New apartments just steps away from the future downtown Redmond light rail station.
Credit: Lizz Giordano

Mike Rosenberg has another excellent piece in the Seattle Times, examining why housing construction in suburban King County has slowed while Seattle remains red-hot.

Overall, Seattle housing construction has grown 130 percent this decade compared to the average over the prior three decades, while housing development in the suburbs has dropped 43 percent from its historical average.

Add it all up and the county as a whole is actually on pace for a slight decline in the overall number of homes going up here this decade, despite Seattle’s building frenzy.

King County doesn’t have many large developable tracts of land left for single-family development, so developers have pushed into Snohomish and Pierce. But there’s plenty of opportunity for multifamily infill development.

As we’ve noted, some suburban cities are enacting development moratoria as they rewrite their zoning codes in the face of renewed growth. On the other end of the spectrum, Kenmore and Bothell are growing along the future 522 BRT corridor. Redmond is adding tons of new apartments in anticipation of light rail.

Despite all that growth, King County’s suburban cities still aren’t building nearly as much multifamily housing as they were in the 1980s and 1990s, according to the article.  As we’ve covered, growth is centralizing in Seattle and Bellevue, despite the PSRC’s plans to put more people and jobs in farther-flung suburbs.

With greenfield land running out, the next step – short of expanding the urban growth boundary – is to figure out how to do missing middle-style infill in the inner-ring suburbs.  That’s no small challenge given the preponderance of cul-de-sacs, lack of sidewalks, and infrequent transit service.  Fortunately light rail is coming, along with improved bus service, and there is no shortage of ideas on how to retrofit suburbia.

Suburban retrofits, however, require political will and currently there’s no political appetite for increasing density in single-family neighborhoods among Eastside electeds (there’s barely appetite for it in Seattle!). Nonetheless, more infill in the suburbs would be a huge win for regional equity. Adding housing capacity in these amenity-rich single-family neighborhoods (where zoning typically maxes out at just 3-5 units per acre) will make them more attractive to a new generation that wants more transportation options than the Eastside’s strip mall-centric built environment can currently provide, while relieving development pressures on lower-income neighborhoods in places like Seattle.

64 Replies to “Upzone the ‘Burbs”

  1. I rode the 255 through Downtown Kirkland for the first time ever last Saturday morning. I was surprised by 2 things:

    1) It is a happening place. Lots of pedestrians and street-level activity. If I had a job on the Eastside I’d definitely consider living there.

    2) There is a ton of development opportunity. A number of 1-story buildings, parking lots, etc. just blocks from the core.

    Downtown Kirkland reminds me of Ballard or Belltown ~10 years ago.

    1. Kirkland was the first to upzone in the 70s; that’s when all those waterfront condos were built. But in recent years it’s been lagging behind the rest of the Eastside. In the mid 2000s there wasn’t a building on Kirkland Ave taller than two or three stories. Since then I’ve seen a few creep up into the four and five story range, but there’s no cluster of even seven-story buildings like Seattle, much less any 44-story building. And hell will apparently freeze over before 108th south of 68th is allowed to upzone, never mind the opportunity for more people to live on an established transit corridor that could have had HCT and close to both downtown Kirkland and downtown Bellevue. No, the houses have turned into McMansions instead. (As I saw one Christmans when I walked the Cross-Kirkland Connector and couldn’t believe how large the houses and yards had become. Hint: 1980 Kirkland was not like this.)

      Kirkland’s ridership is weak compared to other Eastside cities. When I looked into why the 520 was underperforming and the 255 has so little ridership in the evening, it seemed to be because students and moderate-income workers can’t afford to live in Kirkland because there are so few apartments or small houses, so they’re living in Redmond and Bellevue instead and taking transit there.

      Kirkland is trying to banish all growth to Totem Lake. Never mind that that’s rather far from downtown Kirkland, and Kirklandites generally avoid going there, what matters is it’s “Out of sight; out of mind.” We’ll see how successful it is. But since downtown Kirkland is so far, it will thrive best if another downtown emerges there. Will it?

      1. There’s a very large mixed-use development (Kirkland Urban) going in on Central Way just east of Peter Kirk Park; while not in the center of downtown Kirkland it’s such a short walk that not including it is quibbling.

        Another 5+2 on Park Lane (Voda), in the heart of downtown immediately adjacent to the transit center, just opened earlier this year.

        I will note from personal knowledge that much of downtown Kirkland has a water table (ground water level/saturated soil) so high that cost-effective mid-rise development is limited by that, completely separate from zoning issues.

        There are at least two large developments in planning process at 405 and 85th (Rose Hill), in some respects because there will be a BRT station there. While not downtown at all, it’s not Totem Lake either. It would have been nice if this sort of TOD could have been located near the center of town, but realistically there was not much chance any transit alignment was going there. It’s still only a bit more than a mile from the heart of Kirkland.

      2. Kirkland is trying to banish all growth to Totem Lake. Never mind that that’s rather far from downtown Kirkland, and Kirklandites generally avoid going there

        That’s like saying Seattlites generally avoid going to Northgate. The development in Totem Lake is adjacent to Kirkland’s largest employer. The existing business park across I-405 probably rivals DT for number of jobs. There’s also a ton of car lots in the area to eventually go the way of Bellevue’s “auto row”. Totem Lake Mall was once a happinn’ place. Lack of investment (and vision) has prevented it from being something akin to Crossroads. The inherent problem with DT Kirkland is that it’s the middle of nowhere when it comes to high capacity access. And no, rail on the CKC wouldn’t do a thing as it crosses 85th up by the propose BRT freeway station. The other issue is DT is, and pretty much always has been very high priced real estate. Nothing will be built within reasonable walking distance that isn’t north a a million dollars.

      3. “Nothing will be built within reasonable walking distance that isn’t north a a million dollars.”

        It depends how much space you need. Last year, I came close to buying a 1-bedroom condo right in the middle of downtown Kirkland, which, at a list price of $465k, was sitting on the market for multiple months, with no takers. I ultimately decided against, partly due to poor transit on evenings and weekends, partly for financial reasons.

      4. I guess “affordable” housing is available. Current Redfin listings show a 1 bedroom (666 sqft) listed at a mere $350k. It’s in a 5 story building built in 1962 which in itself is surprising anything that tall existed back then. Jumping forward in time there’s 2007 vintage 750 sqft units for just $550k. But as far as the new towers going up I’d be surprised if you can get in the door for much less than a million. They’ve all got 500 sqft of granite counter top ;-) Although I’m not too surprised by the listing prices what I do find shocking is how much the HOA dues add to the monthly payment. I guess part of that is taxes on the expensive dirt they’re sitting on.

    2. If Kirkland reminds you of Belltown and Ballard, where are the clubs to see live alternative music, like they have in those neighborhoods? I don’t think it’s something the June and Ward Cleavers in that neck of the woods would go for. And I say this having visited Kirkland to see in-laws on numerous occasions.

      1. First thing Kirkland needs to know, East Coast: Are you a cynical person who happens to live on the East Coast? Or because you’ve never crossed the Kirkland city limits, you’re cynical that New York City can actually exist.

        Or conversely, that anybody from New York City could ever survive anyplace as boring as either Kirkland or Seattle, whose whole population you could drop into Manhattan and misplace. And whose passive type of aggression would get them actively killed in New York.

        Because very few people in the Sound Transit service area have ever experienced an edible bagel. Let alone realize that a corn beef sandwich is more than fat meat rubbed with a corncob. Because first they’d need to know what Russian rye bread is. And therefore their consumption of it is against air quality codes because it takes two Union Pacific 4-88-4 steam locomotives to pull trainload of diners over the Allegheny Mountains.

        Either way, in order to evaluate Kirkland’s likely potential for density- we have to know how much of Mercer Island the present residents could now buy for $24. But remember, in the original owners’ language “New York Alki” meant “In a little while this’ll be New York. In those days, a good thing. ” In Suquamish…”In Ya Dreams!”


    3. Kirkland can’t win with you density zealots. If they build dense, it’s not in the right part of the city. If it’s in the right place,then you’re angry there’s no live alternative music. And I’m sure if there were live alternative music, you’d seethe that it was held in a one-story building of there was a parking lot outside. You people need to chill. There’s more to life than density and transit. Go to one of dt Kirkland’s art walks or concerts in the park and just enjoy yourself, and let go of all your rage that the buildings aren’t taller.

    4. “If I had a job on the Eastside I’d definitely consider living there.”

      I work in Kirkland, and I have considered on and off moving there, so that I could walk to work instead of biking or busing from Seattle every day.

      Getting to work would be easy. Routine grocery shopping would also be easy (and non-routine shopping hardly matters anymore, in a world where you can order almost anything from Amazon and have it delivered to your home). And there are lots of good parks around within walking distance to explore the outdoors, plus good restaurants.

      But, there are some trips where the lack of transportation options there really bites. For instance, once a week after work, I meet some people over in the U-district. Riding the bus there during commute hours is a straight shot on the 540. But, to get home, I would have to walk over a mile to Montlake freeway station in the dark and wait who-knows-how-long for a 255 that comes every 30 minutes, and is sometimes very late, with OneBusAway usually clueless as to how late (a phenomenon that will get worse when the route is banished from the tunnel, especially on nights when the Mariners are playing). Or, I could take Uber back, but doing that just once a week would cost around $100/month, even with “pool” option. Or, take the conventional approach and buy a car that would sit in the garage most days, then, once a week, fight 520 traffic in the height of afternoon rush hour, just to have the car available to drive home (which would cost nearly $50/month in gas and bridge tolls alone, not even including the cost of the car itself, or insurance for it). Similarly, getting into Seattle on a weekend would require dealing with either half-hourly bus schedules (and possibly hourly coming back, since the 255 is cut back to hourly on weekends around 7 PM) or $30 Lyft/Uber rides. And the Issaquah Alps hiking trails are actually *further* away from downtown Kirkland by from bus than much of Seattle, even though Kirkland is already on the right side of the lake. Trips to the airport would also cost either a lot more time (90+ minute bus+Link combination vs. 45 minutes on just Link today) or a lot more money (~$45-50 each way via Uber/Lyft, after tip vs. free with transit pass).

      That said, at the time I originally rejected living on the eastside, things were different. The CKC trail did not exist, while Uber and Lyft were in their infancy, and could not yet be relied upon at odd hours, outside of downtown Seattle. Bikesharing also did not exist. Future changes I would like to see to make living in Kirkland more attractive (besides building more housing) would be more frequent evening/weekend service on the 255 (I only care about the Kirkland TC->UW Station part, not the slog through downtown Seattle, and certainly not the empty ride out to Brickyard), street lighting on the CKC, bike lanes to connect the CKC with the 520 trail, a bunch of Lime-E bikes available at Yarrow Point freeway station to connect more of Kirkland with the SR-520 transit corridor, and Car2Go/ReachNow service, to provide reasonably-priced rides to Seattle and SeaTac airport. (At this point, I would probably put Car2Go/ReachNow service at the top of my list – and I’m not even asking for citywide coverage – just the downtown area where all the density is).

  2. While I’m a big supporter of taller/denser residential buildings near rail stations, I find this article is missing some quantitative explanations on what is happening. Is it zoning or market forces?

    I also would observe that many areas near Seattle’s light rail stations are oddly restrictive on density/ height like at Northgate. This is not two good citites vs other bad cities situation. In fact, most cities getting stations by 2025 are fairly welcoming for density — even some more aggressively than Seattle. Sure, there are a few cities that aren’t on board with density that are near rail, but those don’t number many and they could be called out.

    1. I’m not sure if you’re referring to the Times article or the blog post. But yes, there are a lot of cities up zoning around light rail as I noted in the links. But if apartment construction has in fact slowed in King County as the Times piece suggests it has, then a new approach to infill development may be required.

      1. I think we’ll see development in east king pick up as East Link gets closer to opening. It make little sense for a developer to open an apartment building next to LRT station that 2 years from opening. It may make more financial sense to keep the existing land use in 2018 and start construction in 2019/2020 to align the new building opening w/ the new station.

        Bellevue has a deep bench of towers in the pipeline that need financing, which tells me Bellevue’s core is held back by market forces, not zoning.

      2. I’d observe that the disconnect is the use of the word “upzone”. The issue about multi-family suburban construction today versus a few decades ago was that back then, it was common to build two -story or three-story garden apartments that were slightly denser versions of auto-oriented suburbia . Today’s apartment dwellers seem to prefer taller buildings in villages, where there is some street life and convenient transit. To classify housing into only two categories is fairly broad, and to link correlation (lower percentage of multi-family) to causation (restrictive zoning) is quite frankly simplistic and could easily not be the primary cause.

      3. @Al S. +1

        “To classify housing into only two categories is fairly broad, and to link correlation (lower percentage of multi-family) to causation (restrictive zoning) is quite frankly simplistic and could easily not be the primary cause.”

        That was my takeaway as well.

        I live in unincorporated SW Snohomish County and there is, and has been, a ton of MF construction going on all around this area. Some projects are apartments and many are townhome style MF units on what previously had been decent size single family lots. Thus from my perspective and direct observation, it’s been a different experience from the general point being made by the OP. Perhaps things are quite different here in SnoCo than they are in King County.

        Fwiw. The parcel I own in the SW SnoCo MUGA has been upzoned twice since purchasing it some 15 years ago, both of these upzones the result of the county’s comp plan land use updates. It has gone from single family residential (R-8400) to low density multiple residential (LDMR) to high density residential (MR). I believe I, or a developer, could now put 22 units on my “single family” lot.

      4. “The issue about multi-family suburban construction today versus a few decades ago was that back then, it was common to build two -story or three-story garden apartments”

        Seattle has some areas that were zoned lowrise in the mid 20th century but still had only houses, and then the zoning was tightened to single-family only.

    2. +400 on Northgate zoning. +400 feet, that is! Lynnwood is already significantly outdoing Seattle in upzoning around Link, recent moves in the U District notwithstanding.

      There are at least half a dozen high rises currently being proposed for the U District, which demonstrates a strong market for high-rises outside the CBD… not a big surprise given high-rises that got sprinkled around places like the U District and even Madison Park before zoning tightened up in the late 20th century. Meanwhile, the city’s longstanding foot-dragging on Northgate zoning is about to turn into a tragic lost opportunity in 2018.

      Simon Property Group, which is sitting on some the most underutilized land in the region, Northgate Mall, is currently proposing massive redevelopment there that is probably a half to a third of what Vancouver or Burnaby BC would put at the same location.

      With the region desperate for housing, we have a major land bank in a designated Urban Center adjacent to a light rail station opening in three short years that will be minutes from downtown, UW, and all the rest. The entire area is about to get redeveloped, with basically no views to block. Firms are being hired today to advance plans that will squander the opportunity for something of the urban scale that will be needed in the decades to come.

      Given what is currently being proposed at Northgate, it’s dramatically more urgent, and probably vastly more effective at meeting the region’s overall needs, to fix the zoning there, than to try and convince Kirkland to embrace the same growth.

      Current Northgate redevelopment proposal:

      Hopefully high-rises will get cheaper and more sustainable over time as technologies like CLT (cross-laminated timber) are deployed. The sky should be the limit for zoning at Northgate, especially adjacent to I-5. Is there any constituency opposing this?

      1. Re: Lynnwood upzoning, the other side to this coin is that the streetscape has not been changed much except to narrow car lanes in places and add some (narrow) bike lanes. However, a 6 lane “stroad” with narrow sidewalks and mega blocks lacking mid block crossings is still a 6 lane auto oriented “stroad” with narrow sidewalks and limited crossings if you add the bike lanes. What I’m afraid might happen is the dreaded density with car dependence–large parking garages replacing the surface lots, lots of people having to drive between the garages, as opposed to transitioning to a walkable, transit-oriented, “park once” city center.

        Already started the process of pestering the City for a mid block crossing between Fred Meyer and the Grocery Outlet, which would also make Freddy’s (and a dozen other businesses) be an easy straight walk from the transit center instead of a half mile detour to the nearest crosswalk.

  3. There are those who believe parachuting multi-family housing into suburban singe-family neighborhoods isn’t about housing or transportation. Some say it’s all about politics. They say it’s a devious, long-range plan to impose blue-state politics on red-state suburbia. Their hope, I’ve heard, is that enough subsidized housing will be included with the multi-families that single-family voters will be outvoted. It’s been rumored that their first goal is to turn the 8th district blue.

    1. If you look to the results of the primary, it looks like it has already been turned blue. Also, Trump lost the 8th District in 2016. Middle income voters – a mixture of swing voters – seeking housing that is marginally more affordable than Renton and Bellevue have already parachuted into Issaquah, North Bend, Maple Valley, and Auburn.

    2. Ha, do you really think the left is that devious, Sam? Seriously, on most issues, the left wing has a majority. Yet somehow, again and again, they manage to screw up, big time. The House, the Senate, even the White House — all Republican. The overwhelming majority of state houses and governorships as well (and with them, the drawing of boundaries and voter laws that make it tougher to enact anything resembling a true representative democracy). Holy smoke, the left even managed to screw up the Supreme Court by not giving Obama an appointment (that would have been fairly moderate) during the last year of his term.

      Yet you think folks on the left are clever enough to somehow pack a few poor people into the suburbs? Umm, no, I wish. Seriously, I wish the Democrats were that clever. You don’t need poor people into the apartments, by the way. You simply need apartments. There is a very strong correspondence between population density and left leaning voting. We all have our theories, but my guess is that it is because much of the modern Republican Party — sad to say — is simply full of poo-poo. Demagogues who can’t do math (and pass tax cuts while simultaneously passing military enormous budgets while complaining about the deficit). Racists and xenophobes who won’t admit their racism or xenophobia, but are quite comfortable assuming that this country’s faults lie with people who aren’t quite like them. Put enough people together — get them talking, over beers ,tea or coffee, and folks realize that the moderate, sensible policies of a Republican forty years ago are held by your average Democrat.

      Meanwhile, sensible, moderate, right wing Republicans (like Dan Evens and Mitt Romney) are simply caught up in the whole sweeping movement, like proud Americans during the Philippine–American War. They are just on the wrong side of history, yet aren’t sure how to combat the problem. Some have suggested a new party, but who knows how that will work out. I feel a bit sorry, Sam, for folks like you and David Brooks. Maybe you should have voted for John B. Anderson while you had the chance.

    3. It’s an interesting situation when Republicans claim that Democrats are making themselves less effective by concentrating in cities and nearby suburbs, even though metropolitan areas are becoming an increasing percentage of the population and the “One person one voter” principle means it shouldn’t matter where you live and living in a dense city shouldn’t be a disadvantage. But with the Senate fixed at 2 reps per state and the House limited to 400-something members and the Republicans in control purging voters with Spanish-sounding names in liberal districts and requiring ID that the poor and elderly and elderly blacks don’t tend to have and find difficult in their circumstance to obtain, concentrating in cities is a disadvantage. Still, I live in Seattle because I highly value at least moderate transit access and walkability, and I live in Washington because I don’t want to be in a state that tries to take my rights away and suppress my vote and deny me insurance.

  4. Coming from the ‘burbs, please, bring the density. Density helps drive better amenities and improved transportation options. If we converted every single strip mall in south King into a 6-story mixed use building with less parking, we’d instantly have more walkable neighborhoods and a critical mass to bring the amenities that we drive all over to find at our fingertips.

    Proposal 1: Ban new surface parking lots. Sounds drastic, but sorely needed. Let the “market” work its magic. Force business people to get creative. Rent parking spaces from the business owner across the street that sits vacant for 90 percent of the day.
    Proposal 2: Ban new single-story commercial buildings. Again, drastic, but needed. If you can afford to build commercial and waste your land so carelessly, you can afford to invest in a better architect and build housing above your new retail.
    Proposal 3: Eliminate all landscape requirements on commercial properties. How many times I’ve designed “buffers” and “landscape strips” for what are essentially strip malls!?!?!? Is it prettier? Sure, if it even gets maintained. It is a complete waste of space? You bet!
    Proposal 4: Moratorium on self storage. Good lord, the amount of this garbage being built. No, I don’t want any “treasures” from my parents, so stop storing it. If you don’t use it often enough to need it in your home, maybe you don’t need to own it at all. Sell it. Donate it. Recycle it. Or throw it away.
    Proposal 5: As STB has already stated, end all minimum parking requirements. No discussion needed.
    Proposal 6: MINIMUM height requirements. If you can build it, you can build it tall enough to use space wisely.

    1. Suburbs are already being densified by young people, including their own, whose income now permits them to live in condominiums in Kirkland- in voting numbers that’ll send their parents fleeing in clouds of exhaust from the world’s last 1959 Cadillacs.

      In addition to the formerly working-middle class people whose resistance to densification is because they can’t afford to live in places that don’t let them have a lawn to install those cinder blocks to put under their car-chassis.

      So just be patient. Reason you keep thinking we need more density is because you’re being forced to leave before it chases you out. Like I keep saying, I think we ought at least to try adjusting LINK maps and service to work like the “Interurbans”. Buy pre-development land, build small-town sized developments with arterials laced with streetcar tracks, connected with LINK mainline track…

      And, was done with serious success- think Shaker Heights in Cleveland- use local electric rail to sell pre-densified development. Zoned to require at least one pharmacy that smells like real medicine, an has genuine malted milks at a counter with regulation chrome taps.

      Has worked before. But also, if program doesn’t succeed- we’ve got pre-built subdivisions anyhow. Tracks have been paved over, and uncovered before. Cobble-stones always a plus, both to pave over and jackhammer back into existence.


    2. Ban new surface parking lots… Let the “market” work its magic.

      Uh, there’s a disconnect here. And the idea of removing paring minimums only aligns with market forces if you start charging market rates for street parking. Personally, I’m a bit of an odd duck “conservative” in that I heartily support tolling and don’t understand why a “progressive” city like Seattle doesn’t charge “what the market will bear” for on street parking. Of course there’s the liberal judge that thinks illegally parking an RV with expired tabs constitutes homesteading :-/

      1. According to Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking, downtown Kirkland took an approach which was rather revolutionary at the time, and allowed developers the option to pay the city a fee for each required parking space not provided, rather than forcing them to build 1.7 (or whatever the number is) parking spaces per bedroom, no matter what, regardless of cost. The revenue is, in turn, used by the city to build and maintain public parking facilities, such as the city hall garage. This option only exists within the immediate area of downtown Kirkland, and it shows up in the area’s walkability.

        Of course, the moment you get one block outside the core downtown, you’re back to suburbia parking standards – especially when you cross to the other side of I-405.

      2. I think that’s a reasonable approach for DT Kirkland. The TC does have decent service albeit not so great outside of the work day. I noticed that the new towers under construction have massive holes in the ground which I assume will be parking. I believe much of the lower floors at least will be retail and/or office space. But commuting to DT Kirkland, whether by SOV or transit still sucks.

    3. All those plants and swales around malls are removing dirty, oil polluted water from the oceans by filtering it through dirt. They are providing a huge value to keeping Puget Sound cleaner so our ocean animals can have clean water to live in.

  5. With greenfield land running out, the next step – short of expanding the urban growth boundary – is to figure out how to do missing middle-style infill in the inner-ring suburbs.

    No, the next step is to build missing middle-style infill in Seattle. This is where the growth is — this is where people want to live. The fact that prices are ridiculously high in Seattle, yet people still prefer buying a place here (often much smaller than what they want) shows that the White mindset of the 1950s is gone. People aren’t afraid of the cities anymore (or at least, cities like Seattle). Like much of the world, they would rather live close to the center of town — even if they aren’t in the middle of it all — rather than out in the suburbs. Of course there are exceptions, but build enough of the missing middle in Seattle proper — much of which is as suburban as many suburbs — and those folks would actually have a bargain. It wouldn’t be a matter of people “settling” on the suburbs because they can’t afford to live in Seattle, but people actually moving there because they prefer it.

    In short, the inner-ring suburbs include much of Seattle. Take care of that first, then hopefully places like Shoreline and Renton will follow our lead.

    1. Frank is right. People can’t live where housing doesn’t exist. Seattle’s population is rising because Seattle is building housing. We don’t know whether people prefer to live in Seattle because they have no choice. People who grew up in the other cities or have family there would often like to remain there. Seattle is pulling its weight somewhat but the suburbs aren’t. The fact that adding the suburbs reverses the total percent of increase is damning. Seattle has at least been willing to expand its urban villages; the suburbs won’t even do that.

      1. >> Seattle is pulling its weight somewhat but the suburbs aren’t.

        Nonsense. Seattle is not pulling its weight. Not when the vast majority of the city hasn’t changed one bit. In neighborhood after neighborhood the only “growth” is the size of houses. How the hell is this: not suburbia? Big houses on huge lots? Check. No sidewalks? Check. What do you need — a cul-de-sac?

        Simply carving out tiny little sections of the city and saying “build here” will not get us affordable housing. Not even close. Not when you have block after block of houses that don’t even have a simple backyard cottage or basement apartment. There are entire neighborhoods — miles and miles of property — that not only lack an apartment, but a row house! These are areas that could easily support simple, affordable infill — a house converted to an apartment here, a nice little backyard cottage here, a set of row houses where the old farm used to be — but simply don’t. We have cordoned off all development in *most* of the city, which means that of course those places that allow it are extremely expensive. Why should we ask Shoreline to adopt a more liberal, affordable housing development approach when we don’t do it ourselves? Is it any wonder they take the same, failed approach (i. e. drawing a few tiny lines, building apartments there, and then patting themselves on the back)?

      2. It’s not the total number of units but the jobs-housing balance or workers-working residence balance that is the measure of if a city is “pulling its weight”. If Seattle is where both employment and housing growth is occurring about equally, the situation is merely balanced.

      3. >> Seattle’s population growth no longer falls in the top 10 in terms of percentage growth,

        That is a meaningless statistic. If a woman in a town of a dozen people gives birth to triplets. suddenly the town is the fastest growing in the state. But there are still only 15 people in the town.

        When it comes to growth, what matters is increase in density. So basically the number of new people per area. Unfortunately, this is rarely recorded, but I believe Seattle is still up towards the top. By my calculation, it grew by close to 200 people per square mile. The only area that grew faster (according to that link) was Newcastle, which grew by 222 per square mile. Lynnwood grew slower than Seattle, even though it didn’t grow as fast in percentage terms. That is because it had a lot more people to begin with. Every other city (and town) grew smaller, making Seattle number 2 in the state in terms of growth per area, passed only by Newcastle (and that probably is just a statistical anomaly, the result of the area being so small).

        Anyway, the idea that people are living in Seattle “because they have no choice” is silly. Rents in Seattle are still more expensive than most of the suburbs. Housing prices are the same way, especially when you look at the same size houses. In general, Seattle is more expensive, although you can certainly find exceptions (e. g. Rainier Valley is cheaper than Medina).

        It also misses the point. Why should Shoreline do something that Seattle is unwilling to do when it comes to zoning (make widespread changes to address the shortage of the missing middle)? As Al pointed out, Seattle remains the main employment center in the region, and the primary city. Shouldn’t it be the one to adopt meaningful zoning reform, so that other cities can follow?

      4. “the idea that people are living in Seattle “because they have no choice” is silly. Rents in Seattle are still more expensive than most of the suburbs”

        There’s two different phenomena happening simultaneously. Lower-income people are being displaced to the southern suburbs. Middle-income people are moving to Seattle because that’s where housing increase is.

      5. “That is a meaningless statistic.”

        I disagree. First of all, the PSRC report was provided for some recent context. Secondly, one could make the case that a 5% annual population increase might have a greater impact on a town of 500 than a corresponding increase in a city of, say, 5 million. Lastly, I do agree that population density is a more meaningful metric, though it is so rarely reported.

        Nevertheless, my main point was to question Mike Orr’s assertion that people were living in Seattle due to a lack of choice in the suburbs. Speaking as a suburban resident myself, I can tell you that that just isn’t the case

      6. >> Secondly, one could make the case that a 5% annual population increase might have a greater impact on a town of 500 than a corresponding increase in a city of, say, 5 million.

        I don’t see that at all. Imagine a city the size of Seattle (about 80 square miles of land) that gains 100,000 people in ten years. That is a lot. Now imagine it does that consistently. Every ten years, another 100,000 people. That is extraordinary growth, yet from a percentage standpoint, the numbers are going down. Growth starts out at 15%, but then eventually goes under 1%. Yet it is still adding the same number of people every year for the entire city. Basically, it is a math thing. Percentage growth is simply not sustainable. There is no way you can have a city grow at a high rate (higher than the natural growth rate of the world’s population) as that would eventually mean that everyone in the world is in your city (and then some).

        That is why absolute growth is a better number. The problem with that is that cities that have a lot of land then look like they are growing. If the cities of Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond all formed a new city (East Lake Washington) then their growth would be very impressive by that measure, yet nothing really changed. That is why it makes the most sense to look at absolute number adjusted by area or increase in population density.

        I agree with your overall point, though. There are plenty of choices in the suburbs. I’ll will get to Mike’s point in a different comment.

      7. There’s two different phenomena happening simultaneously. Lower-income people are being displaced to the southern suburbs. Middle-income people are moving to Seattle because that’s where housing increase is.

        No, they are moving to Seattle because they prefer living in Seattle. You can see that in the condo prices. Check out Redfin and filter so that you are looking at two bedroom condos under 300K. Most of Seattle is hollowed out, showing nothing but a place or two in White Center. Try one bedroom for under 250K and you can see the same thing.

        Demand is obviously exceeding supply to a greater degree in Seattle than the suburbs* — that is the only way to explain the high cost. Seattle may be adding more places than the suburbs, but still hasn’t met demand. I don’t think it can affordably meet demand unless it addresses the missing middle, which is something we still haven’t done.

        * Parts of the East Side operate much like Seattle and less like the northern and eastern suburbs.

    2. Ross, perhaps the main reason I’ve supported fast regional transit from the beginning is to give the average person a very flexible choice to live, work, go to school, and generally enjoy life all over a very wide geographical area.

      With “affordable” defined as everyone being trained, educated, and motivated enough to earn the wages to buy- not just rent- a dignified, comfortable place to live. With transit good enough that linear distance to work, for example won’t degrade quality of residential choice. Pretty sure the change will “feel” the same to the residents as when Ballard became part of the City of Seattle.

      Way too tempting to compare community sentiment responding to the union of two sewage systems. But not sure those cherry-bombs flushed down invading toilets were really terrorism. Just first indication of growing high school attendance. So better hope U-District and West Seattle lines open same day.


      Mark Dublin

  6. “Despite all that growth, King County’s suburban cities still aren’t building nearly as much multifamily housing as they were in the 1980s and 1990s, according to the article.”

    This is a poor choice of words. A better choice is “Developers are not building in the suburbs as much multifamily housing as they were in the 1980s and 1990s.”

    Cities can work harder to build or help build public housing. But, by and large, cities do not build housing, developers do. The development codes adopted by cities either encourage or discourage development and where development occurs, but it is not unreasonable for a city to rezone a property for multi-family and for nothing to happen for five to ten years or more.

    In addition, the suggestion assumes that there is sufficient labor for constructions. At a townhouse project near where I live, the contractor used their site to advertise for skilled workers. Sound Transit and other government projects are faced with higher labor costs. So, while I think that many cities are willing to see new development, broader market forces are pushing development toward the greener pastures of Seattle or further away from Seattle’s downtown (north toward Lynnwood or to unincorporated Snohomish or Pierce County where land costs are cheaper).

    1. Very good point. There are plenty of places in both Seattle and the suburbs which are zoned for multi-family, but remain unchanged. Part of this is simply economic inertia. Sometimes the owner simply doesn’t want to sell. But it is often very expensive to build. You often start by throwing away perfectly good houses. The smaller the lot size, the more houses you throw away. Thus it typically costs more to build in Seattle than it does the suburbs. Then you have the review process, which can mean that a lot sits undeveloped for a while, followed by construction costs, which are bound to be high in a boom environment. It all adds up, and thus it only makes sense if rent is really high (in a place like Seattle) or the lot didn’t cost that much (in the suburbs).

      That is why addressing the missing middle is so important. When only a tiny sliver of land in Seattle is available for development, it is bound to be expensive to develop. Opening up more of the city to low cost development (that often retains the existing housing) would definitely lead to more affordable places.

    2. Overall developers are building as much as they can, especially in the core area within twenty miles of downtown Seattle (which includes Lynnwood, Kent, and most of the Eastside). There are exceptions here and there due to stalled financing deals or owners refusing to sell, but these are insignificant and always occur, the way the unemployment rate can’t go to 0% because there are always people quitting, retiring, etc.

      Another point is that developers almost always build to the zoning limit. This indicates that they would build taller if allowed. Even with incentive zoning, where you get a few extra floors in exchange for affordable units, developers mostly take the offer, except when they consider the terms unusually egregious like a couple buildings in SLU. Lots can remain vacant for years because financing deals fall through and it takes time to land another deal, but when the buildings do go up they almost always reach the zoning limit. So it really is zoning that’s the problem, because developers would build taller if they were allowed to.

      Third, there are a limited number of lots suitable for large buildings or complexes. You can’t just build large buildings anywhere: either the lot is too small or you have to convince all the homeowners on the block to sell or it’s too far away from the commercial district or freeway. Developers want to build near existing urban villages, and that’s what urbanists want developers to do too. The push for upzoning single-family areas is not so much for Lake Sammamish Parkway as for central Bellevue and Kirkland and such. It’s just they both 108th Avenue and Lake Sammamish Parkway are in the same category “single-family” that it looks like we want apartments in the middle of nowhere when we don’t.

      1. Al S. is correct – developers build to the building code limit for non-high rise (i.e. basically under 75′ with some exceptions), which sometimes but not always coincides with zoning regulations. Zoning can be changed; the building code is unlikely to do so with limited exceptions such as the new timber products discussed in a previous STB entry because of fire protection issues. Due to the codes you will sometimes still see the ubiquitous 5+2 built even in the downtown Seattle areas that are zoned for 400′ or in SLU/Belltown – for whatever reason that penciled out for that developer more than building a tower or selling it to another developer who would build a tower.

  7. No land in King County!?! Have you ever been east of Bellevue? Have you heard of Issaquah, or the Snoqualmie Valley? King County can double its population and we’d still have land we could build on. King County stretches pretty much to the top of Snoqualmie Pass. We’ve got tons of room. You just have to be something other than Seattle centric to see it.

    1. When the lion’s share of the jobs are in or near Seattle, and the traffic is as snarled as it is, setting up reams of housing in Issaquah and Snoqualmie is a recipe for disaster. Not to mention paving over half the county would be a fucking travesty, just so people with houses don’t have to see things besides single family homes and endless cars and never ever have to endure the horror of actually seeing poor people.

      1. Missing the point. The OP claims the land is not there, period. He doesn’t make exceptions and caveats along with that declaration. He doesn’t even bother to support the claim. All we get is a drive by byline.

        I’m surprised STB of all places is willing to support disingenuous notions in order to prove a specious point. Or that they’d allow such obvious spin, even in an “editorial”.

      2. “King County doesn’t have many large developable tracts of land left for single-family development”

        That doesn’t mean land for a single house, it means land for an entire neighborhood. Large, contiguous blocks of land are harder to find than a single lot. All of the New Urbanist developments have been at the edge of the Urban Growth Boundary, or by special deals beyond it. Redmond Ridge, Snoqualmie Ridge, and the proposed development in Black Diamond. The urban growth boundary ends at Issaquah and either Covington or Maple Valley. That’s why Sound Transit doesn’t go beyond those.

        Yes, King County could double in population, but only if it upzones, which is the point of this article.

    2. “The Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA) is a Washington state law that requires state and local governments to manage Washington’s growth by identifying and protecting critical areas and natural resource lands, designating urban growth areas, preparing comprehensive plans and implementing them through capital investments and development regulations. ”

      All of King County is not available for development because this is law
      and confines King County growth areas.

      If you really want to affect the character of development just leave it up to the market when it comes to transportation.
      No subsidy for any highway that the users (i.e. vehicles that make up the traffic counts) don’t cover, unless it is brought to a public vote.
      A true market approach would be private tolled roadways offering superior drive times and amenities.

  8. There is another aspect of upzoning the suburbs (especially on the eastside) is that there are already a lot of jobs there, and people want to live close to work, but aren’t necessarily willing to live in a boring suburb to do it. If there were more walkable neighborhoods around Bellevue and Redmond with amenities similar to what you get in Capital Hill, some people who work at Microsoft might choose to live there, rather than commute from Capital Hill every day.

    Of course, to increase density, while preserving walkability, the reliance on cars has to go down, since giant parking lots everywhere kills walkability. This means abolishing parking requirements, and adding more transportation options to make owning a car for those living in the Bellevue/Redmond area less of a necessity. As of this posting, eastside transportation options have improved over what they were 10 years ago, but only very slowly. Lots of new commute-hour buses for people that live on the eastside and work in Seattle have been added over the past 10 years, while the level of service for people visiting Seattle on a weekend has barely budged, with the 255, 271, 545, and 554 (e.g. every bus route across Lake Washington except the 550) still running just hourly service (not even half hourly) on Saturday evenings, as early as 8 PM. Local routes are still infrequent and circuitous (albeit not as bad as they were before the B-line was added). Taking transit from most of the Eastside to the hiking opportunities in the Issaquah Alps requires either detouring to downtown Seattle, or taking a patchwork of infrequent local routes, which is no faster than detouring to downtown Seattle.

    Renting a car on the eastside is also still far too cumbersome, with no Car2Go or ReachNow service, and Zipcar limited to just 7 cars in downtown Bellevue, plus one car for all of downtown Redmond. Downtown Kirkland has no car rental options whatsoever, except for an Enterprise on the wrong side of 405, in a location that is very cumbersome to reach on foot. No car rental options means if ever need a car, even just a few times a year, and don’t want to put up with considerable hassle picking it up and returning it, you have to own the car, and have it sit in your garage all year. Which means you need the same amount of residential parking as somebody who drives to work everyday. Which, in turn, means, all housing must be built with more parking, which means less housing, and less walkability.

    In fact, the biggest improvement in Eastside transportation options over the past few years is not King County Metro, but Lyft and Uber, which have finally filled a need for reliable transportation that doesn’t take close to an hour to get anywhere. Last week, Lime Bike introduced a more affordable option for rides on demand, and EastLink will, of course, help a ton, once it finally gets built (at least for Bellevue/Redmond, it won’t do anything for Kirkland).

    1. Yes, since the East Side is a major employment center, and housing prices are very high for much of the region, it is more like Seattle than other suburbs. That is the problem with a term like “suburbs”. City limits are fairly arbitrary. There are plenty of places in Seattle that operate just like a suburb. At the same time, there are places in Bellevue that would qualify as a city. Regardless of how you define it, I think you stand the best chance of improving the lives or more people by addressing the lack of missing-middle in places like Seattle and Bellevue. A place that is five to ten miles away from a city center and has nothing but big houses on big lots should not be frozen in time. Those places should add density, as adding it in that way is the best way to not only provide more affordable housing, but good public transportation to boot. Increased density in the gaps of otherwise relatively dense areas means that various trips via a bus become more popular, and thus more frequent.

  9. We have such a high vacancy rate in Seattle already and even more units are getting completed each day. Plus huge amounts of apartments are already planned for the Sound Transit light rail stations on Capitol Hill and Northgate. I think a moratorium on density in the ‘burbs for now would be a good thing.

    We are seeing home prices dropping and more home inventory. This will result in renters buying more homes and even higher vacancy rate. The whole point of increasing density is to preserve the environment in our forests and farmlands. So we shouldn’t build on them now when we have enough space for everyone in the new buildings that are already here and in the pipeline.

    This housing “crisis” has been somewhat manufactured by media – yes tons of people moved here and yes we had a shortage of housing but the data shows we don’t have a shortage now. People may not like to pay high rents but data shows that even rents are decreasing and they will continue to do so with the current economic trends.

    1. Dream on. They said the same thing in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. “Rents are turning the corner, we’ve built enough.” But rents would stall for a short time and then shoot right back up. If we do nothing, all the extra slack caused by new buildings opening will be absorbed in 9-18 months and we’ll be back to rising rents. Only of the number of new jobs and residents has really decelerated is there any breathing room. But we need to see whether this situation lasts for a year, much less two or more years. Rents supposedly stalled earlier this year but my rent in June increased by 5% anyway.

  10. There goes the neighborhood. A panel discussion about the housing crisis in L.A. Includes Alan Durning, founder of Seattle’s Sightline. And a John Fox type saying more market-rate housing won’t help. Looks into the strategy of “abundant housing” (plenty of housing), and at Houston, Vienna, and Tokyo.

    1. Durning also suggests that while Vancouver is in a housing bubble, Seattle and Portland are not, because in a normal market the price of housing is based on the number of jobs and the median income. In Vancouver prices are decoupled from those, as they were in the US in the mid 2000s, but now in Seattle housing prices are moving in direct relation to jobs and income.

      1. That would be my take as well. The Vancouver market is very weird. There are lots and lots of empty places, but prices haven’t dropped. That suggests that there are lots of people with a lot of money that have invested there, hoping prices continue to go up. When they don’t — when the market simply responds to the demand that is out there — the prices will collapse. In Seattle it is more that demand has gone up so much over the last few years even though we have built a lot. I don’t expect prices to be as low as they were a few years ago unless we have a major employment downtown (e. g. Amazon moves a lot of jobs out) or we manage to find a way to build a lot of cheap housing. The latter could happen if they changed the zoning in the SFH areas (since that is where most of the housing is, and where the cheap missing-middle could be built).

  11. Another reason for low density and lack of infill development in some areas (at least in Woodinville where I live) is the lack of sewer infrastructure and King County’s septic regulations which are more stringent than Snohomish County by 50%. My 1500 sq ft. 3BR house is on a 1/3 acre lot and couldn’t be built under today’s rules. If my house burned to the ground, my property would become a vacant lot.

    Sadly I’ve become too familiar with the septic system rules as my system has failed and is in the process of being replaced with a modern septic system.

  12. Developers are maxed out. The labor market is so tight. There are not enough construction workers to build more. When that last recession hit the construction labor market shrank. Seattle is getting the brunt of development because it make the most fiscal sense with the available talent. When projects in the burbs start making more fiscal sense developers will start building there. Lots of project are ready to go but lead time on a crane is 18 months and that is to get a qualified operator. I bet you could drop a thousand construction workers into the area and they would all have jobs by the end of the week.

  13. Kirkland did allow TOD at the South Kirkland Park and Ride a few years back. When I lived in Kirkland in the early ’90s, this former drive-in location seemed the ideal candidate for such development but the proposal met much resistance from the city at that time. So things have changed for the better at least a little bit.

  14. Upzone Montlake. Then we can talk about burbs. Montlake is within 15 minute walk of UW light rail, and the transit rich 520 corridor — but it isn’t even an urban village and almost entirely zoned SF 5000!

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