End Single Family Lot Minimums

Recently a developer has been using a loophole to build small-lot houses in SF5000 zones in Seattle.  Single family zones are classified by the minimum lot size allowed for each home, and the options are SF5000, SF7200, SF9600, and residential small lot (as low as 2,500 square feet, but there aren’t many RSL zones in Seattle).  Publicola reports that Richard Conlin has proposed interim legislation  to end this construction of small lot homes in single family zones.  Conlin’s legislation is exactly the wrong direction for a growing city.  Over 27,000 new households predicted to move to Seattle between 2010 and 2020 in Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan’s Housing Appendix (PDF).  Yet the same appendix predicts only 865 of those households will have children.  We’re out of space for single family homes, and it’s time to question whether every one needs to take up as much land as they’re currently required to.

We live in a city, not the suburbs.  SF5000, 7200, and 9600 zoning probably made sense 100 years ago when Seattle was a small city, trying to plan out the next 50 years or so.  But we’ve grown well beyond our original vision.

I propose we remove minimum lot sizes on single family homes, or at least dramatically reduce them.

We aren’t building many new single family homes, so removing minimum square footage requirements won’t dramatically change our city.  But as homes are redeveloped, it will allow more homes to be built on the same amount of land.  This will increase density and allow more people to live in Seattle even if they want to live in single family homes.  A city-wide change like this will spread out new development, changing each neighborhood slowly and by a small amount.

Write your Council members* immediately and tell them what you think about this – they’ll meet on Monday to vote on the emergency legislation.

* Richard Conlin Chair, Tim Burgess Vice Chair, Mike O’Brien Member, Sally J. Clark Alternate

Update 9/10/12: The City Council passed this emergency legislation.  Of course, it’s still possible that they could take up my proposal and reduce/remove SF lot size minimums.

Seattle Releases Montlake Bridge Report


An intergovernmental workgroup has completed its work and released its report about the Montlake Bridge and the 520 project’s impact on flows across it, written by Nelson/Nygaard. The results hit the street today and will be considered by the Council on Monday. Here’s the one page summary (.doc). The full report is here.

WSDOT included a second bascule bridge in its preferred alternative, which would add two HOV lanes to the current four general purpose lanes and widen each. The city pushed back, reflecting neighborhood opposition to a wider roadway. So a new workgroup developed “triggers” for new bascule bridge construction.

The study looked at bike/ped, transit, and “mainline” impacts. By “mainline”, they mean traffic flow on the 520 bridge. It’s bad news for anyone who wanted to see a new bridge. The conclusions were:
Continue reading “Seattle Releases Montlake Bridge Report”

Fixing the “Dexter Disaster” is Vital for Transit

Dexter & Mercer looking north at rush hour, eastbound traffic blocking half the box
Dexter & Mercer looking north at rush hour

Making buses (and mixed-traffic transit generally) work well can be a complex business. Streets need to work acceptably for all users — pedestrians, transit, bikes, freight and cars — and adjacent property owners. Walking through it, as I do, most days of the week, the intersection of Dexter and Mercer strikes me as a disaster for all road users that should be ringing alarm bells on high at SDOT and Metro. KIRO’s Chris Sullivan sums it up:

Mercer backs up terribly heading toward I-5 in the afternoon, creating a spill-over on the north-south side streets that have to cross it. It’s become so bad drivers are now calling it the Dexter Disaster and the Westlake Wrangle. Many are sitting through multiple lights without moving an inch.

Dexter and Westlake are both used by transit, and after the fall restructure, Westlake will host the new Route 40 trunk route to Fremont, Ballard, Crown Hill and Northgate. At the risk of stating the obvious, the routes on Dexter and Weslake will not thrive if their PM peak trips take half an hour to get through a half-mile stretch of South Lake Union. Moreover, some of the few restructure options Metro has to save money on unproductive service in north-central Seattle (which it must, to find the money to pay for additional service on RapidRide E) involve shifting the 5 or 16 off Aurora onto Dexter or Westlake. Those ideas will be DOA if these streets don’t work. More after the jump.

Continue reading “Fixing the “Dexter Disaster” is Vital for Transit”

Big Houses, Small Lots, and the Seattle Problem

I wrote at Seattle’s Land Use Code about the upcoming emergency vote Councilmember Richard Conlin has proposed to stop development of some small lot cottage development in single-family neighborhoods. Why a few unique cottages being successfully developed under existing code is an emergency is still a mystery to me, especially since this is exactly the kind of infill development many of us wanted when the Council undertook a review of Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit regulations years ago. The emergency vote seems to be emblematic of the Seattle Problem—trying to make good things happen but then when they do, imposing rules that effectively prevent those good things.

Conlin on Land Use: What’s the emergency?

The substance of the issue is that a developer has figured out what the planners at City Hall call the arcane details of the land use and tax code to figure out how to build tall, cool looking cottages on small and irregular lots in single-family neighborhoods. This has provoked the ire of some single-family neighbors who, in turn, have provoked the Council to throw on the brakes. The truth is that there are very few of these houses being built, and what’s so bad about them being “out of scale” with the surrounding neighborhood.

The fact is that the emergency in Seattle is that we have yet to see innovative land use solutions for Transit Oriented Development, for infill, and for other housing options. It’s true we have apodments and other efforts are underway to make a dent in our need for more housing, so why would we stop something that seems to be addressing that need?

Contact the Council—there isn’t much time, the vote would happen Monday—and let them know what you think. I posted this message to Councilmember Conlin’s Facebook page (it was subsequently deleted by Conlin) and I urge you to give your thoughts about whether this issue even needs a vote. Shouldn’t we wait and see whether this is a problem? Maybe it’s actually a good thing.

Continue reading “Big Houses, Small Lots, and the Seattle Problem”

Clarifying Points: RapidRide and RFA

Earlier today Kevin Desmond responded to my post last Friday about RapidRide C and D not having ORCA card readers downtown. In general, his point is RapidRide will be an improvement over existing service at a low cost, but there are a few parts yet to be fully deployed.

I want to clarify certain points about my previous post which I think were not as clear as possible.

First, the focus of my post was entirely on Downtown, and specifically on the one-two punch that the one-year absence of ORCA card readers and elimination of the RFA will have on degrading the speed and reliability RapidRide C and D  as well as other 3rd Ave service. While RapidRide and elimination of the RFA are different issues, their effect on riders downtown are interrelated. RapidRide will be faster outside of Downtown and more frequent in most locations, but those benefits will be damped by the added delay in Downtown. If there were any stops where ORCA card readers should have been prioritized it would have been these few stops. Continue reading “Clarifying Points: RapidRide and RFA”

Op-Ed: RapidRide will be Popular with Riders

by KEVIN DESMOND, King County Metro General Manager

Adam’s Aug. 31 post about the C and D line and RapidRide program expressed disappointment that our launch at the end of the month will not include ORCA readers and the real time signs that are standard at major RapidRide stops. Both of these features require communications backbones and downtown Seattle is a complex environment to lay fiber. We are taking advantage of a planned, Seattle funded project to install the fiber next year, and by doing so we are stretching very limited public dollars as far as we can.

We have a vision for our transit service downtown which includes RapidRide. We applied for and received two federal grants, in partnership with Seattle, to enhance the transit environment downtown, especially on Third Avenue. The grants, along with existing RapidRide funding, will allow Metro to install ORCA readers, real time signs and develop other off-board payment/ticketing devices.

Staff from both Metro and the city of Seattle worked shoulder to shoulder for many months in order to deliver the C and D lines to downtown Seattle – on time and on budget. They’ve problem-solved literally thousands of details as we count down to the Sept. 29 launch. We admit not every feature will be fully operational – but at launch what people will get is better connections, service that’s more reliable, less wait time to catch a bus, transit signal priority at many intersections, real-time arrival information at stations, well-lit shelters and great new Wi-Fi coaches.

Come Sept. 29, we will have readers at 16 stations on the C Line and 21 at stations on the D Line. So there will be a clear benefit at many heavy boarding locations.

Contrary to Adam’s transportation vision, we will never be able to mimic the exclusive, separated right-of-way rail enjoys. RapidRide is designed to operate on compact urban streets – and that’s the beauty of our bus rapid transit program.

We don’t have to guess if these new lines will meet the need of more riders. We already know.  Since the A Line between Federal Way and Tukwila was launched in 2010, ridership has increased nearly 50 percent, meeting our five year goal after just two years. It’s the same story on the B Line serving Redmond and Bellevue – ridership up 15 percent since launching last year.  On these already high ridership corridors in Seattle, we know RapidRide and Metro’s complementary routes will need to evolve over time to manage and respond to peak demand. Continue reading “Op-Ed: RapidRide will be Popular with Riders”

News Roundup: On the Decline


This is an open thread.

Seattle’s Yellow Light on Green Building

When I read this headline in Grist a couple weeks ago, “What other cities can learn from Seattle’s troubled ‘deep green’ building program,” the first thought that came to mind was that it isn’t the program that’s troubled, but our culture in Seattle. The problem, somewhat unique to Seattle, is the tendency to think big, plan big, but when it counts, hit the brakes. Other cities could learn a lot from Seattle, but unfortunately the lesson is about what not to do.

What does green mean? The choice is up to us.

The author of the article cites a list of what he means by troubles, and it includes resistance from “code cops,” problems with financing, the expense of building green, and, of course, neighborhood resistance to change. He also wisely points out that you can build the greenest of green buildings only to find people’s behavior doesn’t change; make your building perfectly balanced and watch someone turn the thermostat up or down to get more comfortable.

Unlike the weather, for which we just have to accept and prepare, these troubles are all things within the limits of our control. What I’d call the Seattle Problem is the tendency to push for innovation that will create great things, but then, at the same time, create rules to be sure absolutely nothing bad happens. Ironically, this rule making ends up limiting the good things we want. More after the jump.

Continue reading “Seattle’s Yellow Light on Green Building”

Sound Transit 2Q 2012 Ridership Report

North Link Groundbreaking by Atomic Taco
North Link Groundbreaking by Atomic Taco

Sound Transit’s second quarter numbers are out, and the agency posted an 11% year-over-year gain in ridership.  ST Express Bus was up 11%, Central Link is up 10% to 26,268 weekly boardings, and Sounder is up 15% on weekdays.  Paratransit decreased 29% due to an accounting change.

The Sounder numbers are interesting because they come despite a decrease in event drips offset by an even larger increase in commuter trips. No doubt higher gas prices and falling unemployment are playing a role here and in the Central Link numbers.  Seattle unemployment is now at 7.8%, down 1% from a year ago and 2% from the 2009 peak.  Gas prices in Seattle peaked at $4.33/gallon in May, up $0.27 from May 2011.

Also, Sound Transit seems to be getting more efficient with its service hours. ST Express ridership increased 11% even with a 3% drop in overall revenue vehicle hours operated.  This lead to a 15% increase in boardings per revenue hour, bringing the cost per boarding down to $6.04 from $7.49, a whopping 21% drop. This efficiency comes at a price, of course, and Routes 540 and 560 were the ones paying it.  Both had their hours reduced and in turn showed double-digit decreases in ridership.

Separate Issues with the RFA


We’ve had a lively discussion about the end of the Ride Free Area and the general failure of SDOT and Metro to adequately prepare for its demise. I think there are two separate objections that have to be dealt with individually.

First, there’s the social justice argument that compelling people to pay for bus travel downtown is unfair to the very poor. I’m unmoved by this argument, for two reasons: one, intra-downtown trips seem to be an odd category to treat differently; and two, tailoring the entire system to the corner cases of affordability, accessibility, and literacy result in a system that no one with a choice would ever ride. I’ll expand the second point in a later post, but while I would like to see more County programs that provide transportation assistance to the poor, giving everyone a break on downtown trips seems like a badly targeted way to do it.

Secondly, there is a much more valid concern that speed improvements downtown are totally inadequate to maintain effective flow of buses and trains. I’m sympathetic to this, although we won’t know for sure for many months of the experiment. The question is how we bring about change. Personally, I would strongly prefer the “Speed improvements/no RFA” equilibrium over the status quo, although the situation this fall may be worse than either. The RFA and pay-as-you-leave makes the system more complicated and destroys the “board in the front/exit in the rear” convention that makes buses more efficient almost everywhere.

My fear is that any extension of the RFA gives momentum to advocates for a perpetual RFA, provides no pressure to actually make the improvements that would make fare payment work downtown, and therefore traps us in the status quo. I’m generally not a fan of “heighten the contradictions”-type strategies but this is a case where good policy must overcome a bad but stable equilibrium.

Maintenance Update

We’ve upgraded our blog host to a new, more reliable server, which should result in more uptime.  Unfortunately, a few comments from the last hour may not have been migrated to the new host.  If your comment was lost, I apologize for the inconvenience.  Hopefully this new, more reliable server makes the disruption worthwhile.

WSDOT Intercity Rail Update

Photo by Atomic Taco

At the recent WSDOT Public Transportation Conference, WSDOT Rail Operations Supervisor Kirk Frederickson offered a thorough update on WSDOT’s Intercity Rail Program.  While STB’s readership will be familiar with many of the current projects – Point Defiance Bypass (PDB), the King Street Station upgrade, Cascades Trainset Overhaul, other ARRA/HSIPR improvements, etc – there were many new ideas and projects to pass along.


Perhaps the biggest news is that under federal law, Cascades must be financially independent of Amtrak by October 2013. Thereafter, the governments of Oregon, Washington, and (perhaps someday) British Columbia will assume all operating costs.  This presents short-term funding challenges, as Amtrak currently provides 24% of Cascades’ funding, but this independence may also offer a measure of long-term protection against hostile Republican administrations. In response, WSDOT and ODOT will complete their joint corridor management plan  by January 2013, and WSDOT is also developing a new State Rail Plan.

Continue reading “WSDOT Intercity Rail Update”