Danny Westneat had a column last week on the rapid development of South Lake Union and Denny Triangle that elicited a fair amount of eye-rolling from the urbanist set in my Twitter feed. Here’s the nut graf:

I’m no Lesser Seattle type. Growth means jobs, and density means a vital city. But wasn’t it supposed to be managed growth, or smart growth? Plopping down the biggest development in city history on two blocks with little provision for infrastructure seems helter-skelter. Not smart.

I admit I rolled my eyes the first time through as well, especially when I got to the only quote in the piece, from reliable density foe John Fox.  But let’s take Westneat at his word that he’s in favor of smart growth, where we plan for transit, schools, and parks to go along with our deluxe apartments in the sky.

If you really want smart growth, it follows that you’d need more central planning — something Seattleites have traditionally resisted.  In fact, you’d want the exact opposite of the decentralized, neighborhood-driven process that Fox’s SDC advocates.

Instead of quoting the SDC, Westneat might have taken the opportunity to highlight Seattle 2035, the major planning initiative currently being undertaken by DPD.  Or, he might have looked to his paper’s own archives, where an accessible story comparing Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, written 11 years ago during the last building boom, is still quite relevant:

But when it comes to livability, we seem stuck in first gear and our neighbors are more than a little condescending. Seattle’s OK, they say, but a little crass. Yokels on planning. Bumpkins on design.

“Seattle has an ethic of passivity,” says Portland developer John Russell. “People throw up their hands and say there’s nothing we can do.”

“I can’t figure out why you guys don’t build better buildings,” says Homer Williams, the developer behind the burgeoning new Pearl District and the upcoming Macadam restoration along the Willamette River.

Portland, for example, took an arguably bad idea — 1960s-era urban renewal that tore down working neighborhoods and replaced them with sterile, government-driven developments — and let it evolve into something that works. The state-created Portland Development Commission, now almost half a century old, works with developers to reconstruct large sections of the central city under a unified plan.

Improvements such as parks and streetcar lines are paid for by a financing scheme Washington voters rejected twice in the 1980s: tax-increment financing. Amenities to attract residents downtown are paid for at the front end with bonds, and the new property taxes generated by the development are earmarked to pay off the improvements, something like a mortgage. While Washington’s Legislature has authorized a form of this, its constitutionality has never been tested and the tool remains largely unused.

I could quote more, but you might as well read the whole thing. The point is that the managed growth Westneat clamors for in South Lake Union and elsewhere will require more centralized control than many Seattleites are currently willing to accept. I’d love to see his next column address how we might change that dynamic.

36 Replies to “Smarter Growth Means More Planning”

  1. Seattle’s largest development? Maybe.

    Harbor Steps is 734 dwellings, plus over 80,000 sf of commercial space, and a small hotel, on a block and a half. Similar in overall scale relative to footprint compared to the project proposed at the Seattle Times site.

    We survived Harbor Steps (not sure what was negative that we survived…), we’ll be fine with this new project as well.

    No provision for infrastructure? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen streets in that neighborhood, buses on Fairview, and a streetcar two blocks away down the hill…

    1. Those street car tracks are a menance to bicycles. Plus for the lousy mile and change that it goes, it’s faster to walk than wait for it then ride. It’s seriously not efficent transportation.

      1. If streetcar tracks are a menace to bicycles, why hasn’t Europe’s draconian attitude to personal well-being resulted in either streetcars of bicycles being banned?

        And why have I got pictures of rack upon rack of very advanced blue bikes rented from automatic card-activated racks in front of Gothenburg Central train station- in the same plaza crossed by streetcar tracks in active service?

        And why doesn’t blood flow like in a slaughterhouse down the grooved rail across Oslo’s waterfront plaza where crowds of both cyclists and pedestrians cross and recrossed tracks with a line of ten minute headways or less? Without a single warning sign, let alone traffic signal?

        In one German city, the streetcar line pushes cars with rows of bike racks ahead of the train- try that with a bus.

        Seriously, go online to any national biking association over there. I’m sure they’ll give you a list of techniques. For the kind of city, and future most STB readers want for this country, there’s no reason we have to sacrifice one critical mode for another.

        And everybody, including me, who thinks the South Lake Union line is too slow, there’s a remedy: pack one Seattle City Council meeting, like the cab drivers did, and demand that SDOT turn back on the signal pre-emp equipment we taxpayers bought when the line started.

        Yeah, we’ve got construction. And I can find pics from a hundred years ago of streetcars being the only thing being able to run trestles through blocks of brick and stone buildings being built.

        Are we back to gimmeafrigginbreak.com? Not to be confused with .gov or .edu.

        Mark Dublin

      2. If streetcar tracks are a menace to bicycles, why hasn’t Europe’s draconian attitude to personal well-being resulted in either streetcars of bicycles being banned?

        One thing is that Europe has been working towards making “streetcar lines” separated from traffic as much as possible and in more cases are closer to light rail lines (at least light rail as Portland or San Diego does it) than older-style streetcar lines. This is primarily to help them become faster (which attracts more riders from cars, and thus less traffic for bicyclists to fight), but it also means fewer lines in streets for bicyclists to trip over.

  2. Well with the growth of South Lake Union, we can now see that shooting down “The Commons” park was a dumb idea. First it left a lot of land in the hands of a billionaire who had development on the mind to get his money back, and secondly it’s made the area less livable for the long run. Yes it’s more dense with buildings on all of those parcels but had Westlake become a park, with apartments and offices on either side it would have been beautiful. Now it’s just “city”

    1. had Westlake become a park, with apartments and offices on either side it would have been beautiful.

      Too bad we never would have built to the necessary height (60-80 floors) around it to make it nearly as useful.

    2. Hahaha! “and secondly it’s made the area less livable for the long run.” Ive seen a lot of people get in trouble for living in the parks!

      Seriously though, a central park would have been awesome, with the caveat that building heights in the center city went unlimited. We really dont need a Madison west.

  3. When we’re talking about South Lake Union, wasn’t the centralized control called the City of Seattle? And if SLU is a mess in terms of managed growth, shouldn’t we lay that poor planning at the City’s feet?

  4. Portland Development Commission is only part of the picture of what goes on here. There is also quite a lot of planning done by the Metro Regional Government. Essentially, the decision was made that certain land use planning efforts needed to be tackled as a whole, region wide. The old county borders really do not reflect the Portland metro area borders. They are the ones that determine if and when it is time to bring new land into the Urban Growth Boundary.

  5. The problem with Seattle is that there is no problem with Seattle.

    The problems with Seattle are the people who want to make it be New York, San Francisco or LA.

    If Seattle were left alone to be Seattle, and if we were to build more Seattles that people could move to, there would be no problem.

    1. It doesnt seem like a lot of people agree with you. They either want to live in Seattle, or they dont. And many people who dont live in the city would be against turning their neighborhoods into the city. So maybe you could propose things that could happen outside of SimCity?

      1. JonCracolici:

        Statement A: They either want to live in Seattle, or they don’t.

        Statement B: People who don’t live in the city would be against turning their neighborhoods into the city.

        Well, that’s very different than how your compatriots phrase this argument.
        The bent is always that “Everyone” wants to live in a city.
        And that the only reason people don’t live in a city is because they cannot afford to.

        Now you are saying that the only people who want to live in Seattle are….well, who exactly?!

      2. What? Im not saying that “the only people who want to live in…” anywhere have much else in common with each other at all. Maybe they do. I dont know. I dont really care.
        Lots of people obviously want to live in Seattle. Lots of people obviously enjoy the walkable neighborhood, car-less lifestyle. I’m one of them. Some people like living in Woodinville and driving to everything. Doesnt bother me in the slightest. Whatever.

        But your concept of turning all the Woodinvilles into a mini-Senttle wouldn’t really go over well in Woodinville. And the fact that you constantly suggest this as an alternate to anything that might make Seattle a better city means that precisely no one will ever like your idea.
        You’re not for the city-dwellers interests, and you’re not for the suburb dwellers interests. Thats why no one else has picked up your plan. Give it a rest.

    2. You just don’t get it John. There can be no more Seattle’s because there is only one Elliott Bay! Why do you think Seattle outgrew Tacoma? After all, the first rail link from the east was the NP which comes down out of the mountains at Auburn. It’s much closer to Commencement Bay from Auburn than it is to Elliott Bay. And anyway, the NP covered the bases by building to both.

      Was it the corrupt ancestors of Dow Constantine who bribed people to move to Seattle rather than Everett or Tacoma? Was it a cabal of Kenyan-Islamist-Socialists who suckered the Federal government into buying Alaska so they could outfit gold seekers?

      No; it was the spectacular beauty of the place and the quality of the harbor, just like San Francisco.

      Elliott Bay has deep water right to the shoreline, whereas Commencement Bay sort of petered out in lahar wetlands. The Olympics are right there! across the bay from Seattle; it’s stunning on a clear day. You can barely see them from downtown Tacoma, and they sort of peek over Whidbey in Everett.

      You can’t see them at all from Yakima (your recent favorite suggestion for a hot new Seattle suburb), though, yes, you can see Rainier and Adams.

      You see, people with good taste want to live in Seattle. If they’re forced to live on East Hill in order to be in “PugetSoundia”, they’ll put up with the soul-killing commute and copycat Omaha vibe. But it’s not the first choice (or the eighty-seventh, I’d wager) of the gifted folks who are paying the bills for the entire state these days.

      1. Anandakos, easy now.

        I agree with what you say about the deepwater port, but I do take offense to your implication of everyone who lives in Puget Sound outside Seattle as without taste. Also, not everyone who lives in the suburbs works in Seattle. I live in Redmond and, while it’s not the most amazing place on Earth, it’s not a soulless dump either and I refuse to be put down just for living there. I live near where I work; it’s not a hopping, trendy place but I like where I live.

        We all have the right to criticize people’s positions on here, and I don’t necessarily agree with what John has to say, but telling others they’re inferior because of where they live isn’t advancing the cause and is just driving people away.

        This is part of why we’re not bringing in more people into the pro-transit camp; we’re spending too much time making ourselves feel smart when all we do is just come off as a bunch of completely snotty, smug douchebags to everyone who is not inherently pro-transit.

        Hell, even I feel like telling everyone to suck it and vote no on transit measures after reading what you said in the condescending last paragraph of your post. And I WANT more public transit!

      2. TransitDork,

        You are right; in the attempt to slap John around a little for his ridiculous suggestion to “build more Seattle’s”, I improperly offended lots of other innocent people. I apologize; there are plenty of other very nice places in the region.

        But if you think that there’s any possibility of John ever being in the “pro-transit camp”, read post #17 at this link by the Master of the Universe Himself: http://www.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2014/04/22/election-results-metro-funding-proposition-1-is-losing-early-ballots

      3. Anandakos, I understand where you’re coming from. I just said that because I don’t think people always remember that we’re here because we care and want to advocate for our cause, not just make ourselves feel better. (well that’s why I’m here, YMMV)

        You two play nice now, ok? :)

      4. John’s point isn’t to duplicate Elliott Bay or its namesake book company or any of Seattle’s unique features. it’s to make cities that are “as convenient” as Seattle. Some people will only live next to Elliott Bay, but others just want a convenient place to live, and hourly buses just don’t cut it. The problem comes in how he defines “convenient” or worthwhile. It seems to be the opposite of urbanists’; it seems to be unfeasable in the 21st century (either financially or politically); and it sometimes seems to be self-contradictory.

        For instance, I take it at face value and suggest an urban village on East Hill, and infill development along Kent-Kangley Road and perhaps a highway diet. But JB screams, “No, no, no! That’s not what I want!” Well, what does he want then? Keep the 1970s inexpensive buildings and strip malls, build more highways, and keep the large parking lots (which are pleasant junctions of humanity like urban sidewalks). But, but… that’s what the suburbs are now, and it’s “not Seattle”.

        So the only sense I can get out of it is, “more Seattle” means more Kents and Buriens, with more highways and high-speed rail between them, and extend the exurbs to the Canadian and Idaho borders.

    3. Why do people move to a new city? Because they got a job there, mostly.

      At this point in Seattle’s life it’s not Elliott Bay or any other physical feature that drives its growth. It’s social and economic features that continually reinforce eachother. The social and economic energy of a city cannot just be transplanted to another one, even if many people that work here could do their jobs any old place. Seattle is likely to grow and its suburbs are, too. Refusing to acknowledge this and plan for it won’t make it stop, it will only make it miserable, like it is in the Bay Area right now. I’m glad I don’t live there, even if it’s mostly by luck that we don’t have the same problems.

      That said, suburbs and other cities in the US could do a lot better if they stopped building themselves like only-barely-not-temporary off-ramp settlements and started taking their public realms seriously. J.B. has this right: big-city exceptionalism doesn’t help us toward any worthy goals we have when our metro-area (like most of ’em) has a suburban majority by nearly any measure.

      If we’re seriously going to do anything about housing affordability around here we need a serious and realistic conversation about growth in the core of Seattle, and various neighborhoods, and the suburbs. If we’re seriously going to tackle climate change we need serious changes in every part of Seattle, in the suburbs, and in rural areas, too (given the huge greenhouse gas impact of current agricultural practices).

      1. Why do people move to a new city? Because they got a job there, mostly.

        You would be surprised at how many people arrive in Portland expecting there to be unlimited employment for those with no real useful education or work experience. I’d blame Portlandia, Carrie Brownstein and co., and the entire IFC cable channel for that but this has been going on since the 1990s.

        The way the world economy is headed though, industry and commerce is centered more and more around fewer centers. Pretty much anywhere you look, there are consolidations happening in industries that close facilities in smaller cities. Anyone in Puget Sound should know this after watching the Rainier and Olympia breweries close and consolidated into larger facilities in California.

        Seattle has become one of those chosen places where industries of various types are collecting.

  6. A little different perspective here- on the subject of where someone lives:

    The reason I didn’t vote for Prop 1 was because I prefer to confine my lawbreaking to sedition, helping fugitive slaves escape, and failing tolerate people lawfully smoking legal marijuana upwind from me.

    Certain changes in living conditions in Ballard awakened my capitalist self-interest in both finances and survival, so I now live five minutes from any hearing in our state Capitol.

    Olympia is a beautiful city full of people so nice I feel like a brute even frowning at one if them- especially the police. The only downsides are a sudden release of pressure on the order of being blown out of a space-ship and exploding, or getting “the bends” while surfacing from a dive.

    Also the fact that a transit ride to Seattle is so damned slow! Even the 592 Express, which does not even stop in Tacoma, takes two hours. On a bus with no bathroom. The Sounder out of Lakewood, a 25 minute drive north, has bathrooms but ain’t the TGV.

    So- most enjoyable trip is Intercity Transit 603 to Tacoma, espresso at the Anthem Cafe across from a LINK stop and 594 Express stop straight north, or LINK to Freighthouse and an hour of computer time into Seattle.

    But reason I supported Prop 1 as best I could, and am ready to gear up for a re-run with actual voters, is that as soon as I hit Seattle, speed slows to a crawl anywhere but the DSTT- which also trickles like a drain at hours it’s needed most.

    And the reason this matters is that while Olympia is where my apartment is, which I love, a huge amount of my life is still in Seattle, and will continue so. I also have a long-time client in Lynnwood- the 512 would really be decent regional transit if that 30-years-overdue off-direction transit lane could be built and the route put in the Downtown Tunnel.

    Late yesterday afternoon I had to pick up a book at Bellevue Library. Trip would have been a lot less fear-stricken if the 550 could have stayed on freeway transit lanes all the way to Bellevue CBD and let Bellevue way have local service. Since express lanes don’t go west PM rush, a real chill started setting in.

    While Tacoma is a fast, easy ride pretty late, service south of there gets damn scarce after seven. On a night like last misreading a schedule can mean a hotel room in Tacoma or death by hypothermia.

    In pre-death delirium, I think I’m seeing fields of cows with an occasional wagon instead of the sprawl and malls really there. Existentially, it’s really cows,

    So what I’m saying, and working toward, is that the idea of a life strictly confined to a single city, town, or neighborhood is best left to the hill towns of Portugal- some of which have streetcars. Life from here on up to global is regional.

    But precisely as with the human body- however healthy one’s arteries, anyplace the capillaries clog falls off.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Several times in the 20th century, the UK completely redrew its municipal borders, and it massively altered county borders as well.

      The US used to do stuff like that too, in the 19th and very early 20th century.

      Germany’s done it as recently as the 1990s.

      We haven’t been doing it recently in the US. This has been a mess for a lot of places. It’s left Washington State with particularly lunatic county borders. I’m not sure how one fixes this.

      1. Sure. When you redraw borders, you may make them worse, or you may make them better.

        But that isn’t an argument for leaving borders cast in amber forever. It’s much better if political borders have some vague connection to the borders of self-identified groups of people, and when the political borders get wildly disconnected from that, they start being a problem.

        The borders of King County, Washington are particularly irrational, but I can find other examples.

        The various metropolitan areas which cross multiple states are problematic, but at least people have some sort of self-identification as “Kentuckyian” or “New Jerseyan” or whatever to make the border workable. Does anyone proudly say “I’m from King County!”? I don’t think so. Do people from Enumclaw really think “I’m from King County, and I’m glad not to be across that border in Pierce County!” The municipal borders in the area have some sense to them; the county borders don’t.

      2. If Seattle had kept annexing, it would include Shoreline, Burien, Skyway, and Boulevard Park. That may not have been a good thing considering what happened between 85th and 145th. The houses and roads are permanently larger than south of 85th, with more cul-de-sacs, and it prefers more pro-parking and single-family policies. If north Seattle couldn’t gradually be turned into something more like central Seattle, it would have even fared worse in Shoreline and Burien, and the pro-urban supporters would be an even smaller percentage of the population and the city council.

  7. Pushing for clarity: why would central planning negate the need for neighborhood involvement? It’s not as if Northgate, CH, and all the rest plan independently, they already operate within a framework, with city hall as the driving engine. (And at the county level, that planning is required to feed up to the state). If we were to somehow move more of the planning activity from neighborhoods to city hall, you would still need a wide swath of stakeholder groups to be empowered to have input into that process.

    It’s one thing to say “change the process and it will lead to a better design”, but another to say “remove stakeholders we don’t like, and it will lead to a better design (since we didn’t value what those stakeholders valued anyway)”.

    1. Totally. I’m talking about the former, not the latter. There are always stakeholders, and there’s always a political process. But the current system is designed to provide a lot of deference to neighborhood wishes.

      1. Years ago when SLU was starting to be redeveloped, wouldn’t most SLU neighborhood residents say the city, instead of deferring to their wishes, steamrolled over them? Again, if SLU is now too helter-skeltery, you can’t blame it on lack of planning or centralized control. You can’t have smart growth without smart government. Maybe the City of Seattle just wasn’t up to the task of managing that neighborhood’s growth. And if they can’t oversee smart growth in neighborhood, how are they supposed to do it for an entire city?

      2. Sam
        Did you ever spend time in the SLU of old? It was a piece of crap. Its a lot better in every way now, unless you want to break into abandoned warehouses to do graffiti.

      3. John (I refuse to spell it Jon), you are talking to one of the world’s leading SLU historians. And there area is not a lot better now. It’s a glorified office park. It could be better if it were the Seattle Commons park, but because there are a lot of dumb people in Seattle, we have an office park where a world-class green space should be.

      4. Sam
        Why would you insist on misspelling my name? Its short for Jonathan, which actually has nothing to do with John, its actually a combination of the names Joesph and Nathan. But whatever man, you always know best.
        And it is a lot better now. So what if it is a glorified office park. It used to be a un-glorified abandoned warehouse district. SLU was where all the teens used to go to cause trouble away from the prying eyes of, oh, anyone. At night it looked like a post-radiation-apocalypse movie set. Just cause you don’t like the architecture of the new apartments doesn’t mean its gotten worse.
        William C

      5. Apparently, Sam is also an expert in name shorthand. How dare you question his authority!

      6. There were no SLU residents. It was all decaying warehouses. If there ever was a residential neighborhood it was bulldozed sixty years ago. The only area with a substantial number of residents (Cascade) was protected from the “steamroller” upzones.

  8. Re, Integrating school planning and funding with the overall planning process

    I’m the K-12 Planning Coordinator for Seattle Public Schools (and, in my off-hours a photographer; the Capitol Hill Foursquare featured on the blog is my work. https://www.flickr.com/photos/joebehr/6783292779/

    I;m trying to strengthen the connections between SPS’ planning and the city’s. Contact me with ideas, contacts, etc. jawolf@seattleschools,org

  9. Sam I highly doubt you’re an slu historian. You’ve probably read a lot of articles, but that does nothing to help you understand the livability of a neighborhood. What does help is living there. My parents bought a condo in one of the first condo developments in SLU. They will tell you it’s much more livable now than it was before. More restaurants and services. Also, despite the streetcar being slow they still use it several times a week. Being almost 60 they appreciate the ride being much smoother than a bus and that there are less vagabonds. I visit them 2-3 times a week and feel the same way as them. I usually walk but if it’s raining I chose the streetcar over busses.

Comments are closed.