Sky Train, Expo Line: Great transit needs lots of people in one place

There was some good discussion generated from the summing up of my reading of the land use code at Crosscut. One thing I learned from reading the code is that we should take the simple rules of supply and demand seriously and apply them when land use decisions get made. When it comes to land use and transit that lesson tells me that along with pushing for $20 car tab fees and $60 Vehicle Licensing Fees, advocates of bus service and light rail also need to push for better land use decisions that reflect basic and sound economic principles.
When our land use policies diffuse housing supply the demand for that housing will usually follow that supply, especially when it is kept cheap by externalizing the cost for transportation infrastructure (roads and buses). But that diffusion of housing supply to the ‘burbs, also means disaggregated demand for transit which drives up its costs, forcing it to rely on flaky King County Council politics and fickle voters at the ballot box.

The greatest offender when it comes to making bad land use decisions that negatively affect transit has been the Seattle City Council, a city that should be leading the way on showing the region how to grow. The Council’s worry about developers making a windfall from up zones has made them do something that doesn’t make any sense: make it harder to develop housing in the city. The more they worry about developer profit the more rules they impose (take incentive zoning, for example), which limits supply. Again, the simple rule is that if you limit supply and demand stays constant or goes up, you’ll increase prices, making housing by the usual standard “unaffordable.”

As people look for housing in our region they run up against limited supply in the places we most want people to live, the city. If it’s easier to build new single-family housing or sell that housing out in the ‘burbs, the supply out there will be greater. Seattle’s hesitant attitude toward up zones to create Transit Oriented Development not only keeps housing prices high, but also means that costs for maintaining transit service to far flung reaches of King County will go up too.

Among the many great things density does (lower emissions, more efficient energy use, less impact on water), it also aggregates demand for transit. Lots of demand for transit in one place makes it less expensive to supply. It’s as simple as visualizing a bus stop on Third Avenue versus a stop somewhere in Maple Valley, there’s going to be a lot more people, more fares, and fewer operating costs. Density is good for transit’s bottom line in King County. More people in a smaller space can mean more efficiency.

The more that Seattle resists density, the more expensive it is going to be to operate transit. We talk a good talk about sustainability but our land use policy is in direct conflict with it. So when Seattle constrains housing supply, it’s actively pushing up the operating costs for Metro and stretching subsidies to the breaking point. Meanwhile County politics dictates more and more of that subsidy go to keep bus service cheap where it is most expensive, a pathological cycle of codependence and inefficiency. Seattle’s land use policies drive up the price of transit, forcing local governments to pay for the City Council’s mistakes with extraordinary revenue from more fees and taxes.

This is why transit advocates have to be just as enthusiastic in their support of up zones as they are for subsidies through tax and fee increases. And those subsidies should be seen as a bridge to keep transit viable until we get our land use right. Then, maybe, the subsidies can largely go away. I know that the idea of a transit system paying for itself is kind of like Eldorado. But if demand is aggregated with good land use policy the idea that transit could be self-sustaining is not as farfetched as it is today.

125 Replies to “Want to Save Transit? Try Better Land Use”

  1. Well said.

    It’s a bit strange how much developers are the boogeyman in Seattle. We’re going to grow, and someone is going to build something to accommodate that. Many suburbs do make it easier, while Seattle battles against the profit motive as much as we fight for good design. It’s counterproductive.

    Of course, once you’re vilified any reply is seen as self-serving. Even those of us who work in related industries — building, designing, etc. — tend to shy away from the debate, or occasionally get into it as I do but simultaneously point out our involvement because we think we ought to.

    Meanwhile, proximity is arguably the #1 aspect of a walkable, transitable, bikable city. We often lose sight of that.

    1. Yeah I agree about developers. I certainly think there is a balancing point, but I think that what we need to be mindful in these discussions that developer are putting up their own money to fulfill the vision and policy objectives of Seattle and the region. Their doing what the we want them to do.

    2. Many people don’t want their neighborhoods to ever change, so developers become the enemy in their eyes. Those of us who want a more dynamic city need to push the idea that neighborhoods should evolve and change. Neighborhoods that haven’t had any development in decades generally look and feel like a neighborhood in decline. We should also remind people that all those lovely old brick apartment buildings they love so much were also built by developers, during probably the biggest building boom in Seattle’s history.

    3. People equate developers with rents rising so fast they have to move out of the city to south King County. They’ve seen it happen to other people and they’re afraid it may happen to them someday. Because old apartments are usually less than $1000 a month while newer apartments are over $1100.

      Another part of it is Paul Allen’s repeated attempts to get the public to pay for part of a project that would benefit him personally (both financially and emotionally). There’s been the Commons, CenturyLink field, the EMP, the SLUT, SLU as a whole, etc. It’s not like he’s helping the city out with its needs, but rather that he wants the city to help build what he wants, and it feels like an uneven bargain. The ironic thing is, as was pointed out during the stadium debate, “He has enough money, let him build his own d**n stadium.”

      The anti-developer attitude has caused some major mistakes, such as rejecting the Seattle Commons, opposing Link, and not re-electing Nickels. That has caused some people to think maybe we went overboard and need to support development more.

      1. I believe the snow storm response in 2008 did Nickels in. Other than that, I suspect the citizenry blame the developers directly more than city hall.

        And yeah, the new apartments always cost more than the oldies.

      2. If more SFH zoning were opened up to developers then you wouldn’t have to tear down older apartments to build new ones.

      3. Several factors did Nickels in. The Snopocolypse was an acute one, but SLU and other developer-friendly policies was a longer term one.

    4. This is going to sound heretical, but if the City Council is *seriously* worried about developers making windfall profits, why doesn’t it just go into the development business itself? Then the “windfall profits” can rebound to the benefit of all city residents (cutting taxes!). Is there some state Constitutional provision prohibiting the City from owning a property development company?

      Because the City hasn’t done this, I don’t believe that this can be the real worry… there has to be something else going on.

      1. And perhaps the answer is in ScottH’s comment below: “As a rule, city residents are also extremely reluctant to see upzoning in their neighborhoods.”

  2. I agree of course, but I want to point out that it’s not just the city council that resists density. As a rule, city residents are also extremely reluctant to see upzoning in their neighborhoods. Perhaps there is an economic explanation for this too. As you pointed out, limited supply and increasing demand leads to higher prices. Maybe one of the reasons people want to keep their single family neighborhoods is that limiting housing development also tends to increase their home values? (Of course, upzoning also can increase the value, but it might also bring unwanted noise and other undesirable changes). In any event, I think an effort to promote greater density based on all the benefits you mentioned should be focused on voters in general rather than just elected officials.

    1. Good point. However, increasing home values is really only good when you sell. In the present, it only means more taxes.

      Further, I wouldn’t go so far as to assume the average person can relate changes in zoning to the values of their homes. This isn’t to say they are stupid, just that most people don’t think that way.

      Lastly, as you point out, the result may not be as clear cut as we are making it seem. Yes, a limited supply of housing drives up price. However, a single-family home in a neighborhood that was just upzoned will also experience an increase in value. This is because the land is now worth more since more units can be built upon it. In contrast to my statement before, here is one area I’ve seen average folks understand well the dynamics between zoning and home values. They are all concerned with staying in their home, not making profit, thus why they don’t want an upzone. Then there are the other half who assume upzoning their neighborhood will bring crime and noise. Either way, most people don’t want upzones in their neighborhood.

      The only way I can see to get around this is to upzone more frequently but in smaller movements. It appears the current method is to listen to the squeaky wheels and resist upzone, resist upzone, resist upzone until, BOOM, we can do nothing but upzone now. Then everybody is pissed because the upzone is going to change their neighborhood dramatically from what it has been for decades. Perhaps if things were done more incrementally, spanning outward from our urban villages, the staunch Seattle resistance to change will be less of a force.

      1. “crime and noise” You missed the big one: lost free street parking. Solve this one and you’ve removed the largest opposition to a new condo being build down the street.

      2. “You missed the big one: lost free street parking”

        I’ve been looking at condos in the city and so far all have 2 “free” spaces per condo (looking at newer 2BR units so that may have something to do with it). One condo offered to lease the space back at $180 per month but only other residents can use it. Either way, all this “free” parking is driving up the cost of the condo itself. I’d guess the parking spots each cost north of $30,000 to build since they are underground in most cases.

      3. Most of the upzoning is done in and around urban villages, but the opposition is still there because there is so much single-family housing surrounding urban villages. I’m convinced that Seattle needs to host tours of the eastern side of Capitol Hill, to show people how 4-story apartment buildings, 3-story townhouses, and single-family homes can coexist really well. It doesn’t destroy the neighborhood. Any SF zone within proximity to good transit or in an urban village should be an L3 at the very least.

      4. I’ve been looking at condos in the city and so far all have 2 “free” spaces per condo

        You should buy in Belltown, then. :) They actually build less than 1:1 here. I don’t have a parking space.

      5. I don’t particularly need a bunch of covered parking, but I will not considering buying a home unless it has either a garage or a basement.

        I want the space for a workshop. I wish there was some way we could incentivize basements in new townhouse construction.

      6. $180 per month for parking? And I thought $125 in my middle-class apartment building was bad.

      7. True, true Matt.

        “all have 2 “free” spaces per condo (looking at newer 2BR units”

        2 spaces for a 2 bedroom? That’s insane. When my family has to expand to a 2 bedroom for our kids, I hope I don’t have to cover the cost of two spaces. We need to lower the amount of parking provided in condo buildings and require storage space in its place. For some reason, developers can’t seem to understand that living in small places requires storage, not a ton of parking. (well, at least that’s my situation).

    2. There are lots of neighborhoods in the city that are marginal and could really use redevelopment, some of them along major transit lines (my neighborhood, Bitter Lake, immediately springs to mind; there’s also quite a lot of underdevelopment on Lake City Way). In those neighborhoods, NIMBYism is unlikely to be a problem. Seems like it would be great for the city to encourage developers to pick off the low-hanging fruit where resistance to change would be minimal. (Seriously, PLEASE big developers, do something with the property at 130th & Aurora. PLEASE. I don’t care if you make obscene profits, just get rid of the hooker magnets!)

      1. Wouldn’t it be cool to put the parking lots underground at Albertson’s and K-Mart and build on top to extend the buildings to actually be at the sidewalks of Aurora and 130th?

        I would also like to see senior housing built all the way to Aurora.

  3. These are good ideas. The higher the density, more poeple will take transit. The Pike/Pine corrrder heading to Capitol Hill and First Hill is a good expample.

  4. Is the skytrain really so crazy narrow as it looks in that pic…?
    (or is it a camera angle thing?)

    1. I think it’s a little bit of camera angle and narrowness. The cab you see there is the newest version, which has more of a bubble design and has much more space internally compared to the original Expo ’86 cabs.

      Take a look at the people, and how many can fit sideways across it and that should give you the proper sense of size.


      1. Yeah spot on DR. Miles remember skytrain is officially categorized as “automated light rail” (ALRT). The train consists are both a bit narrower and significantly shorter than most heavy rail systems of a similar age.

      2. Isn’t the new Canada Line a totally different vehicle? I remember it being a lot more spacious.

  5. Like anything else, “density” can be done well or badly.Check out:, and if you get a chance, go see some of their work. There’s a nice example just across Greenwood from Shoreline Community College.

    Mark Dublin

    1. It looks sterile, and a bit silly. But not hideous.

      10 dwelling units/acre is not bad for that far outside the urban core, but only means anything if you get it over a fairly extensive area.* In this isolated example, you just get eight more families getting in their cars and adding traffic to the same old arterial streets.

      (*This is why streetcar suburbs outside of cities like Boston continue to work for transit. The side streets contain only medium-low density lots, but that medium-low density is unbroken throughout the trolleys’ walksheds. An oasis of medium density in a sea of ultra-low density will not do you any good.)

    2. I haven’t looked at the pictures, but Kyle and Matt’s responses are sort of amusing. Everyone is going to have a different aesthetic view of a new building. People even change their minds sometimes.

      So many people in Seattle think they’re entitled to an aesthetic review of everything that goes up in their neighborhood. Of course, they neighborhoods they like today probably wouldn’t have grown up in such controlled circumstances. If they want that much control over what other people do for no reason but their personal aesthetics, they should probably try a gated community.

      1. Personally, I think the only law should be thick walls, so you don’t have to HEAR your neighbors….

  6. I wonder if there’s a secondary effect that exacerbates this: artificially limiting housing supply leads to a wealthier population near the city, who are less likely to take transit than their poorer counterparts. That thought contains a few anecdotal leaps, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be the case.

    1. Yes, wealthy people can afford to buy themselves short car commutes or even the ability to walk or bike to work. Meanwhile, many low-income people end up out in the suburbs and have to drive long distances or take long bus rides. This has been the pattern in most of the world, and the US is now going in this direction. That’s why we need more development in the city–in the short term that new construction will be expensive, but in the long term it pushes citywide rents down and obviously the buildings themselves will get cheaper as they age. The only reason low and mid income folks can live in Capitol Hill right now is that developers a hundred years ago (and again 50 years ago) built lots of what were then “expensive” apartments and condos.

      1. More development to push citywide rents down is EXACTLY what is needed.

        It seems clear to me that when existing zoning is maxed out in an area, it’s time for an upzone. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case here, where we have miles and miles of maxed out single family zoning, with no consideration of bumping much of it up to lowrise.

      2. The trick is to get new buildings on unproductive lots rather than replacing productive old apartments. The more we can channel mixed-use developments to lots that are vacant, have a decayed building, or have a small one-story building with a sea of parking around it, the better. Then the developers make their profit, yuppies have an in-city address, and working-class people aren’t displaced.

      3. Many would say that the zoning already exists but isn’t getting utilized. That’s certainly true in my part of the CD. Current market conditions make it harder to raise money, although the multi-family projects on Cap Hill and the Madison corridor suggest it’s not impossible.

        Don’t minimize aesthetic concerns. Far too much of what got built in the last 10 years is cheap junk. People aren’t stupid. They don’t want to live next to that if they don’t have to, and if they make enough noise in many cases they don’t have to. Developers aren’t the enemy, but having a sense of medium-term value goes a long way toward making it easier to go for those upzones.

  7. It seems like the schizophrenia on land use (I think you’re placing a disproportionate amount of blame on the council) is in part a result of the fact that there are conflicting ideas of how Seattle should develop, and not just among the “conservative” and “urban biking” communities. People like the quiet neighborhoods that they live in and the fact is that most of our city consists of, and most people live in these single family zones that resemble the suburbs in oh so many ways. The Urban faction, of which I count myself one, is in the minority. So in a democratic society, is it the responsibility of elected officials such as the city council to pursue a vision of our city that is inconsistent with what a majority want? Can anyone accurately claim that Seattleites want their quiet neighborhoods to be as urban as Belltown?

    Who is actually resisting density? The people or the elected officials? I see a lot of empty units in urbanized areas and I think the problem is that people want a suburban experience with all the amenities of an urban area. It’s not the City Council that’s the problem, though they do hold the keys to the answer.

    It seems like there are plenty of good models in Europe. What’s so difficult about identifying ones that are similar to our situation and duplicating the pattern? Do we simply lack vision? Or the ability to implement ONE?

    1. “People like the quiet neighborhoods that they live in and the fact is that most of our city consists of, and most people live in these single family zones that resemble the suburbs in oh so many ways.”

      This is something I have been meaning to write about for a while because I think it is a large misconception. Two things.

      If you actually look at the statistics ( housing, single family vs multifamily within the city of Seattle it is essentially split. Mind you that data is from 2000, over 11 years old. Their has been large growth in the 20+ category as well as the 3-4 and 5-9 unit category and that is a long term trend that won’t ever change. In fact the single family has probably decreased as single family is converted to townhouses. There simply isn’t land to build single family housing in Seattle.

      Second while a lot of our attention for TOD in station areas is on NC zones, because you want to create neighborhood center that are active and mixed use, there are many areas with LR or MR zoning which is much more quiet and neighborhood in feel, noise levels and street activity. Density does not always, nor should it, equal bars and restaurants and other high travel demand uses at street level. I think north capitol hill west of Broadway and First Hill bounded by Boren/Pike/Broadway/Madison is a perfect example. They are quiet, tree lined neighborhoods with some of the densest housing in the city.

      1. Something interesting in that data I hadn’t noticed before: there are more carless households in Seattle than those with 3+ vehicles, and more households with only one car than two.

      2. That neighborhood is a great example of livability. I have no idea what percentage of home buyers or rental seekers are clamoring to live in such a neighborhood, but I’m guessing the vacancy rate there is pretty low.

        So what does this mean in terms of what we should do now, how that differs from current plans, and how far away we are from moving in that direction?

      3. Here is the 2010 Census data ( The major change is from single family (-2.5%)and 20+ unit category (+2.4%), with most other categories staying at a constant percentage, which means they grew, but only at a rate to keep their current market share.

        Units don’t exactly equal people, you would need some other data for that, but it is a fact that a majority of housing units in the city of Seattle are in fact multifamily.

      4. The west slope of capitol hill is indeed one of the best neighborhoods in the city. It feels off the beaten track and is pretty quiet, being on the edge of the neighborhood, but also has access to the Broadway and Olive Way commercial corridors. It also has a couple nice neighborhood-focused businesses the Lookout, Summit, and Top Pot. All this in an area of almost entirely mid-rise apartments.

        The city needs to come to terms with the idea of zoning broad swaths of the city mid-rise, not just commercial corridors. This idea that we can accommodate growth simply by upzoning narrow commercial strips, while leaving everything more than a block away low-rise or SF, is crazy. Those businesses on the commercial strip need walking customers, otherwise they need lots of parking, which destroys the desired urban form. They can’t depend just on the people living above them, they need a dense neighborhood surrounding the commercial street.

        The city also needs to apply L3 to pretty much all SF areas that have good transit service. I can understand that Magnolia might not make sense for it, but it’s crazy to still have SF in areas like Roosevelt.

      5. +1

        And NIMBYs need remember that no one is forcing them to grow. If they like their SF house exactly where it is, then just keep living in it. But if your neighbors want to make a profit and a ton of other people want the same access to transit that you will have, they should have the right to supply it!

      6. “There simply isn’t land to build single family housing in Seattle.”

        This is also happening in Bellevue, Kirkland, Mountlake Terrace, and the other close-in suburbs. All the single-family houses have already been built. Replacing a house with a house doesn’t cause any net change. And nobody is tearing down strip malls or big-box stores to build single-family houses. The growth in the inner suburbs is in multifamily housing in their downtowns, which means they’ll gradually become more like Seattle, not less. I don’t know whether suburban house-to-townhouse conversion is happening in suburban residential neighborhoods, but that could happen too someday.

        The empty lots for new single-family houses and and single-family neighborhoods are on the edges in the exurbs. But already Maple Valley can’t find enough buyers for its houses even with its advertisements all over Kent. I don’t know if Brier and Canyon Park are all built up yet, but they’re either on or inside the built-up edge.

      7. +1.

        I used to live on a street like that in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood in DC (I went to college at GW). My street had apartments/condos and was quiet and tree-lined. A block over was busy Pennsylvania Avenue, and two blocks away was the Metro station. It was a great neighborhood to live in and felt urban but not gritty/noisy/unpleasant at all. And there weren’t many cars driving on the side streets–parking was such a hassle, everyone just walked everywhere, even the rich college kids from suburban New York. You know those old lady grocery carts? Everyone had one in that neighborhood.

    2. A lot fewer empty units than a year ago.

      Apartments are getting tight, hence the building boom that’s ramped up this year.

      Condos are using fire sales to get rid of empty units. Mine did that, and is now nearly full.

    3. You mention quiet neighborhoods. I wonder if that’s partly *literally* the issue in many cities.

      Apartment buildings, condos, duplexes… if you don’t build all the buildings in the neighborhood with fairly soundproof walls, more people start to be More Loud.

      And developers haven’t been building walls with good sound insulation much since the 30s ended — though the recent high-insulation trend is accidentally reversing that for new construction.

      1. Partially true, but considering our climate we have windows open throughout the summer. Of course our summer is only about 2 months long, so that’s not the end of the world.

        But yes double pane windows alone cut out almost all outside noise when closed, and double pane windows have been required by code for years. Insulation is really only important when isolating sound between units. But this isn’t required by code (only exterior walls), so probably isn’t done much. Though I believe you have to have fire rated walls between units, so this might help reduce sound transmission (generally accomplished by adding another layer of sheetrock).

  8. The other reason residents don’t like upzoning is that it often brings in people of lower income brackets. Ie. apartments tend to cater to people who can’t afford houses. So the more people, the more noise, the more loud stereos, the more arguments that drift into the street late at night. If you are used to a quiet neighborhood of single family housing you don’t really want all that hassle moving in.

    Secondly, upzoning often removes ALL the single family houses over time, so instead of getting a quad plex here, a single house or two, a duplex, a single house, a octiplex, you get a series of 10 unit appartments, condos stacked right next door to each other with a single family holdout in the middle, which becomes a dump as no one wants to live in a canyon.

    Thing is, if you built the quad plex on the corner of the residental street and the busy street it would block some of the noise. But then developers complain they can’t make any money building only quadplexs and can’t we please have a 10 unit… and pretty soon it’s a single family house next to a wall of a building and then they sell/move… and slowly but surely it’s not single family residents anymore.

    From my vantage point of a single family house in the burbs, I don’t really want to live cheek to jowl with my neighbors. I’ve lived in single family neighborhoods that are subletting the house out to a group of people and it’s ok, but ask me to buy a house next to a octiplex and I’ll pass.

    1. Oh yeah, there was an architech that “got it” and built quad/multi plexs into neighborhoods and it seems to work. Anhault (sp?) and if you walk around Capital Hill and Queen Anne you can see some of his stuff. Trouble is today’s developers build these awful boxs which maximize the floorspace and minimize the expense resulting in ugly units.

    2. I live in such a situation and I understand your desire to avoid the masses while dining at home with family. We made the decision to embrace the urban lifestyle and I will admit there are times when I would prefer to have fewer neighbors, or wealthier, quieter ones than we do have. This brings me back to my original point, that the market and homebuyers are resisting density, for the very reason you stated…..cheek to jowl.

      So how do we incentivize people to make the choices that support the policies that we need?

      1. “… there are times when I would prefer to have fewer neighbors, or wealthier, quieter ones than we do have.”

        FWIW: From the “green” grass on the other side: Wealthy neighbors do not always equal quiet neighbors, except where iron fisted enforcement of noise ordinances/covenants exist. Quite the opposite. Some of the most obnoxious neighbors I’ve had have been very wealthy.

      2. [BG] I’d challange your assumption that because there are empty condos, that people don’t want to live there. I don’t have data, but it seems to me there are far more empty suburban homes as a percentage than empty condos. And an empty home just means that the seller doesn’t want to sell at the price the market wants to pay (generally this means they’re hoping the market will turn around soon). This is a short-term problem, since the seller is losing money on this property every day until they sell.

        Looking at the prices that condos are selling at, there’s a strong demand for dense housing. Incentives would be great, but more than anything we need more supply.

        Yes, many people want to live in a more spread-out environment. But many other people like the dynamics of dense living. Our region has plenty of supply for the former.

      3. All those condos will eventually be crappy, cheap apartments. We should be “overbuilding” now because as they age those buildings will be affordable.

      4. “resisting density, for the very reason you stated….cheek to jowl”.

        What are we comparing to? The house I grew up in, from a residential development from the 1940s, had about 7 feet between houses. We had plenty of decibal warfare and other “cheek to jowl” issues.

        When I drive through areas like Lynnwood or near Meridian in Pierce County, I’m amazed at how close the houses are — these massive windowless boxes jammed right next to each other.

        I certainly think many people have aversion to density, but I don’t think people are really resistant to closeness. The “American dream” of single family housing has incorporated closeness. Not just Seattle — check out overhead maps of new developments in Phoenix, Las Vegas, wherever.

      5. After reading these two comments, I want to ask BGCity and Gary if their views would be different if their houses and the new construction were both properly soundproofed. It sounds like a lot of the problem is nothing more than noise pollution, and correct construction early on can alleviate that.

    3. How about this reason for resisting upzone: taxes. Increased home value is fine if you plan to leave or flip. But if you actually like being part of the neighborhood, increased home value simply means less spending money.

      1. Basically a taxing district can only have 1% annual growth in tax collection for existing properties each year. Oregon, by contrast, has a 3% limit. Even though this kind of property tax does limit government revenue, it seems to be a good thing as far as development goes. It may be key to why Seattle has had more development recently than a lot of cities, because it removes this common objection that upzoning will force retirees out of their homes. I still think we should tax simple land area, rather than going by subjective “valuations.” If we taxed land area, we would encourage building up rather than out, and would not be punishing people for building in high-value areas.

    4. Careful, Gary. Given the state of the economy since 2008, how do you know what your income is going to be next month, let alone next year? If it suddenly becomes a lot lower, as has happened to a great many decent and hardworking people, is it going to turn you into a slob nobody wants to live next to? Think about it.

      Mark Dublin

      1. Sorry, no amount of lack of cash will turn me into a slob. My parents raised me well, and around here water & soap are nearly free.

        But what makes a neighbor that no one wants to live next door to? Insanity, and that can strike anyone. But still having the skills I have, I can repair my push mower, (no gas needed), weed my yard by hand, etc. And repair my own cars.

    5. As a Belltown resident, I find the noise issue odd. My condo on the alley side is very quiet. But I go to people’s houses and there are lawn mowers, kids in the street, and probably a god damn barking dog left outside. Most I can handle, but the dog would drive me fricking insane.

    6. Look around Chicago’s North Side sometime, around Fullerton, Belmont, and Diversey. (Not Lawrence, which is more run down.) All the residential units are low-rise apartments or condos, or row houses built in the 1800s, extending for several miles in both directions. Yet it’s as middle-class and fashionable and sought-after as Capitol Hill. Sometime in the past there were probably single-family detached houses there, but converting them did not destroy the neighborhood.

    7. Again, why not encourage development in neighborhoods where there’s already issues of crime/poverty? Along Aurora, I think you’d find a LOT of people happy to trade the drug dealers/hookers for folks living in low-income but well-managed apartments. Seriously, tear down some of those motels and put in an old-school project and it’d STILL be better for the neighborhood than what they’re dealing with now.

      1. I believe those motels are coming down right now. I forget what they’re being replaced with – I believe more motels.

        This is actually a case where we’re seeing the opposite of this post’s premise, where transportation is driving land use. Aurora is a big ugly highway tearing through our city. Highways lead to big signs, big boxes, big parking lots, and little pedestrian use.

        Want to fix Aurora? Reconnect the grid and narrow the road. But good luck convincing the state to do that, especially after they spend a few billion on their tunnel.

  9. Great post. It’s amazing, that with all the discussions this region has about transportation, how often we forget about the importance of land use. Seattle has long had a struggle between wanting to be a big, international city and maintaining its sense of remoteness (yes, we want light rail, but no we don’t want density). In neighborhoods that I’ve worked with there have been numerous occasions where people have said that they don’t want sidewalks because they want to stay “rural,” and these are people in Seattle, not in North Bend. The Council has been an impediment to change because they’re reflecting the feelings of a lot of voters. The tide seems to be slowly turning, though, and the news of Target and JC Penny coming to Downtown Seattle is another example of people seeing the attractiveness of living in denser environments.

    1. I’m sure some people will complain about the big box stores downtown, but imagine how dead downtown would be without the 2 malls on Pine. It’s a really good sign that these stores are realizing they can get customers downtown.

      1. I think big box stores could work well downtown, and I appreciate Target for trying it. That certainly removes one reason for owning a car, since every neighborhood connects directly to downtown by bus. Not that you couldn’t get most of the items they sell in smaller stores, but if nothing else it’s a percieved benefit, and that might be the extra push needed to get rid of a car or two.

      2. JC Penney returning to Seattle downtown:

        Since 2000, the greater downtown population has risen 26 percent to nearly 60,000, more than one-third of whom also work in the urban core, according to the Downtown Seattle Association.

        Susie Detmer, a commercial real-estate broker focused on the local retail sector for Cushman & Wakefield-Commerce, said Penney’s return would provide more proof that the retail core is “viable for all price points,” not only the upper end.

      3. Target already has what I would call an “urban big-box” store in Northgate, so we know they know how to build up instead of out. I always point to that building as an example of how major retailers can work in a dense city by stacking on top of each other. The cart escalator is always fun to show people, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if they also offer an affordable delivery service for their downtown location. Delivery is very common in places like New York City, and is a major reason why people can live without cars.

      4. The Pine area where those malls are actually felt a lot less dead before they came…

        [Westlake Center in particular was a horrible, horrible, idea — as malls go, it’s pretty horrible, and it really changed the feel of the area for the worse.]

      5. I’ll take Pine now vs. Pine in the 70s through mid 90s anyday! We need a high-volume retail core and it just wasn’t back then. I liked the ramps at the monorail station but the area was pretty dumpy.

      6. These will be smaller than a standard Penney’s or Target. All the big-box stores including Wal-Mart are trying a new urban format that’s smaller than their suburban stores, with a lower item count. (Which means they’ll only have the best-selling stuff.)

  10. I recently moved to Portland, and it’s even worse here. At least Seattle has a strategy built on urban centers and urban villages–in other words, entire areas of density. Other than the Pearl District (mostly built out), Lloyd District, and Hollywood, all the rest of the upzoning has consisted of narrow strips of 4-story mixed-use only along the main arterials like Belmont, Hawthorne, and Division. All the blocks in between these main roads are stuck in the SF zone. They say they want dense, walkable neighborhoods, but that can’t happen just by plopping some apartments right on the main drag. There’s a tipping point in a neighborhood where there is enough density to support enough businesses that people suddenly realize they don’t need a car or don’t need to drive for most purposes. Most of Portland is still very car-dependent because density is not high enough. Grocery stores and other amenities are too spread out. Everyone here complains that transit is not frequent enough, but the density is not really enough to support high-frequency transit. MAX only runs every 15 minutes most of the day and only every 30 minutes at night, and all of the buses are even worse. Look at a zoning map and it makes sense, as there simply aren’t enough people living close to transit.

    1. I agree with this….for all of Portland’s PR as a land use and transit mecca, the measurables are very low, including transit mode share and core population density. Outside the Pearl and Downtown, even the best “urban” districts are pretty low-scale. Still love Portland though.

      1. It’s slowly growing on me, but it doesn’t feel like a real city, more of a town with certain big-city amenities. Their growth strategy is very focused on getting more density in the suburbs (which is good) but they seem to be overly protective of the existing low-density parts of the city itself.

  11. Sorry if someone else already suggested this, but is there some way the city can in effect “take a cut” of the increased land value associated with (a) upzones and/or (b) transit investment? I TOD benefit districts and (similarly) tax increment financing have been discussed and possibly even used in places (SLU?), but it may help sway communities to welcome the increased density because of some sort of benefit they realize. I would suggest this cut not be taken from individual home/property owners but rather from developers.

    There are probably lots of issues with my suggestion, so call me out on them…

    To be honest, I am surprised some communities resist the combination of better transit and upzones. Both will serve to increase current home owners’ land values, and better transit will give them more options for mobility. If they don’t want the increased activity levels, noise, etc., they can sell their home when these things come to fruition, presumably to someone who wants to live there. Am I missing something here?

    1. You are referring to TIF (tax-increment financing), where the city borrows against future property tax revenue expected from a development to help pay for that development. It is apparently unconstitutional in Washington, although many argue it would survive in the courts. It is also controversial, because the city is basically giving the developer the future tax revenue. I don’t think that’s a problem, because there is a benefit to the whole city from increased density and the various amenities that usually are attached to TIF programs. It is also usually of a limited duration, so in the long-term the city will still get the taxes.

      A LID is different, as it actually immediately raises the property tax in an area to pay for an amenity. So the LID that helped pay for the streetcar was actually a new tax that Vulcan and other property owners directly paid. In many ways a LID is the opposite of a TIF, since in a LID the developer is paying the city and in a TIF the city is paying the developers.

      1. The Pearl district in Portland is a good example of where TIF has been used effectively to stimulate development. Portland also has Urban Renewal funds they use all over the city to directly finance development–I’m not sure if Seattle has any comparable program.

    2. So, both of the mechanisms listed (LID & TIF) are ways to finance capital improvements such as transit. What I’m looking for are ways to essentially “sell” an upzone to a neighborhood such as Roosevelt or Beacon Hill who will be getting or already have gotten major transit improvements (subway stations). Sound Transit is already funding the transit improvement – so how do we encourage these neighborhoods to take on their share of density? I’m trying to defeat the “why should we upzone to the benefit of a few land owners” argument.

      * I understand Roosevelt has been discussing their rezone for some time involving lots of community input, and now that a plan has been put together, lots of us transit and density wonks are saying “not big enough”, upsetting those who have been involved in the process. Its just an example.

    3. Charging an extra fee to build something….exactly the sort of disincentive we have too much of. The result will be either (a) not building, or (b) building when scarcity drives prices high enough to justify the change.

      And why shouldn’t we all pay for improvements? Do a citywide levy and do a Sound Transit style zoned approach to keep dollars within neighborhoods. The cost would be spread out and not artificially restrict supply.

      1. I’m all for paying for transit, but I want that investment leveraged to the greatest extent possible. I don’t want a multi-billion dollar regional train system to have low ridership because neighborhoods block a substantial upzone to prevent developers from making a profit.

        My issue is, the funding to extend Link to more areas of the city is already committed. Now it is a matter of ensuring we allow those neighborhoods to grow to meet demand for housing and businesses near Link stations.

    4. In response to questions of financing, there are numerous ways that a city can capture the increased value of transit. LIDs, TIF, and others. LIDs require the group of property owners (or a majority) to agree to it. The normal form of TIF, like that used in the Pearl District, isn’t supported by Washington State law, but cities can dedicate the increased tax revenue from an area to pay off bonds that might have helped develop the transit or station area (sort of a TIF-lite). There are land use bonus systems like that employed in Bel-Red. In short, there are a number of financing tools. All of them have challenges, but many are being used throughout the region.

  12. It seems like the big problem isn’t that Seattle is failing to get denser (if I’m not mistaken it certainly still is)but rather there may be a disconnect between where some people want to see more density and where its actually taking place.

    In my opinion the solution is to focus on the neighborhoods that are growing. Especially with Light Rail and other transit, the strategy seems to be, spend public dollars first and then try and force upzones (Ie. Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill, Roosevelt). Public dollars are more efficient in places that are denser, so reward places that are already dense and growing. Places like Capitol Hill, Ballard, and the West Seattle Triangle east of The Junction all still have plenty of lots that could be put to better use. So lets focus our money there and encourage those areas to mature sooner.

    1. Seattle has been trying way too much to get land use to respond after the fact to transportation. Better transit should only be awarded to neighborhoods willing to accept greater density. Years ago the city should have made sure Roosevelt would upzone substantially, and if they refused then Sound Transit should have simply skipped the neighborhood. Same with Beacon Hill and many other neighborhoods. Remember that the original streetcars were built by developers who knew they could deliver the density required. They weren’t built by the city with some sort of vague expectation that maybe developers would build housing. That’s basically what is happening with Link, and it is not a good strategy.

      1. Beacon Hill, for the most part as a community, has been supportive of upzoning around the station. Recall that it was one individual who filed the appeal that postponed the neighborhood plan update process. (And that the appeal failed.) I am really tired of seeing people suggest that Beacon Hill doesn’t deserve light rail.

        The reason there is currently no development to look forward to around the station isn’t zoning. It appears to be that the entities who own the land aren’t willing or able to develop right now. This is not the neighborhood’s fault.

    2. I think that part of it is that Link is going to go where Link is going. That discussion is essentially done, at least in Seattle. In the immediate future it’s about RapidRide and in the mid term its about some kind of HCT to Fremont/Ballard.

      1. Well then hopefully ST made their ridership predictions based on the realities of those neighborhoods and we should just accept that at this point Beacon Hill and Roosevelt are simply not going to achieve the very high densities that some people want (Not to say they aren’t going to be great neighborhoods, I definitely think they are regardless of the building heights).

      2. Why would we accept that? If we’re going to upzone somewhere in Seattle (which we absolutely should), where would make more sense than by light rail?

      3. I would argue that a bigger mandate for our public spending is to create great places for people to live. Forcing height increases into a neighborhood through a long, drawn-out political battle may make some of our transit investments more cost-effective but I think it is a step backward for creating stronger, healthier neighborhoods and definitely not worth the political capital that is currently being expended.

      4. I’m curious to hear about the upzones that don’t involve long, drawn-out political battles.

      5. Well this kind of gets back to my original point: There is plenty of development potential within the current zoning envelope. Personally I think we should be working on getting those areas filled out and matured first. Even within most SFH neighborhoods you can do townhomes and you already see this around the edges of urban centers. I think fostering and encouraging this potential to be realized, and in a way that best works for the neighborhoods is a much better strategy then trying to force upzones now.

        This isn’t downtown DC or Paris. Our build out is still pretty young.

      6. I can write a whole blog post on this topic. And probably should.

        Please don’t fall into that *we have unused zoning* trap. The only way to use all of that zoning is to bulldoze the city, and build every building to it’s maximum envelope. In reality you need a significantly large upzone in order to convince developers to actually build anything. Why? Because the value of your new building has to at least equal the value of the old building plus the cost to demolish and construct a new building. A building worth a little more isn’t ever going to be built.

      7. @JoshMahar I have problems with the semantics of using the world “force”. Zoning changes have never “forced” height, they allow for height. The only thing that the zoning code “froces” is less dense utilization of a scare and highly valuable resource, our TOD station areas.

        I also have to disagree about the fighting over zoning changes. If not now when? That is why. The time to fight over what kind of communities we want to see in 10-20 years is now, not in 10-20 years. The longer the zoning around stations doesn’t change, the harder it will be to change in the future.

      8. “The only way to use all of that zoning is to bulldoze the city, and build every building to it’s maximum envelope.”

        My home is within a station area and has already been rezoned. And guess what? My 1911 bungalow is staying put. Just because I now live on commercial property and could theoretically build a tall building, doesn’t mean I will. And I’m one of the people who supports increased density! But I’m in no hurry to have to move, you know. :) So far, there’s not really enough demand on Beacon Hill to use the zoning that exists, and additionally, if the property owners don’t wanna develop, it won’t happen. Which is probably the way it should be.

        Admittedly, it’s really annoying that the property immediately adjacent to the station remains empty lots. That makes no sense to me. At least I’m living in my house.

      9. Visited the Beacon Hill station recently as an excuse to actually ride Link. I was only on the surface for a couple of minutes but wow, there’s really no there there! When I took the MEHVA trolly tour we seemed to really traverse a neat neighborhood. Link sort of missed the mark. A stark example of trying to change rather than serve; sad.

      10. Bernie, one of the reasons there’s “no there there” is because Sound Transit took out a whole damned block to use as staging for Beacon Hill station. There were restaurants and shops (and housing) on that block until then.

      11. [litl] Are you sure? (I suppose you would be, living where you do) I recall Beacon Hill refused to upzone, and the DPD map still shows nothing but a vast field of SF5000 where the Link station is. It’s certainly possible it hasn’t been updated yet.

        What kind of upzone did they enact? If it’s a small one, it may take a while for any development, if any happens at all (see my argument above). If it’s a large one then I have a feeling it’s only a matter of time. Buying land, design, permitting can take a year or more even after a developer’s decided to take action. Plus not much was being built a year ago because of the housing market.

        (does more searching) Ah, here’s a bit from STB last year about trying to get a cute little upzone through. Even if this passed (did it?) that’s only a year ago – it will take some time for anything to happen.

      12. There were restaurants and shops (and housing) on that block until [Sound Transit took out a whole damned block].

        TOD = Transit Oriented Destruction ?

      13. Matt: My house was actually rezoned about a decade ago in the older neighborhood plan, not as part of the current rezoning process. (It was SF when I moved in, now it’s NC2-40. It looks like it’s one of the sites that will probably remain 40′ after the new rezoning. Sites closer to the Station will probably be 65′.)

        As far as I can tell, the new transit-oriented rezone is still in progress, but it’s not really controversial at the moment. See the DPD site for more about it.

        It’s true that they could rezone it for more density, maybe, and perhaps across a wider area — but I don’t think anyone even proposed that during this process. They gave us a 50′ option, a tower option, and a 65′ option. And most of the SF5000 isn’t touched. But I don’t necessary think you can blame Beacon Hill for that.

        For what it’s worth, when they did rezone a bunch of us to NC from SF 10 years ago or so, I don’t even remember much controversy about that, either. Of course, there are always some people who will complain.

        None of the sites that were rezoned have redeveloped in the intervening decade, I think. So, really, zoning isn’t going to be a magic wand for Beacon Hill.

      14. And I want to repeat — Beacon Hill did not refuse an upzone. One individual on Beacon Hill filed an appeal to block the process. That’s not Beacon Hill refusing anything.

    3. Link is really following growth, not preceding it. The major transit axis in Seattle has been known for decades: downtown – Capitol Hill – U-District – Northgate. And that’s exactly where Link is going. Link is connecting the largest designated urban villages: U-District, Northgate, Lynnwood, plus “Center City” (roughly Mercer-Broadway-Jackson-5th W). A basic principle of transit is that the largest urban villages need to be well connected, so that people can travel between them as well as within them. So Link had to go through or nearby Roosevelt to connect the U-district and Northgate. Skipping Roosevelt station would have been silly (What, I can’t ride Link to Greenlake and Whole Foods?) and would have saved only a little money.

      Rainier was chosen for now-famous political reasons, plus the fact it would connect Mt Baker, which is an urban center at the next lower level. (Roosevelt and Beacon are urban centers at the level below that, so smaller-scale.) Beacon got a station because it was already along the way. ST2 includes a preliminary study for a Ballard-UW line. So there’s your Ballard and Capitol Hill. West Seattle has been left further behind because there’s disagreement on how dense it is or could potentially be given its residents’ attitudes.

      Seattle’s high-capacity transit corridor study shows future lines in Ballard/Fremont, Eastlake, West Seattle, and Madison, which seem to accord with your ideas on where to channel investment. It just takes time to happen, especially in this budget climate.

      The push to upzone Roosevelt and Beacon is from a belief that transit stations should have tall buildings around them, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do this now. This is only marginally related to the investment in Capitol Hill, Ballard, the U-District, West Seattle, and Mt Baker, which is going on even as we speak.

      Link is just catching up with the density that’s already there. Extending it south and north, the airport and Lynnwood are the next natural places to go. The airport because it’s the largest ground-transportation generator in the northwest, and Lynnwood because it’s one of the three largest-size urban villages (the others being Northgate and the U-district). Roosevelt has a station because it would be silly to skip it. (What, I can’t take Link to Greenlake and Whole Foods?) Rainier was chosen because of its poor/minority status and many buildable lots. Beacon got a station because it was on the way already. And there you are.

    4. +1. Why fight with NIMBYs and struggle to get developers to build what you want, when you can put transit where people actually want it and where there’s already density happening?

  13. Of course, Roger, as you yourself pointed out last time, Ballard brought the density and is still getting screwed over on the transit (weak present, weak proposed).

  14. That’s all well and good. But what about the responsibility for the supposed “‘burbs”? What about them? Don’t they have a role to supporting transit through density, jobs, and code changes? Seattle isn’t only at fault and it’s not the only place with responsibility in the Puget Sound.

    1. Please don’t put any jobs in the suburbs. A city job naturally limits a commute, and therefore sprawl. But someone can commute to a suburban job from the exurbs. And considering the low price of land in the exurbs, can = will.

      1. Growth management is helping quite a bit. In many cities, new office buildings often have surface parking. The vast majority of new office space in the Seattle area has garages, and either less or zero surface parking. The reason is land availability and land cost. (Probably stating the obvious for many people!)

        With $20/sf land in a decent location outside a middle-America city, surface parking makes financial sense. But outside Seattle, even if you could find 10 acres for a sprawly office complex, it will cost way more. (My vague, outdated recollection is that suburban commercial sites can be had for $40/sf fairly often, but probably exceed $100 in the better Eastside spots and are multiple hundreds in Downtown Bellevue.) Depending on a bunch of variables, I’d guess in the $80 or $100 range it’s cheaper to at least tighten your site with an above-grade garage. Of course, in this region the high-rent office districts also don’t have big empty sites, so it’s often impossible to build surface parking at all.

        We don’t see a ton of suburban office development except on the Eastside, i.e. in the last boom. The most basic reason is that building a dense project with a garage, particularly if it’s underground, is expensive, and rents outside of Seattle and the Eastside aren’t high enough to make it work. That’s all related to land cost.

    2. Matt, jobs have to got to the suburbs. Seattle isn’t. The only place responsible for density and transit. I’m not suggesting places like Covington and Maple Valley, but the inner suburbs and historic cities of this metropolis. Urban villages capitalising on ivestment already here with industry and infrastructure and building upon that. Seattle has lots of opportunity for growth and change, but not everyone wants to live there and we have to accept that. Posts like Rodger’s ignores this. As a planner, I’m simply annoyed by this rhetoric and self-centred worldview as Seattle is the beginning and th end of the discussion. No, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

      As hays points out, GMA has a strong part to play in getting us to a place where the market can be ripe for serious change.

      1. “inner suburbs and historic cities of this metropolis.” No. I even think business growth Bellevue is a mistake. Geography is a major factor in sprawl, and we’re very lucky in this region that there’s been a geographic center of business. Many cities aren’t so lucky – visit Phoenix, LA, or dozens of other sprawled cities and you’ll see a common denominator of business distributed throughout. A business center at Everett will drive sprawl to far-off places like Oso and Silvana. Even a business center in Lynnwood will drive sprawl half an hour further north.

        “As a planner, I’m simply annoyed by this rhetoric and self-centered worldview as Seattle is the beginning and the end of the discussion.”

        Ok. Tell us what your plan is to limit sprawl in our region. It’s not self-centered to care about center cities – it’s environmentally irresponsible not to.

    3. Even if it were desirable to cap job growth in Bellevue and Lynnwood, it’s not going to happen. Their governments have autonomy, they want the tax revenue, and the growth management act says they’re part of the targeted destinations for growth. Burien and Renton have built nice town centers with apartments/condos next to transit centers, so they’re ready for job growth which can be absorbed into the frequent-transit network. Kent is further behind but has potential if it ever gets organized beyond the Kent Station shopping complex, and Kent is also a center for industrial/warehouse jobs which can’t all fit into Seattle and can’t afford its rents.

      What we need to do in the suburbs is the same thing we need to do in Seattle. Channel job growth toward the neighborhood centers and suburban downtowns that the frequent-transit network can better serve, and away from far-flung office parks. Redevelop low-density office parks that are near transit to be more space-efficient (garages rather than surface lots, and mixed-use rather than once-use where feasable).

      1. I completely agree*, and that’s a great strategy considering we can’t cap jobs there. But Stephen is throwing around ideas like it’s the suburbs’ “responsibility” to create job centers, with the implication that it’s ok to cap growth in Seattle. And that’s just flat wrong. We’ve already pushed houses far across our region because we’ve capped residential growth. Doing the same with jobs would be highly irresponsible.

        * ok, not completely. I think you’re being optimistic about how they “can be absorbed into the frequent-transit network”. Our transit system works well because it’s hub-and-spoke for commutes. Moving to a network model is terribly inefficient, as demand between any two nodes won’t be high enough for a frequent network. But this discussion is probably too nuanced and detailed for this thread.

      2. I’m assuming a future Burien-Renton Link, and BRT from Rainier Beach to Renton on MLK, Renton to Kent on the 169 corridor, Kent to SeaTac on the 180 corridor, and any of the SeaTac-Burien-White Center proprosals. You can increase frequency in stages and use small buses to gradually build up the ridership for full-time frequency.

        Kent, as the center for industrial jobs, needs better local buses or vans from the TC to the industrial job sites, which can’t be densified very much. The companies could contribute to this; it doesn’t have to be all Metro. In Silicon Valley companies and buildings have shuttle vans to to Caltrain stations.

      3. Our transit system works well because it’s hub-and-spoke for commutes. Moving to a network model is terribly inefficient, as demand between any two nodes won’t be high enough for a frequent network. But this discussion is probably too nuanced and detailed for this thread.

        I assume you’re referring to the suburbs?

      4. Yes. I think Seattle has enough density to support a basic network model for many of our neighborhoods. This would include a very direct transit connection between neighborhoods, and you need enough non-commute demand and both walkable enough urban centers to draw that demand as well as dense enough residential to support that transit line. But we have enough buses that are mostly empty running to some suburbs even with a hub-and-spoke model. I can’t imagine frequent service between suburbs unless they get seriously dense.

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