I said, in an earlier post, that there are three problems facing advocates of smart, sustainable growth in Seattle and around the Puget Sound. The first was a lack of a simple message around which to build the case for putting future growth in our cities. I proposed “Density is People” or “Growth is People” as a way of shifting attention away from fighting over buildings and their height, and toward what the discussion is really about, welcoming more people to our cities.

The second thing missing is an agreed action agenda, the items that everyone in the development community and those that support sustainable growth should push for at the state and local level to help us more readily attain the broader outcome of growing in our cities rather than in sprawling outer ring communities. There are lots of good candidates for this list. I’ve broken them down into long, and intermediate and short-term objectives.

Longer Term

  • Charter and Constitutional reform
  • Tax Increment Financing
  • Reducing limits on public credit
  • Change HUD definition of affordability

These items are the items that are likely to smolder a long time before they catch fire. We have some serious structural problems in our state because our Constitution was built by people from the 19th century; their ideas, like funding school construction from the harvest of timber from state trust lands, must have made a lot of sense in 1889, but seem ludicrous today.

Sure the document has been amended more than a 100 times, but its approach to debt and public finance is better suited for the railroad age not the internet age.

The last item, changing the way we define and measure affordability, is starting to gain ground. A few years ago suggesting that 30 percent of monthly income is an arbitrary way of establishing a normative standard for affordability brought puzzled stares. Today people are opening up to the idea of broadening the measure of affordability to include things beyond housing price, like transportation costs.

Short and Intermediate Term

  • Eliminate zoning around transit stations
  • Citywide Transfer of Development Rights
  • Code audit
  • Loosen single-family code
  • Study alternative definitions to affordability

One thing the Seattle City Council could do is to eliminate zoning entirely around light rail stations in Seattle. Implementing zero based zoning—a kind of form-based code that starts with broad standards and process rather than prescriptive heights—would revolutionize land use around transit. The Planning Commission could manage a public process and give final review to proposals from private developers that wouldn’t be limited by the traditional confines of separated use, height, and density limits.

Transfer of development rights for historic buildings and cultural use is something that the Council could act on in the very near term, along with a thorough audit and rewrite of the code. Getting rid of the spaghetti like language in the code and ending the practice of amending by reference would make it easier to understand, explain and use. Lastly, opening up the single-family zones so that they look more like lowrise zones would be an important move we should start this year.

Get ‘er Done

I’ve already offered an idea for how we might implement a significant change in the way we plan and permit around transit stations. Seattle can lead by allowing neighborhoods and developers to truly innovate how station areas can accommodate more people. Rather than focusing on the height of buildings, we need to focus on creating the outcome we all want: vibrant, livable, and sustainable neighborhoods. Today the code is strangling that innovation and promoting conflict.

It’s getting late. Stations in the north end of Seattle are already coming into design and Roosevelt rezones are out of the gate. There is still opportunity in Beacon Hill, the University District, and Northgate, but time is running out. And when it comes to the longer-term fixes, those won’t happen unless we stop saying they can’t happen. As a Hallmark Card I met once said, “the journey of 1000 miles begins with one step.”

Next up: Creating political accountability


23 Replies to “Density is People: Getting Started on Big Changes in Land Use”

  1. Of course there’s a lot I’d add to the list, especially long term (Seattle Subway, removing all of the tax incentives for sprawl, etc.), but I like your list as a common-ground starting point.

  2. Density also represents political power. All those new, dense, in-city dwelling units represent votes, and it’s no secret that in-city voters tend to be more progressive and less tax averse than rural and suburban voters.

    And, even when in-city voters are conservative, they still tend to understand urban issues and vote in more of a pro-city, pro-transit manner than their non-urban counterparts. This is very good for cities, and I don’t think this fact has been lost on the more conservative political parties in our state (I won’t mention names).

    Note: I don’t think it is appropriate to “eliminate zoning around transit stations.” Zoning is what defines a city and how it grows. I think a more appropriate term would have been “dramatic up zoning around transit stations,” because there are still other things that should be regulated per zoning.

    1. Turning the apartment majority into political power is easier said than done. Every campaign I’ve been involved in, there has been some strategically conservative political consultant who has given some variation of “Apartment dwellers don’t vote.” One time that was said in front of a room full of volunteers, and someone had the gumption to ask, “Who here lives in an apartment”? Everyone in the room except the consultant raised their hands.

      Really, having campaigns focus on frequent voters turns “Apartment dwellers don’t vote” into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      At any rate, turning apartment dwellers into a political force requires new tactics and skills that even the career consultants in this town do not have. They’ll have to participate in some campaigns in NYC or San Francisco to learn new ways of campaigning.

      In this town, campaigns are still won door-to-door — which means single-family houses. Be wary of that reality when the Democrats come peddling single-member districts as the key to solidifying doorbelling as the way all campaigns should be won. (And I’m glad to see the near-universal rejection of single-member districts for the Sound Transit Board to fix a problem the ST board does not have.)

      1. Density doesn’t have to be just apartments, it can be condos too. And I’d much rather have density with some of the new residents voting than not have density with only the current residents voting. It’s still a step in the right direction.

  3. Where to start.

    “Density is People” doesn’t sell well at all, at least with me. “Density is Quality of Life”, “Density is Livability”, “Density is Affordability”, or “Density is the World at your doorstep” seem a little less intimidating.

    Eliminating zoning is a rather frightening approach, especially in the People’s Republic of Seattle. If you eliminate zoning, are you prepared to have all the stations surrounded by parking garages?

    Using TIF to subsidize development is pretty close to a non-starter with me, if the TIF is subsidizing anything private. The same goes for raising debt limits. There have to be reasonable limits on debt, or we risk our bond rating, and risk future austerity. Combine a TIF that developers control, a large debt limit in the TIF, and lack of any land-use regulation, and you get a toxic situation in which no developer in their right mind will buy land around a station.

    We had something like that in Austin: The Southwest Parkway, now known as the Highway to Hell, since the seven people who lived in a trailer long enough to change their voter registration and vote to create the district aren’t on the hook to pay off the ballooning mega-millions in debt for that now-crumbling highway to nowhere.

    What’s really missing here is stories of how your proposals have worked elsewhere.

  4. Let’s not forget about protecting the best tool that we already have to focus growth in cities and protect our mountain ranges and river valleys: the Washington State Growth Management Act. It’s one of the best in the country, and despite what you sometimes read it is working. Not even 20 years old yet it’s already had a massive impact on curbing sprawl. It will be important to keep vigilant against efforts to water GMA down. There’s a lot of important things to do at the local level with zoning etc., but without GMA we’d be toothless in directing the region’s growth.

    1. Hey Geoff – the WA State Growth Management Act is definitely working. It would be great to see some before and after of its effect. Now we need to the WA State Transportation Management Act in place – the one that should have been coupled to the land management. Then we’ll be able to pry the thinking away from the highways-oriented only planners and into an integrated land use and planning mode.
      The other big change that would help all of us would be a shift to regional governance – a little like watershed management for people. We’re still trying to manage our robust region with tools that are too small and disconnected. Hope I live to see it happen.

  5. How about less emphasis on townhomes and more emphasis on small rise (6-10 units) condo buildings? Seems like they were all the rage in the 90s, but transitioned to townhomes in the 2000s. But I guess it’s the American dream to have your picket fence and yard, even if it’s only 5 sq ft.

    1. Condos can be built with the bottom level having tiny yards, or everyone having a shared yard. I think the townhouse trend can more be blamed on zoning than owner preferences.

      Recently our zoning has allowed other animals like rowhouses into the code, though only in a few places. I can’t wait to see what a Seattle rowhouse looks like.

  6. The changing face of town houses:

    In place of car-oriented auto courts, the code update encourages visible pedestrian entry doors and more windows facing the street. These features aim to connect homes and their residents with neighbors and communities.

    An improvement to be sure but when you double the number of cars in a neighborhood where street parking is already packed you have to do something. The City Council seems stuck on it’s one size fits all mentality. With as large and diverse as the city is I’d be pushing hard for district representation in place of at overly large representation.

    1. “you have to do something” No you don’t. When a city reaches a certain density, cars make no sense. Seattle is right near that line – many parts way past it (Cap Hill, for example). We don’t need to freeze development to avoid this – that way lies stagnation. We need to build up better transit systems to deal with this new reality.

    2. “when you double the number of cars in a neighborhood where street parking is already packed you have to do something.”

      Right, you have to build mass transit. Subways, streetcars with exclusive right-of-way, bus lanes, etc….

  7. I agree that we need to seriously reveiw our land use and how we are going to grow in this city. “Density is People” also doesnt play with me. Sounds too much like “Solient Green is People.” :)

    I often wonder why we don’t look to the great cities (Paris, for example) and take a few hints from them. Is it possible to rezone the part of Ballard north of Market/South of 65th to allow that kind of development: 4-6 stories, wide sidewalks, street cafes to name a few elements. Is it possible to work with developers to make that happen?

    My point is — great livable cities have been created before and they don’t include shitty townhouses. Why don’t we start with “What would an awesome city look like?” — and code backwards from that.

    And work on that tag line… it should somehow tie to the fact that they most desirable places to live on earth are dense.

      1. I like that a lot better. Its a sales pitch that works with anyone who has ever been to one of those places or aspired to visit… These places are beautiful and functional… Can we have that here? How?

  8. Overall US population is stagnating and immigration ground to halt in 2006.

    That means that “cities” will be fighting over population.

    Making a city worse with high taxes and ugly density probably will drive people away to the newer smaller cities that are being formulated.

    Right now the only state with any population growth is Colorado, and it’s smaller cities have incredibly high real estate value, but that value is coming from losses from other cities.

    So, you’re robbing Paul to pay Peter…

    1. Cities will be fighting to GET population, yes.

      Making a city better with high taxes (meaning high services) and beautiful density (meaning that there are lots of people to talk to just down the block) will attract people away from the dead sprawlvilles where gallons of gas must be burned just to hang out with your friends or colleagues, and where everything is crumbling because nobody is paying any taxes for public services.

  9. One of the big reasons townhomes (technical name, zero-lot line homes) ratcheted up over condos is that homeowners associations are deeply disliked by a lot of people. Those townhome projects that avoided HOA attachments with a carefully drawn ops agreement tend to sell at a premium now.

    1. The problem is, all it takes is one bad neighbor, and the other three townhomes in the cluster are pretty powerless, unless the agreement is carefully and legally worded.

      Also, I remember hearing a talk (no speaker or title, sorry) about how townhomes are going to become the next slum, within the next 20-30 years or something. Because when you have that one bad neighbor, who doesn’t keep his house up to snuff, it lowers the values of the adjacent homes, which has a spread affect to the homes around it. And like single family homes, there’s not much that can be done to force an owner to shape up or ship out.

      Whereas condos, with HOAs, like ’em or hate ’em, have much more power to keep tenants and owners in line.

      1. Condos and HOAs tend to be disasters, but HOAs are worse. There are studies showing that HOAs are a detriment to property values from 5%-20% — having a HOA is a good way to hurt your property value.

        This is because HOAs tend to be run by stupid people who enforce insane regulations.

        We already have a system for dealing with neighbors who aren’t maintaining their property and who are dragging the property value down. *It’s called city government*. And in smaller cities, it actually works for this purpose, quite reliably. Is there some problem endemic to larger cities which causes the city government to fail to maintain the viability of certain neighborhoods? Would it be better if such neighborhoods seceded and formed their own cities?

        Because HOAs are just a substandard excuse for city government.

        Condo associations can be just as bad, but on average they seem to be better; I’m not sure why. Maybe because there are *actual things* which require all the members of the condo to agree in order to have them happen, so they inspire more sane people to be involved, whereas HOAs attract nothing *but* cranks to the governing boards.

      2. Nathanael, I think you misread that. Sophia is talking about condo HOA’s. I agree, and heard that plenty when I was looking to buy and from many of my friends who bought. I think folks are scared away by the monthly dues on top of their mortgage payment, more than rules, though.

        Personally, though, I happen to agree with Anon, which is why I wouldn’t buy into one of those 4-, 6-, or 8-pack developments that popped up everywhere.

        The funny result is I’m in a three-story rowhouse style development with a condo association. There’s only 7 units, though, so we get along pretty well.

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