Merits and Aesthetics in the Density Argument

Belltown (wikimedia)

There is a strong center-left consensus that more dense construction, in the abstract, is good for society. Most obviously, dense construction is more energy-efficient, discourages the many negative environmental effects of driving, and a new housing unit in Belltown is more or less one fewer unit cut out of forest or farmland.

Furthermore, there are huge non-environmental benefits. The associated transportation choices are good for public health. Although individual projects may result in short-term displacement, provision of affordable housing in the long-term aggregate requires increasing supply. More residents place the city in a better fiscal position and new businesses create jobs. And finally, self-identified progressives must realize that increasing the electoral power of cities is good for the liberal project at all levels of government.

Against the enormous weight of these benefits lie a small series of objective concerns: more competition for parking in City-owned right of way, more neighborhood traffic congestion, more low-income housing, and in some cases reduced property values. Residents aren’t crazy to fear and oppose these changes to the status quo, but density advocates are right to dismiss these concerns as either wrongheaded, or inevitable given that we will follow the imperative to put density somewhere. And if climate change, affordable housing, runoff, health care costs, and/or defeating Republicans* are top-level issues for you then that imperative is clear.

Parallel to this cost-benefit analysis is the issue of aesthetics. Some people like leafy neighborhoods with big lawns, and good for them! I certainly have my own tastes in planning and architecture that don’t have any more intrinsic merit than anyone else’s. But that aesthetic preference has to be weighed against the many emergencies that density helps to solve.

Lest you think the prejudice of aesthetics is a solely a creature of the suburban mindset, the archetypical Capitol Hill hipster is equally capable of letting aesthetic considerations overwhelm much less subjective goals. Opposing development because one hates chain stores or doesn’t like the architecture, while understandable, is placing the same personal taste above our continued broadest-sense prosperity. It’s true that de facto taxing development through various requirements for open space, affordable housing, and whatnot might earn revenue for those goals, cutting into developer profits without actually stopping the project in question. But it also raises the threshold for what kind of projects pencil out, and economics tells us taxing the thing we need most is terrible policy.

All this doesn’t mean there can be absolutely no development regulations. But the Council should carefully consider whether any given one will deter the delivery of this city’s future.

* With apologies to the pro-transit Republicans around here! It would be good for America if you won the battle to make your party responsive to the needs of urban centers.

Comments

  1. GuyOnBeaconHill says

    The two biggest factors in the 1960s suburban exodus were fear of crime and the attraction of better suburban school systems. How will the newly built, denser urban environments provide better security and better educational opportunities for residents? Belltown is great if you are young, have a good job and childless. It also might be good for empty nesters, but I wouldn’t consider moving to Belltown with my teenage son. Capitol Hill is a better neighborhood for mutli-generational families, but it’s still a long commute (usually requiring 2 buses or riding a bike on some pretty scary roads) to Garfield, Franklin or Roosevelt from the denser neighborhoods on Capitol Hill.

    • GuyOnBeaconHill says

      that’s multi-generational families

      My point is: people didn’t move to the suburbs just for the trees and lawns and the privilege of holding in their hands the steering wheel of a 350hp V8 sedan every morning and night. There were some pretty compelling reasons for the surburban exodus. How can we make this urban re-invention initiative more attractive to families?

      • redmondrider says

        Didn’t they, though? Almost everyone I’ve heard talk about their new or newly-purchased houses talks about having a fenced yard for the dog, a good place to put a swing set or a pool, a couple of trees (never mind that they’re builder-grade saplings), and the quiet that comes from physical separation from neighbors. The downside is the 20 to 30 to 90 minute commute but the thinking goes that “we’ll _always_ need a car to go _somewhere_ and besides, one day it’ll be paid off. If we just buy an economical car, that’s ‘green.'” Plus, to top it all off, the visible costs are cheaper.

        So, to answer your question, I don’t think you can make it more attractive because the stated (and sold) desires are not compatible with density. You can’t put a private 900 sqft lawn on a terrace. Besides, so much of the identity of many people who buy a house is wrapped up in the concept of “owning land” that “they” can’t take away. Unless or until the suburbs are annexed by Seattle or the county pulls off laying down a uniform development plan, there will always be less-dense options available in the ‘burbs. For me, I think that only a dramatic, forced shift in some external cost, such as energy, will drive the kind of density we need but not everyone wants.

      • RossB says

        I think people moved to the suburbs (or move to the suburbs) for all sorts of reasons. In general I would say that Seattle is very kid friendly. Part of the problem is that the city doesn’t do a very good job of selling itself. John Stanford was very good at selling Seattle schools. It was probably his biggest strength. Nothing fundamentally changed with the schools (e. g. Garfield has always been an outstanding high school even though it is right in the middle of Seattle’s “ghetto”) but the impression of the schools did.

        The same is true for crime. You are more likely to die in an auto accident in the suburbs than you are in a gun accident in the city*, but it sure doesn’t seem that way if you watch the news.

        Good public parks also help. If you live in an apartment next to Greenlake, or Discovery Park, you really don’t feel the need for your own backyard.

        Much of Seattle is made up of houses, so it seems silly to move from a house in Seattle to one in the suburbs, so there are obviously other things going on. A recent one is cost. You can get the same house for much cheaper (for the most part) in the suburbs. This is a good sign. It suggests that Seattle is attractive. One way to increase density is to allow more skinny houses. I’m sure a lot of people move to the suburbs just because they can’t afford a house in the city. Allowing more skinny houses on skinny lots is a good way to increase density while attracting folks who want their own land. This could certainly happen in the outer fringes of the city. I think most folks would gladly swap new sidewalks for skinny houses.

        Another reason people move to the suburbs is that many of the jobs moved out the suburbs. If you work in Redmond, it is much easier if you live in the Eastside. Doing what we can to attract businesses to Seattle should go along with making Seattle attractive for living.

        I would say the biggest thing we can do to attract families to Seattle is to work hard to combat the stereotypes. Seattle is a kid friendly town, but folks from other parts of the country assume that if they have a kid, they should live in the suburbs.

        * OK — I don’t have the stats to back this up. There were old reports that suggested this, though. With improvements in automobile safety, this may no longer be true. My guess is that the chances of being a victim of a crime or being seriously hurt in an auto accident are very low, since both numbers have gone down considerably since the 60s and 70s.

      • Andy says

        “the concept of “owning land” that “they” can’t take away.”

        These quotations are perfect since there couldn’t be a bigger lie. You no more own that land than I own my apartment building, and if the past few years have taught us anything it is that you don’t own shit and the slightest misfortune will remind you of that very abruptly.

        Sadly, a big part of modern density are condos which combine the worst of all worlds; a place you don’t own at all and have almost no control over with all the responsibilities and consequences of ownership… and you get to pay a mortgage AND rent. Beautiful…. what a sham they are pulling on everybody. Not to mention these condos ALWAYS re-enforce the idea that the only way to live is with a car.

      • Mike Orr says

        Ownership is not absolute because it’s subject to property taxes, eminent domain, and seizure in drug raids. But the latter two are pretty rare, and you can somewhat predict property tax increases by watching the ballot measures and your neighbors’ home improvements. Mortgages are a separate issue because you’re using the house as collateral. The crash has shown that mortgages can quickly become unaffordable, but that’s an issue of mortgages, not ownership per se. If you aspire to pay off the mortgage and actually do, then you’re only left with homeowner’s association fees, which theoretically should be small.

        Although one thing that has made me suspicious of owning a condo is that at least in walkable areas, the homeowners’ fee + property taxes comes surprisingly close to rent on a lower-end apartment. (There are no lower-end condos, so no direct comparison.) This frustrates me because my main purpose for owning would be to not have a high monthly fee when I’m older and can’t or don’t want to work as much. But if I’m going to have to pay hundreds of dollars a month anyway, that diminishes that advantage.

      • Andy says

        Condo ownership is much less certain than you are even painting, Mike. You own nothing, even after your mortgage is paid off. You continue to pay dues, which to say they are low, is just not true…. because you can;t predict what they will be. These fees are one of the great ways a condo can decide to take your property, simply raise dues til you default and they take back your condo, which they can do with much more ease than a bank can and you will still be left with anything unpaid on the mortgage. Beyond that you hope your property value goes up, it is at the behest of other residents and a board of the craziest people in the building.

        If you move in the first couple years your dues will be low, as the developer does so artificially to get people to move in, and because the building is new and all the capital they really need is already invested. Then once a board is set up in a couple years they will have to ballon the dues to build a big enough reserve to serve the building. Then maybe once they have enough they may lower them… or not. And then a catastrophe could happen where a big repair is needed and everyone needs to come up with the money (as my friends condo who had the furnace die… the residents had to raise an insane amount of money)…

        These things may not happen often, most people may never experience them, but that is a whole lot of “maybes” and uncertainty for something that you will certainly be held to.

        Besides who pays off a mortgage anymore? People are so oblivious they think they own it the minute they sign the debt mortgage papers. Couldn’t be further from the truth, especially with a condo, where you will never really ‘own’ it.

      • Bernie says

        a condo can decide to take your property, simply raise dues til you default

        If the walls could talk. But wait, they can’t. Despite talking cars and talking trees in the movies a condo really can’t decide to take your property. It might be haunted and want you gone but it can’t own land. Granted dealing with other property owners, and it does seem like there’s always a nut job that inserts themselves onto the board, can be a hassle. It’s a problem with dealing with shared common areas. But for a home owners association to actually take possession of a unit is really hard. I know someone with a ski condo and they’ve had a problem with a deadbeat owner that’s gone on for years. Even provisions like being able to change the locks and rent the property if dues aren’t paid are near impossible to enforce.

    • David B. says

      Garfield High is in the Central District, which is not at all far from Capitol Hill (the CD borders the Hill on the south, in fact). It’s within 20 minutes by bike from anywhere on Capitol Hill. If it’s dangerous to ride a bike there, then that is an argument for a better bicycle infrastructure in Seattle.

      • JohnS says

        More eyes on the street are always a good thing, and most of us who live in the CD are well aware of that. Robberies are hardly confined to the CD (look at the Precinct-level stats by beat) and the odds of getting shot here are also very low; generally speaking, if you aren’t in a gang and/or dealing drugs, it’s highly unlikely.

      • Nathanael says

        And for what it’s worth, every professional analysis of the US “flight to the suburbs” in the 1960s has said that the single largest factor was racism. Hopefully we’re over that now.

      • Bernie says

        I haven’t heard bad things about *Seattle’s* schools. So what’s the issue?

        Seattle School District is exceedingly average. It looks bad because it’s surrounded by the top districts in the State (well, Pullman is also outstanding but that’s literally a corner case). As others have pointed out a wild variation is more of the issue with Seattle schools. Garfield (Go Bulldogs) has been an excellent school. Roosevelt has been an excellent school. Nathan Hale, mmm… hasn’t had the problems other schools have had and hasn’t really been outstanding. Chief Sealth has had a string of problems. Although high schools tend to get the most attention it’s the grade schools in many parts of the city that face the biggest challenge. What makes it even more polarizing is that Seattle parents are more likely to send their kids to private schools than families in the suburbs.

      • says

        We may be over racism (very doubtful), but I don’t think we’re over classism. There are countless stories about how difficult it is to keep rich and poor people in the same neighborhoods and schools because the rich will keep moving to richer neighborhoods and more prestigious schools. Just look at the fights neighborhoods like Surrey Downs put up against Link, often explicitly saying they don’t want to invite “those people” into the neighborhood.

  2. mikail k says

    Transportation wise, Belltown is not a good example to show benefits of density. While this is maybe the only neighborhood that has normal concrete highrises, here is no regional transit service, and none even planned, let alone funded. Most condos have garage spaces, those that don’t, are never bought. Walking to Westlake station is not safe… In the mean time the transit is put into areas where buildings are build out of cardboard and no more than 5 stories high(i.e. Capitol Hill, Rainier Valley). I don’t think local transportation planners care about density that much. Look at the stations on MLK. They are not even designed for density. passengers have to cross multiple traffic lanes and wait at lights… so i think it’s safe to say that local transit goal was not to increase density, because it’s not on regional routes… but the towers with garages are still popping up in Belltown and SLU, areas that will have no regional transit planned at all.

    • Mike Orr says

      The Ballard subway will be in Alternatives Analysis this year. It will serve Belltown, SLU, or both, depending on the route chosen. It may be difficult to serve both without a sharp turn or backtracking.

      • Mark Y. says

        If it’s a choice between Belltown and SLU, I think we all know which one would be chosen. Not that I necessarily disagree considering the amount of development going on there.

  3. asdf says

    Right now, we’ve got the problem that the housing in the urban core is, by and large, oriented towards people who are young a single, rather than families with children. If you have children, you need a lot more living space than when you live alone, and living without a car when you have children requires a lot more in terms of both transit and destinations within a 5-minute walk than when you are living alone too. Walking through your neighborhood becomes more difficult as well. It’s a lot easier to ascend a 100-foot staircase when you’re alone than when you have toddlers with you.

    What little family-sized housing exists in areas that meet these criteria are enormously expensive – enough so that the premium for living there ends up being more than what a car costs. So, it’s not a surprise that most people conclude that buying a car and moving to the suburbs is cheaper.

    Then, there’s the problem of education. I don’t know the details, but I know the suburbs are supposed to have better schools than Seattle. Why is this, and is there anything Seattle can do to make its schools as good as Bellevue’s schools?

    • Lack Thereof says

      The gold standard for public schools around here is Lake Washington district, which covers most of the eastside.

      The problem isn’t that Seattle School District performs poorly. It does not. The best schools in Seattle perform just as well as their counterparts in the Lake Washington School District. The problem is that we have inconsistent performance, from one school to the next. Generally speaking, all the North Seattle schools are awesome, and all the South Seattle schools are failing. It’s the handful of poorly performing schools that give the district a bad name – and I do blame the district for failing to seriously address neighborhood equity. They can obviously make and manage excellent schools, so there really is no excuse for the vast swaths of the city served only by dropout factories.

      And while the top Eastside schools in LWSD and Bellevue are scoring well on their standardized tests, and generally making everyone else in the state look bad, they have a troubling dropout rate, even at their best schools, and don’t seem to have any real plan for improving it. They mostly hold up their top 5% honors/AP/BA college prep students as a symbol of success, while quietly sweeping a 10% non-complete rate under the rug.

      • RossB says

        Sorry, I disagree with your assessment of Seattle schools. The schools are fine, by and large. The biggest difference between the schools is that the south end schools have more poor students. If you adjust for that, then the schools are doing just fine. Garfield is a great example. In the 60s and 70s, most of the students were black. Overwhelmingly so. But the school was unusual in that it was superb. This was not an accident, but the result of a lot of effort by the city and the school administration. Once busing started, a lot more white kids attended. The area also gentrified (a bit). The result was that a lot more white kids (and their parents) realized that the school was, indeed, excellent. What had changed more than anything was the perception.

        The perception is critical. Students from wealthy families won’t attend a school if they feel like it is a waste of time. The end result is that test scores look poor, despite the fact that students have great opportunities there. I know students who attended Rainier Beach, Sealth, Franklin and Cleveland and they all were well prepared for college.

      • says

        Since “school quality” generally refers to test scores, and test scores are so highly correlated to parent’s income, saying you want “good schools” really just means “I want to live around rich people.”

      • Lack Thereof says

        Garfield is an excellent school and I wouldn’t include it in my list of crappy SSD schools. And all Seattle schools provide a world-class education for students in their honors/AP programs.

        If we’re talking about high schools, Rainier Beach is bad. Sealth & Cleveland are troubled. The rest are just fine. Plenty of studies have been done on the achievement gap between poor and wealthy students in Seattle schools, and they usually find that it’s not enough of an explanation. Poor students do great at Garfield, but at Rainier Beach they drop out or barely squeak by.

        But high schools aren’t really what concerns me here. It’s our elementary and middle schools that are REALLY failing south-end kids. Check out this map by the CRPE. There are a total of 4 elementary schools south of Denny with high performance, and none at all south of Graham. Study after study has emphasized the importance of early childhood education – a kid that comes out of elementary school functionally illiterate is not going to do well in life, even if he goes to the best high school in the state.

      • Bernie says

        Bellevue’s issue with high HS dropout rates relative to Lake Washington is due primarily to the large immigrant population Bellevue has seen. If English skills are lacking it’s pretty hard to keep pace and Bellevue is addressing the challenge. BSD is now 49% white, 30% Asian and 10% Hispanic. Lake Washington is 67% white, 17% Asian and 9% Hispanic. From the census “Persons below poverty level, percent, 2007-2011″; Bellevue 6.6%, Redmond/Kirkland (Lk Wa SD) 6.5%/5.5%, Seattle 13.2%. Seattle’s poverty rate is above the State average 12.5%. That’s Seattle School District’s big disadvantage over the eastside and Bainbridge Island and there isn’t a whole lot the School District can do to overcome it.

      • says

        “Since “school quality” generally refers to test scores, and test scores are so highly correlated to parent’s income, saying you want “good schools” really just means “I want to live around rich people.””

        More like it’s a testament to how poorly the first half of your sentence is understood. Most people think good schools produce good students rather than the other way around.

  4. Ryan on Summit says

    Belltown is a great example of what density can’t do, especially on Western and Elliott Avenues. You can’t make any argument that what was built there is a wonderful neighborhood. It’s a canyon of concrete.

    Belltown has no grocery store, no library, and streets mostly empty of pedestrians. It also has high amounts of air pollution, but so does every dense inner neighborhood. Density isn’t helping with that.

    • asdf says

      Belltown is also not the most pleasant neighborhood to walk through. I’ve done a lot of urban hikes where I walk through downtown and Queen Anne, but hop on a bus for the section through Belltown. In spite of the fact that when I have walked through Belltown, it’s only about 15 minutes end to end.

    • Mark Y. says

      I moved to Belltown about a year and a half ago, and I have to agree with you. The neighborhood is devoid of street life most of the time, and crime is a serious issue. My car has been broken into twice in my “secure” garage, my wife is hassled on her way to work early in the morning on a regular basis, and every few weeks there’s another violent crime. It’s no place for kids, no park, no school, nothing for them to do.

      Now that I’m looking to buy a house, you can guess where I’m not looking. With about $300K to spend, it’s either a dump in Rainer Valley or a gleaming townhouse in Issaquah. It’s an easy choice, even though I love living in the city. I understand that if more density were allowed, maybe I could afford something in the city, but that’s not the reality. So I console myself with the fact that I’ll be living next to a transit center and can at least commute to work by bus.

      The thing is though, none of the problems in Belltown are due to density. This area was crime ridden before the condos came in, and the city made a poor effort to make it any better. They continue to add human services agencies and homeless shelters with abandon. There’s a plan to build a Bell Street park, but it’s been delayed almost two years. Western and Elliott are ghost towns because walking along those streets is horrible. They’re both one way freeways through a dense neighborhood, and cars fly down the road. It’s no wonder there’s no street life there. The same is true of 2nd and 4th Ave. Making those streets two way and slow the cars down would do wonders to this area.
      As the cities focus has moved to SLU though, I don’t have much hope for this area getting much better. It’s a wasted opportunity.

      • John Bailo says

        On Thursday I did my bi monthly pilgrimage to Benaroya from Kent. I take the 4:52pm Sounder in and a 150 back. When I get out at King I kill time by walking up to the greatest calzones around at Bambino’s on 4th and Vine.

        At 5:30 the streets are packed with cars leaving town. By 6:30pm it is a ghost town nearly. The avenues have long stretches with no cars. And many side streets between the avenues (and I don’t mean alleys) have no people walking at all!! This I find amazing..

        On the way back at around 10pm I would say that most of the people were from the concert and it would be nearly empty but for them.

        However, on my way in I noticed yet again that the Sounder platform southbound at Kent Station is increasingly getting crowded! So here perhaps we are seeing non centralized, non dense inter regional use of transit…

      • jon says

        Its cars and bums that make the city unpleasant. Taxes are another issue, first theye penalize development of land and encourage speculation and under developing land and secondly urban taxpayers are burdened with both dealing with and paying for social services and subsidized affordable housing which the suburbs do not. So the city has a high tax rate discouraging locating there, while suburbs have a lower tax rate and spend it all on improving their schools.

      • Lack Thereof says

        Western & Elliot will change when the deep bore tunnel opens, so there’s some hope there.

        As for Belltown’s street crime issues, the only long term solution to that is to get more citizen eyes and bodies on the street. As long as the street level is a ghost town, crime will flourish. However, without more walkable destinations (parks, grocers, mixed-use developments, etc), the belltown street level will continue to be a ghost town, except around the bars.

      • Bernie says

        suburbs dont spend THEIR money

        Bellevue most certainly spends MY money on roads. Even 520 which is a State project ended up costing Bellevue millions in utility relocation costs. East Link represents a huge investment by COB for a new 15th/16th ROW in Bel-Red and most likely relocation of Bellevue Way to the west with the addition of an HOV lane.

      • Mike Orr says

        Downtown has a hole between Union Street and Yesler Way. It’s all office buildings and almost nothing else. The buildings are boxy with nothing on the ground floor except office entrances and a few restaurants that close at 5pm. It’s an unpleasant place to be so people don’t go there if they don’t have to, and there’s little reason to go in the evening. The library, Benaroya Hall, and the art museum are each isolated, a block or more from each other. But if you go two blocks north to Pine Street, the sidewalks are full all day and evening.

      • Mike Orr says

        I’d like to see lower downtown become more inviting, especially with Madison-BRT on the drawing board. But it looks like it would require expensive changes to the office building bases, so not something you can readily do unless you’re putting in a new building.

      • Matthew Johnson says

        What are you talking about?

        You can get a really nice place in the RV, near a Link Station for $300k.

  5. John Bailo says

    The streets of Seattle are crowded, but only twice a day, at morning and afternoon rush hour. You should consider this in your quest for Manifest Density.

    • Lack Thereof says

      The downtown core has a serious issue with legacy single-use developments. So many office buildings that are just dead blocks after-hours. DPD is trying to change that, but it’s going to be a long and slow process.

      • says

        I have a question related to this for zoning nerds:

        I hear the Columbia Tower (or whatever its currently called) is half vacant. Let’s say I lease 3 floors, and do “tenant improvements” to convert them to apartments, sublease them out, is that legal? Any reason it shouldn’t be? That would be true mixed use.

      • David B. says

        @Chad: what it would mostly be is extraordinarily difficult. The water and sewer lines in office buildings are concentrated in a few vertical cores. That’s because shared bathrooms are the acceptable norm in office buildings. In housing, they are neither acceptable nor the norm.

      • Bernie says

        Somebody bought the Smith Tower with the idea of converting to condos. Then the crushing effects of oversupply of new housing units on the market lead to the collapse in prices and tanked the overall economy. Meanwhile the new owners had either forced out or didn’t pursue lease renewals so the Smith Tower sits mostly empty weighting for someone to take on the condo conversion. There’s also the PacMed Building. After Amazon bailed out Wright Runstad defaulted on the loan they had taken out to secure a 99 year lease and remodel the old hospital as office space. One suggested use has been to go in and convert the building to condos.

  6. Bernie says

    The downside is the 20 to 30 to 90 minute commute

    From the census data; Mean travel time to work: WA State average 25.5 minutes, Seattle 25 min, Bellevue 21.8, Bothell 26.7, Burien 25.5, Kirkland 22.8, Redmond 20.6, Renton 29 minutes. For eastside cities that are job centers commute time is less than for Seattle proper which is right at the State average. Moving to the outer ring suburbs, yes it’s a bit longer; Covington 33.7 min, Duval 33.6, Bonney Lake 35.5, Issaquah 28 minutes. But note Issaquah has a shorter mean commute than Renton. Just for fun; NYC 39.2, LA 29.1, San Fran 29.5. That’s right, someone living in Bonney Lake most likely spends less time commuting than a person in New York City.

    • John Bailo says

      As a former NYer, I know! Seattle’s reaction to traffic is similar to that for snow. Extremely sensitive!

    • redmondrider says

      The 90 minute part was tongue-in-cheek, though I do have coworkers from where I used to live who regularly drove 70-100 minutes one-way to work. (They’re, of course, outliers in the statistics.) My point is that people can and will rationalize anything to get what they think they want, whether or not what they want will be beneficial for them or anyone else. Just look at the political climate in this region, this state, and this country. Pushing density–and, thus, greater contact with fellow humans–with anything other than the carrot approach is going to have a very hard time because we’ve been conditioned for a generation and a half that the pinnacle of the American dream is a house in the suburbs with two cars and a dog. Heck, our generally-accepted measures of how well things are doing are the stock market (which became “democratized” for investment by the regular person, thus giving him or her individual influence over individual money) and single-family housing sales.

      • Nathanael says

        “…Heck, our generally-accepted measures of how well things are doing are the stock market….”

        Indeed — and that’s completely and utterly nuts, as it has no relationship to median income, quality of life, or even industrial production.

  7. Wes says

    Who are these people that constantly getting harassed? My wife can only recall one time where she’s been harassed anywhere in downtown. A huge percentage of the crime is club related and happens Friday and Saturday between 1:30am and 5:00 am. John bailo you’re right downtown is only “crowded” twice a day, but in my neighborhood there are a good amount of people walking around till about 1 am. Several of the restaurants have a decent crowd till fairly late. I never hear of any serious crime either. Also the thing about density, there are just more people so you’re more likely to witness a crime, but that doesn’t mean you’re more likely to be a victim. Having been to kent several times I can honestly say that I feel a lot safer downtown.

    • Mark Y. says

      My wife said it would happen 2-3 times a week, in the early morning, like 6am. The time it’s the worst in Belltown is 3AM-7AM. Outside of those times, there’s usually enough foot traffic to deter most of it.

    • John Bailo says

      Try coming to Kent Station at 11 or 12pm or later. Duke’s and RAM Sports Bar and now Cal’s American and Mama Sortini’s have bars alive and jumping and open air dining when weather permits.

      Urbism can happen anywhere..even at the local train station cum mall.

  8. GregoryH says

    I moved to seattle from new york where for 5 years i lived in <400 sqr ft tenement apartment surrounded by at least 49 other units in my building that were similarly sized. I then moved to a larger newer (1950s era) coop building: 21 floors, 4 buildings with 3 towers each, something like 1440 units and 4k residents. I can appreciate density. But you also need a variety of apartment configurations. And if you look at what is being constructed all over seattle, the apartments (coop, condo, rental, doesn't seem to matter) top out at 2 bedrooms, with an overwhelming bias to 1 bedrooms. If we want a vibrant city we need to have housing stock that caters to singles, couples AND families — and stay reasonably priced. We cannot have housing stock that leaves families no choice but to move to the outer-ring neighborhoods and suburbs.

    On the small end of the spectrum: we can't just keep building tiny efficiency rentals (like the apodments going up all over capitol hill) that circumvent zoning and design-review processes. I'm not against having affordable efficiency units for students and young professionals, but we should have a slightly more concerted plan for them: where do those people go when they want to live as a couple? or start a family?

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      The apartments in Seattle are overwhelmingly 1 bedrooms because until you’ve satisfied the demand for 1 bedrooms, those are the most profitable things to build. We’re not getting 2 and 3 because we don’t allow nearly enough total new development.

      • Bernie says

        Apartments.com Filter for only apartments for rent in Seattle with any number of bedrooms; 57 listings. Filter for only 2 or 3 bedroom and the number only drops to 46. I don’t know why this myth of there not being 2 and 3 bedroom apartments in Seattle won’t just die.

      • aw says

        Bernie, I tried your experiment, but I got different numbers. I got 85 with any number of BRs and 74 with 2 or 3 BRs. Then I searched for studios and 1BR; I got 82. For 3BR only, I got 21. I got the same result when I added 4+ BR.

        It looks like apartments.com is reporting the number of buildings, not the number of individual apartments. It’s in the developer’s interest to build studios and 1BR apartments because they can put more of them into the building, and the incremental rent payments they would get for larger apartments probably wouldn’t be in their best financial interest.

      • Bernie says

        You have to make sure it’s set to only apartments and Seattle, WA. If I add in condos I get 95. Not sure why you see 85. The listings are ads for buildings and I assume they make their money by charging a listing fee. At least that’s how they work it for “by owner” ads. So there are many, probably most apartments that don’t show up. Try craigslist. Pages and pages of 2 and 3 bedroom apartments. There’s a huge demand for 2 bedroom because a lot of people want to share space with a roommate. Most new buildings have more 2 bedroom than 1 bedroom because developers want to keep the option of condo conversion and not that many people want to buy a 1 bedroom condo. The second “bedroom” might be for guests, an office, or just for resale purposes. Just like most people want at least 3 bedrooms when looking for a house even if they live alone.

      • Lack Thereof says

        There are plenty of 2 bedroom listings. However, the price floor on them is much firmer, and the handful of low priced 2 bedrooms have competitive applications – it’s easier to get approved for a mortgage than actually get the apartment. 1 bedrooms you can just show up with a check for first/last/deposit and get the keys.

      • Steve M says

        I keep reading this “OMG where are the 3-bedroom apartments” freakout, but consider that almost all new townhouses (and there are quite a few) are 3 bedrooms. 3 bedroom layouts are hard to fit in most new woodframe apartment spaces (b/c all bedrooms need windows, etc.), while 3-bedroom layouts are the natural/cheap way to build townhouses.

        My guess is the demand for smaller apartments is driven partially by small households (stereotype: college kid starting work for Amazon), but demand for larger units is pretty well satisfied by the existing SFH stock + new townhouses.

  9. NJL says

    I agree with your argument, Martin, and I’m as pro-density as it gets, but I feel you come a little too close here to dismissing the value of the less-easy-to-quantify concerns whenever more concrete concerns exist. The most important things of life are hard to quantify. Experiencing beauty and diversity, being exposed to nature, having connection with the past, being able to slow down and reflect–these are not easily quantifiable things, but they have a crucial effect on satisfaction with one’s life, one’s affinity with his or her community, one’s ability to pursue an ineffable spiritual understanding. People are right to be concerned about these things, even when it means questioning projects which would achieve tangible goals. The problem in the density battles is that the opponents too often use the rhetoric of such values while their primary motivation is merely a fetishization of the status quo. They protest ugly old garages being torn down to make way for new development, as if the garage had an aesthetic or historical significance. They bemoan the transformation of an underused industrial area on the water into a vibrant urban community, as if Seattle is losing its history or “working-class character.” The deplore the development of “concrete canyons,” as if these buildings weren’t replacing asphalt plains. People mistake the familiar with the beautiful, the existent with the historical, the usable with the valuable, because most of all they fear change.

    They are aided in this fear when change comes in boring and predictable form. It is true that far too many of our new, denser housing developments are formulaic and crude. This excites people against new development, even when it is replacing vacant or underused lots. Because aesthetics are hard to quantify, it is difficult for the city to regulate architectural beauty with much success. However, consumers are not bound by the quantifiable, and thus they can they can choose between the beautiful and the ugly with much more reliability. However, anti-density regulations restrict their options. Developers build ugly condominiums because people who want to live in walkable neighborhoods or near transit do not have many options. If developers need to compete for customers, they then have to improve their product by making it more aesthetically pleasing. Furthermore, further regulations restrict the possibilities of design. Minimum parking mandates, especially, make impossible both the older styles of buildings we all appreciate so much more than anything since the World War Two, and also many new innovative designs. Removing anti-density regulations will lead to more favorable outcomes for both the tangible and the intangible.

    In fact, densification allows for less-quantifiable values to be pursued much more than sprawl. In a dense area we can experience a greater diversity of styles and people. We can encounter the history of place. When we can walk to our neighborhood market or library or restaurant or bar, we feel more connected with our community. The densification of performing art venues, public spaces, museums, libraries, bookstores, and gathering places–all consequences of the densification of people–give us more satisfying and edifying leisure opportunities than watching television. Urban infill prevents the further destruction of the nearby wildness, allowing us to visit it regularly and experience the ineffable value of nature much more than does a sprawling front yard. When our commute to and from work is characterized by slowing down our mind and reflecting, as is possible when we walk or take transit, rather than rushing and needing to be constantly alert, as when we drive, our stress decreases rather than increases, and we become happier people.

    In conclusion, let us not treat density and intangible values as opposed. We can demand more density while also demanding better density. There is no need to cede to the supporters of the status quo the aesthetic, historical, cultural, and spiritual values that can be so much better pursued when we leave behind the most vulgar traits of the grand auto-centric experiment.

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      All of those intangibles, when getting them means limiting supply, come directly on the backs of the poor. That’s the fundamental problem.

    • Nathanael says

      NJL makes an interesting point: if there are enough big buildings being built that developers within the city have to *compete for customers*, developers will start putting consideration into aesthetics. As long as the supply is so limited, people will sacrifice aesthetics for location — so the developers can ignore aesthetics.

      • aw says

        Or, in an alternative theory, some developers may ignore aesthetics and interior upgrades to compete better on price.

    • RossB says

      I agree completely. Excellent post. I would add that often times (as you mention) the anti-density legislation ends up making dense development worse. We have a lot of really ugly duplexes in Ballard (built in the 1980s) as a result. The builders had to add parking, so they paved over the yards, put in a couple of parking spots with a rhododendron and called it a day. The result is a really ugly landscape. There are parts of Seattle that have great neighborhoods that are fun to walk through. They have a great mix of houses with a great mix of landscaping. Then you get to the duplex zone and see way too much concrete and boring landscaping. All of this gives density a bad name.

      I can point to some absolutely gorgeous buildings that are great examples of density. My favorite example is the one at Ravenna, Cowen and 15th NE (I can never remember or find the name of the building). It is a beautiful building that fits in really well to its surroundings. It is also about six stories high. Most people cringe when they are told that a new six story building is going up — they just assume it will be ugly (and most of the time they are right). This is a great counter-example.

      Of course, it does not provide parking. Not only does the parking requirement lead to ugly buildings, but it leads to more traffic. These are legitimate concerns, mind you. But unless you want to freeze everything (which has its own problems) you are going to get growth. I like convenient parking as much as the next guy, but the more you subsidize parking in a neighborhood (and requiring builders to provide it is a subsidy) the more you add to traffic. Build a building without parking and you are way more likely to attract people who don’t have a car. These are trade-offs, but folks don’t seem to aware of them when discussing zoning.

      I also want to add that one of the ways that we can increase density is to shrink the size of lots and size of houses. In other words, while it is great to increase density by replacing houses with multi-family buildings, you can also just increase the number of houses on a block. This is especially true for the inner-suburbs and outer parts of the city. One example is my neighborhood. If you look at this area: http://goo.gl/maps/8k8aL, you will see five new houses that went up. They are all big. Just imagine if ten little houses were built instead. One of the big reasons that people move to the suburbs is because they can’t afford a house in the city. They don’t want to rent, nor do they want to deal with sharing land. They want their own place. But they don’t necessarily want a huge house, nor a huge lot. But for the most part, they don’t have a choice in the matter. They can get a smaller house with a smaller lot in an old part of the city, but that will cost a lot of money. So, they get a big house on a big lot in a distant suburb. The obvious alternative is to get a small house on a small lot in a location that is not quite suburban, nor quite in the city (like my neighborhood). Unfortunately, there are very few of those types of houses.

    • Alki says

      Its always amazing to me when I come to this blog. Its a like a huge echo chamber for density and its ‘miraculous’ benefits. If anyone disagrees with that premise, then that person is branded a Republican.

      Well, let me start by staying that I am left….not center left…but left. I own a single family home because I like to grow things………..a lot. I have since I was 6. Yes, I am a leftie and I like land. Go figure.

      Density has its place in a city but so do single family homes. A single family home is the likely choice of a person who has a family but wants to live in the city. Only a small number of Americans like raising their families in an apt/condo. That’s one of the reasons why 3 bdr apts are rarely built.

      Seattle schools have a mixed image. I did my student teaching in two of them and they have some problems. Suburban schools have a much better image. And image plays a major role when families are making decisions where they will locate. The Seattle Schools managerial and turnover problems of the last ten years aren’t helping matters. And don’t kid yourselves, racism is alive and well in the 21st century.

      Density has its good and bad points. In a poorly constructed bldg…….and there are many that fit this category……..smells and noises permeate the bldg, and can make life unpleasant for residents. Density drives up the cost of the land, making apts and condos more expensive. Density taxes infrastructure and if improvements to infrastructure are not made, the infrastructure will break down. Density can lead to a feeling of living in a rat’s maze……..I learned that from living in NYC [Upper West Side] for 4 months.

      Density is most appropriate for the core. We have enough density zoning in DT, SLU and Belltown to last us a lifetime. Let’s leave it there.

      • NJL says

        You seem to suppose that by density those of us in the “echo chamber” mean forcing everyone into apartments. I don’t know of anyone who is advocating anything like this. Rather, they are arguing the opposite, that people should have equal freedom to choose to live in apartments if they want to, which can only come about if we remove restrictive regulations that prevent the supply to be responsive to the demand. It is certainly true that many people don’t want to live in apartments, or in the city at all, but there are many who do and cannot afford it because of artificially limited supply. That is social engineering.

        Density is, of course, relative. There are many nice walkable single-family neighborhoods in Seattle, but they are walkable because they have smaller lot sizes than a typical suburban area and because there are nearby apartment buildings, which provide enough people to make feasible the placing of businesses, public amenities, and transit lines.

        I think everyone would like to see new very-dense development to be focused on the inner core neighborhoods you mention and in major transit corridors, but when even those places face controversy over building heights and parking it is natural that the demand will spread out into the single-family neighborhoods you want to protect from development.

  10. Mark Dublin says

    The Black Hole of Calcutta had great density, Martin. So did Auschwitz and Buchenwald- both with good rail connections, too.

    Compared with other cities, Seattle has enough advantages, including government that’s clean if unmotivated and a relatively educated workforce, to be choosy about developers.

    We should be able to find companies that are talented and ambitious enough to come in with business plans based on generating higher profits through extra attention to both beauty and functionality.

    Those without the ambition or competence to do that, we don’t either want or need.

    Mark Dublin

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      Beauty and design aren’t something that can be legislated – they come from competition. Right now, we have limited supply so much that demand has outstripped it, and there will be no incentive to compete on design until we let the market catch up to that demand.

      • Ben Schiendelman says

        Alki, indeed. But (nearly) the only way we have to increase supply are these 65′ buildings. So rather than a few tall buildings, we do a lot of damage to neighborhoods by disrupting too much too fast.

  11. d.p. says

    As many great comments on this thread have already said, the question of what makes a city function well on the ground goes far beyond a “prejudice of aesthetics” irrationally squelching the panacea of more square footage of floor space per block.

    Most of the downtown areas in the United States, as Bailo loves to point out, become ghost towns after 5:30. This despite floor space that no doubt dwarfs that found on those same blocks 100 years ago. Quality matters. Use matters. Frontage matters. Dimensions matter. And yes, inviting aesthetics matter.

    The “archetypal Capitol Hill hipster” may be driven by familiarity and fear of change, unable to divorce his defense of bad land use (LQA punk club next to a MacDonald’s) from his defense of good land use (Bauhaus block), but he knows that the latter has a functionally dense-placemaking effect that is unmatched by the construction type set to replace it, and he knows that is a rarity in Seattle worth defending.

    In the absence of regulation and community pressure, the Bauhaus block’s replacement is GUARANTEED to yield a LOWER commercial density. Moreover, though more residential square footage will appear above, there’s a decent chance that it will contain fewer units — and therefore fewer residents — than the aging 4-story structure there now. Lower commercial density, equal or lower residential density. Total net loss for density, and for the city.

    The South and West of this country have never always had less history to preserve, and they’ve been awful at preserving what little they have. It has been noted that Pioneer Square remains as well-preserved as it is only because it spent decades SO undesirable that it was never lucrative enough to tear down, not even to replace with the acres of surface parking that replaced historic buildings from Houston to Indianapolis.

    But the rest of this city has seen workable density disappear wholesale, and replaced with failure. Others have pointed out the wasteland that is Belltown, that each new concrete behemoth does nothing to fix. There is no “broad civic prosperity” in street-level death.

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      In general, the reason those blocks empty after 5:30 is because the zoning only allowed one use – office space.

      I think a lot of the reason Belltown is such a wasteland is that it provides parking for nearly every new unit – people drive everywhere. Less parking, more market parking, and you’ll see more businesses able to survive. But again, a lot of Belltown’s development was single use, not mixed use. SLU is already better, just because of the mix.

      • asdf says

        I don’t know – if you don’t work at Amazon or live in one of the apartments there, much of SLU feels like a big wasteland.

      • Mike Orr says

        I walk through SLU occasionally early evening or weekend to stop at Veggie Grill. Terry Ave is looking pretty good. The southwest Terry & Mercer building has a big ground-floor “display” for pedestrians; the rows of sidewalk trees have “Christmas” lights; and there are some silly colored lights in the sidewalk. So it’s interesting, or at least as interesting as this generation of American architects has been able to achieve. Not a lot of pedestrians yet, but more than in lower downtown.

      • Ben Schiendelman says

        Mike, perhaps I’ll see you at Veggie Grill sometime. It’s becoming a mainstay. :)

  12. David B. says

    I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating:

    Regarding aesthetics, if I wanted to, I could search for (and eventually find) a major fixer of a classic Old Seattle home in a single family neighborhood, buy it, have it demolished, and build the biggest, ugliest, boxiest modernist single-family home the law would allow on the lot. It would trash neighborhood aesthetics, yet it would be 100% legal under the zoning code.

    Or I could try and build a tasteful duplex or triplex on the same lot, in a style compatible with (though somewhat larger than) its neighbors. Much less disruptive to neighborhood aesthetics yet it wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance of being approved in Seattle, where the single-family home is nigh near sacrosanct.

    • Nathanael says

      Bingo. The zoning code as it is *does not preserve aesthetics*.

      If aesthetics is what you care about, you’d do well to abolish the zoning code and pass a generic historic preservation code instead.

      • d.p. says

        Which is something I’ve suggested many times.

        If the building is over a certain age, a preservation review is triggered automatically before any permit is granted for demolition or exterior alteration of any sort.

        The review would be required to way architectural significance and rarity, as well as dimensions/proportions and street-level porousness — three relative tangibles that we know for a fact are irreplaceable under current mega-project financing and market forces.

        Instead, Seattle has a wishy-washy and often AWOL-at-quorum-time Preservation Board that has looked the other way as developers jackhammered facades to destroy their historic value, then tore the formerly-interesting structures down to replace them with exhaust fans and concrete slabs.

        Awful.

        When a 3-story structure on a corner lot is working, keep it. Make the developer build around. Perhaps allow them to build taller and with better FAR in exchange for building skinnier. Your street will improve as a result.

        Implode-and-replace only gets us more crap.

    • Mike Orr says

      That gets into the zoning aesthetics issue I mentioned a week or two ago. The code needs to emphasize the pedestrian experience more, and not allow large driveways or “open space” to encroach on it so much. This means making the artwork features smaller and more detailed like in pre-1940s styles, and perhaps making large wide buildings look like multiple narrower buildings. But we can’t require specific styles or it’ll be too limited, so I’m not sure how to articulate this in code.

      • Ben Schiendelman says

        Why is it the code’s responsibility? Before we zoned, developers built for pedestrians. It was only when we started limiting drastically what can be built that this changed. Now there’s no competition.

    • RossB says

      Absolutely. This is why the city should re-think the zoning laws. The folks on this blog can all preach to the choir, but I don’t think it will do any good. Like all public policy, there are goals, and there are trade-offs. My guess is that most of the voters in this city haven’t thought through them. Here are some goals:

      1) Make it pretty and interesting. This includes the landscaping.
      2) Not add to traffic congestion.
      3) Not add to parking problems.
      4) Make it affordable for people (especially families) to live in the area.

      It is obvious that these are conflicting interests. So, regardless of what magic legislation you create, you can’t please everyone. But the first step should be that we explain why. The first thing that should be tossed from that list is the parking requirement, since it conflicts with every other goal (in a big way). Unless we are willing to freeze all construction (which would sacrifice affordability) then we have to realize that parking will never be as easy as it was in the 1950s. Bummer.

      Once you have the goals, the really tricky park is legislating them. How do you measure aesthetics? If a board is in charge, will they do a good job? If the board takes forever to approve a design (sending it back repeatedly because it is too ugly) then will that cost us affordability. These aren’t easy problems to solve, but right now we aren’t even trying. OK, I give the city council credit for getting rid of (or trying to get rid of) some parking requirements, but even that was difficult. It shouldn’t be. I would love to see our representatives even talk about aesthetics. They don’t. We seem to be focused on traffic, parking and, once in a while, affordability. It is easy to ignore housing aesthetics, but it means a lot politically. If every neighborhood was as nice as say, Wallngford, but had the density of Capital Hill, then housing in the city would be very desirable and quite affordable. The end result would be less sprawl.

      • Ben Schiendelman says

        The idea that new development can “not add to traffic congestion” is probably not a good idea, because no one has ever been able to create economic growth without congestion.

  13. Devon says

    It seems like this is promoting a potentially false dichotomy. Density doesn’t have to be ugly or uncomfortable–take Paris as an example–but the problem is that in our time and place it usually is. When development replaces more walkable, interesting and lively storefronts–often older buildings with narrow street frontages yet deep retail spaces–we often end up with monotonous, rather dull spaces that all too frequently as well breed unimaginative chain stores. Is this because they’re more dense? Of course not. But it is a factor of our current development paradigms.

    I’m all for densifying our cities, especially my hometown of Seattle. Growing up in Queen Anne and never owning a car, it killed me seeing acres of parking lots surrounding downtown. Yet what goes in often lacks any imagination, and worse, is so cheaply built that it’ll be torn down in 30 years, which may not bode well for the sustainability argument. While density advocates are right to point to the merits of density, opponents are right to recoil at densification without a soul, so to speak. So let’s find the common ground, and advocate for responsible, lively density.

    Seattle is becoming a dense city, but hopefully not at the cost of being a city people want to actually live in. We don’t need to deride folks who are against density, but rather work with them to create a really pleasing form that we all will want to call home.

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      In general, if you limit density, it is not attractive, because builders have no incentive to compete with each other. That’s why pretty buildings exist – because they had to compete.

      • d.p. says

        Are you kidding me?

        19th century density was built beautifully because it was largely built by very-small-scale investors who lived locally and took pride in shaping the place they called home. In short, GIVING A SHIT about aesthetics and street-level appeal took precedence over the bottom line.

        You will NEVER get that out of today’s remote mega-developer, unless you legislate it!

  14. Geoff says

    My wife and I left the city when we decided to buy a house. We initially searched for a home to buy in the city but when we realized what was available to us in our price range, we quickly reconsidered.

    Now, after 2 years, I am not sure that I would ever come back, even if our income dramatically changed to allow us to do so.

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      That’s because you’re receiving a subsidy. It makes sense to live out there. If we solve that, the city will make more sense.

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