Yesler Terrace Residences
Yesler Terrace Garden Homes, photo by SDOT.

Many people are studying the connections between housing, density and economic growth. At the heart of Ryan Avent’s short new book (Amazon Single, well worth the $2), The Gated City (alluded to here), is a very compelling argument that restrictive housing policies put a drag on economic growth and overall prosperity by limiting the supply of housing which in turn limits the number of people who are able to participate in the high-growth activities in high-growth locations. Reuters has a brief excerpt of that argument as it pertains to Silicon Valley. While the situation isn’t as acute here as it is in Silicon Valley, we are needlessly limiting housing and often we may not even be fully aware of the reasons or the consequences.

Details below the fold.

The so-called status quo bias is a well established theory in social psychology. In short, people prefer things stay the same rather than experience significant change. One result of this, is that people overvalue things that they know will be lost relative to what they might gain. This is especially troublesome when the gains are abstract or still unknown; an opportunity missed may sting less than something tangible lost because the latter has been experienced and the former hasn’t.  These biases have fairly important consequences for major urban redevelopment projects, in particular the Roosevelt Station Area and Yesler Terrace, and ultimately have consequences for the long-term prosperity of our region.

The Yesler Terrace project is in fine shape and seems to be set to sail ahead full steam, so it may seem weird to have niggling concerns about it. Still, every time I read something about the loss of low-income garden homes in the center-city, I wonder if we’re even having the right conversation. In this Seattle Times piece magazine piece, I’m sure the wrong questions are being asked:

Do they really need to live closer to middle-class role models? Is that compassionate or condescending? Progressive or patronizing?

“Just because you grow up close to someone with privileges,” [Yesler Terrace resident Kristin] O’Donnell says, “it doesn’t mean it’s going to give you any.”

This is the wrong conversation entirely. I don’t want to dismiss concerns about way-of-life changes for current residents, or even discuss whether the $150 million the Seattle Housing Authority hopes to raise from the redevelopment will allow them to create better housing opportunities for low income residents[1]. The real question ought to be whether a low-density garden community on the foot steps of downtown is the best use of public land, and whether the city is doing the right thing for all residents by building 5,000 new units of housing there and 900,000 square feet of office space. I know it’s a lot to expect from a human interest piece, but that sentiment seems to have dominated the coverage of the redevelopment.

The Roosevelt station-area development plan is another story altogether. In this case, there seem to be two main arguments against a larger upzone, one of which strikes me as completely unreasonable. The first argument, layed out clearly in this Seattle Times piece is again about loss of way-of-life, in particular loss of views and increase shadows. I still stand by the idea that it is possible to build sufficient density with shorter buildings, and you could get even more without parking requirements or excessive amounts of retail. Still, when we’re talking about shadows and mountain views, what are we weighing them against? Taking full advantage of the transportation infrastructure is certainly part of it, but that’s not all. It’s also the connections that won’t be made and the opportunities that will be missed. That part of the conversation is completely missing from most discourse.

The second argument about the Roosevelt upzone is the one that really gets me worried. While only hinted at in the piece (it’s more obvious from the comments), it seems there’s an under current of resentment for landlord Hugh Sisley – who owns a large part of the land in the potential upzone area – and a desire to ensure that he makes as little money as possible off the upzone. Nothing else explains the desire for the 40′ zone in front of Roosevelt High School (I went there, and never once saw Mt Rainier). The resentment and vendettas, no matter how worthy the target is of them, are not appropriate considerations for public discourse, much less public policy. Development is not a zero-sum game, and no one benefits from the continued existence of slums and warrens in that neighborhood. Certainly the city council and the Department of Planning and Development should not let themselves be extorted, but the best thing for the community isn’t whatever’s worst for Sisley.

We’re starting to get clearer pictures of some tools that will help grow the economy that will cost the tax payer very little[2]: let more housing get built, especially in high-demand areas. Yesler Terrace and the Roosevelt station areas are perfect places to do this (Beacon Hill is, too, but that’s another story). But if we let emotional vendettas against slum lords and the loss of mountain views and garden homes dominate the conversations, we may risk losing opportunities we never knew we had.

[1] Though on the second score the answer seems obvious.

[2] In fact, more housing, more people and more jobs will likely only help tax revenues.

31 Replies to “Are We Even Having the Right Conversation?”

  1. Good piece.

    What are the chances of getting the city to do an across the board upzone? Might help allay some of the fears that OMG! THE DEVELOPERS ARE COMING, THE DEVELOPERS ARE COMING! that seem to happen with these piecemeal upzones.

    1. I think the discussion we need to have is more about how we approach zoning in the first place – that’s why Roger wrote the land use code blog, I think. Is it really appropriate to ask people currently living somewhere to have input when the people it will mostly have an impact on don’t live there yet?

      1. Isn’t that kind of just putting a bandaid on a gaping wound? Unless you are talking about completely redefining zoning as we know it (greatly simplifying AND loosening it) I think we are constantly going to have these problems.

      2. I am talking about redefining zoning, yes. I have probably the same aims here as Ryan Avent.

      3. Well what’s the best alternative to local determination? To take your argument further why shouldn’t I be able to vote for the senator in Oregon. I’m a potential state resident. Or why do we restrict presidential votes to just US citizens (We know tons of folks plan to emigrate and they will be impacted by the result)

        A hearing is just that a chance for representatives to get a sounding out of their constituencies. If you don’t like the decisions made then the proper place to respond is in the next election cycle. Make decision X be it zoning or whatever a campaign issue etc. (Note all city council seats are at large and you can vote on all of them) I’m saddened that there is so much distaste for political participation being voiced here.

        I also question your framing of the impact of these decisions. I think most folks find the change in their immediate built environment to have great importance and impact both for better and for worse. They also have invested time and money in these sites and if things don’t go the way they want have a lot more to lose than potential residents who will just go elsewhere.

        Finally, I think you’d also find an opaque process where we appointed experts or did zoning on a state wide basis or for that matter didn’t zone at all worse than the status quo. When a decision was made that you didn’t agree with under any such scheme you’d have much less input in the process. Or alternatively without zoning we could sprawl and develop like Houston.

        “It has been said that Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
        – Winston Churchill


      4. benleis, as Matt points out… your argument makes presuppositions that just don’t make sense.

        These hearings act as lightning rods for opposition – that’s what they’re for, to let people know “this is the potential plan, do you have problems with it?”

        I’m not saying we should change that approach to ask everyone. I’m saying we should stop doing it, because it actually results in economic damage to the city as a whole.

      5. That’s not going to stop these plans from being a lightning rod for opposition. It’s just going to make the opposition more contentious, because people are going to scream “they’re ramrodding this down our throats!”

    2. I would think that’s our best way forward. We clearly are not good at upzoning individual neighborhoods – even when the stakes are high, like at light rail stations. But at some point we created our urban villages, and that was very successful – maybe because everyone in the city had a say. Let’s do something like that again.

      1. Quite the opposite. Our urban villages happened *before* people had a say. They’ve been comparatively (be careful to note I say comparatively) stagnant since then. Yes, even Ballard. Growth is practically stalled now compared to what built these places.

      2. Interesting. I admit I only have a vague understanding of how our urban villages came about. I’d love to hear a history of both what created our urban villages, and what’s changed since then.

      3. I highly recommend you go read this:

        Economically, it’s nearly identical to what happened in Seattle, on a slightly different timeline. The streetcars created the urban villages. Unfortunately, this gets harder to see now, because we’ve started calling any cluster of development an “urban village”, bucketing a lot of nonsense in with actual neighborhood centers.

    3. How about just getting rid of zoning altogether, or at least this sort of regressive “lifestyle” zoning (“no toxic chemical plants next to grade schools” type zoning seems less problematic)? In the long run it seems to seems to cause more damage than good…

      1. Indeed. Jane Jacobs suggested this fifty years ago. She was right then, and she’s still right. She says we should just regulate externalities – don’t even bother saying “no toxic chemical plants”, just say “no dumping toxics” period and let the plants work out what they’re going to do. Industry needs cheap land anyway (and nobody’s opening new chemical plants now anyway, as well), so it’s not going to end up in high value areas around schools.

      2. I’m with Ben on that. If you want to put a toxic chemical plant next to a school, you’re out of luck. If you want to build a town home next to a house with a large yard, you’re out of luck.

        Why are we using the same mechanism to control these two unrelated issues?

  2. Off topic Apparently there’s some sort of electrical outage on 3rd downtown. Every bus on wires is stopped.

    1. Update: some kind of big protest in the street, shutting down 3rd. The wired buses obviously can’t detour.

      1. They just arrested a van load of protesters and it’s breaking up. That was quick. Feel free to delete this thread.

  3. Just stop subsidizing inefficient suburbs and low-density neighborhoods.

    It’s the 21st Century, time to move on already.

    1. Building light rail without fighting for density around it *is* subsidizing low density neighborhoods.

  4. The Roosevelt meeting really makes a set of concepts clear to me:

    Known: Direct democracy is a bad idea. People can not be expected to know enough detail and nuance about every decision to add value to that decision. Popular votes should be restricted to broad ideas that either are known by the masses or can be understood without it taking too much time from their lives. This is the reason a representational democracy is a much better idea (choosing a good representative is a tough problem itself, but at least it’s a smaller tough problem).

    Newly realized: The Seattle Process is a step past the bad idea of direct democracy. It’s not only effectively* direct democracy, it’s direct democracy by a self-selecting minority that generally has a strong interest in the outcome. These voices should be heard, but they should have no role in deciding the outcome.

    Previously believed, newly reinforced: Zoning should be an administrative process. Those creating zoning plans should recieve ideas and feedback from some sort of public process, but the actual decisions of zoning should be far removed from the public.

    * Sure, the council et. al. could ignore meetings like the Roosevelt meeting, but this is very unlikely.

    1. Agreed entirely.

      Can we add Metro to the discussion and say the County Council should only be responsible for hiring/firing the Chief Administrator?

      1. Yes. The County Council should not have a say in agency operations at ALL. That would be a great countywide initiative…

    2. Newly realized: The Seattle Process is a step past the bad idea of direct democracy. It’s not only effectively* direct democracy, it’s direct democracy by a self-selecting minority that generally has a strong interest in the outcome. These voices should be heard, but they should have no role in deciding the outcome.

      That’s true about direct democracy in general, at least at today’s scale. Nothing special about the Seattle Process. Look at the tunnel initiative, or the liquor privatization efforts. It’s all about the self-selecting minorities in those cases too.

      1. The tunnel business was further sabotaged by bad voting mechanisms.

        What would the result have been if each of the competing proposals (I count shallow tunnel, deep tunnel with tolling, deep tunnel without tolling, viaduct rebuild, surface boulevard with more public transportation, surface boulevard with no more public transportation, and “leave it until it collapses and kills people” if you want to really finish the list) were put to the voters so that each person could vote up or down vote on each one — with the most popular one winning?

        Well, one result would be that there would be a lot more legitimacy for the result, whatever it was, because it would very clearly be more popular than all the alternatives. As it is, nobody thinks much of the way the decisions were made.

        Yes, I’m suggesting what is known as “approval voting”.

    3. A lot of discussion regarding this issue comes dangerously close to the Platonic Fallacy: “If only more people that agreed with me ruled, things would be so much better!” When you say things like this, ask yourself: do I know enough detail and nuance about the decisions I have opinions on?

      I think the real problem is a bit broader: the individualist philosophy that powers our society encourages people to think only of their own parochial interests, without even a concept of the good of the community or its future, or even much of a notion that other people with different experiences might just find natural ideas that sound utterly nonsensical to you. Individualism has simultaneously pushed the notion that people are different and can have their own opinions, and discouraged people from actually taking it seriously. If people were encouraged to think in terms of a broader community and for the long term, instead of a society that encouraged individualistic thinking and reinforced their short-term biases, we’d be a LOT better off in so many ways.

    4. In the UK, from what I can tell (someone who lives there can correct me), they have gone a step beyond zoning, and basically every construction needs separate and explicit permission from the local ‘planning authority’. People can file objections to filed proposals, and the planners seem to have total power to decide.

      Well, that’s one way. It avoids writing rules into stone, and it avoids one-size-fits-all nonsense. It also makes it clear that you’re at the mercy of your representatives who either are the planning authority or appoint the members of it — no “but I have a right to”. It allows for objections but by putting them in writing takes them out of the realm of shouting matches, and also makes the process *so* common and *so* routine that anyone who objects to everything will be quickly spotted as an inveterate complainer.

  5. The problem for this region is they’ve confused “transit” with “transportation”.

    “Transit” seems to be Democrat code name for creating density to raise real estate values under the guise of some social good.

    Transportation means getting people quickly between the two destinations they want — like a low cost suburban townhome and job at Boeing.

    I live in a Yesler Terrace, but it’s here in Kent. I can get anywhere I want with car, bus or train.

    I welcome high speed rail — I wish we had a maglev like they’re building in Japan so I could go to Spokane or Portland in 60 minutes or less.

    But see…they don’t want to build that…they don’t want to build Transportation.

    They want to build…transit.

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