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What's A Suburb Anyway?

Rebuilding, reconceiving, and redefining ourselves

You know suburbs, right? Homogenous, bland, faceless, placeless, sprawled out- a collection of bedrooms whose only value is to house people who can’t afford city prices or who want a really big lot, right? Well, maybe not. It seems that after decades of thoughtless, heedless spreading out we may be getting a clue, and this is one of the ‘burbs where it’s happening.

CNN did a piece a few months ago on how there is now more poverty in American suburbs than in either cities or rural areas, and the Brookings Institute shows us how they have much more ethnic diversity than ever before. And we’re even getting denser. Hallelujah- not for the poverty, for the rest. For instance, the best Korean food in this area, according to many reviewers, is found in Federal Way, Lakewood, Edmonds, or Shoreline.

Mark Hinshaw wrote in Crosscut “It occurs to me that the very term “suburb” may have outlived its usefulness. In an earlier era, when large, mature cities were surrounded by expansive subdivisions and shopping malls, this might have reflected a definite distinction. In those times, “bedroom suburbs” lived up their name as nighttime havens of mostly white families, often with a stay-at-home mother and a commuting father. Those were your grandfather’s suburbs.”

With all that, what’s happening here? I’ve written about many things Shoreline is doing. I, for one, believe in the concept of a stronger central city, but I think it requires all cities around the region to be as strong, dense, and vibrant as possible to end sprawl. He continues “(people are) making them even more diverse and, yes, dense. Virtually every town in the region has been busy making its own center more interesting, more lively, filled with more public spaces and varied shops and restaurants. There has been a gradual erosion in the old fear of density with the realization that people do appreciate having choices rather than hewing to the old attitude that detached houses were the only acceptable form of housing. Many people understand now that having lots of people living close together supports local shops and services.”

I’ve lived here 10 years exactly, and have seen many good things happen. The Aurora Corridor Project is heading for completion, and those parts which have been done are much better. Parks have been finished. North City has been made over into our best Urban Village. We have lots to celebrate but much more to do.

I met this week with Dan Eernissee, Shoreline’s Economic Development Program Manager, for a nice conversation. He shared with me the city’s five-year Economic Development Strategic Plan. Most of the document and most of our conversation had to do with place-making. You may not be familiar with the term, but it encompasses much of Planning.

The Plan places great importance on “…the six Council Guidelines for Sustainable Economic Growth:

Multiple areas – improvements and events throughout the City that attract investment

Revenue – growing revenue sources that support City programs

Jobs – employers and business starts that create more and better jobs

Vertical growth – sustainable multi-story buildings that efficiently enhance neighborhoods

Exports – vibrant activities and businesses that bring money into Shoreline

Collaboration – broad-based partnerships that benefit all participants

Generations of developers have inadvertently taught us that just slapping a name on a subdivision doesn’t make a neighborhood. It needs some bit of geography or infrastructure, some landmark to turn it into a real place.  has that odd intersection and a nice, tight concentration of small businesses.  is strongly bounded by three major roads, so stands apart as an obvious place name. But we also have Aurora Avenue, three miles of pretty standard strip retail, heavy traffic, and a few other things- the occasional motel, church, or whatever. It is, for better or worse, our ‘Main Street’.

There has to be something more. How do you make it- any of it- stand out? My suggestion was simply that every ten to fifteen blocks the city build a park, place a statue, or rezone an area to give it a distinction. That seems like rather a flip answer, true, but my example was DuPont Circle in Washington DC. It’s nothing more than a traffic circle, but because it stands out as not-just-more-road it has become a real place. I think the planning for Town Center has a good chance of panning out if nurtured.

I said Aurora Square (Sears, Central Market, etc.) would make a natural high-density node, as I’ve made clear in a couple , and Dan replied (Unofficially! Don’t send in any heated retorts!) that the little triangle between N 155th St, Aurora, and Westminster Way could be a good place to zone as a ‘cabaret district’, to use the Vancouver term, that is, a place to cluster entertainment, night clubs, and other activities some neighborhoods don’t want or would be offended by because so few people live even within earshot of it and because it has excellent traffic access. I heartily agreed, and suggested other places might be sites for an artistic cluster, a garden emphasis, or other ideas. The point being to break up Aurora into smaller, easily walkable, easily comprehensible places, rather than keeping the whole colossal length of it as one hunk.

As it happens our views are largely parallel. The city is focused on realizing four “City-Shaping Place Making Projects”: 

Creating a Dynamic Aurora Corridor Neighborhood – unleashing the potential created by the City’s tremendous infrastructure investment

Reinventing Aurora Square – catalyzing a master-planned, sustainable lifestyle destination

Unlocking the Fircrest Surplus Property – establishing a new campus for hundreds of family-wage jobs

Planning Light Rail Station Areas – two imminent and crucial
opportunities

There are many potential future projects on their list, from the Farmers’ Market opening to expanding our events and festivals to enhancing our existing neighborhoods. All these will be measurable, so we’ll be able to see the benefits for ourselves in the years to come.

Hinshaw concludes “Walkable places, livable places, and places of cultural diversity are now to be found throughout the Puget Sound area. Not something “lesser” or “sub,” they are simply cities and towns, albeit of different sizes and types. The term suburb is rapidly becoming as useful as “buggy whip” — a true relic of a bygone era.” I really don’t think we’re there yet. There are plenty of drab, exasperating places unwilling to improve and abandon the sprawl pattern, but I hope Shoreline and Lake Forest Park will do their very best to help make the term obsolete by making themselves exemplary.

Everyday Citizen March 05, 2012 at 06:47 PM
I have lived in the Shoreline area for over 30 years. My family has lived in Shoreline for a minimum of 4 generations. Be careful not to grow too fast and raise the cost of living so much that the basic concept of "It's Takes a Village" will go by the way side. Then it might end up "It Takes a Person With a Salary Like Bill Gates To Live Here" for the city to sustain itself.

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