Sustainability

RapidRide will transform Eastlake – for better or worse that is the question

Seattle’s proposed RapidRide bus line and bike lanes will transform Eastlake Ave., the main street though Eastlake, by removing all parking and reducing the flexible four lane street to two lanes only. Pushing out cars, the proposed plan creates more capacity for moving people into and out of Eastlake and connecting them to major transit routes.

About two weeks ago, we submitted a series of questions that just didn’t seem to be getting addressed in public meetings to the city’s RapidRide project manager; he in turn had them fielded by subject matter experts.

At the same time the Seattle Bike Blog has been running a series of posts shedding more light on the importance of the Eastlake bike route to bicycling throughout the region.

The Seattle Bike Blog posts and the city’s response to our questions, highlight the positive impact RapidRide and bike lanes could have on the Eastlake community (not to mention global warming). The city can’t promise that the changes will bring more prosperity to Eastlake businesses, but if more people filling the streets helps local businesses, then that is a likely outcome.

Before answering our questions the RRJ Team provided a summary of the project for those unfamiliar with it:

The RapidRide Roosevelt (J Line) Project will upgrade Route 70 to provide high-quality service connecting Downtown Seattle with the neighborhoods of Belltown, South Lake Union, Eastlake, University District, and Roosevelt. Proposed project improvements including transit priority lanes and signals, new RapidRide bus stations, new protected bicycle lanes, upgraded ADA curb ramps, and new pavement on Eastlake Ave E that will enhance speed, reliability, and safety for all. 

The city’s proposed plan is not a done deal by any means. It is currently in the federal Environmental Assessment process, which means the public can continue to weigh in on it pro or con. See the end of the question and answer section for more details.

And here are our questions and the city’s responses:

LUW: A lot of people think this plan—RapidRide and bike lanes that take away parking on Eastlake Ave. – will destroy Eastlake businesses. How do you respond to that? Are there other communities in Seattle or other cities with this type of infrastructure, bike lanes with RapidRide? How are their business districts faring?

RRJT: We’ve heard these questions frequently from Eastlake community members, and we certainly understand where that feeling is coming from. As the city grows, there are more demands on our transportation system, which means that moving throughout the city isn’t nearly as convenient or as easy as it was just ten years ago. While our overall priority is to ensure people have safe access to homes, goods and services, we also want to provide transportation options to the widest variety of people.

RapidRide J Line is being designed to prioritize safe, frequent and reliable transit travel. Separating bicycles from vehicle traffic addresses safety concerns and minimizes friction between modes. In addition, prioritizing transit and bicycle access over single-occupant vehicle traffic helps the city address our climate change goals.

That said, these new options may benefit Eastlake businesses. RapidRide is King County Metro’s highest level of investment in service, amenities, speed and reliability, and innovation. Like Link light rail or the Seattle Streetcar, RapidRide is planned as permanent, high-quality transit infrastructure in local communities that transit riders can rely on. And due to transit investments planned throughout the corridor, our modeling shows that transit ridership is expected to double in 2024, providing more opportunities for riders to easily and efficiently access Eastlake businesses.

We’ve reviewed studies in neighborhood commercial areas that are similar to Eastlake assessing business impacts from the removal of on-street parking and the addition of bicycle facilities. These studies have found that there can be benefits for businesses as a result of new bicycle lanes even with the removal of on-street parking, and the change may not negatively affect businesses.

One example is the Toronto Center for Active Transportation’s report Bike Lanes, On-Street Parking and Business: A Study of Queen Street West in Toronto’s Parkdale Neighborhood that reviewed case studies across Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand and found that “those arriving by bicycle or walking visit more often and spend more money overall” than people who drive. For more information about these studies see the Environmental Assessment.

Within the past several years, protected bicycle lanes have been installed along Westlake Ave N and 2nd Ave in downtown Seattle, NE 65th St in Roosevelt, and on Roosevelt Way NE in Roosevelt and the U-District. While there are variety of changes along all those corridors that can be partially explained by the changing dynamics of a rapidly growing city, there remain a wide variety of successful businesses and restaurants along each of those corridors.

LUW:  There is huge concern that RR will make Eastlake even more of a thoroughfare to downtown – a transit corridor – rather than a neighborhood with a thriving business district?  Businesses don’t really see most of their customers coming by bus – typically they’re driving or walking. Can you comment on what the vision is for connecting neighborhoods?

RRJT: RapidRide J Line is designed to connect neighborhoods to Eastlake and counteract the “corridor effect.” In many cases, people who just want to pass through Eastlake will choose to ride Link light rail. While a primary design consideration of RapidRide J Line system is to connect to other major transit modes like Link light rail and the Seattle Streetcar, RapidRide J Line is also designed to help complete the city’s transportation network for transit, bicycle and pedestrian modes.

The combination of the changes to lane configurations, addition of protected bicycle lane, and the transit system improvements of RapidRide will help calm traffic through the Eastlake community and enhance the community feel. For example, buses on Eastlake Ave E will no longer pull over to let passengers board or exit; they’ll instead remain in-lane so all vehicle traffic will be behind the bus as passengers get on and off. This creates a natural ‘platoon’ of vehicles behind the bus travelling no faster than the bus. As the bus stops at a station, a gap ahead of the bus will allow vehicles turning to clear out ahead of the bus so the bus will be less impacted by traffic at intersections ahead of it. Access improvements like all-door boarding will also help speed up the boarding process to offset delays to other drivers.

While some may use RapidRide J Line to connect to light rail at the U-District or Westlake stations, others may travel to those stations to access Eastlake itself. Providing connections to other modes allows more people to safely and easily travel to the Eastlake community than before with seamless transit connections even to the airport. The project will also bring pedestrian improvements to connect to the new bus stations which will improve the overall pedestrian environment including upgrading ramps to meet ADA requirements and providing pedestrian-level lighting at the stations.

LUW: Talk about the parking mitigation that is being considered for Eastlake – how that would work? And loading zone mitigation?

RRJT: We’re reviewing a variety of options for parking mitigation for the Eastlake community. These mitigation strategies are included in the project’s Environmental Assessment, and should the project receive a Finding of No Significant Impact from the Federal Transit Administration, they will be an official commitment made by the project and will be tracked going forward.

  • Following direct briefings with Eastlake businesses conducted in July 2019, we are currently reviewing load zone opportunities throughout the Eastlake corridor. While other neighborhoods have similar constraints to Eastlake that they can work around, we recognize no two neighborhoods are the same and want to be sensitive to and reflective of Eastlake’s individual business needs.
  • Facilitating discussions to work with private businesses that may be interested, or able to, allow parking lots to be shared parking for other uses. Apps like Spot Hero, Curb Flip, BestParking, and ParkMe are increasingly making shared parking convenient and safe.
  • Considering adjustments to the Restricted Parking Zone (RPZ) 8 to better ease parking congestion in the residential area and to address the needs of all curb space users in the area. This could include updating the time limit regulations and blocks that are covered by the RPZ. SDOT’s RPZ program includes extensive data collection and community engagement when making adjustments to RPZs. 

In addition, we will continue to work with businesses and residents to communicate on-street parking regulations and available commute options. There are a wide variety of commuting programs that SDOT and other area partners have developed that we can work with Eastside businesses and residents to adapt for the Eastlake community.

LUW:  RapidRide won’t go as directly into the U. District as the 70 now does – it will be a longer walk.  Why was that decision made?

RRJT: The project is planned to serve the U District Link light rail station, which will be a regional connection to the University District and the University of Washington. The line does not deviate to the east to serve the core of the UW campus because it is designed to travel in a more linear north-south pattern to provide fast connections to the U District Link station from the north and south. The University of Washington was involved in selecting the Link light rail station locations, so SDOT and King County Metro are mirroring those priorities. In addition, our initial ridership forecasting showed transit ridership would be higher with the planned route and stop locations compared to a route that deviates to the east as Route 70 currently does today. The J Line will also serve the western portion of the UW campus that extends to the west along NE Campus Parkway and NE 41st St.

King County Metro is currently leading the North Link Connections Mobility Project, which is an effort to identify future bus route changes after North Link light rail is open. This effort includes a review of east/west transit connections from the U District Link light rail station through the University of Washington. Depending on transit riders’ destinations on the campus, they may transfer to another route, walk or bike to their destination.

Finally, the University of Washington Master Plan shows planned campus expansion, which includes significant development on the west side of campus near RapidRide stations.

LUW:  The bike lanes will take away 350 parking spaces along Eastlake Avenue. Currently about 1,700 bicyclists cross the University Bridge daily – that’s expected to increase by how much when the protected bike lane is in place? Will electric scooters also be able to use the bike lane?

RRJT: The protected bicycle lane for Eastlake Ave E is designed to improve reliability and safety for people currently accessing Eastlake Ave E whether they’re in a car, on a bike, walking, or riding the bus. We certainly expect an increase in bicyclists as the all ages and abilities network continues to expand with key projects identified in the Bicycle Master Plan being completed. However, as the purpose and need of this project do not directly include increasing bicycle ridership, we have not performed a study of anticipated ridership increase. Our focus for this project has been on addressing safety of all transportation users including bicyclists.

SDOT is separately working on a scooter share pilot. This link has information about this new effort. One question we’re still examining internally is scooter access to protected bicycle lanes.

LUW:  For anyone concerned about climate change, this project seems to be a pivotal one that will have a positive impact on the environment. Can you elaborate more on that?

RRJT: Transportation is the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Seattle, and reducing those emissions is a key goal as we work to address global climate change. Passenger vehicles and commercial trucks account for 62% of Seattle’s emissions. Growing transit ridership and reducing driving alone are critical to meeting Seattle’s climate change goals. Implementing all ages and abilities bicycle facilities also provides an alternative to driving alone and this project will provide a key segment of the bicycle network. Between 2010 and 2018, the city’s drive-alone rate in the center city dropped from 35% to 25%, while bicycle and pedestrian volumes have grown approximately 60% during the same period.

There is no room in Seattle for new infrastructure for single occupant vehicles, so our transportation investments must provide benefit for options that move the most people with the least environmental impacts.

RapidRide J Line would improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing the number of vehicle trips in the corridor compared to not building the project and using primarily electric trolley buses that do not produce tailpipe emissions.

Comment Period for the Environmental Assessment

The project is currently in a comment period for the Environmental Assessment and Section 4(f) Analysis. Comments can be left via the online comment form or mailed to Seattle Department of Transportation, 700 Fifth Ave, Suite 3800 (SMT-38-00), PO Box 34996, Seattle, WA 98124 attn: Darrell Bulmer. Comments must be postmarked or submitted by 5 PM on Friday, February 14, 2020.

Should Lake Union be an International Seaplane Airport in the Heart of the City?

By Peter Erickson

In a letter on August 14 of this year, Kenmore Air quietly petitioned the Seattle Police Department and City of Seattle for measures that would effectively turn the center of Lake Union into a dedicated seaplane runway. By way of background, in the 1970’s there were 7 to 10 flights (5 take-offs /5 landings) a week on Lake Union. By 1989 there were 20 take-offs/20 landings a day. This year Kenmore Air alone (exclusive of Harbor and Chrysler Air) averaged 50 take-offs/50 landings a day over a 10-hour day that’s a flight event every 6 minutes. And if the dedicated runway requested in the last paragraph of their letter comes to pass, Lake Union will become a continuous hub of loud commuter flights with serious environmental and safety impacts for maritime, commercial and recreational users in the heart of our city.

Our organization, the Seaplanes Environmental Coalition (SEC) representing adjacent community councils, homeowner organizations, maritime businesses, floating homes and recreational enterprises, is reaching out to engage Kenmore Air in a public, comprehensive planning process based on the input of all Lake Union stakeholders.

site of seaplane runway on Lake Union

Today’s seaplane debate is driven by Kenmore’s letter to the city of August 14 which requested the following:

  • A 400-foot-wide by 3,000-foot-long zone with a single row of buoys down the center of the lake.
  • The buoys blink for 5 minutes when pilots are landing or taking-off. When blinking everyone is expected to move away.
  • Kenmore’s letter claims “an average of 80 flights a day” (which does not include the flights of its Canadian affiliate, Harbour Air), which over a 10-hour day during the summer means a flight every 6 minutes. In short, the buoys are always blinking and this 1.2 million square-foot runway is effectively an off-limits zone down the center of the lake.
  • Thousands of sailboats, kayakers, paddleboarders, rowers, recreational power boats and maritime businesses use the lake every week during the summer.
  • As a limited natural resource Lake Union is now very crowded. Simultaneously Kenmore Air, Seattle Seaplanes, and now Harbour Air out of Canada, have increased flights from 40 to over 80 flights a day. Because of these crowded conditions, Kenmore’s letter states that the single row of buoys is not safe and now requires police management. Yet Kenmore Air, a profitable, privately owned company, instead of monitoring the lane itself expects the police department to patrol the runway clearing it of boats and recreational users — at tax payer expense
  • The only readily found fee paid by Kenmore Air for the use of Lake Union as their runway is to the Department of Natural Resources for $8,000 a year.
  • In the last paragraph of their letter, Kenmore states that if the policing and single row of buoys doesn’t work, they request a second row of buoys as a “demarcated landing zone in Lake Union for the exclusive use of seaplanes”.

The Seaplanes Environmental Coalition’s main objective is a Lake Union for All. It has three goals:  livability, public safety and the equitable sharing of the lake.

Our short-term goals are as follows:

  • Kenmore should retract in writing its request for the second row of buoys to the City of Seattle and Department of Natural Resources.
  • Kenmore to cease further backdoor efforts (as with the August 14th letter which should have been cover-copied to SEC based on the 1989 Agreement) to impose a double-buoyed dedicated runway down the center of Lake Union.
  • Kenmore be allowed to continue to operate with the temporary and seasonal single row of buoys, subject to the review by the agencies involved, including public outreach and comment.
  • Kenmore agree to partner with SEC in community outreach for a public process with all stakeholders to develop a comprehensive land-use plan for Lake Union.
  • Kenmore be solely responsible for its own life-safety measures which should include the use of its staff and equipment to monitor the runway and educate users of the lake that interfere with its landing zone. As a private business that recently sold an interest in its company for many millions of dollars it should not be burdening the under-funded Harbor Patrol to clear its runway.

The Seaplanes Coalition’s long-range objective is to work with Kenmore and other seaplane operators:

  • to limit the use of the Lake Union to specific seaplane operators (as opposed to the general public);
  • to reduce the number of seaplane flights to and from Lake Union;
  • to transition over a 5 year period to less noise planes, with less impact;
  • to develop zoning controls for Lake Union based on stakeholder input;
  • and to find additional safe and sustainable, seaplane runways on nearby bodies of water and/or relocate flight operations to one of the several nearby land-based airports;

SEC is willing to work with Kenmore and other operators to make Lake Union a safer and better environment for all. To support this effort to require a comprehensive lake-use plan based on the input of all stakeholders, go to our website www.savelakeunion.com and sign the petition (ignore the confusing petition service’s request for a donation).

Peter Erickson is president of Seaplane Environmental Coalition.

Green Building meets Boys in the Boat

The first senior living center in Eastlake will also be the world’s greenest, according to its developer, giving Lake Union another notch on sustainable innovation around its shores. As the building looks toward the future, it also commemorates the past. Taking a page from the best seller Boys in the Boat, the building will pay tribute to the UW’s 1936 Olympic rowing team with a modern shell house design.  (The address was also changed to reflect that — 1936 Eastlake Ave.) The building, part of the Aegis Living portfolio of senior assisted living centers, broke ground this week at the corner of Eastlake Avenue and Newton Street.

Green building is a challenge for senior living centers, says Aegis representatives, because of the facilities’ continuous energy use due to being occupied 95 percent of the time. However, the company has found ways to meet that challenge.

According to Aegis’ press release:

The building is on track to be the first assisted living community to meet the most rigorous global green/sustainability building standards with a Living Building Challenge certification and is participating in the City of Seattle’s Living Building Pilot Program. In addition to a novel emission-free design approach, the organization developed new energy and water consumption benchmarks for the senior living category….

Built to be emission-free, Aegis Living Lake Union will use standard electricity to support the entire 70,000 square-foot building, including large appliances and kitchen equipment, significantly reducing overall environmental impact. The community will offset more than the building’s total energy demand through various energy reduction measures, an onsite solar array and an offsite solar energy farm. Key features include improved insulation such as triple pane windows and thermal insulation for exterior walls, heat recovery through forced-air ventilation, a recirculating heat pump system, LED lighting and sensors to monitor use, installation of all high efficiency appliances and more. The community will save approximately 320,000 kilowatt-hours annually – equivalent to planting more than 12,000 trees each year. Another 1.7 million kilowatt hours will be generated between the solar array and offsite energy farm.

All non-drinking water will be supplied through captured rainwater and treated greywater; the community will reserve potable water for consumption only. These measures will save more than 140,000 gallons of water annually for the life of the building.

Like most of the new construction on Eastlake Ave., the building will take advantage of the new height limits, standing six stories above ground and one story below.  The structure will have 79 units consisting of studios and one bedrooms; some will be memory care units. “Amenities include a spa/wellness center with a salon, massage parlor and fitness center,” according to the press release. “Signature for Aegis Living communities, residents will enjoy a variety of gathering spaces to spend time with family, friends and neighbors, including an onsite cinema and sky lounge and a terrace with views of Lake Union.”

Below ground will feature 18 parking spaces, 16 bicycle parking spaces, two loading docks and additional storage areas.

The street level will have an Aegis restaurant known as Queen Bee Café and open to the public. Aegis donates 100 percent of the profits from the café to local charities.

Although it won’t open until spring 2021, Aegis Living Lake Union is a taking resident applications now.

In pursuit of the elusive butterfly garden

I’ve dreamt of having a butterfly garden since my daughter was in preschool. She just graduated from college, and it hasn’t happened yet. But it seems more urgent now than ever.

“Next year,” wrote the New York Times in a recent article, “How to Attract Butterflies,” “the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to decide whether to include the butterfly on the endangered species list.”

The Times advice was simple — plant more native plants; avoid pesticides.

That same week, the Bellevue Botanical Garden had a lecture on butterflies and garden habitat, and the advice of the lecturer Julie O’Donald, a master gardener specializing in butterflies was the same, but she got more down in the weeds, so to speak. And some weeds as it turns out are just what butterflies need.

“The variety of native plants in a garden increases the diversity of butterflies that will be there,” O’Donald said. Natives like nettles and thistles are good butterfly habitat, she added. (However there was a caveat to that: native thistles are common in the mountains, but many other thistles are invasive.)

O’Donald ran through slides of the different types of butterflies that inhabit the Puget Sound low regions and their host plants. She also showed a slide of her own property bought many years ago as a largely barren landscape.  Now it’s quite lush.

“I cultivated nettles for butterfly caterpillars,” she said showing a slide of nettles in a fenced area near a shed. “But they kept branching out beyond the fence.” (They looked like prisoners longing to be free.) She finally moved them when she and her husband painted the shed. “They were never happy fenced up.”

“People talk about caterpillars becoming butterflies as though they just go into a cocoon, slap on wings, and are good to go,” wrote Jennifer Wright in a tweet that went viral and became a meme on Facebook. “Caterpillars have to dissolve into a disgusting pile of goo to become butterflies,” she went on. “So if you’re a mess wrapped up in blankets right now, keep going.”

We love butterflies because they represent transformation, freedom.

But before they get to that point they start off as creepy crawlers, O’Donald reminded the crowd.

Butterflies have a short but specific life cycle. They lay their eggs on the leaves or flowers of native plants; the eggs hatch into a caterpillar. A caterpillar has no other means of getting food than eating the plant that they’re on, said O’Donald. Plants, it turns out, are the adoptive parents of butterfly young. Butterfly caterpillars just keep eating – with minimal damage to the plant. They eat and grow and finally look for a good hiding place to pupate and form a chrysalis.

The butterfly is the adult part of the lifecycle and hardier than its young. It can eat and drink to a greater variety. It’s out there hitting the nectar bars and looking for a mate and shelter for its young before dying.

Some species of butterflies and flowers have evolved together, and the extinction of one can means the extinction of the other, which is what happened with the Atala butterfly, said O’Donald. It was thought extinct when its host flower the Coontie – a native to Florida – almost went extinct. When plants were found and the flower came back, so too did the Atala butterfly. The story is described in The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Douglas Tallamy.

Many plants and seeds are treated with chemicals, and O’Donald recommends buying only organic. 

“How long will the toxicity last?” someone in the audience asked.

 “Often two years and the soil near the plant may also be contaminated,” said O’Donald.

Finding a good variety of native plants at nurseries is difficult, she admits, but “keep asking for them and someday they’ll get better about carrying them.” They can be found at native plant sales hosted a couple of times a year by the Washington Native Plant Society.

One plant to pass over at nurseries is the butterfly bush. Despite its name, it’s not good for butterflies. (It’s been described as junk food for butterflies.) O’Donald explained why, “The butterfly bush only supplies nectar. It doesn’t provide shelter or food for butterfly caterpillars. And it spreads into natural areas where it competes with native plants.”

Habitat for butterflies doesn’t have to be large. Even a few plants on a balcony will create havens and resting places for butterflies to land, said O’Donald.

Butterflies are iconic. We see them in advertising, in art, in design, on book covers, in display windows, and in memes. You almost can’t go a day without seeing one. They’re everywhere, those butterflies, and nowhere.  An actual butterfly is a rare find.

O’Donald’s advice — just start planting.

“Start small,” she says, “While you’re busy doing other things these plants will take off.”

And so will actual butterflies.

Julie O’Donald’s butterfly garden with asters and autumn helenium in the foreground and apple trees and grapevines beyond.
Free and happy nettles.

Resources for creating a butterfly garden and learning more about butterflies:

Common butterflies of the Puget Sound Region and their food plants

Make your yard bee [and butterfly] friendlier

National Wildlife Federation

Washington Butterfly Association

Xerces Society

Electric seaplanes could fly over Lake Union in coming years

As a 20-year inhabitant of Eastlake, the roar of seaplanes flying overhead has become a familiar and even comforting sound.  But emerging technology could make those overflights much quieter, and a lot more sustainable.

Electric airplanes powered by batteries are beginning to appear.  Harbour Air, which partners with our own Kenmore Air on daily flights between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., announced plans to convert its fleet to all electric.  With 37 planes, Vancouver-based Harbour is the largest seaplane-alone airline in North America, and aims to become the first all-electric airline of any type in the world.

The company is starting test flights this year by converting a De Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, familiar to Lake Union residents as the smaller, and to my experience noisier, planes flown by Kenmore.  The aim is to gain approval of aviation regulators in the U.S. and Canada, and begin passenger service by 2021. Batteries will provide 100 miles range, or about 60 minutes flight time, leaving a reserve for Harbour’s average 30-minute flight time. 

Electrified aviation in development comes in forms from personal to larger commuter aircraft by companies including Boeing and JetBlue, and promises to reduce air pollution and climate-twisting carbon pollution, not to mention sound pollution.  Vancouver and Seattle, mostly hydropowered, offer some of the lowest-carbon electricity on Earth.  Harbour already claims carbon neutrality, based on offset purchases since 2007.

Redmond-based electrified aviation company MagniX will supply the electrical system. “Batteries remain the limiting factor for electrical propulsion in aviation, said Roei Ganzarski, MagniX’s CEO and a former Boeing executive,” Bloomberg reports.  “‘By 2025, 1,000 miles is going to be easily done,’ Ganzarski said, based on the evolution of current battery technologies. ‘I’m not saying 5,000 miles, but 1,000 miles, easily. I don’t think that’s far-fetched or a pie-in-the-sky thing.”

Electrek, a site devoted to electrified transportation concludes, “Converting seaplanes seems like a good fit, and the two companies also seem to have found a good sweet spot in flight range. Converting all of Harbour Air’s ‘seaplanes into ePlanes’ isn’t going to happen overnight, but even so, this is a milestone.”

Eastlake seaplane historian Jules James has some skepticism.   “My feeling is it is technically feasible, but not financially.  They can get 30 minutes of paid flying time on one charge.  Each charge takes an hour.   Dock space is precious.  I can’t have a seaplane fueling up for an hour on a busy day.”

My hit, having worked professionally studying alternative vehicle fuels including electricity, hydrogen and biofuels, is that battery technology is rapidly improving and coming down in price. Fueling with voltage will be cheaper, and upfront costs can do nothing but come down.  Fast charging could solve the problem Jules cites. Electricity is not going to power jetliners to Europe anytime soon.  But for smaller planes up to intercity commuter aircraft on the Horizon Air level, electricity is the future. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

Patrick Mazza

Seaplane sketch by Karen Berry

My Garden with Andie

I met Andrea (Andie) Ptak, five years ago in a class for bloggers where I learned, unrelated to the class, (but maybe the most useful thing to come out of it) that she had converted her yard into a native plant garden and certified backyard habitat.

When I drove up to Andie’s house in South Seattle last Saturday for an interview in honor of Native Plant Appreciation Week, this week, she was standing outside surveying her work.

Her front yard was abuzz with low flying bees working the Lithodora. “It’s not native but the bees like it,” says Andie who is in her mid-sixties. “I leave the dandelions alone, at least until there are more flowering plants,” she adds, noting the few dandelions that spotted the yard. (Dandelions are after all a native, and the bees first food coming out of hibernation.)

Andie is talking a mile a minute pointing out all the natives – native violets, native bleeding hearts, native irises, more than I can quickly write down.  All these plants I’ve heard and seen pictures of but never been able to find.

“It’s very hard to find natives at nurseries,” Andie says, “You have to wait for the native plant sales.”

And those only happen a couple of times a year.

I know. I’ve been trying to cultivate a backyard habitat since my daughter was in preschool. A butterfly garden sounded good; it would take food (native plants), water and shelter, but it never went anywhere.  

The sales are daunting. Full of pots with straggly bits of green in them – it’s hard to know what you’re buying or what to do with it unless you’re an expert.

And Andie is. She’s a Certified Master Urban Naturalist, a titled she earned in 2015 through an intensive 6-month program at Seward Park offered by the Audubon Society. Completion required doing a major project, and hers was a Native Plant Super Saturday that she organized at the park.

She also wrote about gardening with native plants for the blog that she started back when I knew her, The Green Queen of Moderation. It has tips on being sustainable and thrifty and not feeling you must be zealous about it; that’s the moderation part.

Next, we head to her back yard which is about six times as large as the front. Both were just pure grass she tells me, when she and her husband Aaron bought the place. Not even a tree. Now there are native and fruit-bearing trees and bushes throughout. Andie’s yard is about half native, half non-native. If the non-natives are not invasive, they’re fine. About a third of the back yard is covered in wood chips and serves as a dog run for their two Golden Retrievers, Paprika and Cayenne, “The Spice Girls.”

The dogs follow us into the back yard living up to their names. Paprika, the older dog, is mellow and sweet, and Cayenne, about seven months, is excitably jumping on me almost every chance she can get, which is flattering. Andie keeps warning her off, finally calling Aaron to take her away.

“Maybe you should have called her Cinnamon,” I offer.

The garden in back has meandering paths, with bird baths, yard art, a trellis enclosed patio, and other seating areas. It’s just starting to come into bloom. There are more natives back here from flower to fern to ground cover to tree. Hidden within this garden is a loosely fenced-in food garden with large blueberry bushes, a ground cultivated for planting vegetables, and another area with raspberry canes. 

Why native? So many reasons, Andie says, they support the pollinators. That’s a big one as she writes in her blog, “As our population grows, mankind encroaches on the natural world, pushing out species of both plants and animals—some to the state of extinction. There’s not a lot I can do personally to save the tiger or polar bear, but I can make sure that area songbirds have plenty of food and a place to nest, and that bees and butterflies have sources for nectar.”

Native plants also conserve water, she adds, because they’re acclimated to our climate of wet winters and dry summers. And they’re beautiful. “They’re not as showy as the non-natives,” she admits, “and they’re hard to cultivate in pots, and that’s likely why they’re hard to find at the nurseries.” 

They’re also not as straggly as I feared.  Her natives are thick, growing in dense clusters. Andie’s yard will be lush come summer. They spread and reseed themselves, says Andie. She also helps them along by dividing and replanting. What started as just a couple of small pots picked up at a native plant sale has spread to cover nearly every inch of her yard.

Native plants are low maintenance once established, which is what attracted me to them, but they’re also slow to grow.

I started by planting a few natives in one bare spot in my yard, throwing water on them regularly as they took root.  But I never really had time to cultivate them. Sometimes years would go by with barely a weed being pulled. Now, these many years later (my daughter is about to graduate from college), they’ve taken off. They’re crowding each other out. The Tall Oregon Grape, Low Oregon Grape, Inside-out Flower, Sword Fern, Columbine, Kinnikinnik, a Mock Orange, which everyone loves, and a Red-Flowering Current. Only the hardy Salal didn’t take. Go figure.

The Red-Flowering Current went from being a couple of feet tall to over six feet and almost as wide. Recently trudging home from work, I came upon it in bloom spilling forth pinkish red blossoms that lifted my spirits. Then if that wasn’t enough a hummingbird was zipping around them.

Seeing Andie’s garden, I’m inspired. Maybe a backyard habitat is still within reach.

Nodding toward the non-natives as I’m leaving, Andie tosses out why she keeps them with the natives, summing up what I’m looking for in a garden, “You can live here if I don’t have to do too much for you.”

Andie’s Native Early Blue Violet
Andie’s Native Iris
Andie’s Native Bleeding Heart
My Red-Flowering Current (that humming birds love)

Native Plants seen in Andrea Ptak’s yard:

Trees

Black Hawthorn

Red Twig Dogwood

Shrubs

Evergreen Huckleberry

Mock Orange

Red-Flowering Current

Low Oregon Grape

Ferns

Sword Fern

Ground Cover

Oxalis

Early Blue Violet

False Lily of the Valley

Kinnikinnik

Wild Strawberry

Inside-out Flower

Flowers

Columbine

Bleeding Heart

Iris

Camas

Lupine

Fleabane

Asters

Penstemon Azures

The Tale of the Swale on Yale

South Lake Union is home to forward-thinking environmental design. One of the most innovative design features, a form of green infrastructure, is what’s known as the Swale on Yale. It’s two swales actually (one in the 400 block of Yale St. and the other parallel to it on Pontius St.), and it’s about to swell to two more (just south of both locations in the 300 block of both streets).

The swales give South Lake Union a bit of moorland feel, but beyond the aesthetics these stretches of grassland are working to treat Capitol Hill storm water roadway runoff before it reaches Lake Union.

Technically the swales are known as the Capitol Hill Water Quality Project, a public private collaboration between the city of Seattle and Vulcan Real Estate; KPFF Consulting Engineers also played a key role.

“When the swales were planned (in the early 2000s),” wrote Jason Sharpley of Seattle Public Utilities, in an email exchange, “there were no regional scale biofiltration swales treating stormwater from ultra-urban roadways that we were able to find.”

“Typically, swales were used on a more limited, roadway scale to treat and convey stormwater runoff from the adjacent roadway.”

The project was so unique that the Seattle Design Commission created a special award, an “In the Works “ Excellence Award, that they won in 2011. The swales came online in 2015.

Working swale on the 400 block of Pontius St.

“Since completing the first pair of swales there has been a lot of interest and there may be new systems in other cities.”

Seattle’s steep slopes helped propel the innovation. “We have the right topography for this,” says Dave Schwartz of KPFF Consulting Engineers. The slopes make it easier to divert water to where you want it, which makes cleaning it easier too. And that’s what the swales do, filter and clean. They’re made up of densely planted grasses, “a mixture of sedges, which have edges, and rushes, which are round,” says Schwartz describing his mnemonic means of distinguishing them. 

They clean roadway runoff that “includes everything that you see, and don’t see, that is on the roadway,” says Sharpley.  “This includes brake dust from cars that carries copper, dissolved metals from galvanized fences, and bacteria from wildlife and pet waste. The swales and pretreatment that make up the Swale on Yale system do a good job of removing a significant portion of the pollutants.”

The Swale on Yale couldn’t have been done without developer help, says Schwartz, stressing the huge role that Vulcan Real Estate played in making the public private partnership happen. Vulcan provided technical and profession assistance along with contributing about $1.3 million toward design and construction. Most critically they provided the easement to the city. Developers are playing key roles in creating environmental projects that provide a greater good, says Schwartz, noting another public private project under the Aurora Bridge, rain gardens catching bridge water runoff. “Not all try to just make money and destroy the world,” he added.

Planted in rain garden soil which is a bonus for filter, the grasses catch toxic sediment from the water as it takes its time to mosey through the swale, at least nine minutes.

But even before the water reaches the swales it’s run through a diversion tank that uses centrifugal force to flush out “floatables,” a nice name for trash such as cups, straws, and cigarette butts.

From the diversion tank, controlled amounts of water are released into the swales evenly so as not to overflow them and to keep their integrity intact.

The swales then drain into a discharge pipe and the water is released to the lake.  “The water is not drinkable,” says Sharpley, “but significantly cleaner than when it entered the swale.” 

New swale plantings on the 300 block of Pontius St.

The two new swales will come online once the plants mature. For now they look like woven works of art running between the sidewalk and roadway. Once they are put to work, the system will be able to treat the full design flow of 7.2 cubic feet of water per second, which is more than 3,000 gallons a minute. The older swales treat half that capacity today. The full swale build-out will treat 435 acres of storm water runoff from Capitol Hill’s 630-acre basin.

The Swale on Yale captures the dirtiest water from both small storms and the early runoff from larger storms. Thanks to this pioneering green infrastructure, Lake Union is much cleaner than it otherwise would be and could become cleaner still with even more projects like the Swale on Yale.

The Swale on Yale — 400 block, with city workers maintaining it.
The new firehouse has art, sustainability features, but no fire pole

After a couple of years of construction at Tenth Avenue and Roanoke St., the new Firehouse 22 opened its doors to the public Saturday afternoon for two hours, and although it was an ordinary gray and misty day, it was like a rare snow day seeing so many neighbors out walking to and from the event.

The brutalist front of the new firehouse conceals a friendly, open, comfortable, light-filled interior. The firehouse is like a home away from home for the firefighters, and after spending two years camped out in trailers under I-5 in Eastlake, a welcome home it is.

The entire structure is integrated with many sustainability elements including two cisterns that capture non-potable water that is filtered to use for washing fire trucks, flushing toilets, and watering landscaping. Solar panels provide about 16 percent of the station’s energy needs. The interior relies on a lot of natural light which is good for well-being. And it’s quiet despite being on a busy street; even with a crowd inside it felt calm. The bunks, which were not open to the public, were on the side of the building facing Roanoke. That side with a fortress front likely provides great sound proofing for resting.

There are amenities at the station that you’d find in some of Seattle’s newer apartment buildings and condos, but of a more modest scale: an exercise room and media room with four overstuffed recliners squeezed in.

Kids enjoy the exercise room.

Kids enjoy the exercise room.

The recliners were also a hit although you can’t tell that here.

There’s a spacious kitchen with lots of individual cupboards for the rotating staff, two large stainless-steel refrigerators, and an industrial gas stove; there’s an outdoor covered deck with black iron table and four chairs and a large grill. Sometimes, walking home from work along Roanoke in the evening I can get a whiff of something good cooking on the other side.

Kitchen

Kitchen

Alfresco dining area with grill in background.

Alfresco dining area with grill in background.

Unlike home it has a disinfecting wash room, large equipment rooms, and other reminders of dangerous work firefighters face.

One of the most interesting design features is an open central stairway that forms a large X using two stairwells. Reminding me of the Fidler on the Roof song of wanting a stairway that goes up and another one that goes down. This place has them (although not one just for show).

Looking at one leg of the X forming stairway.

Looking at one leg of the X forming stairway.

The grand stairway leads to a second floor that overlooks the barn for the fire trucks, which were cleared out that Saturday to create space for displays and kids’ activities. Outside there was a fire truck and emergency response truck that kids and adults were happily exploring.

The stairway leads to views of the barn.

The stairway leads to views of the barn.

One thing the structure doesn’t have however is a fire pole. “Not really safe,” explained the fireman I talked to. Many old stations do have them, he said, and use them though. But the two staircases allow for quick access to the fire trucks. Besides there are only four firefighters on duty at a time, so if one should get hurt sliding down a pole that would not be good.

Outside, and on display all the time, is the artwork sculpture, Drop of Life. The sculpture is made from fire hoses and their parts and really comes into its own at night when you can clearly see the LED lights reflecting off it, like an aurora. The artist Oliver Hess spent time with the firefighters to come up with ideas for artwork. He was struck by the varying intensities of energy at a firehouse and how things changed with the calls that came in. As one representative explained, it was always when someone was about to take a shower or start some other project that a call would come. Most are aid calls and then the rarer fire, she added. He mapped that activity into an algorithm for the light show that changes unpredictably but matches the feel of life in the firehouse from calm to strikingly intense.

"Drop of Life" sculpture as seen at night

“Drop of Life” sculpture as seen at night

“It was very memorable to me when visiting the fire station that there was a palpable anxiety and excitement about getting a call to action,” he wrote in his artist statement. “There was a feeling of superstition about the causal relationships between the way the firefighters spent their time and how likely it was that they would be called out to face danger and save lives.”

One thing that the artwork might also make you think about is the hose tower just beyond it rising over the building, a simple sustainable feature to air out and dry the hoses, but a towering reminder of the building’s basic purpose.

IMG_2952

A real dump becomes Seattle’s best piece of architecture for 2016

The best piece of 2016 Seattle architecture is located near Lake Union and is, according to former Seattle Times architecture critic, Mark Hinshaw, writing for Crosscut, “a total dump.”

He’s talking of course about the new replacement transfer station on North 34th Street in Wallingford, a place that since 1966 people took their hard-to-dispose-of trash.

The new transfer station didn’t appear to be an architectural winner right away. It sort of came from behind, a long shot if you will. But when completed it showed itself as “sleek, serene and sophisticated,… it would make a foreign embassy envious,” writes Hinshaw, and it hasn’t lost its utilitarian mission looking like “a cross between a diplomatic compound in Eastern Europe and a border entry into Canada.”

Unlike Hinshaw, I have rather fond memories of the old transfer station, not that it would be my first choice of destination. It was a chore having to go there and boring waiting in line, but if felt cathartic, throwing things into the pits once we arrived, watching living rooms unfold and disappear before your eyes.  A couch, a chair, a lamp, a rug, even TVs back then, and the scene would disappear, churning, as more items poured in. I’m not so sure the new transfer station will offer quite that same experience…

It was closed the day we visited, New Year’s Day. “Let’s go see 2016’s best architecture,” I suggested to my husband. But even closed there was a lot to see – a bright new playground across the street with half a dozen kids running through the treehouse/slide; an adult playground, so to speak, around the parameter of the station, made up of about seven exercise stations that are part of the landscape; a basketball court; and a court yard with benches directly across the street from Essential Bakery, on Woodlawn, creating additional outdoor seating for the cafe. Then along 34th toward Stoneway more benches, this time designed into the building, accenting the sidewalk with views of both inside the building and the street. And to top it all off there is the public artwork, RECLAIMED by Jean Shin, made from the rebar of the old structure and capturing the soul of the place as its plaque describes, “….RECLAIMED highlights the potential of waste material to be reimagined into a vibrant second life within the community, and echoes the sustainable principle of reuse at the transfer station….”

The new building “may not be truly ‘civic’ but it is entirely civil to its neighbors,” writes Hinshaw.

It’s much less of a chore to come to, which is probably just what the designers, Mahlum, had in mind, and more of a treat.

The ages 5 to 12 playground across the street from the new transfer station

The ages 5 to 12 playground across the street from the new transfer station

 

U.W. gets high marks for sustainability

The Blue Heron just happened to come across a group of people burrowing up from the new U.W. Link light rail station for a tour of the sustainability features of the U.W. campus a sunny day last month in April, for Earth Month.

trailclosed

Burke Gilman Trail closed but should open sometime in June 2016.

The group’s first stop was at the ravaged Burke Gilman trail which has been in detour mode for months, feels like years now, but for a good cause; the segment between 15th Avenue and Rainier Vista is being widened from the current 12-to-16 foot lane to 24 feet and being made into separate pathways for bicyclists and pedestrians. It will be completed in July.

Biologysite

A state-of-the-art Life Sciences Building is going in at this site across from the Medical Center where the U.W.’s first urban farm once was. The botany greenhouse will also be replaced.

Just beyond that overlooking NE Pacific St., the U.W.’s first urban farm is being demolished to make way for a state of the art, 169,000 square foot Life Sciences Building to be home to the Biology Department. Forget images of isolated, lonely lab work; the building will be conducive to “’unexpected synergies’” to promote “entrepreneurial and interdisciplinary” approaches “to teaching and conducting research,” says the website. Adjacent to the new building, a 20,000 square foot biology greenhouse will replace the 67-year-old botany greenhouse. (Recently Huskies helped move plants to new homes.)

The building’s south side will have fins to reduce glare and provide shading. Those will be embedded with solar panels, which turn out to no more costly than aluminum save for the electrical wiring. “Even though the solar panels will not be optimally placed to generate solar power,” wrote tour leader Chris Toman in an email follow-up, “the cost to install them is on par with installing more traditional materials and will offset some of the buildings energy needs.“

There are also plans to reuse lab water to irrigate the greenhouse although that is dependent on funding.

All the new U.W. buildings are LEED silver, some gold. Not just construction but also transportation is going green. The university has 260 flexible-fuel vehicles in it 712-vehicle fleet. It will have a total of 42 electric cars by June 2016. There are 41 EV charging stations around campus, with five of those available for public use.

Bike racks double as landscape fencing.

Bike racks double as landscaping fencing.

About 4,000 of the smart U.W. students bike to class rain or shine every day making use of 650 bike lockers and numerous bike racks around campus.

Communicating with high tech trash, recycling and compost cans.

Communicating with high tech trash, recycling and compost cans.

Even the trash cans are smart. Once the Big Belly Solar waste receptacles are full they text maintenance staff to come empty them.

Make way for ducklings!

Make way for ducklings!

Sustainability features extend to the U.W.’s wildlife too – no not parties – ducks, the feathered kind that swim in the spectacular Drumheller Fountain. The fountain has a duck ramp so that baby ducks can get out. This used to be a problem as the ducklings couldn’t fly or scale the fountain’s steep sides. Now they have safe passage.

Home of a blue heron.

Home of a blue heron.

Just southwest of the fountain, hidden in a patch of tall trees known as Island Grove, Blue Herons have been nesting since 2007. As the tour group stood around peering up at the nests high in the trees, one flew in, gliding through the tree tops, circling and disappearing among the branches. The photographer was so captivated, she failed to take a picture, knowing there wouldn’t be time, instead watching as the bird appeared and was gone. “Sweet!” someone said.  And another remarked to Chris, “You planned that well.”

 

Bonus photo: a Secret Garden at the U.W. Hint: it is near the fountain.

Bonus photo: a Secret Garden at the U.W. Hint: it is near the fountain.

For a fascinating historical perspective, the U.W. has an online Environmental  History Tour.