Mike and Mike: Help O'Brien out of "the Gap"

Last week Councilmember Mike O’Brien fell into the Sustainability Gap, that wide chasm between what politicians say and what they actually do. O’Brien voted against a carefully considered and vetted proposal (read more about it here), more than a year in the making, to allow some commercial uses in multifamily zones.

Here’s what O’Brien says about his vision for Seattle:

My vision of Seattle is one of made up of the incredible and growing diversity of our communities, where amid this diversity, all communities are safe, healthy and thriving. I see a Seattle that is a model of economic vitality, environmental sustainability, and political transparency.

But O’Brien, along with Sally Clark, Richard Conlin, and Jean Godden, opposed a proposal that would have helped move Seattle’s land use code toward a more innovative way of doing things, allowing diverse uses to be closer together in denser, more populated neighborhoods. The proposal that O’Brien helped to kill (which he earlier supported) was to allow, essentially, corner store like uses in neighborhoods that are already zoned multifamily. This is the kind of mix that makes transit, biking, and walking work because as uses are closer together the car becomes less necessary. It also promotes economic vitality by allowing new businesses to form.

Why did O’Brien do it?

People who live in vibrant, walkable urban centers like Capitol Hill are the people we need on board to guide the future development of the city. We clearly don’t have them on board today.

Based on the comments of a few dozen people in Capitol Hill who claim they have all the walkability they need, thank you very much, O’Brien chose to oppose the same thing for other neighborhoods.

The gap between what O’Brien says on his campaign website and how he votes is clear. Rather than support an expansion of the kind of diverse and thriving use of land on Capitol Hill, he chose to listen to a small group of neighbors getting help from insiders working for the City Council and live on Capitol Hill who opposed the idea (two members of City Council Central staff opposed the measure, and one, Rebecca Herzfeld helped opponents craft letters to Council).

That’s not sustainable, and it’s not transparent. It’s hard enough to convince Councilmembers to make a bold move on land use, but when one of the members of Council who is supposed to be a reliable ally can be persuaded to oppose something he once supported by a small group of neighbors, we’re in trouble.

Closing the Sustainability Gap means holding our elected friends accountable when they make bad decisions. It’s not a pleasant comfortable thing to do, but it’s necessary. If you think O’Brien made the wrong choice by changing his mind on the proposal call him or e-mail him. He needs to know you’re paying attention.

You can e-mail Mike at mike.obrien@seattle.gov

The author was a member of the panel, called the Regulatory Reform Roundtable, that recommended these changes to the code.

50 Replies to “Mike O’Brien Falls Into the Sustainability Gap”

  1. This is just stupid to think any neighborhood needs a store on every corner. If people are happy with their neighborhoods the way they are, then why should some elitists who think they know better than everyone else force changes on neighborhoods that those neighborhoods don’t want?

    Maybe people don’t want delivery trucks parking on every corner early in the am or late at night delivering goods to corner stores right across the street, or right next to, their homes. This does not necessarily improve the quality of life for those people. If they don’t mind walking a few blocks to the nearest store, then why force them to allow stores on every block?

    If you like “central planning”, with elitists making the decisions for how everyone is going to live, then perhaps you would prefer to live in China.

    1. No one’s forcing anything. They’re not requiring retail in residential neighborhoods, and because of the lower amount of traffic on minor neighborhood streets, there’s no way any of these streets will become major shopping destinations. This just allows small corner stores in places where the market determines there is demand for them.

    2. Corner bodegas are where all the elitists hang out.

      And Norman, people were planning the form of the city a long time before you were even born. You think it just sprang from the earth this way?

      1. Not sure what you mean by “this way”, but Seattle has only had zoning since 1937-1938. Before that, people pretty much just built stuff where they wanted to. Broadway was a commercial street long before there was any law banning stores on Harvard Ave.

      2. Seattle was tiny before the 1930s.

        NY has had city planning since before the Commissioners’ Plan of *1811*, and London for longer than that. It’s something you need when you get large.

      3. Nathanael,

        First, in 1938, Seattle’s population was about 360,000 — over 50% what it is today. And Seattle was the third largest city on the west coast. It’s obviously grown quite a bit, but I wouldn’t call it tiny.

        I’m not arguing against city planning. I’m specifically talking about Euclidean zoning, i.e. restrictions on allowable uses of private property. Before the Supreme Court case in 1926, it wasn’t even firmly established that it was legal for municipalities to restrict the allowable uses of private property. Again, note that New York had a population well over 3 million before implementing any such restrictions.

    3. Those darn “elitists” are neighborhood residents. This has nothing whatever to do with “central planning”. In fact, quite the opposite — the current zoning restriction is central planners deciding for you what should be prohibited in the neighborhood. Your concern is invalid.

    4. “If you like “central planning”, with elitists making the decisions for how everyone is going to live, then perhaps you would prefer to live in China.”

      How does allowing more uses of personal property equal communist central planning? I would say you have this one backwards – allowing corner stores is a way to increase personal liberties, not restrict them.

      1. No, you’re misunderstanding. Norman is expressing his agreement with Roger and his support for the changes. He brings up China as an ironic comparison with the current state of affairs, where only by the grace of central planners are you allowed to start a business on a parcel of land that you own.

    5. Look, it’s plain to see that everyone in Seattle is selling each other out for whatever scrap of money they can. It has nothing at all to do with working for the Greater or Common Good.

      The only reason people want vertical density is they own the land and hope to maximize tenants. It has zero to with liveability, walkability, sustainability and everything to do with pickpocketability.

  2. That’s too bad.

    One of the effects of the long transition from streetcar-centered city to car-centered city was the disappearance of the corner store. Seattle used to be FULL of them. You can still see the remnants everywhere if you know what to look for — that weird house with the corner entry? The box-like building that comes out to the corner on a street of set-back houses? Those were stores. Get a city directory from the 60s or earlier and you’ll see them in almost every neighborhood.

    The one a block away from me is a private house now. The owner kept the boxy shape but moved the entry away from the corner. The store closed sometime between 1968 and 1974. It’s too bad, because I live in a weird corner of the city that has an exceptionally low walkability score despite being fairly central and just downhill from much higher scores; I have to walk five blocks up a steep hill to get to a 7-11, and about 15 blocks to get to a proper store.

    The kind of dense car-free living that people imagine is IMPOSSIBLE without a store nearby.

    But corner stores are not a panacea. The Phinney Ridge Grocery failed repeatedly despite the many large condo blocks that went up around it, despite their best efforts at selling upscale items, good wine, quality prepared food and so on, to distinguish themselves from the 7-11 almost next door.

    Part of the problem is that people don’t shop like their grandparents or great-grandparents did; you can’t live out of a “convenience store”, unless you eat only garbage. Our ancestors ate milk and eggs and Wonder Bread and the most basic of vegetables and meats; they didn’t have, or need, the huge variety of ethnic and “gourmet” stuff that fills our giant supermarkets today. Spaghetti was considered exotic when these corner stores thrived.

    But there’s still a need for quick access to basics. Realistically I have to jump in the car if I want a lemon or a bag of ice, which is stupid.

    Presumably these council members are terrified of beer and wine becoming a hobo magnet. Such a Seattle bluenose, Nervous Nellie point of view.

    1. Perhaps the Councilmembers didn’t hear enough from the people who actually support this kind of land use. I know they heard an awful lot from people who opposed it.

      1. Suggesting to me that the proposal was a solution in search of a problem.

        Seriously, if the advocates really want to do something positive, that many people could maybe actually get behind, they would suggest allowing those old corner store buildings, cited by Fnarf, to become corner stores again regardless of residential zoning. There’s one in my neighborhood that used to be a store and then was not a store for 12 months so lost its grandfathering.

        I suspect most of the neighbors would welcome back a store in that building, which was built as a commercial building in the early part of the last century.

        Much better approach here than a blanket permission as proposed.

      2. Transit Voter,

        So what you’re saying is that we should lock ourselves into the land use decisions of 60 years ago? That doesn’t strike me as much better than locking ourselves into the land use decisions of the 1950s (which is what we have today).

        Before that corner store in your neighborhood was a corner store, it may have been a house, or it may have been an empty lot, and before that it was probably part of a forest. Someone decided to build a store there because they thought it was a good location for a store, and it sounds like they were right.

        When that building was first built, there wasn’t anyone around to say, “you can’t build a store here”. People just accepted that, well, if Alice owns the land, and she wants to build a store, then by golly, that’s her right.

        Why is it so bad to give people that freedom? We would never dream of passing a law that banned grocery stores from selling certain products or from using certain types of wallpaper; why do we take it as a given that we have the right to tell stores where they’re allowed to operate?

      3. Glenn: Yes, it tells you that opponents of change are always — always — more vocal than supporters.

        History is full of loud voices that wanted things to stay the same. That doesn’t make them right.

      4. History is full of loud voices that wanted things to stay the same. That doesn’t make them right.

        Or wrong. Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union. I was thinking what the new urbanists were really describing was some sort of monarchy but it sounds more and more like what they want is a military coup.

      5. We would never dream of passing a law that banned grocery stores from selling certain products

        New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is making waves today over his new citywide ban on sugary soft drinks.. @ Alex, you’re arguing for the repeal of the GMA. Get some perspective. My family bought the property we live on in the 50’s. There was a hog farm on our street back then. Things change, zoning evolves. Hasty decisions have usually proven to be bad. Accelerating change has always lead to hasty decisions. Property can always be developed but it’s virtually impossible to undo a bad decision. Boston has a wealth of historic homes. Seattle has squat. Destroying what precious little exists will prove to be extremely short sighted. Or, maybe you think Weyerhaeuser should just be allowed to become a creator of subdivisions on whatever land they own. There’s a surprisingly large right wing group that supports just what you are proposing.

      6. Bernie,

        I’m not saying that we need to repeal every land-use regulation at once, or even repeal them at all. I’m just saying that it might be good to consider land use from the same perspective that we consider other constraints on the economy.

        We have tons of regulations on how businesses can operate, such as by requiring that they treat workers fairly, and requiring that they minimize their damage to the environment. But the standing assumption that we all share is that businesses should generally be allowed to do what they want, subject to following those regulations.

        But when it comes to land use, most people assume that it is the government’s job to decide who is allowed to build what and where.

        It’s blasphemous to suggest that central planning of the economy would lead to a better outcome, but it’s just as blasphemous to suggest that *not* having central planning of land use might improve the situation.

    1. Yes!

      Now if that is an example of what this zoning change would have done then I am all for it. The Better Meat Co is well sited, does not interfere or intrude on the neighborhood, and you can get a complete pork belly there for your next backyard BBQ. Very nice.

      But in general we aren’t going to see much out of either McGinn or O’Brien in the near future as neither one is likely to get re-elected. McGinn has responded to that likelihood by fully embracing developers and their wallets, and O’Brein has responded by avoiding anything even remotely controversial and resorting to issuing platitudes and motherhood statements.

      But after getting knocked down so completely over the DBT, it’s easy to see why they both might be a little gun-shy.

      But, ya, The Better Meat Co, a fine place.

  3. over 40% of the cap hill station area would have been affected by this change.

    while some areas are in need of a corner store, this was not about corner stores, and was about the very real possibility that already dense walkable residential streets could be come as patchwork of small businesses – against the wishes of the current residents and property owners.

    while Roger may be stunned that his clever idea wasn’t accepted by the densely populated community where this would apply, Mike and the other council members realized that the one-size-fits-all zoning proposal really wasn’t very well thought out.

    1. How would it turn into commercial against the property owner’s wishes?

      I thought Washington had put post-Kelo fixes into it’s Imminent Domain statutes.

      1. Against the wishes of neighboring property owners, obviously not against the wishes of the property owner tearing down the old house to build a store.

        And it’s Eminent Domain folks (sigh….)

      2. Since when is “a patchwork of small business” a bad thing? That’s what I love about Capitol Hill!

  4. Done.

    Went with this:

    Councilmember O’Brien,
    My name is Matthew Johnson and I have been a supporter of, and donor to, you in the past. As such I was very disappointed to read about your vote against meaningful mixed use land use reform. As creating the kind of dense, walkable, sustainable neighborhoods for me and my family that this reform would have helped foster is one of my most important issues, I will keep your actions in mind next time I am deciding who to support with my time, energy and money.

  5. The dense part of Capitol Hill is one of Seattle’s best neighborhoods in part because it concentrates retail along a few streets, rather than diffusing it. The opposite is Belltown, where I live…diffused retail, so no street has critical mass.

      1. Guys, the dense part of Capitol Hill got that way *with* corner stores in the other parts of the neighborhood.

      2. It does exactly as it should. Major streets, plus a couple mini-nodes with a store or two. Other places stay residential-only.

      3. Capitol Hill evolved from a very “suburban” heritage which is why there are still a lot of great old houses. It didn’t develop it’s buzz with 31 unit cookie cutter apartments with Pay-Day Loans and Liquor Quicker spread like peanut butter. The days of the butcher, baker and candlestick maker are gone. Like jobs, retail needs to be clustered to make transportation work in a big city.

      4. Not any different that Brooklyn, where neighborhoods have one or two retail streets (often long corridors, with surrounding blocks concentrating on residential uses – again with occasional nodes of a few stores.

  6. My email to Mike O’Brien:

    I just read Roger Valdez’s article (Mike O’Brien Falls Into the Sustainability Gap) on the Seattle Transit Blog, taking you to task for changing your vote on his proposal allegedly because of a few noisy neighbors from Capitol Hill. A special thank-you for listening to your constituents. As you know, planting businesses into residential areas will have wide-ranging impacts beyond just making it easy to walk to them. Some of us could use a little longer walk, that’s one thing. Not all businesses are quite as neighbor-friendly as the corner store, that’s another. And speaking of being stuck in the past, the planners whose heads are full of corner stores haven’t noticed that those aren’t quite what they used to be. These days they tend to be 7-Elevens, like the one just three blocks from me that serves folks roaring up to buy ciggies and drinks and to deal drugs in the parking lot.

    Capitol Hill has lots of mixed business-residential areas on its arterials. That’s where businesses belong, and there’s plenty of space available for them. (Broadway, 12th and 15th have many dilapidated one- and two-story buildings that could use the developing touch.) When there isn’t, maybe we can talk. Or maybe by then we really won’t need any more businesses to serve the population up here.

    I can’t speak to other neighborhoods, but I can speak to planners and council members in suggesting – no, insisting – that the people who live there should be given big input into planning that affects them. If you think that’s troublesome compared to just looking at other cities and listening to developers, you’re probably right. But you’ll get better neighborhoods and happier constituents out of it, and you might be surprised that they aren’t the stick-in-the-muds that some people think they are.

    Mike, thanks again.

  7. What a mean-spirited and misguided article. We who stood up against this poorly written ordinance have nothing against density, nor against commercial development or transit. We simply did not believe this was studied enough and that there was not sufficient public input or awareness. The commercial allowance was about a single store or even a few. It could have easily allowed an entire block to be built up with new development with strip-style stores ringing the entire block. It also stripped residents of their rights to live in a residential zone, when it allowed those commercial tenants to abide by commercial zone regulations, not residential zone regulations.
    What this ordinance should have allowed is pockets or nodes of commercial development, and to mix up the commercial and residential but make all tenants play by residential rules.
    O’Briend, Clark, and Godden did not kill sustainability as this Chicken Little cries. They simply did not pass a poorly-detailed and written ordinance that could have reduced our multi-family zones into strip mall central.

    1. Good to hear from locals with cogent criticism. Good to see that there are people ready to propose an alternative, better-written ordinance to promote local ships. :-) That’s healthy political activism. I look forward with curiosity to seeing your proposal, and I’m sure that O’Brien looks forward to seeing it too!

  8. For me the proposal was off the mark–I’ve long preferred the model of residential/commercial mix often called the “high street” model, after the British historical arrangement of a street of concentrated business and public buildings paralleled by three to five streets on either side of quieter residential, preferably with a light buffer lane of park or avenue between houses and the first business buildings. All this plopping down blobs of mixed use here and there doesn’t result in the kind of city that I find attractive.

    As someone who has lived a half block away from Poppy I can tell you that sleeping next to vibrant neighborhood commerce has its downside, particularly at 5:10 a.m. when Waste Management decides to get an early start on its commercial garbage activities despite city rules to the contrary.

    I don’t think the proposal was especially savvy or farsighted, despite the overall laudable wish to provide more single family housing areas with “more to walk to”. The Capitol Hill neighborhood is statistically one of the densest on the West Coast. A number of residents feel, fairly or not, that CapHill has done its density part; at least, until the great swaths of blocks in Wedgewood, Magnolia, Greenwood, Leschi, Mount Baker, etc. get some business mix going on themselves first…While this sentiment doesn’t support the notion of “urban villages” I run into it more and more during social functions and meetings.

    The proposal failed for three reasons, the biggest of which was that the attempt to push so far north broke the unwritten and potent rule, “never mess with north of E. Mercer”. Federal Ave E. alone has enough $ and political pull to scotch anything that interferes with those residents’ wish for peace, quiet, and the ability to park their cars in front of their homes without restriction, and more commerce means more parked cars to that constituency. The northern boundaries of the proposed rezone doomed the chances of its passage right then and there. If the rezone had stuck to the more central areas from the Joule/Brix buildings on southwards the Council might have had a bit more luck. Now all they’ve got is a neighborhood on vigilant watch.

    The second reason the proposal didn’t pass was that part of the rezone covered the Lowell Elementary School area. Until the Seattle School Board decides just what that property, untidy architectural patchwork that it is, should be for the CapHill community, rezoning near it will be foolish. A smart retrofit proposal for property is needed before a rezoning proposal makes sense. Few residents near Lowell, or people who have children there, want extra commercial activity, driving, and parking issues on top of the twice daily influx of SUVs taking little ones home.

    Third, unless the streetcar is extended up to Aloha, I’m not sure that the kind of commercial density that the rezone proposal assumed would subsequently spring up would actually do so–similar single family housing blocks that cover most of the north end near the Roanoke Tavern have never been able to keep more than a few small struggling restaurants and retail shops going. A lot of North CapHill drives to U Village, and likes doing that no matter carefully the recycling bins are filled each week.

    The John Court Apartment building’s commercial spaces are largely unrented after several years despite being right smack at the center intersection of a major employer, a major grocery, and a nice five block business district. Building it doesn’t always mean that they will come.

  9. The main thing that derailed this misguided proposal (besides the arrogance of those who think they know what’s best for those of us who live here)is the “one-size fits all” approach. Saying that Capitol Hill needs more density and walkability is laughable. Try getting more walkable commercial activity in the areas that need it and want it. Oh, and try to remember that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar – if your ideas are so good, why not try selling them to the residents rather than shoving them down their throats?

    1. I am shocked, shocked that Roger Valdez’s toadying to slumlords and arrogance is becoming a political liability! Shocked!

    2. I *do* live here.

      And as someone who used to live on the East Coast, what’s laughable to me is the idea that Capitol Hill is sufficiently dense and walkable.

      There is only one neighborhood in all of Seattle where transit has an over 50% mode share, and that’e the U-District. In Capitol Hill, most people own cars. Most trips are by car. Virtually every business and residence has parking, and new buildings are adding even more.

      Compared to even the outlying neighborhoods of old-world cities like Boston and NYC and Philadelphia, Seattle is amazingly car-dependent.

      Anyway, I have no idea what you mean when you say “the areas that need it and want it”. Where else in Seattle do you want to put commercial activity? Maple Leaf? Ravenna? Alki? Upper Queen Anne? Most neighborhoods in Seattle are zoned primarily SFH, and even changing SF5000 to LR1 is highly controversial. Capitol Hill is one of the only neighborhoods where multifamily living is the norm. We are by far the most suitable place to add extra density, since we’re one of the few neighborhoods where the right investments *could* make it so that most people here don’t want a car.

      1. Compared to even the outlying neighborhoods of old-world cities like Boston and NYC and Philadelphia, Seattle is amazingly car-dependent.

        NYC is a special case. It is far more densely populated than Seattle will ever be. Boston and Philly need to be viewed in their metropolitan context, just like Seattle ought to be. If you do that, those places are full of cars. Boston, in particular.

        The people here who want Seattle to be just like the East Coast ought to begin by actually understanding what the East Coast really is.

      2. Please don’t accuse me of not understanding Boston. I lived there for the vast majority of my life. In all likelihood, I know it far better than you do.

        The Boston metropolitan area is about 50% bigger and twice as dense as Seattle. In the 2000 census, Boston had 4 million people; Seattle had 2.7 million. The population-weighted density of Boston is 7,711 people per square mile; in Seattle, it’s 4,747. [1] That means that if you took the average resident of Boston and drew a circle around them a square mile in area, there would be 7,711 people in it.

        So just starting out, Boston is already much denser than Seattle.

        Now, if you actually look at the urban parts of Boston — the parts that most people would think of as “the city”, i.e. the city core, Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville — the density is much, much higher. The land-weighted density of Cambridge (and land-weighted density is always lower than population-weighted density by definition) is 16,422 people per square mile. In Somerville, it’s 18,147. The Boston average is slightly lower only because of the suburban neighborhoods which Boston annexed ages ago, but the densest parts of Boston, such as Beacon Hill, the North End, and the Back Bay, have well over 40,000 people per square mile.

        When you have densities like that, transit isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. That’s why, in Boston, 35% of households don’t have a car; in Seattle, it’s only 16% [2]. If you look at the commuting numbers, you’ll find that almost as many people in the Boston urban core take transit as drive to work. In Seattle, it’s 3:1 SOV to transit.

        Yes, Boston has more cars than Seattle, because it has more of everything. But car-free (or car-lite) living is an option for a much higher percentage of Bostonians than Seattleites. Boston has suburbs, but it also has a substantial urban core. Seattle’s barely registers.

        If you don’t recognize the difference here, you’re just being obtuse. Ask anyone who has lived in both cities. Carless living is possible here, but in Boston, it really works.

        [1] http://austinzoning.typepad.com/austincontrarian/2008/03/weighted-densit.html

        [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._cities_with_most_households_without_a_car

  10. I sent O’Brien and Conlin a message and got the reply below from Conlin. I’m still disappointed that this proposal wasn’t adopted, but knowing his reason makes me understand why he voted that way.

    “Thanks for the note. I appreciate your support, and agree with you that this would be a positive change. However, it was clear that a majority of Councilmembers did not agree, and that there was substantial opposition from some folks in the neighborhood. Additionally, this was the only element of the regulatory reform package that divided the Planning Commission, who unanimously support every other item in the package. And, the package does include some changes to the home occupation code that would be helpful in encouraging small scale commercial activity, at least partially getting to the benefits of this proposal.

    Under these circumstances, I felt that it was better to take this out of the package in order to make it more likely that we could move the other items in the regulatory reform package forward. This proposal could be advanced later as a separate piece of legislation.”

    1. I don’t think Mr. Conlin should be counting on the rest of the reform measures being “unanimously supported”. The SEPA issue is very contentious and this whole process has been tainted – a hand-picked advisory committee, heavily weighted to development interests, should not be making these decisions without neighborhood input.

    2. Interesting reply by O’Brien. It directly contradicts what he said at the meeting. That doesn’t surprise me, because I never believed him when he said he expected that the entire measure would be withdrawn. No one should ever trust any of those people.

  11. This sounds like another example of “a few loud people”. This is a recurring political problem: the ‘public participation process’ ends up being rule of the LOUDEST, not of the majority.

    I question what the result would have been, if this proposal had gone to a vote of the residents of the affected area. But we don’t know. And, key fact, *neither does O’Brien*.

    A few loud people can create a false impression of the “public mood” in the minds of politicians. This happens all the time. I don’t know whether it happened this time….
    *and neither does O’Brien*. Politicians should know better than to fall for this; if they think there is major public opposition to an idea, they should do actual surveys rather than listening to a claque.

    (Of course, it may be a good idea to ignore public opposition if you know it is ill-founded and people are going to like it once it’s done — the canonical example is Sadik-Kahn’s pedestrianization of Broadway in NYC. It was actually designed to make car traffic move faster, so she knew that the people who were afraid it would make traffic worse were just ignorant, and ignored them. It did, in fact, make car traffic move faster. She did not ignore other complaints which were better founded, but there weren’t many, mostly about truck access to businesses on Broadway)

  12. What actually happened is that O’Brien and Conlin realized that if they can’t even hold Capitol Hill, they’re in trouble. So they’ll beat a brief retreat, and then they’ll be back.

    Besides, they never cared about the mid-block commercial anyway. What they really care about is letting their real estate cronies build without including parking, and removing the environmental reviews from big-box retailers and square-block apartment buildings.

    That stuff will be back in a different bill, along with whatever campaign money it generates in return.

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