Chapter 23.53 Requirements for Streets, Alleys, and Easements

Somewhere I noted that some of the most daunting requirements in the code for new development aren’t about building heights, scale, or anything related to the building at all. Some of the biggest challenges are adjacencies like sidewalks, streets, and alleys. This chapter has many of the things that many folks would argue are the most expensive and difficult aspects of the code. Building infrastructure like sidewalks, streets, and drainage is expensive and it also requires approval from three different agencies: the Department of Planning and Development, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and Seattle Public Utilities. This chapter is about some of the most important aspects of new development, how we get to it, in to it, and out of it.

From the first paragraph we find out that the director of SDOT and DPD have a lot of leeway on what happens with these adjacencies:

Where, because of specific site conditions, the requirements of this chapter do not protect public health, safety and welfare, the Director of Transportation and the Director of Planning and Development together may impose different or additional right-of-way improvement requirements consistent with the Right-of-Way Improvements Manual

The Right-of-Way Improvement Manual is, in and of itself, worthy of its own blog. I’m going to quote most of the purpose statement from the manual because it is a study of efficiency in articulating desired outcomes. A little shorter would be better, but here it is:

The Right-of-Way Improvements Manual considers, and attempts to balance the access and mobility needs of all users of the street right-of-way: pedestrians, non-motorized vehicles, automobiles, transit, and freight. Procedures and design criteria were developed keeping in mind the critical balance among the following: safety, the preservation and maintenance of roadway infrastructure and utility services, and preserving our environment.

Knowing that all projects have site specific opportunities and constraints, the Right-of-Way Improvements Manual articulates the City’s design criteria for street right-of-way improvements and describes a deviation process to achieve flexibility when practical.

We could wordsmith this and make it better I’m sure. One thing I love about it is that it doesn’t talk about “engaging the public” or “involving everyone” in the process or decision making. This is a bible for professionals who are weaving private development into the public domain. 

Obviously the first part of that is access to lots described  in 23.53.005 which covers access requirements for utility connections, pedestrians, and cars in the various designations around the city.

The next section 23.53.006 outlines the requirements for pedestrian access and circulation, which are essentially found in the Right-of-Way Improvement Manual. That may be part of the reason why this section puts more emphasis on the creation of new lots rather than new development. The Right-of-Way Improvement Manual seems to be the default for figuring out what’s required for a new mixed use project, for example.

There is, not surprisingly, a section that outlines what’s exempt. This also, like many things in the code, falls into the “this is required, unless it isn’t category.” The Directors of DPD and SDOT can waive pedestrian requirements when, for instance, “sidewalk construction would result in undesirable disruption of existing drainage patterns
23.53.010 Improvement requirements for new streets in all zones.”

The plot thickens in 23.53.015, “improvement requirements for existing streets in residential and commercial zones.” This is the section that really starts addressing the private and public weave.

One or more of the following types of improvements may be required under this Section 23.53.015:

a. Pavement;
b. Curb installation;
c. Drainage;
d. Grading to future right-of-way grade;
e. Design of structures to accommodate future right-of-way grade;
f. No-protest agreements; and
g. Planting of street trees and other landscaping.

A setback from the property line, or dedication of right-of-way, may be required to accommodate the improvements.

Kind of a “no brainer,” right? But these things add to project cost. And, as I pointed out in Crosscut, there’s more at stake here than slapping in a few yards of sidewalk. Improvements like these add time and money to projects and they create, literally, downstream impacts. It’s not that I hate sidewalks. But it’s time to rethink what we’re doing here.

I’m not going to cover it in detail, but let’s just say this section of the code is a mess. And it’s a mess not just because it’s complicated and unclear. In some ways it should be complicated. Improving the right of way and making sure fire trucks can get access to a burning building are not to be taken lightly. But what is the underlying philosophy here?

Before I move on, I’m going to suggest that we’d do fine with the first paragraph of this chapter I cited above and nothing else. But I would make a few changes:

As we accommodate additional growth and new development the City is committed to effectively and efficiently connecting the private and public realms of the built environment. In order to do that, the Directors of the Department of Planning and Development and the Department of Transportation will work to continual improve the permitting, design, and financing of improvements to the right-of-way that make neighborhoods more walkable, affordable, livable, and accessible to everyone.

The Right-of-Way Improvement Manual shall function as the primary reference guide for right-of-way improvements. Where, because of specific site conditions, the requirements of this the Right-of-Way Improvements Manual chapter do not protect public health, safety and welfare, the Director of Transportation and the Director of Planning and Development together may impose different or additional right-of-way improvement requirements consistent and appropriately update with the Right-of-Way Improvements Manual

I’d delete the rest of the chapter and focus on updating and improving the street use manual and making it easier to put together Local Improvement Districts (LID). All the fiddle faddle around these improvements is a waste of time and money. I suggest that we also sit down with the fire folks and figure out how to better address their legitimate issues. I’d bet you dollars to donuts there are many things that could be worked out in general and project to project that would make everyone happier and safer–but let’s focus on outcomes not rules here and figure out how to help pay for really good stuff in the right of way. 

Effectively, and efficiently weave together public and private, old and new

Alleys and spaces between buildings are easy to make rules about, and 23.53.030 “alley improvements in all zones” does just that. But all alleys are not created equal. Bad alleys create bad things–garbage, noise, crime, dead spots–and good alleys create all the things we want in our city. There are two things that I think are important about alleys that I am sure have been said before.

First, alleys are about permeability, like a cell membrane. Alleys are about access. They ought to let people, light, and air pass between buildings. Sometimes alleys are the interface for our garbage, stuff, and basic building functions. Alleys are as important as any other part of a building.

Second, this is about transitions and thresholds. Not to get too woo-woo here, but alleys are liminal spaces. Long story, but epistemology–the study of how we know what we know–is perhaps the single most important element of our cultural DNA. The way we ‘know’ a space is essential to whether it works or not.

Alleys should be exploited as places where lots of good can happen. But it is those liminal places, the spots where we go from one thing to another–public to private, out to in, down to up–where meaning is most often formed. So we have to get alleys and these other transition spots sorted out. We have to be creative and predictable. But often the best examples are what we’ve already done and what’s happened purely from need.

Summit Avenue, Capitol Hill -- Permeable blocks

Lastly, 23.53.035 addresses “structural building overhangs.” We can call this section of the code “The Hangover.” Again, lots of rules and handwringing here about “encroachments” on public right-of-way. I think encroachments are one thing, weaving the public and private space together is another. And there is lots of technical expertise out there about what is safe, appropriate, and legal. I don’t think we need all this in the code, but hangovers can be dealt with, pragmatically, in the Right-of-Way Manual. Balconies are a great example of what might be considered encroachments on right of way. But a balcony done right can draw the public and the private together.

Edouard Manet (1832-1883) The Balcony 1868-1869 Oil on canvas H. 170; W. 124.5 cm

To close this discussion of how this chapter really ought to be about weaving together public and private, I leave you with the full description of Manet’s Le balcon from the Musée d’Orsay (because it is my blog and I can).

Le balcon [The Balcony]

When Manet painted this piece, scenes of bourgeois life were in vogue. Yet The Balcony went against the conventions of the day. All the subjects were close acquaintances of the artist, especially Berthe Morisot who here, pictured sitting in the foreground, makes her first appearance in Manet’s work, and who went on to become one of his favourite models. The painting tells no story or anecdote; the protagonists are frozen, as if isolated in an interior dream, evidence that Manet was freeing himself from academic constraints, despite the obvious reference to Goya’s Majas at the Balcony.

At its presentation at the 1869 Salon, this enigmatic group portrait was overwhelmingly misunderstood. “Close the shutters!” was the sarcastic reaction of the caricaturist Cham while another critic attacked “this gross art” and Manet who “lowered himself to the point of being in competition with the painters of the building trade”. The vividness of the colours, the green of the balustrade and shutters, the blue of the man’s tie, as well as the brutal contrast between the white dresses and the darkness of the background, were perceived as provocation. The hierarchy usually attached to human figures and objects has been disregarded: the flowers receiving more detail than some of the faces.

It is not surprising then, that a painting which took such liberties with tradition, convention and realism so shocked its early public.

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