The Everett Herald‘s editors opined on the county’s quality of life, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. The paper cited economists at a recent event sponsored by the Economic Alliance of Snohomish County. They were asked how Everett and the area might reduce the risks of another recession. “Be a place where people want to live,” reported the editors.
Downtown Everett, which should be such a place, appears to be struggling with its identity. Historically supported by maritime interests along the port, including a series of pulp and paper mills, their demise presents new and potentially interesting challenges for the powers that be. What to do?
There are always those who believe that “the market” will and should dictate the appropriate answer. But laissez-affaire probably got us into the Great Recession and inhibits economic recovery. The so-called “job creators” have only enlarged their bank accounts while leaving the Rest of Us to struggle with uncertainty, low wages, and diminished expectations. Why should a hands-off attitude work here?
A proper vision may be necessary but hardly sufficient to build a place where people want to live. No matter, there are absolutely no visible signs that public officials and business leaders care a whit about attracting people to downtown and keeping them here. Yes, there are new apartment buildings and more to come, but they are neither attractive nor part of any integrated pattern of development that promises economic vitality.
My daughter and her husband live on Capitol Hill. They are just a few blocks from everything they need, including grocery stores and upscale restaurants. Public transportation can be had at the closest corner. Their combined incomes afford them a not-so-cheap home and walkable access to amenities that have so far eluded denizens of Everett.
Okay, you may not wish to buy in Seattle. After all, prices are much higher than here. How about renting?
As it happens, my wife and I looked briefly at that possibility. Would you believe $2,700 for a two-bedroom unit? Yikes.
Rents, like house prices, are subject to market forces. Property owners can extract such sums because demand is sufficiently high. And why is demand higher in Seattle than Everett? Because more people want to live there.
Seattle escaped the Great Recession relatively unscathed. Its unemployment rate is lower than the state’s and much lower than the that of the nation as a whole.
Seattle itself experienced 4.8 percent unemployment as of January 2014. More likely than not, those who live in Seattle work in Seattle. Also, their incomes tend to be higher than Everett’s households. The combination of work, play, and home encourages dollars to exchange hands with greater frequency than in less affluent areas like Everett.
The Herald‘s editors:
In an era when the best paying jobs are going to scientists and computer whizzes, a community needs to invest in the things that attract not only those kinds of businesses, but also those kinds of workers. Recreation and entertainment “infrastructure” can be as important as transportation or communications infrastructure. Excellent schools and libraries can be as great an economic boon as a streamlined regulatory or tax system.
County leaders should take the lesson to heart. Quality of life is not a mere byproduct of prosperity — it can be an important catalyst for it.
Still, what to do, and who goes first?
I believe that government officials, including mayors and city council members, should pay attention to the built environment. How things look and fit with each other attracts would-be residents.
Yet, design standards seem nonexistent in Everett’s code. A search of “setbacks” for example in the city’s online document entitled “Design and Construction Standards and Specifications” came up empty. Setbacks, as any urban designer will tell you, are important for pedestrians and commerce. Now let’s take a look at a new apartment building constructed along Pacific Avenue, one of the city’s major arterials.
While the sidewalk is wide and the building entrances recessed from the front, there is no buffer between the heavily travelled street and sidewalk. The same property owner is erecting a massive set of buildings a couple of blocks away. They, too, will lack buffers.
Pacific Avenue consists of two travel lanes and a left-turn lane in each direction. It was not designed with pedestrians in mind, though in 2006 the city adopted a plan (pdf) to one day convert the arterial into a “boulevard.” The document is eight years old, and there is no evidence of progress toward its realization.
To be sure, the “Downtown Plan” is littered with pleasant words. Take, for instance, the document’s “goals and objectives”:
To be fair, I absolutely love the plan. It’s clear that those who fashioned it know that Everett needs a lot of work and that they have good ideas on how to proceed. Yet, I fear that the document sits somewhere on a shelf. Remember that the plan is almost a decade old. The final section is about implementation. Here is “Step 2. Plant a Seed”:
Initiate a High-Visibility, Transformational Project
(Begin planning within one year; complete within 3-4 years) [my emphasis]
The purpose of this action is to show significant City commitment to downtown with a project that will foster substantial development and/or add a new dimension to downtown activities. Two recommended projects meet these criteria: a major streetscape improvement of Rucker Avenue (Action S-2) and the development of a multipurpose focal park or plaza (Action O-3). Since the Rucker Avenue improvements are directed toward fostering a new in-city residential neighborhood, this project might be timed to coincide with substantial mixed-use residential development along that street. The City might begin planning and design of the street and commit construction funds when the private investment occurs. Creating a unifying central park or plaza is directed at adding a whole new set of activities, recreational attractions, and business opportunities in downtown. The construction of the new park should be complemented by joint City and private efforts to program events for optimizing its use and to address security and maintenance needs. The success of downtown parks is as dependent on good management as it is on good design.
Here’s a photograph of Rucker, that I recently took.
The city is way behind.