Rue Oberkampf, Paris (wikimedia)

Whenever we argue about height limits there is faction of genuine urbanists who argue that height isn’t necessary for density. The latest incarnation is commenter “was carless“:

Some of the densest cities on Earth – Tokyo, Manila, and Barcelona – are well known for their lowrise nature of their built environment. Most buildings are in the 2-3 story range, but the blocks are fully built out, with little land used for personal backyards, car storage, or other such non-dwelling uses.

Similarly, last year Andrew made the correct point that height is not the same thing as density.

These observations are absolutely true, and yet totally irrelevant to the question at hand. I think density is important and support any legislation that increases it over the status quo. And indeed, if would be great if Seattle proposed legislation that replicated Paris (lowrise, but no parking or setbacks, and building right up to the sidewalk of a one car-width side street). I’d wonder if such a prescriptive code would end up simply stifling development, but if successful it would be a dramatic improvement on the current situation.

But that’s not the choice at hand. In every zoning battle that comes before the council, it always seems to come down to height. For any given code, it’s clear that more height will produce more density as long as Floor Area Ratio isn’t held constant. Meanwhile, it’s clear that the status quo isn’t going to get us Paris.

On this issue, I’m not interested in hearing from those who think that Seattle’s current population level is just fine. I’d like to hear from those who want to achieve density but think we can do it, in practice, at six stories.

226 Replies to “Waiting for Paris”

  1. Note that Paris is unaffordable today.

    It’s not absolute density that matters, it’s the ability to grow in density (whether that’s upward or by narrowing streets, etc) when demand exists. Limiting that creates unaffordability, as it has in most cities.

    1. It’s no more unaffordable than Hong Kong Island, which is vertical.

      There are many ways for a World City’s demand to outstrip its supply. Verticality of development is irrelevant to that imbalance.

      1. It’s easy to find other examples. Shanghai is similarly unaffordable. Some places are unaffordable, regardless of its heights. Bombay for example.

      2. I wouldn’t say it’s irrelevant. In the case of Hong Kong Island, even vertical building is insufficient to meet supply, but that’s not the case in most places. If every multi-unit dwelling in Seattle suddenly doubled in height (and therefore roughly doubled in housing units) I suspect that our supply would exceed demand for years, if not decades. This leads me to believe that verticality does play a role, at least in cases where land area is not severely constricted, as on a small island that also happens to be an international business center.

      3. On a planet with 7 billion people but only 40 or so true World Cities, migration potential to those cities is nearly limitless.

        Demand will forever find a way to outpace supply, and well-located real estate will become increasingly unaffordable. No matter how you build, no matter what you do.

        That is the thread that connects Paris and Hong Kong. The tall or short of it is irrelevant.

        Beta-level Seattle (too small, too limited in the forms its economic activity takes, too culturally amorphous, too replicable elsewhere) is never going to have this World City-specific growth problem. If you built either Paris density or Hong Kong density here, you could successfully meet supply.

        Ben’s claim that Paris is unaffordable because it is short is wrong on its face.

      4. The only thing that seems more odd than the notion that Hong Kong has a severe housing shortage is the notion that high rise development might be causing such a shortage.

      5. I take your point d.p., but I’m not sure what you’re actually arguing for or against here.

        For one, although there may only be 40 or so “World Cities,” I know of no law or principle stating that more can’t be created (or, probably more accurately, evolved). And even if demand is never fully met, having 10 people who want to live in a city for every spot is going to put more pressure on prices than having 5 people for every housing unit. It also would mean more people could live their lives how and where they want to. And, conveniently for the rest of the world, they’d be living in ways that are better for their health, the environment, and our economy.

      6. My primary point was that it is absurd to saddle the low-rise density of Paris with the blame for its expensiveness, when the operative factor is its position as one of the preeminent cities and crossroads of migration and commerce on the planet. Especially when it is almost absurdly dense even at its limited height.

        Sure, cities move in and out of “global” status as economic conditions change. But the smart money is on Seattle remaining a global player in one or two areas, but a regional presence in the more complicated tapestry of factors that contribute to World Economic Epicenter migratory pull. Seattle could DOUBLE in population — which is NOT going to do — and that could still be absorbed without building tall. There is an absurd amount of infill area available!!

        Densifying is vital to keeping up with growth. But the bulk of world experience suggest that streetwise density yields a better city than tower-forest facsimiles of density. Those who obsess about the latter have Manhattan envy, but will accidentally build Houston in our midst if left to their own devices.

      7. World Cities? What a load of utter BS. First the ranking is based on “advanced producer services”: accountancy, advertising, banking/finance, and law. What is this, 1950? Where is, uhm, high-tech? In its own right it is an advanced producer service that is required by almost any type of business. A ranking that does not include high-tech as a stand-alone economic segment loses all credibility immediately.

        Then, Vancouver is higher-ranked than Seattle. I lived there for 5 years, and have been in Seattle for 1.5. Vancouver has no effect on the world economy. If it vanished tomorrow, the world markets wouldn’t budge beyond the margin of error. There are practically no world corporations headquartered in Vancouver, and the ones that have a presence there tend to keep second-rate jobs parked there.

        Seattle is North America’s best kept secret. That’s what I can tell you.

      8. I’m going to try not to jump down your throat, Anton, though the particular brand of Seattle Exceptionalism you just espoused — the “I just moved here and I love it so any metric by which it’s not the greatest city on earth must be stupid” brand of Seattle Exceptionalim — happens to drive me nuts.

        1. The concept of “Global Cities” was born of Urban Sociology and proto-Globalization (human and capital migration) studies, and has been refined in academic circles over multiple decades. While Economics is certainly a vital piece of the puzzle, the concept of cities developing a tiered structure of global influence in the Information Age stretches well beyond the mundane arithmetic of classical economics.

        2. “High-tech” = “research & development”. It’s why Seattle makes the (Beta) rankings at all. Duh.

        3. While the cities at the very top (the so-called Alpha+ and a few of the Alpha cities) attain that distinction by performing a service function that is unique across the entire globe (and therefore perform them for the world at large) — London is the financial epicenter, Los Angeles provides entertainment services for everywhere, etc. — the most-global cities are also crucially big enough, complicated enough, economically diverse enough, and prominent enough on the world stage that their existence and influence cannot be boiled down to that one function.

        4. Shorter #3: Uniqueness on the world stage requires a delicate balance of specialization and multiplicity.

        5. Vancouver’s global status is outsized thanks to its unique geographic and geopolitical situation: the only major city and port on the West Coast of Canada, with migration patterns dictated to a great degree by its membership in the British Commonwealth, it easily rivals L.A. and San Francisco as a focal point of Asian-North American capital and cultural exchange. It doesn’t specialize because it doesn’t have to: that geographic luck ensures that it will remain a growing economic and cultural force in a variety of sectors.

        6. Now let us look at Seattle, source of your indignation. Seattle ultra-specializes in one thing: high-tech. And although it is a major global player in that one thing, it does not hold a unique or irreplicable global-leader position in that field (in the way that London does in finance or L.A. does in entertainment). The Bay Area has exceeded Seattle from the start, Boston and Washington give the west coast a run for their money (and are advantaged by the other things those places do simultaneously — see #8), North Carolina is gaining, New York is actively entering into the competitive-tech market. And that’s just in this country — you might have heard about the high-tech centers springing up throughout Europe and Asia.

        7. As for aerospace, Boeing can barely even be called a Seattle company anymore. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

        8. What else does Seattle do? Really, what else? It’s a bit player in medicine, it’s barely on the radar in education, it’s not a cultural capital of anything (hiking and glass art are not exactly global forces), it was a pioneer in subprime mortgage lending (awesome). And it sure as hell isn’t a leader in transportation or sustainable urbanism. Again, the cities that find their way into the Alpha categories are the ones in which many forms of activity successfully interact: Boston is globally synonymous with education and medicine, while also maintaining a top-tier position in high-tech, while also playing a regional role in transportation, commerce, migration and international relations… Again, multiplicity. You can’t just do one thing.

        9. Seattle’s a pleasant place. Despite my strong criticisms, and although I don’t work anywhere near high-tech and am therefore marginalized by our warped and short-sighted economic value system, I’ve nevertheless grown to enjoy certain aspects of life here. But unfortunately for the Exceptionalists, being a leader in enjoying the smell of your own farts does not make you a Global City.

      9. While I agree that Seattle is not a “global city” by the commonly understood definition, I don’t know that Amazon is really a “tech” company. It’s a retailer, and an essential one to the ecosystem at that. Now it’s true that it hires a lot of engineers, but I don’t think its fortunes are particularly tied to corporate IT spending, or whatever.

      10. What else does Seattle do?


        It’s a bit player in medicine

        UW is #3 in NIH grant funding (Beantown is only #2 :=) and the region is #5 in biotech. The Port of Seattle is the fifth largest container port in the United States and the twentieth largest in the world. Seattle as a metro area and just the city proper is hardly the one trick pony it was back in the ’70s when the billboards said, “Will the last person leaving Seattle please turn out the lights.”

      11. I would agree with that, although Amazon is as much about cloud computing as it is about retail these days, is it not?

        Amazon distributes its differentiated on-the-ground functions over a wide geographic area; for the most part, the primary role it plays in Seattle’s economic structure is as “employer of many highly-paid tech people”.

        Which, as I said, is fine. It contributes to the clout and influence that Seattle does in fact have. But it’s hardly multiplicitous.

      12. Amazon definitely thinks of itself as a tech company. You don’t need nearly this many engineers to sell books. Amazon Web Services, the various Kindle devices and the services that power them (Amazon Instant Video + Cloud Player) make up a substantial part of Amazon’s business.

      13. (And Bernie:)

        I addressed aerospace in #7. Boeing always seems like it’s one foot out the door, and would disappear from Seattle completely at the first sign of a U.S. Dept. of Labor cave-in. And the way the 787’s been working out for them, we’d be ill-advised to put any of our eggs in that basket.

        That’s what I meant by “bit player”. Biotech is a tiny subset of medical research and health care implementation. UW is the only reseach-based university in the region, and a single institution does not a regional prominence make.

        (Read your own link: Washington is 8th in NIH funding, with well over half of that locked up by UW alone. And the UW has almost no other funding sources, unlike less-intentionally-starved institutions elsewhere.)

        As for the port functions: Yes, that should be considered a contributor to the degree of multiplicity that Seattle does attain.

      14. This is actually something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. When WaMu collapsed, it caused a surge in office vacancies downtown.

        Now the downtown office market has recovered nearly entirely due to Amazon.

        Once again, the fortunes of downtown Seattle are largely tied to one company. And the signs that Amazon is headed for a spectacular demise are plain for all to see.

        Amazon’s P/E ratio is 3841. Microsoft’s is 14. The stock market has decided that Amazon’s future is bright. But the stock market’s confidence is easily rattled. What if there is a particularly long outage of one of Amazon’s flagship services because they finally burned out the last engineer who knew anything about it? Or what if Jeff Bezos goes to sleep tonight and never wakes up?

        Answer: Amazon’s stock price plummets.

        Now here’s the thing, Amazon makes no secret that their employee compensation is heavily weighted toward stock:

        Focus on hiring and retaining versatile and talented employees, and weight their compensation to significant stock ownership rather than cash. We know our success will be largely affected by our ability to attract and retain a motivated employee base, each of whom must think like, and therefore must actually be, an owner.

        What happens when the RSUs they dangle in front of their engineers as motivation to answer pages at 3 AM become worthless?

        Talent exodus. A crippled company that takes downtown with it.

        And when the Panama Canal widening is completed in 2015, the Port of Seattle will be in a lot of pain.

        I’m not bullish on Seattle’s long-term economic vitality.

      15. Amazon distributes its differentiated on-the-ground functions over a wide geographic area;

        Well sure, and although New York and Paris are fashion hubs their operations are also distributed.

        Another way to look at this is: if all our human and physical capital were destroyed in a freak accident, what worldwide impacts would there be? Publishing, retailing, and video gaming would definitely feel the difference. The PC Market and commercial airplane market would be utterly transformed. That isn’t bad for a medium-sized city.

      16. Every new commercial airliner built in the United States since Boeing absorbed McDonald Douglas has been designed in Seattle. But aerospace is much more than just Boeing and Boeing is much more than just commercial aircraft. Likewise the medical related industries are much more than just biotech. Like ATL for example who commercialized ultrasound technology. Physio Control developed the defibrillator and Northwest Kidney Centers in Seattle was the first out-of-hospital dialysis treatment center in the world. Despite what you seem to thing “Hi-tech” is a smaller portion of the Seattle economy than shipping, aerospace or healthcare. It’s just the new kid on the block and gets the most press.

      17. Amazon’s P/E ratio is 3841. Microsoft’s is 14.

        Yes, a retailer like Wal-Mart has a PE of 14 and Apple is only 11. Even if Amazon manages to make the transition to an old guard company the way Microsoft did the fact that it’s building it’s own corporate campus will leave a huge crater in existing property just as it did all over the city when it moved into Paul Allen’s shiny new digs. However, even a total meltdown of Amazon won’t come close to causing the type of regional pain the Boeing Bust of the 70’s did since the economy is vastly more diversified.

      18. Okay, Bernie, perhaps we can call Seattle a “minor player” in medicine rather than a “bit player”.

        But think how much more of a player it would be if the medical innovators had world-class hospitals with which to work (they don’t) or a diverse and globally respected set of educational institutions with which to exchange ideas and people (again, no such luck).

        That is precisely the interconnected multiplicity that transforms some places in to Global Cities, while Seattle sits just a little bit outside the Major Leagues.

        Aerospace: is there any part of that “local” industry not looking to jump ship to a union-hostile labor market? (Serious question.)

        Shipping: Again, I agree with you on its prominence. Hope it can stay that way, without any “one step forward, eight steps back” coal trains.

      19. Seattle sits just a little bit outside the Major Leagues.

        I would agree with that but add that for it’s size it packs a pretty big global punch. Name one of the Global Big Leaguers where you can’t walk to a Starbucks ;-)

        Aerospace: is there any part of that “local” industry not looking to jump ship to a union-hostile labor market?

        I doubt the 747 is going anywhere. Or even 737 production. But what makes Seattle a leader in aerospace is engineering and design. Companies like Electroimpact, which makes systems for assembling aircraft and applying composite fiber aren’t looking to go anywhere. The Seattle area has the critical mass to attract investment from companies headquartered all over the globe. Lockheed Martin, Rolls-Royce, BAE and Dassault Systemes are just a few of the more than 650 clustered around Seattle.

        think how much more of a player it would be if the medical innovators had world-class hospitals

        Seattle Childrens was recently ranked 6th in the nation by US News. UW Medicine includes Harborview as well as Northwest and Valley Medical Centers, Airlift Northwest and is the only medical school serving five western states. National Taiwan University ranked UW 4th in the world and #1 among American public universities in scientific research. The London Times’ rated UW 24th in the world and in a wide range of rankings UW placed 8th out of 1,569 [Columns magazine, Dec 12th]. UW research is global, not confined to just this little logging camp on the shores of Puget Sound.

      20. Children’s is indeed a world-class hospital, the only one we have. Which is pretty great, if the specialized care you need is child-specific.

        I’ve seen the UW Medical System in action, and… blah. Seriously, blah. Residents of those five western states are by and large screwed when it comes to serious matters of health (actute or otherwise).

        No one is denying that UW is a large and diverse research institution, though your evidence seems weirdly arbitrary. Again, one institution does not a sector make. UW is quite isolated, and it feels it.

        Good to know more about local aerospace than I’ve known.

        As for Starbucks… again, good for it! But that’s just food service, and you might be the first to try to claim mega-scale food service as Seattle’s primary role in the world economy. We still pale in comparison to New York-based entities, do we not?

        Yet again, most World City indices would place Seattle somewhere in the Beta category, and yet again, that’s impressive for its size. But we’re now a dozen comments below my original explanation of what the indices mean and why they’re important, and all I keep hearing is “But, but, but, but, we’re the bestest!!”

        And so the migration-pattern/supply-and-demand/built-environment-impact distinctions between being a world city or not get ignored, and forest-of-towers proponents get to keep claiming that we have to build up and up forever lest we get overrun with doubling-population demand.

        That’s the “Seattle Exceptionalism” I loathe. It’s fine to have civic pride. It’s destructive to have civic delusion.

      21. d.p.: small points: London is replaceable in finance. Easily. It holds its position due to a particular specialization in *crooked* finance, but that’s a specialty which can be eliminated entirely.

        Is LA replaceable in entertainment? Yes. It got its position due to the convenient weather, mostly, and with modern tech it’s easy to relocate filming. Weather changes could drive the relocation of the entire industry.

        No city’s chief industry is so entrenched that it can’t be replaced somewhere else.

      22. Actually, the founding of the entertainment industry in Hollywood was a gigantic patent dodge. ;-)

        The studios didn’t want to pay Edison for the rights to use his motion picture cameras, so they relocated to the opposite coast where it would be harder for him to come after them legally and physically. It’s a great story; you should look it up!

        I think you may be mistakenly reading the breakdown of the attributes of Global Cities — as well as my use of the word “replicable” — as prescriptive, when it is merely descriptive.

        Anything is hypothetically replicable, and an individual city’s circumstances and role are almost guaranteed to change over time. Vienna has certainly dropped a notch or three since the end of the Habsburg Empire; Rome isn’t quite the Alpha city it was two millennia ago.

        So the question is not: “Could this be replicated elsewhere tomorrow?” but “Could this be replicated elsewhere today?” If the answer is “no” — if the city is at this moment in a unique position globally — then you’ve got a top-tier Global City on your hands. London is to major financial services provider, and no one else. Los Angeles is entertainment, as no one else is.

        Not “should be” or “will continue to be”, just “is”.

        Seattle, on the other hand, has no such claim to absolute uniqueness on the world stage. Nor, as I’ve explained, does it possess the stew of complementary factors that elevate Amsterdam or Boston or Zurich into the Alpha- category; there are too many weak-sauce ingredients.

        Of course, the latter could change. But we don’t seem to be on course to do so.

      23. Children’s is indeed a world-class hospital, the only one we have.

        Harborview is a Level I adult and pediatric trauma and regional burn center. That’s got to count for something. I agree Seattle isn’t a World Class city on par with New York, London, Paris or Tokyo. Boston (Alpha -) isn’t that different than Seattle in world prominence or population. Sure they have a lot of stuffy universities that will leave you well connected after you pay your dues but I think you’ll find a lot more products touched by Seattle around the globe than you would from Boston. In fact it appears from the list that many of the higher ranked cities are simply resting on their laurels. Athens for instance does exactly what for the world economy except drag down the euro. And what has Philadelphia done for you lately?

      24. Again, you’re taking this personally on behalf of Seattle, and it’s clouding your ability to separate fact from spin.

        You’re also continuing to focus on “products touched” and major corporations enumerated, thus ignoring the point explained 15 posts ago that this goes way beyond traditional economics.

        I’m citing Boston often because I happen to know it well, but believe me when I say that I recognize Boston’s own limitations and the meeting point between its “primary” and “secondary” roles that Alpha- status represents, and I’m doing my best to divorce my conceptual explanation from my passion for the place. (By contrast, you’re clearly in defense mode.)

        Boston is one of a just a couple of advanced medical providers for the entire planet. People get flown 10,000 for certain types of treatments and procedures that cannot be performed anywhere else. This unparalleled reputation draws practitioners and providers from around the world as well.

        Similarly, Boston provides academic services to the entire world. For better or for worse. It is literally the gold-standard educational destination for ambitious children the world over. Half the Supreme Court was educated in Boston. MLK was educated in Boston. Benazir Bhutto was educated in Boston. Bill freaking Gates was educated in Boston.

        It is this distinction — global provider versus regional one — that is vital to understanding the role that Global Cities play in our interconnected world. And the more roles that you play on a global level — creating an environment ripe for interplay between those roles and others — the more globally magnetic your city will be.

        It doesn’t hurt that the Boston area is 25% more populous than Seattle’s or that it has more complicated input-migration patterns from more of the world, or that it has a transportation system that allows for people to interact and to stoke all forms of urban culture in a way that Seattle can’t.

        Seattle may someday be a true world-class city. But sitting around finding technicalities on which to boast that it is already is definitely not the way to get it there.

      25. Half the Supreme Court was educated in Boston.

        Yes, as I said it’s the place to go to get well connected. As far as major medical it’s good and Mass General was ranked for the first time in years ahead of Johns Hopkins. NYC has the most top medical centers. Chicago and Los Angeles are ranked ahead of Boston. It’s not even a major importer of tea any more.

        One point I’m trying to make is that in the Wikipedia version of “World City” history is over weighted. As is being the capital of an insignificant country, like Dublin. The GDP of Washington State dwarfs that of Ireland. Another sign the Wiki rankings are fucked up, how does Macau rank behind Las Vegas as a “World City”? It’s down there with Tulsa Oklahoma.

        The second and main point I was making is that Seattle is not a one trick pony and hi-tech is not even the largest contributor to the economy. It ranks maybe 3rd or 4th down with tourism. Notable companies in or near Seattle that aren’t tech; Nordstroms, Starbucks, PACCAR, Alaska Air, Eddie Bauer, R.E.I., Weyerhaeuser, Costco, Expeditors International just to name a few.

      26. Did you even the definitions of the categories? Or any background on the concept?

        Better yet, get the second edition of Saskia Sassen’s The Global City from the library and get to understand why this all is important to understanding the way the interconnected modern world operates (and why your obsession with enumerating individual corporations and hospitals is utterly irrelevant). Seriously, do this; it’s a fascinating read!

        Anyway, Las Vegas and Macau are irrelevant to the discussion, in that neither is listed under any category of World City. Both have somewhat self-sufficient economies and identities and regional independence, but that’s all that those rightmost two categories entail. (Both are basically overgrown resorts; you don’t see Cancun on the World Cities lists either.)

        You’ve also clearly missed out on the last fifteen years of Irish development and history, if you don’t realize how much more of a defined presence on the European stage Dublin has become in that time. It has almost assuredly jumped three categories in that time, though it remains to be seen if it will rebound from the financial crisis in a way that retains that importance.

        Anyway, Bernie, I appreciate your enlightening me on some of the specifics of a couple of the sectors in which Seattle plays at or near the forefront.

        But it’s silly to keep arguing with you when you seem only interested in ranking medical centers and lists of corporations for the sake of civic pride, but disinterested in probing the underlying concept in order to understand why some cities function differently than on the world stage than others.

      27. @d.p. Really the only argument I have with you is that Seattle is a one trick pony dependent entirely on high tech. I agree with most of what you’ve said, esspecially:

        Demand will forever find a way to outpace supply, and well-located real estate will become increasingly unaffordable. No matter how you build, no matter what you do.

        That’s as true for “World Cities” as it is for up and coming prospects in the minors like Seattle. As for the definition of “World City” I was going to hunt up references prior to the concept being “born of Urban Sociology” but the Wiki article already did that for me. The term had been in the main stream media for over a century. No doubt about Saskia Sassen’s list of New York, London, Tokyo. After that it’s open for debate. For example Los Angeles I’d rank well ahead of Chicago; pork belly futures ain’t what they used to be. In fact I’d probably rank San Francisco if you include the Bay Area as a metropolitan entity ahead of Chicago. And I don’t see how in this day and age Shanghai and Hong Kong can be place a notch above Beijing. And Dubai? How does that rank Alpha+ and Riyadh as Beta? As for Dublin’s “defined presence on the European stage” that’s always been predicated on a bunch of blarney going back as far as John DeLorean in the mid 70’s.

      28. “Demand will forever find a way to outpace supply, and well-located real estate will become increasingly unaffordable. No matter how you build, no matter what you do.”

        The more housing units you build in a desirable location, the more people that can afford to live there. Always.

      29. The term had been in the main stream media for over a century.

        Bernie, I appreciate the engagement, but you’re still making the mistake of confusing a general term (which has perhaps been bandied about for a while) with a specific concept that is fairly intricate and means something far less subjective than you seem to realize. (Note: the words “gay” and “pro-life” don’t remotely mean what they did a century ago either.)

        No doubt about Saskia Sassen’s list of New York, London, Tokyo. After that it’s open for debate.

        Sassen’s work is about far more than just the three megacities named in the subtitle. It is about the way global cities like those interact with semi-global and sub-global cities that specialize, generalize, or regionalize in different ways and to different degrees. Migration patters, historical and political effects, changing communication technologies — all these things come into play.

        While the field of study is still evolving, and the relative impacts of certain factors may be open to academic argument and inquiry, it is unequivocally not open to the kind of “brain-fart debate” into which Seattleites love to enter without a shred of research.

        For example Los Angeles I’d rank well ahead of Chicago; pork belly futures ain’t what they used to be.

        And you’d be wrong. Los Angeles, to its detriment, remains far more specialized and inward-looking than Chicago, which has wholeheartedly embraced its position as a global crossroads over the past two decades or so. (I know you’re joking about the pork bellies, but it continues to reveal your obsession with “defining products touched”, which is wholly missing the point.)

        And I don’t see how in this day and age Shanghai and Hong Kong can be place a notch above Beijing.

        Because Hong Kong has long been open — and Shanghai has recently been open — to a level of global engagement that would be hard to match anywhere. People and activity therefore congregate there to perform a variety of activities and functions that don’t occur in Beijing on nearly the same scale.

        Nevertheless, you’ll note that Beijing is clearly on the rise as a true Global City. Give it just a couple of years.

        And Dubai? How does that rank Alpha+ and Riyadh as Beta?

        Is that a serious question? Could have something to do with the latter being a single-commodity enterprise, with the vast majority of its wealth and power hoarded by a single untrustworthy clan. Just maybe. I’m actually amazed Riyadh isn’t down there with Calgary.

        Nordstroms, Starbucks, PACCAR, Alaska Air, Eddie Bauer, R.E.I., Weyerhaeuser, Costco, Expeditors International…

        Again, this corporate-hq obsession reeks of Seattle-doth-protest-too-much-ism. Can you imagine Tokyo or Toronto or Frankfurt even bothering to itemize its corporate presences? That you can even do so is a reminder of how overly specialized Seattle is — perhaps it isn’t all high-tech and aerospace, but it’s still corporate identity as civic identity, something which has bothered me and confused me in equal measure as long as I’ve lived here. (BTW, your inclusion of R.E.I. really gave me a chuckle. L.L. Bean is headquartered in Freeport, Maine. No one thinks that makes Freeport, Maine a global city.)

        Demand will forever find a way to outpace supply, and well-located real estate will become increasingly unaffordable. No matter how you build, no matter what you do.

        The more housing units you build in a desirable location, the more people that can afford to live there. Always.

        And now we’ve finally come full circle!

        For this was my original distinction, and the point of my mention of the Global Cities concept in the first place, which Matt apparently still does not get.

        Simply put, no. The top-tier Global Cities will always experience near-limitless demand for growth. You therefore cannot build your way out of that demand in a Paris or a Tokyo. Ever. And at a certain point, attempting to do so would directly impinge upon the quality of the urban form and of the quality of life of those who live there.

        That doesn’t mean (greater) Paris or Tokyo should cease to smartly grow at all, but you cannot simply argue for doubling the height of everything everywhere. You still won’t succeed in beating demand, and you’ll destroy the functionality of the city along the way.

        The good news, however, is that Seattle is not a Global City on this scale, is not horizontally dense to begin with, and will never experience this particular problem!

      30. “The top-tier Global Cities will always experience near-limitless demand for growth. You therefore cannot build your way out of that demand in a Paris or a Tokyo. Ever.”

        Yet every additional home you build in Paris or Tokyo allows one more household to be able to afford to live there. Yes, demand will always outstrip supply there, but it outstrips it a little less when you build more.

        I’ll allow that at some point there’s a density that makes life unpleasant. I’d argue it’s well past that of Paris or Tokyo, but I agree that at some point it will exist. And it’s fine to limit growth to somewhere before that point. But it doesn’t make it any less true that adding one more home will allow another household to afford to live there.

      31. being a single-commodity enterprise, with the vast majority of its wealth and power hoarded by a single untrustworthy clan.

        Doesn’t that fundamentally describe both Dubai and Riyadh? The distinction being that Riyadh has double the population and it’s clan controls OPEC. And Riyadh holds more religious signifcance. Dubai has what, a taller skyscraper and an F-1 track?

        Chicago, which has wholeheartedly embraced its position as a global crossroads over the past two decades

        The Windy City has been shrinking over the last two decades. From it’s peak back in the 50’s it’s lost about 25% of it’s population. Over the last half century LA has doubled. LA rivals NYC in advertising and is more in touch with the emerging markets of Asia. Chicago’s location in the rust belt has literally left it out in the cold. It’s like China where Beijing has surpassed Hong Kong and certainly Shanghai in global importance; even if Rick Steves still rates the others as a nicer place to visit.

        this corporate-hq obsession reeks of Seattle-doth-protest-too-much-ism.

        I only bring it up to show that Seattle is not a one trick pony relying almost entirely on the software industry. I agree that corporate HQ means almost nothing anymore in terms of what makes a “Global City”. HQ can move over night. Like Boeing did and UPS. But nobody equates Chicago with the Dreamliner and UPS is still a NW company. Heck, if being a Global City was that important to running a business Warren Buffet would have left Omaha a long time ago. Jet travel and the internet make your mailing address meaningful only in terms of tax collection.

      32. Bernie:

        Fair points on Seattle not being an entirely one-trick pony. Though it has a history of defining itself by one booming activity at a time, directly counter to the best practices of globally-minded cities elsewhere.

        Dubai, for all its many faults, has gone out of its way to diversify beyond oil-as-kingmaker. Being an 87% immigrant city doesn’t exactly hurt its standing as a crossroads of the world. Riyadh is a protectionist fortress by comparison.


        Paris proper and Tokyo proper are right at the boundary of acceptable, livable density. And there’s nothing density-phobic about that statement: both cities are denser than you, with your Upper Queen Anne vegetable garden, could likely ever bring yourself live in a thousand years.

        That doesn’t mean these two cities cannot grow at all: they’d be wise to increase the density on their peripheries — and more importantly, to improve them, replacing the inhuman Corbusiesque monstrosities (in the case of the Paris banlieues) with workable density modeled after the cities proper.

        But within the present urban limits, both cities are quite maxed out.

      33. adding one more home will allow another household to afford to live there.

        Yes, one more “home” will allow one more household to live there and by definition if they’re living there they can afford it. That doesn’t mean it’s become any more affordable and in fact may displace existing residents as the ever increasing price of building “just one more” pushes up the cost. The “club” can increase it’s membership but still become a more exclusive nucleus.

      34. Being an 87% immigrant city doesn’t exactly hurt [Dubai’s] standing as a crossroads of the world.

        I read that stat completely opposite. 4 out of 5 people in Dubai are an immigrant underclass building and serving a privileged few. You poo poohed Macau as being nothing more than a resort city and feel Seattle can only be one thing at a time. I don’t see how UAE can be thought of as anything but an oil exporter and Dubai as it’s playground for the rich and famous. The demographics of Riyahd are the exact opposite but 20% immigrant is still a large percentage and rather than just construction and low paying service sector jobs many, I think most, of the expats are there for the long haul. Many dating back to the days of ARAMCO. Riyadh is also well on it’s way to building the first global financial center in the middle east. Bottom line, Riyadh controls the largest oil reserves in the world and UAE is a supporting player.

      35. Bernie, Dhahran is (and has been) the HQ of Saudi Aramco (and Aramco before it was Nationalized) and the location of most of it’s expat workers. There are other compounds around the country, but I’m pretty sure Dhahran has more expats than all the other ones combined.

      36. “as the ever increasing price of building “just one more” pushes up the cost.”

        It’s desirability that sets the price, not the cost of building. High prices often drive construction of expensive buildings, but do not require them. Don’t build anything new, and prices will still increase with desirability. You can buy a million dollar shack in Palo Alto. But add the 2 millionth home in a city, and the 2 millionth richest household can now afford to live there (whether it’s in that new home or an old one).

        Anyway, we’ve had this debate before.

      37. I’ve stayed at one of those million dollar shacks. It was decades ago and it was a million dollars back then! I hesitate to think what a mere million buys you today. I guess if you could have bought up say four of them and some how pushed through a multistory building you could have maybe 16 households living where there are now only four living in multimillion dollar shacks. But they’d still all be swank multimillion dollar condos. Which makes the concept of buying up four more multimillion dollars shacks to rinse and repeat even more expensive. Eventually none of the professors at Stanford will be able to live there except the ones that owned their shack and haven’t sold out yet.

      38. Yes. Keeping Silicon Valley encased in amber has done wonders for affordability. (eyeroll)

        Or, if you’d built at the density of Paris homes would be dirt cheap. Unless you think there’s really an infinite demand for multi-million dollar condos in Palo Alto.

      39. if you’d built at the density of Paris homes would be dirt cheap

        Well yes they would. Personally I don’t have the money to buy up those million dollar shacks and create six story housing I give away dirt cheap. Guess I’m just stuck in that old world mentality where it takes money to make money. Maybe one of the gazillion-airs from Silicon Valley will buy it all up, build your dream and sell the units at the bargain basement prices you see in Paris.

      40. While Bernie is hardly the friend to or lover of density that I am, he’s on point here, Matt, and you’re not.

        Real estate in present-day Paris and Tokyo propers is far too expensive to allow for undertaking any up-building process designed to push down prices by increasing supply. New projects could only ever be built at the top end, leaving any marginally-increased-supply price effect to “trickle down”.

        But that’s not going to happen: even a massive (and aesthetically destructive) up-building project might barely increase supply by a couple of percentage points. A drop in the bucket. In a real estate market where prices are set speculatively more than on perfect elasticity, that’s not enough to change housing prices in the slightest.

        You may think, in your perfectly-elastic hypothetical world, the you could simply double the height of every single structure, thereby doubling supply. But we’re talking about Paris and Tokyo here, cities where every ounce of infrastructure is already stretch to the limit at peak hours. You literally cannot fit any more people on those trains!

        So factor in the costs of near-impossible infrastructure expansions, the social and productivity costs of lost time and lost sanity, and any other costly mitigators, and your illusion of elasticity snaps.

        Most reasonable density lovers would place those two cities at the apex of desirable/functional/liveable density. There is zero real-world evidence that it can be made to work (well) beyond that point. There’s even evidence that 1900-1930s Paris proper was pushing it.

        At best, Matt, your above insistence on destroying Paris makes you seem like someone who values napkin-level theory over real-world precedent. At worst, spouting these purisms from your Queen Anne bungalow a stone’s throw from the center city, with a garden and a parking space as well as access to frequent-ish transit, reeks of I’ve-Got-Mine-ism.

      41. @Bernie “I don’t have the money to buy up those million dollar shacks and create six story housing I give away dirt cheap.”

        And you don’t think developers would make a profit if they upzoned to 6-stories across Palo Alto? Million dollar shacks would be bulldozed immediately, and less than million dollar condos built. Assuming six condos to the shack, even if it cost you a million dollars in construction cost, you can still sell them at half a million each with a million dollars left over as profit.

        @dp Let’s go easy on the ad hom’s. My garden doesn’t define me, and I’d absolutely love to live in a condo in Paris.

      42. Too late, the million dollar shacks are now $3 million dollars and the condo craze is in full swing. Nice affordable condos for sale in Palo Alto and check that walk score! Guess it’s time for SF owners to cash in and head for the hills to get that 5 acre estate before the prices on those go out of sign.

    2. There are more affordable highrises, developed since at least the 70s, in the suburbs. The RER commuter rail makes it very convenient. The towns on the left bank of the Seine southeast of the city – Ivry-sur-Seine, Vitry-sur-Seine, Choisy-le-Roi – have their stations on the RER B line with trains running every ten minutes all day (at least in Choisy). Twenty-story buildings surround the Gare de Choisy, twenty minutes from the center of Paris.

      1. For the sake of correctness, I meant RER C, not B. The RER had an intricate hierarchy of express-ness of trains. Each train has a four-letter code that indicates the stations served: a train stops at Choisy if the second letter us O, U or I.

      2. I couldn’t find an exact schedule but these seem to be more like BART than typical American “commuter rail”. One reference said the span is 5:30am-12:30am (+/- 30 min). Another said the frequency on most lines is 10 min peak/20 min off peak, with overlapping lines reaching 2.5 min peak. A third said they use existing rail tracks in the suburbs but run express in the inner city (“fewer stops than the Metro”). All this makes hourly Caltrain and peak-only Sounder laughable, and barely a token alternative to cars.

      3. True, while the rolling stock on the RER is the bilevel cars common on commuter rail systems, within Paris the RER does serve a more urban transit function. When I visited we used the RER to travel from Gare du Nord to our hotel near Saint-Lazare.

      4. Given the spacing of Metro stations – sometimes you can stand on the platform of a station and see the next one in the distance – this is not saying much. RER stops about twice a mile in the inner city (I’m referring to RER C, right along the Seine). RER serves both the Metro-type and clearly commuter purposes, often serving as an express Metro, as between the center and La Défense.

      5. I’ve found myself on an RER several times on accident. Some stations are easy to exit from the Metro but then you go back in and find yourself on an RER. It’s important to pay the proper amount. There’s some overlap too ala M1 and RER A.

    3. Or, as an alternative to allowing density to increase as one tool to allow the market to create “affordability” – reduce demand.

      See Detroit for example.


    4. Are you suggesting that paris would become more affordable if they began to replace the 19th century midrises with 20-story buildings built to lot lines (which is what it would tkae to get any more density).

      I doubt it would.

      1. Absolutely not. On the contrary, the example of Paris shows that dense/tall buildings far from the city center can work well with good transit. Compare to Lyon’s “quartier bourgeois” between the Rhône and Part-Dieu – imagine Queen Anne with white trees and no hill. Built in the 19th century.

      2. “Are you suggesting that paris would become more affordable if they began to replace the 19th century midrises with 20-story buildings built to lot lines (which is what it would tkae to get any more density).”


        Supply and demand apply in Paris as well as everywhere else. If 20,000 new apartment units dropped from the sky, the owners might need to charge less than market-price to fill them, placing downward pressure on housing throughout the city.

        Note: This is only the case if the construction cost of the 20-story apartments is less than the current market rent. If the construction cost were higher, then new housing wouldn’t be built unless subsidized. Due to the high price of Paris real estate, I doubt this is the case. Building restrictions freeze central Paris in amber.

      3. It’s my understanding (i may have been misinformed) that central Paris’ height restrictions are due to the underlying limestone(?) having been significantly carved out (for the sewers, catacombs & metro/RER among other things) over the history of the city, making the bedrock unable to support modern high-rise construction (or at least making it impractical). Which is why you find their high-rise buildings outside of the core, for the most part (there is one, apparently much maligned by Parisians). Not that it changes the underlying supply/demand argument in any way…

      4. That and Paris doesn’t want a bunch of butt ugly buildings in their city. There’s a reason that Paris is the most touristed city on earth – they resisted the urge to build slab sided modern high rises inside the city center.

        Let’s think about Paris for a moment. It’s a beautiful city with 65 Museums (the worst of which is better than the best in Seattle), awesome public transportation infrastructure and the total cost of living there (including buying clothes, electronics, rent, transportation etc..) is 33% higher than Seattle. It’s actually a phenomenal deal. London is 50% higher and well, it’s not Paris.

      5. @Chad N, you missed my point completely.

        20-storey-buildings built out to lot lines would be completely distopian.

      6. I think many people would call 7-story buildings built to lot lines on narrow streets dystopian, until you bring them to Paris. I’d love to see such a city before I decide for sure. There are some beautiful older blocks in Manhattan that approach this (though generally have wider streets, and the building heights are varied).

        Anyway, you’re changing the argument. Nearly tripling capacity would absolutely increase affordability.

      7. I’m inclined to agree with Andrew here (even though we’ve clashed over proportions of “open space” in the past): 20-story buildings to the lot line on streets as tiny as Paris’s would be dystopian.

        And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this thread, a hell of a lot more of Manhattan is 4-8 stories than skyline-gawking outsiders ever seem to realize. Including essentially every street that is less than four lines wide.

        Paris is the densest major city in the First World. Even it’s ridiculously extensive public transport system — 14+ lines with 245 stations over a mere 34 square miles, such that you’re never more than 1/4 mile from one anywhere in the city — is still overtaxed at times. You can’t make Paris proper denser without degrading its quality of life. Sorry, but you can’t.

      8. Matt, tell me an example of a city with streets as narrow as Paris’ and buildings as tall as 7 storeys built to the lot line. Pick a random street in Paris, and it’s 2-5 storeys.

        20 storeys and you might never see daylight.

      9. . Even it’s ridiculously extensive public transport system — 14+ lines with 245 stations over a mere 34 square miles, such that you’re never more than 1/4 mile from one anywhere in the city — is still overtaxed at times.

        Exactly, saying “even Paris is over-priced” is an exercise in confusion. I wrote a post here once about how you can’t compare Seattle to Seoul. Certainly you can’t compare actual Paris, the most dense first-world city (ever!) to a imaginary place with 20-storey buildings and narrow streets.

        (If we only had flying cars the internet and sex robots imagine what we could do !!)

      10. @Andrew We’ve passed my limited knowledge of Paris, having never been there (what, like that’s going to stop me from having an opinion?). For some reason I thought buildings there were limited to 7 stories – I wonder if this was colored from other old downtowns I’ve been to in Europe.

        I’d think you would have sunlight issues at 20 stories as well, though I’ve been in towns with around 5 story buildings with streets so narrow you can reach out and touch both sides, and light really wasn’t an issue.

        Anyway, if Parisian buildings are 2-5 floors now I don’t see how “20-story buildings built to lot lines (which is what it would tkae to get any more density)” would be correct. 3-6 would do it, 7-10 would be better.

      11. You’re both wrong, sorry.

        6 stories is pretty much the uniform standard city wide, on petites rues or grands boulevards. 6.5 stories if you count the sharply slanted attic levels. Anything significantly shorter or taller is exceptional enough to stand out.

      12. @d.p, there are tons of buildings that aren’t six stories. I just picked random spots on google maps and 5 out of 5 times I found shorter buildings

      13. Sometimes it’s hard to see the top 1.5 levels from Google Street View, especially on the skinnier streets.

    5. If Paris is unaffordable how is it that over 2 million people live in the city proper? According to Expatistan Paris is 13% cheaper than London based almost entirely on transportation costs. I’m not sure I buy that but I assume there are some metrics used to come up with these numbers. They claim Paris is 31% more expensive than Seattle and NYC is 36% more expensive. But affordability also has to take into account higher wages in places like New York and London; less higher taxes of course. The take home lesson is that density, given a comparable standard of living, is inversely proportional to expense. So you’d better have the higher paying jobs to compensate.

      1. “If Paris is unaffordable how is it that over 2 million people live in the city proper?”

        Maybe they’re the 2 million richest Frenchman. It may also include foreign billionares stashing their assets in Paris real estate, and people with subsidized housing.

      2. Let’s remember that in Paris and many European cities, the suburbs are often the low-rent districts with tall, unappealing public housing projects that house thousands of people who commute long distances on public transit to grim, low wage jobs. The European definition of *suburb* is usually not equivalent to the American definition of *suburb*.

      3. “Maybe they’re the 2 million richest Frenchman. It may also include foreign billionares stashing their assets in Paris real estate, and people with subsidized housing.”

        Hogwash. I live in Paris in the summers, it’s normal people. Instead of my current $650/month car payment if I lived in Paris full time I’d put that toward rent. People in Paris just live differently there. They’re not going out and buying 56 inch TVs to help with their boredom because…. they live in Paris!

      4. @John: And that’s a fully-furnished luxury apartment. You could almost certainly knock 1/3 off that price were you to rent something unfurnished in an older unrenovated building without in-unit laundry facilities.

      5. Sorry…I think you misinterpreted me.

        I felt those prices to be cheap, not expensive.

        And yes, I’m sure you can get even greater bargains!

    6. It’s unaffordable? You mean paying 1200 euros isn’t possible? We pay more than that for our apartments in Seattle although our apartments here are larger. I’ve been renting apartments in Paris for 8 years and I can attest that Paris is very affordable.

      1. Paris really is more affordable than you might think.

        The only reason we all don’t move there is that France has some of the world’s most discouraging rules on legal immigration and work permits.

      2. France doesn’t actually have what you’d call “rules” on legal immigration and work permits. I checked not long ago, and the rule is “Come as a visitor, then see if you can convince the immigration authority to let you stay. We can reject you for any reason or whim.”

      3. I heard an interview with people who live in France and Germany who said that the flip side of high taxes and high social services is that you’re not spending your net income on things Americans have to, so you can spend more of your net income on things you want or save it. The first three things I can think of off the top of my head are higher education, insurance, and daycare. If those are inexpensive or free, that’s hundreds of dollars a month they’re not paying, plus the lack of stress and fear over “Can we afford it? Will we be able to afford it when we need it? Do we need to save for thirty years in case we’ll need it later?” I have heard even Canadians tell me that when they add up the cost of the supplemental medical insurance, car and home insurance, and every other kind of insurance available, it’s only a fraction of what Americans pay for the same thing.

      4. Who ever gave you the impression that auto and home insurance are cheaper in Canada is seriously deluded. Hopefully you’ve got access to public transit because cars and gas are hellishly more expensive in the great white north. Healthcare, I would tend to agree but it depends a lot on your situation. But neither country produces as many doctors per capita as Cuba which is pretty sad.

    7. Paris is unaffordable because its a very attractive place to live. And why is it so attractive? Because its maintained densities and heights and architecture and amenities that people find attractive. What would be the point of building out a city to the point where its density makes it so unattractive that it becomes affordable? What a ridiculous concept. The love affair with density on this site is becoming more and more an obsession. And like most obsessions its pretty silly.

      1. “What would be the point of building out a city to the point where its density makes it so unattractive that it becomes affordable?”

        I think you misunderstand the argument. A continuous increase in density keeps prices in check by relieving demand. Density done right (like, in Paris) makes cities more attractive, not less.

      2. We are far, far from any danger of even approaching the point where high density makes us unattractive. We have low density making us unattractive, which is why people here want more density in Seattle.

        Paris (as has been established by other discussion in this thread) represents a practical limit for density. We have a somewhat lower limit, even in our urban neighborhoods, because our streets are so much wider. But we aren’t anywhere even halfway close to that limit in any part of the city, except possibly small bits of the west edge of Capitol Hill. More density in this city would be an almost total benefit.

  2. Agreed. Arguing against height BEFORE other restrictions on density have been lifted is de facto arguing against density.

    1. That’s a good point, but density isn’t zoning. If you increase far to 10 but no buildings get built, you didn’t actually increase density!!!

      If height is an issue stopping us from getting density, then we should built taller buildings. But people lose sight on what the most pressing issue is.

      1. In practice it’s developers that push for higher limits, so clearly that’s driven by some sort of market demand.

      2. developers that push for higher limits

        Yes, this is often proof that something is wrong. Look at the amazon buildings going up straight to the height limit for example.

      3. While density isn’t zoning, in our city or is definitely a product of zoning.

        Look, I agree we need to fix our code all around. I think we made some progress with our multifamily overhaul a few years ago, but there is still work to be.

        HOWEVER, the reality is that mist of the time revising the nuts and bolts of the code isn’t an option, only heights. When that is the case, if you oppose heights you are opposing density.

      4. HOWEVER, the reality is that mist of the time revising the nuts and bolts of the code isn’t an option, only heights. When that is the case, if you oppose heights you are opposing density.

        The larger point is that height is not density. A five storey, 60′ tall building with 500000 square feet is not less dense than a 500000 square feet building that is 200′ feet tall on the same lot.

      5. After reading the article about how the zoning code forces the Seattle “four pack” — you guys need to replace zoning code, and you need to do so yesterday.

        I might suggest a zoning code where (to put it most simply) ugly and polluting things are prohibited or restricted, you have to put in firewalls and sprinklers and stuff like that, but apart from that you can build what you like.

        If that’s too messy for Seattle, try abolishing zoning entirely and replacing it with a “planning permission” system under which nobody has the right to build anything without getting design approval from a committee (who would also check conformance with the stormwater management, CO2 emissions, transportation, etc. plans). That would force the committee to actually start approving things, since they wouldn’t be “variances”, they’d be normal.

      6. Well, the good news is that the “four-pack” zoning monster was replaced, though not until roughly yesterday (sometime in 2011, I think), after hundreds or even thousands of them had already pockmarked the landscape.

        This small but commendable evolution in zoning should hopefully allow for the construction of row-houses (in the true sense of the word) in the next building wave, which will be the first time Seattle has seen row-houses on any significant scale in its history.

        So it’s kind of a big deal.

        I have suggested in the past that Seattle has such a dearth of historic architectural objects that any non-single-family structure in the entire city older than 1950 should have to come before a review board before even the slightest exterior alteration could be made.

        I see no reason not to have new designs approved individually in a similar way, as long as the appointed board is somehow simultaneously immunized to political pressure, developer influence, and NIMBY intransigence.

      7. You are misusing “ceteris paribus”. Literally, all else being equal, increased height means exactly the same density. One of the things you are “keeping equal” is the density…

        All other things equal means all other things equal….

    2. Rather than arguing for height or density in abstract, I wonder what the actual real world market for either is.

      I mean, suppose you lifted all restrictions on building…would Seattle turn into Manhattan?

      I argue no, base on what I see in the one area where height isn’t an issue..Belltown where a few high rise buildings were constructed, and then the boom seemed to stop. There was even one (shoddily constructed) building that had to be torn down! And there are still blocks and blocks of downtown Seattle that are realatively low rise with no indication that anyone wants to build there.

      So, what seems to happen is a kind of slash and burn when it comes to development. I don’t think there is all this desire for density and vertical rises, but what developers want to do is to go into a neighborhood with a “name” that they can sell, and build these fortress condo projects. These are kind of like the Ghost Cities of China, where they want to take a name and sell it to hill rollers who may or may not actually end up living there. What they are after is real estate as an investment…as a commodity or financial instrument.

      1. You keep arguing that development in Belltown stopped, and you keep being wrong. I can see Belltown from my office window at this very moment. I see four (4) construction cranes, each working on a different residential high rise.

        Would we turn into Manhattan if zoning restrictions (particularly setbacks and parking) were lifted? No. Would we densify substantially? Yes. We might well turn into San Francisco, given time.

      2. So, here’s a map of existing, under development and planned condos.

        The focus is on Belltown when it starts.

        I see maybe 3 or 4 turquoise pushpins meaning “planned”, but each one I click on says “project on hold”.

      3. Here’s one that is described as being “in the heart” of Belltown.

        Alex? No. Volta? No. Foreclosed? Well…

        Suppose you gave an auction and nobody came? That was about the size of it when, after no bidders came forward to buy the troubled Volta property on March 18th, East West Bank went ahead and foreclosed.
        The saga of 2233 First Avenue began with development of a project called Alex in the fall of 2007, owned by an LLC headed by Saltaire Construction. Located at the prime Belltown location of First Avenue and Bell, this boutique project was mapped out for eight stories plus a penthouse level. There would be 20 floorplans to choose from, units from 600 – 1,200 sq ft, upscale features, a rooftop lap pool, priced between $500,000 and $2 million. A loan was made through Washington First International Bank for $12 million. Alex was scheduled to open in the fall of 2008– when, in its first streak of bad luck, the economic roof caved in.

        I mean there you have it.

        If there were all this demand for Seattle Urban Living what could be more urban than the Heart of Belltown, right butt up against the downtown and the SLU areas!

        There should 120 story high wall to wall condo buildings and yet they can’t even find a buyer for this measly little one.

        That really says to me something’s rotten in Scandamark, Seattle.

      4. I think that map is out of date. Some of the projects I see being built from my window are marked “on hold.”

        The Regrade is a fairly large area and was almost all low-density commercial space and parking as of just 20 years ago. You can’t expect it to turn into Manhattan overnight. The transformation has been rather impressive.

  3. I think there’s an ideal height for urban livability, and it’s from 5-10 stories tall. Anything less misses an opportunity to provide local customers for the ground-level retail and sufficient passengers for effective mass transit. Anything more creates towers that are usually a mess at ground level, because of accomodations for elevators or parking, or just because towers encourage bad architectural choices for some reason.

    That’s not to say we shouldn’t have towers. We should, both in business and financial districts that need lots of downtown square footage, and immediately above train stations elsewhere. But we need to have better form-based code for those buildings, and outside of the downtown core there’s no need for towers in most places.

    Mostly our currently built environment has too much single-story or low-rise with segregated uses (retail or commercial or residential). Most of that could be replaced by 5-6 story development with similar unit sizes and triple the effective density of many areas. All without generating as much opposition as a push for big towers would provoke. Steady densification is better than too much, too soon, in a way that alienates residents and creates booms and busts from neighborhood to neighborhood.

    The only reason to push for more height than that is if the alternative is driving away development entirely.

    1. “Anything more creates towers that are usually a mess at ground level, because of accomodations for elevators or parking, or just because towers encourage bad architectural choices for some reason.”

      This is a fine point, but is irrelevant for Seattle. We actively force bad design on buildings, and there’s far more dead space surrounding the ground floors of our towers than are taken up by parking or elevators.

      1. “Floor area ratio” maximums are completely insane. They serve no public purpose whatsoever, and actively obstruct good design. I was shocked when I read about them.

    2. Yup. The higher the building gets, the more space is taken up by elevators and the more complicated and energy-intensive the infrastructure needed to support, heat, cool, and supply water becomes. Design and construction costs also go up, which is why skyscrapers are pretty much universally devoted to high-rent office space or expensive luxury condos. The only real reason to go high in a city like Seattle is to sell views.

      1. There’s a problem with your scenario. You assume a 24-story tower can hold six times as many units as a 4-story tower while occupying the same amount of land. That’s simply not true. A 24-story tower will have more interior space occupied by building infrastructure. If you look at the ground floor of most buildings that height, the first floor is little more than an elevator lobby.

      2. Orv: You’re quite right. Maybe it’s a 25 or 26 story building that would hold 6 times the number of units as a 4 story building.

        I’d agree that at some point going twice as high becomes more than twice as expensive. I usually figure that the people putting up the money will be looking to get as much return on their investment as possible, and will try to build whatever number of units will maximize their return.

        How all that pencils out is of great interest to their investors and lenders, but it doesn’t much affect me as a consumer of housing. I just want them to build as much as they can and keep the supply high and the prices low.

      3. That’s a minor point. Even in a small footprint building like this, elevator shaft space won’t take up that much room – it’s really the very tall towers where that’s a problem.

        I’ll indulge you though. Let’s give the first 12 floors 3 elevators, and another 3 for the next 12. We’ll give the little 4-story two elevators as well. Let’s reserve a generous 40’x10′ for each pair of elevators per floor, including lobby space. The average floorspace lost for the 24 story building would be 600sf, or half a unit (800sf on lower floors, 400sf on higher floors). At $116/sf that’s an extra $1.67M total, or $5,568 per unit. That still leaves the highrise unit at $158.5k compared to $181k for a the short unit.

      4. The average floorspace lost for the 24 story building would be 600sf

        400sf per X 6 on the lower floors is 2,400 on the lower and 1,200 on the upper; average 1,800 sq-ft per floor. I don’t know what the capital costs and O&M would be but instead of 1.5 units rent there’s an expense to increase the delta. Then there’s water and HVAC expenses plus fire escapes. Plus the foundation work and structural is way more. But you get an underground garage out of the deal for free := Redmond has built a lot of 3 and even some 4 story wood frame residential with outside entrances and no elevators. I think it boils down to what the units will rent/sell for. If it’s Bellevue Towers priced then yeah, build up and charge a premium for the upper floors.

      5. 400sf were per pair of elevators, and I assumed the 4 story condos had two elevators as well.

        With regard to structure, you’re sharing a foundation among 4 floors in one case and among 24 floors in the other. Yes, the foundation is more expensive in the latter case, but I’m not convinced it’s more on a per-floor basis.

        I assumed similar staircase footprints for both buildings (we don’t do “fire escapes” here), which I think is reasonable.

        If we get down to the footprint of water chases we’re really nitpicking here. HVAC chases aren’t typically an issue in residential, as we tend to ventillate through the wall – all you really add is more heating/cooling water or refrigeration piping (see previous sentence).

      6. 400sf were per pair of elevators

        OK, that still works out to I believe 900 sf per floor. I’ve read that the foundation footprint is a major component of the cost and there’s really not much that it can be used for except parking cars. Steel, high strength structural concrete, engineering, etc. all add up and to make it pencil out the finished project has to be of a substanially higher grade than you would build for a shorter building. So even if you could build out at a comparable cost per foot you wouldn’t since you expect high reward to follow the higher risk. Remember a number of the highrise buildings in Bellevue went into default at the end of the last two boom cycles.

      7. Tall one has 4 extra elevators on lower floors (12 x 4 x 200 = 9,600sf) and 2 extra elevators on higher floors (4,800sf). Dividing by 24 floors = 600sf per floor.

        I don’t doubt that foundations are expensive. But the data I used came from averaging 11,200 projects across the country. These are real costs of real buildings.

      8. Yes, you and I tend to do that. But what’s your point? That Means data doesn’t include the cost of ovens? That doesn’t shift the basic argument: high rise isn’t that expensive by itself, until you add in all of the goofy things Seattle makes developers add.

      9. high rise isn’t that expensive by itself, until you add in all of the goofy things Seattle makes developers add

        Seattle (or Bellevue) doesn’t hold a gun to their head. UW builds up on the cheap for it’s new West Campus dorms. Of course they’re not trying to turn a profit by operating the building for a few years and then selling. The developers add the gold plated toilet seats because you always build high end units where you have high costs. Raise the height limit and you substantially raise the value of the land. The cost per square foot of every unit follows suit.

      10. I’d say they’re pretty cheap, for a high speed mass transit system. I generally advocate for adding the same things, but in a horizontal direction, to move you around cities as well.

      11. I’m not talking about gold toilet seats. The real money is in the wasted land we make sit empty for public “benefit”, as well as parking minimums.

      12. On a shorter building the cost of structured parking does add a lot. But the reality is parking is already used up in DT areas where this zoning is allowed. So requiring the parking to meet the additional demand is perfectly reasonable. Now, if they can show the ratio is higher than the actual demand then it should be adjusted. But I don’t see the parking garages in DT sitting empty. Remember Seattle all but gave away free parking with the Westlake garage. On the tall buildings the parking’s essentially a freebie since there’s no demand for large caves to age cheese in. Besides, no high end office or condo is complete without a place to park the Mercedes. Just ask Kemper. As for the open space I just don’t see where there are acres of land being turned into wilderness. The space may not be well utilized but it’s not excessive. It’s simply the result of bad design and or bad location. FWIW, I think DT Bellevue’s “city in a park” is turning into a much nicer area from a pedestrian standpoint than the Seattle CBD can ever hope to be.

      13. “I just don’t see where there are acres of land being turned into wilderness” We’re making tower developers pay for a large multiple of the space they actually need for building. If we think this is really needed for livibility, fine. But it comes with a very high cost.

        “I think DT Bellevue’s “city in a park” is turning into a much nicer area from a pedestrian standpoint than the Seattle CBD can ever hope to be” HAHAHAHA oh jesus I can’t stop laughing. This one comment makes me realize why we’ll never see eye to eye.

      14. we’ll never see eye to eye

        Probably not and having a distinct choice is a good thing for the area on whole. Companies like eBay can move to Bellevue and Amazon can build the urban campus of Bezos dreams in SLU and clearly the investment firms prefer the concrete canyons of the CBD. Kirkland, at least with respect to it’s DT has yet a different take on what the ideal environment should look like. Redmond I’m afraid I have to say just lost it’s soul; or never had one.

    3. What are (some of) the most desired neighborhoods in Manhattan?

      Not high rises with tiny apartments.

      They are the 3 story brownstones of the Lower East and Upper West sides and Park Slope.

      They are the full floor apartment homes of the Upper East Side. Have you ever been inside one of these? These can be 6 bedroom “apartments” that are as big as a suburban ranch home!

      1. That’s relative… the level of demand for those tiny high-rise apartments is still insane compared with anything we have here. And the prices reflect it.

        A good friend recently moved from Manhattan to DC. Before she left Manhattan, she and her husband were renting a small 1-bedroom in a high-rise on the edge of the Upper East Side for $4500/month. That’s a pretty strong signal that type of apartment, in that location, has some demand for it.

      2. Manhattan rents are skewed by NYC rent controls. Two neighbors living in identical apartments may be paying vastly different rents depending on how far down the food chain they are (i.e. how many layers of subletting).

      3. Nevertheless, the fact that *any* apartment (no matter how grotesque its leasing situation) can command that sort of rent shows the extremely high level of demand for housing in the desirable and even semi-desirable parts of Manhattan.

        For that money here (if only I had it), I could live in a very nice, not at all small view condo in one of the expensive buildings downtown. For that money in Houston, I could have a 7000-square-foot house in the wealthiest part of town.

      4. Brownstones and similar masonry row-houses are indeed attractive. They’re also illegal to build in Seattle — even with firewalls. Illegal for multiple different reasons. Your zoning code sucks.

      5. Or maybe it’s the reason she left for DC!!

        Look you construct all sorts of abattoirs that people will be forced into paying for but eventually the pressure builds and they say enough and find some place better.

      6. As it happens, she left for DC to be closer to family, but I won’t deny that plenty of people leave or avoid New York because it’s too expensive — honestly, I’m one of them; I love that city in many ways.

        But there’s still enough demand to sustain prices higher than anywhere else in the US. Those prices wouldn’t be what they are without the demand. And they’ve shown no sign of “crashing” — they ignored the recession and continue to rise today.

  4. Paris is an impossible dream for a city like Seattle. There’s such a thing as footprint density, too, and Seattle’s is mostly flat and paved, not built up. Paris streets are NARROW, a handful of super-boulevards aside. The buildings practically hold hands across the streets. Seattle’s streets, measured from building-to-building (which is what matters), are impossibly wide in the classic western city mode. Very few Seattle streets can be considered as outdoor rooms, which is what the best streets achieve. In Paris, almost all of them do.

    If Seattle was uniformly blanketed with 4-6 story buildings as closely packed on the street as Paris, we’d still have half the density, because our street walls are too far apart. We might be able to get close to San Francisco, but even there, the streets are usually narrower, especially in the downtown core. That’s one reason I’ve always advocated converting Seattle’s alleys into laneways, with shops and restaurants.

    The key to density is moving things closer together. The problem with really tall buildings is that there’s not enough space at the bottom for the requisite uses — or, there is, but most of it is street and setback. Towers are great for downtown and adjacent areas, but the really attractive city spaces are 4-6 stories without any of the dead space around them. Pack ’em in!

    1. Is there any precedent anywhere for a city deciding on a large scale to narrow streets and incentivize development on the leftover space? That would be incredible for density, but I fear it’s entirely impossible. I think in the short-term, the closest possible thing to this in Seattle would be to encourage conversion of street space to sidewalk cafes or something similar. And even that sort of thing is an uphill battle.

      1. I’d love to see the open space we forced out towers to have filled in with 7-story retail, offices, or even housing to bring them out to the street.

      2. “Is there any precedent anywhere for a city deciding on a large scale to narrow streets and incentivize development on the leftover space? ”

        Only really old precedent. It was fairly common in the medieval period. I can’t think of an example since the Industrial Revolution. There might be an example, but there certainly has not been one since the 1840s and the “grand boulevard” fad.

    2. But Paris has an already existing, comprehensive transportation system that was built underground about 100 years ago. Attempting to build Parisian style neighborhoods in Seattle without building the underground transportation network would be a miserable failure.

      1. I’m not sure it’s even possible for a city to build a Paris-style subway system, starting from scratch today. Paris’s was built in an era when both labor and human life were cheap. It’s a lot less expensive to build a transportation network when you’re allowed to have a worker toll measured in deaths per mile.

      2. Orv,

        The economic capacity exists, although the political will obviously doesn’t. The region’s GDP is about $200 billion, and if more were diverted to rail instead of other things we could do it in a few decades.

      3. Which other things would you suggest we take it away from, given that we’re already struggling to find $1 billion more for K-12 education to satisfy the courts?

      4. The region’s GDP is about $200 billion

        Most of the region isn’t even dense enough to support all day frequent bus service. Boeing is a big part of the region’s GDP an couldn’t give a rip about a Seattle Subway. Trim down that $200B to that directly generated by the Seattle CBD, Capitol Hill, S. Lake Onion and the U District; that’s your subway budget. Except most of our capital budget is regional so there’s no hope of even getting that level of investment.

      5. “I’m not sure it’s even possible for a city to build a Paris-style subway system, starting from scratch today. ”

        And definitely not in a city the size of Vancouver BC. Ahem.

      6. Orv: I would suggest an income tax for the very wealthy. Devote the money to public services instead of *monuments to the ego of the wealthy*, which much of it goes to right now.

  5. obviously I want more density, too. I think you are completely off that “height != density” is not relevant.

    The issue is that density hasn’t been properly defined, and it hasn’t been in this post either. You sort of imply that it’s FAR, but that’s not quite accurate either. Obviously, this isn’t more dense than a 2 story brick building.

    The most important thing to realise, of course, is that zoning isn’t density either! buildings and people are density. If taller buildings get us more density, great. If getting rid of parking gets us more density, great. If removing single family zoning across the entire city gets us more density, great…

    1. I agree with your “everything that works” sentiment.

      I don’t think the home of one of the wealthiest men in the world is of much consequence as an example. Obviously any feasible price signal is going to be lost on them, and if the alternative for Mukesh is a sprawling estate (though it’s probably both!) that’s probably even worse.

    2. More broadly, if people who were opposed to height for reasons of scale came back with zoning improvements that had similar resultant density (by narrowing streets or eliminating open space, for instance), I would very much welcome that. But that never seems to happen.

      1. I think many people, especially families looking to live in the city, would prefer dense blocks of rowhomes to massive apartment buildings consisting of only 1 and 2 bedroom units.

        For whatever reason though, developers do not agree.

      2. Around 70% of our city’s land area is single family housing. Universities, offices, hospitals, schools, and multifamily homes share the little bit remaining. Why would a developer want to waste that little bit of space on 3-story rowhouses? The land’s much too valuable.

        If you want rowhouses, convince Seattle to let them into single family zones.

      3. That was the point, though I didn’t make it very clear. SFH are terrible land use policy for the city.

      4. A rule requiring housing to be “single-family housing” is a really horrible zoning rule.

        Let’s actually think about this. This theoretically requires the government to nose into everyone’s business, to snoop to figure out whether this is one family or two. This is none of the government’s business.

        Now, obviously, the government doesn’t do this in many places — although they HAVE pulled bullshit like this in Boston, for instance, trying to prevent small groups of 2-4 college students from living in one house.

        If you stop the unnecessary snooping into people’s personal lives, then you have to check “single family” by counting the number of people, at which point this amoun simply amounts to saying “We will prohibit more than X people from living on each lot.” Or, a density prohibition.

        I don’t see why there should be any such thing as “single family housing” zones. It seems like a particularly coercive and abusive use of government power for social engineering.

        If you want short houses with big lawns, OK, mandate short houses with big lawns. If you want to make sure houses aren’t overcrowded, mandate a certain number of rooms per person. But “single family housing” sticks in my craw, particularly when it’s used to investigate people’s households to see whether they’re “really” single family. (Which, as I said, does happen.)

  6. Fnarf is right about footprint density.

    Martin is right that we can’t replicate Paris by building six-story buildings.

    And yet…

    We could do a lot of good with six-story buildings even in the spaces we’ve got.

    What are our most urban neighborhoods? Inner Capitol Hill and lower Queen Anne.

    Where is our most expensive housing per square foot? See above. Thus, the market says those neighborhoods are already the most desirable in the city.

    How are they built? For the most part, 4-6 story buildings on relatively wide streets. Some buildings are taller, but a lot of them are shorter.

    Imagine if we had 4-6 stories all the way along California in West Seattle, rather than just right at the Junction. Or on the Ave, or near central Ballard, or in any other Seattle neighborhood center. You’d get more people and activity for neighborhoods that already have promise; you’d get more density and growth; and there would be little or no downside. You’d be creating more Capitol Hills, neighborhoods people like and want to live in.

    1. Spot-on, David.

      There’s a ton of medium-rise infill that we could achieve before skipping straight past to skyscrapers.

    2. Exactly, David.

      Regulate width and depth rather than height, and mandate a certain number of entrances per block, and you’re well on your way to turning California Ave into Beacon Street in Brookline.*

      *(Note to those to whom this means nothing: Brookline is a “suburb” that manages to squeeze 90% of its population — more than 50,000 people — into the 3 square miles that comprise its northern half.)

      1. Brookline is a wonderful place, far from “abysmal.” The housing stock is beautiful, if not always well maintained, and there is a ton of stuff going on. The only real knock against it is that it’s impossible to get anywhere else. Speed and reliability of pretty much every transit line that serves it is abysmal.

      2. Also, David is wrong on the transit.

        I used to complain about the Green Line growing up, too. And of course as 250,000 passengers a day it’s overtaxed and more prone to snafus than the heavy rail lines. But it’s hard to argue with transit that comes every 5-12 minutes all day and night and disappears into a tunnel the moment it crosses the city line.

        Sure, the B Line sucks, but it’s not actually in Brookline, and if you’re between the B and C you can walk to the C more easily than I can walk to RapidRide.

      3. The disagreement d.p. and I have about the Green Line is well established, but he hasn’t persuaded me yet. Frequency isn’t everything; speed counts too, and the Green Line (D Line outer stations excepted) is often as slow as walking… even in the tunnel. You spend an impossibly long time on sardine-packed trains.

        Don’t forget the 66 bus, either, which makes the pre-revision 16 look fast and reliable.

      4. Your memories of the Green Line are warped by relativity. When living in Boston — or even visiting — the gulf between it and the Red or Orange Lines can’t help but make it seem hobbled.

        But place it next to nearly any core Seattle bus line and you’re kidding yourself to call the Green Line “abysmal”. Even the most disastrous 5pm trip on the B Line doesn’t crawl half as slowly or miss as many lights as a 13, a 49, a 14, a SLUT…

        And that’s just the speed difference. Not even counting the 3x-5x frequency, the near-complete CharlieCard adoption, the benefits of fare gates underground…

        I’d argue that Link in the DSTT can actually be worse at rush hour than the Green Line subway. At least the Green Line trolleys aren’t forced to wait outside the stations for minutes at a time.

        As for the 66 bus: yeah, that’s awful. Only reliable in the evening (though a proliferation of OneBusAway-like apps has made the occasional 66 trip slighty less quixotic than it once was).

      5. David: your perceptions are definitely warped. Yeah, it takes some time to ride the Green Line from Brookline to downtown, but it’s really not very long.

        This is because Brookline is an *inner-ring* suburb; it takes just as long to get from there to downtown as it takes to get from a further-out suburb on the “faster” Red Line.

        Speed isn’t everything; location matters too. You can afford to have a slower train line if you’re closer to downtown to *start* with.

      6. It doesn’t even take that long in real terms.

        The last time I was home, I had a miraculous 12-minute ride from Park Street to Coolidge Corner (3.5 miles). Sure, that’s unusual, but 20 minutes is the standard, and 22-25 minutes is when it starts…. to…. palpably…. feel…. reaaaallllyyyy…. sloooowww.

        Meanwhile, I dare you to get from the top of Capitol Hill to downtown (just 2.0 miles) in 12 minutes ever!!? Even on a bus that seems to be sailing downhill, free-flowing through traffic, making most of the lights, not encountering the standard Seattle bottlenecks to which you’re accustomed. The 10 or the 43 on a good day are reliably slower than the Green Line on a bad day, even in the “easier” downhill direction.

        And yes, frequency matters! Each Green Line branch is running every 6-10 minutes all day and into the evening, only dropping to a “mere” 11-14 minutes after 8 or 9 PM (and staying there until precisely 12:45). By contrast, dumb-ass King County Metro drops the 10, 11, 43, and 49 to half-hourly and then runs them all downhill at precisely the same moment! Effective wait time becomes 29 minutes to go less than 2 miles.

        Now that is abyssal transit!

      7. My intent here is not to defend the Capitol Hill service – fairly described as abysmal, and by far the worst in the city. It’s as bad as I remember the Green Line, but without the frequency.

        But I just can’t believe the description you guys are giving me of the Green Line. It doesn’t match my experiences at all. I remember one ride when it took me *50 minutes* to get from Park Street to BU Central during the tail end of morning rush hour. I was late to an interview. That was an outlier, but I reliably spent 20-25 minutes just in the tunnel between Park Street and Kenmore. Trains are too frequent in the tunnel; the situation is as the DSTT would be if only one bus could stop in each station. You spend half your time waiting for the train in front to clear the station, and the other half in the station as people struggle to get on and off the train through the sardine-packed crowds.

        Now, maybe you guys were riding during the midday and it was better. But I only ever rode at rush hour and at night, and I would put Green Line misery (except for the shorter waits) right up there with the 49 at the peak of evening rush hour.

      8. I avoided peak rush hour, yes. Early, late, or midday. And the C line over the B line whenever possible.

      9. I’ve done thousands of jammed-into-the-stairwell-with-strangers-in-my-armpit rush hours on the D Line in my 33 years.

        Even then, getting through the tunnel and negotiating the merger signals to get to the surface is never nearly as slow as I seem to remember it being back before I had fucking Seattle as a reference point.

        Just getting across Seattle’s CBD at rush hour — on 3rd or in the tunnel — can take as long as it takes to leave Boston city limits on the Green Line.

        The surface B Line, though… screw that train.

  7. One of the older-school architectural handlings of this issue (late 70’s) was the infamous “Pattern Language” essay #21 on Four-Story Limits. After a raft of social science quotes on the ill effects of tower living the essay claimed that four story buildings were the optimum for human interaction and connection to the community; five or six story buildings were “possible, but hard to do”. Paris does have a lot less street-to-building space; it also has a lot more civic green space designed into its city altogether, and the architectural qualities of the building types themselves meld together better than a lot of cityscapes in the U.S. West.

    The politics of home purchases and ownership in Paris are considerably different than here. The parts of Paris that have more height than average(read post-war modernity) are regarded as less desirable living areas. The building quality is part of that equation as well. A number of my friend equate the window count in their appartements with desireabiliy, one of the consequences of “packing them in”.

    I would be quite happy if Seattle reknit itself into Paris–certainly happier than if we kept on attempting to reknit ourselves into a facsimile of what seems way cool in Portland despite all our extra hills and lower amounts of public shoreline footage. Seattle isn’t (the Duwamish not withstanding) a river city.

    1. Those essays were overblown. High-rise living seems to work out OK in the parts of Manhattan which have it. “Tower in a park” seems to be a terrible model, though.

      And of course there’s the well-established social science result that a large building, or a neighborhood, with a uniform income level gives you really bad results.

      Building quality matters, obviously.

  8. If density is a good thing, then the more dense a city is, the better, right? The densest cities on earth are Mumbai, Kolkata, Karachi, and Lagos. In theory, these should be the greatest cities on earth to live, correct?

    1. It’s not a linear relationship, but probably something more like a Kuznets curve? Like eating and drinking and a number of other good things, there exist levels of intake that equal deprivation, satiety, and excess, or a point at which utility is maximized and negative consequences are minimized. Of course density can reduce quality of life beyond a certain point (Kowloon etc), but we’re so nowhere near that level that for shorthand we can generally say that for the foreseeable future, yes, density will make things better. Also, we are densifying while already rich, while the cities you troll-mentioned densified while desperately poor. Regarding the comparative difference between our urban experience and that of Karachi or Lagos, surely variables relating to income, education, sanitation, and infrastructure are more causative than density per se. But in our case, with high national income, high levels of education, and underinvested but still decent infrastructure, density will serve to concentrate capital and talent and innovation while reducing per-capita environmental footprints.

    2. That’s absolutely right, Sam. Density is *the only* factor in determining quality of life. Nothing else (such as wealth, a functioning legal system, competent administration, or the provision of basic services) has anything to do with it… at all.

    3. I’m going to assume Sam is merely pretending to not understand the difference between density that comes from planning for and investing in a functional dense urban environment, and density that comes from a massive, largely unplanned influx of impoverished people from elsewhere, because from what I’ve seen of his contributions to this blog, even he isn’t *that* stupid.

    4. Yes, and anyone who is arguing that Seattle become more dense than it’s current 7,000-odd people per square mile average is obviously arguing for Seattle to become another Lagos or Kolkata. Because those are the only two options available for a city, of course. Any evidence to the contrary of the form of photographs claiming to be taken in a “Paris”, “Boston”, or “San Francisco” must be fake because it can’t be true.

    5. Speaking seriously, most studies have shown that the primary determinants of quality of life are access to working clean-drinking-water and sewer systems. Period. They seem to account for most of the improvement in quality of life in the last *300 years*, worldwide.

      So if you don’t control for that, you have nothing.

      The next problem is confusion between “20 men in a room” density (bad) and “20 men in a building” density (good). Yes, having a room of one’s own (credit Virginia Woolf) is a benefit to quality of life.

      Having an apartment or a house or a building is NOT necessarily a benefit, from what we can tell. A lot of people are actually very happy with boarding-house style life, which has become unpopular in the US for some reason. Most people are social animals and like to be near lots and lots and lots and lots of other people.

      1. “A lot of people are actually very happy with boarding-house style life”

        One of my favorite stages of life was living in a college dorm. It couldn’t have been more than a 10’x15′ room for two of us to share, probably 40 rooms to a floor, 10 floors tall. We’d generally leave our doors open and there would be roaming social interaction as neighbors would gather in one room or another.

        No kitchens, shared laundry bathroom and lounge areas, and a caffeteria on the ground floor. It all worked wonderfully and I had a blast.

      2. I agree. I definitely want my own space — and I’d rather it have multiple rooms for multiple uses — but, if it would be totally soundproof and have room for our piano, I’d be totally happy to live in an apartment-type building with a common cafeteria and activity areas. The social contact at lunch, dinner, and hanging-out-in-the-lounge time was the best thing about college.

  9. This is an issue very near and dear to me. How do we get the features we want in density (Paris/London) and not just a collection of mid/high rises?

    I would love to see the “transition” blocks in our city zoned like Paris instead of zoned for town/row houses. It would be great if this kind of zoning allowed for enough additional units (see: financially viable) that they could wipe out some of the horrible town/row houses that were built in the boom years. Example: Market to 65th in Ballard.

    But how? Paris is the opposite of happening by accident — And I don’t concur with the idea that if we just push the building code to the “on” position that we will somehow get a good outcome. We need to plan for a good outcome, and not just at the single parcel level.

  10. Frankly, I find the uniform height and appearance of buildings in Paris with everything going straight up from property lines to be dreary, uninteresting, and oppressive. We’re much better off allowing taller buildings and requiring setbacks.

    1. Totes. Why aim to learn from the city with the world’s highest quality of life, whose name is virtually synonymous with “urban charm”, when we could emulate Century City instead?

    2. “Frankly, I find the uniform height and appearance of buildings in Paris with everything going straight up from property lines to be dreary, uninteresting, and oppressive.”

      Well, there’s one person.

  11. “I’d like to hear from those who want to achieve density but think we can do it, in practice, at six stories.”

    Seattle can achieve significant density increases by building out the urban villages and station areas, and arterials with frequent transit, all with 6-story residences. Crucially, building out to this level shifts the voting patterns and political calculus in the City, to the point where further density can be permitted.

    Urbanists do need to push for density at every opportunity, but high-rises aren’t required in order to make progress.

    1. No, we need to allow more density in areas currently zoned single-family only as well. Else all we do is continue the class warfare implicit in Seattle’s “urban villages”, by condemning anyone who cannot afford a single-family home to live adjacent to the noise and pollution of arterial streets.

      1. So, density sucks therefore you want everywhere to suck. There should be no reward for those capitalist pigs living in SF homes.

      2. One solution is to pass a noise code requiring noise-insulated walls. (Old buildings usually have pretty good sound insulation; new ones frequently have paper-thin walls. THIS is the sort of thing the building code could fix.)

        Another is to reduce the pollution of “arterial streets”. What purpose are these traffic sewers serving exactly, and can it be served without spewing tailpipe emissions? (“Cars may operate only on electric drive in downtown. Thank you.”)

      3. More soundproofing on apartments on busy streets is like putting icing on a turd. Bite into the iced turd and you find out what it mostly is. Open your windows on a summer evening and away goes the soundproofing.

        Not everyone wants to be forced to choose between a house they can’t afford and street noise they don’t want. They shouldn’t have to.

      4. Multi-family housing need not make a neighborhood “suck”. There should be standards. But if someone buys a single-family home in bad repair, they should be as free to replace it with a duplex or triplex as they are to replace it with a big single-family home of the same size.

        I’ve seen lots of older neighborhoods in Seattle with new, modernist homes built to a scale totally not in keeping with their neighbor. Those ruin neighborhood aesthetics far more than a small multifamily dwelling built to design standards that ensure it has some continuity with its neighbors. Yet because they’re SFH, they’re completely legal.

      5. I’ve seen lots of older neighborhoods in Seattle with new, modernist homes built to a scale totally not in keeping with their neighbor. Those ruin neighborhood aesthetics far more than a small multifamily dwelling built to design standards that ensure it has some continuity with its neighbors. Yet because they’re SFH, they’re completely legal.

        David B, I don’t buy the class-warfare aspect of your argument at all, but the above is exactly right, and should be drilled into the head of everyone who touches the building code.

        The neighborhood I live in is being slowly ruined by those monstrosities.

      6. David B.: there will always be noise outdoors. Soundproofing should be required in *all* buildings. Have you ever been woken up by the cacophony of lawnmowing in the suburbs?

  12. In every zoning battle that comes before the council, it always seems to come down to height.

    Yes, and then no matter who wins, we all lose. If the “taller” position prevails, it invariably comes saddled with setbacks and parking requirements (by code or by community pressure), yielding terrible results at the sidewalk every time.

    It’s also worth noting that in non-CBD “height” battles (e.g. Roosevelt), the “taller” position is more like Paris than the “shorter” position: 6 stories over a larger area to create a critical urban mass of people, rather than an isolated 3-block node of 4-6 stories that will inevitably be built for the cars that such isolation makes necessary.

    My point, Martin, is that it is far better to change the conversation to be about frontage and retail dimensions and pedestrian usability than it is to acquiesce to the present height obsession as the only terms on which to fight. The benefits of well-executed extensive low- and mid-rise urbanity are that much greater!

    The things that make urbanity invigorating — the critical masses of pedestrians encountering and engaging one another as they move in and out of porous street frontage — is fundamentally obstructed by modern high-rises. I’ve mentioned the Manhattan envy that the height obsessive seem to have. But even New York is a low- and medium-rise at its core: the outer four boroughs are low-slung in their entirety, and even in Manhattan high-rises are hardly the default. Is it any surprise that The Village and NoLIta and Alphabet City and Murray Hill are far more culturally vibrant than Park Avenue and Central Park West?

    If you want to see the logical endpoint of a “forest of towers” approach to the 21st-century city, you need to look no further than Dubai.

    Everyone there lives in a high-rise, works in a high-rise, spends their life bouncing between high-rises. When they want to hang out, they can only go to the mall. As a functioning city, Dubai barely exists.

    1. “My point, Martin, is that it is far better to change the conversation to be about frontage and retail dimensions and pedestrian usability than it is to acquiesce to the present height obsession as the only terms on which to fight.”

      Yes, I agree.

      How do you plan to do that?

      1. If I had the slightest clue how to impart basic common sense upon this city or region’s political leaders, I wouldn’t be nearly so cranky all the time.

        The death of the regulations that gave us the street-shunning four-pack gives me some hope that our civic personalities are capable of (slowly) learning from their errors.

        The fight that erupted over the Bauhaus block — though it’s yet to be seen if we’ll end up with a functional replica frontage or a useless façadist mess — also suggested a public awakening to the need to preserve “street density” rather than arbitrary arithmetic density.

        But it’s important that there be unequivocal pro-density forces at every step of the public process refusing to accept the premise that “taller is better”. So often, it simply is not.

        If a few height-increase proposals go down in flames in the short term, but regulators and developers learn to affix street-level specifications to zoning categories in the long term, the built environment in this city will forever be the better for it.

      2. “If a few height-increase proposals go down in flames in the short term, but regulators and developers learn to affix street-level specifications to zoning categories in the long term, the built environment in this city will forever be the better for it.”

        In terms of density and livability, a taller ugly building is better than a short one yes?

        Until the regulations and zoning are fixed, won’t fighting tall ugly buildings just give us short ugly buildings? Seems to me pretty anti-urban/anti-density.

        Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all about fixing the code (notice my comments in the thread you linked to), but I don’t see how just restricting growth in the city and hoping the problem will fix itself is a realistic solution.

        Again I ask, what are YOU going to actually DO to get better regulations and zoning?

      3. I meant attaching street-level specs to the very zoning changes for which development forces are already asking.

        Simply approving the only thing they currently want (height, and the ability to dominate the landscape as they see fit) guarantees the permanent destruction of those portions of the city that get built in that way. And throws away any leverage we might have to restrict form and frontage in the future.

        That’s smart growth, and is hardly anti-density. A taller, dumber part of town that stokes hatred for density is not only dumb growth, but may eventually kill growth altogether.

      4. Let’s be honest, Matt. Belltown sucks.

        And a big part of Belltown sucking is the “suburbs in the sky” built over the past two decades. People drive in the back, watch satellite television, barely visit the neighborhood below them except for weekend eating and drinking.

        And you can’t even blame them individually. Thanks to the built environment they’ve enabled collectively, most blocks of Belltown are empty and windswept at street level. Many of them are legitimately dangerous.

        I almost don’t care that Belltown is technically dense. I’m perfectly okay with preventing more Belltowns from springing up before this city learns its street-level lessons.

      5. I guess I am not making myself clear.

        Just above you pointed out how until the multifamily code was updated it basically REQUIRED buildings to have ugly, anti-pedestrian designs.

        The same is true for other parts of the code. Until you get rid of the parts that require buildings to suck, all restricting heights will do is restrict density. Keeping people from living in the city is about as anti-urban as you can get.

        You have yet to explain how being anti-growth is going to magically improve our code. That is what I have been repeatably asking you to explain. How do you plan to get from Point A (the present) to Point B (better urban design)?

      6. You’re being clear. I’m being clear too. You just don’t like what I’m saying. So you’re resorting to the trope of claiming that any attempt to reign in the destruction of the urban form is somehow “anti-density”.

        I’ll say it explicitly: I would rather see a delay in our unfettered growth than see the Belltowning of the rest of the city.

        Because functional street-level environments are an endangered species in this city, bad form would be guaranteed to replace some of our precious extant examples (see: the Bauhaus block). And that would be irreversible.

        Nobody has stopped or will stop growth in its tracks, Matthew, and reasonable person wants to. It’s continuing in Belltown, in Ballard, in Capitol Hill, in West Seattle, in South Lake Union, etc. at this very moment, regardless of any zoning changes coming down the pike. Opposing height giveaways until we get a better handle on street-level urbanism is hardly stopping growth in its tracks, and your accusations to the contrary are at best a straw-man and at worst an ad hom.

      7. Again, Belltown is technically dense.

        But none of the benefits that intended to accompany density have arrived there: there’s no one on the streets, the streets aren’t safer, there’s no diversity of thriving businesses, no random encounters occur, no unexpected connections get made. There isn’t even a demand for more functional mass transit, because the people who work downtown walk and the rest of the fuckers drive!

        As baffling as it is to you that I won’t accept your ceteris paribus density argument, it’s baffling to me that you’d want to see more Belltowny crap forever defining this city!

        And again, if I knew how to smack some common good-urbanism sense into Seattle politicians, I’d be a much happier person. Perhaps if those who speak their language would learn to think beyond “growth at all costs”, improved urbanism would be in a better position.

      8. I wasn’t here back in the day. What existed before Belltown? B/c I’ve seen people use that same argument about SLU when while what is going up isn’t perfect it is FAR better than what it replaced.

        Again, you say “hold back growth until we fix our zoning’ but then offer no path to get there. Amazon is going to bring thousands of new jobs to DT in the next few years (10k I believe is the last I heard). Yes I would rather those people move into new Belltowns in a heartbeat than move out the Issaquah Highlands or some other greenfield development. B/c that is what happens if you stop growth here in the city, you force it outside the city (yay for more suburban voters, I’m sure our transit system will only get better).

        I’m all for fixing the code, I’m not for halting growth in the blind hope that doing so will magically fix it.

      9. I literally just said this two posts ago:

        Nobody has stopped or will stop growth in its tracks, Matthew, and no reasonable person wants to. It’s continuing in Belltown, in Ballard, in Capitol Hill, in West Seattle, in South Lake Union, etc. at this very moment, regardless of any zoning changes.

        There’s plenty of time and room to grow under current zoning, and there should be incentives to fix the current problems if developers wish to grow even more.

        Your “stopping growth in the city” accusation is a strawman, plain and simple. It makes you sound like a developers’ tool.

      10. It doesn’t have to be completely stopped in it’s tracks to push out sprawl. Heck, even at the pace we are going now we’re doing it, and you want to slow it down.

        Sorry, not going to work for me. Figure out a way to actually get the code changed and I’ll support you, but keeping heights low in the blind hope that will magically improve the code is just you playing into the hands of the Lesser Seattle crowd.

      11. I’m sorry, but no.

        That’s the very same argument made for giving KC Metro tax increase after tax increase, despite repeated demonstrations that they don’t know how to do things wisely with the money they’ve already got.

        Large-scale Seattle developers have shown that they plainly have no interest in building things that aid the urban fabric. Full stop. There is no reason to reward their requests for more leeway, with no strings attached, under the hope that the result will be greater supply of usable urban space in the long term.

        Indeed, there is no reason to believe that a net supply increase will result at all: Mixed-use Capital Hill projects have resulted in a net loss of retail density, for example and a dramatic loss in the quality, flexibility, and affordability of the replacement retail footage. High-rise residential buildings in various cities have been known to replace older mid-rise buildings with fewer (if larger) total units, leading to a net decrease in population density on the project footprint.

        The more I think about it, the more I reject your argument that height increases density inherently; unless you adjust for the changed market uses and associated change floorplans, there is no “ceteris paribus” in that comparison!

        But my real objection is the idea of letting proceed large-scale projects that we know for a fact will be bad. Smaller-scale projects can be rectified later. But high-rises — like Columbia Tower, like the crapfest at 2nd and Marion with the insultingly preserved arch of what once was, like whatever the fuck that thing is at 4th and Blanchard — those are there forever.

        Proceed with caution.

      12. “What existed before Belltown?”

        Belltown has always been Belltown. I.e., it has had highrises for decades. The wave of development in the 90s was mostly about upscale-ness, mixed use, and housing than it was about changing the size and shape of the buildings.

        One Belltown institution was the Vogue, an industrial/goth nightclub on 1st and I think Virginia or Lenora. It was in one of those narrow deep storefronts in a skinny vertical building, maybe three stories? It remained there for years and then moved to Capitol Hill and is now gone. The building was replaced by a typical 90s Belltown building.

    2. Yes, d.p., I think this is spot on. Developers aren’t the only people we should listen to. Developers are the people putting strip-malls and big box stores as well as high rises. 99% of them don’t give a shit whether they build beautiful cities or not. That’s precisely why we have zoning and regulation.

    3. The Manhattan high-rises have a crucial difference from things like the Dubai high-rises: no setbacks. The “towers” sprout out of a a solid streetwall of 4-20 stories at the ground level. People in the towers leave their apartments, take the elevator, and walk straight out onto massive sidewalks filled with retail activity, not into “setbacks” or parking.

      So I guess my point is that the Manhattan high-rises are the natural evolution of the 4-6 story “streetwall” city when you hit the edges of the island and have to build up. The Dubai high-rises are something else entirely — they failed to build the 4-6 story streetwall city entirely.

      I’m agreeing with d.p. here. If you do have towers, you should NEVER have “towers in a park”. Towers in a park is a failure.

      1. Crucially, though, the streetwall must be good, and functional, and porous. The new-towers Seattle neighborhood I described above — Belltown — is technically built to the sidewalk edge. But it doesn’t matter, because that sidewalk edge is all dead lobbies, garage ramps and exhaust fans, and perhaps one retail entrance per block.

        The retail that does exist is usually too shallow (thanks to all the parking behind), and therefore only good for bank branches and nail salons. In the rare circumstance where deep ground-level space is available, it’s usually way too huge for anything but the deepest-pocketed restaurant to afford, and there’s still a mere single entrance/single use per block.

        For all the people living above, much of New Belltown is dead as a doornail. Bad frontage is as counterproductive as no frontage.

      2. No argument from me. Mahnattan buildings are, for the most part, not like that. The ground-floor retail is continuous and successful. Where there are underground parking garages, there’s usually a frightening ramp going straight down into the basement and touching as little as possible of the precious, precious high-rent ground-floor space.

      3. Oh, you don’t have to tell me!

        As a New Yorker by blood and a Bostonian by upbringing, literally nothing annoys me more than “Manhattan envy” expressed by people who know nothing about Manhattan except that some buildings are tall.

        There’s been an awful lot of that from the “height über alles” folks around here.

  13. Here’s something potentially OT but interesting, it describes an “old” skyscraper being torn down in Japan…but get this:

    Video: Japanese Eco-Friendly Building Demolition Method Harvests Energy As It Destroys

    Hideki Ichihara, who runs Taisei’s construction technology development, told the Japan Times that most skyscrapers over 100 meters are torn down after 30 or 40 years, and with 99 Japanese buildings set to fit that bill in the next 10 years, innovative deconstruction technology is an emerging field.

    30 or 40 years! Imagine what they would think of all the old buildings in our cities! I wish we would start tearing down some of those to either build new ones, or, even better, downsize the cities to more normal heights!

    1. The housing stock in the US is apparently mostly replaced every 25 years. I live in a weird place where most of the housing is *pre-1950* due to an *extremely* aggressive historic preservation movement (there’s a history behind that), but studies say this is not normal.

      1. I’m not sure that’s actually true. Even the crappy tract homes tend to last 50 years or so, though the neighborhoods degrade around them.

        In fact, I struggle to think of a residential area anywhere that has existed continuously for over three decades, wherein most of the housing stock has seen recent replacement. That includes older cities, younger cities, and any of the primary waves of post-war suburban-flighting.

        I can imagine the building stock being replaced more frequently on average, given the incredibly short halflife of the structures used for producing, warehousing, and retailing goods across most of the U.S. these days.

      2. It’s happened to large swaths of Bridle Trails thanks to the McMansion crazy. I see it happening in parts of Lake City and large parts of Ballard although the homes replaced were as you suggest closer to 50 years old than 25.

      3. I would imagine that a large part of the effect would be new housing stock being built to accomodate population growth, smaller household size and 2nd homes. As a result the average age of the total housing stock is driven down. Then of course, there are places like Detroit where there is massive outmigration and huge numbers of abandoned homes that are eventually torn down.

      4. Yeah, given the 2000s building bubble, I could see the average age of existing housing stock being that low. But that’s a different claim than the average age at the time of replacement.

  14. I always thought Seattle’s quiet single family home filled neighborhoods were part of the city’s charm. I know visstors from Paris and Tokyo I’ve had in our (god forbid, single family home) home have loved these areas in Seattle, with quiet coffee shops and quiet back streets with trees. Why can’t we celebrate what we have?

    1. Because if we don’t adapt at least some of the city, those quiet SFH neighborhoods will only be affordable to the 1%. We’re already a good portion of the way there.

      1. So why should we cooperate with you when you seek to destroy our neighborhoods and their culture, and also destroy the value of our homes?

      2. Did they enjoy the abso-fucking-lutely nothing going on in 90% of Seattle most of the time, because there’s no critical mass of human beings around to support interesting activities?

        Visitors from Paris and Tokyo: “Seattle’s a nice place to go relax, but I’d shoot myself out of sheer boredom if forced to live there.”

        [That’s what your purported houseguests from Paris and Tokyo would say, if they weren’t imaginary!]

    2. “abso-fucking-lutely nothing going on in 90% of Seattle most of the time”

      Sorry you’re so bored, maybe you should go for a hike. Having actually lived in both Tokyo (Moto Azabu) and Paris (Montorgueil), plus 3 other major cities overseas, 25 years total living and working abroad in major cities, I do enjoy the peace and quite of my affordable single family home 15 minutes drive from downtown Seattle, thank you. That’s why I moved here.

      When I want the hustle and bustle of Tokyo or Paris, we’ll fly there. If you think Seattle is dull, leave. Go live in Paris or Tokyo, if you have the skill sets to make it there. But try and ‘densify’ my neighborhood in Seattle and you’ll get crushed politically. You won’t win this battle, especially in my neighborhood.

      Steinbrueck for Mayor!

  15. “Because if we don’t adapt at least some of the city, those quiet SFH neighborhoods will only be affordable to the 1%. We’re already a good portion of the way there.”

    Horsesh*t. Plenty of cheap, bad hoods left.

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