This morning, Martin opined about the council’s recent decision to restrict the upzone in Pioneer Square from 150 feet to 120 feet. Ironically, his piece was penned at the same time this editorial was being drafted– both written simultaneously with conflicting viewpoints. While I’ve generally agreed with the call for higher transit-oriented density reflected through this blog, I’m not convinced that the “highest and best use” argument in this context is helpful to the pro-transit cause.
Mathematically, the case for high-density TOD is simple– more people, more riders. In a less-than-perfect world, however, we often have to deal with social and economic constraints, along with various other wonky forces that affect the choices people make in regards to their mode of travel or their place of residence. More below the jump.
Consider rents, for example. The reason why many employers choose not to locate their offices in high-density transit-oriented nodes is plainly because it’s too expensive. Defending the denser upzone, Matt Ylgesias makes the case that if supply for dense urban space is constrained, houses and offices “locate to some other other place that almost certainly isn’t dense transit-accessible urban space.”
But rents aren’t one and the same. Land around transit is valuable, unlike the swaths of office and residential parks we get out in the suburbs. Someone who can afford to rent an apartment in a rezoned Pioneer Square neighborhood might have the economical, but mysterious option of relocating to say Kent or Renton, but that luxury likely isn’t possible for someone in the same situation vice versa. I’m not convinced by the argument that people will flee to the suburbs if they can’t find space– someone with the means and intention of living downtown isn’t likely to end up choosing a place in Redmond Ridge.
If our cause is to attract suburban dwellers to city living, then building as high and dense as possible around transit may only end up marginalizing the populations that transit supporters often seek to attract. The danger, of course, is allowing our TOD sites to turn into “high-roller” paradises exclusively for the well-to-do.
To be clear, I believe we absolutely need density around transit to support long-term growth and ridership needs. But I think there’s a clear line between a NIMBY who doesn’t want a 4-story apartment building blocking his sunlight and someone who is in real danger of being displaced by an unrestrained property market. Maximizing an upzone in Pioneer Square might mean more jobs and homes, but it also likely translates into more minorities packing their bags and heading out to not so transit-friendly suburbs.
If the goal is to maximize ridership along high-demand corridors, then I don’t necessarily think that upzoning historic mixed-income districts are the best way of going about things. Instead, we should reenergize our focus in developing dead infill areas often ignored in favor of the happenin’ urban districts and creating true transit synergy that emphasizes efficient feeder connections to core trunk routes. In the long-term, we have better things to worry about than the limitations of a 120 foot upzone.