Taxes on Development


Charles Royer has a thoughtful essay on the future of Pioneer Square, which is worth reading. It contains this aside about obstacles to development:

But there’s a catch called Incentive Zoning. To get 60 percent of the increased height, the developer has to include within the project a certain number of housing units that are affordable to a person making 80 percent of area median income. And to get the remaining 40 percent of the increased height the developer has to contribute to open space, green streets, or other specific amenities.

Many developers say these requirements, on top of the additional difficulties of building in Pioneer Square, probably mean no market-rate housing will be built.

Of course, developers would say that about what amounts to a tax on their business. There’s a certain logic to using developers to achieve some other public goods in the built environment. Finding the right balance between achieving those goods and maintaining incentives to build is a genuinely difficult problem, especially because there are few honest brokers to assess the impacts of each regulation.

On the other hand, infill development is very much in the public interest. It’s crazy to place a tax on something desirable while so many undesirable things (carbon emissions, congestion) go untaxed. It would be far more efficient to actually fund the other public objectives through a different revenue source. Tax increment financing, although it has its drawbacks, will potentially be enabled by a bill in Olympia and would be superior to simply taxing development.

That’s not to say that the City should immediately repeal the requirements*, because the alternate revenue sources don’t yet exist. But in the long term, it would be a healthy thing for the city.

* Although one could argue that supply of affordable housing is not an issue in Pioneer Square.


  1. joshuadf says

    The explanation I’ve heard from people at the city about Incentive Zoning is that Seattle (and Washington State) lack the legal tools that are used in other places including Vancouver BC to require certain designs or pricing on some units. So they know it’s not perfect but it’s all they’ve got.

    Also I’ll point out that 80% AMI affordable housing often falls into the “workforce” category and is a completely different market than, for example, 0-20% AMI housing for the formerly homeless. The many somewhat older buildings on Capitol Hill, Lower Queen Anne, etc are often referred to as workforce housing.

  2. Andrew Smith says

    I am curious what the difficulties are for the developer in adding the greenspace, cheaper housing, etc. vis-a-vis just having the developer pay into a pool of cash that the city could spend. It may be that adding those features is a trivial amount of work and barely raises the ultimate cost, but I severely doubt it.

    I may have scared off that MHays guy last time, but this is a debate he could add a lot to.

    • matt hays says

      A developer would know way more than I do as a contractor, but I can speak in generalities.

      The first fallacy is that added height or square footage is an automatic “win” for the developer. Building taller means more development cost not just overall, but typically on a square foot basis as well. Going taller (particularly if also skinnier) means a larger percentage of the entire building being devoted to structure, elevators, stairs, mechanical/electrical, exterior skin, etc. Also, larger buildings generally mean larger garages. On small sites, larger garages can involve expensive design issues, such as the cost of going below the water table, larger columns, and the percentage of space devoted to ramps and circulation. All of that is fine if rents will justify the higher costs. It’s purely a crapshoot by the developer and their partners, i.e. risk that goes along with potential profit. When the city adds a multimillion dollar bonus fee on top of that, a lot of projects that might have be good bets otherwise will no longer be.

      A bonus system that is based on a payment for offsite amenities is far easier than putting public amenities into the building, as I’ll get into below.

      Even then, I’d hope that the bonus is easy to understand and quick to get approved. If not, the paperwork, design fees, land carrying costs, and general uncertainty can mean several percentage points are added to the overall project cost, and most of that money needs to be spent even if the project never gets built. The size of the investment and the uncertainty of succeeding mean that nobody will go through the process unless they’re very confident, or don’t understand what they’re getting into.

      Putting amenities or subsidized units into the building can be very difficult. If it’s open space, that means you have less space for the building, which typically means the building is less efficient than you’d design it otherwise. Putting affordable housing into the building, while ok for most of us, in addition to substantially raising the cost of the other units, takes away the perceived exclusivity/safety idea that many buyers are buying (even if we don’t personally think that way, and voters wouldn’t care, it’s a big if unspoken factor in the viability of higher end buildings). Other uses, such as indoor public spaces (not seeing that referenced, thankfully) and retail (if required where not otherwise merited), would ratchet up the problem, because every residential building and many offices have a “secure perimeter”, and you’d have to establish your perimeter separately from the public space. An indoor public space can mean redundant stairs, elevators, entry, etc. (The same perimeter and redundancy issue is one reason why mixed-use is difficult.)

      Fees for units at 80% affordabile units require the market rate units to be way above 80%. Let’s say development costs would otherwise call for rents affordable to 110% incomes to make a project pencil out (new construction being expensive, and adding the risk/profit potential developers need before they build anything). If 20% of the units are at the 80% level, you’re making the market rate residents pay another 5% in rent, above what their units would otherwise cost. (At least the developer would base their intended pricing on that assumption, then see what the market would bear.)

      You might be able to reduce the price to build those affordable units a bit. But all you can affect is the quality of interior finishes, casework, appliances, and systems, which are a fraction of the overall cost. This is countered somewhat by the added complexity of building at a different quality level, with different suppliers and possibly different subcontractors, without the benefit of economies of scale.

      Fundamentally I agree with Martin that we should tax stuff we don’t like, and tax stuff we do like less. While infill housing can involve costs, it should SAVE huge costs, in transportation for example. Affordable housing and parks are important, but we should all pay for them, rather than expecting new people to subsidize the rest of us.

      • d.p. says

        +1, especially to the way you address the need for “offsiting” agreements and the danger of Seattle’s “open space” conniption fits.

        Open space = no density. The Seattle habit of associating the former with any form of public accommodation invariably leads to the destruction of the latter. More unused space is less used space; the two are irreconcilable.

        Development agreements that waive or bend zoning requirements in exchange for offsite accommodations — low-income housing elsewhere, a park or public amenity somewhere that makes sense — may seem NIMBY-ish and ethically liquid at first, but they have a proven track record elsewhere. They need to be introduced into Seattle’s smart-growth conversation.

        (That said, Andrew and Johnny and Martin below are all correct that mid-rise cities often achieve higher density than high-rises as long as the mid-rises have a great deal of active street frontage — i.e. not the mid-rise stuff Seattle’s built lately. See: Boston, large swaths of Manhattan between the more iconic high-rise areas, the majority of Paris, London, etc.)

      • matt hays says

        d.p. I agree that active frontages are important, but they do best when they’re concentrated. London does it well with retail “high streets” surrounded by quieter back streets that often have townhouses or midrises. New York’s avenues do well because they’re every 950 feet, vs. Seattle’s 310 feet if I recall. Seattle does it best on Capitol Hill and in the U District, where a few major retail streets are surrounded by streets that have little or no retail. My own neigborhood of Belltown does it poorly….with retail along all avenues, no single place has a critical mass. (Nightlife has different rules…it can do well when dotted around, while other types of retail succeed by being cheek-by-jowl.)

      • Andrew Smith says

        My own neigborhood of Belltown does it poorly….with retail along all avenues, no single place has a critical mass. (Nightlife has different rules…it can do well when dotted around, while other types of retail succeed by being cheek-by-jowl.)

        I’ve never understood the obsession with requiring retail on every street, why not just allow it and let it happen if it should?

      • d.p. says


        I didn’t mean for the term “active street frontage” to imply full retail penetration. All I meant was the the buildings need to face the street, approach the lot-line, engage the urban environment rather than hiding from it — whether or not retail is present. This is true of pretty much any pre-1920 urban space you could name, including your Manhattan side streets, Martin’s tight Paris alleyways, most of downtown Portland, and the unsullied parts of Pioneer Square.

        The standard 6-story Seattle mid-rise of the last decade, by contrast, faces inwards, “sets back” disdainfully, offers one or more hostile blank walls (or worse, high-power air vent:,+Seattle,+WA&aq=0&sll=47.670922,-122.386408&sspn=0.002442,0.004136&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Fremont,+Seattle,+King,+Washington&ll=47.649628,-122.350121&spn=0.001214,0.002068&t=h&z=19&layer=c&cbll=47.649628,-122.350121&panoid=BBS8SRLwoLoWi2ofmIPp_w&cbp=12,22.71,,2,8.91 ), and tends to contain retail space of poor dimensions that require counterintuitive entry through a foyer.

      • Mike Orr says

        “I’ve never understood the obsession with requiring retail on every street, why not just allow it and let it happen if it should?”

        Because there’s a fear developers would continue building residential-only buildings out of inertia, as the previous zoning required.

        There has been some concern that some blocks just aren’t viable for retail due to lack of pedestrian traffic, and no business has lasted more than a year in those places. So perhaps it should be lifted in a few areas, but overall it’s important to bring pedestrians into the area, which will then make frequent transit there more viable, which will then enable more people to make those trips without a car.

        I do think that in the blocks where mixed-use hasn’t succeeded, the problem isn’t the mixed-use buildings, it’s the fact that the city still hasn’t made the neighborhood vibrant enough or safe enough to attract pedestrians.

      • Andrew Smith says

    • Andrew Smith says

      Thanks mhays,
      That’s really good information. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes in a lot of ways. If you build new buildings, you can capture new tax revenues from new residents, new businesses and more valuable property. Why not put some of that toward your green space, low income, or whatever?

      It seems actually self-defeating to tax an otherwise revenue-creating activity.

      • Bernie says

        That’s true and it’s certainly helps Bellevue. But, there are significant up front development costs and demands on city services too. Transportation, be it roads, transit, helipads (OK, the city’s not on the hook for the helipad ;-) require capital outlay and maintenance. If you bring in families then you need more schools. Then there’s fire and life safety. Tax rates are typically set just to maintain these services; not build entirely new infrastructure. I certainly agree that it makes a lot of sense to be able to contribute to a fund that provides mitigation in the form of affordable housing, parks, etc. independent of the actual project. In Bel-Red for example I’d much rather see developer impact fees go toward daylighting Geoff Creek and the West Trib. than new concrete and sod open space.

  3. Bruce says

    I’m I the only one puzzled by the commenter who was complaining about the lack of busses in Pioneer Square?

    • says

      South of Yesler, most of the buses on 2nd, 3rd, and 4th collapse onto 4th, which is on the wrong side of the tracks from most of Pioneer Square. That leaves just 1st Ave buses, most if not all of which just moved to 3rd, and which even before that paled to 3rd. In addition, there is NO east-west bus service west of 3rd, meaning no bus connection even to the ID. And then there’s the traffic on 1st, especially for Mariners and Seahawks games, which can screw up bus frequency.

      • Bernie says

        Part of the problem is Pioneer Square is a triangle := Seriously, because it borders one of the “kinks” in the city grid pattern(s) service continuity south of Yesler is difficult. It’s the same problem north of Olive but the geographical squeeze is not as severe.

      • says

        A lot of city maps will claim that the northern border of Pioneer Square is just north of Yesler, following a zig-zag pattern keeping the border ablout a block north of Yesler. Personally, I think of the Square as more of a trapezoid with a kink in it near King Street Station. It is true, though, that the block between Columbia and Cherry is very different near 1st than it is near 5th.

      • Bernie says

        I was referring to the actual Pioneer Square, not the neighborhood. What ever shape you pick the neighborhood is still a mess because of the change in the grid and the squeeze between the water and the hill. What is the large dock/warehouse facility directly to west? (oh, spell check suggested whorehouse as an alternative to my initial misspelling of warehouse. That would really spur change too!) It seems opening up the waterfront to commercial development is what would really spur a change.

  4. MarkSJohnson says

    The hard thing to deal with in any sort of rezone is the fact that all of the economic arguments are based on the very near term, while the zoning is likely to remain in place for decades. Developers understandably want zoning to stimulate immediate profitability. Consider that in Belltown it to 10 years after rezoning in the late 1980s for the speculative prices for land to drop enough (relative to housing prices) to make housing projects pencil, then housing development took off. That was considered a downzone.

    Zoning is probably too blunt to try to hit an exact price point in the near term for more than one property at a time. There are some circumstances where rezoning is desirable enough in itself that there should not be added “taxes” to use your word, but we also need to recognize that unless we build that afordable housing, and provide the essential components of livability in the public realm, we will not have sustainable, complete communities. I suspect that the economics of upzoning Pioneer Square will produce a few near-term winners, and few that will have to wait before there is enough upside to take the risk.

  5. Stephen says

    Why not just have no height limits at all. This is a city, we should welcome the density of high-rises. If you are afraid of tall buildings, move to Issaquah, otherwise we should be encouraging dense, tall buildings. In fact, I say put height minimums, say like 30 stories or something.

    • Bruce says

      In some places height restrictions make sense, such as in historic areas (like Pioneer Square) where the existing sense of scale is part of the appeal. In places like Belltown that’s not a factor and yes, people should build to whatever height they want. Of course, like the piece suggests, you need to make sure you don’t strangle the neighborhood with too many restrictions.

      • dj says

        and you are starting to get into the flight path of boeing field if you go too high around sodo and pioneer square

      • Mike Orr says

        The FAA has a height limit for that and it’s the height of Columbia Center. So that’s the maximum if Seattle were to repeal its limits.

      • says

        Planes have to ascend to that height. Some height limits make sense in the south end of Sodo and in Georgetown.

        (And I think the Columbia Center is not only one of the tallest buildings in the city, but one of the tallest buildings in America west of the Mississippi. It’s not a particularly active limit.)

      • Bernie says

        Columbia Center is also very much in risk of going into default. Interesting history (disclaimer, I hate SeaFirst and all it’s reincarnations) given that the box that the space needle came in (Seattle’s ugliest building?) was in 1969 the largest building in Seattle and the “tallest west of the Mississippi.” A title claimred for ages by the Smith Tower which is actually iconic and (unlike the awful tower) a beautiful piece of architecture. Interesting to me also is that the Columbia Center is actually not what I’d consider DT. Certainly not when it was built.

    • Andrew Smith says

      Don’t confuse height and density. A high-rise building with a floor-area-ratio (FAR) of six is less dense than a seven-story mid-rise built out to the lot-line.

      For any given FAR-number, high-rise development means a taller building with more windows, a better view, and higher prices, but it doesn’t mean more density.

      • matt hays says

        True, except that a 7 story midrise will often have an FAR in I’d guess the 4 range. Midrises usually have setbacks and odd shaped plans, with the main reason being that most space needs to be within 30′ or so of the hallway, or maybe 40′ for large shoebox type units.

    • Mike Orr says

      I’d like to see ten, twenty, or thirty story buildings on Capitol Hill, the U-district and other urban villages. That’s the way to get your urban density and provide enough housing for everybody who wants to live in a walkable transit-oriented neighborhood. But so many people have conniptions with even six story buildings that I doubt it’ll ever happen. (By the way, Bellevue Ave has lots of six-story apartment buildings and they’re not harming anybody.)

      As for buildings taller than 40 stories, there’s an argument that they’re just not cost-effective or necessary. Above that you need so much space for elevators you’re not gaining much. And if the vacancy rate goes down to zero, one 40-story building can swallow up demand for a few years.

      So the ideal level downtown seems to be 30-40 stories, and in the urban villages 6 (maybe 10 someday).

      • says

        I could deal with 30 storeys there, but much beyond it would be a bit much. Although, I’d like to see a mock-up profile of views FROM the waterfront through Downtown to Capitol to see the full profile. As long as the buildings aren’t peaking much beyond the tallest towers in the city, it could be alright.

      • Mike Orr says

        That’s a pretty good article except that when he says “skyscraper” and “Manhattan”, it sounds like he’s advocating 100-story buildings when he’s actually advocating 40-story buildings, as he says in a small paragraph in the middle.

    • says

      Well, planning-wise, it’s a basic principle that you have to have certainty. Height places certainty on what can built. If you open the floor up to anything, you’ll probably get nothing when it comes to height. Developers aren’t going to come in with a planning application for a 500 foot building in Green Lake just because there isn’t a height limit. They’re worried about getting approval, challenges from citizens, and any other numerous concerns that might affect their development. Moreover, height builds in a finite value on the property. Finally, the FAA also requires height restrictions within its designated flight paths. Just an FYI, Kent has no height limit in its Downtown Core and the tallest building is 4 storeys. Everyone is deathly afraid of not getting approval.

    • cjh says

      I agree that we need to encourage density but setting minimums is crazy (especially 30 stories) – you’d need to be insanely well-capitalized to build anything at all.

      So, not much would end up getting built in Seattle. Ever.

      Though, I guess it’d have some positive benefits for midrise construction in the suburbs.

      • says

        Setting minimums makes sense for smaller buildings. That’s Form-Based Codes 101, but, you’re right in terms of mid- to high-rise buildings, probably. Not area of speciality, exactly. So I can’t say for certain.

  6. johnny says

    You have to have height restrictions around LQA. Otherwise the space needle would disappear amongst a bunch of towers. Why do you think Paris doesn’t have any skyscrapers. (minus that one, I forget the name of it) They have plenty of density without super tall buildings. I’m not against skyscrapers, but you do have to have restrictions.

      • Bernie says

        Oops, no preview. 2nd link to the picture is “Eiffel Tower”. There’s a phantom link between that and the end of the first sentance.

      • johnny says

        I’ve been to Paris, and there are no tall buildings within the surrounding area. Thats what I’m saying about Queen Anne. Keep height restrictions around the needle.

      • cjh says

        But Paris has had a series of height limits so as not to obscure the Eiffel Tower (and Notre Dame). The recently lifted height limit was 37 meters and you see that cluster of buildings around 100 m – sign of a previous height limit.

        Of course, a 37 meter height limit outside of the core neighborhoods in Seattle would be amazing and probably unleash a lot of pent up demand. It’s pretty apparent that the city still has a housing shortage vs. the rest of the metro area.

        Of course, the city would have to balance that by setting aside or allocating additional truly open public space in most of the SF neighborhoods. I think for certain people (cough, d.p., cough), “open space” is a NIMBY shibboleth but Paris, Boston, etc. have a wealth of public parks within walking distance of each other. Hell, it’s be hard to find a place in Manhattan more than a dozen blocks from some park.

        The idea must not be “towers in the park” but “parks in the towers.”

      • Andrew Smith says

        From Bernie’s wikipedia link:

        There are 14 skyscrapers that reach a roof height of at least 150 meters (492 feet).

        That proves there are very very few skyscrapers even in large European cities. Seattle (a tiny city compared to Paris) has 15 such buildings.

        Miami (still small compared to Paris) has 32.

        Chicago (getting closer) has 110, and New York has 223. The world leader, Hong Kong has 279. Compared to that 14 is nothing.

      • Bernie says

        It’s true. In part I’d guess because most European cities are full of buildings that are centuries old. When relatives come over to vist from England they are amused by what we consider “historic”. Building “skyscrapers” has as much to do with soaring egos as urban planning. Is there really a land use rational for the tallest building in the world to be in Dubai?

      • d.p. says

        [cough, cjf, cough] ;-)

        Boston / New York / Paris have high proportions of parks-per-square-mile not in spite of their density but precisely because of it. When your city has a relatively low total square mileage, a reasonable allotment of parkland works out to be a pretty high percentage of the total land area.

        If your city [cough, Seattle, cough] is twice as large / half as dense, a similar percentage of parkland would be an obscene amount.

        Especially considering that everyone has more than enough room already. Dense cities actually have a greater need for their open communal space because there is less cultural emphasis on large amounts of personal space. Parks not only exist in relatively high proportion to land area, they’re also used at a much higher rate.

        It doesn’t hurt that dense residential areas make parks easier to walk to. (Really, what’s sillier than driving to an urban park?)

        Not long ago, someone made a deeply flawed “open space” argument on Slog. They included some fascinating links that they then wildly misinterpreted. One link, much to my surprise, revealed that we already spend more money per capita on parks than any other city. Another link proved that super-dense cities have the highest percentage of parkland (for the reasons above). The last link showed per-capita parkland, and showed the exact opposite: the top 5 cities were all zero-density hellholes like Jacksonville, FL. When your city encompasses 900 square miles, even a small percentage of land will rank highly per-capita. How many residents do you think actually use their superfluous parkland? How many would even find it safe at night?

        My point? Medium-density Seattle has neither the most parkland by area nor by population, nor should we. We already have a lot, as evidenced by our high expenditures. And they’re already scattered about and easy to reach. What we lack is a lot of full-fledged, thriving, unbroken, multi-use, critical-mass, honest-to-goodness urbanity. And the last thing we need is to water down our attempts to create that with some misguided notion that open space is in short supply.

      • Mike Orr says

        Paris and London are unusual in that their highrise district is not downtown. That’s not appropriate for American cities where the tallest buildings are expected to be in the center, as Seattle is.

      • Mike Orr says

        Well, “downtown” to me means city center. The striking thing about London (which I’ve been to) and Paris (which I haven’t), is that what looks to Americans like the center isn’t, which gives an odd feel (“you mean the center is in some obscure corner?”).

        Actually, London doesn’t really have a center the way Seattle has Pike Place Market and Westlake Park, San Francisco has Market Street, Chicago has the Loop. The closest equivalent to a center in London would seem to be Charing Cross, the City, Trafalgar Square or such, but none of them is obviously “it”. But not the Docklands where the skyscrapers are.

      • cjh says

        I’ve been trying to post this in response to d.p.’s strawman for a bit but I guess the admins don’t give a crap about shaking lost posts out of the tubes.

        Anyhow, the density of parks per square mile in those cities may be correlated with density but it is caused by public policy. There are plenty of cities more dense than Seattle that have lower ratios of parks per square mile. They tend to have people who don’t value parks and open space holding the levers of power.

        It would be worthwhile to reacquaint yourself with a history of Haussmann’s Renovation, at the very least.

      • d.p. says

        I really don’t understand the point you’re trying to make about Haussmann.

        Haussmann created large, elaborate parks around the periphery of the city for day-trip escapes from the urban environment.

        But in his urban restructuring, he was all about order, regularity, and unbroken street frontage. Find me an example of a single Haussmann boulevard that threw pocket parks or “open space” setbacks at every third building the way people are wont to demand in Seattle!

      • d.p. says

        Also, what part of my last response was a “straw man?” You pulled out the well-worn canards about Seattle not having enough “open space” within our attemped urban zones and our parks being distant and hard to reach.

        Wrong and wrong, by any objective measure.

      • cjh says

        It was a strawman because you associated my position with someone else’s position. You know, you’re not arguing with me but what you think I mean (or, rather, with what you think a bunch of other people think).

        The Haussmann’s Renovation line should have clued in your keen mind (lol) that I am not talking about quarter block bits of silliness (nor even things about the scale of Occidental Park). I am talking about a) accessible and large parks at the periphery and b) urban parks of several acres in dense areas. Haussmann preserved existing park areas and made them public while building up his street fronts (see Parc Monceau). Also, the Renovation led to an increase in density in the peripheral arr. of Paris and a decrease in the central arr. This was a consequence of limiting the loss of open space in combination with creating boulevards and eliminating the truly tiny medieval streets.

        As well, the things that have made an area like Manhattan so livable isn’t parks per person (Where did I talk about that? Please see the previous strawman!) but parks per square mile/kilometer/acre AND parks distributed like high capacity transit nodes – at the edge of walking distance of each other (basically).

        Seattle has suffered from a lack of vision on this issue. The drive for open space isn’t a problem (which you seem to think it is) but the implementation is silly. Asking the developers to incorporate them into their lots rather than having them pay into an acquisitions fund or similar is the problem. Thus, we are left with the densest areas of the city having really crappy allocations of parkland.

        I am not a policy wonk (nor really even a fake one) so I cannot be more specific than that.

      • d.p. says

        > Seattle has suffered from a lack of vision on this issue.

        Absolutely correct.

        > Asking the developers to incorporate [open space] into their lots rather than having them pay into an acquisitions fund or similar is the problem.

        Equally correct. I clearly did respond to perceived arguments rather than your precise ones, though I didn’t do so maliciously. Sorry. But the term “straw man” implies refuting unrelated by superficially similar propositions, doesn’t it? Much of what I said above applies directly to this:

        > The drive for open space isn’t a problem…

        This is where you start to put the cart before the horse. A city that lacks any other sort or critical-usage density lacks the ability to support that drive. Open space is abandoned space up until the point that it abuts and feeds off of the neighboring uses. A premature drive for open space — especially when elevated to an obsession as it is in Seattle — is a problem no matter how the open space is allocated.

        > The [Haussmann] Renovation led to an increase in density in the peripheral arr. of Paris and a decrease in the central arr. This was a consequence of limiting the loss of open space in combination with creating boulevards and eliminating the truly tiny medieval streets.

        Really, it was about the latter. Wider streets, larger buildings with larger apartments. Gentrification.

        But post-Haussmann central Paris is still far denser than most any other Western city you can imagine, including most of Manhattan. And it doesn’t have nearly as much open space as you seem to suspect, which is why the open space that exists is so lively and so cherished.

        > The things that have made an area like Manhattan so livable isn’t parks per person but parks per square mile/kilometer/acre…

        But recall that the list of parks by highest percentage-land-area correlated directly to the highest-density cities:
        lower total land mass means
        + similar size/number of parks
        = many more parks/sq mile (and higher percentage of total area)

        Seattle simply isn’t experiencing a dearth of parks right now! Within 1.5 miles of downtown, there’s Cal Anderson, José Rizal, the Sculpture Park, sketchy Denny Park, Seattle Center, and ridiculous pocket parks like the always-empty Counterbalance Park. There are plenty of parts of Manhattan more than 1.5 miles from a park. The difference is that 1.5 miles in Seattle feels further. Our urban space is improperly stitched together; it lacks continuity. We don’t need more parks. We need to fill in nothingness between the present ones.

      • cjh says

        This is not putting the cart before the horse. If you do not identify areas you want to be open space before you engage in changes to the cityscape, you will not end up with open space worth a damn. You don’t build density first and then look for parkland, because by that point land values will be impossibly high. You run into this at even LA densities, let alone Boston, Chicago, Manhattan and Paris densities. You adopt a plan that sets aside parkland concurrently with density/reconstruction.

        As well, there are no parts of Manhattan that are more than 1.5 miles from a park of at least 1/2 block in size (i.e. Occidental Park scale) and precious few further than that from a park of at least one block.

      • d.p. says

        Manhattan has very little of this:,+wa&aq=&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=46.495626,67.763672&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Seattle,+King,+Washington&ll=47.60336,-122.331305&spn=0.001223,0.002068&t=h&z=19

        …and essentially none of this:,+wa&aq=&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=46.495626,67.763672&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Seattle,+King,+Washington&ll=47.600549,-122.327708&spn=0.001223,0.002068&t=h&z=19

        When demand justifies, denser cities have seen public surface parking lots replaced with multi-level underground parking and triumphantly capped with a public park.,_Boston,_Massachusetts comes to mind, though it’s even more common practice in Europe.

        The sad fact is that, in low-demand parts of downtown Seattle from the Denny Regrade to the I.D., surface parking lots continue to be a more profitable use of space than a building would be, but not profitable enough to justify multiple levels. Thus our continued glut of accidental open space — unplanned but very plentiful.

        Your “open space” cart is indeed far ahead of the “urgent need” horse.

      • Andrew Smith says

      • cjh says

        Good grief, parking lots are not considered open space even in Seattle’s weird code nor by any sane person. Also, that hole in the ground used to be a bunch of 8-12 story buildings that were demolished to build a tower whose financing has continually fallen through. I’m not really sure whose argument that supports (no one’s, I guess?).

      • d.p. says

        [rolls eyes, slaps forehead]

        No, parking lots are not desirable open space, nor are they planned open space.

        They are, however, space that is open. Nothing built to the street, nothing claustrophobic, nothing blocking the sun. The chief (misguided) complaints of the density-phobes hold no water as long as surface parking abounds.

        The unbuilt holes in the ground, of which there are many here (and none there), prove how far we are from the critical saturation-density that underlies your entire argument.

        Andrew, your 30th/Broadway link didn’t come through, but please note that the lot there is, in fact, multi-level. It’s not any kind of good multi-level, but it demonstrates the high demand that could in the not-too-distant future justify building a permanent multi-level and ideally below-grade structure.

        Similarly, the far-west Hell’s Kitchen single-level lot that you point to is the exceedingly rare exception that proves the rule. And it operates at peak demand pretty much at all times. A far cry from Seattle’s many surface lots that are, in the literal sense, “open space” most of the time.

      • d.p. says

        Also, CJH, if you’re now arguing that “there are no parts of Manhattan that are more than 1.5 miles from a park of at least 1/2 block in size (i.e. Occidental Park scale)…”

        …then you need to start counting the park behind Pioneer Sq Station (which is full of bums) and the new plaza next to the Westlake streetcar (which is full of nobody, ever).

        In which case you’d be hard-pressed to consider any part of central Seattle more than 1/2 mile from a park.

        Just face it: Seattle’s parks are poorly knitted into our urban fabric not because they’re inadequate in quality or quantity. They’ve poorly knitted into the urban facric because the urban fabric itself is poorly knitted. And you suggest more holes.

      • cjh says

        What are you on about?

        I am PRECISELY saying that you plan for open space as you plan/zone for density, you don’t plan/zone for density first then build open space. I have been saying that from the beginning. They are concomitant processes (I think I already used that term). You have some sort of burr in your saddle about the term open space and at the same time can’t help tilting at windmills. We disagree but you are pretending my position is the one that does not match history. Since the birth of the modern city (the Philadelphia and New York Commissioners’ plans, at least), parks and open space have been intentionally set aside at the same time as new areas have been platted for cities.

        As for Manhattan, I was merely being conservative in my response. I don’t have time to pore over a map of Manhattan (nor available GIS software) but looking again, there is no place further than 0.5 miles from a multi-acre park. There are places on First Hill that ARE at least that far. There are places in Pioneer Square that ARE at least that far.

      • d.p. says

        > I am PRECISELY saying that you plan for open space as you plan/zone for density… I have been saying that from the beginning.

        And I am PRECISELY saying that your reasoning is flawed. Which it has been, from the beginning.

        You keep comparing the (piecemeal) upzoning of Seattle to whole-cloth city-building (Manhattan above 30th) or massive urban renewal (Haussmann’s Paris) — both examples involve building on a massive scale, over a very short time frame, and with very high density as a bedrock principle.

        In Seattle, you’re dealing with a city that:

        1. Was never particularly dense, even in the pre-automobile era (look at an aerial image of Pioneer Square and notice how high the street-to-lot-area ratio is compared to denser cities).

        2. Has only gotten less dense since the 1940s.

        3. Is entrusting market forces to very slowly fill in the gaps in the urban fabric.

        4. Will never, ever, ever, ever, ever in a million years be as dense as your attempted analogues.

        So to any extent that “concomitant” reservation of open space (commensurate with a density and a level of population that is never going to happen here) happens, it is ill-thought and counterproductive!

    • Martin H. Duke says

      I’d gladly take the typical side street width in central Paris (one narrow lane), with development right up to the sidewalk, in exchange for central Paris height restrictions.

    • cjh says

      And to make certain I’m fair, Paris, as Bernie indicates, does have many, many skyscrapers. How did you miss the Tour Montparnasse? It sticks out like a necrotic thumb!

      But the vast majority are 30-odd stories and there are more 200 m towers in Seattle than in Paris.

    • barman says

      I have a friend working on the redevelopment of Paris’ 13th arrondissement. There will be many skyscrapers in that neighbourhood, comparable only to La Defense. Already there are the Tours Olympiades, a series of skyscrapers making up an old housing project in that same neighbourhood that are expected to be renovated. After that, there are many taller buildings around Gare du Nord and down towards Boulogne.

      That said, some of Paris’ most dense neighbourhoods don’t have what we would consider ‘skyscrapers’. But they also have tiny apartments that most people in the United States would not consider acceptable. When I first moved here, I looked at a very cheap apartment in the ID that was similar in size to an apartment I had in Paris. At the time I would have been fine with it – it is what I was used to. Looking back I’m glad I chose something else because I’ve become spoiled.

  7. says

    As a planner, the incentive zoning tools are always a difficult battle. What should be the planning gain, what should be the regulations for triggering the incentive zoning, and how can they be economically effective? It’s interesting here in Ireland though that the Planning and Development Act actually requires all zoned land that councils have designated to take a minimum of 5% of units for social and affordable houses and up to 20%. Most take the 20% and split affordability and coucnil-owned houses amongst the total units. It’s a simple, dirty way to achieve the overall objective. In effect, it acts as a tax for condition of approval of planning permissions. If Seattle (and many other cities) is truly serious about housing affordability, I’m not sure using incentive zoning is going to achieve that goal very well, rather than a broad-based system that requires contribution of units or monetary equivalency across the board. And, it isn’t likely to seriously interest developers in many cases to bite at the incentive zoning, especially in this market where property values have dropped significantly. Not saying that the approach is bad on the whole, but I’ve always been sceptical since I’ve seen little in the way of contributions of affordable housing in many schemes in Seattle and the Seattle area.

    • matt hays says

      Definitely, supply vs. demand is the main factor in the price of any apartment. Where supply is restricted, you get price wars. Where demand is too low, prices can plummet.

      But the only way we’d ever get $650 two-bedrooms would be to have a major drop in demand based on a big drop in households. Households have never dropped like that in modern times, even in 1970 when the overall population was basically flat, and even 1965-1986 when the city of Seattle’s population dropped (due to reduced family sizes).

      Since Seattle always grows, prices are regulated by new supply. But new supply won’t get very far ahead of demand, because construction only happens when prices are high enough to justify it. Only in the past few months have developers decided that rents are trending high enough (in a few core districts, not elsewhere) to build apartments again, which is a good clue that today’s rents are near equilibrium, even with very low land and construction prices.

      The best weapon we have for affordability is old units, which works (to a degree) assuming we have enough new units so that richer people will vacate the older units. Buildings from 1920, 1970, and even 1990. That works, sort of, in Seattle because supply generally stays ahead of demand. In desirable cities without enough supply (San Francisco, etc.), even the old units are expensive.

      • says

        Hahaha, happens to the best of us. The comment field likes to jump sometimes. I’ve done it a time or two. I was thinking reading the first half of the paragraph, “what is he going on about? How is this a reference to my comment?” :) Good explanation though.

      • says

        Reason #4867 to have an edit function. In this case I suspect it also has to do with the fact that to reply to comments that have gone on for long three-level threads you have to scroll up to find the most recent “reply” button, which is easy to miss; force of habit can take over. I think the reply button for the last reply-able level used to be at the bottom so it wasn’t so much of a problem, but “Reply to (name)”, or an indication of the name in the “leave a reply” line, would be a solution to this particular problem (though it shouldn’t be necessary as is if you can recognize the bottom of the previous post).

        Also, if you hit the reply button but decide not to reply to that post, hit the “cancel reply” link at the top of the reply field before doing anything else. I’m tempted to say refresh the page as well.

      • Bernie says

        I’ve made no bones of wanting an edit/preview function. But, like a true transit advocate, I expect my desires to be paid for by someone else :=

      • Aleks says

        I would still really like to see a ‘Reply’ link on every comment. Even if the mods don’t want to have infinite-depth threading, at least the ‘Reply’ links can make sure that comments get posted to the right place. (And also that would make it much easier to see the comment that you’re replying to…)

  8. Lack Thereof says

    I don’t think that artificially keeping a few units per building 80% AMI affordable is a useful policy in the long term. Ideally, we want the market-rate price to be affordable, and that simply is not happening here. It costs more to rent an apartment than to pay a home mortgage in this city.

    What we really need to do is broadly increase rental housing stock in Seattle, even if there’s immediately no “affordable” units in the building. Seattle has a rental shortage. Simply get more apartments built to drive rents down.

    If we could get the market-rate price for a 2 bedroom apartment down to $650/mo, that’s worth it, and (I believe) a reasonable goal.

    • Bruce says

      Market rate where? I’ve not seen a two-bed apartment for $650/month in any non-totally-ghetto part of any city I’ve lived. My one-bedroom by the Market is relatively cheap at $950/month. I’m all in favor of market-rate apartments but $650/month is a ship that has sailed.

      • Lack Thereof says

        You can get a low-end 2bd in Tacoma right now for $650.

        My 2bd duplex in the CD costs me $850, and I can’t beat that without moving to south Everett, or the east hill of Kent.

        If we can just get more rental units on the market here, I don’t see why prices couldn’t fall by 200/mo naturally.

      • Bernie says

        Who in their right mind is going to invest in property, over build and drive down the value of said property? I know, government would but I said “in their right mind”.

    • matt hays says

      (reposting here. wasn’t supposed to be where I put it originally)

      Definitely, supply vs. demand is the main factor in the price of any apartment. Where supply is restricted, you get price wars. Where demand is too low, prices can plummet.

      But the only way we’d ever get $650 two-bedrooms would be to have a major drop in demand based on a big drop in households. Households have never dropped like that in modern times, even in 1970 when the overall population was basically flat, and even 1965-1986 when the city of Seattle’s population dropped (due to reduced family sizes).

      Since Seattle always grows, prices are regulated by new supply. But new supply won’t get very far ahead of demand, because construction only happens when prices are high enough to justify it. Only in the past few months have developers decided that rents are trending high enough (in a few core districts, not elsewhere) to build apartments again, which is a good clue that today’s rents are near equilibrium, even with very low land and construction prices.

      The best weapon we have for affordability is old units, which works (to a degree) assuming we have enough new units so that richer people will vacate the older units. Buildings from 1920, 1970, and even 1990. That works, sort of, in Seattle because supply generally stays ahead of demand. In desirable cities without enough supply (San Francisco, etc.), even the old units are expensive.

    • Mike Orr says

      The reason one-bedrooms are $950 is the restrictions that prevented more dense housing in the past thirty years. In the 80s a 2BR in the U-district was $450 (several units around 15th/55th), and I did not pay more than $525 in the same area throughout the 90s. House prices exploded after that for several stupid reasons, but one real factor was the lack of supply in areas where people want to live. People have been wanting to live in dense walkable neighborhoods for twenty years but the zoning+developers only realized it five years ago. Plus, most developers tried to cash in by building the most expensive luxury units and ignoring ordinary people, and the parking requirements allegedly drove up the price too due to the concrete storeys required for the parking.

      A 1 BR in Bellevue outside the swanky new developments is in the $500s, so the difference is clearly the “Capitol Hill premium” (Pike Place premium, Belltown premium, etc). $650 for 2 BR is a bit extreme given the current situation. I’d aim for 1 BR in the $500s and 2 BR in the $800s.

      By the way, you can get a large 1 BR in College Place, a suburb of Walla Walla, for $250. Maybe it’s up to $350 now.

      • Bernie says

        The reason one-bedrooms are $950 is

        What cost $450 in 1985 would cost $885.36 in 2009. What cost $450 in 1980 would cost $1156.49 in 2009. Housing prices “exploded” in the last decade because of government policy that incentivized leaders to make loans for way more than people could afford. That in turn has created the current over supply of housing.

      • Bernie says

        And government employees and entitlement recipients who’s benefit payments have been adjusted each year since 1975 to keep up with inflation. In 1989 the minimum wage was $3.85. In 2011 it’s $8.67 for Washington State.


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