In Praise of Bean Counting

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On both sides of the urbanism argument, it is fashionable to worry about the details of how density is implemented. The right worries how “impacts” will be “mitigated,” as if density is an infection to be contained; the urbanist left is very interested in street interface, shadows, store widths, accompanying parking, and so on. After all, no one wants to have a simplistic view of a complicated issue, everyone wants to prove their Seattle bona fides with a complaint about what developers are doing, and the art of good design is much more interesting to write about than the science of stacking units on top of each other.

While all that stuff is important, I’m here to speak up for the utterly simplistic, spreadsheet-gazing practice of just considering how many net units a development is going to bring to the city.

Consider the overwhelming benefits of more housing in the City of Seattle:

  • Fewer vehicle miles traveled, resulting in less energy usage, air pollution, and run off into the Sound.
  • Less farmland and virgin forest destroyed for new housing.
  • More legislative representation and better treatment of urban issues in Olympia.
  • More time in congested central cities, where vehicle speeds make fatalities rare.
  • Less competition for existing affordable units.
  • More economic activity both in construction and in the businesses spawned by new units
  • A larger tax base for large capital projects (like light rail) that benefit everybody, as well as social programs

Moreover, there is the fundamental moral issue of turning away as few potential Seattle residents as possible. While it’s a tragedy every time a low-income person can no longer afford to live in Seattle, it’s also a shame when the failure to build housing forces a newcomer out of the city.

Now obviously this logic can be taken to absurd extremes. I’m on the urbanist left and sympathetic to the aesthetic and parking concerns, even if they’re overemphasized relative to raw population counts. It’s clearly not a good thing when a 60 unit low-income building with no parking and narrow storefronts is replaced with a slightly larger building with 62 luxury units, lots of parking, and blank walls at sidewalk level. For one thing, the low-income residents will have much more trouble coping with displacement. For another, injecting all those cars into the system will create many negative externalities.

But that is a rare and extreme case. When a project eliminates old housing stock at all, it typically replaces the units at a very high ratio. Pushing for sensible accompaniments to density is worthwhile, but not to the extent of severely curtailing the number of units built.

Comments

  1. Joe Szilagyi says

    I don’t think it’s accurate to call concerns about impact on transportation or wanting transportation to grow in pace with–instead of behind–population any level of “right wing”, or considering the possible pros of slightly pacing growth along those lines. Or, using the pace of growth as a political weapon to force more transportation. I favor transportation growth before housing growth, which is the harder political fight. Does that make me right wing? To call me right wing would be like calling Noam Chomsky a neo-conservative; ideology wise I’m somewhere between the Greens and Socialists. Many Democrats are to the right of me. No true lefty?

    • Ben Schiendelman says

      Nobody called *you* right-wing. Martin’s pointing out that trying to limit growth is right-wing. That concept – saying “transportation growth before housing growth” – causes clearly identifiable harm.

      • Joe Szilagyi says

        Have you guys done a column explaining (in layman’s terms) why the concept and implementation in that direction is harmful? I’m pretty sure that’s the de facto thought process the vast majority of people operate under, and if it’s really true it would be great to see it deconstructed with evidence.

      • djw says

        That concept – saying “transportation growth before housing growth” – causes clearly identifiable harm.

        In addition, while it sounds like a good idea in the abstract, it’s simply not how transit growth works most of the time. People live where they want, then start demanding the transit they need. Generally speaking, we’re far more likely to get the transit growth we need when there’s the political will to support it, not before.

        Opposing development because transit growth doesn’t precede it is, effectively no different than just opposing density increases in general. It’s like saying you’d support density in some other world, but not the one we have. I don’t see any reason to give much credit for that. All density opponents have some theoretical set of conditions in which they’d support density growth that can never be met. Yours is less silly-in-theory than most, but the effect is the same.

      • says

        Historically, before mass motorization and when most transit was privately operated, transit and housing developments were planned together. Or sometimes the transit was just built speculatively (this could be risky; Chicago’s Westchester line, for example, was built, started, and canceled before the hoped-for development ever happened — ironically, shortly after it was torn up the post-WWII housing boom led to development that may have kept it viable even through the rough times ahead for transit… if the train had hung on a few more years that part of the west suburbs might look totally different). Today roads are built out ahead of developments… but because the government builds roads it rarely does this intentionally, and the developments are auto-centric and not really planned in context with their surroundings (except possibly the freeway).

        Places where a strong pedestrian public realm exists, and where there’s adequate transit, are good sites for infill development that contribute to their walkable cores ahead of transit investment. Ballard is the most obvious case of this. Bellevue and Belltown are others, where the public street activation isn’t as good as it should be and developments that improve this should happen regardless of transit plans. Kirkland absolutely must expand its pedestrian core, and has the local street network to do it. Wallingford has to grow urban depth. Examples of places where more density may have been a mistake? I can’t imagine that the office park south of Northgate TC wasn’t a huge increase in commercial density, but its street layout is abysmal — when something that lousy is built there’s an opportunity cost because something better could have been built later. If that office park, or parts of it, redevelop now they’ll almost certainly be better than what’s there… if they redevelop with an opening date after the Link station is built they’ll be way better. If I-5 had been surrounded with stuff like this office park at every interchange, like what happened in Silicon Valley, we’d be in some trouble trying to untie that right now.

      • Mike Orr says

        “Kirkland absolutely must expand its pedestrian core”

        What must be expanded? Kirkland has a larger and more comprehensive walkable center than any other suburb [1], and it was the regional pioneer in this. And the walkability extends as far down Lake Washington Boulevard as recreationalists are willing to go. (I.e., I wouldn’t say Carillon Point is part of downtown’s walkshed, but it extends at least partway to there.) And north Market Street is laid out like a streetcar suburb, although the buildings may be large. So what exactly do you want that isn’t there?

        [1] Bellevue’s highrises make it hard to compare directly to other suburbs, because it’s essentially a different scale. Downtown Bellevue is “pretty walkable for a suburb”, but I’m not sure whether it’s more or less comprehensive than Kirkland re what percent of destinations are in walking distance.

        The main things I would do in Kirkland are: (1) taller buildings on Kirkland Ave: 4-5 stories except some historic buildings, (2) better walkability around Kirkland Parkplace mall, (3) do something about the automobile hellhole between the Parkplace and 124th (the 405 interchange).

      • says

        There’s a bit of good stuff in Kirkland, yes. Southeast of Central/Lake it only takes a few blocks for the street network to devolve into disconnected nonsense (Kirkland Parkplace is offender #1, but a lot of the apartment complexes are just as bad). Immediately north of there it’s laid out like a streetcar suburb but doesn’t have land use that takes advantage of it — it needs urban depth, like Wallingford does.

      • says

        I mean, saying Kirkland Parkplace needs “better walkability” is like saying U Village or Westwood need better walkability. Their basic form is antithetical to the development of a walkable public realm. Without intermediate streets and walkways that are truly public they’re little more than superblock malls (e.g. B-Square, Northgate) except you have to cross parking lot aisles between the stores.

      • Aleks says

        What neighborhood in Seattle *doesn’t* need more urban depth? The Ave, Capitol Hill, Fremont, Queen Anne… virtually every major Seattle neighborhood has one commercial street, surrounded by apartments at best, and single-family housing at worst. There are maybe one or two neighborhoods that have a couplet of commercial streets (Pike/Pine, Mercer/Roy), but outside of downtown and Belltown and arguably Ballard, I’m struggling to think of anywhere that you have a contiguous block of commercial density.

      • d.p. says

        Definitely Ballard (not just “arguably Ballard”).

        I pulled out the visual aids the last time someone tried to draw a false equivalence between Ballard and West Seattle.

        Along with your examples (which notably include sub-swaths of Capitol Hill but not Capitol Hill as a whole), Ballard is as close to approximating a real 3-dimensional city as anything Seattle has ever built.

      • Aleks says

        The reason I said “arguably Ballard” is that, while Old Ballard is solidly mixed-use, most new development seems to be taking place along a handful of corridors — 15th Ave, 24th Ave, Market St, Leary Way. It’s not clear that anyone’s lining up to redevelop, say, the blocks near 60th St and 20th Ave. But maybe that will just take some time.

    • Martin H. Duke says

      If you’re opposed to the agents of change on this issue, you’re on the right of it — that doesn’t say anything about your broader political views, or make you a “right winger” in the general sense.

      The entire point of this post is that density is a good thing even if it doesn’t come with first class transit.

      Moreover I suspect not having the density makes it harder to justify heavy transportation investment.

      • Joe Szilagyi says

        It would indeed make it harder to justify, hence why I said it would be the harder political fight, but if successful would be the less painful in the short term… probably, for the most people.

    • Brent says

      @Joe,

      If you want more transportation funding, then the easiest way to get there is to campaign for more transportation funding. Simultaneously fighting development does nothing to win votes for more transportation funding.

  2. says

    Where land use is monolithic density is severely limited by transportation capacity, as more and more space, in all three dimensions, must be used on transportation infrastructure. Maxing out practical density without addressing land use concerns is what happened in Silicon Valley, and now they’re in a Gordian knot regarding land use and transportation, unable to add much more of anything without radical, disruptive changes. They can’t add anything without putting more cars on the road, they don’t have the road capacity to add more cars, and they can’t expand roads without removing stuff. No single development or aggregation of individual density-maximizing actions can fix the problem — that’s been tried and just tied the knot tighter. Sprawl cheerleaders like Joel Garreau point this out as well as urbanists: there is no clear path to pedestrian-oriented urbanism once a car-centric area has become crowded. He’d suggest more sprawl and more freeways, which of course would mean bulldozing suburban neighborhoods the way urban neighborhoods were bulldozed in the ’60s.

    We’re not there yet, and there are a few places where lots of new units of the type that predominates on a block is a good idea. But in general we’d better be thinking long-term. We already drive more miles in total than is sustainable, we need to think about overall sustained level of travel all the time. Every new building ought to not just add to transit ridership, but ought to encourage people living, working, or visiting nearby to convert their routine trips to walking. That’s the real measure that has to be foremost, not any measure of density and certainly not height. It is not possible to build the city we want with monolithic building blocks.

    Today in Seattle a lot of new housing isn’t replacing old housing but other stuff: low-slung retail or commercial buildings, light industry, in narrow strips or in big chunks when a big industrial area goes up for redevelopment. Apartments and restaurants on Stone Way are replacing contractor suppliers. Next up, Rainier and Aurora. Bel-Red. SODO? Some of that is OK, but if, overall, it’s trading the diversity of our economic production for activity that’s mostly just dispersing the income of corporate workers it doesn’t make us stronger. That’s not something that can be controlled just by zoning, but it is unfortunate that growth attributed to Wallingford and Fremont is just in a narrow strip along Stone Way and not backing up, say, the 45th Street commercial strip with some depth and building a real walkable core there.

    • says

      (And I should say, on an up-or-down vote, I’d support almost all the new building proposals in Seattle and broadly deleting huge swaths of existing zoning and building code that either don’t contribute to or actively discourage good buildings and strong neighborhoods. Outside the city, there are a few that sound like getting us into the Silicon Valley trap. Nobody wants that.)

    • abject funk says

      I am a bit confused by this comment, and I mean, actually confused, not projecting this feeling onto the author. I live at the intersection of the Stone/45th arterials, and yes, my single family house (I rent) is slated for demolition to create a very large apartment building. I have to move, and hoo-boy do I wish I didn’t. I love my 100 year old bungalow rental and my location. But I have to agree that my location is ideal for a much denser development. So has been the case with the other apartment/condos built along the 45th and Stone roadways, in my opinion. I am not aware of any contractor suppliers being displaced. Instead, large parking lots and small, low-rise buildings that were not part of the contractor business have been replaced with many housing units. Stone way remains a very viable and productive strip of contractor suppliers, despite the infill.

      I have lived here 12 years, and I love my house and my location, but I recognize that now a lot more people than just me and my the 4 other single family house neighbors will be able to enjoy this situation by living in a large apartment building. Sucks for me to a certain extent, but it strikes me as good land use and having more folks in Wallingford is better than less folks, especially when the large developments are happening along the arterials. Go even one block off of 45th or Stone, and the neighborhoods remains single family homes (as they should, in my opinion). Also, Wallingford already has a 90+ walkscore nearly everywhere, my particular abode is close to 100 given my proxmity to the library, schools, parks, bus lines, restaurants, banks, etc. I don’t think Wallingford can really become any more walkable (I own a car, but never use it except to visit family and friends well outside the city, and I store it in my tiny garage, not on the street).

      In short, it seems like the denser infill in the Wallingford area has been done fairly thoughtfully from a density standpoint (I recognize many disagree regarding the aesthetics, but I have not seen any true eyesores). Each neighborhood is unique (Ballard and Wallingford are both similar and very different, as is such a comparison to Fremont). However, building large projects along the arterials strikes me as smart land use, and also (again, in my opinion) has not really affected the long-term and still quite successful suppliers that have continued to operate in the area, particularly Stone Way.

      My two cents. If you could clarify or point out my errors, that would be great. I will confess that the lower level retail spaces required in the new developments remain largely vacant. However, hopefully that will change, and in any event the requirement for new retail does not erase the fact that there was no retail in these locations prior to the construction of the new apartments/condos.

      Finally, I sound like a developer shill, but I am not. I am a density shill, and I think that on the whole things are moving in the right direction in this neighborhood, despite the fact I will need to move to a less desirable location due to the new construction projects.

      • d.p. says

        The short distillation of the problem is that the failure to allow any organic multi-family growth less than a block off of 45th — even modest duplexes or small-lot houses no more imposing than the bungalows that currently exist — forces monolithic design practices on the thin strips of land where density is permitted.

        In addition to being bad for economic and aesthetic vibrancy*, in the case of ½-block-wide strip zoning, you severely limit the walkshed of any higher-capacity transit and the patronage-shed of the businesses that keep the area vibrant. Wallingford’s 90+ walkscore is only as good as the people who have access to it.

        *(No matter how you feel about an individual building, inorganic sameness over any large swath is anathema to good urban placemaking.)

      • RossB says

        I agree with all of those points, d. p. I heard a friend of mine once mention that he thought it made a lot of sense to put apartment buildings on arterials. Basically, he didn’t want them next to his house (or in other neighborhoods with lots of houses). It wasn’t until I started thinking about placing stations in this exact neighborhood (Wallingford) that I came to the same conclusion as you — density just along a corridor makes high capacity transit very difficult.

        But the other point is also a very good one. I think he didn’t want to live next to a big apartment because:

        1) Most of the new apartments are ugly — or at the very least, much the same as the other apartments next to them (which as a group becomes ugly).
        2) The apartments are too big (he doesn’t want to live next to a big apartment building).

        Both of these are a failure of the zoning. As I say below, this part of the zoning code needs to go. It was designed to preserve parking, or worse, to preserve the “character of the neighborhood” (which is pretty close to an attack on class, if not the race of the typical tenant). Allow small apartments, small bungalows, row houses, etc. Focus on the external dimensions, not the number of occupants. That just seems so simple to me, that I really have no sympathy for the counter argument (and I am generally very sympathetic to counter arguments). Furthermore, the restrictions on the number of units ignores the fact that many of Seattle’s nicest neighborhoods are a mix of small apartments and houses. Most of the apartments are older — a sure sign that there are some flaws in the current zoning that should be addressed. The parking requirement is not solely responsible for new ugly buildings, but it sure plays a part.

      • says

        @RossB: Here’s one account of the problem as regards townhomes. Some of that doesn’t apply to apartments or condos, and the economic situation is somewhat different now that in the last housing boom, but some of what that author mentions comes into play with strip-zoning and ugly apartments.

      • RossB says

        Thanks Al — Excellent link. This is a great example of how legislation designed to make new buildings more palatable to the neighbors does just the opposite. The end result is not only ugly buildings, but political backlash (who wants that crap in their neighborhood). So much of it goes back to parking, although as the article mentions, there are other stupid restrictions that tie the hand of the developer. It reminds me of the 1980s, when Ballard underwent its big duplex/quadruplex boom. It gave density in this town a bad name. Ugly buildings with really ugly concrete in front. In many cases the developer shared the blame, but without the parking requirement, the buildings would have looked nicer (they couldn’t look any worse).

        Personally, I think most of the developments in the last twenty years are much nicer. The developers are doing an outstanding job of making reasonably good looking places despite the restrictions. As for the particulars of the zoning, I would do the following:

        1) Keep the setback for most areas. In some cases, it should be eliminated.
        2) Kill the backyard requirement. If builders want to add a little yard, let them add it. It shouldn’t be fenced in — that’s just stupid. The most enjoyable SFH neighborhoods in Seattle have open yards that allow pedestrians to enjoy a variety of landscaping. It is easy to claim that Seattle is trying to preserve its suburban flavor by saving houses and requiring these sorts of restrictions on new development. But Seattle houses are nothing like the houses in any suburb I’ve even seen. I spend a huge part of my time walking in Seattle neighborhoods. In comparison, neighborhoods in the suburbs (at least every suburb I’ve ever visited) are extremely boring. The lots are too big, the landscaping too homogenous, and the houses all look the same.
        3) Kill the parking requirement.
        4) Keep the height limits, but consider raising them for most of these zones.
        5) Kill the density restrictions and apply it in SFH areas. This means that you can build a small apartment in a SFH area.
        6) Reduce or eliminate the lot coverage restriction. Once you have a setback, why limit the coverage? OK, I can see why, so that is why I think a reduction is in order, not necessarily a complete elimination. This part of the zoning, like a lot of the rules (one entrance for parking) are reactionary. Builders follow the old rules (which are ridiculously restrictive) and build crap. People complain, and they add new rules on top. The city should sit down with developers and design guidelines that could lead to better looking buildings. I’m sure the first thing a developer would say is that getting rid of the parking requirement would be huge. Once you do that, it shouldn’t be too hard to design rules that allow for a variety of designs, but reduce the chance of building crap.

        It is as if they are expected to paint a masterpiece, but the background has to be grey.

      • says

        @Ross: Whenever I read that article I always feel like I have to add my own thoughts on the fences. They’re almost always of low quality and totally opaque, the opposite of what we want in our neighborhoods. It isn’t good for residents, either — prevents them from seeing and interacting with people on the sidewalk, prevents them from showing off their gardening, prevents their play from spilling over onto the sidewalk and parkway. And they hide front doors, which is rarely a good thing.

        I think a lot of these are better than nothing and not worth opposing on an individual basis (though certainly the code needs to change); they often replace dilapidated houses anyway. About the only residential developments I’d oppose are ones that replace something clearly better. Even a lot of not-so-great commercial developments ultimately contribute to where we want to go despite their flaws; there’s a lot wrong with the office park area near the canal in lower Fremont, and we should demand that future development there is better, but it attracted employers that would have otherwise camped out along 520. I’m less certain of the Ballard Blocks or the totally blank building to the north of it (I’m not even sure what’s in it, and I’ve never thought to try to find out). And I’m pretty sure every expansion of U Village is Bad For Seattle.

        As for the strip zoning thing, d.p. said it all.

      • RossB says

        Yeah, I really don’t get the rules that lead to the fences. For many of these rules (like the parking one) I understand the rational, but disagree with it. With the rules requiring an individual backyard, I just don’t get it. What is the point?

        What happens twenty years later, when the fence starts falling apart? Are the owners required to maintain it? If I lived there, I would tear it down once it started getting ugly — which, as you point out, happens very soon in many cases.

      • Mike Orr says

        I’m glad abject funk is supportive of density on Stone Way even though it will displace his own house. This is the kind of thinking we need more of: not density everywhere, but density in the most logical places near urban centers and major transit routes. He also points out,

        “Wallingford already has a 90+ walkscore nearly everywhere, my particular abode is close to 100 given my proxmity to the library, schools, parks, bus lines, restaurants, banks, etc. I don’t think Wallingford can really become any more walkable”

        That’s with the current zoning of single-family 1 block from 45th. So we need to recognize what is working and encourage it. At the same time, we should discuss a wider upzone around 45th, and ideally a rectangular upzoned area rather than linear, because that’s what really makes walkability accessible to a lot of people and leads to optimal transit ridership and car non-use. However, I’d say the Seattle politic is not ready for rectangular areas so we should start with just 1 or 2 blocks off 45th.

        “I don’t think Wallingford can really become any more walkable”

        Perhaps not. The issue then is not to make it “more” walkable, but to allow a larger number of people to live in Wallingford so they can enjoy that level of walkability. And that leads directly to density.

        However, yes you can make it significantly more walkable by densifying a rectangular area as I said. If, for instance, everything inside 50th – Aurora – 40th – Corliss were low-rise multifamily mixed-use, there would be tons of more business destinations as well as residents, and you would have less need to ever leave the neighborhood. That’s what Chicago’s North Side is like, but in a 2-3 mile rectangle (on each side) rather than the modest 1/2 mile sides I suggested. Chicago is what I really want, the 1/2 mile area is a potential compromise, and one-street upzones around 45th are a potential NIMBY-friendly starting point.

      • Nathanael says

        Perhaps there should be anti-ugly-buildings regulations. Seems hard to do without having it taken over by people with really rigid ideas of what’s ugly, but there’s got to be some way to say “preserve the nice buildings, knock down the ugly ones, build new ones which are nice”… there’s just got to be some way!

  3. d.p. says

    It’s clearly not a good thing when a 60 unit low-income building with no parking and narrow storefronts is replaced with a slightly larger building with 62 luxury units, lots of parking, and blank walls at sidewalk level.

    This is an almost-literal description of what is about to happen in the photograph above.

    • JonCracolici says

      Are you sure? I thought that the new building had 205 units. Thats what the DPD says anyway.

      • d.p. says

        That’s on a consolidated lot with about 3.5 times the footprint of the Pinevue building. How many units are on the Pinevue’s footprint alone (which any experienced developer from a high-lot-value city could easily have built around)? If the units and the common spaces are any bigger than what they replace — which is virtually guaranteed — you’ll see no net unit increase at the Pinevue. It would have been better to renovate the existing building, and to perhaps apply to add a fourth story.

        Meanwhile, the five-storefront frontage is guaranteed to drop to one or two. Why? Because where those five businesses used to have their storerooms… is going to be parking!

        This is why it is vital to probe the details, rather than to “bean count” as a euphemism for doubling down on fallacies about market elasticity and housing-stock fungibilty (my least favorite libertarian-Seattle meme).

      • Harold says

        @ d.p. – It’s ironic that you implore others to “probe the details” when you’re so obviously ignorant of those same details. According to KC property records, the building shown in the photo contains 16 units – not 60 as you imply. How can you support your claim that there will be no net unit increase?

      • d.p. says

        Oh, yeesh.

        I never said the former building contained 60 apartments. I said that Martin’s example — where a piece of functional density on a small footprint is replaced by something barely more dense in nominal terms, but carrying significant negative externalizes — perfectly applies here. And I was right.

        Here is the typically ridiculous work of façadist design that is about to Godzilla the Timken Roller Bearing (a.k.a. Pinevue) Building. The new building is so huge that barely 10% of it sits on the Pinevue’s footprint (I was too generous in my earlier estimation). At most, you’re looking at an “unit increase” from 16 to about 20. Inspiring.

        This is the back side of the Pinevue. The first thing you’ll notice is that the rear units are recessed behind a window well, so that they may still retain light and air if a larger building were ever constructed right to the lot line. The new building, therefore, is really only replacing the six units facing this window well… as well as stamping out the commercial storerooms at ground level. There will be no “unit increase” in the building’s front half — just the 1:1 replacement of cheap with expensive, and the guaranteed reduction in number and quality of commercial spaces.

        Megaprojects are not the only way to increase unit density in an area; they are arguably the worst way to do so, from the standpoint of organic urban vibrancy. But if this megaproject had to happen, there is clearly no valid reason not to have built it around this existing chunk of high-functioning density, rather than to plow through it. Only when you note the conversion of much of the block’s ground-level space to parking infrastructure do you realize why the developers “had” to gut the existing building. Again, this is Martin’s example to a “T”.

      • Martin H. Duke says

        I don’t have any particular knowledge of that block or that development, but quick inspection via your link and Google maps suggests that the totality of the project is replacing 16 units at Pinevue, a surface parking lot, a smallish apartment building with perhaps 2 dozen units, a single family home, and four or five business spaces in the Melrose building, with 200+ housing units and an unknown number of retail spaces.

        The ratio would be appear to be about 200 residences to 40 and probably an approximate wash in retail storefronts. To me, that seems like a pretty significant gain. It isn’t as many as there could be — it’d be great if they could tack on another 20 stories or remove parking — but from the 10,000′ level this seems like exactly the kind of good thing I’m talking about.

      • Martin H. Duke says

        I do agree that adjusting the footprint to preserve either of the two apartment buildings is likely to increase the overall density of the block, although I could be convinced otherwise. If it nixes the project that’s a bad thing.

      • d.p. says

        There is no logistical reason why “building around” would have nixed the project. Indeed, it would have forced far more creativity from the design team, and perhaps a rethink of the “let’s fill most of the ground-level interior with parking” default. Both would have been positive outcomes.

        In cities where high land values make consolidating half a dozen properties prohibitively expensive, or where whole-block replacements are considered civically unacceptable, most redevelopment involves some amount of spatially-adaptive design.

        To argue that the Pinevue is being “replaced” by 205 units, when so little of the new project sits on its footprint, misleads the discourse.

        (I should note that I think the façadist approach works reasonably well atop the Melrose/Bauhaus Building, and that I have no objection to the added seven stories on this part of the block. The colors and the massing are actually quite complementary. Only at the Pinevue Building does façadism fail both in its aesthetics and in its claims of residential housing-stock betterment. Yet another argument for building around, and for detail-parsing over bean-counting.)

        As an historical aside, the purported “single-family home” under the footprint of this project is one of Seattle’s last two remaining “hill houses”. Predating the regrade of the area, these structures sit atop anachronistic slivers of the natural grading of Capitol Hill, and therefore contribute both historical context and visual diversity to the area. Neither has been a “single-family home” for many decades — each contains roughly 4-6 apartments.

        Fortunately, the hill house to be destroyed by this project is the one in less good condition, and less worthy of preservation. But if another megaproposal threatened the remaining half of the block, I’d be the first to lay down before the bulldozer. This is the very definition of “protection-worthy urban contributor”, the kind of historic artifact that puts the rest of present and future city surrounding it into context, that keeps the street interesting and that plays well visually with its neighbors despite the decades and the scale differential 20-foot regrade that divides them. (It does this mostly on account of its skinny lot. Skinny lots being the species most threatened by the megadevelopment approach.)

        A city worthy of consolidating population in demands organic growth, incongruous juxtapositions, historic points of reference, and messy space beyond the scope of architects’ easels. You bean-count these things away at your city’s peril.

      • Martin H. Duke says

        d.p.

        As I said, I know little of this particular example. I’d really have to see what the smaller-footprint version of this looks like, and have a better appreciation for how it actually impacts the development economics of the lots.

        I don’t think it’s “misleading” to say that the project footprint currently contains about 30-40 units, and will be replaced by over 200. It’s true that the project is not purely optimal — you have good suggestions for how to improve it — but it’s a net positive for the city.

      • Harold says

        @ d.p. – For [ad hom], you may want to think twice about making claims that you’re “right”.

        The Pinevue Building is 13,450 gross square feet on a 4,436sf lot zoned NC3-65. The FAR allowed on this portion of the site is 4.75 (or 21,000sf). In your world is 21,000 > 13,450? Here in Seattle, 21,000 is 56% larger than 13,450.

        Please explain to us how you can be so certain that a new building which is 56% larger than the one it is replacing will result in no net unit increase.

        You were wrong about the details of the Pinevue, just as you were wrong in your original assertion that this project is a perfect application of Martin’s example.

      • d.p. says

        What was it that Disraeli and Twain said about statistics?

        this aerial and this profile, when compared to the present building depths on a Google Map, amply demonstrate that only 1/2 to 3/5 of the Pinevue is getting built up. So at most, you’re getting a few extra partial units in exchange for your loss of a functioning, free-standing, affordable-density building.

        Even if this portion of the site intends to total the 21,000 square feet you claim — your math yields a hypothetical maximum, not a site plan — a portion of this is being lost to garage and common-space access at the ground level. And are the new units (partly) atop this footprint significantly larger than the ones in the Pinevue? If so, it’s quite possible that your extra thousands of square feet may yield little (or no) resultant “unit increase”.

        (Or is it news to you that raw square footage ≠ unit density? I never cease to be amazed how Seattleites will apply Unwavering Ideology to their Math Degrees and wind up with a Steaming Pile of Facile Bullshit.)

        The good news is that the most recent round of documents promise (at least in theory) to retain at 3.5 to 4.5 of the five separate retail spaces facing Pine. If this remains true, the damage to Pine Street will not be nearly as awful as it might have been.

      • Harold says

        Twain is also credited with advising not to argue with a fool as onlookers may not be able to tell the difference. And yet, I will try one last time to explain this to you. I’ll make this extremely simple for you [ah]. Go to the DR packet in the link you provide and simply count the units. You can count, right? Turn to pages 16-23. And you don’t even have to worry your pretty little head about finding the property-line of the Pinevue site since the design preserves the exterior walls. If you count the units within (and above) the Pinevue footprint (labeled as the Timken in the packet) you’ll see that there will be 32 units compared to the 16 units in the existing Pinevue. [Ah], but I imagine that you’ll still attempt to argue that you were somehow right. Good luck with that.

      • d.p. says

        [Ah]. The two presently residential floors of the Pinevue (newly christened “Level 3″ and “Level 4″) are being replaced at fewer units per floor: where eight units existed in each, four will be installed, plus most (but not all) of two others. So these floors represent a drop from 8 to about 5.75 units each.

        “Level 5″ contains lofted spaces for the units in “Level 4″. These will be wedged into the current roof line, and will have no Level-5 egress to the attached new construction. These are not separate units.

        “Levels 6-9″ each contain three units that exist almost (but not quite) within the footprint of the former Pinevue, plus two others that are barely 55% within said footprint. So each of these floors adds only 4-ish units for having subsumed and eradicated the existing, affordably-dense structure. 5.75 + 5.75 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 = 27.5 brand-spanking new, expensively-built units where there used to be 16 worn-in, affordable ones. That’s a fairly minor gain. But you can be sure that the financiers considered all 27.5 units when calculating the “need” for 180 parking spaces, whereas the prior units “needed” none. So now you can enjoy more spatial waste within and beneath the building as the result of the questionable incorporation of the Pinevue into the site.

        While Martin and I might disagree on the weight that should be given to raw beans, I appreciate that he recognizes the conundrum inherent in letting megaprojects subsume existing good density, and that he hasn’t swallowed the false Seattle presumption that if it “looks” big, it must boast inherently optimal density metrics. Martin understands that a city built like this has at least as many units per acre as any Seattle megaproject, and that it functions far better at street level… if only we can figure out how to go back to building cities as they used to be built. But you go on insulting anyone who doesn’t buy your skewed math and gross misreadings of floor plans. Your “genius” sadly typifies this city.

      • says

        The biggest problem with a lot of new buildings is parking, right? Parking requirements encourage mega-buildings (or multi-building complexes) because parking access requires ground-level infrastructure, and a large building allows that to be consolidated, preserving as much valuable ground-level space as possible.

        Once on-site parking is required, and once a developer has decided to go with structured parking, the amount of parking required mostly just dictates how deep the garage has to go. More parking means the cost of building goes up, the price of parking goes down, and car density rises in neighborhoods that are already over-full with cars. All bad things, but as far as the street level goes, the damage was done before the beans were counted. We need more parking-free or parking-light buildings in the pedestrian cores of our neighborhoods. There are better things to do with ground-level space there, and it’s rarely convenient for anyone (resident or visitor) to drive the last couple blocks in anyway.

        Aside from parking there’s also the issue of new units being more expensive. There’s a conflict between short-term and long-term affordability, between affordability in one building, in a neighborhood, and city-wide. Lifting the parking-in-every-damn-building requirement would make it easier to build smaller-footprint buildings that leave good existing ones alone, though I don’t know that just striking parking requirements would actually cause it to happen. It probably would mean more buildings without parking, like the old ones we all like — it could hardly mean fewer of them! And maybe more market-rate parking lots in specific locations, like up against the freeway, where it’s not such a loss.

      • d.p. says

        Indeed. Anything that could permit/foster/incentivize no-parking development, infill development, unbroken-frontage development, and skinny development would be a drastic improvement over the current lazy default.

        Unfortunately, develop-by-numbers habits die hard, and in the absence of land values high enough to force infill rather than slash/burn/overbuild, there will likely need to be a regulatory nudge toward better building forms. “Carrots” for low-car, low-neighborhood-impact, high-quality design approaches should be paired with “sticks” to penalize the wholesale gobbling of that which would be better built around and between.

        (I’m not sure why the censorship of my curse-free and only mildly sardonic dismantling of Harold’s mistaken site-plan math deleted all paragraph breaks and markup from my prior comment. Did any hyperlinks disappear as well? For the record, the floor-by-floor analysis rebuts a false claim that unit density on the Pinevue’s footprint intends to double.)

      • Martin H. Duke says

        d.p.,

        Sorry, the paragraph breaks issue is a recent one with comment moderation on WordPress for Android. I added some back this morning but probably didn’t do it the way you intended.

        The solution is not to lob ad homs when my computer is already off. :-)

      • d.p. says

        No worries. I remembered that the lost hyperlink was a zoomed-in aerial image of a single block in center-city Philadelphia with a far greater unit density than any megaproject in Seattle, in the form of skinny buildings of various ages ranging from 3-5 stories.

        It wasn’t the first such counterpoint image I’ve posted, and it certainly won’t be the last. If a reader of this blog continues to insist that Seattle-style construction is the only way to achieve such density (or the optimal way to activate the street while doing so), no ad hominem episodes will be required to reveal that person’s cerebral limitations.

  4. aw says

    “Less farmland and virgin forest destroyed for new housing.”

    This is a minor point, but there is no virgin forest in western Washington outside of federal lands. There are some tall stands of second and third growth forest.

  5. mobilitor says

    The humongous bean in the room that rarely gets counted is the fiscal unsustainability of much of suburbia. Urban sprawl is by and large a fiscal ponzi scheme where revenues from new developments are used to pay for the upkeep of old developments. That’s one reason why there are those ridiculous road packages in state capitols – locals can’t pay for upkeep so they order even more expensive stuff at the state level. Losing money on every investment can’t go on forever, and will at some point necessitate extreme tax hikes and cuts to services. Sprawl has the potential to bring down entire countries in the long term. Or we could go back to development patters where infrastructure and development is productive enough (as in revenue per unit of area) to pay for itself.

    Also, market pressures: Joint Center for Housing Studies: America’s Rental Housing: Evolving Markets and Needs: “Our new report, America’s Rental Housing: Evolving Markets and Needs shows that significant erosion in renter incomes over the past decade has pushed the number of households paying excessive shares of income for housing to record levels. ” (Infographic). Combined with the undersupply of urban housing, the economic consequences are rather negative.

  6. Mark Dublin says

    Trouble with counting beans, as with all small objects, is that it imposes an extremely narrow field of vision on the practitioner. Inadvisable where there’s grooved rail underfoot and catenary overhead.

    Another problem is that the drier the bean, the harder it is to measure the quality. Call quality irrelevant, and you’ll automatically have savage opposition from quarters where you’d normally have strong support.

    Martin, and Ben, it does your position no good to class a term as indiscriminate as “density” as a matter of political right and left because you’re ticked at NIMBY’s. It’s about like Alyssa Rosenbaum, who was likely brilliant before she turned into Ayn Rand, dedicated her life to a decades-long tirade glorifying selfishness because the murdering crooked slobs who won the Russian civil war talked so much about brotherhood.

    I just read her first book, “We the Living”- probably the last time she was able to create believable human characters. Whose performances she unfortunately spoiled worse than Gary Cooper’s in “The Fountainhead” by putting Milton Friedman’s ideas in the mouths of intelligent, passionate, heartbroken young Russian soldiers. One great passage on density as a general concept: a speech by a drunken Ukrainian coast-guard secret policeman who’d just been thrown out of the Communist Party for declaring that the world was afraid of the Soviets because it mistook a giant pile of roaches for a huge furry bear.

    Good concept to keep in mind involving actual buildings a block or less from traction power overhead: difference between the Greenfire apartment project and the Ballard Library on one hand, versus the ugly, oversized and currently very soggy packing crate looming above the corner of Market and 24th NW.

    Lucky for Ballard, and humanity, and the whole idea of density, that the first two buildings were built to last a hundred years, and the second one will likely rot for no more than fifteen or twenty. By which time demolition could be a matter of a couple of days. Get the rent at Greenfire down to where those of us who used to live at Lockhaven can afford it, and likely there’ll be enough demand on opening day to justify building enough similar housing to justify a subway station under the park by the library.

    Mark Dublin

    • d.p. says

      You lost me at “Greenfire”, Mark.

      That “campus” is an urban travesty: the buildings cover less than 25% of a very large lot; the project has zero direct street frontage; and massive white driveways are the prominent street-level feature on both its faces.

      Greenfire is what happens when the Smug Coast wealthy believe they can alleviate their environmental guilt through (unscalable) technology, rather through any improvements in the sustainability of their lifestyle. It’s a great greenwash, a porous-surfaced fraud.

      • Mark Dublin says

        d.p. and djw, thanks for literary criticism. Jack Kerouac’s volumes of uncontrolled free-association reportedly resulted from eating contents of benzedrine inhalers plus habit of feeding an entire roll of telegrapher’s paper into his typewriter before hitting the first key.

        Me: unfortunate congruence of nonstop cargo driving between former residence in Ballard and new one in Olympia, and world’s best espresso at Olympia Coffee Roasting- with a writing table a few feet from a fragrant, blazing roaster. Need public service announcement campaign on dangers of wired driving. And commenting.

        Much not to copy about Greenfire- starting with the word “Campus” to describe an apartment building. Like calling fare arrangements and bank-loans “products”. And proceeding to bizarre offset staircase to loft inadvisable at age when compound fractures don’t self-heal. But do happen to like the look of the place better than current and recent generations of apartment building, and really hate the blatantly shabby construction- which is not just an aesthetic problem.

        Removed from Ballard but closely contemporary: stop in to large new residence across from Othello Station, and have the agent show you down an upstairs hall. And notice how the floor shakes every time you take a step. Hate to carp, but do think that with building materials and technology available, we can do better.

        Reference to Ayn Rand was mainly about taking an abstract one-word concept and making a lifelong political battle-flag out of it. The United States probably owes its survival to our people’s losing old-world intellectual habits like dealing with an idea the way a terrier handles a rat. Longing to drive a blue and white Skoda trolleybus under fifty miles of wire across a mountain range in the Crimea is not my only attachment to the heritage Alyssa, I mean Ayn, and I share.

        So far, though, New York City, Tel Aviv, and Haifa have had to suffice. Really wonder if a democratic socialist faction had won the Russian civil war instead of the Bolsheviks, Israel and Russia would relate culturally like Canada and the US. Dan Transport Cooperative in Tel Aviv were great hosts, but didn’t let me drive anything.

        Little known fact over here: car and bus crashes kill many more Israelis than terrorists do. In ’91, Scud attacks killed two, but in days after the final all-clear, roadside ditches ran red from crashes. Weekend of my visit, terrorist killed one bus driver. And huge red Neoplan double-decker killed four and wounded 27 when it took out a taxi.

        Seriously, I was much affected by the book, and would strongly recommend it- but on condition of some familiarity with Russian history and demographics. By the time of the First World War, Western Europe had had almost three hundred years to get over the devastation that ended the Middle Ages there. Solszhenitsyn noted that in 1915, the Renaissance started when the first German shell landed in a Russian trench. Still, excellent read about what a war on domestic soil really does to the people who survive it.

        Mark

      • RossB says

        I don’t think environmental guilt has anything to do with it. If so, those are some really stupid environmentalists (look — there’s a tree — I’m helping the earth). Anyone with any knowledge of the issues knows that the best thing you can do for the earth is be as urban and as poor as possible. Most people don’t like being poor, so you can at least be urban.

        I think the project is just typical American “you can have it all” attitude. It is what built the suburbs. Move to the wilderness — it will be in your backyard! Then take an effortless drive on a brand new freeway and be in the city in minutes. Of course, moving to the suburbs to avoid the problems of the city only made things worse, whether it be traffic, the urban landscape or racial tension. Suburbia has thrashed the environment, even though being closer to the natural world was one of its selling points. Now, of course, people move to the suburbs not because they prefer it there, but for the same reason they move to the suburbs in most of the world — they can’t afford the city. Unfortunately, the often find a landscape that is nowhere near as nice or as varied as that found in the city.

        Anyway, in general I like urban parks. I walked by the new park on Maple Leaf and it is something special. I’ve never seen so many people so close together in that neighborhood (unless you count the Snappy Dragon on a Saturday night). This is a game changer. Just like Greenlake, there is someone who is saying to their spouse “but honey, if we move to that apartment there we won’t need a yard — we will just walk to the playground down the street”. There is a the potential for a lot of apartment buildings around there. Parks should be public. Buildings should look good from the street. If you have a backyard it should be tiny. These things should be obvious.

    • djw says

      Mark, I normally find your contributions valuable but this comment is impenetrable. I assume you must not be saying people who don’t share your aesthetic judgments of developments in Ballard are somehow just like Ayn Rand, but I don’t know how else to read this.

  7. Frank Chiachiere says

    From a policy perspective, it makes me think of the distinction between blunt tools and fine-grained ones. How much should we micromanage through regulation? On one hand, cities like Vancouver seem to have achieved higher levels of density with fairly prescriptive legislation. But there are typically unforseen consequences.

    I’m reminded of the ban on interstate banking in America that persisted until the 1990s. On the one hand, it was sort of a dumb rule: why should a Portland, OR bank not be allowed to open a branch for its customers across the river in Vancouver, WA? On the other hand, the rule ensured that no bank was “too big to fail” and it was impossible for even the most sophisticated Wall Street financiers to get around. It’s pretty obvious when you open a new branch! By contrast, the Volcker Rule, which tries to limit too big to fail while preserving interstate banking, is hundreds of pages long and so riddled with exemptions that it’s just a matter of time before Wall Street finds a loophole to exploit.

    I guess this is a way of saying that sometimes governments are better off enacting simple, dumb rules (“more units”), even if they have some bad side-effects, instead of complicated, fine-grained rules that are hard to enforce.

    • RossB says

      Good point. I think simplicity should be a goal of every legislation. Sometimes it makes sense to surrender simplicity for other considerations though, but we should have a very good reason for making things complicated. Personally, I think we could easily come to a consensus on zoning in this city if we had a real conversation about it. But generally speaking, we tend to fight stupid battles, and end up with reactionary zoning, and fairly poor results.

      • Nathanael says

        Indeed, a simple, clear rule always has great advantages over a complicated rule: it’s less “game-able”.

        In the UK, from what I can tell, they have a *very* simple rule. Every single project must get individual permission from a planning board. There is no “building by right”.

        That’s simple, guys. You can’t “game the rules” because the only rule is “satisfy the planning board”. It has its own problems — corrupt planning boards, planning boards with crazy quixotic attitudes, etc. — but we have all those problems here too with our “zoning variances”, so it doesn’t seem any worse, and in fact seems better.

  8. Breadbaker says

    My only comment on growth is that the steps taken to mitigate construction impact while it is going on are insufficient and often dangerous. When I bike downtown from Wallingford, I pass about eight construction projects, and in none of them is there anything done to make it safe for bikes. Simply sticking a “Bikes merge with traffic” sign fifteen feet from when the bike lane has been covered with construction equipment is insufficient and dangerous. Moving construction equipment without warning into a street where bikes are riding downhill, and then holding up a stop sign at the last minute is a recipe for disaster.

  9. Sam says

    I keep hearing that density and rail will turn a city into a utopia. But whenever I ask which American city that has density and lots of rail are we striving to be more like, I never get a straight answer. Perhaps because density and rail do not a Shangri-La make. If 100 years from now Seattle were the densest city with the most light rail lines on earth, guess what? It would be the opposite of utopia.

    • Mike Orr says

      When have you asked this? The city with the best density and transit is clearly New York, where millions of people can get to all parts of the city and far out to the region (including New Jersey, Long Island, DC, Philly, and Boston) without ever getting in a car, bus, or at-grade train — and much of it they can do frequently 24 hours a day, at least as far as Newark and part of Long Island. The second is Chicago which has a similar comprehensiveness on a smaller scale (frequent to Cumberland Street, hourly Metra to the further suburbs). Washington DC is third, and is the only case of Chicago-like walkability built after WWII. (I can’t place Philly and Boston individually since I’ve only been to Philly twice and Boston never.) After that, San Francisco and the Bay Area are a distant fourth, and central Los Angeles (metro area) has had some impressive gains.

      Overall I see a divide between large northeastern cities that kept their pre-WWII levels of transit and walkability (NY, Chi-town, Boston, Philly, and San Francisco [city only]), and everywhere else which destroyed their prewar transit base and walkability or were too new to ever have it. Washington DC is the only place that successfully jumped from the latter category to the former. So I don’t have high hopes that Seattle will ever have as comprehensive transit/walkability/density as Chicago or San Francisco. And Americans have no experience with the even higher density in Hong Kong or other Asian cities, so I wouldn’t recommend that.

      The problem with your question is that there are not many good examples to emulate. New York and Chicago are unattainable — they’re too much to aim for; it would cost tens of billions to build that much transit and density; and the Seattle public is not nearly ready for it. So then, why not emulate DC? But DC has several unique advantages: a desire to impress foreign diplomats with a “European” capital and metro, hundreds of thousands of federal bureaucrats commuting to central office buildings, and early success with suburban density at in Alexandria that the other burbs wanted to emulate. (In some ways, that was accidental success, the way Vancouver’s West End and Metrotown were successful beyond expectations.) So maybe Los Angeles? There is some to learn from LA about frequent transit and grid systems, but not about parking minimums. But LA is such a large city that some things don’t translate to Seattle, like the large-scale downtown eco-upzone that was suggested recently.

      So then… there’s where you fall off a cliff. There aren’t many other cities to emulate because most of them have worse transit and walkability than Seattle. We don’t want Phoenix’s or SLC’s or San Diego’s or Atlanta’s or Dallas’s sprawl, even if they all have light rail (or heavy rail) systems now. Portland has had great success with walking and biking, and it was one of the first light rails, but its light rail is so slow downtown it’s practically unusable, and it doesn’t even reach walkable areas like the Hawthorne district. So we’re forced to chart our own course, with only the rust belt cities and DC as inspirations, but no direct model.

      • Jim Cusick says

        ” – they’re too much to aim for; it would cost tens of billions to build that much transit and density; and the Seattle public is not nearly ready for it. “

        and therein lies the key to the argument.

        Solving the mobility problem will cost multiple tens of billions, regardless of the mode.

      • Nathanael says

        DC, famously, got piles of money for its Metro directly from the federal government when it started, because the federal government was embarassed to be located in a city with no subway. I don’t think that can be replicated.

        It’s important to remember that there is no “final state” for a city, and cities evolve slowly. You’d love to see a city more like New York or Chicago, but you can’t get there the way they did because the history is different. You’re starting somewhere else.

        Los Angeles is a good example of a modern retrofit of a city which had lost all of its transit. But LA is also an 800-pound-gorilla of the sort which you cannot hope to emulate — they also started somewhere else, namely Much Bigger.

        For the next 20 years, perhaps the most reasonable “comparison cities” in the US are San Diego and Portland OR, both of which were in situations moderately comparable to Seattle and both of which have been fairly aggressively trying to change things around to be more transit-oriented.

        Perhaps San Diego and Los

  10. Elbar says

    I remember reading that Seattle’s first street cars were sponsored by real estate developers in order to encourage people to move to outlying areas such as Madison Park, etc.

    • Jim Cusick says

      Before taxpayer funded paved highways, most established cities grew that way.

      Rail induced sprawl.

    • Mike Orr says

      It was a different kind of “sprawl”! It was walkable neighborhoods around streetcar stations, and walkable town centers around interurban stations. Whenever people shopped, they went to the areas around the station — not to isolated malls or big-box stores at freeway exits. They could get groceries, clothes, their mail, a haircut, a movie, their school, and a train to the next neighborhood or town — all by walking around Main Street. And without being in some enclosed private-property mall that’s akin to single-use zoning and where non-shoppers and protesters are not allowed.

      • Jim Cusick says

        Actually, the idea of rail being a catalyst for sprawl came up at an open house for some one of the myriad transportation projects around here that I attended.

        I believe it was in Woodinville.

        I was chatting with a WSDOT staff person, and the discussion centered around traffic entering the I-405 corridor, and the ways they were dealing with ‘feeder’ roads, such as SR-522, and Hwy 9.

        I remarked that there was a parallel rail line, and had they analyzed that.

        Her response was “Oh, no. That would create sprawl !”

        I don’t remember if it was in our conversation, but I remember thinking “Well, what do you call the effect of Hwy 9 and SR-522?”

        However, there is an element of truth to her statement. Any transportation ‘conduit’ out from a city center creates sprawl.

      • Aleks says

        Yep. There’s “sprawl” in the sense of developing land for the first time, or converting rural uses to metropolitan ones. This is what the GMA tries to avoid. And then there’s “sprawl” in the sense that most of us mean it: developing the existing urbanized area by building low density in increasingly far-flung places, while passing up the opportunity to build up or in.

      • Nathanael says

        Rail-induced sprawl is a pretty sweet kind of sprawl. Those streetcar and rail suburbs are still the priciest, most popular neighborhoods, hundreds of years later. Just ask what “Chestnut Hill” or “Main Line” means, socially speaking, in Philadelphia — or what “Shaker Heights” means in Cleveland.

      • Nathanael says

        (OK, “hundreds of years” is too many. “over a hundred years” is more like it.)

      • Nathanael says

        (The key thing about rail-induced sprawl is that it clusters around the stations rather than spreading out flat across every available farm and forest.)

  11. RossB says

    Zoning involves trade-offs. But there are a number of solid, straight forward changes we could make that would make things a lot more affordable. Here are a few:

    1) Get rid of the parking requirement. The Seattle Times had a guest editorial that suggested exactly that. Simple, easy, better.
    2) Remove restrictions on the number of units in a given building. Base the restriction on the external dimensions instead. This means that you can put up a duplex, or a small apartment right next to a house, as long as it isn’t too big (no bigger than a mega-house). If neighbors are concerned about the size, you could do the opposite of what is currently allowed — allow multiple units as long as the building is small. This would go a long way towards making units affordable, while keeping neighbors happy.
    3) Greatly liberalize the mother-in-law apartment rules. Another recent Seattle Times guest editorial suggested this.

    Just those changes would improve things immensely. But they would probably piss off the preservationists. Which is why you need to set goals. I have no idea how to accomplish these goals, but we should at least start by acknowledging the following ideas, which need to be balanced:

    1) Preserve existing buildings that are interesting or historic or dense. Reward developers who improve said buildings.
    2) Set height or other limits for certain neighborhoods. This means that urbanists don’t get all they want. This is the one part of the existing zoning law that should be retained. Basically, this means that single family neighborhoods won’t have six story buildings. But they will have two story apartments, town houses, row houses and small cottages.
    3) For bigger buildings, require street level amenities. A six story building without ground floor retail is insane. We have a rent crisis in this city but we also have sky high leases for bars and restaurants.
    4) Encourage smaller, taller buildings. You shouldn’t have to level the entire block just to build a new building. The big bread loaf buildings are a mess — we have way too many of them.

    Some of these ideas can be implemented quite easily. Others will require a lot more finesse (preserving older buildings is difficult, and this city has done a piss poor job of it). But the first thing we need to do is change the nature of the debate. Right now the debate often gets lumped into stupid camps — those who want to liberalize the rules on one side and those who want to slow down development on the other. The end result is a horrible, messy set of rules that end up achieving little — or at least, little that most would consider a priority.

    • aw says

      3) For bigger buildings, require street level amenities. A six story building without ground floor retail is insane.

      It isn’t necessary to have retail in every tall building. The only thing worse than having no ground floor retail is to have lots of vacant ground floor retail.

      • Mike Orr says

        You don’t know beforehand what will be vacant, or how the economy will rise or fall. And there’s a chance that a currently-vacant store space will be filled someday and popular… but not if it wasn’t built into the building. Retail space that doesn’t exist will be lost until the building is replaced, which may be decades away.

      • aw says

        For residential projects on a non-commercial street, why force retail if it’s out of character for the neighborhood?

        For an office tower, is it the best use to force street level retail into it when the best use might be for a lobby? Or for a non-retail commercial storefront?

        For governmental buildings, why retail? The building developer might want to inculde such uses for the building’s users, by why force it?

        It seems really odd to me that folks who proclaim that they want to liberalize zoning appear to want to impose their own prescriptive rules.

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