Walking in Seattle: My notes for our Northwest neighbour

Post by Mike Klassen in


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.

Downtown SeattleThe 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.

Follow Mike on Twitter or on Facebook or visit his website at klassenforvancouver.com.


Good post Mike. Most interesting. I wonder how a Seattlite would respond? You could send that piece to the Seattle Times for their Op-Ed section.

Congratulations on actually buying a transit ticket, so unlike (fill in journalist or mayor of choice).

@David. Bula and her socialist pals see nothing wrong with riding transit for free. They also don't seem to have a problem with riots either. Just listen to Tim Stevenson last week at council when he said "you have to look at the bright side of the riot". You got to be kidding me!

I would greatly appreciate it if writers of all stripes would please look at a map. Seattle is not our northwest neighbour, it is in fact SOUTH EAST of Vancouver.

This is Canada and presumably the author was writing for a Canadian audience and should reference the writing from that standpoint. We are not part of the American Northwest nor should we ever aspire to be, this is Canada and we are in the Southwest not the northwest.

Canada is a great country despite the creeps who are running the govt( only because too few citizens actually turned up to vote, had they I'm sure the outcome would have been significantly different) we should be promoting ourselves and not referencing ourselves based on some strange need to belong to the US. Canada is great and I live here in Vancouver ... in the southwest!!

Rant over, thank you.

Well, coming from a family of convinced socialists (my dad) and convinced capitalists (my grandad), both deeply moral men, you'll understand that I don't see political opinions as having a particular relationship to personal honesty. The only connection, really, is that dishonest people of any persuasion will justify different forms of dishonesty to suit their prejudices.

@Tom. The geography lesson appreciated but not necessary. The term "Northwest" was intended to be accommodating to our US neighbours who see our corner of the continent from their perspective. We are also geographically linked as Cascadia, at least along the coast.

Yes, we Vancouverites occupy the southeast corner of Canada. Calling us a part of the cultural "Northwest" of North America doesn't undermine our identity. I think it only enhances it.

"Yes, we Vancouverites occupy the southeast corner of Canada"

Come again ?

The Thought of The Night

"My favorite Hitchcock movie is 'North by Northwest'. No, seriously!"

To our neighbors to the South we are situated right on their right shoulder if they would be sitting flat on their back looking up at the blue skies. We are located South of the Penguins but North of the Aztecs. East of China, West of Europe. But who cares? From space, we all look like morons that pretend that we know what we're doing...anyway.

For what it's worth, here is an easy copy/paste of my comment on "livable cities, pedestrian zones" left earlier on Fabula.


Glissando Remmy // Jul 4, 2011 at 12:23 am

The Thought of The Day

“While in Germany, the only three words you’ll ever need to master are: Bier, Bierwurst, and Danke!”

Out of pure luck, one of my best friends and an Architect working for my studio, moved his family to Schwangau a small municipality in Bavaria, two hours away from Munich. That was many years ago, BTW.

But that gave me the opportunity not only to establish a business office in the village but I took many trips to Bavaria ever since. To say that Munich is my favourite city in Germany is an understatement.

Munich is a pedestrian’s paradise with streets after streets of no car traffic, with small vendors, designer’s boutiques, mom and pop shops, cobbled streets, street width to building height ratios that are humanely designed, with festivals, street performers all year round.

For goodness sake, are they the same people that lost the war 70 years ago? Yes they are!
Believe it or not, like the majority of the German Cities, Munich was flattened out during the Allies bombings of the 1940′s.

Faced with the inevitable and horrendous choice of rebuilding their country from scratch, the German cities went their own different ways, Frankfurt (because Lewis pointed out this one) went the modern skyscraper, financial/ banking look (idiots)…the Manhattan look.

Berlin being divided for so long after the war, grew up with mixed approaches, old and new.

But Munich, didn’t want any of that. No Siree, Bob. Munich wanted back what they’ve lost. Their identity, their character, their old city. They wanted to recapture their old German ‘feel good’ feel.
That’s why now Munich is IMHO Germany’s most liveable city. And before I go any further I have to bring it out in the open, it’s not the great architects, the planners or the city officials that did it, though them being open to public discussion helped, it’s the people of Munich. They did it! They’ve been blessed with not having to put up with idiotic Messiah of Solomonic proportions as we do here in Vancouver, every three years or so.

Munich, it’s also considered Germany’s Silicon City meets Hollywood City, all in one.

Where here in Vancouver we have “I Scream’ View cones and View corridors they have Marienplatz (Mary’s Square) that marks the centre of the city and it was also the starting point for their city’s reconstruction, plus the tiny fact that any new building cannot exceed the height of the St. Peter’s church spires. Wicked, eh?

That’s what I call a City Hall administration with Public Balls instead of Developer’s Key Holders.
BTW, their City Hall dominates the plaza, and is a beautiful piece of Neo Gothic art.

Contrary to Vancouver’s down-town, Munich’s is a shopping magnet. People go there instead of going to the… malls.
Shopping in Vancouver, Thy name is Metrotwon!
Even when they go downtown, Vancouverites are shopping underground in the Pacific mall.
Geniuses! You think?

Back to the pedestrian adventure.
Munich’s main show off is their original great pedestrian areas.
Forty years ago the business district was on the verge of a local riot, when cars were first prohibited. Now? Not so much. With 120,000 + people passing by their stores every business day, they are ecstatic.
During holidays the $$$ take in is even better.

The philosophy was simple. Keep it local, have lots of green spaces, small human sized streets and buildings, no cars, walking made feasible, you didn’t hear me mention any biking now, did you, no, but one will have to provide an excellent public transportation system at their fingertips.
Vancouver? Still talking…

You can smell the small-town Munich aromas inside these boundaries, go ahead, smell the fresh produce and talk with the grocers. But here’s the kicker, are you ready for this? Contrary with what is happening in the Cowboy town of Vancouver, where if your horse dies, you are left behind too, to die, (only think of the small businesses that were ravaged in the riot and more recently remember the former maternity store “Hazel” on Cambie Street, in a David against Goliath fight with the Canada Line thugs and their lawyers – funny thing though, that happened under the ineffective trademark watch of one former MLA by the name of Gregor Robertson… who knew?) there you have the approach of neighbor helps neighbor, and then, the city helps both!
Get that? The city helps both!

How many times have you read about decrepit landlords, greedy landlords, development sharks waiting in the shadows for a business to fail, for the building to catch fire, so they could move in hike up the rents, or build 100 condos where before there was only a meat shop and a caffe.
A million times!

Well, while this (the pedestrian district) is the most expensive real estate in town (as per last appraisal) Munich keeps the rents low so these old-timers can carry on, and and on…
You go there every day for one week and I guarantee, you will go inside seven different eateries and end up asking for the same thing: Beer and Wurst. Even Vegetarians are having at it, incognito.

Now, I’ll have to look in the freezer, for some sausage, well why don’t I just ‘fogettabatit’ I’m out of beer too!

Dressed in a checkered shirt, traditional lederhosen with suspenders, off white slouched socks pulled down, Haferl shoes and served by a voluptuous blonde showing her… necklace, in a white trachtenblus’n, blue-white-blue drindl, with a red-white pinafore, carrying 1 litre Beer carafes around the garden… in my tonight dreams, for sure, godamnit!

I’ll blame Lewis! :-)

Bier ist gut! Darf ich noch eine bitte? Vielen Dank!

We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

Nice thoughts Mike. But we would be setting pretty low goals if we compared ourselves to Seattle. Let's aim higher.

Pedestrian safety is obviously important. One easy way to improve it is to slow down cars, which we have been doing for a number of years by traffic calming.

But I think it is just as important to create a lively street scene. It would be great if we could have more (easily covered) outdoor cafes - set them up so they work even in the rain. Is there somewhere we could have a line of cafes and restaurants facing the water, or at least catching more of the mountain views? And can we have more and more public art, that we engage in as we walk and cycle around the city. Could Vancouver public art be integrated with mobile devices?

I think we know a lot of the design keys: (i) wider sidewalks, (ii) narrower streets, (iii) good lighting, (iv) many safe ways to cross the street and more pedestrian controlled signals, (iv) more life in all its forms lived on the sreets. ... I hope you can build your campaign around this kind of issue.

As a Seattleite, I feel obliged to respond to this.

Nice piece, and I agree with you on a number of topics. It is true that Vancouver's downtown is much more vibrant than Seattle's, but our city also has a different growth model from Vancouver. Funnily, both of our cities see ourselves as "world class" out in our little corner of the world.

Whereas Vancouver has funneled its growth into the downtown neighborhood, Seattle went the route of creating multiple urban cores within the city, such as Capitol Hill, Ballard, University District, etc. Our downtown may be abysmal, but you would be surprised to see how vibrant those neighborhoods are on a lovely summer evening. Capitol Hill's Pike/Pine corridor is absolutely teeming with life.

Downtown is still dead, but we are trying to bring it back to life. The surface lots downtown are slowly being filled in, and the Alaskan Way Viaduct is coming down (check out initial design concepts from James Corner at waterfrontseattle.org).

I imagine that we seem to have more surface lots only because Vancouver's were long ago filled in due to your city's growth management policies. Land is much more precious in Vancouver than it is in Seattle, which still has room to grow. Vancouver has more people in an area half the size of Seattle proper. Since the dawn of the auto age, every American city, with the exception of New York and San Francisco, have required a certain amount of parking with every new building constructed. Seattle has recently done away with this "minimum parking" requirement, so we should see more pedestrian-oriented development in the future.

Around the same time Vancouver's citizens lobbied to keep freeways out of their downtown core, Seattle's citizens fought our federal and state governments to keep the freeways out of our neighborhoods. This is why we only have one major freeway in our city, I-5, where other major US cities may have 10 routes bisecting their downtown core.

Where Vancouver engineers its city streets to make traffic so unbearable as to drive people to take public transit, car is still king here, although much less so than elsewhere in the US. We are slowly moving toward a more sustainable transit future. We are building up a regional rail system, and the SLUT will soon be linked to a citywide network of streetcars. Seattle is a traffic planning anomaly in the auto-centric US because we have elected to invest in smart traffic management systems over building out our highways, meaning that our population has swelled, but our traffic has improved. Unfortunately, this does disincentivize transit. I live in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood and comfortable ride my bike to work and school everyday on our amazing Burke-Gilman trail. We were offered money from the federal government in the 70s to build a heavy rail network, but our citizens had the foresight to turn it down to build a system of trails for bikes and horses. Go figure. You may be interested in visiting seattletransitblog.com to learn more about our city's transit planning woes. It may also be worthwhile to look up the "Seattle Process"; transportation is easily the most contentious issue in the Puget Sound and always has been.

I would like to point out that some growth policies in Vancouver have made living in that city prohibitively expensive, while a city like Portland's more lenient policies and transit planning have created a vibrant downtown, and protected wilderness and agricultural areas, while still maintaining home prices that middle class families can afford. It's a shame that many young families in today's Vancouver have no choice but to live in far-flung cities like Surrey and Burnaby or cram themselves into a tiny glass condo if they want to stay in the city. Vancouver is a wonderful experiment in eco-conscious construction and land planning, but I have a feeling that its city planner may have made different decisions had they known the average price for a home in Vancouver would one day reach $1 million.

When I've taken foreign visitors on a weekend trip up to Vancouver, they often remark on how Seattle feels like a "real" city to them, with a bit of grit and roughness around the edges, while Vancouver feels like a resort town. I certainly feel that way when I visit Vancouver's downtown- everyone seems to be a tourist. And while you do have a massive amount of downtown housing, it seems that most of the lights are off when I look in the windows, perhaps because they are investment properties for foreigners or Canadians from colder climes? When I walk the streets of Vancouver, I don't see flyers for concerts on telephone poles, nor do I see young, local people hanging out like I do in Seattle. I do see a bunch of Australians on their way to Banff, though.

Our two cities used to be much more culturally similar, but we have since diverged. I'd be curious to know how our increasingly different economies dictate our respective growth.

East Hastings is an absolute disgrace- I've never seen such a desolate and unsafe area in Seattle. It seems to have been completely forgotten and abandoned by the city at large, and is a world away from the wealth of Vancouver.

When all is said and done, though, I think that Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland have a special relationship that transcends national politics. I have as much family living in Seattle as I do in Vancouver, and love both places dearly.

And you are right, Merlot is not our strong suit. Try a Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah next time.

Meanwhile, here's an example of the kind of thing that makes me ashamed for our city, its government and its police.


Such cruelty is despicable at the best of times but particularly when carried by people who are so privileged and entrusted to act on behalf of all of us.

"When I've taken foreign visitors on a weekend trip up to Vancouver, they often remark on how Seattle feels like a "real" city to them, with a bit of grit and roughness around the edges, while Vancouver feels like a resort town."

"Seattle went the route of creating multiple urban cores within the city, such as Capitol Hill, Ballard, University District, etc. Our downtown may be abysmal, but you would be surprised to see how vibrant those neighborhoods are on a lovely summer evening. Capitol Hill's Pike/Pine corridor is absolutely teeming with life."

Agree entirely with these two points. I just got back from Seattle this weekend and stayed with friends in Capitol Hill and off Roosevelt north of the U District. Both vibrant, fun places--very walkable, commercial sprinkled throughout. One thing I hate about Vancouver outside downtown are the corridors of commercial actvity on arterials with absolutely nothing but housing in between. I loved walking up over Volunteer Park and eating at a little cafe tucked into a residential area. Something highly unusual in Vancouver.

I also noticed the 'grit' in Seattle. It felt like a much more mature city, not so pretentious and 'trying to be cool' as Vancouver. Walking and driving throughout north Seattle felt nothing like Vancouver and it felt good.

The I-5 though...yikes. Seattle may only have the one running through it, but the floating bridge, I-405, and all the countless on ramps and off ramps and connector cloverleafs and overpasses and it is still very much dominated by that highway/the car.

@david hadaway The Seattle Police are worse...look up John WIlliams. They are the subject of a federal ethics investigation at the moment.

@everyone else, thanks for reading. Sorry for the earlier typos, and don't get the impression I don't love Vancouver, because I do! When I go abroad, I always say I'm from Seattle, not "America", because I'm more proud of my bioregion than I am my country!


There have been consequences resulting from the police shooting of John Williams in Seattle. Experience over many years shows there would have been none had this tragedy occurred in Vancouver.

Are you the David Hadaway that worked in BDP London? Pls reply if yes

Check out BCWineLover.com!

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