As I hinted yesterday, I showed up to the Mt. Baker Community Club’s forum on the city’s revised North Rainier Neighborhood Plan. The crowd was mainly from the Mt. Baker neighborhood; my understanding that this not the actual station area or potential upzone, but instead an area dependent on its services and close enough to enjoy (or suffer) whatever impacts arise. There’s actually a pretty nice piece of real transit news that I’ll save for a follow-on post.
Till then, here are some impressions. If you want or read about the draft plan itself there’s a pretty good webpage. Obviously, I’m a partisan in this debate but here I’m trying to articulate the real causes of opposition so that we can resolve them. The truly core objections are, I believe, are (1) more residents, particularly if they create concentrations of poverty; and (2) traffic and parking changes that will make it harder to get around by car.
More detail below the jump.
- There was a lot skepticism, cynicism, and fear in the room, but I was actually surprised that the comments were pretty balanced between people that articulated a vision I would broadly agree with, and people that seemed more interested in stopping change.
- The pro-density words that came up were things like more businesses, a better pedestrian environment, and more bicycle infrastructure. Indeed, the “walkable” aspect was broadly popular, although some feared it would cause loss of the neighborhood gas station or big-box store (!). I don’t think everyone connected the idea that a better pedestrian environment necessarily meant a less car-friendly one.
- There was a lot more hostility to new residents than new businesses, including office-type development that the plan envisions. New businesses are a new amenity for current residents, while new residents are perceived as bringing congestion and sometimes crime, with little consideration that they would also provide demand for new business and more “eyes on the street.”
- I’d say there were three basic opposition threads that were not process-oriented. The least convincing one, in my view, was an aesthetic distaste for height. Aesthetic concerns are fine; there are beautiful buildings and neighborhoods I love quite apart from whatever broader impacts they have. But if the imperative for density is to trump anything it ought to be this.
- A commonly expressed fear was of low-income housing and what it would do to the safety of the neighborhood, especially since the Southeast already has gobs of subsidized housing. City Planner Lyle Bicknell only partially defused these fears by pointing out that there was no true section 8 project going in; indeed, the only provision for affordable housing was an incentive that authorized a 7th and 8th floor of development if 18% of the additional units were priced to be affordable to a family making 80% of the median income. There was great cynicism that the City had a secret agenda to dump more low-income housing in the Southeast, a spirit encouraged by less aggressive upzones in richer neighborhoods like Roosevelt.
- The other objection was to traffic. There’s some doubt about models that suggest that realigning traffic flow will actually improve things, but more fundamentally, there’s a fear that all those new residents will bring their cars and make driving and parking unbearable. It’s here that there’s a really fundamental disconnect between people who view cars as really the only reasonable way to get around, and those who view too much car use as part of the problem. Mr. Bicknell made a lot of good points about reducing car ownership and reducing trips, rather than trying to eliminate cars altogether, but it’ll take more to bridge the gap.
Although there were exceptions at all ages, I was also struck by the generation gap. For Americans of a certain age, urban density means decay and crime. For a younger cohort, it’s energy, hipness, and sustainability. It’s preconceptions like these that make differences difficult to bridge.