A Flickr slideshow of my 'walk Seattle' visit – see it here
Last month my wife Stacey rode her bike to Seattle for the second time on the BC Ride to Conquer Cancer. And just like when we visited in 2009 we turned the occasion into a short family vacation. I wrote a short post about the trip, where I used super-sized menu portions in U.S. eateries as an analogy for Americans' love of the freeway.
That 2009 trip to Greater Seattle was a lesson for us to find accommodations closer to the downtown attractions we like, and to avoid restaurants with autographed pictures of Dean Martin hanging by the cash register. Like in most big cities you're not familiar with, driving around Seattle is a drag. Therefore we decided that if we could separate our car from our Seattle experience this time we would have a much more pleasant stay.
Our plan to ditch our car proved to be a good one. We enjoyed a three-night stay in downtown Seattle, residing comfortably and affordably in a hotel just over a half kilometre from Pike Place Market. After parking and booking into our room, we set out on the first walk to find a place to eat the evening after Stacey's ride.
The maps handed out in hotel lobbies are usually terrible, so we relied upon Google Maps and the hotel's free wi-fi, as well as my iPhone (and Rogers' outrageously expensive US data package). Within three blocks were a series of restaurants with respectable ratings and affordable menus. We ended up at the Palace Kitchen, which was packed with families celebrating Father's Day.
Palace Kitchen has a "semi-famous" goat cheese fondue with fresh apple slices to dip, as well as a fair selection of Washington state wines. As devout BC wine lovers, we sought out local wine at every eatery we visited over the next few days. Like here, Washingtonians take pride in the wine produced locally. A number of specialty wine shops located downtown feature only Washington & Oregon fare, such as the the wine shop at The Chocoloate Box on Pine Street.
The first thing that struck me about walking in downtown Seattle during the evening is the absence of people. This image taken after our meal while pretty shows the desolation. Downtown Vancouver streets by comparison are teeming with life. Seattle is trying to bring more residential mix into an inner core hollowed out by suburban sprawl – in Belltown, for example – but there is still a long way to go.
On our first morning we set out for something light to eat to start the day. Coffee and a sweet roll from Dahlia Bakery did the trick. We strolled next to Pike Place Market which is a feast for the eyes, and a great place to people watch. En route we passed the stately Moore Theatre building which has been the home of many momentous concerts.
We also noted this little ad sprayed onto the sidewalk. While I can't condone leaving indelible marks on this public space, I wonder if sidewalks can or should be used as some kind of bulletin board. When you walk in your city, you have the luxury of pondering such topics.
Our walk would involve some use of public transit. Not only did we want to ride the Monorail again, but I wanted to also take a ride on the city's newest streetcar. The Monorail is criticized for being a one-trick pony: it only ships tourists between Westlake Centre and Seattle Centre, home of the Space Needle and Experience Music Project (EMP). But after a half-century in service the Monorail still is clean, well-maintained and packed with tourists. To me that sounds like a success.
We hadn't been to Experience Music Project before, and as a life-long rock music addict I knew it was a must-see destination for me. To my delight there EMP is holding a show dedicated to Nirvana and the Northwest indie band scene of the 1980s & 1990s. Grunge Music was a term coined to describe the distorted guitar sounds of bands from the region. The video clips and music sampling stations could have kept me there for days. Where else would they have a museum to show off the remnants of a shattered electric guitar?
Walking the streets of Seattle reminded me of why Vancouver progressively removed its one-way streets. This is something I think downtown Seattle would greatly benefit from – a phased removal of its one-way streets. Downtown Seattle today feels like it's engineered to be a freeway on-ramp. Cars, not pedestrians, call the tune. If I had one bit of free advice for Seattle it would be to study, then act on removing much of its one-way street grid.
Visiting Seattle this time I made use of Twitter to seek out advice with some success (hashtagging my posts #walkseattle). I tweeted @MayorMcGinn to suggest a place to find some worthwhile sites for an urban junkie like myself. I was pleased to get a direct message back from his office suggesting to me that I visit the intersection of John & Broadway streets to see an area where some good "transportation-oriented development" (TOD) is underway.
While we wanted to take the hike over to John & Broadway, I confess there were a couple reasons I resisted visiting this time. First the intersection was across the I-5 freeway from where we were staying. The freeway cuts right through the heart of the city, and getting across it is a challenge when you're walking. I may have wanted to use transit, but I wasn't successful in finding a useful transit map on our travels. While Translink has a decent free iPhone app for planning trips, I couldn't find something similar for Seattle after searching for a few minutes.
The other benefit of using Twitter was in my search for wine suggestions for dinner. Using the hashtag #WAWine I got an immediate response from fellow oenophiles who quickly came forward with the names of Washington producers we should try out.
At our second dinner we ordered a bottle of Balboa Merlot which we thought was a little jammy and lacked the 'zing' that BC Merlots often provide. Setting out for an after dinner stroll we encountered something you can only experience when you're on foot. An acoustic band called St. Paul de Vence decided to hold an impromptu performance at the front of a store on Western Avenue. Seattle has truly become a city where local music and live performances still matter.
On our second full day walking Seattle, we decided to make our way up to Queen Anne Hill. It would be about a half-hour hike (with a steep grade), and luckily the weather was blue sky picture perfect. I really wanted us to have lunch at the iconic 5 Spot restaurant, which I hadn't visited in twenty years. It was as good as I remember it, with extremely friendly serving staff. The restaurant had caught the Portlandia bug, and the whole premise was decorated with little paper birds. I'm killing myself for not buying a "Put a Bird On It!" t-shirt.
Twitter posts about our travels in Queen Anne Hill were responded to with suggestions from followers on coffee shops and other sites to check out. After our lunch we took the short stroll to Kerry Park, which has one of the most splendid views of downtown Seattle with Mount Rainier in the backdrop. Using Google maps I set a course to walk eastward toward the South Lake Union Streetcar line. Along the way we marveled at the beautiful old apartment buildings and homes.
We followed a route down Prospect Street toward Lake Union. Once again we found our route as pedestrians challenging when we got close to Aurora Avenue North. This street has been turned into a busy arterial route with very little in the way of pedestrian crossings. The one we finally found couldn't have been more hostile – the underpass along Mercer Street. This concrete bobsled track is hardly what I would describe as pleasing to the senses. I saw a cyclist riding here and feared for his safety.
We finally got to the street where the South Lake Union Streetcar passes. This streetcar has been criticized openly as a route that really goes nowhere (yet) where there are a lot of people. When we jumped on it didn't have a lot of riders. The stop we arrived near Terry & Mercer Street at was not marked, nor did it have a station to purchase a ticket. I had to quickly walk over one block to find a ticket dispensing machine for the other direction, then walk back.
The South Lake Union Streetcar (see one of the cars here) is also known as a trolley, giving it the unfortunate acronym S.L.U.T. Some locals have created a website and slogan "Ride the S.L.U.T." It wouldn't really matter except that Ride the SLUT comes up as the top hit on Google when you're looking for information about the system. While the cars are clean and comfy, some have complained that the cloth seats were a poor choice in a rainy city like Seattle. Despite the growing pains, I salute the city for adding the system to their transit mix.
Since I'm giving all sorts of free advice for our Cascadian neighbour Seattle, I'd like to find out why the downtown has so much surface parking. It felt like there was a surface parking lot within throwing distance everywhere we walked. The potential for creating a downtown for more energy and commerce exists, if Seattle only delivers on a goal to make its downtown more dense with more mixed-use developments. (Note: I wondered to myself how does a city discourage surface parking over buildings unless it uses levies to encourage development?)
While Vancouver is hardly perfect, I think there's no comparison between our cities when it comes to the vibrancy of the downtown core.
The last stop for us on our Seattle walking expedition was down to the waterfront. Getting there is a bit of a challenge because of the steep drop and the presence of the Alaska Way Viaduct as a barrier. When you get there you can see the potential as public space, but until the city can truly "connect" the waterfront with the downtown core with excellent pedestrian connections, the area could continue to feel cut off.
There is a reward for getting down to the waterfront, however. That's a view of a gorgeous and proud Northwest city, one that I look forward to exploring again soon.
UPDATE: Vancouver Sun reporter Daphne Bramham has begun a locally-oriented series on neighbourhood walks. The first online report features Vancouver's greenway goddess Sandy James of the planning department discussing Dunbar & Southlands. Sandy is responsible for organizing the Walk 21 international conference coming here in October.
Also, on Thursday I sent out an NPA media release on the importance of addressing pedestrian needs in light of several recent fatalities in Vancouver.
- Post by Mike Klassen. Mike is a city council candidate for the Vancouver Non-Partisan Association (NPA). If you're an elected official or candidate seeking a nomination and want to write about urban issues, please send your 450-500 word submission to CityCaucus@gmail.com.