The Death and Life of Great American City Blocks


[ Photo: joshc ]

“Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent state of rehabilitation — although these make fine ingredients — but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings….

Even the enterprises that can support new construction in cities need old construction in their immediate vicinity. Otherwise they are part of a total attraction and total environment that is economically too limited — and therefore functionally too limited to be lively, interesting and convenient. Flourishing diversity anywhere in a city means the mingling of high-yield, middling-yield, low-yield and no-yield enterprises.”

— Jane Jacobs, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” 1961

The redevelopment of the 500 block of East Pine Street in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood has not suffered from lack of attention. Even the Seattle PI noticed. The people are down with Jane. So the question is, in the face of the substantial redevelopment necessary for Seattle to become a more sustainable city, how do we preserve diversity in the building stock and uses? The only approach I’ve heard so far that may have some potential is to mandate “micro-retail” spaces in new buildings. Any other ideas out there?

7 Responses to “The Death and Life of Great American City Blocks”

  1. michael

    First, what a perfect quote from Ms. Jacobs. Nice job digging that up.

    Indeed, what to do about the inevitable trifecta of nail/hair salon-teriyaki-dry cleaner, the few businesses that apparently can afford a retail space greater than 1,000sf, which is all that is offered in current “mixed-use” development (actually the spaces are much larger than this)? Not to mention the complete lack of soul in any new retail space?

    Mandating micro-retail is one strategy being used at the Dearborn redevelopment project. Not sure what sizes they are talking about though.

    Seattle planners have to be convinced that smaller retail is viable as do developers – At a recent design review meeting I saw compelling evidence presented by B9 Architects that most older retail spaces along Broadway and Columbia City (they actually measured these spaces and took an average) were around 700sf. The DRB was convinced and approved retail space sizes being proposed.

    The City should require that retail spaces being destroyed should be replaced by at least some comparably sized retail spaces. 500 Pine is a perfect example of where the City and the developer went wrong – 8 or so businesses are being replaced by 3 or 4 storefronts. This really hurts the vitality of the area. A smart developer will provide a variety of retail spaces automatically- can’t think of any examples in newer developments though.

    Another issue may be building codes. One example is restuarant exhaust systems – the city’s code is currently restrictive in terms of where exhaust ducts can be placed within a building, which severely limits configurations of restuarants. Don’t know for sure, but it probably also deters developers from accomodating such uses in new buildings.

    Lastly, how about honoring the time-tested conclusions of Ms. Jacobs and actually preserving these old buildings. Oh my! Is that actually possible in this market of “well-intentioned” developers??

  2. kkurmudgeon

    Great picture and thanks for posting on this. And for the great Jane quote.

  3. josh

    by the way, the photo is mine.

  4. Oops | hugeasscity

    […] Apparently we better get used to this view of Press Condos across the fresh new gravel lot on the 500 Block of East Pine.  But hey, nothing lost, nothing gained:  the Press site was once a surface parking lot. […]

  5. Web Filter

    Brilliant web site. Reditted!

  6. jill

    I don’t agree

  7. Small is Beautiful* | hugeasscity

    […] a whole city block with a sterile, monolithic street frontage, as will be the case with the 500 block of East Pine and many, many other full block projects in Seattle, this development coexists peacefully between […]

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