Monday, September 13, 2010

Seattle- Not A Streetcar Suburb

It's fashionable now to describe Seattle as a city with 'streetcar suburbs', but maybe more interesting to see how this statement is wrong than how it is right. Seattle was suburban before the coming of the streetcars.

Seattle was first of all a city of ships and boats, spawning suburbanization around the shores of Puget Sound and the sloughs, rivers, and lakes. In this we find the explanation for many places that today are curiosities or question marks, reminders of the time when the Green River flowed backwards for half the year, and the produce of the Issaquah farms traveled down the Sammamish Slough, through Bothell, and to Seattle.

Then the cable cars virtually leveled the hills between Seattle and Lake Washington, making it a nickel ride to lake steamers at Leschi and Madison that spurred suburban development around the shores of the lake even before the streetcars had begun infilling the Central District or Queen Anne.

Then came the streetcars, and it will always be a matter of interest to me to grab an old streetcar map and drive the routes, to see how that infrastructure of buildings and development has survived, albeit often in fossil form. Along with the streetcars came the interurbans and linear development in the Rainier Valley and out north through Greenwood.

But the automobile was too perfectly suited to the topography for Seattle to resist it even for a moment, quite arguably virtually doubling the number of buildable sites in the city, a development still discernible on the north face of Queen Anne, a neighborhood close to the city core but denied by gradient to the streetcar.

It should not surprise us, then, if the next big change in transportation is discontinuous and creates development where none was expected. White Center or Burien- can't remember which- is now planning for 35-story skyscrapers, and it's hard not to hear this as a 'come hither' call to Sound Transit to build southwards. Extending light rail to Issaquah on the I-90 ROW would cost a fraction of what the Redmond route will cost and pass closer to Bellevue Community College. In the city, streetcars and light rail will not be built by real estate developers to serve single family dwellings, but by public agencies to serve many different needs.

It's ok to think out of the box now- you're in Seattle.

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