we place on a successful blending of both the old and the new structures.

11th Avenue, Capitol Hill

One relatively close by neighborhood that has achieved a very successful old-new balance on a neighborhood scale is Portland’s Pearl District. It took me some time to realize it, but it is the Pearl’s southern portion (where the character structures are, the northern portion was undeveloped rail yards) that is the most successful. The inclusion of both old and new is especially successful when the two are juxtaposed, as seen below. In this case, neither old nor new structures are exemplary as individual buildings, but taken together the streetscape they form achieves a balanced scale and creates a rich variety of experiences.

NW Glisan Street, Portland, OR

NW 11th Avenue, Portland, OR

Pursuing such a balanced development approach on the Hill presents one with several options. First, and as promised by the developer of the Bauhaus building site, there is a preservation strategy that includes the character structure’s original exterior design and the retention of its interior environment. New development would occur above and be visually distinct in appearance from the retained character structure. In the particular case of the Bauhaus development the approach is certainly laudable, supportable, and easy to imagine as both the exterior and interior of the Bauhaus and adjacent Pineview Apartments are clearly something special. In the case of the Bauhaus/Pineview, we have a building that is fairly distressed requiring considerable resources and a financial commitment from the developer. Beyond leveraging the ambiance (and good will) of our neighborhood, one major incentive in favor of preservation of the Bauhaus is, of course, the extra floor the developer is awarded as an incentive for its preservation. This incentive is the means that the developer needs to offset the added costs of preserving the buildings instead of tearing them down, and was conceived and shepherded by members of the community, and adopted by the City in 2009.

The Bauhaus Building, Pine and Melrose

Bauhaus Building Interior

In addition to the straight forward preservation approach of the Bauhaus, one could pursue to adaptively re-use a building by restoring it to take on new uses its original developers may never have considered. This option can be attractive if the building in question is, say, a diamond in the rough and not such an obvious preservation candidate as is the Bauhaus. One thing making this approach attractive on Capitol Hill is that we have many of the old Auto Row buildings, buildings originally designed to support automotive uses. Automobiles, being rather large and heavy, required extra-stout structures and open floor plans. The upside to this is that a robust structure and open plan provide the most flexible floor plan of all, one that is well suited to provide for the diverse demands for tenant space on Capitol Hill that include retail, office, and restaurant. In our debate on the value of maintaining the granular streetscapes through preservation of the average and every day, goals for preservation certainly should include such Auto Row buildings as the Davis-Hoffman, pictured below. Davis-Hoffman is is a perfect candidate for conservation efforts, the extent of which are being discussed by members of the Capitol Hill community and the property's  developer, and whose latest design fully integrates the Davis Hoffman and the adjacent Madison Park Greetings buildings into the project.

Davis Hoffman, Original Condition (Puget Sound Archives)

Davis Hoffman, Current Condition

Removing the layers of previous renovations would reveal that in its former life the Davis Hoffman was a much more handsome building than it is today, and, more importantly, has those average qualities that contribute to extraordinary streetscapes. Even today it has porosity — courtesy of a substantial collection of large windows — that distinguishes it from contemporary developments. Paired with the two adjacent Madison Park Greetings buildings around the corner (and part of the same proposed development), the Davis Hoffman creates the type of continuous street fabric that has made neighborhoods such as the Pearl District a great success, and holds great promise for ours. Fortunately, on Capitol Hill one needs not imagine the potential outcome of such conservation efforts, for we have many fine examples of adaptive re-use projects. Thanks to such forward thinking developers as Hunter’s Capital, Dunn and Hobbs, and Madrona Real Estate Services — to name but a few — we have not only the architectural proof of the viability of such a strategy (while often times starting with buildings in much greater distress than is Davis Hoffman), but of its financial merits as well. And this group of local developers is willing to share their experiences with others seeking to achieve similar results by in their own development projects.

Elliott Bay Book Company, Prior to Renovation (Image Michael Oaksmith)

Elliott Bay Book Company, Post Renovation

When Elliott Bay Book Company relocated from Pioneer Square, it was a significant victory for Capitol Hill. It was no easy achievement as its previous location in the Pioneer Square Historic District defined the character of the bookstore as much as the thoughtfully chosen volumes that graced its shelves. Such character was important to the book store owner, and was a prime driver during his search for a new space. Thanks to the adaptive restoration of the flexible Auto Row typology from automotive service to bookstore, we have a fine retail space whose character and authenticity is preserved. In addition to the code-required seismic upgrade, restoration strategies included restoring the wood trusses and skylights, which had been roofed over. On the facade, a historically accurate new window system was installed. This was done in addition to the more typical new bathrooms, modern telecommunications, lighting, and heating/cooling system upgrades. A fairly involved process, but with results that have created one of the best retail environments in all of Seattle. Yet the developer, Hunters Capital, could have easily demolished the building, and started afresh with a 6 story edifice. Besides a passion for old buildings, Hunter’s has found that such spaces create desirable and profitable retail spaces, which have a unique ability to attract discerning local retailers such as Elliott Bay Books.

Elliott Bay Book Company, Interior Prior to Renovation (Image Michael Oaksmith)

Elliott Bay Book Company, Post Renovation

In addition to the above success story, there is another project that perhaps required even greater vision and fortitude: taking the building pictured below and realizing what has become a model for small, local retail, and adaptive re-use projects — the nationally acclaimed Melrose Market. Quite frankly, it is hard to imagine anyone seeing the value in its pre-restoration condition. But someone did, and thanks to developers Dunn and Hobbes and Eagle Rock Ventures, we have a project that has literally re-defined the western edge of Pike Pine. What was formerly a forgettable street has been transformed into what many  see as becoming one of Capitol Hill’s fines.  It provides the foundation for a great streetscape being embraced by current and future development projects such as the above mentioned Bauhaus project whose conservation efforts were inspired by those of Melrose Market.

Melrose Market, Prior to Renovation (Image Liz Dunn)

Melrose Market, Post Renovation

Melrose Market Interior, Post Renovation

Melrose Market is another good reminder (similar to Elliott Bay) that the conservation of the interior environment elicits as much consideration as the outside.  Another former Auto Row building, Melrose Market has long spanning trusses that prove to be well adapted to re-purposing. At Elliot Bay, which has a similar structure, the space provided is for one large retailer whereas at Melrose Market space provided is for almost a dozen, revealing the beauty and utility of the auto-row typology. In both cases the success of the project involved more than removing layers of paint, repairing rot, and bringing the building up to current standards of health and safety. Thoughtful tenanting of the spaces was essential, and to my mind, the successful results were almost a forgone conclusion. Larger national chains, with their standards of vending and for spaces they feel optimize the separation of shoppers from their money may not look twice at Melrose as it doesn’t fit within their conceptions of a successful retail environment. Yet, Elliott Bay Book Company and Melrose Market are of a culture that appreciates the unique qualities possessed by character structures, making the conservation of such spaces as appealing in attracting the types of businesses we desire on the Hill as are the spaces themselves. In a broader context, conserving our heritage buildings is one of the best a means we have in providing the type of spaces that locally-bases businesses crave, and many of us want to support.

Agnes Loft, Terrace Between Old and New Structures

Both old and new buildings are needed to create a cohesive urban fabric, and it is starting to emerge on small patches of Capitol Hill. New, modern buildings, with their clean lines and transparency are to be expected — and are most welcome — as they fill in parking lots, gas stations, and vacant lots.  However, we must not neglect those portions of our neighborhood where frontages of character buildings exist and ask developers to thoughtfully incorporate them into new developments while there still is an opportunity to do so. There should be little debate that such a conservation strategy is critical not only to maintaining the neighborhood identity many of us cherish, but to providing the kind of spaces others of like mind are looking for when searching for a new place to call home.



The Pinevue Apartment Building, and why it is worth saving

The heritage structures along Capitol Hill’s Pike-Pine corridor house mixed use, residential, and commercial tenants. The most prominent and best preserved of these buildings are the large number of former auto showrooms, the so-called auto-row buildings that are comprised of large-span ground floor spaces with high ceilings. Some heritage structures originally housed, as they do today, a mix of uses with ground floor retail and housing above. Some are strictly residential. These original patterns of development, or more specifically the pattern or planning for the building’s use, are reflected in their elevations. In those buildings along Pike-Pine that were originally commercial, the ground floor has expansive amounts of glass which are crisply framed by the building’s structure, with the resulting clarity carried out on the upper floors with little variation. A typical example of this rational, commercial frame expression can be seen along Pine Street, between Crawford Place and Summit Avenue.

Typical Pike-Pine Heritage Commercial Building

Capitol Hill’s residential buildings too, have a similar uniformity of expression between the ground and upper floors. In residential buildings, the expression was one of smaller, individually framed or so-called ‘punched’ windows, with the apartment building on Pine Street and Belmont being a fine example.


Typical Pike-Pine Heritage Apartment Building

A unified expression between a building’s base and top was clearly not the primary goal for the designers of Pine Street’s Pinevue Apartments, making it a rarity among our heritage buildings. Next to the Melrose Building (home to Bauhaus), and threatened by the same re-development project, I would argue that architecturally the Pineview Apartments are just as significant, and just as worthy of preservation as is Melrose. Unlike the above mentioned typical Pike-Pine buildings, Pinevue presents us with a unique expression between lower and upper floors – an interesting merging of the expression of ground floor frame (commercial) and upper floor punched opening (residential). And though there are other buildings on the Hill that seek a strong distinction between base and top, none shows the same level of determination in differentiating their two uses as does the Pinevue.

The Pinevue Building

The Pinevue’s ground floor columns bear little resemblance to — or provide ordering for — the upper floors’ rather randomly spaced and grouped punched openings. This singular expression of the columns is furthered not only by the white of their terra-cotta but also by their framing the black painted storefront, not to mention being quite different than the dark red brick above. The fact that the columns are just slightly in front of (proud of) the brick is a wonderful detail that clearly punctuates the difference between base and top.


Pinevue Corner with Terr-Cotta Column

Retail Interior (Wall of Sound & Spine and Crown)

Despite these larger design moves that emphatically state the difference between commercial and residential uses, the Pinevue’s architects also looked to provide some unity to the upper and lower floors, but in a much more subtle way than one typically encounters along Pike-Pine, and in a way that did not conflict with the overall goal of programmatic differentiation. The small divided lights above the storefronts (especially handsome when seen from inside the retail spaces) are repeated on the residential windows above, whose terra-cotta sills are a match to the material of the columns below.  Another nice detail that weaves together the entire Pine Street façade is the crenelations along the parapet that are of similar dimension – but different materiality – than the terra-cotta columns that they line up with below. This confident uniting of what on the larger canvas are disparate parts with the smallest of details reveals a level of sophistication and maturity by the Pinevue’s architects that make this building one of the Hill’s finest buildings (as well as presenting a lesson for restraint for us to treasure and advocate for).

Angled Storefront

The Pinevue’s intact original retail design leaves no question that it was built expressly for smaller tenants, tenants that it continues to successfully house to this day. The architectural clues are abundant, and include numerous doors framed by a rarely seen diagonally oriented storefront, complete with the requisite delicate corners. These angle storefronts have served the tenants well, as they provide greater visibility of their wares to passersby, and stand in contrast to the typical, larger, and planar storefront retail spaces along Pike-Pine. The Melrose Building also has it original storefronts intact, resulting in an entire block-frontage of intact heritage structures with no significant sign of alteration, speaking to the ability of this quality pair of buildings to continue to successfully attract retail tenants throughout their almost 100 year histories. A noteworthy achievement indeed.

Melrose Building and Pinevue Building