Jul 19, 2015

The Nordmaling and Robertsfors of Seattle. And why.

When I first came to Seattle in 1993 I was struck by how the city was laid out between the waters of Elliot Bay to the west, Lake Washington to the east and around Lake Union in the middle of the city. The hills and the waters made it easy for the eye to navigate. Queen Anne Hill, Capitol Hill, First Hill, West Seattle over the bay. In the middle the dense Downtown as the obvious city center surrounded by neighborhoods were people lived their lives.

I was fascinated by the neighborhoods. Wallingford, Madrona, Madison, Central District, Ballard, Montlake, Queen Anne. I remember writing letters (!) home trying to explain how Seattle had a city center surrounded by small-towns like Nordmaling, Robertsfors, Vindeln and Vännäs, places of about 2-3000 inhabitants when I grew up in Västerbotten Region where Umeå is the main city. Places with local downtowns, schools, shops, most everything you needed. Built up by single homes, mostly.

In 1993 the Seattle population wasn’t far from 600 000, Greater Seattle about 2 million. In 2014 about 668 000 and Greater Seattle 3.6 million people. I’ve been thinking the fact the City of Seattle hardly been growing during these 20 years is because it’s squeezed in between the waters and have very little chance to expand. And the expansion that’s after all been happening is upwards with the Downtown condo rises. It’s not until this summer I have learned that I’ve partly been right in my guesses, and why.

The Seattle neighborhoods are protected single-family zones! I don’t know why I never even questioned the fact that the Nordmalings and Robertsfors of Seattle are only residential areas with quite streets and basket hoops in the back yards and alleys, although they are in the middle of the fastest growing major city in the U.S.! Maybe because Wallingford, Madrona and Ballard all have their souls, their communities, their self-evident space in the fabric that is Seattle. 

They say a city without building cranes is a city without a future. In that case both my cities sure have a future. For as long as I have known Seattle, building cranes have been a part of the skyline. That’s also true for Umeå now.

Due to my body restrictions I unfortunately haven’t been back in Seattle for three years. That stay was though, speaking in terms of getting out and about, my most difficult one. I stayed in lower Queen Anne in a penthouse with a killer view (google Seattle views and the first one you will find was mine!), but it became a tower from which I dreaded to climb down. Partly because of my back, but mainly because of the location. Well, the location on the map is great, close to Downtown, but to drive from there to Downtown or Capitol Hill through the Mercer (street) mess, was a nightmare of road work, traffic gridlock and construction sites. I feel claustrophobic even thinking about it.

Yet it seems like the three years after 2012 have totally crazed Seattle. Amazon is taking over the former wear house waste land (umebor, think Västerslätt) South Lake Union, made it it’s campus adding more than 15 000 workers to Seattle with capacity of 30 000 within e few years. Last time this kind of company development happened in the Seattle area was Microsoft in the nineties, although in Redmond east of Lake Washington. Now it’s happening right in the core of the tight Seattle city center with already packed freeways and over-crowded buses. As much as I miss Seattle and always long for the Emerald City, this picture makes the claustrophobia take a seat on my chest.

So, where will everyone live? Downtown condo high rises, yes. But, it might be that the Seattle neighborhoods will be changing. The single-family zoning may very well be in jeopardy. That’s in the Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s panel on housing affordability, because here is another issue. As Seattle’s booming is going through the roof, who but the Amazons and the Microsofties will afford to live here? A lot of the new high-rises planned for Seattle aren’t condos but apartments (unthinkable in the nineties, only losers were renting), because people just can’t afford to buy on this market anymore!

Wallingford, Madrona and Ballard might look different in the future. In the recent draft  of the panel on housing affordability’s recommendations, the committee argued for converting Seattle’s single-family zones into “low-density residential zones” allowing more types of housing, such as “small-lot dwellings, cottages or courtyard housing, duplexes and triplexes.” 

I can see how this stirs up feelings all around Seattle. The neighborhoods are beautiful and generally safe. Privileged, if you so will, some very privileged. To buy a home in either of those neighborhoods is money. But maybe, if the development is restricted to mother-in-law backyard units and modest town houses, it won't be worse than tearing down a bungalow replacing it with an oversized McMansion blocking the view? And might it add something to diversity?

Now, is building cranes always a sign for a a better future? Well, that’s a different topic.

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