Love Thy Neighborhood

Meet five volunteers who are bringing meaningful change to their beloved corners of Seattle.

Sean Conroe, founder of Alleycat Acres

Photo by Hayley Young

If you cruised down East Union toward the Central District this past summer, you may have noticed something different on the northeast corner of 22nd Avenue. Tucked between Cappy’s Boxing Gym and a gas station mini-mart were beds of verdant greens, planter boxes dripping with tomatoes, and rows of gigantic corn, squash and countless other veggies, all on the cusp of being picked.

Sean Conroe is the 28-year-old founder of Alleycat Acres, a volunteer-based farming collective that’s bringing neighbors together with fresh produce—and with each other. Since last spring, Conroe, a landscaper by day, has worked with dozens of volunteers, with funds from private donations, to develop urban farms from scratch. Since then, Conroe and fellow “alleycats” have secured 8,000 square feet of private land in the Central District and Beacon Hill, and produced an estimated 2,000 pounds of produce.

Farmable land in the city is in high demand, says Kenya Fredie, who works with Seattle’s other big community-garden nonprofit, P-Patch. The fact that Alleycat has been able to secure private land that might otherwise sit vacant is “huge,” says Fredie, who often refers eager gardeners on P-Patch’s waiting list to Alleycats.

For volunteers, the produce is free and plentiful; anything left over is delivered to local food banks via bicycle. “If everybody did this, we could put the stores out of business,” said 87-year-old Lillie Mae Graham on a recent trip to the farm on East Union. Like many of her neighbors, Graham swings by the farm about once a week during the summer to work a little, grab some corn or a few tomatoes and to chat.

Eventually, Conroe hopes to grow Alleycat by acquiring more farm spaces in Seattle, and offering community education programs about farming. “People often ask, ‘What [business] model are you using?’” says Conroe. “We’re figuring it out as we go.”

Dagmar Cronn, president of the South Park Neighborhood Association

Photo by Hayley Young

“Million-dollar view” doesn’t begin to describe what Dagmar Cronn sees from the backyard of her South Park home. Across the blue-brown waters of the Duwamish River, she has a picture-perfect view of the South Park Bridge, an aging, double-leaf bascule bridge deemed so unsafe that it has been closed to traffic since June 2010.

That’s about to change, thanks in part to Cronn’s quiet efforts. President of the South Park Neighborhood Association since 2008, Cronn played an integral role in finding funding to repair the span as part of the New South Park Bridge Coalition. “She did the sort of research and homework you’d expect of a former university professor,” says Larry Brown, legislative and political director for the aerospace machinists union who cochaired the coalition. “She was also a voice for the community and advocated for South Park and social justice at every opportunity she had.”

In fact, Cronn is a former university professor, having taught in Rochester, Michigan, after earning a Ph.D. in atmospheric chemistry from the University of Washington. Upon moving to South Park in 2007, Cronn hit the ground running as a community advocate eager to “shrink her sphere of influence” to the community around her. She started showing up at City Council meetings and signing up for work parties. She was tapped by King County Executive Dow Constantine to serve on a coalition to find ways to fill a $130 million shortfall in funds needed to replace the bridge.

Now, with the new bridge on track to be completed by mid-2013, Cronn has her plate full with a new set of projects, all aimed at helping her adopted neighborhood. “I probably get what I do through prudent persistence,” says Cronn. “None of the good ideas are mine. I just connect people, and the community sets things in motion.”


Julie Pham, chairwoman of the board of the Martin Luther King Business Association

Photo by Don Pham

Even well-seasoned Seattleites can have trouble pinpointing exactly where the Martin Luther King (MLK) corridor starts and stops. Julie Pham hopes to change that. “When people think of MLK, they think of Columbia City, but that’s only four blocks long,” says Pham, chairwoman of the board of the MLK Business Association. The Rainier Valley native is spearheading an approach to economic development that centers on cultivating a distinct identity for the four-mile-long business corridor.

Since 2009, Pham has overseen a marketing and branding overhaul that’s included everything from a new logo and overhauled website ( to an e-mail writing campaign requesting that Yelp acknowledge MLK as its own neighborhood. This past spring, she helped launch Plate of Nations, a restaurant promotion inspired by Dine Around Seattle, which brought an estimated 500 new customers to the neighborhood.

It helps that Pham, who grew up in South Seattle, learned early the value of building relationships with business owners. A trained historian with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, Pham left academia in 2008 to work for her family’s semiweekly Vietnamese newspaper, Nguoi Viet Tay Bac (Northwest Vietnamese News), where she now serves as managing editor. In that role, she’s honed her ability to connect with both business leaders and the broader political community—and that’s been key to the MLK Business Association’s success, says board member Asari Mohamath. “She really helped us get the word out [about the neighborhood] to the rest of the city.”

With one eye on the big picture, Pham also keeps it hyperlocal. Whether it’s picking a personal dry cleaner or hiring a local designer for association projects, Pham believes supporting local business is crucial—it’s good for commerce and good for building personal relationships. “That’s the way you connect with businesses here,” says Pham, “not through e-mail or social media.”


Charles Redmond, pedestrian advocate

Photo by Hayley Young

Charles Redmond has a reputation for putting his best foot forward—literally. The community activist is committed to improving walkability in West Seattle, serving on “too any boards and committees to count,” says Tracy Record of the West Seattle Blog.

“Chas,” as he’s known around the neighborhood, is the driving force behind West Seattle’s new pedestrian-friendly “wayfinding” kiosks, developed by Feet First, a nonprofit that works to improving walkability. (Redmond serves on its board.) The kiosks—which use maps developed by Redmond—-were built to promote walking in and around West Seattle.  

A transit nerd long before biking and buses were chic, Redmond began advocating for pedestrians when he and his wife moved to the neighborhood in 2003, after years of living in Washington, D.C., where the nearest subway stop was a minute’s walk away. “When we came here, the monorail was politically on top,” recalls Redmond, so the couple found a home minutes from The Junction (downtown West Seattle), betting that a monorail would soon follow. Redmond volunteered as an advocate for the Seattle Monorail Project.

West Seattle’s monorail never panned out, but volunteering for the cause gave Redmond, a former NASA public affairs spokesman, the chance to get to know residents, business owners and politicians. He quickly moved on to his next cause: improving pedestrian walkability in his neighborhood.

Years of assessing and explaining satellite images gave Redmond an eye for analyzing maps. In 2006, Redmond applied for and secured a $4,500, grant from the City of Seattle, enough to print 20,000 pedestrian maps that were designed with help from local residents. Updated maps have been released annually since 2007.

“I don’t know of another individual who has his passion for creating alternatives for getting around,” says Patti Mullen, CEO of the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce, who has worked with Redmond on transportation projects since 2004. “I don’t know of another resident in Seattle who is as passionate about pedestrian access."


Dylan Ahearn, chair of Beacon BIKES

Photo by Dan Bennett

He may be new to Beacon Hill, but Dylan Ahearn knows the community like the back of his hand. “I’ve ridden every inch of this neighborhood,” says the 37-year-old father of two, who puts his street cred to use as the chairman of Beacon BIKES (which stands for “Better Infrastructure Keeping Everyone Safe”). The grassroots bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group is pushing for safer bike routes in a South Seattle neighborhood known for awkward intersections—which have become even busier with the opening of a new light-rail station.

Ahearn started commuting by bicycle while earning his Ph.D. in hydrology at the University of California, Davis. When he moved to Seattle in 2005, “I put my bike in the basement,” he says. “There are bike lanes and things here, but everything is designed to connect neighborhoods with get people from Beacon Hill out of Beacon Hill.”

Ahearn’s bike didn’t stay packed away for long. In 2009, he teamed up with Beacon Hill community advocate Frederica Merrell with the goal of building a neighborhood “greenway,” a residential bike path incorporated into existing residential streets. With Ahearn’s guidance—and lots of dedicated volunteers—Beacon BIKES has worked with the city to develop a network of neighborhood greenways—residential streets that emphasize cyclability and walkability between destinations such as grocery stores, libraries and schools. The most visible result of this project (slated to be completed by the end of the year) will be several bicycle boulevards on residential streets that run alongside major car corridors. Simple signage will designate the location of bike paths.

An environmental consultant and professor at Edmonds Community College, Ahearn is no stranger to thinking about the complex relationship between people and communities. His goal now is to improve safety and access for bike riders—and pedestrians—of all skill and fitness levels, including beginners and children, and especially those for whom financial, health and cultural concerns might be a deterrent. Biking is for everyone, Ahearn says, not just the superfit and the daring. “We’re not the spandex-clad folks,” jokes Ahearn, who quickly adds, “but we respect them, too.”

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Is Seattle ready for high-rises built of wood after 80 years of concrete-and-steel buildings?

When architect Joe Mayo walks into his office, he’s steeped in Seattle history. Mahlum Architects is located in Pioneer Square’s 1910 Polson Building, which served as a warehouse for gold mining equipment during the Klondike Gold Rush. Over the past 100 years, the building has also housed offices and artists’ lofts, and survived two arson fires. So it’s remarkable to see the original old-growth Douglas fir columns still rising from the floor and spanning the ceilings. “It creates a pretty amazing environment,” says Mayo.

Large buildings framed with wood from big trees were commonplace in Seattle and in other parts of the country in the early 1900s. But changing building codes and diminishing availability of large timber put an end to this style. Today, wood buildings are usually one- or two-story houses, while our apartments, hotels and office buildings are nearly all built from concrete and steel. The six-story Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill, which opened in 2013, is the first mid-rise building in Seattle constructed of wood in the past 80 years.

With the advent of a new wood building material called cross-laminated timber (CLT), it might one day become one of many such structures. Proponents say the benefits of building with CLT could be significant. CLT can be used to create buildings that are as tall as 30 stories (and beyond, some architects say) that are better for the environment and aesthetically pleasing, and can be quickly built, help create jobs in economically depressed regional timber towns and are as long-lasting as other buildings. Some research even suggests that wooden buildings offer health benefits for occupants.

Mayo says the material makes sense for our region. “Architecture should feel like it’s a part of a place,” he says. “We’re in the great Northwest, with some of the tallest trees in the world and the best timber in the country, and we have a long history of building with wood.”

But while building codes in Europe and in some other countries have changed to embrace the new material, and CLT buildings as tall as 10 stories are in use in Australia and London, U.S. building codes lag behind. Seattle recently became the first city to allow the use of CLT in construction, but that use is currently limited to five stories for residential buildings and six stories for office buildings.

“The City is open to proposals on larger buildings, but we do have to verify that fire safety and seismic issues have been addressed in the designs,” says Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections. That’s because, while these issues have been resolved for buildings in other parts of the world, the U.S. requires domestic testing if building codes are to change.

Washington State University is one participant in a multi-institutional program with the National Science Foundation and the Network of Earthquake Engineering Simulation that is testing how mass timber systems like CLT fare in earthquakes. Hans-Erik Blomgren, a structural engineer in the Seattle offices of the international engineering firm Arup who is a participant in the research program, believes engineers can solve this puzzle. “There’s no technical reason we shouldn’t be designing a building with this material,” he says.

U.S. fire codes have also long prevented the use of combustible materials such as wood in mid- and high-rise buildings, but engineers say code changes to allow for the use of CLT are also achievable. To understand how resistant to fire large pieces of wood can be, proponents suggest thinking of how hard it is to start a bonfire with really big pieces of wood. Not only are such pieces hard to light, but they burn slowly.

In theory, developers could propose larger CLT buildings before codes are changed, but they would have to invest time, money and coordination to get this new building type through Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections, with no guarantee that their designs would be approved. “It takes a very special project and specific client and certainly a very ambitious design team to take it on,” says Mayo.

Unless that client steps forward, builders will be waiting for the International Code Council (ICC) to work through the fire and earthquake issues and develop the necessary code changes before mid-rise and higher CLT buildings spring up in the city. 

“We know there’s been a lot of interest in this construction type,” says Stevens, “so we’re trying to be responsive to the demand without giving up safety.”

As with so many innovations, another problem for developers is that material costs for CLT can be high because there are so few North American CLT manufacturers. Developers wait for the price to go down, but manufacturers need more demand for a product. To alleviate this problem, some businesses and legislators are working to help bring CLT mills to Washington state. An Oregon lumber company, D.R. Johnson Lumber, in Riddle, Oregon, recently became the first certified manufacturer of CLT for construction material in the U.S.

Clt was developed in the 1990s by researchers in Austria and Germany who were looking for a use for pieces of surplus wood. The material is created by layering smaller pieces of wood together into a kind of sandwich that offers the strength and insulation found in the massive timbers of the past, and that can be used for the walls, floors, roof beams and posts that make up a building. 

One of the most touted aspects of this material is its role in fighting carbon emissions. Trees absorb carbon and use energy from the sun to grow, which makes them a lower carbon choice than concrete or steel, which not only don’t absorb carbon, but require much more carbon-emitting energy to manufacture. Trees are also a renewable resource, as long as they are harvested from a sustainably managed forest. And CLT can be made from otherwise underused or damaged woods, such as the vast forests of domestic pine that have been killed by mountain pine beetles.

Another selling point, particularly in urban areas, is that CLT panels are prefabricated—bring them to the building site, and your building goes up quickly, with less noise, pollution and traffic delays than with other materials. The eight CLT stories of London’s nine-story Murray Grove apartment building went up in nine weeks.

But building with CLT is not all about practical considerations, says Susan Jones, who owns the Seattle architecture firm Atelierjones and designed her family’s home as the first (and so far only) CLT home in Seattle’s Madison Valley in 2015. The material itself—in the case of her house, CLT primarily from white pine and left unpainted—is a sensual pleasure, from the quality and patina of the wood to the subtle pine smell in the house.

“It’s been incredibly satisfying to live with it,” Jones says. “That’s what architects are asked to do—we create beautiful spaces for people. What’s better than to immerse yourself into this incredibly rich natural environment of wood?”

Here in Washington, there’s enough raw material to immerse us all in that environment. But only a handful of projects in the state have used the material so far—for example, in Jones’ CLT house, in the walls of the Bellevue First Congregational Church sanctuary designed by Atelierjones and on a building project at Washington State University in Pullman. In Oregon, Joe Mayo recently worked on the design for what is to be the first use of U.S.-made CLT on a two-story building project, using panels manufactured by Oregon’s D.R. Johnson.

There are a few other regional CLT building projects in the design process now. In June, Washington state granted design-build contracts to several architects, including Susan Jones of Atelierjones and Joe Mayo of Mahlum, for 900-square-foot classrooms at several elementary schools in western Washington, to be constructed by the end of 2017. 

Another building, Framework, a 12-story building with retail, offices, and housing in Portland, Oregon, is currently in the design process, after a team, which includes Blomgren as its fire and earthquake CLT engineering specialist, won a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tall wood building competition created to encourage innovation with the material. Winners for 2015, including the Portland team and a team in New York City, each received $1.5 million for the research and development phase of creating buildings using CLT and other engineered wood materials.

At the University of Washington, associate professor of architecture Kate Simonen is leading another USDA-funded study to determine the relative environmental impact of using mass timber in commercial office buildings in Seattle, which follows on other studies indicating that this kind of building will have a lower carbon footprint than other building materials. 

While she’s cautious about reaching premature conclusions in her study, Simonen thinks it might not be a bad idea to start working now to get the structures built in our region. 

“We don’t have all the answers now, but in order to get those answers we need to help lead innovation,” she says. “It makes sense to take some risks in our region to advance a building material that supports our region.”