When discussing transit, one of the issues that comes up the most is that of gentrification – the idea that those currently living near new transit will be forced out by high rents and developers, forced to move someplace far away, replaced with childless yuppie couples who drink bad lattes and wear clothes from REI and Patagonia, their key-laden carabiners jingling, Keens squeaking on the sidewalk as they walk by local bookshops, bahn mi and bakeries in favor of Starbucks, Barnes and Noble and Urban Outfitters.

MLK’s one story strip malls, populated by a rainbow of independent groceries, restaurants, nail and hair salons, do not stand a chance against such an onslaught of money. Not even Seattle’s pervasive fear of the “south end” (read: people with various shades of skin colors who are clearly all Out To Get You) will stop the growth of poorly designed, vinyl-skinned faux mixed use, sporting spacious high end first floor coffee shops with brand new factory-aged furniture topped with shoddy apartments and condos at astronomical prices.

That’s the bad news.

Now for the good.

The buildings on MLK are fairly old. While some have been rebuilt more recently, many are easily 40 or 50 years old, and on top of that, they are generally very cheap, single story construction. When they were first built, they did not house small, independent businesses. They represented a new, low density construction boom during and after WWII, lots of subsidized temporary housing and the businesses to support them. As the construction loans were paid off, the carrying costs for these buildings became very low, so the small businesses we see today trickled into the aging structures.

This happens everywhere. The market doesn’t build new buildings with the intention of housing small businesses – they can’t pay the rent of new construction. New buildings house high-margin, often cookie cutter businesses, with the exception of those helped along through local government (artist lofts, subsidized housing) or rare business partnerships (Vivace). It is only when those buildings age that the space in them gets cheaper; the business diversity that makes cities great appears only where small and unique becomes affordable.

Here’s the kicker: It is cheaper per square foot for a business to build a new one story building than to tear down an existing one story building to build a two or four story building. One story buildings are cheap. When people are using transit to get around, though, one story buildings don’t offer enough density. The rewards for building a little higher and closer together are greater because so many of your users are pedestrians. Highways are the only reason that business economics don’t overwhelm the low construction cost of short buildings – if everyone’s driving, they can go further, so the original one story buildings survive.

Before the highways, you saw higher density. In Columbia City, you see two story (and higher) brick buildings, packed close together, without parking lots. As the city grew, these would have been replaced with four or six or eight stories, like we see in Pioneer Square. But this growth was stunted by the highways’ massive reduction in the marginal cost of traveling farther.

This is how MLK (then Empire Way) grew. Small one story buildings filled in along the boulevard, commercial closer to the city, industrial farther away. As the highways were built, instead of being replaced, these buildings simply aged. Now wait a minute. Why is this bad? We need old buildings, right? Here’s the problem: Given some demand, it’s profitable to replace a one story building with a six story building. When there’s enough demand, your one story buildings really don’t stand a chance.

However, six story buildings do. Look at Pioneer Square again, Belltown, and the International District. Most of those aren’t chain stores, and many of those buildings are old. It’s unprofitable to replace a six story building with anything short of 20 or 30 stories – and local resistance to high-rises outside the downtown core make that kind of zoning very unlikely on MLK.

The key here is this: Anything we build on MLK today will not only be there just as long as the buildings there now have lasted, it will also be more resistant to further development. The first wave of construction will be opportunistic and perhaps not of the best quality, but the second wave, after light rail opens and as demand increases, will be better, just as second wave construction in Pioneer Square, Belltown and the ID were stone and brick and easily protected by today’s community groups. Those buildings will last lifetimes.

20 Replies to “Gentrification and Old Buildings on MLK”

  1. Why Can’t we just replace some of the one storiers and some of the parking lots with new buildings and leave some for cheap awesome little mom and pop shops? I think that works. Construction has to be gradual.

  2. Josh, we are only replacing some of the one storiers. We aren’t zoned for sudden explosions of construction – only a few sites are upzoned.

  3. anonymous, it may be eventually, but it’s not strictly necessary to go above 6 or so to achieve the kind of sustainable high density living that we’re looking for.

    Remember, most of Paris is 6-8 stories.

  4. The key is to have a mix of older and newer buildings. The problem now is that there are only old and worn out buildings. Rents are cheap but that doesn’t matter because no one wants to go there.

    On the other hand, if that’s replaced with one wave of mixed-use buildings with relatively high rents, nothing will be able to pay the rents but national retailers and all of the residential space will be high-priced condos. That’s just as bad for neighborhood development in the long run. You lose the older residents, the newer buildings age, and then you’ve got a whole neighborhood of dated buildings and no long-term residents to care for them.

    The answer is to retain enough old buildings to support the lower-end neighborhood businesses while bringing in new residents and shoppers with new developments. As those new developments age, they’ll become more affordable and a new wave of developments can be added. That’s easier said than done, though.

  5. cas, you’re absolutely right, we need to keep a mix. That’s what the zoning restrictions in the area will do. We’ll add a few new buildings in empty space to begin with, and in a few years we’ll add a few more, and so on.

    It is all easier said than done, but the neighborhood groups will be effective in slowing new construction. That’s what they do!

  6. I’m trying to link here to a post by hugeasscity making an interesting (to me) point about how Seattle is zoned and how transit-oriented development actually develops.

  7. “it may be eventually, but it’s not strictly necessary to go above 6 or so to achieve the kind of sustainable high density living that we’re looking for.”

    It is refreshing to hear someone say that. Sometimes I feel like Seattle pro-densers think that taller is always better.

    On another note, it is interesting to see in recently densified areas how SFH become the low-income retail space. This adds a wonderful streetscape to places like Upper Queen Anne, The Ave, and Fremont. Eventually they will go but its great to see them used constructively in the meantime.

  8. So, here’s a little something to think about- the average SS recipient has about $950/month, and from what I see in the drugstore about $200-300 of that goes for medications.

    My idea is that they should be able to buy a condo in a building near transit, with a 30-year fixed and like 1% down…but when they die or move, the ownership of the unit reverts to the agency/your institution of choice that financed the building and holds the mortgage.

    Should the government finance this? Of course it should! The Boomers are the largest cohort in our history, and anything you can do to save money with this group saves you more money than it would with any other group.

  9. sco,
    I really like the plan, the unit is basically rented at fixed-rate from the agency who operates the facility.

  10. man, a post straight out of the life and death of great american cities by jane jacobs. i love it! :)

  11. Polar Bear, I love the old SFHs that have become businesses. There’s a tailor on Beacon Hill that’s just out of a mother-in-law, the family that runs it lives in the house.

    SCO, thanks for the links. I actually just had a chance to start reading hugeasscity recently, and I like most of what I’ve seen.

  12. Andrew Cencini, everyone should read Jane Jacobs. :) I recently looked over the four chapters on generators of city diversity – a mix of building ages is one of those.

    And Lewis Mumford!

  13. Ben,

    What a refreshing post! I believe you hit all the nails on the head.

    As a pro-density person, I would also like to see more sites upzoned that are more than one block off of the arterials, but touching our SFR neighborhoods is a whole ‘nother topic.

    Given that I would like to see houses replaced with six-story buildings, I also enjoy it when houses are retained and used for a variety of things… in fact, if you supply more upzoned land, you are more likely to see this happen!

  14. One thing to remember about Jane Jacobs is that, at the time she wrote, the cities were draining. Some of what she saw was an incredible decrease in the population relative to the physical plant of the cities. Manufacturing lofts, icehouses, railroad stations, storefronts- all were becoming vacant, and becoming future resources for conversion to other uses.

    One resource that was not maintained, however, was the SRO- the single room occupancy. These were hotel rooms in older hotels, in 1969 you could rent an SRO in Seattle for $7-10/week. I can’t remember the exact figures, but about 5,000 SROs in the Pioneer Square-First Avenue-Pike Place Market would probably be close.

    IOW, 40 years ago our homeless population would have been in SROs.

    Jane Jacobs should be the first thing the student reads, and they may as well buy a hardback, ’cause she doesn’t wear out. Today, however, much of the challenge is to figure out what the principles are and apply them to the new facts on the ground.

  15. SCO, Jacobs kept writing, even up to 2006, when she came out with “Dark Age Ahead”.

    I haven’t seen anything in Death and Life that isn’t applicable today.

  16. Ah, yes, but, the point I was thinking of is that, while Jacobs wrote of preserving the urban fabric and the vital mixed economy of the city, MLK Way S never had any of that. Until the mid-90s MLK Way S was an example of redlining, with long sections of vacant land and other sections that were functionally vacant.

    In The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jacobs saw an opportunity to revitalize neighborhoods by using existing buildings and encouraging existing people. Until quite recently this wasn’t a good option for MLK Way S. Large portions of that street were, as noted, decayed strip mall, and as for going there at night, well…

    The West Campus of the U of W is actually an illustration of the main argument Jacobs was making. In 1965 that was a small vibrant neighborhood of houses and small businesses, all occupied and in good condition. The U of W got a federal redevelopment grant (a judge called it the worst fraud he’d ever see), bulldozed the neighborhood, and, eventually, built what you see today, in the interim using large portions for parking. All part of how we arrived at the stupendous commuting problems swirling around the U of W.

    So, if I were applying Jane Jacobs to MLK Way S I would also be applying lots of caveats and emptors to my argument.

  17. I’m in the midst of reading Death and Life and I just thought I would add a particularly poetic quote that seems relevant:

    “Well subsidized operas and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts – studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments, art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can can absorb uneconomic discussion – these go into old buildings.”


    I think we can get creative and reinvent those “decayed strip malls” and utilize them, as well as some of the SFHs, as supplements to the new residential towers going up.

  18. josh,

    I don’t think there’s even a “we”. It’ll happen on its own, through the small organizations that spring up and look for space.

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