Box of People

Progress toward sustainable land use in Seattle will be measured by whether our land use laws and policies spur innovation, not the height of buildings. Even though contentious discussions about density for Roosevelt centered on building height—with proponents of sustainable growth pushing for 65 feet on the Sisley properties and growth opponents wanting to cap the site at 40 feet—winning that argument only got us 25 feet of progress in what is a 10,000-mile journey toward sensible land use around light rail stations.

The answer isn’t about height at station areas like Beacon Hill; it’s completely getting rid zoning around light rail stations.

I’m guilty, as most of us are, of obsessing about height. Let’s not do it when it comes to Beacon Hill, where the City Council is again considering rezones. If the Council does what I expect, what Beacon Hill will get is some kind of mix of heights that respond to political and neighborhood concerns—including the concerns of people like me who think we need to put more growth in density (density is people!) around light rail stations. That wouldn’t be the best outcome. Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Mike O’Brien should team up to so something different on Beacon Hill.

The obsession with height is understandable, because people like a number to compare one option against another. We pro-growth people tend to push for the bigger number, the anti-growth set, push for the lower number. It’s the closest we’ve come to actually being party-like about growth in this town. It reminds me of the anti-British slogan from the 19th century, “54° 40′ or Fight!” Our version is “NC-65 or fight!” More after the jump.

The problem is that what is most important about how we regulate our land is use, not height. The two things are related for sure, and that’s part of the reason why those of us who advocate for the best and most efficient solutions for accommodating growth push for taller buildings; bigger buildings means more people can live there.

But size isn’t everything. Compare, for example, the density on Western Avenue with the density in the Summit Neighborhood in Capitol Hill. I like both—quantitatively—but qualitatively Summit is the best kind of density around. What’s the difference? (Summit density is on the top row below)

The difference isn’t zoning and planning. You can’t plan and zone your way into the kind of idyllic Upper East Side of Manhattan type feel that parts of Capitol Hill like Summit, or 14th Avenue East have. You just can’t. Capitol Hill’s unique mix of big apartment buildings, small apartment buildings, fourplexes, converted single-family homes, and single-family houses emerged over time and was driven by use.  What makes the block where the original Top Pot Donuts lives so perfect is that it just happened.

There is an arrogance among the planning, zoning, and design set that is shared with NIMBYs and those against growth; by pushing around the envelope of a building they believe somehow we can build or preserve place. Planning can help. However, place “just happens” when there are lots of people in a small area. Kevin Lynch wrote eloquently in Image of the City about how place is woven into our brains and our souls. We can remember that tree in our front yard, the wall we sat on as kids, or the lobby of the big old building where an uncle worked downtown. You can’t zone those things into existence, they happen because of people. Over time, more people means more sense of place.

What I would ask the City Council to do is set aside the current recommendations, put the pointy part of a compass in a map, measure out one mile to scale, and draw a circle one mile around the station. Then get some bright folks to write up legislation repealing all land use requirements that apply in that circle except for state law and fire, health, and safety codes. The next step would be to entertain proposals from property owners, neighborhood folks, local businesses, and, yes, even bloggers and transit advocates. Forget about height bulk and scale. Ban architects, planners, and land use attorneys from the meetings.

The next step would include them, bankers, developers, and engineers. Their job would be to figure out how to build the vision. When they’re proposal was done, with elevations, soil studies, and a pro forma for financing, the planning commission could review the proposal, tweak it, ask questions, comment, cajole, and then make a final recommendation to the City Council. The council would vote up or down vote, no fussing over height or affordable housing or the color of the siding. A simple, “yes” or “no” would be their only say.

When they said, “yes,” as they certainly should, whatever that proposal looked like could be written up into the code and applied to that station area. Of course it really wouldn’t matter that much, since everyone involved would have a stake in what was proposed and its success. It’s called Zero Based Zoning, and it relies on people thinking about what people need not the height of buildings. You might say I’m a dreamer, but I am sure I am not the only one. On Beacon Hill and other station areas the Council should just let it happen, and avoid relying on a code built on assumptions from the 1950s.

(I have to hasten to add a preemptory parenthetical comment here: Zero Based Zoning is not an Urban Design Framework, or the errant process that went on in Roosevelt. Those things both rely on code tweaking and codifying the prejudices and fears of neighbors, not starting with use first.)

Of course, many will say that I’ve changed my tune, that all I’ve ever argued for is big buildings. Well, as long as we make the fight over height, bulk, and scale of buildings—which are just people containers—I’ll always want the biggest container we can get. Even an big ugly, poorly designed container is preferable to a small one so. The right measure to take is just how many people and uses can we fit into the smallest space possible, so it’s livable and can pay for itself. We can do that by creating a code actually based on use, not the size of buildings.

81 Replies to “Beacon Hill: The Revolution Won’t Be Measured in Feet”

  1. Go someplace and start a city, Roger. You be mayor and city council. Don’t have zoning and see how fast you grow. The people of Roosevelt are pro growth. Just not on those two blocks to that extent. So stop labeling those you perceive of as foes to your cause. We’re all different here but work together to find common goals and solutions that work for all. Just maybe not you.

    1. No point in addressing him. He doesn’t read the comments or engage here–or anywhere else. He rather carpet bomb the STB with nonsensical posts that attack the planning profession, zoning, neighborhoods, and dedicated people instead of actually moving the ball toward real solutions.

    2. Roger, you don’t want to repeal the anti-heavy-industrial zoning laws. You know, the ones about building a steel mill or chemical factory next to your apartment?

      Try again, and rewrite your essay.

  2. “completely getting rid [of] zoning around light rail stations.”?

    Sorry man, aint going to happen, and nor should it ever happen. Zoning is the method by which a modern, progressive society manages development so as to eliminate excesses and maintain some semblance of a functioning, orderly society.

    Zoning is a good thing. Yes, sometimes it is out of date, but just because it doesn’t completely support your current position isn’t a reason to “blow up the ant hill.”

    Take a chill pill, relax a bit, and develop a better, more inclusive rhetoric and you might find that you will actually have more impact on the density debate. Because I guarantee you that this “all-or-nothing”, “push it to the max” approach isn’t going to get you very far.

  3. Roger is just wrong. The Pearl District is dense, charming, and brand new. It’s not because of some magical accident. Seattle has no excuse for its lousy development.

    1. There’s your problem right there. You want a “brand new” neighborhood. Build it yourself in a forest.

    2. Zero comparison – a neighborhood that was built from scratch from a post-industrial wasteland (and I remember going through that neighborhood before it was “The Pearl”) is a completely different opportunity.

      Not that I agree with Roger, but your example is invalid.

  4. Btw, I was in the Pearl on Sunday and saw zero trash and graffiti. It’s the
    complete opposite of the giant garbage can Pike/Pine is turning into.

    1. I’ve only lived in Seattle for 7 years, but I think Pike/Pine is as clean as its ever been and is getting cleaner. Many would say too clean and that it is losing the gritty character that made it interesting.

      1. There’s an awful lot of grit in Detroit and Camden. Perhaps those cities might be even more interesting for you.

      2. Thank you for the suggestions Butch – I’ll look into relocating to one of those two fine cities immediately.

      3. Many do say that, ad they’re generally childless bohemians. Others want livable low-carbon places for everyone.

      4. Butch & chrismealy – thanks for the education on what I am – a childless bohemian who prefers large amounts of carbon. Feel free to take some more shots since you’re not talking to me in person.

        All I was suggesting is that new, shiny and spotlessly clean aren’t always better. Apparently you are too closed-minded to realize that Portland’s Pearl district isn’t everyone’s panacea.

        As a side note, I am mostly playing devil’s advocate – I spend a lot of time in the Pike/Pine corridor. You know, bohemian’ing it up.

    2. The Pearl and Pike/Pine are extremely different. A better comparison would be the area just north of Burnside between the river and North Park Blocks, which also happens to be fairly dirty.

  5. Removing predictability from land use regulations has the potential to stifle development. I think your pieces tend towards anti-democratic solutions that may not successfully achieve the outcomes you desire.

      1. My only response to that would start the trail to violating Goodwin’s Law.

    1. Amen. The silver lining of the rezoning process is that we only have to do it once. This “Zero Based Zoning” nonsense would mean that every single project would turn into a fight over the character of the neighborhood. This would just mean that developers would go build somewhere with a more predictable process for getting their projects approved.

      1. I prefer Roger’s proposal in this post to the method in the earlier ‘zero based zoning’ post. Re-zone everything within 1 mile of Beacon Hill Link. The new “zoning code” should be hammered out for an entire neighborhood, urban village, or perhaps the whole city, instead of property-by-property. Property-by-property leaves to much uncertainty for everyone.

      2. OK, Chad, you definitely have a point. Keeping zoning in fairly large blocks and keeping it fairly “loose” (rather than nailing down every little detail) *does* make sense.

  6. While Roger makes good sense that density around mass transit is an effective way to reduce our global footprint, the reality is that current land owners have the most skin in the game, so should have the greatest influence on the outcome of zoning changes.
    Riding into town on Brown Betty, crying the slum lords are coming doesn’t buy you many votes at the planning commission.
    Explaining how sustainable development is a worthy outcome, rather than continued sprawl that requires 5 or 6 equivalent earths to support it is an easy sell. Showing how return on investment is maximized by allowing higher density near transit is good business is a sweet song – demonizing those that oppose it gets you nowhere fast.

    1. Using zoning as a way of reducing environmental damage is like trying to save the titanic with thimbles. It won’t make any difference, and it ignores the iceberg entirely.

  7. Summit happened because of two things: Alaska Yukon and the gold rush. I’m trying to imagine the sort of cash infusion that makes Beacon Hill explode like that just because it has a light rail station.

      1. Except Amazon just moved away from Beacon Hill. Maybe the PacMed center finds another anchor tenant but that just gets things back to ground zero; well, negative counting the Transit Oriented Destruction.

  8. I wonder if this change would have the intended outcome. Couldn’t it just exacerbate the problem we have now with a vocal minority trying to derail a project, that otherwise has broad but shallow support for?

    Rather than having the council approve zoning on a neighborhood level, it will require them to ok every single project. This gives opponents of development a new opportunity to kill each and every project that they don’t currently enjoy.

    I think the closest analogy we have now is when a developer is looking to get a departure, and while those are sometimes no brainers, they can also be very contentious. Another is design review meetings, where the panel can only say, we can’t touch the zoning, it is what it is. All they can work with is the design, and the fact that density is completely off the table, makes it a non-issue even though community member I’m sure would love to talk about it.

    1. Also, it scares me a bit that we’re removing the architects from the room, and letting the local homeowners decide what they want in their neighborhood. Without skilled guidence, people might say they want:
      * free parking – lots of it
      * any new homes required to have lots of parking, so they don’t steal my free parking
      * large lots, with big setbacks so we don’t get any of those awful McMansions
      * nothing very high, I want to keep my views
      * lots of retail, and active streets
      * a fun, walkable area
      * wide roads with high speed limits, except near my house
      * trees – lots of trees

      Of course, these bullets aren’t possible in the same neighborhood – several are mutually exclusive. And designing codes that ask for all of this might get near none of it (example – who’s going to spend money on single story retail? developers won’t touch the place).

      I actually sort of like the process we have now, if I understand it, of having a neighborhood plan – designed along with architects and planners. I would keep that process, just remove the existing code baggage.

      1. “existing code baggage”

        Which codes? The limits on fence heights? The limits on set backs? The height limits? The limits on buildings next to the lake?

        Most of these zoning rules are in response to some irresponsible builder putting something up that upset the neighbors, and often for good reason.

        Building a city is a gritty job involving compromises to the standards of the day.

      2. “Which codes? The limits on fence heights? The limits on set backs? The height limits? The limits on buildings next to the lake?”

        Yes. And the others.

        “Building a city is a gritty job involving compromises to the standards of the day.”

        You’re describing the existing process, not some fundamental law of city building. But because it’s so much easier to add laws than remove them, we’re bogged down with rules, rules, rules. I built a garage a while back, and it was a 2 year process after all of the design changes that needed to happen to fit into our strange codes*.

        After well over 100 years of rules we have massive code bloat. I’d love to start over city-wide, but would be happy to start with our stations.

        * did you know that you can’t have a deck within 12′ of an alley? and having a green roof that’s also a garden means you need a 3′ railing, but you can’t build over 15′ tall next to an alley, so you need to lower your entire garage to 12′ tall to fit your railing in. these rules alone are completely insane, and there are hundreds more I had to deal with – just to build a garage. Oh, and my neighbor’s identical project (using my plans) came out much different because his reviewers knew different pieces of the code than my reviewers did.

      3. Seattle’s existing zoning code, like every other city’s, was written in the early 1900’s to enforce suburbia. Zoning made traditional city building illegal, with requirements for setbacks, off-street parking, height limits, etc.

        Since the 1990s, we decided we again liked traditional city building. Instead of throwing out the old zoning code, we added new layers of complexity, in certain situations only. The land use code now has hundreds of pages, with overlays and exemptions partially exempting the old code that no longer fits the City’s values.

        Roger is now proposing to throw out the old zoning code, and replace it with a succinct description of our current development values.

  9. Matt Yglesias essay, The Rent Is Too Damn High on almost exactly this subject was released today. He describes the book as being about the crucial role that dense urban development and barriers to its creation matter in a service economy. He’s generally really good crossing party lines in his arguments, so it could be worth a look.

      1. The most current data I found from 2010 says average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Seattle is $1,024. New projects coming on line, even those billed as “affordable” are going for $1,400; and you sleep in a closet. The more Seattle becomes developed the higher the cost of land becomes for new projects which means increasingly upscale units for it to pencil out. Thinking that building apartments is ever going lower rents is like thinking adding lanes will reduce freeway congestion.

      2. Yet every new home built means one more family can afford to live in Seattle. Supply increases, and the average cost goes down (not the shiny new places – the old ones). But you knew that.

      3. Yes, new rentals are more expensive than old rentals. But the older in-city real estate would be more expensive in Seattle hadn’t allowed thousands of new apartments, condos and townhomes to be built in the 2000s. The new, high-end units relieve demand pressure on the older units.

      4. There’s nothing to support that argument. Upscale is upscale. If older units are torn down to build new then the supply of affordable units is smaller. And even if not the upscale neighbors drive prices of surrounding units up; classic gentrification.

        Housing isn’t like potatoes where a bumper crop drives down prices. Supply is driven by demand. Nobody is going to build an oversupply and drive down prices. And as an area becomes more dense the marginal cost of building increases.

      5. Supply increases, and the average cost goes down

        You can spout that nonsense all you want but it’s simply not true. Any time construction or a remodel is done that is above the median price all of the surrounding property values are increased. If you’re investing the best place to be is owner of the cheapest house on the block. Of course the reverse is also true. If someone like a Sisley comes in and lets a place run down it drags down surrounding values.

      6. Sorry, but the fact is, supply increases, and the average cost goes down.

        Yes, the place the cost goes down is in the *older* buildings. Which means, as lots of nice new apartments are built in downtown, the cheap housing will be the old 1950s houses in the suburbs. But nevertheless, that will mean cheaper housing.

      7. Yes, the place the cost goes down is in the *older* buildings.

        Your theory doesn’t match reality. Rents in Seattle keep going up. High density, high rents; low density, low rents. That’s why you spend over a thousand dollars for a one bedroom apartment in Seattle and can get a two bedroom for $800 in Everett. Bellevue has added thousands of residential units to it’s downtown but rents in older buildings keep going up.

      8. So how would Bernie bring rents down? Stop building anything? It sounds like rents go up if we build, and rents go up if we don’t build; the only thing that makes them go down is a population decrease.

        A cheap, older building may be worth preserving if it has a reasonable FAR. But if it’s taking up a lot of space for only a few units, you also have to consider the costs of to society of keeping the missing units out of existence. Missing units translates to less density, fewer destinations within walking distance, and fewer choices for somebody who wants to live in Seattle.

      9. Mike O. You’ve pretty much answered your own question. Rents in the Puget Sound area have gone up because we have a healthy economy (high demand). They’ve plumented to homestead rates in places like Detroit where supply exceeds demand. The focus shouldn’t be about low rents but housing affordability. The discussion needs to be about jobs that provide a livable wage. That’s sustainable housing. Artificially inflating supply lead to the housing bust; lots of houses but many are empty and in foreclosure creating a huge drag on the economy and hurting affordability.

  10. Here’s what I consider good density…the new Sounder station in Tukwila:—Sounder.xml

    Low, wide, airy and … beautiful!

    This Frank Lloyd Wright style (who had an influence on this area) seems so much more appropriate to Seattle Metro — a wide open expanse of buildings and nature. The Seattle Style has always been interleaving real native land with concrete…much as the “let’s make it New York” crowd tends to focus on one square mile in downtown as the ne plus ultra.

    There’s an open house on 13 Mar:

    Seattle. Open. Wide. Low.

    1. Yes yes, where the bison and rugged SOV roam.

      I see a vast ugly concrete terrace bereft of any human benefit whatsoever, besides a feather in the cap of the architect. Well, maybe some walking exercise for poor souls escaping that vapid uselessness to anywhere else, but you can get that same exercise in a location built to human scale, plus tax revenue, etc.

    2. Bellevue called. It said it tried the wide, low thing for forty years and got sick of it. Remnants of it still exist on Bel-Red Road between 124th and 140th (soon to be redeveloped), and Northup Way between Bellevue Way and 405 (no redevelopment plans that I know of). Since the former Eden is about to be torn up, you may want to move to the latter one.

      1. Bellevue has more successfully schools, a better business community and lower taxes per capita than Seattle.

        The low density, neighborhood oriented personal transit infrastructure provided mounds of middle class lifestyles and will do so until the density advocates ruin it for everyone.

        See, look what you guys have done to formerly safe neighborhoods in Seattle:

        Knife stabbings, shootings, and robberies have all spread northward bit by bit due to overdensity into what where once safe middle class neighborhoods.

      2. Are you really saying that density somewhere (not sure where) caused people to steal a car in Wallingford?

        Because that is just about the worst argument I’ve ever heard for anything. Put the pipe down and go outside and get some fresh air.

      3. Yes, the lowrise development in Bellevue caused the good schools, not.

        North Seattle has had property crimes for decades. Burglars go where the money is.

      4. The industrial area between 120th and 140th bounded by Bel-Red Rd and Northup is what’s going to be redeveloped. Between Northup and 520 in that segment are only a few offices or strip malls. The critical mass is between the two arterial’s, focused on East Link and the new NE 15th/16th

    3. The vast majority of Seattle already is open, wide, and low. Even the most extravagant ideas of the pro-urbanism crowd amount to infilling and upzoning probably 5% of the land within Seattle city limits. The point is that that 5% is in extremely convenient and enjoyable places, so we should do what we can to facilitate more people being able to enjoy the amenities of those areas.

      As I’m sure you’ll agree, the dense, urban lifestyle isn’t for everyone. If the lifestyle were being forced on people that’d be a bad thing. But perhaps we shouldn’t worry about that until the demand for it runs out. In the mean time, bring on the development.

  11. The posting is really quite a fascinating combination of ignorance, arrogance, mindless generalization, arbitrary optimism, and reckless attack. Please, don’t hold back, Roger!

    More specifically… Real progress is not made by making some important things better while making other important things worse.

    Real progress is made by making things better, period. And that takes the real work of profound collaboration with hard technical work, deep creativity, and the open embrace of multiple values to build creative win-win solutions.

    Not just libertarian claptrap.

  12. I think in this proposal you won’t get much of any development. The people who would show up to the first stage will be mostly nimbys. The people in the second stage are going to be scared to bring money to such an odd system and the final step city council members are the ones you’d have to convince to do this scheme, and the are the ones who lose the most power.

    Most people don’t want development in their neighborhoods. Some people who don’t even live in Roosevelt were fighting for 40′ heights because of the kids at the school. Seriously. You don’t want them at your first meeting.

    Density happens because guys with money want to build buildings to make more money. The council sees their job as balancing that against the people who think 65 foot tall buildings are bad for kids. You don’t get more density by giving the “think of the children” crowd more power.

  13. Is there a proposed border to the zoning-free zone? What happens at the border, if it exists? Should we model some specific cases?

  14. Putting aside all the other valid concerns others have raised, did you look at a one mile radius around the Beacon Station on a map before proposing this idea?

    A one mile radius takes you west of I-5 into SODO, south almost to Columbian Way, east almost to 33rd Ave S in Mount Baker, and north of I-90 to Judkins Park.

    That’s a lot bigger than either of the “neighborhoods” mentioned in your post.

    Make the radius .25-.3 of a mile around the station, and then maybe you’re talking about a reasonable area to starting talking about some of your ideas.

    That puts you as far north as around College St, as far south as Hanford St, east to around 21st Ave S and west to around 12 Ave S.

    That at least starts to look like an area with good proximity to Beacon Hill station and the commercial core around it.

    1. Map planning zombies unite. Don’t worry about slope and the fact that people down the steep hill east of the BH station are in a single-family valley and that the ridge that runs along Beacon Hill has always been the transportation corridor and development corridor because of topography. Ignore all that! Just point at a place on a map and draw a circle around it! You guys are so, so smart. But a bird on it! Roger Valdez needs to get a job, bad.

  15. It is interesting that Roger has keyed in on TOD near rail stations as the nirvana of encouraging density and seems to want to continue to lance open the wounds of the Roosevelt fight again and again. That ship has sailed but more ominously, the fight for TOD at rail stations was lost in a terrible decision by the Sound Transit board to choose a North Corridor alignment with ZERO TOD potential. The I-5 alignment means squandered opportunities to create the real density Roger wants in places in the city that can readily accommodate it.

    But that points to a larger picture of reality. Sound Transit has limited objectives and TOD really isn’t one of them, nor is increasing density as a concept one of them either. Perhaps an oversimplification of their mission is to get people from the hinterlands to and from 3 key places, UW, downtown and airport. And maybe in the future, MicrosoftLand.

    It speaks nothing to key job centers outside of downtown Seattle except for the aforementioned UW and MicrosoftLand. It speaks nothing to the aspirations of people who would want to get from their city to an adjacent city e.g. if someone from Shoreline wants to get to bitter lake, they won’t be doing that by train.

    Roger talks about a “Party of the Future” that is somehow going to foist its manifesto on the citizens for their own good. I think he’s in for a rude surprise.

    If you want zoning tied to transit, then work on that. Work to change SoundTransit’s charter to expressly accomplish this. Work with the PSRC to include that in their planning influence. Work to make the myriad of agencies and governments work together to accomplish large scale goals. Now that is a challenge. But is necessary to achieve what you want.

    1. Add to your key places: downtown Bellevue, Northgate, and Lynnwood. Part of the plan is to make these places more into centers, giving people more reasons to go to them, and causing a need for more transit between them.

  16. “54° 40′ or Fight!” was how the war started. “Not one inch of territory ceded or lost” was how the war ended when things didn’t go so well.

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