Last week, the local hotel workers’ union, UNITE HERE Local 8, sent a letter to Seattle DPD recommending that the 1620-room hotel project planned for the Greyhound site (and the rest of the block around it) require a supplemental environmental impact statement for downtown, rather than just an addendum to the existing downtown EIS, because it has a significant unplanned impact on downtown employment and housing affordability.

This project, to me, is fascinating. My first response, upon speaking with UNITE HERE earlier in the year, was frustration – slowing down downtown development drives up prices, impacting affordability and adding pressure for sprawl. But during that initial conversation, I realized my frustration was misplaced. A hotel doesn’t have those kinds of impacts – it’s not a factor in housing supply. Or, at least, not usually.

Right now, aside from the Greyhound station, the site where this hotel will be built also contains the old Bonair Apartments, a residential building that serves as de facto affordable housing. As Jane Jacobs covers for an entire chapter, old buildings tend to become affordable as they age, and the Bonair is an excellent example – most of its 48 units are priced low enough to be considered affordable by those earning 50% of Area Median Income (AMI).

The hotel project also contains affordable housing – 160 units (for 50 years). That housing, however, is only required to be affordable by those earning 80% of AMI – so while that level of affordable housing is also needed, this project isn’t a clear benefit. It will displace some low income people, many likely downtown service workers, and replace them with people making more money. Arguably, that’s still a wash – it’s the other side of the equation where the real impact lies, and why UNITE HERE is involved.

More below the fold.

UNITE HERE is a young union. I have yet to meet someone there who strikes me as a lobbyist. The people I’ve met are organizers – Saul Alinsky style, well educated and dramatically underpaid. Their goal is to make sure the workers hired for this hotel earn enough that they don’t have to commute from Puyallup or Marysville, and have benefits that keep them from going bankrupt when their kids have a cavity.

Most of the major hotel brands have flagships in downtown Seattle, with the notable exception of Marriott, which is extremely anti-union in their urban center properties, where their business model seems to be undercutting competition. UNITE is reasonably expecting the hotel to be a non-union Marriott. In search of their goal, though, they’ve brought up points that affect both transit and housing.

This hotel will employ close to 1000 people, and as a non-union hotel, most of those people would likely earn below 50% of AMI, meaning they can’t afford to live near work – they’re going to be commuters. Amazon, and most office building expansion, hires higher paid workers who are able to live where they choose – but a maid can’t afford to live in Belltown, SLU, or Capitol Hill without getting into affordable housing. We don’t have 600+ units of 50% AMI affordable housing just lying around – that’s as much as is built in the city in an entire year, and the city doesn’t keep up with demand even without an increase like this.

I’m generally against requiring much affordable housing be paid for by new residential development, as the construction of that residential development is already reducing housing pressure. It’s essentially a tax on a thing we want, rather than on something we don’t want. I do, however, think that a new employer who causes increased housing demand well below market rate should have to either pay their workers enough to afford housing nearby, or provide other mitigation for the impact they cause.

That’s where this gets back to the downtown EIS. Currently, the EIS expects lots of office and housing growth, but it expects only about 3300 new hotel rooms – this project would be a 50% increase. Hedreen, the developer, provided an addendum to the EIS, but UNITE’s letter points out a whole host of places where Hedreen’s addendum significantly underplays the hotel’s impact. As I understand it, an addendum requires no public review, so UNITE is calling for a supplemental to the downtown EIS so that other parties (like affordable housing and transit advocates) can comment.

This strikes me as very similar to an earlier discussion. In July, the mayor recommended to SDOT that they block the alley vacation request for the Whole Foods project, citing the Seattle Comprehensive Plan (emphasis from the Stranger coverage):

One of our core economic development goals is to provide fair and livable wages and benefits for our residents. The Economic Development elements of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan contain clear language to this effect: “seeking a greater proportion of living wage jobs that will have greater benefits” and “support key sectors of Seattle’s economy to create jobs that pay wages that can support a family, provide necessary benefits, and contribute to the vitality of the City including, but not limited to, the industrial, manufacturing, service, hospitality and retail sectors.”

A few weeks before, Murray had also suggested this specific approach – the candidates agreed right up until McGinn did it (at which point Murray reversed course to attack). The city council, who makes the final decision (SDOT only makes a recommendation), chose to kick the decision out five months to at least December, stalling the project and, in effect, agreeing.

In much of the media, this was covered as some kind of union pandering, but I think that portrayal shrouds a more important point: The West Seattle recommendation, the minimum wage increase on the ballot in Sea-Tac, and Seattle’s new paid sick and safe time ordinance all represent government stepping up to do, not work for unions, but the work that created demand for unions in the first place. Like we and the Transit Riders Union work to create a city in which everyone can afford good transportation, all these factors are important parts of the equation of livability.

While I would prefer not to use process to slow growth, this instance is quite different than the residential projects I would normally defend, and the impacts are, as UNITE points out, significantly outside what the downtown EIS expects. The additional data gathered in an SEIS would help bolster the case for future transit investment, for increased funding for affordable housing, the need for a minimum wage increase in Seattle, and even a conversation about what benefits we should require employers in our city to provide.

In cases of changes to transit projects, a supplemental EIS is often required to add a station or significantly change an alignment. I agree with UNITE that for the downtown EIS, this hotel should require a supplemental as well.

125 Replies to “The Impact Of A Hotel”

    1. Absolutely. Dramatically increasing the size of the housing levy would be a great way to do that, and even just allowing enough housing supply to be built that rent stopped skyrocketing would help. That’s not really something that this EIS decision can have much impact on, though.

      1. If we have affordable housing already being provided, why tax home owners to offset the acts of large corporations?

      2. Because it’s less costly to manage and less harmful to innovation to tax everyone for affordable housing than to try to determine the impacts each and every different business has on need.

    2. Because it’s less costly to manage and less harmful to innovation to tax everyone for affordable housing than to try to determine the impacts each and every different business has on need.

      That’s just words, you have no way to quantify “harm to innovation”. You don’t even have to ascertain “need” when supply is being removed.

      1. Can you explain why and how you would stop someone from selling land they own just because the building on it happens to be old? Voters already approve the housing levy – you’re suggesting a dramatic change.

      2. No one is talking about stopping the sale of anything. I never said you “need” to do anything. You are putting words in my mouth.

        I am saying you assert claims that are impossible to verify. I am now accusing you have making straw men on top of that.

      3. Now you’re changing comments after I’ve responded to them. I guess I’ll stop this discussion since you don’t want to play fair.

      4. What exactly do you want done with the Bonair? And do you realize changing that isn’t on the table anymore anyway?

      5. Sure it is, the city could always revoke permits. That’s not a good idea necessarily, but it could.

        We just need to take steps to save buildings like this, not because they are old or beautiful, but because they are the best examples of urban design we have.

        The Bonair is:
        1) more dense
        2) more walkable
        3) more green
        4) more affordable
        and better for the city than what is going to replace it. Obviously the greyhound station should go, but there are ways to keep places like the bonair around.

      6. And sorry about the edit earlier; I’m on my phone and it is slow!

        I agree we should be building new buildings with good frontage and no parking, and there are ways to get there. Blocking new development, though, would make that harder, not easier.

      7. No – the city cannot deny a permit for a building legal under current code.

        What law is that under? The US supreme court has rule that legal repeatedly. Is there a city or state law?

  1. The most baffling revelation in this piece is that anyone would think it a good idea to tear down the Bonair, with its multiple storefronts and many housing units neatly contained behind an amiable brick facade on barely 3% of a Seattle megablock (turn off “45°” if it defaults to on).

    The Bonair and its nearest neighbors (also on the chopping block?) are precisely the kind of urban contributors — for both the economic reasons Ben mentions and for their ability to keep the streetscape interesting and appealing — that badly-built cities like Seattle should be looking to preserve and replicate. The last thing this city needs is another megablock hotel* filling 350×350 feet with pure anti-urban dullardry.

    *(see: The Westin @ Dead Streetcar Plaza)

    1. I 100% agree with you. The Bonair is one of the most dense buildings in the city. The fact that it is extremely affordable — without subsidy! — shows that we should work hard to preserve this.

      Many times people live and work per sq mile in the Bonair than would in the building that would replace it.

      The hotel should go only on the rest of the block

      1. For reals. Tall and short, new and old, glitzy and slightly shabby can — and do — coexist all over the world. Even in the shiniest, skyscraperiest parts of Manhattan.

        The clearcutting process Seattle encourages is really more of a Houston or Minneapolis thing (read: not good).

      2. That clearcutting process is as a direct result of so much limitation in height. We would see far fewer tall buildings rather than far more short ones if not for all the 40 and 65 zones.

      3. I have no problem with raising the height, but we should recognise important, useful buildings and protect them.

      4. This building isn’t any more important or useful than any other old building.

        Great! then we should protect every old, dense, parking-less, affordable building. Glad to see we’re on the same page. :)

      5. No one wants to downzone anything, Ben. Here are a couple ideas:

        1) When projects like this come up, identify buildings like the Bonair (very dense, very green, no parking, lots of walkable commercial) and give incentives to keep them (height increases, tax breaks, whatever)

        2) When projects like this come up, identify buildings like the Bonair (very dense, very green, no parking, lots of walkable commercial) and create penals for destroying them (tax hikes, eminent domain, etc.)

        Upzoning the rest of the block would only increase the incentive to destroy the Bonair, which is working against the environment, the urban fabric and walkability.

      6. Taking a site currently zoned for 500′ and prohibiting development of part of it is definitely downzoning!

      7. Well, then that is a trade-off worth having. In the short run, it means more affordable housing, in the long, you are right, it might increase housing prices. But that is the trade-off, and it really isn’t much of one, because this is awfully dense as is.

        This is why a reasonable board to decide these issues makes a lot of sense. It is about making a compromise between the various concerns. In this case, I think the voices of preservation would win over just about everyone.

      8. I’m not sure why “awfully dense” is a good thing. There’s no particular value of density that’s good for affordability. It’s *allowing density to increase* that is good for affordability.

      9. I guarantee you, Ben, that even if the megaproject being built were entirely rental housing, that density would decrease on the 3% of the block that the Bonair occupies.

        Because new construction is almost always significantly less dense than old construction on a foot-by-foot basis.

        And if you really don’t understand that taller is not always better, we have a serious problem.

      10. “Taking a site currently zoned for 500′ and prohibiting development of part of it is definitely downzoning!”

        So permit overbuilding on top of the Bonair. Some of the buildings around there were renovated to add floors in the past, as has been noted.

        There is no reason to demolish the sort of building which *they aren’t making any more* except laziness. I mean, if it were structurally unsound that would be different: there are some old buildings which were simply poorly built and aren’t worth conserving for that reason. This doesn’t fall into that category.

      11. There are some rather impressive buildings *cantilevered* over old buildings in New York City. If the developers are truly desperate to cover that last little bit of the block… they can find a way to do so. More likely, they’re planning sterile “towers in a park”. :-(

      12. I’m not sure why you’d tear down the Bonair rather than just require the 160 new units in the new building be affordable for 50% of AMI instead.

    2. As we don’t get to tell the owner of the Bonair that they aren’t allowed to do what they want with their property, that’s well outside the scope of our options.

      The kind of restrictions you would need to preserve buildings like the Bonair would be like putting the city in amber – it would run counter to much of what we stand for, as it would stop all the positive job growth and new housing supply too. Don’t put on the blinders to the impact of those kinds of limitations.

      In this case, an SEIS will give us the tools to recognize whether we need to raise minimum wage, require benefits, make unionization easier, provide more affordable housing, or perhaps regulate further hotel growth in a new way.

      1. As we don’t get to tell the owner of the Bonair that they aren’t allowed to do what they want with their property, that’s well outside the scope of our options.

        That is exactly what zoning and permitting are there for. The supreme court, voters, and even property owners have long agree this is the case.

        This is your weakest argument.

      2. We zoned this already. For tall buildings and growth. You’re making arguments nearly opposite your normal ones.

      3. The best way to raise the minimum wage would be to raise the minimum wage. Which (to my shock and delight) is slowly snowballing into a national common-sense consensus that has seemed unthinkable ever since Newt Gingrich steamrolled the national conversation in 1994.

        I can’t think of a less direct way to raise the minimum wage that through an Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on a single development proposal.

        It’s super weird to find myself agreeing with so many of the mayor’s actions yet scratching my head so hard at his stated rationales.

        Also, what Andrew said. This city could use some targeted amber infusions. What we’ve been doing lately is to preserve the 67% single-family zoning in amber at the explicit expense of history and worthwhile urbanism anywhere else.

      4. Fighting to downzone places like this rather than upzone SFH seems like a really weird way of getting what you want. Are you sure you aren’t just arguing because I wrote the article?

      5. It will be interesting to see whether the SeaTac measure succeeds, and whether a loss of jobs actually happens. If it doesn’t, it’ll show that the whole “minimum wage leads to unemployment and economic decline” thing is blowing smoke. If it does lead to significant job loss and airlines pulling out or refusing to expand, SeaTac could always repeal it.

      6. It will be interesting to see whether the SeaTac measure succeeds, and whether a loss of jobs actually happens. If it doesn’t, it’ll show that the whole “minimum wage leads to unemployment and economic decline” thing is blowing smoke. If it does lead to significant job loss and airlines pulling out or refusing to expand, SeaTac could always repeal it.

        Obviously, there’s a point after which raising the minimum wage would reduce jobs; if the minimum wage reached $1 trillion a day, no one would be working. I don’t think $15 an hour is high enough to have a significant impact.

      7. No, I’m trying to reconcile your tendency to take reasonable points on which we completely agree — the attempt to channel 100% of growth into 12% of the city has damaging side effects — to indefensible extremes.

        That clearcutting process is as a direct result of so much limitation in height…

        …does not apply in this case, or in many similar cases across the city. The Bonair covers only 3% of the block! A similar many-storefronted building next door covers another 3%, and a slightly younger, taller building behind them covers 7%.

        That leaves 87% of an enormous block to be easily redeveloped. Half of which is nothing but parking. If ever there were a case for “build around, you greedy developers!”, this is it.

        Requiring some spatial creativity out of architects tends to be good for cities. Letting developers be lazy and driven only by unbridled profit tends to be bad.

      8. d.p., you can’t change the rules after a project is vested, so most of your argument is moot.

        But aside from that, the clearcutting you refer to across most of the city is, indeed, because development is generally spread over many 40-65′ blocks rather than a smaller number of taller blocks. I think you and I agree on this, so I hope you won’t use it as a new ‘way to argue with Ben’, as that damages both of our goals.

      9. Thank goodness there’s no such thing as your insane Seattle “vesting” rules out east in NY state.

        Out here, you have to apply the rules *as they are when you apply for a building permit*, and the building permits *expire* if they aren’t used quickly.

        You need to get rid of this “vested rights to do stupid building” nonsense.

      10. “That leaves 87% of an enormous block to be easily redeveloped. Half of which is nothing but parking. If ever there were a case for “build around, you greedy developers!”, this is it.”

        Indeed. 43 stories can overlook 5 with no problem. The bottom 5 floors of a hotel are generally filled with windowless conference rooms anyway. Just do it.

      11. Nathanael, the same development rules exist on the east coast. The vest period (which is the time you have to *get* a permit after beginning the application process) differs, but I’m not sure when permits expire (or whether they do at all).

      12. A situation in which a building becomes protected as historic would override any “vesting” rules you can think of. As one of the last vestiges of highly dense brick mid-rise construction on this end of downtown, the Bonair might qualify (the younger, and to my eye less interesting, DN&E Walter Building around the corner apparently already has).

        The concept preservation has been well adjudicated, and the principle that protecting finite resources is worth overriding an “expectation” of unrestricted use on the part of the property owner is solid.

        Again, the “vesting” laws of Washington state do not override this principle. They only preserve for the applicant whatever codes existed at the time of the initial permit as they relate to de novo construction; they do not grandfather in the ability to destroy the irreplaceable. This is why demolition permits are issued separately.

        Of course, in the growth-pressured East Coast cities to which Nathathael refers, mayors and other city officials may take an active interest in the final form that development takes. They may even use their diplomatic skills — outside of formal proceedings — to exert pressure on developers to build in non-destructive ways that are beneficial to the complete urbanscape.

        I believe that Mayor McGinn would like to achieve good development results (and as you know, I don’t trust his opponent at all). That’s why it is so bothersome to me that he seems ignorant of the fact that clearcut-and-rebuild tends to yield awful — and often less dense! — urbanity.

        Ben, do you seriously not understand that the parcel currently occupied by the Bonair would be less dense as a part of any mega-building? Even if the mega-building were allowed to grow 100 stories tall, it would have fewer units and less commercial activity on the Bonair’s footprint than the Bonair does today. If you don’t understand that taller ≠ inherently denser, then we have a serious, serious problem.

      13. I believe that Mayor McGinn would like to achieve good development results (and as you know, I don’t trust his opponent at all). That’s why it is so bothersome to me that he seems ignorant of the fact that clearcut-and-rebuild tends to yield awful — and often less dense! — urbanity.

        There’s a saying: you get what you measure.

        In the past 20-30 years, mainstream urban planners have zeroed in on residential density. And indeed, it’s rare to see a new project which has fewer housing units than the buildings it replaces.

        However, no one is measuring commercial density. Like, seriously, no one. I challenge you to find a single commercial density statistic on the City of Seattle website. (There are plenty of maps and tables with residential density.)

        As a result, we get travesties like the Leva (where I currently live) and the Hjarta. From the 2nd floor to the roof, they’re great. But the ground level? Leva has a tanning salon, a dry cleaner, a cell phone shop, and 3-4 storefronts that have been vacant since the building was constructed. Hjarta has a bank.

        We need to start measuring commercial density, and publishing these numbers everywhere, and showing people (using examples they can relate to) how higher commercial density leads to more vibrant and interesting and diverse neighborhoods.

        Until then, we’ll be losing storefronts as fast as we’re gaining apartments.

      14. I fully agree. It was infuriating to watch people celebrate the “preservation” of the Pinevue (Pine & Bellevue)’s facade, when the thing that made the building truly great (the five defined storefronts) will be destroyed and consolidated to make room for garage parking.

        But it’s not just the commercial density that would suffer at the Bonair. The DN&E Walter Building behind it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. The shallow depth of the Bonair (50 feet) would prevent it from being part of the main body of any large building. So what would replace it as part of a large hotel or residential tower? A foyer? Machine rooms? An elevator bank? What replaces will likely not contain not a single bed. Residential density: zero. What a waste!

        Again, this is a building that contains two commercial buildings and numerous apartments on only 3% of the block. No large building is going to replicate that density. The best way to replicate that density would be to cut streets and alleys through the block and build two dozen more Bonairs. That isn’t going to happen, but the least we can do is to leave the Bonair alone, and not to idiotically argue that the Bonair “stands in the way of upzoning.”

        Ben, I’m not just looking for ways to argue. Furthermore, it seems that you and I share each other’s confusion at Seattle’s collective fear of buildings over 3 stories tall. But it seems that, rather than expanding outward the growth areas in order to achieve a successful, sustainable, expansive, contiguous urbanity, you would happily keep growth areas confined to a tiny percentage of the city, which you would zone to be built to the heavens.

        That is, simply put, terrible policy. When you upzone an area to infinity, you put owners of smaller, preservation-worthy properties in a financially untenable position, ensuring the clearcutting of all that was worthwhile in favor of a characterless, dysfunctional Shenzhen. And your final result will be a dichotomous city: high-rises and SF 5000 and nothing in between. And not much worth looking at or walking to anywhere. Is that the city you really want to make?

      15. D.p.,

        At the risk of speaking for Ben, the sacredness of single-family.zoning might be the first thing he’d change. I know I certainly would.

        But given the choice of low growth or aesthetically displeasing high growth, the objective imperatives for the latter override everything else.

      16. I would also have thought we could all agree that growth zones as small as half a block wide are a terrible way to grow a city that functions like a city. And I truly thought we were on the same page here, until Ben insisted that

        we would see far fewer tall buildings rather than far more short ones if not for all the 40 and 65 zones.

        Rather than striking at the root of the confinement growth, he insists that upzoning in the confined areas is the solution. Despite the widely understood negative consequences of inorganic growth and the pressure for wholesale replacement.

        And I must now thrice insist that this isn’t an aesthetic matter. Any large project that replaces a building like the Bonair is guaranteed to be proportionally less dense. Full stop.

        In the absence of a street-facing width restriction on large projects (a thing that exists, in Europe), you are boldly endorsing density reduction.

      17. Buildings are routinely renominated as a developing city gets a better sense of what works and what does not, and what sorts of forms are irreplaceable. Though I hardly think formal protection would be a slam dunk.

        That’s why an educated mayor whose adviser on the matter didn’t inaccurately confuse “taller” for “denser” might approach a developer to gently persuade them of the value of a diverse and interesting streetscape.

    3. Two math quibbles – the Bonair looks like it has the same footprint as the building immediately to the northeast – the DN&E Walter & Company building, which the Landmarks Preservation Board lists as 64′ x 120′ – nearly 8% of the block. Still not huge, but more than 250% larger than 3%.

      Not as egregious as Ben suggesting that this project’s 1,600 rooms is “nearly a 50% increase in downtown rooms”, given the Downtown Association claims nearly 14,000 rooms downtown. The Westin has nearly 900 rooms itself, the Sheraton over 1,200 rooms…

      1. The DN&E Walter building is the one around the corner, at 808 Howell. It has over twice the footprint of the Bonair.

        The Bonair, with a convenience mart and a barber shop in it, as far as I can tell, is separate from its Howell-facing neighbor with the Subway, falafel, and bagel shops in it. (That one is a three-story historic building renovated to become five, as has been done through human history.)

        Each of those two buildings is roughly 50×50 feet, which comes out to just about 3% of a 350×320-foot block.

        As I said in the comment above, the three maintainable buildings together leave 87% (actually 86%, since my estimate for the Walter building was off by 1%) of the block open for non-destructive redevelopment.

      2. BA, I apologize, I misread the comp plan. It’s a 50% change in the expected hotel growth since 2005, not from baseline. I updated the post.

        Could you next time consider assuming that I’m trying to impart useful, complete information, and just ask “hey, where did you get that number, it seems wrong?” rather than the approach of calling a small mistake “egregious”? Nobody makes anything up here, and we’re human. Treat authors like human beings a bit, eh?

  2. It’s essentially a tax on a thing we want, rather than on something we don’t want

    This is not necessarily the right way to think about it. We want a tax on something we don’t want, in this case destroying affordable housing or affordable, walkable commercial. This block has both.

    1. I agree with you that there could be some way to require future builders to provide affordable housing for that which they remove, even if that existing affordable housing is de facto rather than prescribed, as in this case. Right now we don’t have an opportunity to do that – it’s not legal to change the rules on a building once it has started design review (this is called vesting – I learned a lot about it during the CVS fight). So our option now is to do nothing, and let the building go forward, or to require an SEIS (determining that it is necessary to satisfy existing rules) so that we get an opportunity for this discussion.

      1. Basically, yes. There’s no “P” zoning designation at two of the sites. They’re fixing Uptown, but the legislation doesn’t apply to West Seattle or Wallingford, annoyingly.

    2. There’s a difference between requiring new affordable housing/retail for all new development, and requiring that developers replace any affordable housing/retail that they displace. I’m somewhat opposed to the former, but I have no real objection to the latter.

      1. Nor do I, and we already do that. This isn’t designated as affordable housing. It’s just an old building that has become cheap.

      2. Nor do I, and we already do that. This isn’t designated as affordable housing. It’s just an old building that has become cheap.

        It’s not Affordable Housing, but it’s still affordable housing, if you know what I mean.

        While I haven’t worked out the numbers, intuitively, it doesn’t seem onerous to say that a developer who knocks down an old building to build a new one should be responsible for providing *some* housing at the old price point.

        If you look at the total number of buildings in the city, an exceptionally small number are like the Bonair (dense, but old enough to be cheap). In contrast, 46% of housing units in the city are SFH, and I’d venture to guess that well over 50% of all buildings in the city are houses.

        A rule that required the replacement of old-but-cheap housing with “workforce” housing, say, would make it comparatively harder to knock down buildings like the Bonair, and comparatively easier to knock down houses and replace them with apartments. That strikes me as a win for almost everyone.

        By the way, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you (Ben)… just writing what’s on my mind. :)

      3. The problem is that “if you know what I mean” isn’t a designation that we can use to enforce a land use regulation.

        If you just let growth happen, you end up with a lot of de facto affordable housing because what we build now gets old. You’re going to lose some of it, but as long as you aren’t stifling growth and causing the clearcutting we are seeing now, a lot of it would stick around. Our 65′ limits are putting us in this situation in most cases. We just happen to be noticing the Bonair; there have been lots more.

      4. If you just let growth happen, you end up with a lot of de facto affordable housing because what we build now gets old. You’re going to lose some of it, but as long as you aren’t stifling growth and causing the clearcutting we are seeing now, a lot of it would stick around. Our 65′ limits are putting us in this situation in most cases. We just happen to be noticing the Bonair; there have been lots more.

        I agree with you that there have been lots more.

        However, there are also lots of examples of unambiguously good redevelopment (from the perspective of people who like vibrant cities): replacing cookie-cutter single-family homes, and bland strip-mall retail, and vacant lots, with mixed-use buildings with the maximum feasible FAR.

        Consider Bellevue Terrace. What was there before? An abandoned apartment building on “stilts”, with open ground-level parking. It’s hard to imagine a worse way to activate the street.

        The city has acres and acres of what is essentially tract housing. There is only one Ballard Ave. To a first approximation, 95% of the “stifling” that you refer to is the zoning that prohibits any sort of density on well over 50% of city land. Even if we completely banned redevelopment of any multifamily building — *which I am not advocating* — we have *way* more than enough SFH land to accommodate virtually any level of future growth. Conversely, so long as all of our SFH land is sacred, it will be very difficult to keep up with demand.

        You probably know this, but I’m totally in favor of getting rid of all height limits. So you don’t need to convince me there. But I don’t actually think that developers would start plopping down towers in Wallingford; towers are expensive, and neighbors would flip out. So I don’t think that eliminating height limits alone is the solution to our housing woes.

        It just bugs me that so much of our growth has to come at the expense of something that we have very little of and can never replace, rather than something that we have in spades.

      5. +1 to everything in your first four ¶s, Aleks.

        Unfortunately, an end to all height limits won’t achieve the results we both want. Maybe 100 years ago, when developers built good urbanity mostly of their own accord (though even then, zoning and building codes were beginning to be developed).

        Today, thanks to the way development is financed (much more than any changes in construction methods or human desires or needs), terrible megablock urbanity is virtually guaranteed unless you regulate against it. Furthermore, infinite upzoning would place essentially insurmountable pressure on the owners of current structures (even very good, very dense ones) to sell to the highest bidder, and to actively work against preservation proposals or efforts to maintain a diversity of structures and scales.

        FWIW, I agree with you (within limits) re: Pioneer Square. I find Seattle’s obsession with consistent heights among buildings in a single area perplexing. Even the Back Bay has an occasional 9-story building among the 5-story ones. Even Paris has varied architecture bucking the Haussman 6-story mansard standard. It keeps things interesting.

        I would have no problem with vacant lots in the middle of Pioneer Square being built 50-60% higher than historic structures — that’s high enough to make a skinny project worthwhile, without truly overwhelming its neighbors. On open lots separated from the preserved area, 12-15 stories would strike me as perfectly reasonable.

        The most important things is how those buildings aesthetically and functionally relate, which has virtually fuck-all to do with their heights. I’ve actually begun attending Ballard Avenue Landmarks District meetings at which infill proposals are presented, in order to be a voice for making wise aesthetic choices rather than obsessing over heights. I have zero problems with the smartly designed (at least in its current plans) 4-story building proposed for the space between Shiku and the Ballard Inn. The only guy who seems to value rooflines over actual aesthetics is the Ballard Inn’s owner… the same individual who gave us the crime against architecture known as Hotel Ballard and who, gallingly, sits on the Board (where he is mercifully a minority voice).

        Anyway, I digress. Imagine a city of Levas but three times as tall and with even less of worth at ground level. That’s what you’ll get in a regulation-free environment. If ever there were a situation in which the free market doesn’t know best, building good 21st-century cities is it!

    3. Ben is right in general. To tax development in general to pay for things we want is really bad policy. It applies whether we tear down the old folks home or a parking lot. In this case, it just so happens that we don’t want to tear down the old building(s). But in many cases, it is simply a tax on development, and that is backwards.

      That is what is interesting about this post. In general, he is opposed to a policy that requires developers to jump through hoops just to add new units. In this case, however, the developer should jump through hoops because what is being torn down is actually good for renters (at least in the short run) and as it turns out, a very attractive building (and there are labor concerns as well). This is called being a moderate. I know folks aren’t used to seeing this sort of thing. It used to be common back in the day, when we built a middle class that was the envy of the world, but now, of course, such opinions are rare, and people want to focus on one extreme ideology of another. [sorry, old guy talk — better change the subject or I’ll start talking about how phones used to have dials]

      1. But it is a long established process to tax developers directly or as is more common to tax indirectly. Looking at a typical suburban development, planning authorities often require the provision of utilities infrastructure and street and arterial completions to gain project approval. From one vantage point, such facilities should be provided by the county or municipality. I’ve even heard of cases where a developer built school buildings.

      2. Charles, that’s changing. Redmond, for instance, is doing their new downtown infrastructure before development, in order to channel growth into the new capacity. Requiring developers to pay outside of the city center makes sense – you don’t want sprawl in a greenfield – but having everyone pay in the center does too, because it encourages compact development.

  3. This hotel site is convenient to virtually all transit service headed to downtown Seattle. The people working here can easily live in lower cost neighborhoods. The union demand for a SEIS has nothing to do with EIS, it is just trying to create leverage to represent the workers. Not really an STB topic.

    1. I know if you’re that anti-union it’s hard to read the rest of the post, but I believe the housing affordability issue is quite interesting to STB, and the comments seem to back that up. :)

      1. That’s really not a fair response, to criticize my political view.

        The union’s prime interest is to grow its membership, and get an agreement to organize the hotel, and its prime responsibility is towards its existing membership. I don’t see how forcing an EIS or discussing affordable housing has a lot to do with either of its interests, except to create leverage. You can bet that if the developer agreed to have the union represent the hotel employees, they would withdraw the request for the SEIS.

        As for affordable housing, is this really the right location for affordable housing? It’s in close proximity to downtown and Amazon, it’s going to be expensive land. It makes more sense to build affordable housing in less expensive land that is transit accessible.

        I do agree that older buildings that have a nice streetscape should be preserved or incorporated. And that we should do a lot more to force new buildings to have a nice streetscape instead of big plazas and setbacks.

      2. The comment I replied to, as well as this one, largely ignores the points I made in the post in order to make a dig at unions. When you use your political view to criticize, it comes up for criticism. :)

        I didn’t actually recommend that more affordable housing be built onsite. I mean, that’s one possible way to solve the problem, but I think it would be more interesting to make sure the workers are paid enough to live nearby, and to build more affordable housing elsewhere within walking distance or with close transit access. The post talks about the increased *demand* for affordable housing this causes, and how we need to incorporate that into our planning rather than just let that demand go up without understanding the impacts.

  4. Why doesn’t the hotel just include some inexpensive apartments for employees? Commute problem, solved. Affordability problem, solved. There’s a continuum between a hotel room, an apodment, and a studio apartment: it could build anything along those lines. It would be drop-dead easy for a hotel to provide all the services the units would need, and the renters would be experts at cleaning their own floor and common areas. Of course, they wouldn’t be large enough for people with large families, but they’d make some difference. It would also give the hotel a competitive advantage in recruiting/training employees, and encourage other hotels to do the same.

  5. Not really pertinent to your argument, but there’s no way 1620 rooms constitutes a 50% increase in downtown rooms.

  6. Intentionally sidestepping the major issues that I haven’t made up my mind about, I will debate the point comparing Amazon workers to hotel workers.

    With an eye toward transit efficiency (and staying blind to poverty, equality, etc.), the Amazon workers should have a greater impact on commutes and driving. With our limited zoning, most of these new workers will displace existing residents, some of whom will stay in Seattle and some of whom will leave, but in the end roughly 600 households will leave our city. Seattle has a limited housing supply, so 600 new households will displace roughly 600 households. This will likely be slightly fewer than 600 households because increased housing demand will induce more new building than would have happened anyway, but perhaps slightly more people will leave Seattle because tech workers have smaller families than the average Seattle household. The people pushed out of Seattle will be on average slightly lower income than the Amazonians.

    Now compare those ~600 households to the ~600 households of hotel workers. Which group is more likely to use public transportation instead of paying for parking downtown?

    I suppose with principles of induced demand this might level out anyway (encouraging others to take transit as these new drivers add to traffic), but a commute isn’t the only car trip these families will make.

    1. I’m not sure that follows at all. They are building hundreds of new units on Dexter, an easy transit, bike or even walk to the new Amazon campus (or even the “old” one in SLU). Why assume the Amazon workers will commute from Sammamish when they will have so many nearby choices that don’t displace anyone?

      1. Nearby choices that won’t displace anyone? You’ve forgotten your history. The entire SLU redevelopment tore down dozens of “Bonairs.”

      2. There was almost nothing of the sort in SLU. And much of the good-legacy-storefront stuff remains, facing Westlake Ave N and playing nicely with the newer stuff adjacent.

        Most of what has been replaced wholesale was single-story light industry or junk-food manufacturing, in mid-century buildings with barely any windows, much less architectural value.

        The Denny Triangle, on the other hand, has seen wanton destruction — — of buildings that should have been developed around and better integrated into the area’s revival.

      3. Sam, I can’t think of more than a few houses and *maybe* a small apartment building displaced in SLU. I’m also not opposed to displacing older housing stock for newer housing stock. The real issue here is 600-800 people who can’t afford to live in the city.

      4. Yeah, what d. p. said. That is why the whole “Paul Allen wants to buy up South Lake Union and screw everyone” thing was such a myth. South Lake Union was just there for the picking. Lots and lots of parking lots, and low swung buildings with hardly anything in them. It might have been a good place for a brewery or two if the brewery movement had caught on a few years earlier. But given its proximity to downtown, and flat topography, and proximity to a lake, it didn’t take a Paul Allen (AKA bright guy) to figure out that the entire area was about to become “north downtown”.

      5. My reading of the Stranger article is that there are two problems. First, this is at best a fringe issue, so the politicians responsible for making landmark designations feel comfortable skipping meetings. Second, the city has laws on the books that incentivize the vandalism on one’s own buildings. Am I missing something?

      6. You’re missing nothing.

        That is precisely why historic character and good urban frontage are dwindling resources in Seattle, and why we have so much new stuff that is palpably worse for the streetscape (without representing any appreciable advance in useful density).

        Part of our failure stems from the “hands off” approach to the majority of the city that is SF 5000. When all growth is channeled into miniscule growth zones, there will be increasing pressure to clearcut everything that is already there.

        A further problem is that people in positions of actual authority seem to believe that clearcutting those zones is good policy.

    2. If you start considering new, high wage jobs to be causing ‘displacement’, you’ll end up fighting against better quality of life and higher incomes. I would much prefer to address housing needs with more housing than trying to stifle the kinds of jobs we want.

      1. I completely agree. But you’re arguing against creating 600+ jobs, and used *they might have to commute* as an argument, comparing them to tech workers. I’m just claiming that’s not a good argument, and explaining my logic.

        I’m also not convinced that keeping these jobs from being created because they aren’t union is a great idea, but the devil’s in the details. What’s the likely alternative for this land, and how long we’ll have to wait until someone actually builds there would be two large factors.

      2. You’re really ascribing two arguments to me that I did not make, here. I think it’s easy for people to do that on issues like this – go “oh, he mentioned unions, he must think x”, but I’d like you to go back and realize that you just did it twice. :)

        I didn’t use “they might have to commute” as an argument bolstering my point. I just pointed it out as a way to illustrate that we have a lack of affordable housing. The issue to solve is the affordable housing, as these people will be competing with existing people in Seattle for that housing, leading to more displacement.

        I don’t see why anyone would keep these jobs from being created. This project isn’t at any sort of risk due to SEIS vs EIS addendum.

  7. I wanted to know more about why the Union is against the project so I searched “Local 8 Ninth & Stewart.” Ninth & Stewart is the project’s name. Up came (what I think is a) blog called Curbed, and they said this about the conflict between the Union and the project …

    “R.C. Hedreen’s Ninth & Stewart is supposed to become the biggest hotel in Seattle once it’s completed. That’s the tricky part, however, as a conflict between R.C. Hedreen and the hospitality workers’ union might jeopardize the construction of the entire project. Via PSBJ, local labor union Unite Here Local 8 thinks the 1,700-room project is too big and would have a negative affect on wages. Hedreen is countering that this is just a ploy for higher pay and is now threateneing to shelve the $450M project and instead build smaller office & apartment buildings.”

    1. If we’re working toward housing affordability and better jobs, office and apartments would be just fine. Creating 600-800 $23,000 a year jobs puts a strain on our public services, but market rate apartments and offices could even preserve the Bonair, too. I’m fine with that.

  8. Has anyone else noticed that when it comes to the local high-tech industry, and their displacement of affordable housing, or poor land use, etc., some here clam-up? You don’t hear a peep out of them. But when it’s a hotel or a mall owner, the claws come out. All of sudden become brave. Is it simply a case of some people not having the courage to speak out against the industry they work in?

    1. Ben, I give you permission to delete my last comment, as I believe it is off-topic, but you are to leave up my first comment!

      1. I don’t think it’s bad to grow the high tech industry, because those jobs pay a lot, and that means people can raise a family on them, and they generate a lot of tax revenue for social services. More jobs like that are good for all of us. If they’re displacing others, we need to solve that by making sure growth keeps up, because the people in those jobs *can* afford new construction.

  9. I love how everyone is holding up the Bonair as a model of density and street vibrance. Ever walk by it after 6 pm? Everything is closed except for the empty Subway and the scary mini-mart.

    1. I’m sure the replacement of half its block with a parking lot — and of the rest of its neighborhood with towers that actively repel street-level usage — has nothing to do with its eyes-on-the-street woes.

      1. I live 1 block over, and I would love nothing more than more residential with street level retail. Right now, this area is a ghost town after 6pm. The problem is, nobody is proposing building those things, and you cannot make a Hotel Developer build something he doesn’t want to build.

        If this gets blocked, he’ll either sell, or do nothing and wait it out until the time is more favorable.

        And misusing tools like the EIS just validates its use to block any development that any group disagrees with.

      2. I don’t think you’ve made any argument that this would be a misuse (no one has so far, they’re more interested in arguing about the Bonair).

        Doing an SEIS also has no chance of blocking the building, as far as I’m aware, nor did I mention blocking the building. It would slow the building, but it’s more interesting because it will force updates to our city’s plans that more accurately reflect what’s happening downtown.

  10. Ben, imparting useful information means of course doing just that. Egregious isn’t such a bad descriptor when the number written is wildly different.

    That said, with the correction, if 3,300 hotel rooms were anticipated in the EIS during it’s predictive time frame, is this project’s 1,600 rooms inside the total of what was anticipated or have those rooms been built (or under construction/permitting) already?

    I’m happy to look myself if you can direct me to the source. It wouldn’t surprise me that any hotel prediction for Seattle’s downtown would anticipate one large convention type property as well as a number of smaller hotels.

    1. This 1600 rooms brings the total to 50% over expectations (in the mid 5000s). This is in a table the letter UNITE sent, which is well worth reading (linked early in my post).

      The thing the downtown EIS expects zero of is convention space growth – which this also adds a lot of!

    2. There was an argument in 2008 that the state should invest in expanding the Convention Center because the income would pay off the investment in a few years and then the state would get a long-term windfall. That was disapproved and we ended up missing the opportunity. Is there an opportunity to revive it now, and would this hotel get in the way of it?

      (Is the Bonair the building with the Alfi convenience store on the ground floor?)

      1. I think that is the Bonair, yes.

        Yes, we should likely expand the convention center. This hotel actually does that, to some extent, with 37,000 square feet (I think) of meeting space.

        That plus the WSCC’s interest in expansion should definitely mean an SEIS.

  11. Aren’t there people on this blog who support the Wallingford effort to have something bigger built on the CVS site? I wonder if some of those very same people are now against something bigger being built on the ninth and Stewart site? Isn’t that being inconsistent?

    1. Here’s a clue, free of charge: The Las Vegas Strip has really freaking huge buildings. But it isn’t dense, because there’s half a mile of dead space between each of those really freaking huge buildings.

      Wholesale displacement of hyperdense mid-rise with comparatively-not-dense high-rise is not a recipe for successful urbanity.

      The relevance of this to the Wallingford fight is that, in each case, people are objecting to the replacement of an existing use with a less functional, less integrated use. Commenters here are perfectly consistent.

      1. So then it is a good thing that CVS wants to build a smaller building on their parcel, right? Smaller is good, right?

      2. What part of “in both cases, the present use of the parcel is denser than the proposed use of the parcel” did you not understand?

    2. *wave* I don’t oppose this project or something bigger on the site. Nothing in my post can be read to support that.

  12. My take on the general STB consensus about housing supply and affordability is that it is an asymmetrical relationship. In my view, housing development is based on economic signals that are often not in sync. Currently we have a massive influx of new residents mostly from out of state that are having an immediate and substantial impact on housing (rental) prices. But the typical cycle to complete a housing project is measured in years. So 20,000 housing units don’t magically appear when the same number of people show up being paid at 150-200% of AMI who will pay substantially more than the mean can afford.

    So, suddenly, the bankers think that vacancy rates, rent multiplier indicators, are in a zone where they will happily finance projects to service this influx of affluent housing demanders. Developers and construction companies gear up. But then a year 2000 or year 2008 happens. Suddenly there are large numbers of laid off people or people finding their incomes halved over night. Yet bankers act to actually remove housing supply to keep their loan to value ratios on their portfolios in sync. Yet, those 20000 recent arrivals still need housing.

    I’m of the opinion that if we the citizens of Seattle are serious about affordable housing as defined in the link in the article, (e.g, housing costs should be 30% AGI) then paying tax money to subsidize rent receipts is a waste of tax money. It would be far better for the public to build sufficient housing stock to satisfy the estimated 50000 units of demand for affordable housing. And then have a building program that can ensure that everyone who needs “affordable housing” can get it without a 3-5 year wait. I imagine you’re dismissing this as an hair-brained idea but I suggest looking at Singapore as a model with the coexistence of a public and private housing supply. And, such units can build the density we advocate.

    One thing about public owned housing is that it is generally immune to inflationary pressures built into private for profit ventures. It should be possible to collect enough “affordable” rent to cover operations and service bonds.

    1. Your third paragraph – that’s what we do. We use levy money to build housing stock. I’m not aware of any program using tax money to subsidize rent receipts.

      1. Section 8 funds are payments to Landlords so they can fill apartments and that there is a social benefit of having a diversity of economic and culture in a given area.

        Section 8 payments are not funds given to renters, the funds are paid directly to the Lessors

      2. I thought that’s what you guys meant by rent receipts.

        “Yet bankers act to actually remove housing supply to keep their loan to value ratios on their portfolios in sync.”

        I think that’s more true of houses than condos/apartments. Banks keep houses off the market to keep the price of houses up, but they convert condos to apartments and try to keep the apartments full. I can’t think of any apartment building or unit that has been intentionally kept empty to satisfy some abstract accounting principle.

  13. From a historic preservation point of view, it would be a real shame to knock down the Bonair Apartments. They don’t make ’em like that anymore; it’s actually a grand old building:,-122.33411&spn=0.001703,0.002763&oe=utf-8&client=iceweasel-a&fb=1&gl=us&hq=bonair+apartments+seattle&cid=0,0,16382433082023410253&t=m&z=19&layer=c&cbll=47.614328,-122.334391&panoid=DAufdcimVgvUZOu_4LAfqw&cbp=12,38.79,,0,-27.35

    1. Problem is, according to some people on this blog, you can’t be pro-historical preservation and pro-density, it’s all or nothing.

      1. Is that so? Can you point to that comment from an STB writer, or is it just an ad hominem dig?

      2. Or even a comment on the blog that says “you can’t be pro-historical preservation and pro-density, it’s all or nothing.”

        If anything, it is quite the opposite. Most of the comments on this site suggest that saving old buildings for historical purposes makes a lot of sense. What a lot of people object to is limiting the size or especially the number of people that can move into a new building when you tear down the old one. In this particular case, well, I won’t repeat myself. Look up the word “moderate” (in this post).

      3. Going back to a discussion about upzones in Pioneer Square last year, I stated that there is a value to the aesthetic in toto that the collection of buildings in Pioneer Square create. Putting in skyscrapers among the collection of historical architecture might impact something important. That is not simply the same as saving an existing building, its about what kind of character a section of town has. I also defended my contention by stating there were many many places in the downtown core that were ready for development of high rises including right in front of City Hall.

      4. That value is *already reflected in the rents those buildings can command*.

        Yes and no. It’s entirely possible that the continued existence of a historic building carries a positive economic externality. Neither the landlord nor the renter benefits from that externality (by definition), but the community does, and so it can be in the community’s interest to subsidize such buildings.

        In this particular case, though, I do agree with you (at least I think I do :P) that it would be better to allow skyscrapers in Pioneer Square. Historic preservation is important, but it’s also important to allow a neighborhood to grow. The demand to live in Pioneer Square itself is through the stratosphere, and apartments in Belltown just aren’t an adequate substitute. Getting market-rate tenants there would do a lot to clean up the neighborhood at night, which is much more important than encasing the entire neighborhood in amber.

      5. “It’s entirely possible that the continued existence of a historic building carries a positive economic externality.”

        It does. Historic frontages are a civic amenity, a tourist attraction, a value in themselves — and the people renting the space *inside* the building don’t really get much of the benefit of them.

  14. “Their goal is to make sure the workers hired for this hotel earn enough that they don’t have to commute from Puyallup or Marysville, and have benefits that keep them from going bankrupt when their kids have a cavity.”

    I think their GOAL is to collect union dues from 1,000 new workers and to stop this project until that happens. Does anyone actually know what whoever-this-hotel-is pays in wages or provides in benefits?

    And, are you suggesting we should require developers to provide an affordable place to live (or a “living wage”, for that matter) for each employee that is hired by a business IN that building?

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