Saturday, March 27, 2010

New and Good in Seattle

SEATTLE - The Emerald City, as locals and travelers alike call this caffeinated city tucked away in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, has rolled out some new attractions in the last year or so, making it even more attractive and easy to move about than it was the last time I was here.

I am a fan of public transport, when it works. Which is why I am favorably impressed with Sound Transit Link Light Rail, the new (since January) electrified train service that joins downtown Seattle to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA-TAC). The service runs three- or four-car trains, which come equipped with elevated and floor-level seats, several times an hour at peak travel times. The ride - smooth, quiet, clean, safe, cheap - costs $2.50 one-way from downtown stations such as University Street, where I caught the train to catch my flight out of town. Seniors 65 and up pay half price: $1.25. The train winds its way through suburbs and satellite towns, taking about 35 minutes between the airport and downtown.

On arrival at Airport Station, you must hoof it to the terminal along a covered walkway that skirts a parking garage; that takes from 5 to 8 minutes, depending on your speed. No biggie for me, but families with small children, disabled persons or people with more luggage than I take - I make it a point to carry it all on the plane - could find the walk more problematic.

Another nice new thing: The Belltown outpost of the Seattle Art Museum (closed, alas, at its main downtown location on the two days I visited Seattle this week). A concrete and glass structure on a hilltop, flanked by big - and I mean big - public sculptures, it is paired with the Olympic Sculpture Park, which is about a year old. Also on the museum grounds: A terraced hillside (the Bill and Melinda Gates Ampitheatre, if you please) graced with places to sit and relax out of doors. All told, the museum and the sculpture park are fine additions to the tres-trendy Belltown district, an attitude-driven redoubt of hipster cafes, bars and lounges, and hotels like the Ace, a boutique property I stayed at on a previous visit. This time, I stayed downtown at the likeable and busy Hotel Monaco (which I will write about in a separate post).

The biggest, most ambitious and eye-catching addition to downtown Seattle - and another feature that has sprouted since my last visit - is the main Seattle Public Library, desigtned by the Dutch-born starcitect Rem Koolhaas. It is an impressively angular glass and struts building (also on a hillside, as downtown is rather hilly in general), 11 stories high, with views of the city from the top-floor Seattle Room, lots of free PCs, a coffee bar (this is, after all, Seattle) and, of course, many, many shelves of books. Maybe one in four people when I popped in on a bright but chilly March morning were down-and-outers taking refuge from life on the streets.

That's one thing about the Puget Sound metropolis that hasn't changed: Seattle is rivaled perhaps only by San Francisco among major U.S. cities for the size of its street population, which spills out of Pioneer Square, home to beautifully restored vintage redbrick and stone buildings, into all parts of downtown. Unlike in San Francisco, where sidewalk bellicosity long ago calcified into a way of life, the street population in Seattle seems relatively calm and not especially inclined to confront the larger community. Maybe it's because they're in Seattle, which seems busy but calm in general.

In any case, Seattle has once again shown itself to be a good town. And with its recent tweaking, it just got better.

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