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.