Another neighborhood destroyed by a clerestory

In the urbanist blogosphere it’s most interesting to write about policies that cut both ways. Taxing development to fund low-income housing probably, at the margins, discourages construction of market-rate units while also enabling construction of below-market-rate units. The net impact is therefore debatable.

But then there are straightforward restrictions on the number of units that developers can build, which is a dead weight loss that sets Seattle back from a number of uncontroversial objectives. Last week the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee took a Mike O’Brien measure intended to close a few loopholes (that would have the very negative effect of reducing units constructed) and turned it into a vehicle in effect driving many potential residents out of the city.

The public comment period was pretty depressing. Erica’s blog covered the June 2nd hearing, and on June 16th her twitter feed was filled with comments from the day of the votes.

Josh Feit has an excellent rundown of the amendments and how people voted. Retiring councilmember Tom Rasmussen voted for all of these bad amendments; retiring councilmember Nick Licata and very much not-retiring Jean Godden joined him in all but two of the eight. Mike O’Brien, perhaps regretting even bringing the subject up, and Sally Bagshaw correctly voted no on all eight, and reliable density stalwart Tim Burgess only voted yes on one. John Okamoto, interim replacement for Sally Clark, voted yes on only two.

No amendment gained had the five votes necessary to pass the full council, so much will depend on Kshama Sawant and Bruce Harrell.

Beyond reporting what happened, it’s tough to say anything new about this debate. People either want more people in the city or they prefer them displaced to the suburbs. To the extent that the flood of comments are a coherent objection, it seems to be an aesthetic one (“livability”). I can’t read the minds in this instance, but the non-subjective objection usually comes down to parking (if there isn’t “enough” in new developments) or traffic (if new parking adds cars to the neighborhood). Sometimes development might bring the “wrong” kind of people into the neighborhood.

Citizens are entitled to like whatever kind of neighborhood aesthetics they want. It’s not crazy to try to preserve your exclusive access to public right-of-way. And while not admirable, it’s easy to understand why someone of a certain class might not appreciate what young or low-income people bring to a place. What’s harder to understand is why a substantial portion of a Council theoretically interested in reducing sprawl, enabling alternatives to the car, maintaining an inclusive city, and addressing the housing shortage is prioritizing these prejudices as they form policy.

162 Replies to “Council Committee Passes Anti-Density Legislation”

  1. I don’t understand your zeal for unbridled non-stop growth in a city that’s clearly not prepared for it. Surely you know that our buses are already too full and chronically underfunded. Same for schools and playfields. Density is a polite word for “crowded”. That’s what we’ll be when the residential development bonanza ends.

      1. As a relatively new Ballard owner, I don’t support the anti-density folks, but I do understand their frustrations. Ballard has done it’s part to build up (some say there should be more, most say they’ve done too much). I have stated on this blog that I am generally agnostic/OK with apodments in my neighbhoorhood. I agree that the lack of street parking/free riding is a weak argument.

        Yet, as we have even seen on this blog, it is unclear that Ballard will get a fair shake in ST3– Ballard may lose out to West Seattle (in the form of a street car/no grade separation), a place that is growing but nowhere near as dense.

        I’m not saying you have to agree with the argument, but understand where some of these folks are coming from– i.e., we’ve played by the rules/done our fair share, but it is unclear if we will be rewarded for it.

      2. Ballard is a great example of unintended consequences. Back in the 80s, when it was really growing, lots of new duplexes and the like were built. They all required parking. All of that parking was added right out front, with the duplex back behind it. I can understand why people thought it was hideous. One of the nice things about Seattle is that the houses are fairly close to each other, and people have interesting and varied landscaping. This means that you can walk around the city and see a very big variety of plants. So, instead of that, you have lots of concrete and a rhododendron or two. Very boring in comparison.

        New regulations (one after another) tried to address the latest aesthetic failure. Parking was moved to the back, but along with that rule, a fence had to be added (which was really stupid — Seattle doesn’t have that many fences). With the required parking and the density limits, next thing you know, all the buildings look the same. It if very difficult to have an interesting neighborhood if all the buildings look the same. Meanwhile, you can’t even see the plants, because of the stupid fence (a fence a lot of the owners have no interest in maintaining). I have no doubt that the new round of regulations will have a similar result. Rather than have buildings that adapt to their surroundings (the way that older buildings did — you have buildings that all the same, and often inappropriate for the neighborhood. There is only so much you can do when your hands are tied.

      3. mdnative,

        I reject the frame that density is something Ballard has to “accept” and should now be rewarded for. Density is a wonderful thing in its own right, spurring walkability and dynanism.

        I think Ballard deserves great transit, but even if not what’s happened in Ballard is wonderful.

      4. Martin, I bought a place (one of those dreaded condos) in Ballard. I am not one to “pull the ladder” up after I have climbed over.

        But look at Mike O’Brien’s shifts, look at the support for the linkage fees among the council, etc. This is the political reality. For whatever reasons, people are tired of traffic– and with no immediate solutions (and the long term solutions are at best, political sausage making). expect some frustration .

        Having grown up with Metro (like you), I just shake my head that I have to normally spend half an hour to get home on the 15X when a red line subway would have had me home in 10 minutes. Density won’t cause me to move back to the DC area, but the lack of progress/stupidity on traffic/transportation planning just might.

      5. I grew up in a city with single-family housing dominating the landscape as far as the eye can see. Ask me why I moved away as soon as I could.

      6. mdnative,

        We agree completely. Just don’t buy into the framework that density is medicine to take in exchange for goodies.

    1. I don’t think anyone is asking for “unbridled nonstop growth”. We have specific asks WRT city 2035 planning: add new urban villages, grow existing urban villages and remove some or all height restrictions within.

      But on your main point: density is good in achieving outcomes and lifestyles that most people want. More restaurants, more services, more events, more friends! More capital intensive transit, less greenhouse gas emissions.

      Creating arbitrary rules on the FAR ratios in townhouses and design approval committees don’t help anyone but the current landed gentry who don’t want to give up their SFH and two car lifestyle that we need them to in order to prevent disaster.

      1. We could eliminate height limits tomorrow and we still wouldn’t see high-rise developments in Capitol Hill or SLU.

        Height limits are the legal constraint, but the real constraints are engineering (building codes) and economic (financing and construction costs).

        Above 6-7 stories wood frame construction is not allowed under building codes. Higher construction must be concrete. However, concrete and steel is much more expensive and slower to build, which makes it uncompetitive with wood frame designs unless it can garner a premium (i.e. luxury condos/apartments) or can be built a lot higher (~15 stories or more) on the same land.

        Larger, longer, and more costly projects require more complex financing. Banks are very comfortable lending for ~6 story wood frame apartment buildings. They know the risks and they are familiar with the projects. Not so much with more expensive high rise construction. They will want higher interest rates.

      2. If the market decides that wood frame buildings are preferable, then that’s fine. I’m not for mandating buildings over X height, but I am for supply to be based on demand and not based on the whims of the property owner next door.

      3. Yeah, what Alex said. Eight story buildings are impractical (it doesn’t make sense to use steel to just get a couple extra floors). To make matters worse, the FAR limits make it difficult to build ten story buildings (when steel might make sense):

        Also, while building wood apartments is much cheaper than building with steel, the cheapest form of construction is a conversion. It is very cheap to take a house and convert it to an apartment. It is also cheap to add a backyard cottage, or a small apartment (or two). If we want affordable housing while preserving some of our nice old houses, this is exactly the type of development we should encourage. Of course, most of it is illegal right now, so instead we have expensive tear downs while rent prices keep going up.

      4. Yes the least impactful way to add density would be SF conversions to apartments or add ADUs. Unfortunately the fee structure for permitting, construction inspection, and -coming soon- rental inspections discourages small scale density.

        I recently built a detached ADU and easily spent 10% of total project cost on permitting and inspections. I doubt this is the case for a 40 unit cube.

        Here’s another example:
        “To hire a City inspector, call (206) 684-4110 and select option 3 when prompted. City inspections cost $130, which includes the first unit. Inspections for more than one unit costs an additional $25 per unit.”

        Fee rates scaled to the number of units would go a long way toward encouraging Vancouver style ADU creation – small scale, dispersed, often owner-occupied.

      5. Kudos to you for jumping through the hurtles to build the ADU. To make matters worse, our system requires individuals to do that. In other words, a landlord might want to buy a dozen houses, add ADUs, and rent them all out. That would make the process a lot less of a headache. But you can’t do that in this city. So, for example, when you sell your house, the new owner can’t rent out both places. So even if you build to the required size (which isn’t easy) add the parking (which is often harder) and go through the expensive permitting process, the next guy might just turn that other place back into a shed (because he doesn’t feel like being a landlord). I saw this happen in my neighborhood. Two houses on one lot sat forever. If they were separate houses they would have sold in half the time. If you could rent out both they would have sold fast as well. But not that many home owners want to be landlords, and very few landlords want to only rent out only one property.

      6. It seems like there should be a market for a developer/property manager to package the permitting, construction, and management for ADUs in return for a fixed duration lease from the property owner and ability to sublease. Similar to the rooftop solar or urban garden leasing programs.

      7. There’s something weird going on here. Out here in the East, we *do not build* wood frame buildings over four stories, and usually we max out at three.

        Steel (or occasionally masonry) starts to be used routinely at four stories. I’ve watched this with multiple new construction projects.

        Do you have really lax building codes out west… or do you have much cheaper lumber? (Lumber ain’t cheap here in the east.)

      8. (FWIW, there are other “floor count” dynamics going on. For new construction, anything other than a single-family house has to have elevators if it has more than one story. Elevators are not economical for two or three stories, so there’s generally a jump directly to four stories, with five or six preferred.)

    2. It’s partly about making the best of a situation that nobody can prevent. While I’m a staunch supporter of all things urban, it’s clear that people are going to continue coming to Seattle whether we like it or not. We can’t stop the tide of people, so we either push them to the outskirts of the city (increasing emissions, promoting pedestrian-unfriendly environments, destroying wilderness areas, increasing car dependency, reducing the effectiveness of transit, the list goes on and on) or we can build up in the city to accommodate them (reducing emissions, preserving wilderness areas, better public health, facilitating effective public transit, etc).

      Is preserving the “character” of a neighborhood worth all these negative side effects? Seems like a pretty clear choice to me.

      1. Its not just that. There are trade-offs for sure, but the trade-offs often don’t involve preserving the “character” or even the structures versus adding density. We could liberalize our ADU laws tomorrow and add a huge amount of density — by my estimation about half of what we are expected to add. Just one percent a year in the single family zoned areas ought to do it. End the stupid ownership clause and the parking requirement for starters ( Vancouver BC has plenty of great single family zoned areas that are simply a lot more dense than ours (even though they look quite similar —

        When it comes to low rise (or just about any development) the first thing I would do is get rid of the parking requirement. It is hard to argue that this does anything to preserve the character of the neighborhood or add to the aesthetics. Quite the opposite. The parking requirement has probably contributed more to the ugliness of building in the last forty years than anything else.

      2. Ian, you are making the exact same arguments as the urbanist developers back in 1970, when they wanted to tear down the Pike Place Market and build a new neighborhood of high-rise towers. Sometimes the character (no quote marks) of a neighborhood is indeed worth preserving.

      3. ometimes the character (no quote marks) of a neighborhood is indeed worth preserving.

        That applies to perhaps a few dozen square blocks of Seattle. Instead, it’s used to block off the vast majority of the city from development, which essentially eliminates the possibility of building more family-size housing. We should be converting single-family zones to ones that allow rowhomes and townhomes en masse.

      4. As I said, RDPence, sometimes the law encourages the loss of character. By drawing a handful of very small circles and saying “you can build apartments there” we push up the cost of apartments so high that conversions are rare. It is illegal to convert that big house in Wallingford to an apartment (even a two bedroom apartment) so that makes all apartments really expensive. So when the owner of a house like this: sells, the new owner will just tear it down. Converting that house to apartment makes financial sense*, but rent is so high right now, that throwing away that house (which means throwing away a huge amount of money) and then spending another bundle on a new apartment makes sense. This sets up the cycle we are in — very high rent — very high cost of development, etc.

        * A conversion makes sense from an abstract standpoint. The cost of turning that house into an apartment is very low, and the value of the new apartments is very high. But I would assume that such a conversion would also require new parking (and now a permit) so the difference between destroying that house and starting over is smaller than it should be.

    3. Ace,

      We are far less “crowded” than some of the most livable and dynamic cities in the world, unless your definition of “livable” is faux-suburban sprawl. This would be so even if we were built out to the maximum extent zoning allows.

      If more people lived in Seattle, it could afford better transit solutions – both more buses and more rail. A more urbanized population would also increase the constituency for the very cheap practice of dedicating road space to transit, which speeds it up and enables more of it.

      1. Traffic is worse, though, and this is because of our natural (and unnatural) bottlenecks. This is why the parking requirement is stupid (why encourage more car ownership) and transit spending is a much better value here (if done right).

    4. To me, giving everybody a place to live is more important than preserving “neighborhood character” or single-family density. And we especially need more places to live in walkable areas near good transit lines. If you don’t want density, then how else do we solve the more fundamental problem? The only way to reduce demand is to create a recession that causes people to move away, but then you’ll be unemployed too. So we need to accommodate the demand of more people, not ignore it or try to reverse it. If the densification patterns aren’t smart, then help make them smarter. Start talking about where people can live rather than where they can’t.

    5. The schools argument is off-base, given that half of Seattle’s schoolchildren go to private schools. Indeed, Seattle Public Schools has had to close a bunch of schools over the last decade due to decreasing enrollment, and the state’s failure to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund schools, a problem that would only be made worse if we push growth out into the next ring of arable land and tree farms.

      As for transit, I doubt it is lost on any of the readers that those fighting transit investments the hardest also happen to be the biggest opponents of allowing more people to move here, and some transit adversaries have even openly called for businesses to leave Seattle and move to the suburbs. How will that improve “livability”?

      1. The schools comment is not correct. Seattle Schools may have closed some schools ten years ago, but enrollment is bursting at the seams, old schools are being expanded and retrofitted, and new schools are being opened.

        The city data link (from 2013) you provide reports that 20% of seattle school age kids go to private schools.
        I suspect this number is no longer accurate, but don’t have a better ref.

        >Percentage of students K-12 enrolled in private schools:
        >Magnolia: 51.8%
        >Seattle: 20.7%
        >Read more:

        Here is an enrollment graph – up 8000 in last seven years.

        Possible causes of enrollment increases may be general seattle demographics for school age kids in the city, or due to the pivot back to neighborhood schools.

      2. Agree, and note my separate comment. School crowding will get worse. If you can’t afford private school, you bear the brunt.

      3. New schools can be built. It is no different than in the suburbs. In some ways it is better, because other facilities (plumbing, roads, etc.) are easier to build. Growth increases the need for services, and more people means the cost is spread out more. It’s really not a big problem. The opposite is though (ask Detroit). Once the population starts shrinking, you have a decreasing tax base, and maintenance becomes a major problem. Just imagine the buildings that were recently renovated (Ballard and Franklin come to mind) if we had a shrinking tax base. We were fortunate that Seattle was getting bigger at the time, so that renovation was not that expensive (per Seattle resident).

        Without a doubt the Seattle school board regrets selling their old buildings, but new buildings can be bought (or built).

    6. This city is far from crowded and none of the development being discussed will change that in any substantial way. Anyone who thinks this is bad really needs to get out and see the world a bit more.

      Additional, increased density is actual better pretty much all around. It’s better for the city, better for the economy, better for the environment, and better for the residents (health, socialization, etc. All better).

      1. When my kids are in a class with fewer than 30 students, I will be more inclined to accept your argument. Crowding is a very real problem for middle class kids in Seattle public schools.

      2. Class size is not dictated by density. It’s dictated by how little our state wants to spend on ed.

      3. Yeah, what lazurus said. Besides, if your kid has a class in a portable, then you have an argument. But this is mostly a result of the school district misreading the estimates of Seattle schools. The estimates are based on the number of people expected to move here, but also based on the number of kids moving here, and where the parents want to send their kids.

      4. Ace: You have no idea what happens in “low-density” areas with poor funding. Class sizes are STILL 30+, but there are fewer and fewer electives offered, and fewer and fewer classrooms until the school quality starts to sink to the floor and it’s “everyone in one room with one teacher” again.

    7. If the buses are too full you add more buses. You don’t encourage growth (which is going to happen anyways) to all happen way out in the suburbs rather than in the city.

      I can’t believe I’m having to explain this to someone in the year 2015. You must be a Republican.

      1. Yes, you add more buses. And police. And schools. And parks. And libraries. When you get there, I’ll be happy to talk about adding 100k+ new residents.

      2. If only new residents somehow could somehow be made to contribute to the fiscal position of government services…

      3. We’re not creating these new residents; they’re already there. If they can’t live in Seattle, where can they live?

      4. Those 100K people are coming whether we prepare for them or not. The sooner we get started, the less it will cost.

      5. @ace — Yes, you add all of those. But *per resident* you don’t. Most of those service scale very well, actually. You don’t need to add more roads or more sewers or more water mains for each new person (but you do for each new home in an outer suburb). Public transit in general scales really well. Buses create a virtuous cycle — more buses (to handle the increased load) means more buses per hour, which leads to better service overall. Light rail is even better (the only way light rail is cost effective is if a lot of people ride it and pay for it).

    8. Its not “our” zeal for growth that causes growth. We already live here. Its the zeal of “random person” to move here that causes growth. We, you and I, cannot prevent that person from moving here. People have that right in America. I just feel strongly that the growth trends should be acknowledged, anticipated, and accommodated. There is no reverse “Field of Dreams” scenario. If we don’t build it, they are still coming.

  2. Ah Hell, let’s just go full NIMBY and full Bailo. No net gain of housing units, office, commercial, or industrial space shall be allowed.

    1. Even Bailo doesn’t want to shut down growth. He is on record as saying Queens makes for a good model (Queens has roughly three times our population density). More to the point, while Bailo has praised the single family home, would he oppose town houses? What about ADUs? I guess we’ll have to hear from him.

      1. My point has been, and always will be:

        Don’t kill Solomon’s Baby.

        Make more Babies.

        Make more Seattle.

        Make more Seattles.

      2. How is Cleveland different from what’s happening in Seattle? It’s just on a larger scale here. And Cleveland may have excess housing to absorb the influx because it has been shrinking. But when the excess housing gets filled up, then Cleveland will have to build more housing or rents will start to rise like Seattle.

        Also, when JB says “more Seattle”, he seems to mean more “old Seattle” (e.g., Wallingford bungalows and mom-n-pop apartments) rather than “new Seattle” (7+-story buildings).

      3. By the way, Seattle also had excess housing in the late 80s when the population bottomed out and started turning around, so that may be similar to Cleveland today. You could live in any neighborhood inexpensively. You could look at a hipster-preferred apartment, think about it for a week, and if you still wanted it there was a reasonable chance it was still available. The excess space filled up in the 90s and 00s, then came back after the 2008 crash, but took an unprecedented sharp turn tighter in 2011 with the rise of Dotcom II. Cleveland may be in the middle of that cycle, and it may have more total housing available, but eventually if people keep coming it will eventually have a housing shortage and higher prices unless it builds enough housing to keep up with demand.

      4. Cleveland has made a lot of very poor Rust-Belt-era mass-demolition choices, so when Cleveland needs to build a lot more housing, there will be a lot of vacant lots to do it on.

    2. or just let Natural Selection run its course as we continue well down the path of our self imposed Mass Extintion (No.6). In several lifetimes it’s a mute point according researchers at Stanford, Princeton and UC Berkeley.

    3. San Francisco Can’t Solve San Francisco’s Rent Crisis. But Its Suburbs Could.

      The biggest problem with housing in San Francisco isn’t actually in San Francisco. It’s in the suburbs.

      In the Bay Area, the cities that have shut their doors to housing are the suburban municipalities that contain most of the region’s population. “The smaller communities, in my opinion, need to step up, and I don’t see that happening,” San Francisco planning director John Rahaim says. “There’s such a huge demand in general and that can’t be met just by the big three cities.”

      Nor should it be. Once upon a time, a forward-thinking planner might have conceived of the region as three high-density nodes of housing and jobs, in San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland, with quiet bedroom communities strung like beads along commuter rail lines and highways.

      1. Yeah, by ceasing to be such total suburbs.

        In the same way that municipalities adjacent to many older cities behave nothing like suburbs in the archetypal American/Bailoian sense.

      2. +1 to d.p. I’m all for “building more Seattle”; it just starts with, well, building more Seattle-style – or, better, Queens-style – buildings. I’m seeing some promising four-story apartments under construction near Overlake Village; more of those would go a long way.

        (Improving the street grid around there and making it more pedestrian-friendly would help a lot too.)

      3. San Fransisco proper is very tiny, from a land mass standpoint. The surrounding “suburbs” (Oakland, Berkeley, Daly City) are a mix, much as Seattle is. Some areas are very suburban (rich houses in shrub land that occasionally burn) while other parts are very urban. I agree with the article, the greatest potential for growth is in those other cities. It doesn’t help that they basically got screwed with BART, though. The number of stops in the Oakland/Berkeley area is insane. Meanwhile, Marin County makes Magnolia look like Manhattan.

  3. There’s a large constituency of SFH owners who many would call “anti-urban” but are in fact more frustrated with specific types of density that can lead to negative externalities affecting the entire neighborhood. Some examples:

    1) 6-pack townhome developments with 12 cars replacing 2 SFHs with 4 cars. The townhome residents can’t fit their SUVs in the garages (or they use the garages for storage), so there are up to 8 more cars on the street. This creates severe parking shortages. Yes, the neighbors are against “density” but what are they really mad about is tons of people owning cars!

    2) ADUs: there are so many illegal ADUs that they have poisoned the well about allowing legal ones. There’s an unpermitted garage+basement ADU across from my childhood home, which put 2 more cars on the street (the formerly garaged car + the tenant’s car). Now my parents hate all ADUs.

    3) Duplexes/multifamily: I grew up next to a rental house that was effectively a multifamily property and lived down the street from several duplex/triplex homes. The number of times the police were called to those homes was ridiculous. Fights, domestic violence, out of control parties, drugs, etc. Not one such incident at any of the other homes on the block. Needless to say the neighbors have become extremely anti-density.

    Those experiences haven’t changed my opinion that more density is desirable, but I can understand where these homeowners are coming from. There are often real downsides that are related to density, like crime, noise, and congestion. Cars are a big issue because virtually every homeowner in Seattle is wealthy and park multiple cars on the street. Rents are so high, however, that the common 3x rent income requirements basically guarantee that people who live in market rate rental housing have lots of disposable income to spend on a car.

    1. 6-pack townhome developments with 12 cars replacing 2 SFHs with 4 cars. The townhome residents can’t fit their SUVs in the garages (or they use the garages for storage), so there are up to 8 more cars on the street. This creates severe parking shortages. Yes, the neighbors are against “density” but what are they really mad about is tons of people owning cars!

      I can't muster any sympathy for this point of view at all. If you want guaranteed convenient car storage, pay for it. If you want to compete for publicly subsidized car storage provided on a free-for-all basis, feel free to compete away, but note that it is a public resource, and your home did not come with an easement right to the street space in front of it. It's nothing more than a demand that other people pay more so they can have privileged access to a public resource.

    2. The hypocrisy of this position is amazing. How dare these people come and not have parking facilities, so that they park on the street, thus blocking me from parking in front of my house with no parking facilities?

      1. Right, it is a highly problematic argument, but it is a commonly held viewpoint. We can’t ignore that. Simply bashing people in the head with “you don’t own the street” arguments isn’t going to convert them to a pro-density mindset.

        Of course, Seattle could just ban street parking citywide. There would be a severe political cost, perhaps, but it would be effective in decoupling cars from density. Perhaps if enough renters understood how parking costs were driving up their rents it could pass, but the districting of the Council probably makes any severe restrictions politically impossible. Most of the renters are locked up in 2-3 of the districts.

      2. I don’t think you’re going to convert the people showing up to these hearings. I want the Council to ignore them, and to do that we have to point out how ridiculous their position is.

      3. Or, in some cases, it’s coming from people with parking facilities they prefer to use to store other things.

      4. Seattle doesn’t need to BAN street parking citywide…
        …charging a substantial amount for it would have the same result.

        At even $1/hour (24 hours a day), I suspect most people would stop dumping their cars on the street overnight. But they still COULD, if they wanted to pay for it.

        Heck, Seattle could sell full residential parking permits for a mere $2920/year (equivalent to $1/hour for 8 hours a day) and I think it would still drive a lot of people to put their cars into their garages!

    3. The first two arguments are basically about parking. This is really the argument we need to have in this city. Are we really willing to keep building ugly buildings and forcing people to pay sky high rent because we want more parking? If so, then we should just build parking. It is unfair for renters to pay for parking (whether they use it or not). If it really is a public good, then we should all pay for it. To do otherwise is unfair.

      The third argument is essentially a stereotype. Like all racist (or in this case, classist) stereotypes, I find it disgusting. Seriously — replace the word “renter” with “black people” and see how that paragraph works out for you. It is fairly common, really. Someone different (Black, Irish, Italian, or in this case, a renter) moves into the neighborhood and is suddenly a representative for his or her people. Great. Forgive me if I find that argument unsympathetic.

      My guess is none of these arguments have much sympathy in a city like Seattle (where we elect socialists, raise the minimum wage, etc.). But the first two are often misunderstood. People say things like “developers need to do this” and “developers need to do that” without understanding that this costs money — real money (like 20 grand a unit). Folks also don’t understand that every renter, and everyone looking to buy pays this cost. By pushing up the cost of construction (and sometimes literally limiting the number of units that can be built) you push up the costs (whether you live there or not). This is not obvious, and it isn’t being discussed. It is more than a “parking versus non-parking” issue, it is a fairness issue. Why should those with less wealth (those who rent or are looking to buy a house) be the only ones paying for a public amenity? Again, if we really think that parking is a public good, then everyone should pay for it.

      This is why I would like to see an initiative to remove the parking clause from all zoning regulations. This is simple, but the argument is not. Even if the argument is lost (people want to continue with an unfair approach) it will at least increase the number of people who understand this important issue.

      1. Not saying I agree with those arguments, only that I’ve heard them often enough and I can understand how they’ve reached those places.

        My current (multifamily) neighbors leave much to be desired. Late and loud parties, throwing bottles off the roof, trash in the hallways and elevators, etc. Based on the rents they are paying and the cars in the garage, these people are pretty high-income.

        I don’t think good neighbors are really a class issue. When you have more density, you’re going to get more bad neighbors just because there are more people around and you’re more exposed to them in a compact space. Its not like SFH owners are model citizens, but in an SFH situation you’re not sharing the common areas with 150 other people. The 10 who are bad neighbors are way more irritating when they are anonymously puking in the elevator instead of on the stairs of their SFH.

      2. I keep hearing that inclusive parking requirements drive up rent due to increased construction cost, but I do not seem to be hearing that developers are completely raking in tons of money and, in reality, they could charge the same rent for a unit with parking as one without parking…it would simply make their profit margins slightly less egregious. Developers can create more housing with parking in a tasteful and livable manner and still be very profitable. Seattle residents mostly do not drive. It is people from the suburbs who drive in to Seattle (regional transit stinks). Seattle residents do make enough to own a car and want one for occasional convenience and leaving it on the street is a horrible idea for everyone. Is the real argument being propagated by developers that they do not make enough profit? Really?

    4. Where I grew up, the neighbors two houses down loved having mariachi parties on special occasions, mostly Friday and Saturday nights. As far as I could tell, the neighbors loved it as a special treat. Here, I get a hunch someone would call the police on them.

      The good news for victims of domestic abuse is that in apartments, there are more neighbors to call the police. We have no way of knowing how much suffering goes on quietly inside a well-sound-insulated home with only two adults there to call the police, and neither in a good position to do so. We have plenty of anecdotes on the news, though, of homicide/suicide tragedies, inside single-family homes.

      Alas, a lot of the perception about renters isn’t out of concern for the safety of apartment dwellers, but out of a desire to not be around “those people.”

      1. Several cases of people being kidnapped and tortured for years happened in single-family suburban homes. It’s not hard to turn them into soundproofed prisons.

  4. It may not be new, but I think it is worth posting about how these regulations work against each other, and against their purported goals. For example:

    1) Required parking
    2) Density limitations to reduce congestion.
    3) Nice looking buildings or landscaping.
    4) Preservation of nice older houses.

    The first two are clearly at odds. If you require parking, you are way more likely to have cars drive there. You may get cars in the neighborhood anyway, but if you supply free parking, you can pretty much guarantee it.

    The first and third often conflict. Parking is probably the ugliest thing you add to a building plan. Almost all of the really great looking buildings scattered around the city don’t require parking (kudos to the architects who manage to make a nice looking building while adding the required parking — that is like playing basketball with one hand tied behind your back).

    Meanwhile, density rules or rules designed to encourage nice looking buildings often do the opposite. Setbacks can really limit what a developer can do. Next thing you know, all the buildings look the same, and they look ugly. Many of the big buildings have FAR requirements, and so the developer adds open space — on the inside! This is hardly good for the neighborhood. Again, if you look at the really great old buildings, many of them take up the entire lot, and would be illegal with today’s standards — standards designed to encourage better looking buildings.

    Finally, by setting up very restricted development (in only a handful of areas) you encourage tear downs. Imagine the scenario: Some guy sells his house in a low rise zone. Now a developer buys it. The cheap thing to do is remodel the thing and turn it into a triplex. It is a big house, and with a few doors everyone has a bathroom and a bedroom (or two). Add a kitchen (or not, if the regulation didn’t require it) and the neighbors hardly notice the change. Letter are placed on the doors (1324 A, 1324 B, 1324 C) and that is about it. But it rarely goes down that way now. Given the market, it doesn’t make sense. The market is so hot right now and the building opportunities so limited, that once a property does become available, it gets torn down and developers pay a bundle to build a new building, but they add more units. It reminds of Forest Service fire suppression. They spent so many years trying to stop little fires and now when there is a fire, it is usually a really big one.

    None of this is good for anyone. Ugly buildings are built, and rent continues to skyrocket. Traffic will continue to get worse and parking will always be hard to come by.

    I can respect those that don’t want ugly buildings being built just as I can understand why people don’t want to see nice looking houses being torn down. But the current policy is a stupid mess, and this new change will only make it worse.

    1. Excellent comment, agreed completely. The only logic that can explain these restrictions, taken as a whole, is a logic of exclusion–keeping as many people out of the city as possible.

    2. Very well written. Promote this to front page article? It’s a good summary of the dynamics of good intentions leading to perverse results which nobody likes.

  5. I’m skeptical we’re going to get any help from Sawant or Harrell. If Murray wants to demonstrate he’s serious about affordable housing, he should start talking about vetoing this disaster.

    1. I’m skeptical anyone has presented the urbanist arguments to Sawant or Harrell. Has anyone tried?

      1. I sent some email to Sawant about some density-related vote or another. Her reply was boilerplate but revealing. It committed to no specifics to speak of, but was framed in a way that implied the fight *for* affordable housing and *against* evil developers were one in the same.

  6. I think that urbanists have a basically wrong understanding of these objections. They are at root very emotional, and have lead to a siege mentality. I was at that meeting, and got dirty looks for clapping when the committee voted down an amendment excluding passivehaus from getting the normal energy effeciency bonuses. That’s a really one issue, embattled mindset.

    These restrictions are not supported because they accomplish any specific goal, they are supported because some people don’t like the new buildings at all.

    1. Of course they are emotional. There is nothing wrong with being emotional, the problem is, in many cases, they are ignoring reason when it comes to emotions. Folks are really not thinking it through.

      I’m sure I could do the opposite, of course. I could show pictures of a beautiful family. Hard working immigrants that came to this country, became citizens (show a teary eyed new American) and now work hard to pay the bills. Show the cute little kids and both parents struggling with balancing work and family responsibilities. Then show how their rent has gone up, up, up. Show how they’ve considered moving to a cheaper neighborhood, but then gramma can’t babysit; between day care and the extra cost and time of driving, they just can’t make it work. Why is rent going up so high (cue the lights and ominous music)? Zoning. Yes, zoning is making the cost of living in the city expensive. Well meaning folks have passed laws that are pushing hard working families like this out of the city. Won’t anyone think of the children? It is time to change the zoning laws.

      That is really the biggest problem we have in this city. It isn’t that folks are mentally balancing the two forces. No is is saying “screw that family, I want to keep this neighborhood exactly like it has always been”. Instead they say “Damn developers making ugly looking buildings — I remember when this neighborhood was pretty”. They really don’t connect the two. They don’t connect preservation (which, in the abstract is laudable) or parking (which is not) with higher rents. The politicians don’t either. Look how many people are running for city council (there are dozens) and how few talk about zoning when asked about high rents. Very few, despite the fact that it is by far the most practical thing we can do. Instead they talk about subsidies and the like which have nothing to do with the problem, and will have little impact (in part because housing is so expensive, which means you can’t build that many subsidized units).

      I personally don’t think we need to go “full Houston” either. I think that we can make a decent balance between preservation and new (affordable) housing (without public subsidies). In fact, I would say our current zoning laws do a terrible job at both. But we need to start by admitting that there is a balance. To many people, none exists, which is why it is really easy to get emotional and get angry at developers (and be completely oblivious to the folks that suffer when development gets restricted).

      1. My small city (well, technically I live in a suburb of it) elected a 26-year-old mayor by a supermajority. HIs top priority is more affordable housing, because so many people are driving an hour through rural areas from other cities to go to work (and this is in a small town, remember, 50000 residents), and *rented rooms* (not even apartments) are well in excess of 30% of the average income.

        So he’s authorized lots and lots of new apartment buildings. And they each have to pass design review and look nice. But they’re gettin’ built.

        So it’s possible. It requires a political dynamic where the people who need the housing (a) can get elected and control the government, and (b) understand that they’re not going to have affordable housing unless there is more housing near their workplace. Dunno if you can get that dynamic in Seattle.

    2. Yes, there is emotion. But I see plenty of logic behind the actions of the anti-density lobby as well. Their goal is clearly to keep things the way they are, in terms of the built environment, as well as the culture of their neighbors. Linkage fees, height restrictions, design review, parking minima, and zoning are, for them, merely weapons in their arsenal.

      1. Does anyone else find it odd that the candidates wanting to put the city in amber are the ones throwing around the word “change” the most?

      2. Doesn’t this also keep the value of SFHs high? I have to think that the folks who bought a place for $12,000 on Capitol Hill in the 70s are concerned that if the “character” of their neighborhood changes then their houses will be worth less. Why does this never get talked about? I’d say make Kshama Sawant make a stand on that, or get someone more social justice-minded elected instead. Preserving the status quo is basically preserving the wealth of the current land-owning class that has benefited greatly from what the public has done to make Seattle the desirable place it currently is.

      3. That house was probably worth $40,000 rather than $12,000, and there’s no chance of it falling that low again unless Mount Rainier lava flows through the city first. Meanwhile, there’s a longstanding argument that apartments lower neighboring house values, but it’s a dubious assertion with arguments on both sides, and more applicable in the 1950s when the apartment was an urban renewal project with 100% welfare housing. It’s particularly inapplicable in an era where most new apartments are upscale and their renters make $65K (often times two). How riff-raffy is that? Excluding apartments from the block is mostly an emotional thing, not a sound financial thing.

  7. ‘Til John signs in this morning, Ross raises a couple of interesting points. One, as with all abstract goals, there are better and worse ways to handle “density.” The Black Hole of Calcutta (a war crime), and a crush loaded local bus stuck in traffic (leave out the war part) both fit the term.

    So does current development in Ballard (maybe the US can start stockpiling weapons in Queens to deter them). But the “cottage communities in Langley and also right across from the gate at Shoreline Community College deserve more attention. They might make neighborhoods and neighbors that a lot of Seattle can live with.

    But John also raises a serious possibility. Maybe, consciously or not, what many density opponents can’t stand is the idea of being packed at close quarters with people like themselves. Steven Hawking is probably shuddering at result of that much passive aggression compressed into a singularity. At least the Calcutta thing featured Brits whose soccer fans always caused really terrific riots back home.

    So plan I’ve always advocated is a massive campaign to subsidize people from places like Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, and definitely Queens to move within a block from every possible LINK (ok, and busway) station.

    Not only for wise land use and transit efficiency, but to give Seattle politics, art, industry, and general culture what they desperately need most: as large as possible number of people who can look a speaker in the eye and say:

    “That is the stoopidest thing I have ever heard anybody say in my life! You must be an unbelievably stoopid person if you think things like that! And everybody who would vote for somebody as stoopid as you….jus’ fergit ’em! Sheesh!” Before nightfall, there’d be good corn beef sandwiches at every transit stop region-wide open 24-7-365.


  8. The summary self-admittedly doesn’t do much of a breakdown, other than taking a potshot at low income housing and using alarmist language like “driving many potential residents out of the city”.

    When I RTFA, I saw that there were eight amendments voted on O’Brien’s original legislation, which took a few more clicks to find, but I found a decent rundown here:

    Reading through the legislation and the amendments that passed committee (three of eight passed; also not clear if you just read the summary), most of the items are small things, like counting external walkways and staircases in the FAR (internal ones are, why not external?), cracking down on “clerestories” (essentially half floors that are used to get around height limits), requiring a setback from rowhouses to existing homes (I see good and bad in this) and continuing to allow daylighted basement apartments to give a height bonus to the building.

    There are some items that are cause for concern, like not allowing developers to round up the minimum ratio of building to land to determine number of townhomes, although townhomes are a horribly inefficient use of land versus six to eight unit condo buildings that can fit in the same space, so I’m not concerned about this one. Also, the rowhouse change also read that new rowhouses may not be able to abut each other, but it’s not too clear. This is just an aesthetic item that I think should be stricken.

    None of O’Brien’s original changes nor the three passed amendments appear to “drive many potential residents out of the city”. Sure, they are poorly thought out changes, but I think they were an attempt to close loopholes that developers were taking advantage of; mostly, these just would serve to slightly reduce the size of units in low rise buildings. Also, given the fact that the Met article’s only dissenting quote is a pro-developer lobbyist, I question whether this is just an alarmist knee-jerk reaction to a non-issue.

    Correct me if I’m wrong.

    1. I agree that some of the language of the post is a bit hysteric, but the Council’s action is retrograde and counter to the goals of the pedestrian master plan, the bike plan, billions of dollars of regional transit planning, good urban design, and common sense. It shows political fear and bowing to a select loud minority of single family homeowners. “Making Seattle the Most Walkable City” – not.

    2. If the only impact is to reduce the size of some units, doesn’t that go against the stated concerns of some microhousing opponents?

      1. I wouldn’t think so. The building types the council is going after are livable units with bathrooms and kitchens.

        But you bring up a good point. The council should be going after the loopholes that allow boarding houses than the loopholes they are attempting to fix with this legislation.

      2. Why should we ban “boarding houses”? I lived in a dormitory in college and really enjoyed it. I don’t really want to go back to living in such a small space, but if someone else does they should certainly be allowed.

      3. Boarding houses need to be re-legalized. They’re a very useful form of housing, particularly for people who don’t have time to or want to do their own cooking.

    3. The changes make it more expensive to build, and reduce the number of units that can be added. This will push up the cost of rent. Does this ““drive many potential residents out of the city”? Absolutely. Maybe not that many, but the direction is horrible (given the high cost of rent right now). Low rise zones are significant, and generally speaking some of the more affordable housing that can be built. They house fewer, but don’t cost that much to build. So pushing up the costs has a significant impact.

    4. counting external walkways and staircases in the FAR (internal ones are, why not external?)

      Where FAR limits already work to restrict healthy urban design, by requiring larger lots (and fewer per block) to achieve the less functional use, any move to further restrict FAR by counting exterior space as if it were built space is unhelpful and unproductive.

      But this sin is comparatively minor next to the other one:

      requiring a setback from rowhouses to existing homes

      It’s not a side-setback from existing homes. It’s a side-setback from the lot-line, a.k.a. from the possibility of every participating in an actual “row”.

      Buildings that form rows — that touch each other — are the basic building blocks of every walkable city in the universe. This is what makes “rowhouses” a useful and desirable form worthy of its own categorizable nomenclature.

      And true rowhouses have just been made illegal again. Because true rowhouses do not arise when a single developer buys up an entire block and builds 30 iterations of the same thing. True rowhouses arise from the possibility of builders buying only a few lots (or owner-occupiers buying just one), and contributing to the variety of the form that block takes.

      Want more visual variety, fewer wholesale teardowns, less boilerplate architecture, projects that don’t bar all but the deepest-pocketed developers to entry? Then you have to let different owners’ buildings touch each other!

      Want more genuine walkability, and broad support for transit, and less parking-obsessed land use? You have to have visually stimulating streets, which means smaller lots and a greater variety of buildings in unbroken proximity.

      Those things have just been made illegal.

      Correct me if I’m wrong.


      1. You’re not wrong. I fear it is worse than that too, since if built out, the rowhouses would all have creepy garbage filled 4-foot gaps between them. That would be a perfect place to do a bunch of seedy shit.

      2. This also came about because of exactly once instance of the rowhouses being “too close” to a SFH. A SFH which was in violation of the city’s zoning for SHF setbacks. If the house had been compliant, no problem.

      3. The “correct me” invitation was from RapidRider, whom I was gently “correcting”.

        The real upshot is that we will never seen anything resembling “rowhouses”, except as massive standalone single-developer consolidated-lot projects, and that this will further reinforce Seattle’s false conflation of “dense” with “inherently ugly”, just as the code-addled breadboxes and multi-pack not-actually-townhomes did before them.

      4. Yes, exactly. That is why I find the zoning arguments so frustrating. People complain about ugly buildings, then they add zoning restrictions that pretty much require ugliness. Reactionary zoning (which has been going on now for almost fifty years) doesn’t work very well. If we want more pretty buildings — if we want more interesting neighborhoods — then we need to liberalize the zoning. After all, most of the neighborhoods (including the single family dominated ones) that are a pleasure to walk through, were built without so many requirements.

      5. @JonCracolici Yes, as d.p. pointed out, he’s correcting me. I’m no land use expert and the summary didn’t really break down O’Brien’s change nor the amendments (other than saying it was bad), so I was trying to sift through it as best as I can.

        But yeah d.p. qualified my concern that rowhouses were made not just to touch adjacent, existing lots, but also new structures within the rowhouse complex, making them, as d.p. put it, illegal.

    5. Prohibiting rowhouses from abutting each other?

      What do they think rowhouses ARE?

  9. “Height limits are the legal constraint, but the real constraints are engineering (building codes) and economic (financing and construction costs). Above 6-7 stories wood frame construction is not allowed under building codes. Higher construction must be concrete. However, concrete and steel is much more expensive ”

    We don’t need high rises, we just need a larger area where 6-7 story buildings are allowed. And beyond that, even 3-4 stories and row houses and ADUs would help substantially. Chicago’s north side is mostly 5-10 stories, and pre-elevator developments rarely went above four stories. The difference is they were built right next to each other rather than with setbacks, and they were oriented vertically rather than horizontally. (And they didn’t have garages.) That allows more people to fit into the same space, and is a hallmark of vibrant, highly-desired and touristed neighborhoods. Seattle is 51% SFH. If we rezone just 5% of that to 7 stories around transit stations, and 5% beyond that to 4 stories, and allow ADUs everywhere, it would probably solve the problem. It may not roll back rents 30% as I’d like, but it would slow down the rises and displacement. The only people “displaced” are those who voluntarily sell their SFH’s, and they’ll have so much money that they can move anywhere they like.

    “People either want more people in the city or they prefer them displaced to the suburbs.”

    I don’t think the anti-density folks look at it that way. They aren’t so much thinking about them being displaced to the suburbs, as that they don’t exist at all, or that they don’t really need housing, or that they can just go back to California or Texas or wherever they came from. “Displacement to the suburbs” is not realistic because the suburbs are even more anti-density than the city: look at how downtown Kirkland and Surrey Downs are in fits about even hinting of upzoning. Granted, the suburbs are more willing to release non-SF land for large developments, but that’s not enough, and it doesn’t make up for the lack of walkability and comprehensive transit there. (You can walk to one supermarket, but forget about a choice of several.)

    1. Go out to Issaquah Highlands, and marvel at the six-story buildings that would not be allowed next to most of our light rail stations.

      1. Wow, Seattle is messed up. I guess there’s actually a case for intensive transit service to Issaquah Highlands. Probably deserves a rail line.

    2. Chicago is dense as you say partly because it doesn’t have a lot of other stuff in those residential neighborhoods. It is mostly dense but low-rise multifamily. The difference compared to Seattle is that Chicago is consistently developed, block after block.

      In Seattle we have areas zoned for 85′ or higher buildings that are filled with parking lots, 1 story buildings, government uses, parks, etc. You don’t find that much in Chicago. Belltown is a patchwork of dense residential and parking lots. Capitol Hill still has several gas stations, perhaps the least-urban land use possible. Despite all of the development, even SLU still has land available. Those are tremendous opportunities for residential. The zoning is there. But for some reason the market isn’t driving that development rapidly.

      1. Chicago (and not just inner Chicago) has a lot more walkable commercial mixed in with the walkable residential than you appear to be giving it credit for.

    3. “People either want more people in the city or they prefer them displaced to the suburbs.”

      I don’t think the anti-density folks look at it that way.

      Insofar as they don’t, it’s a classic example of agnotology; a carefully cultivated and strategic kind of ignorance that allows them to advance reactionary, self-interested positions while comfortably preserving their left/progressive self-image.

      1. Yes, that is it. I think this is, by far, the biggest problem we have. As I said above, just consider parking. Just consider this proposal:

        1) Renters and those thinking of buying should pay for the construction of parking.
        2) New developments should have parking in relation to the number of residents.

        I think most people would oppose the first and support the second. But they are the same thing!

        Not that these folks are alone. So called socialists and progressives are quick to blame developers for actually increasing rent. Seriously. I’m not saying that adding more housing will solve all our problems, but some claim that they make things worse (because those moving in have more money). There is no evidence at all for this (almost all our development adds density) but the argument persists.

        But the specific agnotology (thanks for the new word) you mentioned is described quite well here:

        As I’ve said before, there are real trade-offs to be made with zoning. I don’t want us to allow everything everywhere. I do believe in preservation, but I think a serious discussion of the trade-offs (and how to achieve them) haven’t occurred because few want to address the problem seriously. This is a great example of that. How can the city council, in the middle of a process aimed at increasing housing affordability pass regulations that will make housing more expensive?

    4. “The difference compared to Seattle is that Chicago is consistently developed, block after block.”

      Yes, that’s what I was trying to say.

      What was that suggestion about taxing surface parking lots as if they were built out to the zoning limit? That would remove the incentive to leave parking lots as-is until rents go even higher or the height limit is doubled.

  10. You can’t separate housing density issues from employment density issues. If we are going to add tens of thousands of new jobs in Downtown and South Lake Union, we must realize that those workers have to live somewhere!

    Our leaders must be reminded that adding 25,000 new jobs in new tall buildings Downtown means that we need to add thousands of housing units AND we need to add a new rail line for the 50,000+ transit trips that this employment growth induces.

    1. Perhaps if a large proportion of those 25k emplyees lived within walking distance of their jobs, we wouldn’t need quite so much transit.

      1. And why shouldn’t they?

        Why is there an artificial distinction between “commercial” and “residential” zones? Or indeed “light industrial”?

        I get why heavy industrial is zoned separately. But why are the other types of uses segregated? Racism?

  11. Urbanists made an early error equating density with highrises (“Manhattan”). But many successful dense neighborhoods are mostly lowrise (“Queens”, also Paris, San Francisco, London, Edinburgh, Chicago… even most of Manhattan’s housing). The difference between these neighborhoods and Seattle is they’re larger 2-D areas with higher average density, and no spaces around the buildings. So there’s two ways to pursue density. Worse, the words highrise/midrise/lowrise are ambiguous because all three of them can apply to a 10-story building in different people’s minds. When urbanists say density they may be thinking mostly 7 stories and a few taller, but others may be hearing it as all 40 stories. Anti-density advocates prefer to hear it that way because it’s easier to reject, but that’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    1. I agree. Add Amsterdam to that list of mostly a low rise (and gorgeous) cities.

      I think there really are a couple big problems. First, we have built ugly new buildings in the past. If anything, this is changing. But unfortunately, huge population growth (and economics and zoning) have conspired to make a lot of buildings look very similar. So while a particular building might look nice, a bunch of similar ones looks ugly. A contrast is the UW campus, where some of the buildings in my opinion look pretty ugly, but stand out as a nice contrast (because of the mix of styles). This was the result of a lot of building over many years, not one quick growth spurt.

      But there will always be people who want things to be just like it was. Or at least, just like it was when they moved here ( They want to be able to have just as much parking, just as many nice houses, just as many restaurants, and so forth. No sense worrying about what it was like before you got here (and the fact that the growth enabled you to live there or enjoy the lifestyle you adore). There is little that can be done for folks like that. Change will happen. It is being driven by economic forces, more than anything. But if you do want to preserve old structures, then you should support more ADUs and putting more (not less) units on a low rise lot. This means fewer parking spaces, but you can’t have everything.

    2. What’s “ugly”? To me all modernist architecture is ugly, and the architects just need to go back to the pre-1940s styles and create new styles inspired by that. I hear that too many new buildings are “Craftsman”. I don’t even know what that means. If it means porches and window moldings and such, that’s better than modernist crap, and it’ll do until there’s an art deco revival or something.

      1. It is all subjective, of course. But the first wave of anti-growth sentiment I remember occurred with duplexes and quads added to Ballard, which I think to this day would be considered ugly by most people. A boring building with a lot of cement and a couple rhododendrons. The next wave of low rise was a bit nicer, as it required the parking to be out back. But other requirements forced the developers to make essentially the same building over and over. Unlike a row house, there was no connecting symmetry. Parts of Fremont look like this. Not horrible, but not nearly as nice as it could be (or as interesting as the single family neighborhoods farther up the street). I’m not saying those houses are spectacular, but the variety (of both landscaping and housing) make them more interesting.

        Like I said, though, I think it is getting better. The latest wave is fairly nice, overall. Some of the newer low rise buildings in Fremont are quite nice. But at the same time, the sameness of many of the big three story buildings (on Stone Way, for example) is really getting old. Six story (or higher) buildings breaking it up would be most welcome. Speaking of six story buildings, the sameness of South Lake Union is a similar problem. The Cascade neighborhood, on the other hand, has quite a few gems, and has managed to avoid the “every building looks the same” problem as a result. This one is great: and goes well with the neighborhood (it helps to have an old brick building there). On the other side of that little neighborhood is a building I like to call the Airstream building: Without that beauty, the block would look very boring (in my opinion).

        As I said earlier, the crazy thing is that zoning has contributed to much of the problem. Our ugliest and prettiest buildings were built with little zoning. For every Safeco tower, there are a dozen wonderful brick buildings that would be illegal now, like the one I mentioned earlier ( The big reason, of course, is that the building I referenced has no parking. If we really are concerned about aesthetics, then we should start by getting rid of the parking requirement. In general, though, we should also allow more freedom, not less, to avoid the sameness in development that will no doubt occur. That is why these regulations, from an aesthetic standpoint, are moving in the wrong direction. I can just see a bunch of row houses in the future, with people wondering why there is a big gap in some.

      2. For the record, Ross, I strongly disagree that across-the-board relaxation of regulations would build us the cities of a century ago. The conditions and the actors and the financing processes and, perhaps above all, the habits are simply too different than they were.

        I think the key is to design regulations that reflect what we know about the history of cities that work, rather than the weird obsessions that have morphed into regulatory categories.

        It’s not about uniform height, but about massing. It’s not about variated façades, but about street interface and permeability. Not open space, but human space. No colors, but forms and details.

        The first steps, in a perfect world, would be to set FAR minimums and lot-size maximums. But as you said, we have just literally moved in the wrong direction from that.

      3. “the habits are simply too different than they were”

        The habit of driving and parking… One car per person…

      4. There is no doubt that we would see more garages or parking spaces than we did 100 years ago. Just about every big house that is built has a big garage these days. But these sit on big lots, and cost big money. They are replacing smaller houses.

        But the when it comes to smaller units, the market is crying out for less parking, not more. The Apodment debate is a great example. It was clearly a loophole, and forced developers to make a tough choice. Do you build a bunch of small apartments (which people want) with parking (which the city requires) or do you build apartments with shared kitchens (which people will accept). They chose the latter, for good reason. The parking (and design review) requirement is so onerous, that they decided to jump through the silly loophole. This is for a very big building, too. For a town house or a row house, it is even more clear cut — people would rather have the space for living rather than the space for parking their car. From a building perspective it is way easier to just ignore the parking. That doesn’t guarantee good design, but it gets us a long way there.

        Basically I’m arguing that most of the design decisions you favor would happen naturally, even without regulations. I just don’t see us building this any more of these: Why would you? You are throwing away half the land. if not more? Hell, this old pink house makes more sense: Take away the parking requirement, rules bases on density and the setbacks, but keep the height limits and you end up with row houses, or row house looking apartments. Worse case scenario, you end up with lots of houses like this:, but closer to the street (like the pink house). Again — why waste the space?

        Not that I think this is at all likely or even ideal. You probably want some design restrictions (beyond just height based ones). But what I’m saying is that we would probably be better off with nothing than we are now. I do think developers would build houses or apartments without parking. After all, a lot of people just store their crap in their garage, which is why they want to park on the street, and want other people to park their car in the garage. I guess what I’m saying is, if Ballard allowed it, I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t build this: These, by the way are shorter than many of the apartment buildings that are going up. They are probably well within the height limit of the houses, let alone low rise. That neighborhood is way more densely populated than in any in Ballard; the census tract is higher than every tract in Seattle except one in Belltown, despite being picked by random.

        My guess is that if you loosened the reigns, you would get a mix. You would probably get a lot of houses/apartments like those (which would be very popular) and then you would get a few shared (but private) parking areas. It seems crazy to me that in this new era of “sharing”, that folks wouldn’t be OK with neighborhood parking garages. Why does every place need their own parking garage, when most people just store stuff in it anyway?

        In general, though, this is just part of how we are going to grow cheaply. While I would love to see buildings like those in the city (and believe something similar would be built if it was allowed) the cheapest and best thing to do is work with what we have. We need a lot more ADUs, house conversions and subdivisions in this city. This is what drives me nuts about the zoning debate. We have folks on one side crying about the loss of old buildings (and I can sympathize — losing this was terrible: but then they go ahead and push policies that pretty much guarantee that houses like that will be torn down. That little pink house is probably not long for this world, despite being way more efficient than 90% of the city’s property. That is nuts. Rules that greatly restrict density just contribute to the demise of houses throughout the city. Houses that can hold a lot of people per acre (like the Capitol Hill house or that pink Ballard one) are torn down, because you can’t do anything with similar houses throughout the city. When new buildings are built, the restrictions are so tight that they can’t hold enough people, which just pushed development onto the next block.

        Their is great potential here for a change in policy that gets us a lot of what both sides are asking for: better looking buildings, more preservation and less expensive growth. But to get there, the first thing we have to do is get rid of the parking requirement.

    1. With the complete banning of rowhouses, I don’t even know how to estimate how much you lost. Tens of thousands of units, maybe.

  12. I think Seattle is rife with recent terrible visual examples of how to build higher density residential buildings. 85-foot limits are offensive to many, but don’t really add density like a 140-foot limit would. The lack of setbacks for buildings over 40-50 feet also adds to the dislike of these buildings by neighbors so they dislike any density. We are left with plain buildings, lot-line walls of glass and plain materials, and add-on mini-balconies that will look very dated in just 20 years. It seems to be getting worse too; I just cringe at the plain residential buildings either opening this year or next. I suspect that the anti-density folk experience the same negative sensibilities and it mobilizes them. Just look at the design and coloring of the Angeline in Columbia City to see what I mean.

    If Seattle is to be more “pro-density”, we have to expect better designs from our local architectural community and developers, and have to shift our planning review to go beyond the mantra that all high density design is good. Let’s quit trashing anti-density folk and instead incentivize denser residential buildings that are designed and built in harmony with their neighborhood!

    1. Can we give the architects a goal post, or will we always move the goal post every time we can, just because we can and we don’t want something built at all?

      1. Well, Britain doesn’t have zoning.

        They have “planning permission”. Basically, each proposal has to be submitted one at a time to the planning board for individualized review.

        So maybe you don’t need to give the architects a generic goal post.

    2. As I said above (just look through most of my posts) the zoning contributes to the ugliness. Wander around Seattle and point out a really nice looking building. Chances are, it would be illegal to build (no parking, most likely). Which is not so say that some architects jump through all the hoops and manage to make something nice out of it (the Cascade neighborhood has plenty) but being forced to jump through those hoops is simply going to encourage more bland buildings. Most of the buildings you find ugly were reviewed, and found acceptable. This is because it is hard (if not illegal) to tell someone “no, that building is too ugly, or just like the other building, come up with something more interesting”. It is much easier to say “OK, that has just the right amount of ‘massing’, and just the right number of parking, so you are good to go”.

      Liberalize the zoning and you will likely have better looking buildings, not worse ones. Start by getting rid of the parking requirement. These low rise units really don’t need them.

      1. In Britain they can simply say “That proposal is too ugly, you can’t do it”. Which may account for the better performance of the “planning permission” regime in Britain over the disastrous “zoning” regime in the US.

  13. All this noise about density is getting a little tiresome. September 2014 the City published its Capacity Report which documents that Seattle, under current zoning, has the capacity to absorb 3X the expected population growth over the next 20 years. Large upzones, whether map changes or code revisions, are just not necessary. We should be talking map and code tweaks, and nothing more.

    1. How much of that is expensive highrises vs inexpensive lowrises? What about the most inexpensive type, the 4-8 unit mom-n-pop apartment buildings that are now illegal to build, or at least so regulated that would-be owners can’t make it work? What about places where the zoning cap is so restrictive that it’s not worth building the remaining capacity? Broadway was zoned 4 stories and two supermarket blocks sat vacant for years, then the it was upzoned to 6 stories and suddenly new buildings went in. A significant amount of that theoretical capacity is not practically realizable. But if you raised it a few stories or loosened other restrictions, suddenly it would be, and this housing problem would be diminished.

    2. Rent is really high now, and getting higher. The restrictive zoning contributes to this. Unless you want more sprawl and a city that is increasingly unfordable, we need to loosen up the zoning.

    3. The assumption that existing zoning can simply be maxed out isn’t tenable. At the limit, that would involve tearing down perfectly good and not particularly old five story buildings to build six story buildings. For that to become economically viable, we’ll have to be so far beyond affordability that San Francisco is in the rear view mirror.

      1. I was in the Roosevelt neighborhood just yesterday and found myself standing on the corner looking at the Whole Foods building on the south side of 65th (essentially across the street from the main entrance to the Roosevelt LR Station.

        his structure spans an entire city block and is predominately 1 story tall with an adjacent surface lot on the south side of 64th. It’s also a fairly new building with upscale tenants.

        he crux is that probably the best block in the neighborhood for TOD is likely to stay as little more than a big box store for at least the next few decades.

        So, ya, with full build-out we have plenty of capacity within existing zoning, but effectively we can’t get their because of the inventory of economically viable buildings that are well under the zoning cap.

      2. “The assumption that existing zoning can simply be maxed out isn’t tenable.”

        It implies that we’ve just been dreaming a paranoid dream, that rent isn’t really going up, that housing is easy to find, that there’s capacity that will be realized soon, that working-class people aren’t being priced out of the city, and that middle-class people won’t be next unless something is done. But the housing problem occurring under the current zoning. People are building to capacity wherever upzones occur, but they aren’t building in these phantom lowrise zones. Why not, they’d make just as much profit. It’s because there’s a mismatch between the kind of development the zoning allows and what the market needs.

      3. If upzones were the wonder elixir that magically produces new development, new housing, we’d have a lot more development around Beacon Hill Station and other Link stations in SE Seattle. Seattle should plan for its future development, and not sit back and wait for developers to come begging for more, more, more on their particular site.

      4. @RDPence — Your arguments are contradictory. Just to paraphrase:

        1) Seattle, under current zoning, has the capacity to absorb 3X the expected population growth over the next 20 years. Large upzones, whether map changes or code revisions, are just not necessary.

        2) If upzones were the wonder elixir that magically produces new development, new housing, we’d have a lot more development around Beacon Hill Station.

        Like I said, those statements at are odds with each other. But it does bring up an interesting question: Why isn’t that area by Beacon Hill being developed?

        The simple answer is that rent isn’t high enough (yet). Developing buildings like lazurus mentioned only makes sense when rent it really high. That is our point. Rent is too damn high, and these restrictions play a huge part (the other part is demand). It pretty much guarantees very high rents. By restricting the city the way we do, it only makes sense to build when rent is really high. Right now there is an empty lot by my house. It would be fine as a nice little apartment. This wouldn’t cost much to build, and thus lead (all other things being equal) to cheaper rents. But it can’t be built. So instead, the new owner will put up a very big house. The building will be just as big as an apartment (so much for the character of the neighborhood) but it won’t house as many people.

        Meanwhile, in another part of town sits a very nice house (similar to this: It sits in an area that does allow apartments. Converting it would be cheap from a construction standpoint, if not for the regulations. So the owner destroys it (throwing away a very expensive structure) to build a few apartments. That only makes sense when rent it really high.

        Meanwhile, the guy down the street does nothing with his house (he doesn’t feel like selling). So that limits the number of available units for sale as well.

        Another guy in a different neighborhood thinks about doing the same thing, but waits, because rent isn’t that high in his neighborhood. But, assuming we keep tight reigns on development, rent will soon be very high there as well, and construction will start soon. This is not a good thing if you care about the cost of rent, or cost of living based sprawl.

      5. “If upzones were the wonder elixir that magically produces new development, new housing, we’d have a lot more development around Beacon Hill Station and other Link stations in SE Seattle”

        They haven’t been upzoned yet. :) Or they have a little bit, but not enough to make the buildings that pencil out for developers legal. Meanwhile regulations on the small end, which were just strengthened if this bill passes, prevent individual homeowners from doing the small upgrades that could provide moderately more units in the least obtrusive manner.

      6. RossB and Mike, the area around Beacon Hill Station was upzoned a few years ago to allow 5/1 structures, up to 65 feet tall. That was done with the support of the neighborhood; no Nimby’s visible at all.

        One of those lots was built out recently, and El Centro de la Raza has started construction on their low-income housing project which includes a few small retail storefronts. Rents are plenty high enough to entice development, but property owners won’t sell.


        Seriously, though, when you declare only 12% of an entire city eligible for anything resembling urban living, you do create troublesome incentives to force hands in favor of wholesale replacement, rather than more gradual/organic infill and evolution.

        The former creates good urban environments approximately never. The latter allows for a far greater range of living environments and, frankly, a healthier variety of interesting neighborhoods.

        Much of the slow-going in SE Seattle suggests another fallacy of forced-hand TOD: these are places with increasing housing demand, but not yet places where the drawbacks of big-building-small-unit living are yet justified by the presence of a scintillating urban environment with myriad places worth walking to. Much less at the prices developers must charge to make those mega-projects pencil.

        And yet with organic infill and “missing middle” density all but outlawed, and the physical tininess of the upzoned area encouraging politicians to desire for code-maximization or nothing, the lots will continue to sit empty, improving the lives of no one.

      8. @Roger,

        Lifting zoning caps is in no way a magic elixir that will lead to more growth – it takes many other factors to actually get growth. This is exactly why lifting the zoning caps (in a responsible manner) is so important. Doing so both improves the economics of redevelopment proposals and helps mitigate the impact of lots that don’t get redeveloped to the new zoning standards.

        As you state, on Beacon Hill some of the lack of redevelopment is due to owners who don’t want to sell. This is precisely why we won’t get to the 3x theoretical buildout you reference. But the way to compensate for this is to allow the projects that do go forward to go bigger.

        We don’t need a repeat of the CAP disaster from the late 1980’s. We are still paying for that in increased congestion and wasted time and money. We need to be smarter this time around.

      9. Close, but still not quite.

        It really isn’t about letting individual projects “go bigger”. It is about allowing good urban growth, in the aggregate.

        That can scale in service of the desired ends of livability and affordability. Towers, generally speaking, do not.

      10. Lazarus, how much bigger can we go on Beacon Hill? We’re already at 65 feet, and the code allows pretty much lotline to lotline footprints. Do we boost that to Belltown scale?

        As for the CAP initiative, that was passed 26 years ago, well before the Growth Management Act. Rail transit wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. The City had no Comprehensive Plan, and downtown development was all office towers. We should be thankful for the more varied development pattern we have today in downtown. (And no way did CAP cause “increased congestion”; what a silly thing to say)

      11. @Roger,

        I would say that near the LR station zoning to 65 ft is a bit of a waste. I see no reason why 10 or 12 stories shouldn’t be possible, properly sited of course.

        And CAP was a disaster for the region for precisely the reasons you state. With no GMA and no rail transit plan in place there was nothing to restrain the negative effects of restricted growth in the urban core. Doing so simply dispersed growth and jobs to the burbs, and that is one of the contributing factors to the congested state we are in today.

      12. There are already much taller buildings further north on Beacon Hill. BHS seems to pretty much demark the boundary between urban and suburban Beacon Hill.

        I don’t know whether to celebrate 65-foot buildings going up right next to BHS, or to mourn the fact that these buildings going up pre-empts much taller buildings, more appropriate to the giga-investment taxpayers from all over the region put into this train line.

      13. Lazarus, if the CAP initiative “dispersed growth to the suburbs,” it was in the form of an office tower in downtown Bellevue, and that’s not a bad thing, and certainly not suburban sprawl. And maybe CAP allowed a few of those development sites to be saved for the apt., condo, and hotel buildings we now have downtown.

        Honestly, sometimes the pro-density folks appear to be arguing for no zoning code at all — allow anyone to build whatever they want wherever they want. Which most folks think would be nuts.

      14. Roger,

        It is more than a stretch to assert that the growth that got squeezed out of the Seattle urban core by CAP somehow got magically concentrated in DT Bellevue. There was no mechanism to lead to such an eventuality (no GMA, no LR, no etc.) and asserting this conveniently ignores all the growth that happened in places like Factoria, Eastgate, Tukwila, Canyon Park, etc.

        Would all of that growth have been concentrated in DT Seattle if not for CAP? No, of course not, but some of it would have been, and when it comes to congestion every little bit helps.

        And I don’t think many people in the pro-density camp are arguing for “no zoning code at all”. That clearly is off the table. All we are saying is that the zoning code should allow for higher density, more walkable, less auto dependent development. Personally I’d favor tighter regs/review on design in exchange for more flexibility on scope.

      15. I happen to agree that suburban office space growth was higher with CAP than it was without it. While suburban office space grew in most metro areas we see little growth in leasable square footage in Downtown Seattle during the CAP years and much growth in other areas.

      16. What d. p. said. It really isn’t about building more towers. Just to be clear, I’m not against towers, but you aren’t going to get an affordable city just with a handful of towers. It is just too expensive to build those things. The rent is too damn high in places like Manhattan and San Fransisco because of the restrictive zoning, but even if they went “full Houston”, those cities would be more expensive than Brooklyn or Oakland. To replace a four story building with a twenty story one is very expensive, and only makes sense when rent is very high (which basically means that rent will be very high if that is your only option).

        Speaking of Brooklyn, it is always good to remember that height does not equal density: This is a typical street in Brooklyn: I randomly picked this neighborhood and looked up the population density of it. If this neighborhood was in Seattle, then it would be the second highest (behind only one tract in Belltown). Yet despite being extremely dense (compared to Seattle) it is not very tall. No twelve story towers. There are a couple six story brownstones, but they contribute very little to the density, and are offset by a church, a laundromat and an empty lot. In other words, if you only took the short parts of that neighborhood (which are no taller than many of Seattle’s houses) you would get way more density than about anywhere in Seattle.

        But back to affordability, it is important to think through what has to happen before someone builds a six story (or higher) building. First, someone in a handful of locations in Seattle (a very small area, really) needs to sell their place. As mentioned, this doesn’t happen frequently. Then, you have to buy the place. Most of the time there is something of value there. Even a parking lot is typically paved and their is a payment mechanism. But typically there is a house or small apartment building. So the next step is to throw away that asset. In very rare cases the house can be moved, but it usually isn’t worth it. So often times a house that is worth several hundred thousand dollars is simply destroyed. Before you even start building the new structure, you are out quite a bit of money. Then you build the new structure, which is not very cheap. None of this makes sense unless rent is really high. This is why rent is so high — either you don’t build anything (which limits supply) or you build something only when rent is very high.

        Now consider the opposite. Let’s assume that it was legal everywhere to build low rise apartments (no higher than existing houses). There are a number of different ways to do this: First, you pick a house from the huge number of houses for sale (which means they aren’t that expensive). Then, you convert it to an apartment. Add a couple entrances and you are done. This is very cheap. Next, you buy another house, and add a little backyard bungalow. This is a bit more expensive, but nowhere near as expensive as building a six story building. In both cases you retain the value of the original house. This makes it way cheaper to do.

        It should be obvious that the second scenario leads to way more affordable housing. It is much cheaper to build, which means that if enough people do it, it leads to more affordable rents.

      17. Re Beacon Hill, yes Lazarus, there once was some discussion of a 12 – 18-story tower near the light rail station, a signature building that would identify and define the location. But the reality is that one structure would suck up several years worth of demand into one structure, leaving other available sites to further languish. The ubiquitous 5/1 boxes at 65 feet height, that’s about the maximum practical in that neighborhood, even if the architecture always seems to be wanting.

      18. “This is a typical street in Brooklyn”

        How can people live without space between their houses? It looks like a ghetto. And it’s too high density; it’s too much like downtown LA. It’s what people are trying to get away from. And where’s the garage? That’s probably their car in the street, taking up my constitutionally-protected parking space.

      19. “here once was some discussion of a 12 – 18-story tower near the light rail station, a signature building that would identify and define the location. But the reality is that one structure would suck up several years worth of demand into one structure, leaving other available sites to further languish…”

        Hahaha! This is a drop in the bucket compared to the citywide demand. And this 12-story building would be too expensive for those who can only afford a 6-story building, so the neighboring 4-6 story buildings would sell out too. Did I mention that there’s a Link station within a 5-minute walk of all of them? There’s more than one or two people in Seattle who want to live that close to a Link station.

      20. What RossB said. But also: suppose you do have a *really hot* location, like right next to a Link station. Then someone will look at it and go “Wow, I can make money building a tower here”. If zoning is *relaxed*, they will actually build a tower. And then other people will build shorter buildings nearby.

        If zoning is restrictive, well, they won’t build that tower, because it’s less profitable…

        There’s some weird dynamics with regard to the profitability of buildings. It’s important to understand them. Generally you want to keep a building just below the size/height where a bunch of additional restrictions suddenly apply which add fixed costs — whethere this is the cost of elevators, or the cost of steel construction, or whatever. If you’re not about to hit one of those thresholds, it makes sense to keep making the building taller, because the extra space doesn’t add that much incremental cost, but does add a lot of value.

        Height limits and FAR maximums screw this up massively, basically by requiring that individual buildings be much less profitable than they would otherwise be. This results in developers skimping on the aesthetics, among other things — if the building is highly profitable the developer will be happy to spend a small amount of money on frills, but if it’s barely breaking even, the developer will strip all the niceties.

    4. El Centro is a nonprofit with a mission to build dense/affordable housing, so it’s not surprising that they’re doing so. They also got the land by squatting in a vacant school and eventually convincing the city to give it to them, twenty years before a train station went up next door. I don’t know of any other group like that in southeast Seattle, much less one that owns a large parcel next to a Link station. So it’s non-replicable.

      I forgot about the neighboring owners refusing to develop their allowed lots. And 65′ is something, but I wish it had been three times as many square blocks, because that’s the problem right there. Then even if half the owners refuse to develop, at least the other half will be substantial. The same at Mt Baker and Roosevelt. A minimum upzone goes through, allowing only 2-3 square blocks of significant development. That’s enough for two or three or maybe even six buildings, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the need.

      1. Actually, something nearly identical has already happened.

        A group of African American activists held a long squat at what was the Colman School, and is now the African-American Heritage Museum. The only difference is that the current owners, the Urban League, had no relation to the squatters, at least not friendly relations. The Urban League and some of the squatters fought for control of the property for decades. Eventually, Seattle Public Schools sold the property to the Urban League.

        The Urban League built some condos next to the museum, which, for the record, is right next to the future Judkins Park Station (or I-90 / Rainier Station, as we have been calling it).

        I lived right across from this site in an informal group house, when I first moved to Seattle.

    5. Southeast Seattle is also still recovering from redlining. That’s a separate issue from zoning, and both issues will have to be resolved before Rainier Valley gets as much construction as Ballard or Capitol Hill. Half the potential residents are still scared of living there, and 3/4 of the developers are afraid of building a dud because of it. It’s harder to upzone Rainier Valley because the area is more residential and single-family minded than those other places, but there’s also a hesitation to build even what’s allowed, that doesn’t exist in other neighborhoods.

    1. Good to see that boring old Wedgwood is slowly but surely getting it together. When I lived there I had the impression that any new development was thought of as bad and that people who live in apartments were somehow ‘lesser people.’

    2. Interesting numbers in that study (my first apartment was at the north end of this area, and my family has owned a home in the area since 1941, so I’m reasonably familiar with it) – there were over 1,000 respondents to their survey and 84% want more development, 88% believe the business district (i.e. 35th NE) is underdeveloped. It’s also flat and so is walkable/bikeable with minimal effort.

      Many of the homeowners and renters in the area are younger professionals, who might be expected to approve of more density; the demographic shift from the original homeowners (i.e. my grandparents) took place many years ago.

  14. After having read the responses, which as would be appropriate for a transportation site largely focus on the mobility aspects of this development, I’d like to make the observation that this is the City of Seattle — the city government — sinking its financial future. The City is hugely behind in transportation investments; there are still thousands of “dumb” lights all over the city, the streets are falling apart nearly everywhere, and the city, limited by the state property tax cap, doesn’t have the money to pay for the transit services it needs.

    Clearly, because the property tax cap is not a gross amount but rather a percentage of assessed valuation, the best prospects that the city has is increasing the assessed valuation on which it can be levied. However, the Tim Eyman’s of the world have banded together and concoted a complicated formula which essentially limits the overall increase in property tax receipts for a municipality to one percent plus population growth and some portion of inflation.

    So the only effective way for the City to grow out of its tax handcuffs is by growing population dramatically. And the only practical way to do that is to raise density throughout the city. Since the residence of SFU neighborhoods hate ADU’s (other than their own, of course….) Ross’ and d.p.’s excellent point about Vancouver being dense while looking SFU’ish is correct but unattainable. People also apparently don’t want TransLink-style high-rise stations dotting the map, either. So what to do?

    The greatest service that the outgoing City Council could do is pass an ordinance that every arterial with a frequent service bus can be built to six stories along its entire length. Where an FS line lies along the crest of a hill like Roosevelt between 80th and 95th and Phinney Greenwood from 50th to about 80th, allow twelve to fourteen stories which would make steel/concrete framework construction feasible. When buildings are built at the crest of a hill they don’t ruin others’ views and there is already a shadow effect from the tree canopy. The buildings don’t make much difference to it.

    1. I don’t know about that. I think if you asked Seattle voters to pick between these three options:

      1) Restrict development. This screws over renters the most.
      2) Allow six story buildings on all arterials. This screws over renters a bit less.
      3) Liberalize the ADU laws. This is the best for renters.

      I think a plurality, if not a majority of voters would pick the third. A few things to keep in mind. First, it is obvious that a lot of voters haven’t thought much about the subject. The second sentence in all three cases is hard to fathom for many. But if or when they understand the issues, I think you would have a lot more sympathy for that third case. Second, if I remember right, about half the city rents. How do you think they view the issue?

      In truth I would say that a combination is probably the most likely to get the most support. Allow a little bit more preservation (to please the folks that hate to see nice buildings destroyed). Increase the number of streets where big buildings are allowed (there are plenty of streets — for example 8th NW — which seems silly right now). Meanwhile, the ADU laws need to be liberalized, and are most likely to be fairly popular. It really is only the hoity-toity neighborhoods where people object to this. This is a minority of a minority in this city (like the folks that vote Republican). Most people don’t mind ADUs, and in fact, welcome them. I have a couple on my block and I can tell you that no one minds them (if they even notice them). In general, most people around here have bigger things to worry about — as long as you don’t mess with me, I could care less how many people live on your lot. In fact, the more the merrier. If I’m parked out front and some junkie wants to break into my car, I would appreciate your call to the cops, thank you very much.

      To me the biggest challenge (overall) is parking. Right now it plays a big part in the lack of ADU construction and increases the cost (and ugliness) of low rise (and mid rise). But people complain about it endlessly, and it is tough to change the laws. But like I said earlier, folks are basically ignorant on the subject. I guarantee you that almost everyone who whines about parking (for new development) never really considers who pays for it. Most people don’t look at it this way: That is why, more than anything, it is an educational thing. If people understand that renters (as well as people who are looking to buy) are the ones that are actually paying to build parking spaces (even though they may not use them) then I think a lot of people will change their mind. It is a fairness issue. It is easy to say that developers should build new parking (after all — they are just developers — they make plenty of money, right) but it is a totally different thing if you basically say that renters (who pay rents that are higher than my mortgage in many cases) should pay for parking lots. That is crazy. But that is what is happening — it just isn’t obvious.

      There are many ways to approach the argument, but it is telling to me that both Portland and Vancouver have ADU laws that are way more liberal than ours. That is a huge selling point. Neither city is radically different than us, but neither requires parking for ADUs, nor that the owner must live on site. If I’m trying to make the case that ADU laws need reforming, I think I would start with that. Why aren’t we more like Portland or Vancouver? What is so bad about their single family zoned areas?

      1. Ross,

        I can’t speak to the situation in Vancouver, but the parking in Portland is much less constricted in the SFU neighborhoods. I have three close friends I visit regularly, one in Maple Leaf, one on the border between Crown Hill and Ballard (89th) and one on the border between Hillman City and Seward Park. In all three neighborhoods the street parking is essentially packed at all hours of the day and night. I don’t know where the cars which people use for commuting get squeezed in during the evening; maybe those are the ones in the remaining garages and driveways.

        While parking that frightful happens in The Pearl, South Waterfront and inner Northwest in Portland, most of the city east of Willamette and to the southwest have ample street parking. And I believe it is the availability of parking that determines a neighborhood’s willingness to accommodate ADU’s. I truly believe your projection is wrong. Seattle already has too many cars for its neighborhood parking capacity.

      2. Historically it’s proven hard to prevent people from irresponsibly leaving their cars in the street (though I saw a couple towed just the other day in my small town). (Heck, it’s even hard to prevent them from abandoning their cars in cornfields. But that’s another matter.)

        It’s important to clear out the street parking for visitors — if necessary, by charging parking fees for it. Residents should have their cars in private garages or not have cars at all — which should be their choice. There should be sidewalks and bike lanes and buses so that residents and visitors can choose not to use cars.

        In the hot parts of Chicago it’s worth noting that individual private parking spaces have an active resale and rental market. So if your rowhouse has a parking space and your neighbor’s doesn’t, you can rent your space to your neighbor. And of course street parking is metered at rates which strongly discourage overnight parking.

        This creates an active effect balancing the number of residents with cars with the number of available parking spaces, without requiring the residents who want to have cars to specifically find an apartment with an attached parking space.

  15. I was sort of depressed by this comment thread, but at the same time I think we need to acknowledge Seattle is a more vibrant and exciting place to live than 15 years ago. There has been significant good quality urban style infill housing built. shows 50,000 new units since 2005, 9000 units permitted for 2016. 5600 units demolished since 2005.

    Granted South Lake Union has changed the most in terms of office space (some residential), but Dexter is unrecognizable residentially compared to eight years ago, Stoneway Ave N as well. Some of those locations should have been allowed a couple stories higher, but they are not far off the mark. Even near the Roosevelt Whole foods there is new multifamily going up.

    Here is nice example of new multifamily housing in Bellevue — (wish we had more funds for social housing).

  16. I think there’s a more relevant and closer model than Queens (Queens is a fine place, but it’s really different from Seattle, with a really different history). But Vancouver B.C. is just up the road. The city of Vancouver is 70% denser than the city of Seattle. Does anybody really think quality of life in Vancouver is 70% worse? Vancouver has both strong regulations, structured for good design, not stopping projects. It’s also got funding to put in needed facilities like parks. Vancouver is an expensive place to live, granted (though they’ve built a lot of “social”–permanently affordable–housing), but Seattle doesn’t have quite the market pressure.

    Vancouver has encouraged all forms of housing–towers in the center (and at rail stations), low rises on commercial corridors, and “lane” (alley) houses.

    The neighborhood character and quality is not, ultimately, about the density. You can have very different neighborhoods with the exact same density. It’s about the density–building, block level, and citywide.

    1. I begin to think a lot of the neighborhood quality is about parking policy.

      The worst possible policies are:
      — require that every building have large numbers of parking spaces even if nobody wants them
      — put free parking on the street and let it be hogged on a first-come first-serve basis

      Obviously Seattle does both.

      By contrast, here are some alternative policies:

      — Metering the street parking (which when the city was first built, was really intended to be for *visitors*, deliveries, etc., not residents or workers) helps with a myriad of problems.
      — Allowing people to sell / rent individual parking spaces separately from the apartments / houses makes for a dynamic parking market with realistic prices, where you can actually get an sense of the demand for overnight parking. This *price signal* then informs future builders how much parking they should build in that area.

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