I’m sure Mayoral candidate Peter Steinbrueck isn’t trolling me, but he might as well have been as he addressed the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, via PubliCola:

Finally, Steinbrueck—the crowd favorite—argued that good design and  walkability are as important as simply creating density. “There is a way to do density right and there is a wrong way to do it,” Steinbrueck, an opponent of the current South Lake Union upzone said. “I know how to do density right.”

In an indirect shot at rail-enamored McGinn, he said that buses, not light rail, are “the most cost-effective, proven mass transit system.”

I’m genuinely astounded that a serious Seattle candidate is arguing buses vs. light rail like it’s 2007, and more so that he’s coming down on the anti-rail side. But that’s way too stale of a fight to reenact.

I have my own aesthetic principles for what a good neighborhood looks like, but I’m willing to subordinate those to what the neighbors want, because the absolute imperative is to have lots of things (households and jobs) per unit area. That’s what the climate, the unspoiled habitat, and the fate of Seattle’s political power in Olympia care about.

So I have a challenge for the “do density right” crowd: the next time there’s some terrible upzoning proposal that would allow X units, I would like to see an alternate proposal with X units “done right.” Unless it were specifically designed to make sure no one could ever economically build it, I’d have no objections to it.

If the issue is aesthetics and form rather than density itself, taking the existing zoning proposal and chopping off 25′ is not constructive. Chopping off 25′ and then freeing up an appropriate number of blocks for multifamily development is constructive. Chopping off 25′ and taking steps to replace parking with units is constructive.

Unfortunately, my suspicion is that a significant chunk of the opposing coalition equates “density done right” with “less density”. After all, many people don’t want to see more low-income housing, or more competition for free city-owned street parking in their neighborhoods, or more local congestion, all of which sometimes happen with more units and more activity. That’s not a crazy set of concerns! But I don’t see why the city should indulge those preferences when they contradict broader goals for our city, region, and world. I hope my suspicion is wrong, because it’s far more important that we get the units than that those units take any particular form.

60 Replies to “Peter Steinbrueck and “Density Done Right””

  1. If a [ad hom] like steinbrueck can get elected in this city I will seriously consider leaving. I’ve already almost given up on this city controlled by old xenophobic white people who live on hills and think everything they see from their porch is their kingdom. These people are the biggest hypocrites in the world. They scream about how their view being lost, when many times the construction of their own home ruined somebody else’s view. They scream about the loss of low income housing, when everybody knows they’re just afraid up zoning would mean low income housing might be constructed close to them. They scream about new buildings not having enough parking, when what they’re really afraid of is the increased demand for transit might give people from bad neighborhoods easier access to jobs in their neighborhood.

  2. Martin: Light rail just isn’t conducive to good, dense residential development. For God’s sake — just look at how none of that is getting built around any of the current 12 light rail stations here! There is a boom of apartments throughout Seattle, near bus lines. Peter has the right side of this argument. It’s like you just don’t see what’s going on — have you even ridden LINK recently? The market not only does not want to build residential units near light rail stations there IS NO MARKET for such development. That’s what the bill in the legislature this session would do: let Sound Transit sell its undeveloped lots near the stations at well below market value so non-profits can build public housing. In contrast, there’s a huge market for residential development near bus lines. Dogmatic much, dude? How about some realilty-based stories here?

    1. In my view, you’re confusing both correlation/causation and necessity/sufficiency. Good transit is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the success of dense housing…just plopping LINK in the Rainier Valley wasn’t going to make it boomtown overnight. Neighborhoods can be hot or cold with or without buses or rail, and transit availability influences but doesn’t outright cause desirability. The rise in property values on Capitol Hill would be happening even without the coming of LINK, but I think it’s clear that LINK has definitely accelerated the trend.

      If we had a perfect market, you might be right to equate a lack of TOD in the Rainier Valley with low demand for housing near rail, but I think it’s much more honest to admit that there are multiple layers to the demand equation that distort markets, namely neighborhood opposition (Roosevelt, Beacon Hill, etc), lack on non-transportation amenities and pre-existing fear of crime (Othello, Rainier Beach, Tukwila Int’l Blvd), and the lethargy of the public process in either selling off or developing land, just to name a few. LINK will make things marginally better than bus service anywhere it exists, but it’s not enough on its own to make a place desirable.

    2. “How about some realilty-based stories here?”

      Have you been anywhere else on the planet?

    3. Your response, sir, is dogmatic, not the article. The reason why there is no housing built near light rail has nothing to do with light rail. Those neighborhoods just aren’t popular. New housing today is built near job centers where employees demand new housing – Amazon and Microsoft. It’s not built in South Seattle as there are no such employers there.

      And 90%+ of the Amazon and Microsoft employees I know who live on those new neighborhoods DEMAND more light rail as soon as possible.

      So your argument is exactly 100.00% false as written out. Also, take a look at Vancouver and see how much higher the demand for housing near rail station is and just how many great towers they have built around rail stations.

      1. It is simply not true that there is no housing getting built near existing light rail stations. While 8-story apartment buildings have not yet materialized, hundreds of market-rate single family, duplexes and townhouses have been constructed and sold within 1/4-1/2 mile of the Beacon Hill, Columbia City and Othello light rail stations since the recession and opening of Central Link. These units are selling well above $250 per square foot and they are, as a rule, selling well in advance of completion. Rental units are also being built near Columbia City and filling up nearly as quickly as they become available for leasing. Rental occupancy of existing units near Beacon Hill, CC and, increasingly, Othello is also very high. Hundreds more units in the CC and Beacon Hill station areas are in the permitting pipeline.

      2. Bill – I agree my statement is wrong, perhaps because I was annoyed by the OP. It should say “little housing” comparatively to what is being built in the Denny Triangle, South Lake Union, Belltown and Capitol Hill.

        It’s not just about employment centers but about walkable urban environments – an area where Capitol Hill has the edge in this city in my opinion.

      3. Bill, you should acknowledge that most, almost all of the housing built so far near light rail in SE Seattle is on Seattle Housing Authority sites. It’s been driven less by the real market and more by SHA policies re selling off parcels to private developers. The “real” TOD projects, with the density embraced by most writers and readers here, has yet to materialize, in spite of the continuing recovery of the housing market. We’re still waiting for private developers to do private TOD projects down here.

    4. I suggest you go visit Columbia City and try to tell me with a straight face that no “good, dense” residential development is getting built there.

      Your preconceived ideas are showing.

    5. The rate of development in the Rainier Valley has nothing to do with light rail. It probably has most to do with the fact that we are emerging from the worst recession since the Depression. Link opened in 2009, right when the economy was at its worst. I predict the next five years will see several projects break ground.

    6. Exactly. The pro density and pro rail proponents have become as fanatical and tunnel visioned as those who oppose density and mass transit. I think Steinbrueck is trying to introduce some balance here.

  3. Any time anyone describes buses as “proven,” you know they are completely unserious.

    Buses are proven NOT to scale effectively to the volumes required between dense, all-day neighborhoods.

    Buses are proven NOT to attract choice riders, thereby increasing the capacity of existing corridors.

    Buses are proven NOT to attract development and grow the city’s tax base.

    Buses are proven NOT to substantially lower operating costs per rider as volume goes up.

    Buses have their purpose — and it’s a big one — but describing them as “the most cost-effective, proven mass transit system” is cynical beyond words.

    If Steinbrueck survives the primary, I will work to support, and donate money to, whichever other candidate is his opponent.

    1. Being anti-____ isn’t really a great strategy. Better to get out there and find the candidate who most closely aligns with your values and get behind them.

      In my mind that’s McGinn. He’s been on right side of pretty much every transportation/land use issue I care about.

      Until recently while I supported McGinn I would have been fine with Burgess, but this is just plain horrible:

      1. I would agree, the only thing that bothers me with McGinn is his handling of the SPD. He’s completely fumbled that, but on every other issue I’m finding myself in agreement.
        Burgess seems intent on making this a two man race between himself and McGinn. That’s dangerous IMO because there’s no guarantee McGinn gets out of the primary.
        And a potted plant would be better than Steinbrueck.

      2. Exactly. You mentioned the two reasons why I’m hesitant to support our current mayor. His love affair with streetcars and his administrative ability. His poor administrative ability (on many issues) hurts our city, and increases the likelihood that we will get someone like Steinbruck.

        I wonder how Bruce Harrell stands on transit and zoning. I look forward to hearing what folks on this site have to say about the various candidates.

  4. Martin,

    Wonderful piece. When someone says, “Its not about the money” you know its about the money. When I hear Steinbrueck say “Density done right” I know it means, NO DENSITY. As a leader of the CAP movement of the 80’s that stopped any new towers downtown for 20 years he sent the thousands of jobs to Bellevue. Steinbrueck has proven his dislike of growth despite his recent claims to to opposite.

    I would suggest you look deeper in these NIMBY’s motiviations. I dont really think they fear the loss of parking or addition of affordable housing. I think it is a more primal fear of change. Any change. They are that nervous uncle that spent his whole live in one job, living in the same town. Except these people, with Steinbrueck as their leader, want us to live the same way.

  5. The thing that bothers me most about steinbrurck’s recent anti-density, anti-rail positions is that they seem so transparently calculated to appeal to the reactionary sentiments of particular voting blocks. Peter is a smart guy, with some good progressive work in his past. But his campaign strategy seems to be to court and empower the NIMBY vote, which can successfully win votes, but its the opposite of bold leadership.

    1. When has he ever done anything good on land use or transit issues?

      He’s a good progressive in other respects, and he’s a nice, likable guy (which is one of the reasons his campaign should put fear into us), but he has been consistently atrocious on those issues for 30 years.

  6. I’m glad a few leaders are finally speaking up against density if only by using code words like “done right” to keep the rabid densifiers at bay. Density is theft, pure and simple. It robs people of their native resources without rewarding them. Do we need more housing, jobs and transit? Sure..but we can put that in the SeaTacOly corridor or even the Centralia endpoint!!

    1. Well good thing you live in Kent, so what you think of who should be mayor is basically irrelevant.

      1. I’ll remember that the next time I decide whether to drop $30 for lunch at a restaurant there, like I did yesterday.

      2. I can’t remember the last time I went to Kent for lunch. Probably because I never have.

      3. So throw your bike on the Sounder some morning and have a bite to eat at Cal’s, Naked Pizza or Trapper’s Sushi.

    2. I live in a single-family family residential neighbourhood. I have zero problem with added density. Do I want better design? Sure. But that alone is not going to make be an asshat and oppose height. That’s a completely separate issue. Steinbruck is just wrong.

      1. It’s robbing you of the ambience of these stately houses.

        But it’s doing nothing of the sort. If you own a stately home, you’re under no obligation to densify it. If you want one, you can buy one. Even in a city if you can afford it!

        I’m not a conservative, but if I were I’d describe anti-density policies as theft; they’re arbitrary restrictions on what other people are allowed to do with their property, based primarily on aesthetic preferences.

        It’s always surprising when I discover a lefty socialist like myself actually believes in capitalism more than conservatives actually do, but I should really learn to stop being surprised.

    3. “Density is theft, pure and simple. It robs people of their native resources without rewarding them.”

      Does anyone have a clue as to what this could possibly mean?

      1. It’s robbing you of the large lawns in front of your neighbors’ houses that you like to look at. It’s robbing you of the ambience of these stately houses. It you wanted a dense neighborhood, you would have moved to a dense neighborhood in the first place. But density is coming to you whether you like it or not. That’s what it means.

    4. I like how you complain of density stealing native resources and your solution is to pave the forest.

  7. It’s a disappointing statement, as I’ve always thought highly of Steinbrueck…I’ve always wished he would run for mayor of a town that his father helped build (or at least helped keep its soul). I’m passionately pro-rail, and generally favor density (although not density uber alles like some on this blog). To me the question is “We need rail, we need pockets of TOD, but how do we leverage that for the broader community (not just high-end condo speculators)?”, so it’s disappointing that Steinbrueck-at least publicly-is still caught up in the bus v rail argument.

    Not only is his position wrong, but it makes him seem passe and out of touch: the Bus First! crowd has definitely waned since the late ’90s. And it’s a relief to be able to say that.

  8. Right on, Martin!

    Also, he looks younger than I expected, given that his vision is straight out of 1962.

    1. I don’t think “Lesser Seattle”bruck has a regular 40 hour a week job, so it keeps him young.

  9. So it’s safe to say that you care more about getting *any* density than actual livability? I always suspected as much.

    1. “Density done right” is not about “actual livability” (whatever that is), it’s about stopping density. All that does is ossify the city while enriching existing property owners and making it impossible for any but the richest of new arrivals to live anywhere but sprawl in the sticks.

    2. Unless by livability you mean “less density”, the point of the post is that I’m happy for the neighborhood to define what “livable” means.

  10. I wonder if he means this:

    If so, then I could see his point (about doing the “right density”). My guess it that he doesn’t. If so, I would call his bluff. Ask him if he wants to get rid of the parking requirement for new buildings. There is nothing in that book (or the review) that suggests that adding parking makes a city nicer. Quite the opposite. Removing the parking requirement would probably lead to nicer buildings.

    There is a tradeoff with almost every policy proposal. If you add restrictions to development to make a city more “walkable”, then you increase the cost of housing. That is why getting rid of the parking requirement should be obvious. The only drawback is that it decreases the availability of parking. That’s a small price to pay for a nicer, more affordable city.

    By the way, and I know this is a bit off topic, but I wonder if anyone has any comments regarding the book or the review. I can’t help but think that by and large I agree with the review (and probably agree with most of what the book has to say, but I haven’t shelled out the money for it).

  11. Here’s how to do it right. Don’t intensify the richness or poorness of neighborhoods as a consequence of dumping more low income housing on neighborhoods that are already struggling – like Rainier Valley. Type in Seattle in the link and see how income and rent segregated a city we are. In addition it will highlight how much low cost housing currently exists near light rail.

  12. Aside from all the obvious responses that have been made, I have to chuckle at anyone who says they can “do density.” No one person can “do density.” Density is a process and evolution– but at its basic core, it’s the result of choices that a lot of different actors make. Steinbrueck can say he doesn’t want more density in a neighborhood, but to say it like he has the final word is nothing short of totalitarian.

  13. I have to say everything Peter opens his mouth I like him less and less. That super douchey claim to be protector of the Pike Place Market’s soul and this has pushed me into the almost “anyone but” camp

  14. If and when a 1st ave transit tunnel is constructed should it allow buses and rail or just rail?

    1. I doubt it. My money says the Times goes with the guy who wants to focus police resources on arresting panhandlers (not counting politicians).

  15. I used to think well of Peter Steinbrueck. No longer. He doesn’t knows neither good urban design nor good transit. Consider the tall thin towers that have enabled high density combined with good views and nice open space in the west end of Vancouver BC. These would be perfect for South Lake Union – much better than the dense, bulkly mid rise buildings that you see in sketches these days. Yet Steinbrueck has been lobbying against taller buildings in South Lake Union. And his anti-rail stance is ludicrous, as many commentators have noted.

    I’m voting for McGinn. He was short on political skills at the beginning but has learned a lot. Mostly importantly, he has the right priorities and vision – much better than any other candidate out there. His biggest obstacle right now is that the Seattle business establishment and its media allies want someone who will be more compliant, whose cost / benefit analyses will be geared to them, not to the vast majority of tax paying citizens (think deep-bore tunnel).

    It’s time to pay attention to what really matters to the voters: An astounding 78% of Seattle voters made mass transit their top priority in the recent Elway Poll, where voters panned just about everything else transportation wise. I think it’s time to get behind McGinn and get serious about the Seattle Subway.

  16. If Peter didn’t have his daddy’s last name, he would find it very difficult to get anyone to pay attention to him. That’s not an attack, it’s just a fact of life. To me, he seems stuck in 1970’s Seattle, where Metro was well-funded and among the most admired transit systems in the world, connecting middle-class, single family neighborhoods to a 9-5 downtown with a touristy waterfront.

    1. Any time someone is describing buses as better than trains, they are not appealing to bus riders (who know better). They are appealing to car drivers on a lower taxes argument. Given that Peter is not running on a lower-taxes platform, I fail to see whose votes he is actually trying to gain with this nonsensical talking point.

      1. Car fanatics who support high taxes?

        There are probably some.

        Hmm. Or the votes of employees of the auto industry?
        “Buses are better than trains because trains attract people out of cars, while buses don’t, so buses are better for the automobile companies than trains.”
        Right, I guess you don’t have an auto industry so it can’t be that.

  17. This is an interesting string of comments after a pretty good post. Martin paraphrases Steinbruek using the awkward phrase “mass transit system”. In 2008, the ST campaign coined the phrase “regional mass transit now”. Mass implies high capacity; that is exactly what does not needed to be regional. Mass is needed on lines connecting closely spaced urban centers where bus transit is slow due to traffic congestion and where high capcity is needed. Mass is not needed in freeway envelopes where buses can go fast (or easily could with adequate use of HOV policies or tolling; see SR-520) or that do not require the high capacity of Link. if you use high capacity in the wrong places, you get less mobility than you could otherwise. both budgets and rights of way are constrained. the budget choice is not one rail line v. one bus line, but rather one rail line v. 10 bus lines; the most important choice is where the rail line is placed.

    taken as a whole, the STB editors support an improved transit network; the network includes both good rail and good bus services; both are needed; they complement one another. good transit networks have attributes that are mode neutral: frequency, reliability, speed, access, span.

    as Bill LaBorde states, south-first Link has attracted some development, but not as much as the Seattle area has seen in areas served by bus. but that is not related to the modes themselves, but it is due to the ST decision to build south-first (early 2001) and to the great recession (2008), just before the initial segment opened. over time, development will be drawn to the Rainier Valley station areas.

    STB argued against the I-405 alignment for east Link. the south-first alignment had already been built in the freeway alignments between the Rainier Valley and SeaTac (e.g., I-5, SR-599, and SR-518). Sad. That alignment would have been much better for bus. Decades of transit studies have shown that high capacity transit was more needed north and not south. Now ST is aiming its Lynnwood extension to the I-5 envelope. Sad again. There will be very little TOD from an alignment in the freeway envelope. We ought to use Link to connect pedestrian centers. In 2021, the segment between Mt. Baker and Northgate via downtown, Capitol Hill, U District, and Roosevelt will really allow the network to sing. it will be great. but note that 2021 is 25 years after 1996.

    Trains are better than buses for some purposes; buses are better than trains for other purposes. We need both in our network. Good bus lines are treated like trains; they are provide in-lane stops, fast fare collection, low floors, and TSP. SDOT is improving bus flow (e.g., Routes 7 and 44, 3rd Avenue, Belltown bulbs).

    Development will follow transportation investments. We need to make the right ones. In 2007, on balance, RTID was bad. STB has criticized the Clibborn package of projects. so, we have to careful.

    Steinbrueck is not entirely incorrect about transit, but we should not be opposing density per se; we should be embracing it. STB has done a good job with that debate.

    It is not enough to be pro transit. both Nickels and Drago were pro transit but made poor decisions. one should be smart and pro transit.

    1. +1 Especially to your comment that one should be smart and pro-transit.

      For those of us who feel that the mayor is the “least of all evils” on transit– how do you suggest we get what we want? For Ballard-downtown, his love of the streetcar concerns some followers of this board. Are we the mayor’s base who can demand grade-separated HCT or we sit this election out? Or, at the bare minimum, get him on the record (with some tangible action) will recommend? I.e, 2 options vs. 1– settling the DP v. Ben debate on the meaning of the transit study.

    2. “STB argued against the I-405 alignment for east Link. the south-first alignment had already been built in the freeway alignments between the Rainier Valley and SeaTac (e.g., I-5, SR-599, and SR-518). Sad. That alignment would have been much better for bus. Decades of transit studies have shown that high capacity transit was more needed north and not south.”

      There’s nothing between Rainier Beach and TIB except industrial companies that will never use it because they can’t fit their equipment on trains, so it makes sense to go nonstop there. Main Street in Bellevue is the kind of pedestrian area that could benefit from a station, and even SE 8th could minimally use one. If you’re talking about bypassing Southcenter, well, that is unfortunate, but Southcenter’s unwalkability is also unfortunate.

      An airport is a gateway to a city, and a lot of people judge cities by whether they have rail from the airport. Plus it’s the largest single trip generator and transportation hub in the northwest. So that’s part of the reason why the south line is important, and Rainier Valley was lucky to be on the way to it.

  18. Orr: at the time, the choice was how to use the North and South KC subarea funds; ST staff recommended using the median of SR-99; there is quite a bit of mixed use development along the arterial highway (much more than nothing); it might have looked like the MLK Jr. Way South alignment; Tukwila and ST disagreeed; serving Southcenter was said to be unaffordable. Sure, serving the airport is important and it would have been served; the question was what got Link first.

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