From the highest rooftops, a call to gimme shelter.

The urbanist blogosphere is chock-full of rants on how new developments compromise pedestrian connectivity—not so much in terms of the final product (where I’m equally guilty of such tirades), but even during the construction process. These days, most mid-sized and large metro areas are gorging on the fruit, born from seeds planted long ago, through considerable, incremental investment in their once-stagnant downtowns. The visible result is a flurry of midrise or highrise construction, filling in the interstices that had long languished as surface parking lots, or even patches of unkempt turf.

With the escalating street-level activity comes a surge in both new construction and renovation of existing buildings; energy generated through these buildings spawns further activity; the chicken-and-egg cycle perpetuates itself, ideally toward a complete reassertion of the downtown as the center of metropolitan commerce. But all this scaffolding does result in some temporary snags: during the construction, the staging area encroaches onto huge portions of roads, reducing traffic flow to just one or two lanes, eliminating a bike lane, and, more often than not, completely excluding pedestrians from the equation altogether. If walkers want to go in a direction blocked by a work crew, they typically have to cross to the other side of the street.

The booming city of Raleigh offers a classic example of this predicament.

IMG_0493The construction of the first residential highrise (visible in the background right in the above photo, and nearing completion) has no doubt generated some excitement for the fast-growing Southern city. From a Yankee perspective, it’s hard not to marvel at SkyHouse Raleigh, considering that, until recently, the North Carolina capitol was little more than a quiet arrangement of government buildings and the settlement that surrounded them. In 1950, the city had only 65,000 people; by 2010, it had over 400,000. While municipal annexation has contributed to much of this growth, the fact remains that the entire Triangle region of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill has blossomed. And now, judging from the nearly-complete 23-story tower, the City has even earned pedestrian access along the sidewalk immediately abutting the construction site for the six-story structure currently underway, which comprises Phase Two of SkyHouse.

IMG_0500This is not always a common sight in many downtowns. All too often, the notion that pedestrians might have used that sidewalk goes completely ignored. And here’s a view from inside the pathway, sheltering pedestrians not only from traffic along Blount Street but from overhead hazards.



But is the SkyHouse construction site all it’s cracked up to be? From the angle looking along Blount Street, all is well. But turn the corner and face westward on Davie Street, and this is what you’d see:

IMG_0502And stepping back, here’s the view of the sidewalk along Davie Street.

IMG_0501Nothing to speak of. Well, one sidewalk out of two ain’t bad. But it’s hard to pin down what might have prompted the construction team to build around the sidewalk so diligently on one corner but not the other. If Raleigh’s subdivision and land development regulations set rules and conditions under which a development team must assemble its scaffolding, it would be illogical for such a law to apply only to one side of the street.

A new development going up in an equally booming city might shed a little light on this predicament. Seattle wasn’t exactly a village in 1950, but it was hardly a hub for high-tech activity either. And, like so many industrialized urban areas in the country, it hit some real snags in the 1960s and 70s, suffering job losses and the concomitant population decline. But, since Microsoft trounced the competition in the 1980s, the tech boom hasn’t really let up, and the expansive metropolis that now also includes Tacoma and Olympia to the south claims nearly 4 million inhabitants, while even the Seattle city limits are growing at a good clip.

The southern part of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, just a bit east and across Interstate 5 from the Washington State Convention Center, has witnessed its own tsunami of development, as old automobile showrooms in a tired part of town fifteen years ago have metamorphosed into fashionable restaurants and specialty stores, escalating demand to live in the area.

IMG_0754A city as densely populated as Seattle should, with little difficulty, foment support for developments that accommodate pedestrians. A walk around the border between Capitol Hill and the adjacent First Hill neighborhood reveals that, yes, most new, completed construction seems mindful of the sidewalks.

But even here, one can find some of the same compromises as in Raleigh. For any building currently under construction on a corner block, only one of the two adjacent streets seems to benefit from a fully accessible sidewalk. Here’s an example along Pike Street:


Looks pretty respectable: pedestrians get protection from the traffic (a buffer between the ramp and the curb), and, of course, a shelter from any objects that might fall from above. But notice the sign propped against the chain-link fence on the right of the photo. Along the less prominent Summit Avenue, this is the vista:


The sidewalk is completely off limits. So, for the most part, it’s no different from the condition in Raleigh.



Elsewhere on Pike Street (where new development is omnipresent), we encounter a similar situation.


The construction installation has built enough of a setback so pedestrians may pass. Not quite as luxurious as a shelter, but the clear message is that they shouldn’t have to walk in the street. Except if they have to turn the corner:

IMG_0752I realize now that the angle of this photo is less than clear. The truck is parked on the opposite side of the street from the building, so the construction—tractor-trailer, dumpsters, et cetera—is hugged up against the scaffolding, which, in turn, takes up the entire sidewalk. From these two examples, my initial speculation was that the city’s subdivision and land development regulations only mandate pedestrian shelters on the sidewalks that abut more prominent arterial and collector streets, such as Pike Street—conversely, the less busy local streets such as Summit Avenue have no such requirements.

A trip down the street would suggest otherwise. Just a few blocks south, in the quieter First Hill neighborhood, another major construction project presides over the majority of a block.


Alas, the shadow cast by the existing building makes it hard to see what’s taking place—shadows that I didn’t expect to obscure so much of the sidewalk when I originally took the photo. However, the next two images should clarify what’s going on.



Another sidewalk fully blocked. In these two flourishing neighborhoods, it’s hard to imagine walking more than six or seven blocks without a construction project forcing the pedestrians off the path.

While it’s possible I’m looking in the wrong place among the Seattle Municipal Code (SMC), the following informational sheet on subdivisions would suggest that the best place is in SMC Sections 23.22.100 through 23.22.106. These surprisingly brief regulations mandate that “every lot shall be provided with convenient pedestrian and vehicular access to a street or to a permanent appurtenant easement that satisfies the requirements of Section 23.53.005 and Section 23.53.006.” But those two sections as well as the preceding one all appear reticent on how to manage pedestrian access during the construction process. Seattle Bike Blog affirms that, generally speaking, construction sites with provisions for pedestrians—or bicyclists—are the exception rather than the norm. While City Council has ostensibly acknowledged the safety hazards that these constructions standards impose, legislative action clearly hasn’t change the conditions in Capitol Hill and First Hill, at least as evidenced from photos taken earlier this month.

The obvious conclusion from these observations is that pedestrian tunnels impose a cost burden for developers in Seattle and Raleigh, and everywhere else. This is evident. What seems remarkable is that, in these two very different but fast growing cities (where urban infill is taking place at an enviable clip), these same developers would rather incur the risk of potential litigation from car/pedestrian/bicyclist collisions than invest a little extra to build a shelter. I have no doubt that I’m missing out on some key considerations here in terms of the negotiations between a construction team and the City, but it seems like a profound shame that it may take a serious injury or a loss of human life to galvanize both the construction industry and city legislators to take a further initiative. Perhaps this is simply a testament to the fact that so many other conditions are increasingly favoring pedestrians in downtowns: even if the speed limits or turn radii at intersections haven’t changed, cars are forced to drive more slowly and carefully simply because there a lot more people around than 25 years ago. And there are a lot more people around downtowns, who can call out a blocked sidewalk when they see one. But the fact that the blogosphere is replete with jeremiads against pedestrianism at construction sites shows that, as great as it is to witness such investment, we still have a long way to reconcile all the positive initiatives going on with their negative externalities. We’ll get there…hopefully without too many mangled bikes along the way.

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