Growth skeptics love to complain about South Lake Union. It’s too sterile, too corporate, too luxury — it couldn’t possibly help address housing affordability.

I never bought into that — just building units does a lot of good for the region — but give it just a little time, and districts like SLU can solve the problems that growth critics claim to care about. Exhibit A: Crystal City, Virginia ($), a soulless 1980s sea of single-use office buildings, now in hard times due to defense cuts:

At first glance, there appears to be nothing new among the high-rise offices and apartments lining Crystal Drive and its bisecting streets in this Arlington County enclave. In fact, there is little new construction. Instead, buildings from the 1960s to 1980s are being retrofitted, some converted from offices to apartments, others welcoming new commercial tenants, including tech start-ups, co-working spaces and restaurants.

The area… is attracting residents and younger workers with competitive rents and convenient transportation options.

Perhaps this won’t be SLU’s fate: I’ve spent enough time in both to know that it is a much better urbanist space than its counterpart. It may continue to thrive as a regional economic driver. This wouldn’t be a bad thing! But in the long term, SLU will either succeed or it will fail, and in either case all of these buildings developers are putting up will do Seattle a lot of good.

81 Replies to “The Future of South Lake Union?”

  1. I agree Martin.

    What I find interesting is that In a few years, South Lake Union will feel just like most of downtown. With the exception of Pioneer Square and a to lesser degree Belltown, there are no parts of downtown that feel that different. A mix of new buildings, with a handful of old ones. There is nothing to make South Lake Union distinct, because there is no geographic or historic separation between it and the rest of downtown. First Hill and Capitol Hill are separated from downtown because of the very steep hill and the freeway. The Seattle Center and Aurora separate lower Queen Anne from much of downtown (as well as South Lake Union). The Center is going nowhere, but we will all be able to walk across Aurora (north of Denny) within a few years. Meanwhile, the days of downtown being for businesses, and the surrounding neighborhoods being for residents are over. Thousands of new apartments and condos are being added to downtown. This means that South Lake Union is simply a bit ahead of its time in having a healthy mix.

    A lot of the architecture is boring, in my opinion, but I happen to think that the Cascade neighborhood has some real gems. Once things settle down (and you see fewer cranes) I think just about everyone would agree that that neighborhood has soul, or at the very least, seems like a really nice place to live (if you can afford it).

    1. Agree – and both SLU and Downtown should become more active & lively as more and more residential units open in both neighborhoods, and they shift from just workday to 24/7 neighborhoods And frankly, you can have great street life even with boring architecture, as long as there is sufficient storefront and all day activity – what matters are the people & the connections, not the facades.

      1. Lots of stuff is happening in the Denny Triangle—all those parking lots owned by the Clise family are being turned into offices and high-rise apartments.

      2. The Denny Tringle is booming, lots of buildings under construction. Many mor projects planned. Nearly every lot either has been redeveloped, is under construction, or has a project in planning.

  2. One trend that I find worrying is that the concept of New Urbanism seems to be evolving into “The Rat Race, Version 2.016”. Moving society away from the SOV culture and rebuilding our urban landscapes into habitable environments are important sustainability goals, but so much of the economic structure supporting this evolution is simply retro-1950s Rat Race policy. Low wages, high costs and unfulfilling, soul-less work environments seem to be the cost of this New Urbanist movement. Just because the rats in Version 2.016 are more diverse and the dress codes more relaxed doesn’t mean that this Rat Race is better than the Eisenhower Era Rat Race. In fact, today, the cats seem to be fatter, the mazes trickier and there’s considerably less cheese at the end of the race.

    1. “unfulfilling, soul-less work environments seem to be the cost of this New Urbanist movement”.

      I’ve had the experience of working in old industrial settings (Boeing), 1980s office parks, and relatively new-Seattle software workplaces, and I have to say that the third has light-years more “soul” then anything from the 20th century. For starters, integration with a neighborhood, rather than a corporate monocultured campus, is a huge improvement on the past.

    2. You’re confusing land use and economic/social policies.
      (1) New Urbanism is about making walkable mixed-use neighborhoods like the streetcar suburbs were before single-use zoning and the neglect of transit.
      (2) Ugliness comes from architects favoring modernist designs: plain geometric lines, no intricate borders, horizontal or boxy rather than narrow and vertical. Decorations are also large-scaled, to be seen from a car rather than from a few inches in front.
      (3) The “rat race” of running on a treadmill with little hope for something better, in large boring bureaucratic corporations, comes from our laissez-faire economic policy that slashed taxes for the 1%, won’t improve the social safety net for the 99%, deregulated industries, and turned over policymaking to lobbyists and campaign fundraisers, which essentially allowed corporations to revert to robber barons and pull up the rope (the corporate/education ladder) up behind them.

      All of these are independent. It’s not New Urbanism that’s causing the other two, it’s just that they all exist in the same country and neighborhoods.

      1. (3) has far more complex causes than anything we could credibly discuss on a transit/land use blog.

        Public policy regarding housing has been terrible. It is a rare city in America that has both good jobs and affordable housing, and most of those have inferior transit systems. Homeownership is massively over-subsidized, ever-rising home prices are desired, and strict land use rules are maintained. That isn’t at the behest of the 1% – it is the ~60% majority who own homes that causes policymakers to distort the housing market in their favor.

      2. Mike Orr, it is all connected. You are very naive to believe that economic issues are not all connected.

      3. Mike, you’re right about this country’s dangerously unfair distribution of wealth. But I think you’ll find that ever since cities took their modern form, and especially last couple of centuries, every generation finds the last one’s taste ridiculous.

        And vice versa. What we call modern, bleak, and angular developed about a hundred years ago because no principled architect would put a Greek temple fifty stories up a building, with plant leaves from a thousand year later, meaning about 1600. Reason for The Historic Register: number of newer fashion architects trained in demolitions.

        Whose own buildings then needed the Register to save them from the same fate. Fashion is generational warfare, with a lot of torture and atrocities. Word to tattoo-holders. In about fifteen years, your kids could rebel with a “clean skin” movement.

        Giving rise to Facebook campaigns for and against middle-aged- people-with-tattoo shaming.

        Is it a building comfortable, cheerful, usable, well-lit, non-leaking, fresh aired and easy to heat and cool? Also, very much like shoes or suits, Megamansions’ real repulsiveness is because there’s no human being, or family, they fit. Proportions.

        For which some designers say there’s an age old formula, especially recognized by the ancient Greeks. But I think worst modern eyesores stem from fact they’re not built to be lived or worked in, but bet on and flipped. Which itself should be illegal for results even uglier.


    3. but so much of the economic structure supporting this evolution is simply retro-1950s Rat Race policy. Low wages, high costs and unfulfilling, soul-less work environments seem to be the cost of this New Urbanist movement.

      You’re making two very different claims here, it seems to me. First, the “new urbanist movement is causing high wage inequality and low levels of workplace satisfaction (seem to be the cost) but before that you are saying it the other way around–that these features of the economic order are a necessary (but perhaps not sufficient) cause of the success of new urbanist development.

      These are not only very different, but very strange. Why? Do you think if workplace satisfaction went up and wage inequality went down, people would no longer want to live in dense walkable neighborhoods? Or without these new developments the world of work wouldn’t have these two features? I don’t see any reason to assume either of those things would be the case.

      1. What I’m seeing is that the multi-national, global corporate conglomerate forces are finding Urbanism to be a convenient means to increase their power and profits. Land values in urban areas are increasing rapidly and capital is becoming more concentrated in land values. The core, community based, social values of New Urbanism are wonderful, but it’s being bought out by corporate interests who are interested only in generating larger and larger returns on investment.

      2. Well, OK, sure. But what you’re saying is “corporations make lots of money on this stuff.” True, but corporations make lots of money on sprawl-y greenfield McMansion developments too. Arguments that boil down to “corporate profit therefore bad” almost always seem to have this “compared to what?” problem. The alternative to new urbanism, in the US today, obviously isn’t social housing for all. (And if were, it might be just as dense/walkable!)

      3. A major reason why land is so expensive is because governments restrict where development can occur. Cities tend to have more severe restrictions on development, creating barriers to entry that developers can capitalize on.

        Middle-income housing can’t be built new in Seattle because land is too expensive, not because “greedy corporations” are plotting against middle-income workers. Most of the cost of construction is in the land and the basic building structure. The high end fit and finish items are a small fraction of the total project cost, but that is what can command higher rents.

    4. Middle-income housing can’t be built new in Seattle because land is too expensive, not because “greedy corporations” are plotting against middle-income workers.

      This can’t be emphasized enough. I looked at some fancy new townhomes at an open house in d owntown Dayton recently. 200K. They looked a heck of a lot like some I’ve seen in Seattle going for more than 3X that amount. I doubt it’s because the corporation building them is less greedy.

    1. Mic, those level junctions wouldn’t by any chance be in South Dakota, would they? Feeding platforms wide enough for less-than-90 second dwell time re: boarding/exiting? Now, one chance for wide junction already underground:

      Use eminent domain or any other savagely coercive means to bring CPS back to the function for which taxpayers originally built it. Either that or get shoe-horn bigger than Bertha to get things through level junction we can build.

      Or dig another tunnel.


    2. How the hell is a post on the future of SLU and having only one transit station in the middle of it ‘Off Topic’?
      This is the Broadway station of mistakes on steroids.
      Now you can banish me to [OT] land.

      1. Can’t we include the Harrison station as a part of SLU? It was added to ensure goods stop spacing in SLU & Uptown – I’m not really sure where else you would put a station along the proposed LRT corridor in SLU.

      2. Second Mic’s protest! Since he started commenting, same as all us transit operators he’s wrong a lot (sleep deprivation, stress, coin machine food, schedules written by Simon Legree’s human relations department, base car radio knobs welded onto right wing radio) but it’s always related to subject under discussion.

        Thing to consider, Mic, is that every city in most parts of the world by definition goes back to long before New York’s mid 19th century fan-driven subway. How long an elevator ride is it to platform for London’s deepest tube?

        Also, technology sleeps on amphetamines. Big Bertha and her sisters are a pain, but they kill a lot fewer Irishmen than in Brooklyn Bridge days.

        Reason that one of the bridge’s towers is footed on sand. Fossils told architect this sand hadn’t moved since before there were rocks. Saving at least dozens Irish workers that previous immigrants wished were dead.

        In other words, future predictions used to have more inevitable wonders than zombie apocalypses (The Book just says Four Horsemen, all Greeks or Turks, and none from Haiti). So give it another try, Mic. But also find out what kind of fossils are in the sand under South Lake Union.


      3. And losing Convention Place Station at the very time its been most needed in its life.

  3. DC urbanization is complicated by severe height limits. That creates their flattening of density. Also, the different state rules create different market patterns for company locations and housing location decisions. I wouldn’t put too much into comparing our urban station area markets.

    I see SLU more like Midtown Atlanta. Of course MARTA stations make Midtown more desirable – and the Link Green Line will have the same effect of SLU if it gets funded.

    1. There’s a difference between DC’s height limits limiting towers to ten stories or so, vs Seattle’s single-family zoning covering 75% of the residential land.

      1. I guess I didn’t make it very clear that my comment was about the commercial development market and not the residential one. Market forces that created Crystal City and its subsequent vacancy are much more complex than we have here.

        I speculate that Crystal City and Northern Virginia development would have been different if DC had allowed tall buildings and the entire region was in the same state.

      2. I should probably mention that Crystal City housed lots of Federal agencies that ended up moving out. Those agencies create boom and bust cycles for office developments.

      1. Crystal City has some height restrictions imposed by the FAA because of Reagan International Airport. Apparently, some of the existing buildings in Crystal City and Rosslyn would not even be allowed with newer FAA requirements.

  4. Martin, Ross, and Guy, I may be missing something. But the main thing I’m seeing, especially in South Lake Union, problem isn’t density or number of new buildings but the fact that, if what I heard on the radio couple of days ago, the entire lowest third of the population can’t live there anymore.

    No matter we’ve been, or in my case had been, living in Seattle. I may also be missing some history, but I can’t remember a single period in my lifetime when so many people have had to leave a prosperous city so fast. And if a fifty dollar rent increase in a month is any indicator, will have to leave Olympia too.

    In addition, nobody has been able to explain to me why this has all happened so suddenly. Where are all these new people- and the income that lets them stay here- coming from? And what’s happened where they come from to bring them here in such a flood?

    Can’t say what’s giving Seattle the unprecedented increase in the number of homeless people- the ones who should be in currently defunded mental hospitals and also the ones whose three jobs won’t buy, rent or save them from eviction from a home.

    But for all the spatial density (and some of it’s got the original red bricks and the rest new ones!), the stationary I-5 commute and the cul-de-sac planet feeding and resulting from it shows me an exponentially sprawling disaster that’ll soon flow into the one rolling northward from Portland.

    Spike some other color than gold needed here. Steam locomotives optional. Real estate company SUV’s inevitable. Sure sound system can handle audio of an American Locomotive Company 4-8-8-4 calling for a crossing when new sheetrock gets its last nail.
    (Doubt average Metro road failure that quick to fix.)

    So give me a clarification on all this. Meantime, my take on homes I’d like to live in, definitely on the dense side, doesn’t change. Best way to make housing affordable is to pay people wages that will let them rent or buy it. And stay in it.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Seattle is generating a huge-number of well-paying jobs, and is not generating nearly enough units to house them. So rich people are competing for the same units as middle-class people, and the outcome is predictable. Raising wages doesn’t help because that just bids up the price of housing more, given inadequately growing supply.

      1. Did other expansions in our history react to improving economy by failing to build housing? Could be that if wages are also solidified by unions, they’d go far enough to encourage more home-buildings.

        Or could it be that so much real estate is being bought for speculation that there’s no need for extra expense of both selling it for living space and building some more. Let alone drudgery of becoming a landlord- the best of whom work like dogs, for less than living wages.

        Off-hand, couple fixes. Have the city build public housing at market rate except without profit, meaning working people certainly can afford it without taxpayers losing any money. Swimming pools, fire-places, weight-rooms and saunas only necessary where Finnish and Russian spiritual needs demand it.

        In other words, if I had a million bucks, I wouldn’t buy prevalent Donald-Trump-Voter- creating belief that making it possible for most people to buy homes with their own wages is as possible as earthquake prevention.

        Belief generally held by people who can afford prevalent attitude, and can’t get to the showroom fast enough.


      2. 1945 had a similar housing shortage as now because construction had halted in 1930. There was an explosion of greenfield suburban development that absorbed the demand, so that in the 1960s and 70s middle-class people could buy a 3 BR house on one salary. In the 1990s, the only greenfields left were in Snohomish and Pierce Counties, Covington and Issaquah. So houses went up there and played the same role as before, and cities became popular again and started to infill. But there was no 20th-century precedent in Seattle for the current squeeze, unless it was like that just after WWII. But that era also had SRO apartments where the working poor lived; those don’t exist anymore. The new effort to build housing for the homeless and low-income will essentially replace the function of the missing SROs.

      3. What Martin said, although it is more middle class people competing with middle class people. I can’t think of any construction project anywhere in the city that actually decreased density. Despite the fact that is is perfectly legal (and in general cheaper) to do so, that just isn’t happening. People are not knocking down apartment buildings and replacing them with mansions or fancy multi-room condos. It is hard to find 3 or 4 bedroom apartments anywhere in the city. These would be the places that rich people buy — thus pushing out poor people. But that really isn’t happening. It is just a housing shortage and it is primarily caused by a rapid increase in jobs here without a similar increase in housing.

        As Mike said, this has happened before, it is just that it came with growth in other areas. It is nothing new, really. When the gold rush occurred, housing prices downtown skyrocketed, and families had to move to distant areas, including nearby towns, like Ballard.

      4. Here: in all of these articles just replace the word Portland with Seattle, and you get an idea of how building more units help things, and not building units of any type really hurt things:

        Grow Up, Portland:
        Why the Apartment Buildings You Hate Are Good For the City

        Renter’s Hell:
        Portlanders pay a steep price in the nation’s toughest rental market

        I’m Sorry You Hate My Apartment, I Think It’s Nice

        The 5 Myths About Portland Apartments

        Why My Apartment Is Good for Portland

      5. Martin, read the “Two Income Trap,” by Elizabeth Warren. There is an entire section on the scarcity of housing and parents feeling obligated to buy homes that they cannot afford in order to get their kids into the best schools. Reform of our educational system would go a long way to improving affordability. Again, nothing surprising. Totally predictable. The kind of thing you hear about every day. So, when will our state legislature start doing its job and funding public education as required by our state constitution?

      6. Raising wages doesn’t help because that just bids up the price of housing more, given inadequately growing supply.

        But isn’t that the definition of a rat race?

        Adding a lot of well paying jobs isn’t helpful if “well paid” workers still can’t afford housing. Let’s say we decide to triple the rate of new housing construction starts. Build anything, anywhere! The cost of land acquisition will rise as will construction materials and labor. Once everything is then built we will have many more new and very expensive housing units available in the inventory. The theory is that the secondary market (older, more distant) real estate will then become more affordable and, thanks to the excellent transit system that we have also built, the secondary housing will be more accessible. The problem is that the price of the secondary units won’t be dropping in a boom economy. The new units will raise the price ceiling and the secondary units will move up in price too. The only thing that will cause a drop in real estate prices is an economic bust.

      7. “When the gold rush occurred, housing prices downtown skyrocketed, and families had to move to distant areas, including nearby towns, like Ballard.”

        The difference is that frequent streetcars were extended to those areas too, and the distance was shorter, so people weren’t cut off from the rest of the metropolis if they didn’t have a car, or endure three-hour transit trips. The population spread to roughly Burien and Greenwood. Bellevue was an inaccessible outlying location, with only a half-hourly daytime ferry, but nobody was forced there because they couldn’t afford Seattle-land. They went there because they wanted to own a farm, they loved the rural environment, or they were so rich they could provide their own transportation to their second house. But now people are being pushed out from central Seattle, not to Ballard or Bellevue, but to Broadview, Kent, Canyon Park, Lynnwood, Everett, Tacoma, and Olympia. Where the transit options are vastly lower.

    2. SLU did not have many residences before the boom: it was decaying warehouses and highways. TSo while displacing the “lowest third” applies to Ballard, Queen Anne, and Capitol Hill, it doesn’t apply to SLU.

      There was a tweet quoted a few days ago that Seattle has been adding four times as many jobs per day than housing units. So we’d break even if most households had four or more people but they don’t, and most new units can’t fit four people anyway. The other factor is the new jobs pay more than the existing jobs: $85K minimum through the mid six digits. The vacancy rate was under 5% before the recession, enough for 5% rent increases, so on the edge of a crisis but not in it. Then the vacancy rate rose in 2008-2011, then plunged down to 3% and below. That’s where you get a severe housing shortage and rising prices, as more people compete for a dwindling number of vacancies. The number of incoming affluents was about the same as the number of vacancies, so those with six-figure incomes took what they wanted and shut out the lower third. Seattle responded with a building blitz, and people kept saying they were building too much and would oversaturate the market. They said that in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, yet the vacancy rate remained below 5% and rents kept rising rapidly. Houses are also at an incredibly low inventory — 30 days’ worth rather than six months’ worth — which is the same thing as a low vacancy rate if you think about it — so they’ve been rising rapidly too, and people who can’t buy, rent, and thus further shut out the lower third.

      Seattle needs tens of thousands more units than it’s building.

    3. Here’s my interpretation of this post. SLU is a win/win. In good times, the benefits are obvious, but even in bad times, buildings and neighborhood can be repurposed.

      1. You are probably right about SLU, but what happens if the Expedia trend continues and more companies leave Bellevue for Seattle? Will Bellevue become the new Crystal City? I can hardly wait for the day that downtown Bellevue becomes a trendy new urban neighborhood full of repurposed buildings.

  5. Thanks for highlighting this urban design mistake. Crystal City has almost no street life. It’s very inward focused. That’s very different than much of the typical Seattle buildings. As long as our buildings are on smaller parcels and linked to pedestrian linked life, the sterileness won’t happen.

    It’s more of a risk at outlying Link stations where parcels are bigger. A Northgate redevelopment would be a circumstance where it could happen, for example.

    1. Maybe, Al, because street life has hundred percent correlation with people whose front doors, or courtyard gates, make it a thirty second journey between their home and a street?

      And because restaurants’ and cafe’s business plan must include people sitting around all day talking- with computer-using neither forbidding nor overly encouraged?

      Bring back Moka’s Cafe, and constant two way foot traffic between there and Cacao will make possible 24-hour street food scene mandatory in every other city on earth. Also permitting above establishments to extend their own hours. Given commercial value of such land use, and also lessons in real capitalism.

      Average vendor in Bangkok or Dar es Salaam Tanzania can, accurately, make any US Board of Directors look like- well, the homeless people who really need homes at Western State Hospital, if the CEO ever gets out of jail for thinking judges aren’t nurses ’til they’ve been to med school.


  6. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that ‘soulless’ is just a synonym for ‘new’.

    1. Only because of the rat race caused by deregulation, as mentioned by Mike Orr above. We need to take back New Urbanism for the left!

      1. Truth is, Nick, that soul-possession means minimum amount of saxophones and sunglasses worn all night. With city ordinances mandating smoking.

        Also elevated track carefully tempered so if George Gershwin ever gets re-incarnated, he can get his horn section tuned before next number. Main reason Mayor canceled rubber tired monorail. Also reason Chicago “L” is still there.

        But Bob, I think history demonstrates that cities have the most soul, and the most solid average-guy politics, when most people, by their own work and wages, can afford a life modern liberals think is radical- and not even have to think about what to call it.

        Also, in my lifetime’s most liberal days, when light and heavy rail were never light on maintenance, large and small first letter Left didn’t yet have model years. But you know that guy who’s always yelling at ST board members for being billionaires…..

        Except in Union Square by the cable car terminal, leftists were yelling at millionaires, who in those days could afford top-dollar repression, and whose numbers seldom included suburban mayors.

        So emergency move now is for somebody to invent a tofu corned beef sandwich.


    2. The central Seattle public library is new, but I don’t think of it as soulless.

      Standing on the corner and looking down the street at a dozen blocks of buildings that all look exactly the same and are all the same color? I’d call that soulless if they were in 2015 Ballard or 1890s Philadelphia.

      Either way, I’d prefer either than 12 blocks of 1960s era modernism. Unless you’re homeless, you shouldn’t be having to sleep in a thing that looks like a freeway overpass.

      At least a few Seattle buildings have preserved the old storefront of what was there before. That definitely prevents the soulless feeling. I wish they had done that in the Pearl District.

      If I Remember right, one of the laundry buildings in South Lake Union had its storefront preserved. That’s the only one I can think of there that preserved some of what used to be there.

  7. What was in Alexandria, Arlington, Pentagon City, Bethesda, and Silver Spring before the TOD? Were they decaying industrial areas? Low-density residential? Why didn’t NIMBYs scuttle the development?

    1. Wikipedia says “industrial sites, junkyards, and low-rent motels” were there. Also, importantly, Crystal City was developed largely by a single company which makes it a lot easier to build the project and effectively removes many of the NIMBYs.

  8. I think some of the current housing problems/issues have to do with people’s expectations of standards of living. Back in the 60’s a young single person was happy to rent a room in a larger house and share a bathroom. Next move would be to an apt. with a room mate. Maybe buy a fixer upper next. No one expected granite countertops and multiple bathrooms at the beginning of their working life.
    Is it progress that everyone wants their own high end separate space? At what cost to the city?
    I think ADUs should be legal in all sf zones, with fewer restrictions than now exist. Also, more apodments.

    1. I agree. I would also support subdividing many of the lots in Seattle. In my neighborhood — Pinehurst — for example, the lots are big. Allowing apartments would be great, but unlikely. But why not smaller lots? right now it is common for a small house to be on a huge lot, left over from when the property was a small farm. The house gets torn down, and the lot split into the smallest size that is legal. So three giant houses go up. If they simply adopted the same lot size as most of the city, you could put six normal size houses there. I really don’t see why anyone would object to that. At the same time, you could add backyard cottages that people could buy, thus removing one of the complaints about them (too many renters). Of course someone could buy it and then rent it, but unlike today, someone could simply buy it.

      1. Yes, there is definitely potential with smaller lot sizes. I’d prefer a smaller yard – less maintenance, lower property taxes, and a lower purchase price.

        Queen Anne has many 4000-4500sqft lots (despite being zoned for SF5000) but that is obviously not hurting housing demand there. I’m sure replacing SF7200 with SF5000 citywide would cause no end of angst among Seattle homeowners, but really it would be just aligning lot sizes with other city neighborhoods.

    2. It’s also developer expectations, not only renter expectations. Apodments are very popular for young urban professional with limited need for space, but they horrify people who can’t imagine living in such small spaces. And many large housing construction companies build bigger & bigger houses because 1) that’s what they think people want, and 2) they make more money building a larger, more luxury home.

      New construction will almost always be “luxury” construction. On the other affordable housing naturally develops as housing stock ages, as the housing stock gets “less nice” as it ages both in absolute terms and in relative terms as newer construction nearby takes over the top price points. This is why HALA seeks to both “preserve” affordable housing in addition to construction new affordable houses [here, affordable by regulatory choice] – it is significantly cheaper to repair poor housing stock to make it affordable housing stock rather than building brand new units.

      1. Should have added this – inclusionary zoning is a great way to incorporate affordable housing into new construction, especially at scale like an entire neighborhood booming. Unfortunately, that ship has mostly sailed with SLU

      2. Unfortunately the theory that building new, high priced housing will allow secondary units to become more affordable doesn’t seem to be working. The problem is that as new inventory raises the price ceiling, everything else seems to rise in price too. It’s kind of like the NBA: signing Kevin Durant to a new mega-contract won’t make it cheaper to sign Steph Curry.

      3. @Glenn – Myth #4 simply states that inclusionary zoning is hard because it’s difficult to balance the incentives correctly, and the volume of units added is often low. As to my comment on SLU, I was simply commenting that inclusionary zoning would have made SLU a more diverse neighborhood with a more varied housing stock, not that it would help alleviate affordability across Seattle.

        @GuyOnBeaconHill – I simply disagree. Adding supply doesn’t increase prices, new demand does. However, adding a high volume of luxury housing will certainly increase the AVERAGE rent for the area, simply because that new housing is now a significant part of the housing stock. What is more relevate is whether or not building lots of new housing helps prevent the rent price on existing, older housing from rising faster. Expectations are a key part of price inflation, and the gentrification effect of new housing is certainly an impact (old housing in SLU is definitely more expensive now than pre-Amazon), but across an entire metropolitan area, adding supply is certainly a good thing. Rent prices are sticky, and we need a vacancy rate closer to 8~10% to start to hold down rent increases.

        When you say ” everything else seems to rise in price too,” there might be causality in a specific neighborhood (i.e. gentrification), but across a region that is simply correlation – Seattle is growing so fast that in the short term prices are going to rise unless 20,000 housing unit magically appeared each year. Adding housing cannot exacerbate the issue because is does not induce aggregate demand for the region. [ignoring job growth in construction]

      4. @Glenn in Portland,

        Myth #2 presents something that might be a problem:

        In the past five years, developers tore down 929 single-family homes, according to the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

        Developers then built 2,002 new housing units on those cleared lots. Twice as many households now live on the same land.

        Twice as many households may be living on the same land, but how many more people are living on the same land? If an average single-family home consists of 3 people those 929 homes torn down would have housed 2787 people. How many people are living in the newly constructed housing units? If the average occupancy per new unit is less than 1.4 people then there hasn’t been any new net housing gain, just an expensive spinning of the economic wheels. (2787 people/2002 new units=1.39 people per new unit)

      5. According to the Census data the Persons per household is relatively stable; 2010-2014 data
        2.63, 2000 census 2.62. I didn’t dig deep enough to find Seattle specific data but IIRC it’s below the national average and since I think the average age of people in Seattle is actually declining I’d expect household size to be shrinking (i.e. less families). That might partially explain why it’s so difficult to find “family size” apartments. In any event, there’s a huge difference between re-purposing as the post mentions in Crystal Drive and starting over with a large crater.

      6. Overall the census bureau is correct, but GuyOnBeaconHill is correct it is a problem here. I’m a single person living in a single family house because it cost $149,000 and so few condos and apartments exist I would be paying twice what I do here.

      7. Don’t overlook the price of land. The high land prices are pricing out smaller developers, only the large national developers can afford the high land prices with their pack-em in units targeting the highest earners. Theres a ton of units sitting empty too in these projects waiting for someone to bite at the $3500 open one bedroom units.

  9. It’s just a darn shame they are building so much car parking. It’s not uncommon to see 1000+ new spots for each of these new buildings…

    1. 1000 spaces, really? Are we talking office or residential? I’m not aware of any residential development that has so much parking in the city. I don’t follow office developments as closely, but except for Amazon I don’t think any office building would either.

      Parking is at best marginally profitable for developers – much less profitable than building offices or apartments. As such developers already have a very strong incentive (remember, they are “greedy wicked capitalists”) to not build too much parking in places where parking is expensive (that is, deep underground garages).

      1. In West Seattle, and I’m sure other parts of the city, nearby neighbors complain if there isn’t at least one parking space per rental unit for apartment buildings. In fact, even if the parking is 1:1, they complain, because they feel that many of the units will be rented by couples with two cars.

        Come to think about it, I remember talking to someone near the Roosevelt station who said that the neighbors agreed to more density if they could get a station, but that the neighbors now felt somewhat betrayed because apartment buildings were being built with not enough parking.

        I don’t know how much neighborhood activists influence how many parking spaces are included in apartment buildings.

    1. sure it does! needs more, but lots of that is due to the horrible highways that cuts off the neighborhood from the west and the east

      1. I lived on the fringe of SLU quite recently. If I had to get in or out during rush hour I couldn’t reliably predict travel times within an hour by any mode but cycling.

        So I saw the new Mercer underpass completed, and it’s been great that walking and biking across Aurora is better, and will continue to improve, but that only buys you so much travel range. Transit reliability in SLU is an unmitigated disaster, and will continue to worsen with every new parking space added in Seattle.

  10. [ST3] cuts no corners and offers 100% grade-separated rail

    Is that technically true? Unless it’s been changed I was under the belief that the East Link extension to DT Redmond would have at grade crossings in the section using the old RR ROW? I know this extension was originally part of ST2 “if funding permits” but it seems to be playing both sides of the tracks to say ST3 funding is necessary to build this (I believe it will happen regardless) and simultaneously claim ST3 is 100% grade separated. It also ignores the fact ST3 funding is earmarked for infill stations along MLK which is not grade separated.

    1. I’m in Minneapolis right now visiting with my wife’s Uncle and Aunt. Yesterday I took a long transit day, riding both the Green and Blue Lines from end to end. Though they do differ significantly in that the Green Line is about 80% center running with traffic signal control while the Blue Line is almost all private right of way, a significant improvement over Seattle and Portland is that they move those trains!

      Even in the University Avenue median running section the train typically reaches about 40 miles per hour between stations. Although there was no traffic congestion in the adjacent auto lanes, the train was passing the cars there regularly. There was none of this paranoia that SDOT has about the trains out-running the cars.

      The Blue Line uses gates even within the city and typically reaches full track speed between its wider-spaced stations north of the airport. The line is built alongside Hiawatha Avenue with a sound wall on the side away from the tracks, essentially walling off the adjacent neighborhood to the west from Hiawatha except at crossings placed next to the stations,

      I do not understand why Sound Transit decided that it is impossible to purchase undeveloped land parallel to major arterials but “behind” the linear slums that line streets like Aurora and SR99 south of the airport. Now maybe Aurora would have been a “bridge too far”, because Shoreline is pretty well built out, but SR99 south of the airport has land just to the west of the crack motel strip most of the distance from South 200th to 304th; look at the map.

      Sure there are a few places where some elevation would be necessary, especially around Kent-Des Moines Road. But LRT running in private right of way with crossing gates is every bit as quick and FAR more accessible than LRT on stilts or in a tunnel.

      Really; ST has let the perfect become the enemy of the good enough and designed BART del Norte. Building the segments between Lynnwood and Everett and south of the airport — the most likely “catchment area” of the Spine Line — to resemble the Norristown High Speed Line or the Riverside Line would have resulted in greater ridership and much lower construction costs. There was no option like that even considered: it was I-5 ROW or LRT on stilts.

      That said, it’s their money and if they want to throw it away bypassing the only practical TOD areas, so be it. To get improvements in Seattle, North King has to agree to this extravagance.

  11. I’d be as putting people whose work deserves a better life in the same category as those who need hospital care as soon as the Court Commissioner lets Western CEO Cheryl Strange out of jail for not letting him re-write admission priorities. (Good example of Legislative-neglect-caused-starving liberals reduced to eating each other.)

    It’s also a bad habit to constantly put “Low Income and People of Color” in the same sentence. Based on work ethic and commercial culture back past King Solomon, a lot of former East Africans are going to eat the lunches of companies whose credit card food bills will soon keep getting non-Approved.

    But here the USA, where we’re great because we’ve all think we’re in the same country, no group stays down forever. Reason Scotsmen will make great Europeans. Look who made the Industrial Revolution, including San Francisco cable cars!

    Except the (involuntary) immigrant group whose draft-free enlistment in the Union Army and subsequent good character and hard work got them lynched and their property seized when Northern troops withdrew.

    Proving by exception that The American Way works. Except for people robbed and murdered because they mistakenly though it applied to them.


  12. Agreed: neighborhoods change, generally becoming more interesting, multi-use, full of “character” with time. SLU is new; it won’t always be.

    The strongest argument for SLU’s value, though, is simply that there was so little to lose in the old SLU. Empty parking lots and decrepit warehouses just aren’t a lot to lose; a neighborhood can be pretty flawed and still add more to the city than the old SLU did.

    If you ask me, this is a major part of how Seattle grows.

    If the zoning fights in Roosevelt and Beacon Hill (esp. relative to the absence of opposition in SLU) have taught us anything, it is that questions for voters are not about how housing markets work and density and transit and sprawl, like we talk about here. They’re about “do I like this neighborhood? Would I be sad to see it go?”. Most people won’t give up something they like for something they don’t know whether they’ll like. People like the craftsman houses of Roosevelt, and don’t know what apartments will come, so they oppose change.

    Last century, we pushed growth to the land outside of cities, because nobody really cared about this land (sometimes we’d raze a poor minority neighborhood, too, because, again, people (with power) didn’t go there and didn’t care ).

    This century, it’s SLU.

    The question is, where do most Seattleites not give a shit about? Where do we (think we) have nothing to lose? That’s where we’re gonna grow. (and smaller scale infill throughout the city)

    I look at the map and don’t see another SLU – no place is that undeveloped and that large within walking distance of downtown. I do see a pile of Lake Cities, though. The whole Aurora Corridor – Bitter Lake, Haller Lake, Licton Springs – most people couldn’t even place those neighborhoods on a map of Seattle. Nobody’s going to fight for the auto-wrecking places and strip clubs, just as nobody has in Lake City. Big Box stores aren’t beloved, either, which adds Northgate to the list. Interbay, too.

    I hope the Duwamish/Industrial area isn’t built up, because I’m a geologist and that’s the worst earthquake hazard area in the city, and the worst flooding hazard, and the worst sea-level rise hazard. Bad news.

    For transit, if we don’t want to be caught as blindsided as we have been by SLU, we need to start planning transit to these areas.

    For land use, these are our biggest opportunities to create something good. We can fight NIMBYS for an extra floor and 0.5 FAR in your typical urban village or commercial street, and probably lose. We can BE the conversation, if we choose to, for Aurora all the way from Woodland Park to Shoreline. There’s an incredible number of square feet at stake.

    1. SLU was always going to grow into an extension of downtown. It stagnated in the mid 20th century because the highways caused (maybe unexpected) blight. Mercer/Valley Street stagnated because of the proposed Bay Freeway that was cancelled. That era believed in suburban-level density and decentralization so there wasn’t much demand to develop SLU, just as there wasn’t much demand to develop downtown. The 1980s had the CAP initiative that limited the height of downtown buildings; that shows how little people cared about development. The city kept dragging its feet for decades deciding what SLU would become or what zoning it would have. When Paul Allen made his fortune in the 80s he began buying up land in SLU for large-scale development. He asked the city if we wanted a large central park along Westlake; we said no. So he started building a high-density mixed-use neighborhood without a park, but with a streetcar. (Although Lake Union Park did fufill the park goal in a small way.)

      The only other areas left for large-scale development are the industrial areas: SODO, southern Ballard, Interbay (not much space), and West Seattle along the Duwamish. But the city is wisely reluctant to convert these to housing en masse because it would lose the manufacturing/trade jobs, the diversity in the economy, and local manufacturing capacity which may be needed in the future (if long-distance shipping becomes impractical). At the same time, I see one-story big-box stores and chain stores going into the industrial areas, and that’s not what we’re keeping them for. The other possible areas are those full of car dealerships and decaying commercial uses: Aurora, Lake City, the West Seattle triangle (fast disappearing). The latter two are being developed as we speak. Aurora is being held back because large landowners like it the way it is: they advertise “Shop Aurora, open a business in Aurora, there’s lots of free parking here.” That shows the mentality there, and also explains why RapidRide E doesn’t have full transit/BAT lanes like Shoreline, Snohomish County, and south King County do.

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