Conlin on Land Use: Will he focus less on building height, and more on density?

There is plenty one can find wrong with Richard Conlin’s latest blog post about the zoning battle in Roosevelt. But there are some good things to be said for Conlin’s post: he’s recognizing that land use decisions shouldn’t rest only in the hands of neighborhood planners and he’s ready to dispense with height as the measure of good land use policy. That’s good news for the New Year. But first let’s cover some ground opened by Conlin’s post.

Conlin decries the overheated rhetoric of the debate, flashing his credentials as a Solomon in the Northwest style. Conversations ought to be polite and fact based, Conlin implies, and it’s up to politicians to discern the facts and the law and make good decisions. Rhetoric, overheated and bloated, from bloggers isn’t helpful. Conlin suggests that the Council’s job is to find the middle ground between two extremes, dividing the baby between NIMBYs and density advocates.

However, while compromise is beneficial in policy discussions there can be no compromise between fact and fantasy. The facts are in on density: it’s better than other patterns of development and growth, specifically sprawl. Furthermore the facts point to the importance and benefit of density to many things people care about, like jobs, water quality, air pollution, public safety, jobs, and economic development to name a few.

The fantasy subscribed to by opponents of the up zone is that “taking” more density than the Mayor’s proposal makes them pro-density, and thus immune from the charge that they are intent on scuttling Sisely’s project because they can’t stomach the idea of him making a profit. The supposed supporters of density were willing to amputate their noses to stop an up zone, even though the properties are doomed to stay blighted without one, a truth that Conlin’s colleague Nick Licata admitted when he proposed his amendment which would have limited the construction of more housing in Roosevelt.

Conlin argues both sides of the zoning discussion in Roosevelt are on equal rhetorical footing, as if finding an answer to the question “what is 2 plus 2” is open to reasoned debate. Those of us who are pro density (supporters of the answer “4”) were pushing for too much height, and those against (supporters of the answer “3.75”) were missing the point and benefits of density. The truth is in the middle of those positions, Conlin seems to say: maybe 3.875?

Conlin was in the overheated auditorium when the proposal to increase heights on the properties owned by Hugh Sisely was publicly eviscerated by a frothing mob in Roosevelt. Does he really believe that what was on display that night from opponents of the up zone was the same as those of us who wrote blog posts and articles in favor of height on that site? Were we shouting down the people who were bashing developers and “outsiders” trying to ruin their neighborhood?

The truth is the 65 feet on the Sisely property is lower than it probably should be. The market would likely support a lot more housing there and throughout the neighborhood. And that brings me to two hopeful points that I hope Councilmember Conlin will consider as his New Year’s resolutions: don’t raise neighborhood expectations about the influence they will have on zoning and stop worrying about height.

Conlin suggests that the City’s process was “botched.” He’s right. Highly trained and qualified planners and staff at DPD ended up using their skills to transform narrow prejudices about developers, growth, and Hugh Sisley into land use policy. Conlin is right to suggest in his post that this use of City resources is a bad idea. Local neighbors down the block from transit stations should be included, but their voices and opinions shouldn’t be given more weight simply because of their proximity. And success of land use policy and regional transit is too important to be left to local interests about view blockage of one building, like the high school in Roosevelt.

Roosevelt: More people, less blight

Second, Conlin wisely suggests that this discussion isn’t about height. Amen! Density and height overlap, but the two things aren’t identical or synonymous. Density simply means more people living in a smaller footprint, and height, naturally, is part of accomplishing that. But putting more people into single-family neighborhoods by allowing more cottages, duplexes, and other multifamily options in and around single-family neighborhoods does the same thing. So does dense Transit Oriented Development. Believing height doesn’t matter frees us from obsessing about 40, 65, or 85 feet. Who cares how tall the building is, the question is are we making room for lots more people to live near transit?

If the Council is going to examine wholesale changes to the code around transit why not eliminate height based zoning restrictions all together around light rail stations. If height doesn’t matter than land use planning and regulation should allow the neighborhood, transit advocates, and investors in development to decide what gets built whether it’s 100 or 1000 feet tall, as long as it substantially and sustainably supports growth.

Conlin as chair of the Council’s land use committee should always remind neighbors that they don’t matter more just because they live near a project. He could also resolve to affirm that height doesn’t matter, but people do. Finding ways to put more people next to things that make life easier (like transit) and more affordable is our goal, not enforcing arbitrary height limits. I’m looking forward to Conlin in his new role as land use chair fulfilling these promises.

46 Replies to “Richard Conlin on TOD: Two Resolutions for the New Year”

  1. Land use debates always seem to boil down to two hotly contested areas: height restrictions and minimum parking requirements. Views access/open space, and parking are both cases where a small minority disproportionately consumes a public good that they otherwise are not entitled to. Thus folks tend to get highly possessive and emotional when confronted with the threat that they may lose their elevated privilege. So of course the outcome is that local residents dig in their heals and fear-bite anyone that threatens the status quo.

    I think if we want productive outcomes from local zoning committees, the problem needs to be framed appropriately. A light rail station needs a certain number of people living within its walkshed. It just does or it is not economic to build one. If a neighborhood is going to get a rail stop paid for by the rest of the city, they need to up zone until they have enough housing/retail surrounding it. So the problem for the zoning committee isn’t wether to allow more housing to be built or even how much to allow.

    The amount of housing that needs to be built is a calculable fact (though I don’t know exactly what that number is) and shouldn’t be open to discussion. The committee should be deciding how it wishes to build it. If the neighborhood is particularly backward looking, they may choose to zone for those faceless, ugly town homes stacked on top of a 1st floor garage and crammed down narrow alleys. If, however, they’re a little more forward looking, they’ll zone larger buildings with retail on the ground floor in the neighborhood core surrounding the station. Given the choice between those two options, I think a local committee will make the right choice. But giving them authority over the actual number of homes to be built is asking them to answer the wrong question and creates perverse incentives for neighbors to block progress.

    1. “If a neighborhood is going to get a rail stop paid for by the rest of the city, they need to up zone until they have enough housing/retail surrounding it.”

      There’s a danger with that. The NIMBYs can say, “Fine, don’t build rapid transit here.” Then the rest of the population suffers because they have to take slow, unreliable buses into that area; and children and poor residents who can’t choose where they live are deprived of rapid transit. Roosevelt and Beacon Hill were chosen because they’re already neighborhood centers with places to walk to and future potential. Just build the stations already, and in the future as people see other successful upzones, and as more of the population becomes elderly or less willing to tolerate traffic/slow buses, they’ll be more willing to upzone.

      “The amount of housing that needs to be built is a calculable fact … and shouldn’t be open to discussion. The committee should be deciding how it wishes to build it.”

      Isn’t that what Roosevelt did? Their statements say that twice the city came to them with a residential-capacity goal and they exceeded it.

    2. I agree that I haven’t seen many townhouses in Seattle that are awesome looking, but I actually think that living in a neighborhood of 3-4 story tall houses with narrow alleyways could be both really great aesthetically and totally compatible with higher overall density. This wouldn’t be a model for a CBD or even within a block or two of a light rail station, but otherwise, why not? Huge parts of old European cities are basically built that way.

      1. The difference is that, in those European cities, there are probably storefronts along those alleys — or at least frequent entrances, or frequent intersections.

        If you have long alleyways which connect to nothing, and which are not useful for travel for anyone except the few residents of a townhouse cluster, then they’re not going to be a tenth as inviting as those narrow European streets.

  2. Biggest problem for the Densists is the forthcoming reverse migration to LA. I can see this region losing 20 percent of its population or more.

    So, rather than trying to create more cattle cages like Conlin, I would focus on making life better for the current residents.

    1. Last year people in the Bailo Universe were migrating to Lacey and Yakima. This year they’re reversing course and heading to Los Angeles? Meanwhile the Non-Bailo Calculations show an increase in Pugetopolis’ population, and some have suggested another wave of Californians moving north.

    2. Los Angeles is much denser than Seattle. Are they then fleeing to be in a more dense area? You make no sense. Please explain.

      1. John Bailo is a pseudonym used by a particularly skilled comment thread performance artist. Their skilled counterfactual ramblings about imminent population decline serve as a kind of campfire for the reality based community to warm their blood around.

      2. I’m predicating this on what I consider the imbalance in home prices.

        Given that in the 90s, over 1 million people migrated to this area from California solely because they could sell their home there and get one here for 1/3rd the cost.

        Now houses in California seem to be 100K cheaper than Seattle’s which are fantastically high.

        And much as I personally like this area, there isn’t a lot going for it when it comes to cost, weather and so on.

        To me, California is still the ideal lifestyle and with much lower housing costs.

        Couple this with the latest census numbers showing that in many places states are losing population. Immigration from foreign countries slowed to a halt starting 2006. And yes, I understand that Washington is still among the gainers (albeit 1.7%) but the trends are that those people will land in the Oly area (the fastest growing during the 00s) and maybe the eastern parts of the state.

        That doesn’t bode well for an area like PNN which yes, has many positives, but for a families and young people, because of high housing costs, is not a good bargain.

      3. CA is a big state. SF is still way more expensive than Seattle and they get more rain. Only one state actually saw a small decline in population between the 2000 and 2010 census. You’d have slightly more credibility if you quit lying.

        over 1 million people migrated to this area from California solely because they could sell their home there and get one here for 1/3rd the cost.

        What dark place did you pull this statistic from? Assuming the 1 million figure is even close to the number of people that moved here from CA was there a survey that asked what the sole reason for moving was? It would seem short sighted to cash in the profit on a home and give up a better paying job.

      4. According to 2010 census results

        Based on data collected in April of last year, the county gained just under 200,000 residents, an increase of 11.2% [actually 11.18% but not 8.2% as the PI reported], since the last complete census in 2000.

        1.5% growth per year would be 16% over a decade. If you report the number of people moving to the State per nanosecond it looks like a trivial number. It also looks pretty stupid. From your link, “they aren’t showing up in droves” is a far cry from, “Will the Last Person Leaving SEATTLE — Turn Out the Lights”. You do understand that “unchanged” since 2006 means the county is still growing at that rate and not that the population is unchanged? Or maybe you don’t. Even the PI reported “Seattle’s 1.7-percent jump from 2009 is the highest increase this decade.”

      5. John,

        The best cities — the “creative capitals”, the places with the most opportunities, the places where everyone wants to live — are constantly sending residents off to greener pastures.

        This isn’t because those cities have lost their allure. It’s because they’re incubators.

        People come to a city like New York, or San Francisco, or (to a lesser extent) Seattle, because it offers a wealth of opportunities, especially for someone who is just getting started in life. You can come to learn, to save, to try out new ideas. And then, once you’ve gained your footing, you may decide that you don’t need any new ideas, and the city is kind of expensive, so it’s time to leave.

        This is a mark of a city’s success, not its failure. The residents who leave are being replaced by new ones, and the cycle begins anew.

        The interesting number is not net migration, but total immigrants (and emigrants). If Seattle gained 100,000 residents and lost 100,000 more, great! But if we completely stagnated, and almost no one moved here from elsewhere, that would be a bad sign.

        In reality, Seattle is doing just fine. I’ll look for some data, but anecdotally, I meet someone almost every day who moved to the city weeks or months ago.

      6. “Now houses in California seem to be 100K cheaper than Seattle’s which are fantastically high.”

        Not in the Bay Area certainly. Maybe in south LA which has tended to be closer to Seattle’s prices, or San Bernardino and Stockton which are much further from “the city” than anything in Pugetopolis, and were much more heavily hit by the foreclosures, and where few of the residents actually want to live there if they had their ideal. The “cheap” parts of California are like the cheap parts of Washington: rural, small towns.

  3. In my opinion, his take aways about overheated rhetoric and height, are both a byproduct of his first point.

    The city created a planning structure in which the city, the closest thing we have to an arbitrator, could not effectively manage the process. That is the very role of government. With relation to heights, if Seattle wan’t quality TOD we can’t be arguing about 20 feet on a few blocks, something that has happened both here and at other stations. A better process creates a decision making process where the heights are a natural outgrowth of the goals (neighborhood character, population/employment targets, etc.) and not the end on to themselves. That didn’t happen here.

    1. I agree. The argument over height was all about a developer turning a profit and neighborhood character was the loser. Destroy that and people have no incentive to move there. I guess it accomplishes one thing the City is big on; low cost housing.

  4. I agree that the focus should be on density, not heights, and that we shouldn’t have height maximums. But what we should have is height MINIMUMS enforced by saying that there needs to be a minimum FAR for lots within certain radius’ of light rail stations. Something like a minimum FAR of 10 within 1 block of all transit stations, minimum of 5 within 1/4 mile, and minimum of 2 within 1/2 mile. All new development has to provide some way of meeting these mins, and they can go higher if they want. In addition I think there should be setback maxes so that the area remains walkable, but besides that if you want to create mixed use development that’s 30 stories why not?

    Honestly, if people want to live somewhere that doesn’t have tall buildings they’re welcome to move to crown hill or any of the NUMEROUS neighborhoods that have no access to light rail.

    1. “Something like a minimum FAR of 10 within 1 block of all transit stations, minimum of 5 within 1/4 mile, and minimum of 2 within 1/2 mile.”


      Although I’m reluctant to say no height limit. 400′ may be excessive outside downtown, unless Seattle really is going to turn into Manhattan. 10-15 story buildings should be enough to house everybody who wants it and stop the housing-scarcity inflation. So set the limit at 20-25 stories to allow for contingencies, and we can raise it later if we need to.

      1. What is the purpose of height limits anyway?

        Is it views? Sunlight? If so, put in “viewshed” and “sunlight access” laws. I can’t think of a reason for a strict height limit unless it’s for airplane takeoffs and landings!

      2. If so, put in “viewshed” and “sunlight access” laws.

        The Group Health property redevelopment did exactly that. Heights were restricted based on shadow print at a set time of year. Taller development allowed to the north vs south. Progressive Seattle is pretty backward basing height around where there happens to be a hole in the ground.

      3. In the complete absence of zoning, nobody in Seattle would build a 400 foot building (except for developers with a hole in their pocket and a height fetish), because it just wouldn’t be worth it. Buying double the land and building two shorter buildings would almost definitely be cheaper, simply due to the complexities of building super-tall buildings.

        Compare European cities, which largely grew up before zoning, to American cities, which developed after. European cities tend to have far more ground coverage (narrower streets, fewer setbacks, less “open space”), but much shorter buildings. American cities have a much smaller supply of land which is eligible for urban use (e.g. anything other than low-density residential), and so it needs to be used much more intensively.

        Eliminating height limits seems scary to even the most progressive American urban reformer, because we’re so used to a world in which developers are obligated to push to the limits. If you could line the back streets of Capitol Hill and Queen Anne with 4-story mixed-use buildings, almost no one would build towers, since it just wouldn’t pay off.

  5. In this particular case I imagine a significant degree of the anger is aimed at the City’s impotence around dealing with Sisley. He’s been a slumlord in that neighborhood for years and will profit handsomely from this rezone.

    1. Doesn’t Seattle have long-standing ordinances against many specifics about the way landlords have to keep up their properties? In the hands of a decent prosecutor, it seems like a plea bargain might be attractive to all concerned about the Roosevelt neighborhood.

      Also, making allowance for source of comments on impending migration and urban quality of life, there’s more chance that climate change alone will bring much about LA here than other way around.

      Also, trend seems to be that at least among the fatter cattle, more herds everywhere are headed for the cages Downtown than for the open range. Also, judging from contemporary descriptions of the Old West, it was in the cities that prosperous gentry saw most distinction between the life of a cattleman and that of a cow.


      Mark Dublin

      1. Apparently the city has fined Sisley a lot of money but has not been able to collect for some reason, probably similar to the reason they haven’t been able to collect on people that owe tens of thousands of dollars in parking fines.

        I’ve lived next to a lot that was completely neglected by its owner. For cases like these I think the city really ought to get mean about collecting certain types of fines. Ordinarily people that can’t pay fines are rightly protected from collectors, but people that own land can obviously raise the money to pay any fine related to its upkeep by selling the land. If the city can’t compel them to do that it should simply confiscate the land and auction it off. There’s no moral reason the city shouldn’t have either confiscated Sisley’s land or thrown him in jail.

  6. Before anyone gets confused, let’s be clear about density. More residences in a smaller land area, yes, proven to be good.

    Smaller bedrooms with more people per bedroom, no. That’s *not* good for quality of life, and there are studies to prove that as well.

    1. I don’t understand the point of bringing that distinction up – it serves to create a new fear that doesn’t even seem to exist today.

      1. Ben: Generally, people have an instinctive revulsion to slums. Sadly, for many people, a slum is what comes to mind when they try to imagine a high-density neighborhood — despite the fact that real slums are rarely half as dense as the desirable neighborhoods that are often mere blocks away.

        I think that diverse, vibrant cities are the best form of human settlement there is, and those cities are only possible with sufficiently high density. So if we want to help turn Seattle into one of those cities (or at least expand the part of Seattle that is), then we need to build public support for density. That means marketing — selling people on what’s good about density, and reassuring them that nobody wants the bad parts (and that we all agree on what the bad parts are).

        I agree with you that Nathanael’s words probably aren’t what we want to put on a billboard… but it is a useful distinction to make, and it’s something we need to keep in mind when dealing with people who are convinced that density is evil.

    2. Wait, who was talking about bedroom size? And WTF cares about the size of their bedroom anyway?

    3. Jane Jacobs had a good rule of thumb. There should be one room for each person, whether it’s a bedroom, living room, den, etc (but presumably not the kitchen or bathroom). That way people can be alone when they need to, which keeps household tensions from escalating and spilling out into neighborhood tensions. The density of the building or the size of the room doesn’t intrinsically matter, as long as it’s a room.

      1. As long as the room isn’t McMansion huge. Room size and configuration does affect the design and capacity of a building. Smaller rooms mean more space for more rooms and people.

      2. It’s not a rule of thumb — it’s an official census definition, which is where she got it from. Statistics on overcrowding are available at least down to the census tract level. Overcrowding means more than one person per general room (i.e. not kitchens/bathrooms), and severe overcrowding means more than 1.5 people per general room.

      3. Oran: see above. The statistics do not take into account room size. Intuitively, it’s clear that certain room patterns are better than others; a closet-sized bedroom connected to a closet-sized living room will feel crowded for two unrelated roommates. But if a census tract has 500 rooms and 1,000 people, that’s clearly not ideal, no matter how big or small the rooms are.

  7. Roger fixates needlessly on upzoning near light rail stations, which might result in a couple of hundred extra units. Meanwhile, in Black Diamond and Issaquah there are thousands of new units (SFD’s and condos/apts) going in that have absolutely nothing to do with light rail. What drives Roger’s myopia? Light rail literally has NOTHING to do with residential or commercial building patterns in this region. Does he work for a developer with plans near a light rail station? If sprawl is the enemy he should fight what’s going on in Black Diamond and elsewhere, not fixate on the minor dustup near Roosevelt H.S.

    1. Our region has a fairly strong growth management system compared to most states. That said, it would take restrictions much, much stronger to really curb growth in the suburbs/exurbs. It’s like squeezing a balloon – there’s just too much pressure to build on cheap land.

      While I fully support efforts to keep squeezing the balloon, we need to also reduce that pressure by adding supply on “brown field” areas – our existing cities. Luckily, we have a strong demand for more housing in the city. Unluckily, we have crazy zoning laws in place designed to keep developers from building what the market wants them to build.

      Black Diamond doesn’t have NIMBYs trying to keep people from building there. As long as our city gives NIMBYs the power to stop construction here, we’ll never have growth at the scale that the suburbs/exurbs has.

    2. The “development patterns in our region” are shaped by the zoning code, hence Roger rightly is concerned about the zoning code. Roosavelt is just one station area but if the pattern and process that decided how many units to allow near Roosavelt station are repeated along each of the light rail stations and along the rapid ride lines then different of “a couple hundred” extra units becomes a difference measured in thousands.

    3. High density around rail stations allows more people who wish to, to live within walking distance of a station and afford it. Without the density, housing costs around stations skyrocket because so many people want to live near stations that demand exceeds supply. It’s the lack of housing options that causes people to say they can’t afford Seattle and move to Des Moines or Black Diamond. (Other people will live in Black Diamond no matter what, but we’re talking about the ones who could go either way.) So creating housing opportunities near stations lowers the demand in Black Diamond, which makes developers less willing to develop there. Of course, you also have to combat sprawl directly, but you also have to give people alternative places to live that they can afford.

      1. “High density around rail stations allows more people who wish to, to live within walking distance of a station and afford it.”

        What makes you say that? The apartment units near the stations may be more expensive. Even if they are just market-rate they are not more affordable.

      2. “Without the density, housing costs around stations skyrocket because so many people want to live near stations that demand exceeds supply.”

        You are wrong. SFD prices near LINK have not “skyrocketed”. No data support that assertion, and it is counter-intuitive. People around here don’t want to live near loud, busy rail stations.

      3. “So creating housing opportunities near stations lowers the demand in Black Diamond, which makes developers less willing to develop there.”

        Are you [ad hom] or just misinformed? The markets for SFD’s in Black Diamond (or Issaquah, or on the Kitsap Penninsula, or in rural Snohomish County) are completely different than the market for apartments near urban rail stations. NOBODY does an either/or analysis of those two types of housing.

      4. “The apartment units near the stations may be more expensive. Even if they are just market-rate they are not more affordable.”

        “SFD prices near LINK have not “skyrocketed”.”

        I meant, the station’s presence puts an upward pressure on prices. Building more capacity increases vacancies, which puts a downward pressure on prices. The new building may be more expensive because it’s new and has luxury amenities, but the surrounding buildings will not be able to impose the rent increases they could if the new building weren’t there, because the presence of the new building offsets any declining vacancy rate in the surrounding buildings. You can’t directly compare apartments/condos with single-family houses, because many people can’t afford SFHs, and many others want only SFH or only multifamily.

        Yes, the Seattle – Black Diamond comparison is extreme: they’re on the oppsite edges of the metropolitan area. But the point is that if people can’t find what they want at the right price in Seattle, they’ll look further out, and that may lead them to Kent then Maple Valley then Black Diamond. And their expectations may change with the different environments. They know a Seattle house will be smaller than a Black Diamond house, so that’s part of the tradeoff. It depends on how much they want to live close-in vs how much they want a large house and yard; it’s a continuum, not black or white.

    4. I’m sure Black Diamond does have NIMBYs, probably stronger than Seattle, who want to keep its small-town atmosphere. But the city is also looking at the tax base the development would supposedly provide.

      1. The difference is twofold: first, most development there is not redevelopment; and second, most development there is detached single-family on huge lots. That is to say, no one is building in existing “neighborhoods”, and even if they were, the new buildings would not be “out of character”.

        I read an article by Ryan Avent recently, which essentially argued for stronger private property rights. The idea is that, if a neighborhood truly wants to stop development, then they can choose to buy up the relevant properties and only sell/rent them to developers who agree to follow their rules. Thus, the opportunity cost of lost development is being paid for directly by the people who object to it, rather than indirectly by everyone else who have to cope with the reduced supply of housing, retail, and industry.

        When you think about it, it’s really quite remarkable that this isn’t the case. For all that right-wingers like to throw around terms like “socialism”, zoning is the closest that we still come to central planning. (Maybe we can get the Republicans on board with “construction deregulation” and property rights?)

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