The Republicans have their echo chamber which allows them to influence the media, so it is my turn to help the other side.


Revitalizing Downtown Mercer Island

Many people think of Mercer Island as home to rich, snobby, elite, sheltered yuppies. Well, I'm not going to argue about that. Instead I'll talk about some of the wonderful changes to the downtown area. I've been thinking about this for a while and I'm glad it is getting some publicity. These changes are the best thing that has happened to the island in a long time.

The city council, despite the pleas of stubborn citizens, increased the max building height of the downtown area to five stories from the previous limit of two. Until recently the majority of downtown had consisted of large grocery stories and strip malls. Between new regulations and the low interest rates, developers have been spurred to create new mixed-use buildings. There are currently four large projects in the works, which will bring in 900 new apartments and 246 thousand square feet of stores and offices.

Of course, many Mercer Islanders are against anything that might damage their idea of the 'suburban dream'. Jerry Gropp thinks it will destroy the ambience of the downtown area, which leads me to ask, "What ambience?" Having lived there for some 17 years, I'm not sure what he is talking about. Most buildings are one or two stories and there are parking lots everywhere. The downtown usually seems empty (except for cars) and past 21:00 it is practically deserted. There are very few restaurants, and most close fairly early.

From the article: many Islanders think it "will attract crime, increase traffic, harm the reputation of their schools and disrupt their quiet downtown". Crime is not new. In the last year or two we've had a middle schooler bring a gun to school, a little girl get kidnapped, and an immoral drug bust. Crime will come even without this development. I don't believe it will increase traffic, if anything, it will help decrease traffic. If people can live just a short walk from their destination, they don't need to drive. How would this harm the schools? That seems like nonsense. And of course the downtown is quiet... no one is ever there.

I think public opinion can be swayed, especially if this is promoted the right way. Of course, once everything is completed and the benefits are obvious, there will be no need to explain this to anyone, but for now this is my idea. Many Islanders visit Europe and love to tell people about it. Well, just think, they could have a little European-style village in their own backyard. The roads downtown are mostly two lanes and fairly narrow. The main drag is a boulevard with trees in the center lane. If most of the downtown area was converted to four or five story mixed-use buildings, it would have a very intimate feel. The buildings wouldn't dwarf you, but they would provide a nice feeling of protection and frame the roads nicely. Increasing the downtown population would also make the downtown more lively and potentially reduce crime. There would always be people around, so it wouldn't feel deserted, and having watchful eyes discourages crime. The downtown area is almost located in a little valley. Having a number of dense, human-scale buildings at the end of a valley would be a very attractive semi-urban area. Also, Seattle is a few minute drive from downtown (assuming no traffic). However, buses from Seattle and Bellevue stop just a few blocks from downtown. It would be very easy for someone to live downtown, shop and eat at all the new stores, and ride a bus to Seattle when they want to attend an event or movie; and they could do this while rarely using their car. In a decade or two, we will hopefully have light rail to Mercer Island, which will make commuting to and from the city even easier .


Blogger Chris said...

Eventually, I could see Seattle transforming in the way Vancouver has transformed - that is, urbanizing the suburban areas with condos as the city's less wealthy population expands, pushing the suburban population out to places like the Plateau. You can already see it happening - Shorewood hasn't stopped expanding, and downtown MI is urbanizing rapidly. Eventually, Mercer Island will no longer be the exclusive suburbia nestled near the city. It can't possibly resist the change.


Blogger Andrew Hitchcock said...

Hopefully downtown Seattle will remain dense and become denser. Fortunately, lots of new development is being done in the South Lake Union area, but we need more development of old, one-story buildings and vacant lots in order to drive down prices. Much of the building downtown is expensive, which leads to gentrification.

Ideally, Seattle will continue to develop, as well the transit corridors. I'd be nice to travel between little city centers (for example, on bike) without leaving an urban environment. I believe downtown Mercer Island will get highly developed over the next decade, but it will take a long time before the people on the rest of the island give up their large plots of land and expensive houses.

Development in Issaquah (on the Plateau) is unfortunate. All of that is green field development being subsidized by the rest of us. Many of the less wealthy people move out there, increasing the amount of energy needed to commute and decreasing the pristine land in the region. It is interesting that Microsoft abandoned their development out there. Will that help keep development in already built up areas?

The Seattle area will go grow a lot in the next decade or two, and hopefully it will be near the city centers instead of sprawled across the country side.


Blogger Andrew Hitchcock said...

One more thing I would like to add. The article mentions how Mercer Island's downtown is becoming like Bellevue. I think this is highly inaccurate and slightly offensive. Bellevue has what I call a suburban downtown. It isn't a real downtown. Sure, the buildings are taller than normal, but the only activity I ever see on the streets are cars. You rarely see people walking around downtown Bellevue (except for a tiny corridor between Bell Square and the Galleria). It has all the signs of suburbia: parking everywhere, little foot traffic, driving between locations, etc.

Downtown Mercer Island is becoming something different, something better. People live very close to downtown MI and more living spaces are being built in the town center. Since everything is built relatively close together (even though there are currently a number of parking lots), you can easily walk across downtown (in any direction) in, say, ten minutes. Also, at least during the day and during the warmer months, people are out on the streets and walking between areas. The roads are smaller, creating a more intimate environment. Instead of walking down huge blocks to cross six lanes of traffic at a crosswalk as in Bellevue, people can easily cross the street anywhere in downtown MI. Hell, there are even some boulevards, allowing you to cross just one lane at once.


Blogger Jerry Gropp Architect AIA PS said...

The "Mercer Islander" is what's happened. If I knew how, I'd post a photo of this unfortunate place.
I wonder about the vacancy rate.
Jerry Gropp Architect AIA PS


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