Seattle Times
Seattle Times

Andrew recently had a thoughtful post on how HB 1490, the Transit Oriented Communities bill, could backfire by making neighborhoods less inclined to accept transit service.  There’s less reason to fear that now, as the latest version of the bill,which hit the street Friday night, significantly waters down some density requirements, while still being a step in the right direction.  (The Senate version of the bill is SB 5687.)

The new draft requires 50 units/acre only in areas previously defined by the Puget Sound Regional Council as “growth centers.”  These centers are: Auburn, DT Bellevue, Overlake, Everett, Federal Way, Kent, Lakewood, Lynnwood, Puyallup, Redmond, Seatac, Capitol Hill, DT Seattle, Northgate, the University District, DT Tacoma, and Tukwila.  For the most part, these areas are already zoned for dense development, so the impact in terms of raw density should be minimal.

For other stations not so blessed by the PSRC, cities “must adopt comprehensive plan provisions and development regulations that can achieve a similar level of walking, biking, and transit ridership, and a similar number of affordable housing units” as is required of the growth centers [Sec 8, subsection (7)].  It remains to be seen how this very vague language, bereft of any required number of units, evolves further in the legislative process.

There are still lots of other sensible provisions in the bill about waiving minimum parking requirements [Sec 8(1)(h)]. The walkability requirements are important, and the newest draft makes sure that developers aren’t discouraged from building mixed use developments.  This is still a good bill.

This blog doesn’t have any official position on affordable housing legislation, but there are very aggressive provisions for it that will make a real difference in some of the more affluent station neighborhoods.  In fact, it’s surprising to me that many affordable housing advocates who I personally know to be in favor of this bill haven’t been more effective in countering the attacks of the Displacement Coalition’s John Fox.

Of course, the fact that the bill no longer requires a place like South Bellevue to upzone doesn’t mean that the hysteria and misinformation surrounding this bill will go away, so we’ll see if it has any impact on the East Link Segment B alignment.  Affordable housing can certainly be unpopular, but opposition to it requires a lot more euphemisms.

There are a bunch of other common-sense changes, such as taking into account topography in the 1/2 mile radius.  I won’t detail them all here but those interested in the urban planning minutiae should read the new draft and post their observations in the comments.

21 Replies to “HB 1490: Less Land-Use Impact than Before”

  1. If this doesn’t upzone in the Rainier Valley and Beacon Hill – where the zoning isn’t yet at the level of the other areas – then what’s the point of the bill?

    1. Sorry, I guess I got annoyed by this change.

      I had writen a whole post about how TOD in Sumner would double the population there and thus cause sprawl since obviously all of those people wouldn’t ride sounder and then this comes and the whole effort was for naught.

  2. Hmm, I like Sec 2 (6)(B) [considering all modes of transportation in transportation planning.] and Sec 9 (2) [showing the transportation plan implements statewide goals for VMT reduction for counties with >250k pop] looks pretty sweet also. I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll see some of that work.

  3. Anyone drive by the Rainier Beach station recently and see the houses each with two garages being built there?

    Also, does this mean that the shouting that some RV neighbours call “activism” actually works to change legislation?

  4. Andrew, remember the allowed zoning around the Rainier Valley stations is already in the 40-51 DU/AC net density range (it is lower at Beacon Hill, probably around 35 if you make allowances for topography). The TOD provisions were never intended to produce dramatic change in SE Seattle (a myth generated by John Fox and his pictures of 40-story towers in the Bronx). Though, certainly with light rail and the amount of buildable land in the station areas, density, both allowed and real, will continue to intensify at these station areas. But, this bill is likely, even in non-growth center station areas, to require greater densities, to prevent station areas from being consumed by massive park and rides, and maybe even influence ST alignment choices to the north.

    That said, we acknowledge that the Sec 8, subsec. 7 language is too vague. If folks have ideas for how to strengthen that language without resorting to a specific numeric density standard, please offer your suggestions.

    Also, it’s important to point out, as noted by DJStroky, that HB 1490 is not just about requiring TOD. It also modifies concurrency requirements to make them more multi-modal, it requires Regional Transportation Plans to plan for reducing VMT, requires consistency along those lines in local comp plans, and it requires cities and counties to account for GHG reductions in their local comp plans.

    1. So where was the bill going to make a difference? In Sumner? I think that would actually be state-mandated sprawl. Or in South Bellevue? That will push route alignment out to 405 and make the line ultimately less useful for everyone.

      I think that part was well-intentioned but poorly executed and I’m glad it’s out of the bill.

  5. Just my opinion – think beyond the realities of Sound Transit. This is written in such a way that it could just say ‘this pertains to powers that shall devolve to the PSRC’, name the roll call of specific stations and call it a day.

    How to do this without specifying specific densities? Define the locational criteria of transit center and transit station unambiguously. Frankly, I would be happier to have more inclusion to get jurisdictions to pay attention to transit oriented planning. Why not on a streetcar line? Why not at a ferry dock? You are spending more time excluding than including at this point.

    Mandate planning for dense walkable neighborhoods, which the bill does pretty well.

    Don’t have numbers. Put numbers in funding bills or the program that implements them. As in these $$ are available for any of the above defined that are zoned at an average of 50 homes and 50 jobs per acre. Better yet use numbers generally accepted by the planning community for the different types of stations. The state can choose to prioritize scarce dollars any way it wants. And, the locals can go into their own feeding frenzies.

    Put the housing protections in another section or just pass a bill that provides protections for residents and enables inclusionary zoning by localities for any area well served by transit. It’s stupid to not have protections and some inclusions when well served by multiple bus lines. I fear that hooking protections and inclusionary zoning to TOD will tie the hands of jurisdictions that want to do better. Idealistically, all jurisdictions should have mandated targets to provide equity in housing, but that ain’t gonna happen. Again, dollars can be tied to those areas described above in specific funding programs if the state wants to.

    If stuff is separated out properly, then programs can be tuned based on impact analyses, something I note folks are not doing when chocking this bill full of everything and the kitchen sink.

    Finally, stop calling people NIMBYs. It’s not about ‘my back yard, It’s really about ‘I’ll be pushed out’. Although an individual may be rather ‘one note’, the concern about eminent domain is real. I am sure the folks in that neighborhood in Massachusetts being cleared through eminent domain to make way for a big box store were called NIMBY, troglodyte and worse.

    People who wrote neighborhood plans based on the assumption of creating dense self-sustaining neighborhoods should be natural allies with environmental organizations and non-profit housing groups. This mess has just highlighted the undercurrents of long standing tensions. The fact is that many in neighborhoods who DID the planning for the growth are extremely unhappy that buildings keep getting built BELOW what the zoning calls for, the that local businesses are moving out of the station areas and economic development is not coming into it’s own in many urban villages. They perceive that ‘those’ environmentalists are doing who knows what and who are they anyway? A bunch of new to Seattle single people who commute to Microsoft and live in a condos on Capital Hill? Who have a disdain towards the old timers who seem to just want to whine about how things used to be? People who should be working together are now lined up into separate camps.

    When folks say ‘Why didn’t you some to us?’ they are saying that some private meetings with non-profit entities managed by proponents is meaningless, talking amongst only yourselves on blogs is meaningless since many people do not blog, they are saying that there is no respect for the social environmentalism that does exist in the grassroots and is written into neighborhood plans. They are talking about small ‘d’ democracy.

    Finally, bring in some real, independent, nationally credible, planners. Advocates of transit, enforcement of urban boundaries, and the non-profit and for profit building industry, while each having completely legitimate interests, are not who need to be writing laws that will stand the test of time. Instead we are getting a hodge podge.

    1. CriticalWonk,

      There’s a lot in your comment, but I’d just like to tackle your suggestion of separating everything into separate bills. That seems pretty disconnected from the way legislation actually works.

      If you have just a density bill, you have developers and enviros on board but probably not affordable housing advocates. If you do just an affordable housing bill, you lose the developers and, if they’re truly focused solely on environmental goals, the environmentalists. Naturally, you want to form a coalition of interest groups to support the bill and the way to do that is to have something for everyone.

      1. Well if one reads the laws of other states, discrete items tend to be dealt with discretely. The scope of each is clear. Not saying housing might be another bill, but another section of its own. I’m seriously concerned that standards get set about fairness in housing but we are tied up with it only ever applying to TOD. If it needs to be expanded to other areas, do you rewrite the whole TOD section to mis-define it? That is why I feel that this is a badly written bill.

        Then care needs to be taken with what is the scope of state mandates and standards versus what is already being done in detail in funding where you get your carrots and sticks.

    2. There’s also an extensive effort to define what “transit station” means in the bill, which is the threshold for any of it to apply. There’s an additional hurdle (the PSRC designation) for the 50 units/acre measure, really because S. Bellevue, Mercer Island, Shoreline, etc. didn’t want to get pinned down to 50/acre or more.

  6. boo-ya-ka-sha Criticalwonk.

    Can a landscape architect (who has been studying TOD since the early 90’s) also be a SE NIMBY? Yes! And Criticalwonk laid out the reasons very well.

    Come down to planet earth folks and you’ll see there is still a large disconnect between how neighborhoods really function, what currently exists and the palette of required design standards that may regulate the real crap, but also handcuffs creativity and is written by academic coalitions built to get bills passed.

    Why would a group of enviros get to draft a bill that effects so many communities (over 40)? What makes them credible planners and where are their credentials? The fact that so many pro-density and pro-new urbanism people are against this bill shows that the coalition is half baked.

    This bill is a perfect example of why Nordhaus and Shellenberger wrote their book ‘The Breakthrough’. Enviros are disconnected from creating a process that actually can work in real life and organically with diverse communties in order to meet the environmental objectives.

    And also, if cars become clean, are they still bad?

    1. Bonafide,
      Anyone “gets” to draft a bill, including environmentalists. The question is whether or not a legislator will sponsor it, and the legislature as a whole will vote for it.

  7. Bonafide,

    And also, if cars become clean, are they still bad?

    If by “clean” you mean “runs on good intentions and pixie dust,” the answer is still yes, because low density living still destroys more habitat to house the same number of people, while also degrading public health by encouraging fully sedentary lifestyles.

    Of course, in the real world, a “clean car” might be one that simply uses less petroleum. Even if it’s a plug-in hybrid, in practice it’s going to draw from an energy grid that has mostly carbon-intensive sources. That doesn’t mean that these improvements aren’t worth doing, but it does mean they’re far short of making a car environmentally neutral.

  8. @ Martin H Duke,

    I guess clean cars is as much of a fantasy or a reality as your urban village dream where everyone can walk to where they work or ride light rail for longer trips; neighbors greet each other from condominium balconies and gather in the local coffee shop. This preferably happens in every urban community in the great state of Washington.

    I’m going to bet clean cars come first. But the other is a form of vision as well.

    because low density living still destroys more habitat to house the same number of people, while also degrading public health by encouraging fully sedentary lifestyles.

    Low, medium and high density living already exists in our neighborhood; can existing low density destroy more habitat? or does it sustain itself? Or does upzoning destroy more habitat? More habitat than sprawl? Does low density degrade public health? That’s a new one on me. And low density also encourages a fully sedentary lifestyle? Man, I thought that was the Wii’s fault!

    A for effort, but I think you need to test these ideas more.

  9. BTW Duke,

    Show me how this bill makes things environmentally neutral. You have an awfully high standard for cars; can TOD, especially through 1490 interpretation, make development environmentally neutral?

    OK, that last question was quite rhetorical, but I think you get my drift. Your standards are quite different depending on what you do (or don’t) support.

  10. Let’s say that somehow TOD is constructed environmentally neutral, then we have to suspend the disbelief that all the real estate units operate on some environmentally neutral heating/cooling, plumbing, energy grid. Did technology somehow jump over clean cars and only manage to achieve a manifestation of every systems technology needed to operate a home?

    Let’s be intellectually honest here. Environmentally neutral technologies will be sought on every front and it will take us a long time to get there. In the meantime, lets not eliminate all of the options on the table.

    1. Bonafide,

      The issue with housing is that people have to live somewhere. The fact is that dense housing is the most energy efficient, period. For transportation, however, transit is nearly always more efficient than cars, particularly if ridership is high because (a) housing is dense, and (b) driving is discouraged by forcing drivers to pay the true costs.

      My comments shouldn’t be construed as attacking clean car technology, as I clearly stated in the comment. Cars will be part of our transportation picture basically forever, and hopefully they’ll be as clean as possible. But we can’t solve our environmental problems by taking our existing lifestyles and simply substituting cleaner cars.

  11. ^ They already have net-zero energy homes. Homes that produce as much energy as they consume, but primarily use natural ventilation and solar/thermal windows and such to heat and cool the units.

    I think cars are still a ways off from generating their own zero-carbon gasoline while they sit parked in front of your house. :)

  12. Your comments are appreciated, but prove nothing but conjecture. The race is on, and I hope both are successful in their enviro-neutral objectives. As for efficiency, don’t assume that we all drive to Redmond or downtown Seattle in the morning, then drive away to the ‘burbs at night. I move around very efficiently in my car and am looking for affordable ways to convert my engine soon. I am a consultant who drives to Tacoma (from Seattle) and all around Puget Sound to meet clients which I pack in 2-3/day. I cannot use mass transit to do my job. No way, no how.

    I was a fierce user of Manhattan subway system when I live dhtere and even Atlanta’s MARTA has better mass transit than Seattle (used that too). I’m a Portland, Ore. native as well and that city has the best practices American case study of all. But still, you have to meet reality and that is cars should not be demonized but urged to be cleaner. And therefore, this TOD vision without any parking for cars is ideological. Maybe we become Europe in 100 years and whoop-de-doo for us. But your tomorrow vision doesn’t have to be implemented yesterday for people living in the present. There is a natural occurrence of redvelopment and transition to higher density.

    I argued this with my husband who was lamenting about the dramatic changes in Fremont (he moved there in the early 90’s then moved away 10 years later in disgust). He hated the changes, and I pointed out that the existing urban fabric he was used to, was a disgusting and dramatic change to the people that used to live in Fremont in the 50’s, and before them, people who lived there in the 20’s, and so on and so on until you go back to Native Americans. I didn’t see the problem with the changes and welcomed them, but this 1490 bill hits a spot which tells me something ain’t right.

    But each in their own time; redevelopment will happen but what is the goddamn rush? We’re in an economic crisis for pete’s sake.

    1. Bonafide,

      I sympathize with your situation. I’ve had jobs where I had to drive, too.

      Part of the point of encouraging all this density is that you start attracting jobs to these hubs as well. I have no idea what kind of business you’re in, but in a few decades if more businesses were located near rail stations I’d imagine someone doing your exact same job might choose to take the train around, with an occasional excursion by bus or carshare for the rare client that was inconvenient to reach by rail, just as you did in those other cities.

      We don’t have unanimity on this subject, but several contributors to this blog are in favor of park-and-rides at selected stations in the LINK system, although certainly not at all stations. Speaking for myself, I have no problem with P&Rs at the rail termini and most Sounder stations, due to the widely dispersed communities they serve.

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