Tomorrow evening is the second installation of the City Builder Happy Hour. Like at the first event, the hosts want to hear about people’s “audacious ideas” to support more growth and sustainable development in Seattle. Last time it was the idea of a gondola from Capitol Hill to Seattle Center. This time you are invited to send your idea in on the back of cocktail napkin. I’m going to put my ideas here, in this post, instead.

When I last wrote about the happy hour, I talked about the “myth of Big Development,” and somebody has done a great job of running with that idea, creating a great visual image. I’m still withholding judgment about whether a happy hour is going to get us where we need to go. “What could it hurt?” you ask.

In my opinion, we’re rapidly approaching the time when doing nothing but talking about things is going to be harmful, even if we have a few beers while we’re doing it. I’ve about had it with meetings, however well intentioned, that don’t lead to creating the political momentum behind the ideas that will fundamentally change our approach to land use in Seattle. Having said all that, here are some “audacious ideas,” parts of which I’ve shared before.

Zero Based Zoning—throw out the code around transit stations, and solicit development proposals from developers, landowners, neighborhoods, and transit and land use activists. Draft some general guidelines, have the Planning Commission review the proposals and permit the proposal that meets the goals of sustainable, transit oriented development.

Redefine Affordability—our current quantitative measure of affordability—30 percent of monthly income discounted for some percentage of Area Median Income—is arbitrary standard that is not up to the task of addressing the underlying concerns of making it easier to live in the city.

Citywide Transfer of Development Rights (TDR)—the idea here is that if we want to save the Bauhaus block and leave it just like is, then the City should buy the development rights from the property owner and sell those rights elsewhere, in a place where additional height makes financial sense. This could extend to more than just historic buildings, but buildings that have some constituency wanting to stop development one place but willing to support more density elsewhere.

And my last audacious idea, drumroll please . . .

Neighborhood Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs)—the idea of a REIT is to allow investors to buy shares of real estate rather than the land itself. The beauty of a REIT is that shares are easily bought and sold, and their value increases as the value of the property does. I would propose that Historic Seattle or some other local Public Development Authority to develop this idea so that local neighborhoods could pool their money to become investors in real estate in their own neighborhoods.

This last idea would actually allow neighbors or anyone else with a small amount of money but a passion for shaping development, to actually buy up pieces of property. It’s a market based solution that would give neighbors a sense of why return on investment is tied to improving the value of land. And, as a socially responsible investment, a Neighborhood REIT could, in the case of the Bauhaus block, actually decide to lower the return on the investment in the form of cash, in favor of keeping the more intangible return of preserving the building.

REITs generally need lots of money to be fully capitalized, and they are highly regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. But the REIT model—pooling cash investment from multiple sources to acquire property—has been used in Great Britain to some positive effect to preserve, redevelop, and operate properties that would otherwise not be usable or would end up being too expensive.

There you have them, some audacious ideas. Let’s see what the City Builder Happy Hour can do to make these, or any other ideas, a reality.

City Builder Happy Hour #2
Tuesday, May 1st
5 PM
Pike Brewing Company
1415 1st Avenue, Seattle

10 Replies to “Will Beer and Big Ideas Lead to ‘Big Development’?”

  1. “Bicycle Monorails!”

    This will make it faster than walking, safer than riding in traffic, you get exercise and get to go somewhere. And given a dense city, you wouldn’t have to work up a sweat to get somewhere. Of course a lift up Capital Hill would be nice, but you could ride from Downtown to Ballard without climbing a hill except crossing the cut.

      1. The problem with that system is not all bicycles are the same height. And if you have ever ridden a bike with it’s front tire stuck in a grove, you’d realize that it isn’t stable.

  2. REIT are an intriguing idea Roger. It would certainly be a new take on local investment. I imagine the development process would be a lot different than your typical developer also. I think you’re right that the direct connection between ROI and development opportunities would be a good educational tool for teaching people about the development process in general. Seems like REITs have a lot of potential to connect people to their physical surroundings.

    However, I’m not sure it deals with the underlying issue that we face in neighborhoods such as Pike/Pine, and specifically the Bauhaus Block project you’re talking about. We already have lots of developers that balance quality, integrity, neighborhood context, and of course profit. Point32, Malone, Dunn+Hobbes, CHH, and even Historic Seattle. Unfortunately, they can’t buy all the property all the time. And sometimes current property owners are looking strictly for the highest bidder (although definitely not all the time).

  3. For the record, I love the Zero-Based zoning idea too. I think it would really bring a new level of quality and innovation into neighborhood development.

  4. Sadly, I cannot attend this City Builder happy hour, due to a broken ankle.

    I heartily concur that talk needs to lead to concrete action. More specifically, talk needs to evolve from debates about technical details into planning for implementation.

    For example, how can a gondola actually get approved? Construction cost should be in the same range as First Hill Streetcar, completely affordable to the city.

    When will we put a Seattle Subway funding package on the ballot? How many signatures are needed?

    How many of us will run for Seattle City Council next time around? There is plenty of experience in this community.

  5. Audacious transit ideas–similar to my post elsewhere:

    1) Streetcar incorporated into the new Waterfront (combined Benson Line Historic–long live!–and modern). Extended modern service to:
    a. Stadium District and SODO Station via 1st Ave. S. and the future Lander St. Bridge;
    b. Uptown via the future Broad Street Bridge, Western Avenue, and 1st N./Queen Anne Ave.;
    c. South Lake Union via Seattle Center North.

    2) Downtown Streetcar network. 1st Ave between Lander Street and Uptown; Pike/Pine extension to the east. (TMP proposes the 4th/5th line through the upper CBD; either build this line for intermediate capacity streetcar, or provide an enhanced bus routing through that corridor.)

    3) Neighborhood-oriented light rail to Ballard and U-District via Belltown (3rd Avenue). Would add a new wing to Westlake Station. Possible to run at-grade along 3rd Ave, so emerge from the subway and do so. Branch at about Cedar Street, with lines extending to Uptown and South Lake Union.

    4) Limited-stop streetcar extension to the CD via Pine, Broadway, and Union.

    5) Enhanced transit streetscape along Rainier Avenue (Mt. Baker to Rainier Beach), with center lane streetcar as the ideal form.

    6) Use the Convention Place portal for neighborhood-oriented LRT between downtown and the U-District via Boren & Fairview?


  6. I strongly suspect that beer is even less likely to lead to concrete action than sober talk.

  7. Citywide Transfer of Development Rights (TDR)

    The County had something like this in place to preserve farmland. I think it ran out of money and enthusiasm many years ago. Too bad as it was an excellent program. I think it was replaced by GMA edicts that just took from property owners rights they’d previously paid for (tree ordinances, etc.)

    Neighborhood Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs)

    That’s an interesting concept. In a way it’s the way the PacMed building operates. The land and building are publicly owned but they sold a 99 year lease… which was then defaulted on. But the public entity got some cash and still holds the deed which stipulates anyone buying the property out of foreclosure will still have to make, and likely make up the promised payments. The “bank” owns the loan but the land owner can ultimately repossess for lack of payment.

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