This field off SR 522 is the planned site of a 360-unit apartment development. (Photo by author)

Some years ago, I lived in a residential community east of Woodinville. It’s a typical late 1970s subdivision with houses on acre-lots surrounded by tall trees; the kind of place where deer graze in the yard by day and bears sometimes visit by night. After the Growth Management Act was adopted in 1990, the neighborhood was miles outside the King County Urban Growth Boundary. Zoning was amended to RA-5, effectively freezing pre-GMA development in place with five-acre minimum lots.

The neighborhood backs onto Paradise Lake Road, a winding rural road into Snohomish County. It was startling, therefore, to learn last week of a large apartment development on 17 acres of farmland alongside that road. The project comprises fifteen three-story apartment buildings with 360 apartments. Other than a church and middle school across the road, it’s a low density rural area with older homes on large lots.

A developer drawing shared at a public meeting on Wednesday evening.

The rural area, it turns out, is bisected by the Maltby Urban Growth Area (UGA). It’s a long sliver of “urban” area along SR 522, mostly light industrial uses on the north side of the highway as it snakes up the hill from Woodinville toward Monroe. Five miles beyond Woodinville, the UGA was extended in 2005 for a church construction on Paradise Lake Rd. A neighboring landowner asked to be included in the urban area. For obscure reasons, the Snohomish County council agreed and rezoned the farm as Planned Community Business (PCB).

The zoning also allows multifamily. Hence the peculiar sight of fifteen three-story apartment buildings in a pocket of UGA surrounded on three sides by R-5 zoning, the 5-acre minimum lots that are designed to prevent development into the rural areas.

It is denser than many new developments in exurban Snohomish County, and will provide more homes than a comparably sized single family subdivision. More affordable too; though many residents will face long commutes, rents are about half the level of core urban markets. But it’s a textbook example of density in the wrong place. The only businesses are a pair of gas stations at the highway intersection, so every errand will involve driving. Roads lack lighting and sidewalks. The 720 parking spots required reflect a realistic estimate of the mode share and traffic impacts. The only bus in the area is the twice daily CT 424 which passes, without stopping, on SR 522.

The Maltby UGA extends for several miles along SR 522. ‘Urban Industrial’ uses are in purple, and ‘Urban Commercial’ in red. Pale green indicates rural areas outside the Growth Boundary. (Source: Snohomish County Future Land Use map)

What’s happened on Paradise Lake Road is an extreme instance of the development pressures along the edge of the UGA in Snohomish County. Around North Creek and other unincorporated communities around Bothell and Mill Creek, single family home development is booming. Land use is so inefficient that developers estimate they will soon run out of land within the UGA. Proposals are being floated to extend the UGA between Bothell and Mill Creek two miles east as far as SR 9 Woodinville-Snohomish Road.

Development on the rural edge generates severe traffic congestion, but is too sparse to support a significant transit share. Snohomish County’s Comprehensive Plan classifies Paradise Lake Rd and two dozen other rural arterials at “urban traffic levels”. LOS standards should act as a brake, preventing growth from running ahead of transportation capacity. In Snohomish County, low LOS standards permit low-intensity development to sprawl for miles into recently rural areas.

At two well-attended meetings this week, neighbors expressed frustration. Having been caught unawares of the 2005 rezone, their hopes may now depend on traffic issues. Paradise Lake Rd is the last signal-controlled intersection on SR 522 between I-405 and Monroe. A $100 million flyover is planned, but funded only for design (and only after 2025). Though local traffic congestion is severe, it does not yet appear to put the area in arrears under the LOS standard. The developer anticipates breaking ground in late 2017.

47 Replies to “Trouble on Paradise Lake”

  1. You make an excellent point that density, by itself, doesn’t free anyone from car-dependence. You also need (1) connected local streets (not just arterials) so pedestrians can take the shortest path, and (2) mixed uses within walking distance so they have places to walk to. And to make transit work you need a non-circuitous route for buses within walking distance of where people live. It’s why I oppose placing all our rail stations at freeway interchanges. You might go to work on transit, but for everything else you need to drive, which also exacerbates congestion (and slows bus connections) in the most congested locations.

    1. Your point about how density doesn’t reduce auto dependency all by itself is spot on! If this development was single-family homes on 50 acres, it would still create the same amount of traffic — and similarly if they were all in a 20-story building on a 4-acre parcel but sited nowhere near other residential-serving land uses or walkable streets, there would probably be pretty much the same level of auto dependency.

    2. Yep, that’s why LA’s transit market share is so abysmal, despite reasonably high density. Super wide, high speed arterials, large blocks, and single use development even where density is reasonably high.

      1. Abysmal must be relative. It may be lower than New York City but it’s probably way higher and serves more of residents’ needs than Seattle’s transit.

        LA suffers from uniform medium density, and the culprit is suburban-level parking minimums. That prevents the kind of high-pedestrian neighborhoods like University Way or moreso Vancouver’s Davie Street, but at the same time there are a lot of people walking in LA and taking transit.

        San Jose is similar on a lower scale. It doesn’t have any high-pedestrian neighborhoods like the aforementioned, but it doesn’t have ultra low-density areas like Snohomish County either; instead it’s like Bellevue going on forever.

      2. LA County is so big (10 million people, 4,000 sq mi) any gross generalization won’t do it justice. Even the city of LA (one of 88 cities) is massive. The core parts of the city are actually comparable to San Francisco in density but without the matching transit service levels and its jobs are more decentralized.

      3. It may be lower than New York City but it’s probably way higher and serves more of residents’ needs than Seattle’s transit.

        This isn’t true. LA’s transit mode share is more in Portland territory than Seattle–for commuting to work Seattle is almost twice as high.

  2. I know that neighborhood, it has not significantly changed in the last 45 years, a few less farms, the new church and middle school, but otherwise nothing. I grew up less than a 1/4 mile from there.

    The Roads in that area can not handle an additional 700+ cars. They voted down joining CT a couple of years ago. 522 is still 2 lane from that point to the Snohomish River, and the intersection between Paradise Lake Road and 522 is still a signaled intersection, the only one east of Bothell.

    This plan needs to be put on hold until the infrastructure in the area is upgraded, the ioverpass on 522 needs to be built, and the other 2 lanes need to be completed. I doubt that Maltby will ever see regular bus service in my lifetime, but CT also needs to be convinced to add some sort of stop for the 424 at Maltby.

      1. Suburban development and TOD development are not mutually exclusive. Our housing crisis requires an All of the Above solution.

        This development has clear flaws, but opposing (or supporting) it has nothing to do with encouraging development in transit oriented areas.

      2. Bob, looking at the plan, first thing that comes out at me is how unbelievably ugly and boring the complex is.

        There are many ways to arrange that number of homes that not only look better, but provide residents with some privacy. As well as an attractive place to live.

        I keep remembering developments back in the interurban era, meaning high speed and capacity intercity streetcars, developers would build subdivisions at the end of car lines, to give their system permanent ridership.

        So I keep wondering if transit should find ways to become more aggressive as a developer, buying and developing land, and running transit out to it. The old interurbans lent themselves to this.

        I also go on thinking that as a transit mode for delicate surroundings, streetcars of different sizes work best. Cross Kirkland Corridor is probably not the only right of way that could lend itself.

        Other former railroads converted to trails could lend themselves to less contentious conversions.

        Mark Dublin

    1. Hi, Don’t forget that the original overpass at Paradise Lake Road was designed to use the piece of property that this complex is proposed to be built on which is one reason it is back to the drawing board. For a re-design it will most likely have to take out several homes, but of course the money to re-look at this will not be available until 2025. With this many apartments you will have a lot of children, don’t forget the schools which are still not fully funded. There is absolutely no safe way for middle school children to cross the street to get to school, again no sidewalks and little shoulder. The elementary school on the back side of this property is at capacity and has no parking and little if any space for drop offs. Another narrow 2 lane road. According to the developer all these petty little points are the responsibility of the County, not them. They will pay fees and be done with their portion.
      Thanks for the opportunity to speak out.

      1. Well, yes, building crosswalks where needed is generally a task governments, rather than private developers do. This is hardly an unreasonable expectation.

        What do you mean, schools are “not fully funded”? If that’s a reference to Mcleary, that applies to the entire state, so using it as an excuse to not build more housing in any specific school district doesn’t make sense. And, of course, more local property taxes means more money for schools.

      2. More to the point, this is infill development in an Urban Growth Area. We can argue, quite sensibly, that designating this land as a UGA was ridiculous, but that’s not what is at issue. The whole point of the GMA and UGAs is to help direct growth to places where the county wants it to occur, and to provide a framework to guide the county in its provision of resources. If this area isn’t ready to support even this modest level of infill, then this is a sign of, at best, gross negligence on the part of the county.

  3. The regional housing shortage is sufficiently severe that I’m loathe to oppose anything that is allowed within the letter of the law. But that this development actually makes financial sense is a testament to just how excessively restrictive land use policies across the region actually are.

    1. Anything that smacks of retroactive downzoning 11 years later because of neighbor complaints after a developer has already invested in site plans that fit the code is simply unfair. Local zoning and land use policies are set up and adopted to guide developers on what they can and cannot do, and if the neighbors aren’t paying attention to what they say, it’s their own fault — especially if they have been quiet for 11 years about it.

      1. That would make sense if anyone knew about this. The first proposed land use sign went up a week ago. Take a drive thru that intersection any rush hour and get back to us on it.

  4. Maybe this will spur development? If 500+ people move in to an area, they will need to buy groceries, go out to eat, etc. So wouldn’t some businesses open up in the immediate area?

    Housing in the region is in a crisis right now. Home prices keep rising and are unaffordable to many. I say build houses as quickly as possible, and then work out the secondary details like traffic management.

    1. That’s exactly what brought us this sprawling, traffic-choked mess that we see in the Puget Sound area right now. It’s better to do some planning first and build more dense housing in areas served by effective and frequent grade-separated transit.

      500 people aren’t enough to support that much of anything. They’ll need to drive a lot.

    2. Specifically because it’s on a sliver of developer land, it will be legally prohibited from spuring development.

    3. It could go that way, and turn into another Issaquah Highlands. And then as the area gets more developed and more desirable, the prices will go up and we’ll still be in a housing crisis.

      Or the bubble could burst before the area gets that far into development, and it’s low-cost housing with no services, terrible transportation infrastructure and not a lot of jobs nearby. Guess what? Seattle just outsourced another low-income neighborhood.

      Or we could reinvest in our urban centers where we already have the things we need to make neighborhoods livable, and shift policy to favor affordability.

    4. It’s better to do some planning first and build more dense housing in areas served by effective and frequent grade-separated transit.

      This sounds good, and makes a lot of sense in theory and sometimes even in practice. The problem, of course, is that the planning process is as likely as not to be used to reduce the amount and density of housing that can be built, which drives the shortage in the first place.

  5. 360 units across 17 acres of land is only 21 units/acre. Staggeringly low density, considering an acre (43,500 sqft) can have 8 SF5000 lots with room to spare.

    If the developer built a typical Seattle SFH neighborhood instead (mix of townhomes and SF5000, 1-2 small apartment buildings) the density could be similar but it would be an actual neighborhood, not a car-oriented housing complex.

    My building has 170 units in about 1.25 acres (136 units/acre), and that’s with only 5 floors of residential.

    1. Your comparisons are reasonable, but I would propose that they are not entirely similar. Any parcel of 17 acres anywhere has to allow for a certain percentage of land for internal street right-of-way and perhaps some other public uses like drainage and streams. It would be hard to squeeze out more than 13-14 acres of residential land that could be divided for single-family homes, for example; the remainder would be land needed for internal streets and other public uses. I would first allocate about 20 percent of a 17-acre parcel (about 3-4 acres) to non-residential land before doing a mathematical comparison for a housing compared to much smaller parcels.

  6. Across the street from a middle school and around the corner from an elementary school. As well as that relatively large industrial area right across 522. I’m guessing this will be more affordable to young families that work in the area at lower paying jobs. They have to live somewhere.
    The nearby housing doesn’t exactly sit on 5 acre lots. It looks fairly dense from google earth. Plenty of open land to add walking paths still.

    North Seattle still doesn’t have sidewalks.

    1. The R5 zoning in Snohomish (or similar RA-5 across the King County line) was added sometime after the GMA was passed. A lot of the development around Paradise Lake and Maltby occurred under the more permissive pre-GMA zoning in the 1970s. So most of the housing stock in the area is non-conforming. There are islands of about 4 du/acre, some of which are mobile homes. Lots more about 1 du/acre.

      The R5 zoning has the effect of making it very difficult to build anything new (which is exactly the point). I recently noticed one small development near Redmond where a farm was carved into 5.01 acre lots, so it’s not quite impossible. But it rarely pencils to redevelop at a lower density than the existing use.

  7. Paradise Lake Road has to be upgraded before it can bear the traffic this project would bring. It has inadequate streetlights and no shoulder, there are a significant number of fatalities annually, and cars regularly slide into the deep ditches that run along the side of the road. It is not patrolled, people drag race on it at night and speeding is uncontrolled.

    That should be reason enough to at least delay the project until infrastructure is improved.

    1. If only we had a program where development rights could be traded, so that someone could be allowed to build even taller in Seattle, in exchange for something like this being kept rural. Unfortunately, the NIMBYs seem to think the world ends at the city limits.

    2. That lacy of infrastructure hasn’t stopped any of the stuff north of I-5 in Lacy, or much of any of the other sprawl developments.

      If you aren’t allowed to build upward, building outward is going to happen instead.

  8. This is the funny thing about about TOD and the downhill path of least resistance: It is easier to build TOD where it doesn’t belong than where it does belong. Because NIMBYshed.

    Arrowhead Gardens, just up the hill from South Park, is an island unto itself as a neighborhood. But try building something of that scale next to existing neighborhoods. So, like water flowing downhill, “TOD” flows to wherever there is nothing.

    The bus stop at Arrowhead Gardens adds 5-10 minutes to each route 60 trip, due to the circuitousness to get to the stop from the main arterials.

    South Kirkland P&R is not quite as in-the-middle-of-nowhere, but the same principles apply. “TOD” got built there because of no NIMBYshed. And of course, someone thought having the bus pull off the road to serve a bus stop as far away from the road as possible would be a really neat amenity, rather than something that would cause lots of former riders who used to board route 255 north of there to abandon transit.

    The densest development in Issaquah is way out in Issaquah Highlands. They have taller buildings next to their park&ride than what is built up around our neighborhood light rail stations. Park&rides aren’t powerful NIMBYs.

    Granted, the development that is the topic of the post isn’t really messing up an existing bus line. However, density that gets built out beyond the bus system walkshed needs a way for people to get around, and so out there is where traffic analyses that assume all the residents will own cars makes some sense, at least until civilization overtakes the area and bus system reaches it.

    Unfortunately, TOD gets the most resistance where it is most appropriate, and gets the least resistance where it is least appropriate. Traffic analyses get used as a weapon to fight development where transit makes the traffic analyses totally wrong, and don’t have anyone around to make use of them where the traffic analyses get it right.

    Try going up the hill from Kent Commons to East Hill, and see what happens when lots of density gets built out beyond the frequent transit network. At least there, some BRT might actually turn out to be a win-win solution.

    If you want to fight to keep the Seattle area liveable, fight sprawl, not urban density.

    1. “TOD gets the most resistance where it is most appropriate, and gets the least resistance where it is least appropriate.”

      True. Martin said some time ago that Pugetopolis has inverted density politics. It’s hard to upzone in Seattle because nimbys, so you end up with outcomes like six-story buildings at Capitol Hill Station ans four-story buildings two blocks from Mt Baker Station. But suburbs have large blocks of contiguous commercial/industrial land which they’re happy to upzone for urban centers and large projects.So the result is that density goes to the “wrong” places.

      There is one other factor. Legally, the suburban commercial/industrial areas are the same to Seattle’s industrial districts. Seattle has chosen not to allow housing there in order to preserve the industrial economy and the goods/services it provides. Other cities like Vancouver and San Francisco have converted their industrial districts to mixed-use, and that allows them to have large developments like a Spring District. Seattle could go that route too. It has been reluctant to (and I agree) because the businesses are still viable, it keeps the economy diverse, and we may need more local manufacturing in the future if long-distance trade becomes less viable. Once the land is rezoned it’s gone., because industries can’t afford the prices residential developers will pay and will be shut out. So we have to think carefully before we do this. But it would allow large-scale dense neighborhoods like the suburbs do.

      “Try going up the hill from Kent Commons to East Hill, and see what happens when lots of density gets built out beyond the frequent transit network.”

      Kent East Hill is similar to the situation on upper Queen Anne, and Crossroads before RapidRide B. There’s no single frequent route, but the total service is actually frequent because of overlap. You just have to know which side of the street or which corner the next bus stops at. On Queen Anne Avenue, the 13 goes south to downtown half-hourly, while the 4 goes north to downtown. If you go to the stop on Boston Street, the 3/4 combine for 15-minute service, although you can’t get the 13 from there. This will soon be improved, with the 3/4/13 all going south on Queen Anne Avenue north of Boston (unfortunately the urban village is south of Boston, but all of it is within a 10-minute walk). In Crossroads before RapidRide B, two routes alternated to provide 15-30 minute service on 8th Street west of 156th to downtown Bellevue.

      “The densest development in Issaquah is way out in Issaquah Highlands.”

      And the denset development in Snoqualmie is, bu da de dupp-dupp, Snoqualmie Ridge.

      In East Hill, the 264 and 268 go north on 104th to Kent Station between 240th and 256th. The 269 goes south on 104th. That gives six buses per hour weekdays, four Saturdays, three Sundays (when the 164 doesn’t run). The Saurday scheduled ate timed for 15-minute service on alternating sides of the street. The Sunday schedules are 15-15-30 due to the missing 164.

      These are complicated to memorize, but it’s better than when I lived on Somerset and had four different routes to get to downtown Bellevue, each at a different stop with a different frequency, travel time, and walking distance. I wrote down a combined schedule and carried it with me.In the morning I took the closest route and transfered at Mercer Island; it ran every two hours or so. In the afternoon I took the second or third route and walked a mile or two. It works if you live there and don’t have a car, but casual riders and visitors won’t use it or know about it. That’s where a frequent BRT route comes in, with a single consistent schedule and stops.

    2. +1

      I did an urban morphology project on westwood/white center a couple of years ago. It was striking to see all the best places get filled in with SF houses from the 20’s-60’s and then apartments and the mall getting built in the swamps and gullies where nobody wanted to built before. The highest intensity use gets put in the worst location because the low-intensity uses got there first and are immune to change.

    3. It’s not just NIMBYism, it has to do with current value as well as neighborhood value. There are plenty of places in Seattle that are zoned for six story apartment buildings, but nothing is being built. Rent isn’t high enough — in that area — to justify construction. So someone who owns a car lot on Aurora keeps it a car lot. It isn’t making great money, but when you consider the cost of construction and the fact that living next to Aurora isn’t very desirable. then it isn’t worth the change.

      On the other hand, green field (or brown field) development is almost always worth it. The owner is literally getting nothing out of the property right now. So even though it might not be that desirable a location, it doesn’t have to be.

      The irony is, of course, that when the dust settles, many of the suburban locations will not have much in the way of density. Because one small area with a handful of big buildings surrounded by huge roads and wetlands is not very dense. Maybe if they had Toronto style towers, but they don’t.

      In contrast, consider some areas that are full of single family housing, whether by current law or existing development but that contain a handful of low slung apartments. North of the U-District is a prime example. Between 50th and 55th, there are three census blocks, and each one is over 25,000 people per square mile, which is pretty high for Seattle (http://arcg.is/2hv8IH4). Yet if you look at the neighborhood from the air, it doesn’t look like much: https://goo.gl/maps/Uvi77zWGQFK2. Vancouver BC has even bigger examples — areas which are made up almost entirely of detached houses, but where density is pretty high. Of course Brooklyn and San Fransisco have row house neighborhoods that are more densely populated than any part of Seattle. In all cases it isn’t the height, but rather the lack of space dedicated to roads as well as the number of places they manage to cram in there.

      My point though, is not that these other places (which are full of houses) are relatively dense, but that if a new apartment (big or small) is added to the neighborhood, it results in very high density. It is very easy to make a place like that dense. On the other hand, it is very difficult to go the other direction, and make up for a very low density base.

      1. “On the other hand, green field … development is almost always worth it. The owner is literally getting nothing out of the property right now.”

        That’s not necessarily true in the case of agricultural lands. They might be used for crops, grazing or tree harvest. The income from that pales in comparison to the one-time gain that could be had by selling to a developer. But of course, that’s the point of the UGMA.

      2. Good point. I should haven’t said “nothing”. Next to nothing is more like it. In some cases the owner is actually getting something. But if the land was logged recently, then the owner won’t get anything for a very long time. It takes time for the trees go back and converting to a farm takes work. Unless you are growing Christmas trees, the economy of scale work against you. In other words, in most cases it simply isn’t a viable business unless it gets developed into something else.

        In this case it looks to be a farm. So this place has existing value. But there are other places where the land is basically just wild (or at least feral), even though it is privately owned.

        This particular spot is not that type of place. The area can be considered rural, or maybe suburban, but it is obviously desirable with no zoning changes at all. It is a nice plot of land with a few houses on a street that isn’t that busy. Nor is it the type of place Brent and Mike are talking about. NIMBY’s definitely object to this development.

        Oddly enough, some of the places that have little to no value without development are close to the freeway. Consider this place up in Everett: https://goo.gl/maps/NmJMyEDFTxT2. It is forested, and surrounded by a housing development on one side and the freeway on the other. It is possible it is protected, but it is also possible that it is simply not worth developing yet, given the current zoning. It might even be hard to log for environmental reasons. In other words, to log or develop would be expensive (because of the paperwork) and for the amount of timber, it just isn’t worth it. So it sits until it makes sense to do both — log and develop. It is quite likely that the development that surrounds that area looked exactly like that before it was built. Those houses aren’t exactly crammed in there, and they probably weren’t that expensive, but it was cheap to build them, because the owner paid very little for that land (since the land hadn’t made money for a long time).

        South of there you have apartments close to the Ash Way park and ride. I don’t know what existed before the apartments, but my guess is it was forest as well. As a forest, it did have value, but very little. An urban parking lot is a lot more valuable. That is the type of thing that Mike and Brent are talking about. Regulators allowed much high development because it was next to the freeway and there weren’t any neighbors to complain.

  9. Definitely well past time for 522 to be four grade seperated lanes all the way to Monroe, and start thinking about HOV lanes from 405 to SR9.

    1. While we are at it, add a DMU to the ESR between Snohomish and Woodinville.
      Not that that will help this issue, as the station will be on the other side of 522. Also I would expect more traffic from this complex to be headed to Monroe than to Snohomish…

      1. Doubtful, there is apartment housing in Monroe that would be less of a commute and there isn’t enough in Monroe to employ that many people. They will go to Redmond, Kirkland, Seattle, maybe north like most people in Monroe are doing now. Avondale and WD to 522 will be backed up to Safeway.

      2. My point was only Monroe vs Snohomish, I was excluding Woodinville, Bothell, and everything west, I agree that that is where the Majority will go. The Choiced of Monroe vs Snohomish on this was Snohomish is the Norhtern end of the ESR, while Monroe is the Northern end of 522 ;)

  10. In general I’m against expanding the development boundary. Growing up I saw tons of woodlands and wetlands bulldozed to make McMansions.
    Much better to convert existing suburbs to higher density use than to expand outward. We probably have enough developed land already within the boundary for centuries of growth.

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