6th & Spring with transit/queue jump signal visible.

This is an open thread.

26 Replies to “News Roundup: Top-Level View”

  1. A genuine land-use question: Amid all of the talk of zoning and what to allow where and how (and whether to simply ditch zoning entirely), I would like to know… Why are townhouses and rowhouses considered “multi-family?”

    I promise I’m not being intentionally dense. Look at a townhouse (aka semi-detached) or rowhouse versus a fully-detached house: each sits on its own legal parcel, each has its own entrance, each has its own walls (unless the firewall is a more modern one that is fully joined) and it’s the outside space that is covered by sheathing, and–for me, this is important to note–each generally has its own water/sewer/garbage service billed directly from the city. (This last one is a feature that “true” multifamily housing lacks; the building is on a common meter.) In every sense, all of these houses have the same physical and legal attributes as a freestanding house.

    So why the legal distinction? Is it just because owners of detached houses dislike semi-detacheds that much?

    1. Genericly, townhouses are called single-family attached houses in many cities. The distinction may be related to whether they are part of a legal condominium or not.

    2. It’s a zoning term that may have spread beyond its original definition or intention. In older cities the predominant type of single-family house is attached but in Seattle it’s detached. The existing attached houses were grandfathered when the zoning was established, and there weren’t many of them so people probably forgot about the possibility, and there wasn’t a land shortage so it didn’t matter as much then. At some point single-family zoning became more restrictive: no more small lots, minimum space around the building, minimum setback, minimum parking, etc. That’s really when townhouses and duplexes were outlawed. It’s not that they aren’t single-family but they didn’t fit the vision of Seattle neighborhoods.

      The fact that we call them “Single-Family” zones reflects more an amnesia that these middle levels exist. When people speak against townhouses they’re usually referring either to traffic, undesirable residents, or ugly design. Traffic is a real although overblown concern. Undesirable residents alludes back to the mid 20th century when low-income highrises and decaying neighborhoods became focuses of crime and drugs and debris all over the lawn. The idea that $300K+ townhouses would lead to that is ridiculous, but it’s a potent argument to mobilize nimbys. Ugly design can of course be improved by simply changing the design. Part of the problem is that the parking minimums make only one kind of design feasible, which is what led to the “garage with a townhouse thrown in” design everybody hates (and drivers can hardly turn in and out of). Seattle relaxed those requirements a few years ago to allow better row houses, but it could still do more. And that doesn’t help in areas where townhouses aren’t allowed at all.

      1. Most townhouses in Seattle are built in UVs that don’t have parking mins. Those garages are included cause they help sell the house. I’m annoyed by it too, garage-less townhouses are really hard to find.

  2. “the upzones, in tandem with new affordable-housing requirements, would generate more than 5,500 rent- and income-restricted units over 20 years.” [Time$]

    4,000 is the number of people on the Section 8 waiting list. So that’s 4/5 of the capacity right there, and it’s needed now and can’t wait twenty years. And that only counts the people who qualify for subsidized housing, who know about it and have applied, and who bothered applying knowing there wouldn’t be a vacancy for years. There are at least that many who have somewhat higher incomes but still can’t afford the market minimum. So the city should target at least 10,000 or 15,000, and ten years rather than twenty.

    1. We can also point to the 8,522 people in Seattle who were documented as homeless during the annual count on 1/22/17. (That’s 3,857 unsheltered, and 4,665 sheltered, and is undoubtedly an undercount.) Any way you look at it, it’s pretty clear we aren’t planning to build anywhere near enough affordable housing for people who need it.

  3. Is there some official document that the One Center City article is based on? I cannot seem to find anything in my searches…

    1. The timeline to get One Center City projects done is to short to implement substantial changes. Where is the outcry about not studying this situation 2-3 years s ago? An objective assessment of why the City did not study this before should be done so it doesn’t happen again.

  4. Saw this article about the winners and losers of the convention center. It says 65% of the additional spending will be restaurants and hotels. Considering those industries mostly employ minimum wage workers, the sort which are eligible for subsidized rent in Seattle, I see this as going in the wrong direction. The above article about zoning changes makes it clear just how ridiculously few new subsidized units we expect to build. My thought is, what if the hotel industry built affordable housing instead of a convention center.

    I understand that legally the 1.7 billion must go to the convention center, but maybe hotels can be convinced otherwise and a change to law made. For starts, there is an overbuilding of convention space in general. Further, only 43% of reasons for not booking had to do with date availability or space. Amongst other reasons for not booking, one stood out to me, unfavorable hotel rates. If the huge construction competes for constructions workers and resources, this could increase the cost of hotel and housing construction. If you have to pay more to build your hotels, you get less profit. Further, if your workers are struggling to get by, hiring will be more difficult, worker turnover will be higher, and the quality of work will be worse (one time I found a carefully placed pube on the top of the towel flower). An increase in housing prices caused by an increase in construction costs will not benefit the hospitality business.

    Now consider what the hospitality business has to gain from constructing affordable housing and facilities for the homeless. 1.7 billion dollars could easily build 10,000 units with plenty left over for homeless facilities and tourism boosting investments. Most people prefer visiting a city that doesn’t have roving bands of homeless. But if the housing prices continue to rise, a certain portion of the bottom will get squeezed out onto the streets. Even with more affordable housing, there will remain a certain amount of homeless. To help keep them off the street, we need way more and way higher quality facilities for these people.

    If we solved our homeless crises and took a large bite out of our housing affordability problem, I think the hotel business would benefit greatly. A Convention center expansion on the other hand wont help hoteliers and will hurt the rest of the city.

    1. +1

      A few other things I’ve heard/seen/read about conventions in Seattle:

      1) The CC itself is very expensive to do business with. My dad was putting on an event years ago and showed me some of the eye-watering costs for things like set up and tear down.

      2) Seattle is hard to get to. Yes we have a lot of flights, but for many they are long and expensive. With 2/3 of the US population living in Eastern and Central time, Seattle is inconveniently located for national conventions.

      3) Hotel rooms, as you said, are brutally expensive in the summer. In the winter, the rainy Seattle reputation puts off convention-goers, and hence convention planners.

      4) Seattle is expensive now. We used to have a cost advantage, but meals, transportation, etc. are now fairly comparable to other major cities.

      Also, although the convention center pretends like it is a profit-making enterprise, anyone with a basic accounting knowledge can figure out that it runs a significant annual deficit which it is plugging with taxes. For 2015 my back of the envelope math shows the WSCC lost ~$33M when you back out the lodging taxes. The financial statements include the tax revenue so it appears profitable superficially.

      Still no audited WSCC financial statements for 2016 posted. Maybe I’ll inquire about that.

      There is a very good reason why the private sector doesn’t build huge convention centers… they are simply not profitable.

      1. These are all good points and valid reasons not to expand the WSCC, although #2 is more a matter of perception than reality. Seattle is closer to the East Coast (as far south as Charlotte, which is about equidistant) and Chicago/Upper Midwest than any of the California cities. Even Atlanta is as close to Seattle as it is to San Francisco (although LA is closer). For international visitors from Europe, North Asia, and the Middle East, Seattle is also closer than California – often by many hundreds of miles.

      2. Yeah – I think nothing about flying cross country but I’m conditioned to it from years of having one foot in Seattle and the other in the East.

        Definitely perception over reality, but I think perception plays a key role.

      3. Me too – I’ve traveled to/rom the SE so often now I don’t even think about it. And you’re correct about perception; it’s always been that way with regards to us being “up in the corner.” That said, I’m still always surprised at how many people I meet in South Carolina (of all places) who have been here. It’s much more of a destination than it was 20+ years ago.

      4. “The CC itself is very expensive to do business with.”

        That’s what large convention centers are like. I’ve attended a conference for seventeen years that gradually went from 150 people to 300, 500, 1000, 1500, 2500, and now 3300. The larger the conference, the fewer venues available and the more expensive they are. We tried to bring it to Seattle around 2010(?) at 1300 but the Convention Center was out of our price range (for a DIY event with tickets in the $300-500 range).

        “Seattle is hard to get to”

        The Convention Center tried to expand in 2008 but was turned down then. It made the same argument that it was turning away as many conventions as it had because of lack of space. Since then Amazon, Google, Facebook, Disney, and every tech startup dog have expanded enormously in Seattle and generate demand for conventions here, both to benefit the companies and because those companies indulge their employees’ interests more than average.

        Our Convention Center is right downtown. Not like some others I could name (Santa Clara, the Rosemont convention center near O’Hare, the Galleria hotels in north Dallas). At the abovementioned conference, at least a third of the attendees are local to the current region and don’t travel to the other locations. A lot of people in Pugetopolis and the northwest want to attend various conventions, and it’s convenient for them if it takes place here. Plus, a downtown location is itself a plus. Our attendees made it clear repeatedly that they didn’t want isolated suburban locations, even if they tolerated it every few years to get lower-priced hotels. That means people will fly further for a conference in a city center where they can walk to other things and take frequent transit and not be dependent on rental cars/taxis. Many other conventions must have a similar attitude even if not all of them do.

        Finally, it’s not a general tax, it’s only on hotel rooms, a tax on visitors to provide amenities for visitors. Other cities have hotel taxes. And while a few locals use hotels when their house is being renovated or their power is out or they can’t afford an apartment, the number is small (and other things can be done for the poor).

        So I can see significant pluses to the Convention Center expansion, even if only half the new bookings materialize. Better a convention center than a stadium, especially a single-use or dual-use rather than a multipurpose stadium. Those just line the pockets of the team owners as they market propaganda that their teams are the same as the oh-so-wonderful community teams of yesteryear. A convention center has thousands of different events, at least some of which will be relevant to a wide cross-section of the population.

  5. The new San Francisco fare boxes appear to be the same ones Skagit Transit has been using for several years now.

    1. “fares paid with a Clipper card or the MuniMobile app after 8:30 p.m. are valid until 5 a.m. the following morning” That’s a nice policy I’d love to see implemented here as well.

      1. Second best, a Metro paper transfer after 9:30pm is good all night and the first run in the morning.

      2. I could see that. But ideally it would be Orca-wide. (Much more limited use without at least MetroLink or ST transfers.)

        Also, it’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine that transfers have effectively become less generous using Orca cards. In that they are strictly enforced to two hours, whereas with a paper transfer you usually would get a little more time. Plus there’d be some room for driver discretion. It’s a little frustrating to have to pay a second fare in cases where you would have boarded within the two-hour window, but the bus was late, and yet the rider still ends up literally paying the price.

        Plus if we really want to encourage Orca use, it’s counterproductive to make their transfers less generous. There are times I have paid cash specifically to get the paper transfer and the extra time.

    2. Also Orca transfers are non-transferable, so you can’t recover some of your fare by selling the transfer on. Oh… and you can’t “scrapbook” your transfers for future use.

      This is why we can’t have nice things.

      If we want to encourage Orca use the formula is simple:

      1) Make them easy to get and refill. every supermarket, every convenience store, every drug store. If Seattle can make landlords hand out voter registrations, surely King County can make vendors sell Orcas.
      2) Paying with cash should be more expensive.
      3) No cash transfers.

      A distant (4) is reducing the cost of the Orca itself.

      1. Absolutely! Why both with carrots for your riders when you can just beat them with sticks? And if you must offer carrots, make sure the ones marked “convenience” come from the jumbo bin, while the ones marked “cash” are those cute little baby ones. I mean, who wouldn’t choose convenience over cash? And if they have no fares, just let them ride Uber instead.

      2. Maybe ORCA just isn’t the right technology. Maybe it’s just gadget-bahn: NFC is newer, must be better than the old ways. But if you’re visiting Seattle, or are an occasional rider (like many folks from the ‘burbs), your options are terrible:

        1. Cash/tickets. Fumble a combination of bills and change at every boarding; forego inter-agency and ST transfers; stand around at ticket machines poking at the screen like a doofus every time you want to ride Link.
        2. ORCA. Find one of the odd locations selling an ORCA, then find one of those locations again when you need to refill it. Or refill online, but make sure to do so 48 hours before you need to take the bus!

        And it can’t get much better if ORCA is the technology. Can we scale ORCA distribution to every merchant? I’ve had lots of difficulties related to low turnover at ORCA-participating merchants: cards out of stock (they don’t sell enough to bother managing their inventory well), machines out of order with indeterminate fix times, staff that doesn’t know how ORCA sales or refills work. Spreading that out over more merchants would seem to exacerbate these problems… and I bet the machines that can do refills are stupidly expensive.

        How about every hotel desk? My hotel when I stayed in Prague sold me transit tickets — paper tickets, not so different from those distributed by social service agencies in Seattle, and for somewhat similar reasons: mediating some of the complicated parts of transit-related transactions for clients/travelers that benefit from dealing with someone familiar with their particular challenges (on one hand, perhaps mental illness; on the other, perhaps language barriers, unfamiliarity with the city, jet lag). Prague also has a staffed booth at the airport for this sort of thing, sort of like the one we have at Westlake.

        The only other city I know that’s as annoying to visit as Seattle is the Bay Area, another NFC-card city. Go figure. So it serves to reason their best next-measure is improving their fareboxes, because their chosen technology, in the context of American patterns of transportation and land use (even in a geographically small city with some of the most favorable patterns in the US), doesn’t give them many chances to expand offboard payment.

        The Bay Area also has agency-overlap issues like we do. But so does Barcelona, and they make it dead easy (and cheap!) to buy 10-ride cards that work on everything (except airport trips — but they do have more expensive n-day passes that work on, per Portlandia, “Simply Everything Everything”). The more I travel the more I’m convinced: NFC cards are fine for residents that ride transit often, but for occasional users and visitors they’re garbage. Cities where transit use is nearly ubiquitous can paper over the gaps; everyone else (i.e. Seattle, Bay Area) would be better off studying how smaller cities execute POP with older tech.

      3. Oh… and you can’t “scrapbook” your transfers for future use.

        That is something that stiles this particular Portlandia Resident as odd. Even during the transfer era, there was a date code on the TriMet transfer. Now that there is a printed ticket issued by the bus, the transfer has a date and time stamp that can be read 100 feet away.

        The ink wears off after two months of use as a bookmark, FWIW.

      4. “Maybe ORCA just isn’t the right technology.”

        Fortunately it’s old end-of-life technology now and they’re deciding what to replace it with.

        “How about every hotel desk?”

        Yes, and Cologne lets a convention ticket double as a day’s transit pass. If only we had state and federal governments that prioritized transit we could have those kinds of things too. The tourist bureau would emphasize with hotels the importance of making transit easy to meet the city’s goals of more mobility with less cars. Streets would have transit lanes, buses wouldn’t have too many stops, fares would be integrated, POP would be ubiquidous, and the state and federal governments would make sure it all had adequate funding.

        The Bay Area is actually worse than ours: there’s no PugetPass, so you have to get a separate monthly pass from every agency you use, and BART has no unlimited pass (except the San Francisco stations are bundled in the MUNI pass), so the only BART discount you can get is to put a lot of cash on it or use the transfers to AC Transit and VTA (which then is a disincentive to get a pass for those agencies).

      5. @Mike: If hotels wanted to sell/refill ORCA cards, would the government even have a good way to support that, considering the problems existing retailers seem to have?

        As ORCA is nearing end-of-life, it’s important to recognize that it’s not very good and why it’s not very good. So we don’t replace it with something that looks high-tech but is actually poorly thought-out, like smartphone-based ticketing (which is fine to have as an option, but shouldn’t be the only way to hold a pass, do cross-agency transfers, avoid cash-fumbling, etc.).

  6. Also, these generous night transfers seem like a legacy of service dropping off a cliff after 8pm. Now that frequency has been pushed so late into the evening on most well used routes, it may be time to reconsider them, and either move the cut off later in the evening, or eliminate the benefit altogether.

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