The Price is Wrong: Planning Commission Issues Housing Report

The Seattle Planning Commission has issued Housing Seattle, a report developed using data from the United States Census Bureau, the American Community Survey and surveys of the Seattle housing market. As Erica Barnett pointed out at Publicola, the report is largely about whether housing is affordable in Seattle. The report concludes, “Seattle households are increasingly burdened by their housing costs.”

That burden is measured by the classic normative standard for measuring affordability; no more than 30 percent of a household’s income should be spent on housing costs. While the report makes some good recommendations based in solid data, the use of the 30 percent rule of thumb only raises more questions about what the housing problem really is, or whether there is a problem at all. We need better language and measures when talking about housing if we’re going to make good policy that accommodates growth. More after the jump.

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Debt Commission’s Recommendations on the Right Track

Debt allows big changes: Tunneling on Capitol Hill

Often state and local governments borrow money for capital projects when the economy is good and there is plenty of money for debt service. But when the economy crashes, officials get timid about debt, tightening the purse strings on new borrowing and spending. The problem with that is that economic downturns are the best time to borrow and spend on capital projects because they create jobs. A new set of recommendations from the Washington Commission on State Debt would take a step toward addressing a structural problem in the state’s constitution that makes it harder to borrow for job creating projects when times are tough.

First, a bit of background on how we do debt in Washington. In the first place, almost everyone in politics is paranoid about too much debt. Remember the big debt ceiling debacle over the summer in Washington DC? Politicians respond to the word debt because they think of public debt like a huge credit card that the government uses irresponsibly. Republicans and the press have made debt bashing de rigueur for politicians at all levels, and now even Democrats parrot the government-as-shopaholic meme.

But the truth is that debt is an important tool to get big things done. Virtually every big capital project in the private sector relies heavily on borrowed money. And if you have a mortgage, college loans, or even short-term credit card debt you’ll understand that using credit can be an important way to achieve an otherwise impossible end. The same is true for state and local governments. Debt allows cities, counties, and transit agencies access to cash now to create improvements that will generate benefits to tax payers over time. More after the jump.

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You Want a Resolution? How About a Payroll Tax for Transit

What are we gonna tax?

Just a few days ago the Seattle City Council passed an Occupy Seattle inspired resolution containing a raft of feel good jargon about our latest economic crisis. For a while the Council was flirting with a city income tax! This is the City Council (except for Councilmembers O’Brien and Bagshaw, who weren’t on the Council then) that repealed a citywide “head tax” that generated about $4.5 million dollars for pedestrian and transit friendly projects around the city. What’s gotten into their heads? A city income tax isn’t a bad idea, but it’s illegal. A payroll tax for sustainable transit is a good idea too, but it’s legal.

It’s worth telling, again, the sad story of Seattle’s “Head Tax.” The tax was an employee-based tax that charged business with revenue above $80,000 a tax of $25 for each employee that drove to work. Yes, this really happened. If I didn’t know better, I’d be surprised that such a progressive and sensible tax was actually passed and implemented by the City Council.

But it didn’t last long. In 2009 under pressure from the Downtown Seattle Association the tax was repealed. Keep in mind that the average business in Seattle paid $92 in “head taxes,” and that huge businesses with millions in revenue were paying only several thousand dollars in taxes.

Remember, too, that the tax generated $4.5 million for sidewalks, crosswalks, and other improvements to make it easier for people to avoid driving. And guess how much the shortfall was in the Seattle Department of Transportation’s budget the following year? It was about $4.5 million. More after the jump.

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Proposition 1 Fails: Got the Message?

If there isn’t a “war on cars,” why isn’t there one? After all cars are the leading producer of carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. Also, the automobile as a form of transportation has been the central to a social engineering project that promotes far-flung single-family homes woven together by a web of expensive highways, punctuated by shopping malls.

But a war? Of course not. Even though Kemper Freeman quite unabashedly has declared war on transit in our region on behalf of the car, we (transit advocates, pedestrian advocates, environmentalists etc.) aren’t at war. We’re engaged in “messaging.” Messaging is another way of saying “persuading people to do the right thing,” and it’s failing.

The failure of Proposition 1 in my estimation is due to several factors not the least of which is a tough economy. But I think the other side had, to be consistent with my colleagues’ language, a better message. “Why spend your cash on elaborate and fanciful transit planning efforts when you just busted your axle on a gigantic pothole?” they asked. “And those Prop 1 people are just trying to get you out of your car.”

“Absolutely not!” answered the other side. The Prop 1 message was all about how spending $60 on registering your car would help fund things that you wouldn’t use—unless you got out of your car. “This isn’t a war on cars, it’s an effort to make all modes safer and faster.” More after the jump.

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Beacon Hill Starts to Lead on Density Around Transit

If you look hard you can see it....

It started off as these things usually do, with a lot of pointing and gesturing at a roll up screen at projected images of various images and sketches. There was talk of “massing” and “features” and “treatments” and other designy language. But what was otherwise a relatively mundane design review meeting might have planted the seeds of a neighborhood revolution. OK, maybe I am a little bit too excited, but when considered in context, the review of a proposed mixed use project on Beacon Hill bodes very well for those of us who want to see more density around transit.

First, a quick report of what happened. The Southeast Design Review Committee was meeting to consider a mixed-use project on the corner of 17th and McClellan, a corner lot which sits, vacant on the same block as the Beacon Hill light rail station. The proponents presented their project and said they are asking for a review of the project at both 40 feet and 65 feet.  There is a proposal on the table now to upzone the corner to 65 feet but it is currently zoned for 40. The project would vary from 30 to 45 units depending on height.

I’m not a big fan of design review, so I’ll spare you my snarky recapitulation of the questions board members had of the proponents. Let’s just say they were the kinds of questions design review board members ask. What has given me some real hope about the shape things might take in Beacon Hill was the public comments after the presentation and questions. More after the jump.

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Beacon Hill Can Still Lead the Way on Density Around Transit

How much is enough?

Upon reflection it seems important to elaborate on my last post on Beacon Hill. First of all, my post was mainly about the proposed 30-unit development on the currently vacant station block. I think the proposal is fine, although I worry that it locks up a key piece of property with less intense development than might be possible if the whole block were developed at the same time. What drew the most comments, however, was the question of whether Beacon Hill, as a neighborhood, supports density. It sounds familiar, especially when we remember the ongoing debate about Roosevelt.

In general my rule of thumb with these things is to “never complain and never explain.” But when I wrote about the “vigorous opposition” in the neighborhood to upzones, I was speaking about the balance of some 16 years since neighborhood planning began there. And while there have been many positive statements on the record by neighborhood planners there has been opposition. One effort was made to appeal the revisions to the neighborhood plan by one group of neighbors. Knowing Beacon Hill as I do, I would guess that those neighbors weren’t completely alone in their views.

That fact is that there has not been, on balance, huge consensus around or for increased density around Beacon Hill’s transit station. That’s why more than two years after the opening of light rail, and 12 years after the completion of neighborhood planning there is still a vacant lot around the transit station and a parking lot across the street at the Red Apple. While I appreciate language like this in the neighborhood’s latest proposal for changes in land use, it isn’t a stretch to have a “believe it when I see it” attitude:

Participants also recognized that the existing town center is generally underdeveloped under current zoning and does not reflect the desired future character of a more vibrant and diverse mix of shops, restaurants and housing.

More after the jump.

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Can They Take It? New Development on Beacon Hill Up for Review

Beacon Hill Station: Nothing But Flowers

The barren moonscape that surrounds the Beacon Hill Station is the poster child for the institutional and political failures endemic to Seattle’s approach to Transit Oriented Development. A picture of the stubby station box poking out of the ground is the front picture on my land use blog. I’ve gotten endless use from images of the lonely station as a sad commentary on the state of TOD. But maybe that’s changing.

Tomorrow night at 6:30 the Southeast Design Review Board will review a proposal for a four-story, 30 unit commercial and residential building including parking on one piece of the vacant lot surrounding the Beacon Hill station.

It’s a pretty modest proposal. But I have this feeling some people will appear to oppose it. I’m really hoping that isn’t the case, but my sense of land use politics tells me that, like most design review meetings, neighbors will emerge with all kinds of reasons why this project is wrong for Beacon Hill. More after the jump.

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We Should Pay: Free Ride Advocates Miss the Point

The We Won’t Pay people—the group that is urging people not to pay their fares when they ride Metro—have created a clever version of the Orca cards with the word “Nope” written on them. These were being distributed at the Occupy Westlake gathering over the last weekend. While some people might disagree, I have no problem with free transit anymore than I’d have a problem with free coffee or free pony rides. The problem with “free” is that it is an elusive concept. If we really want to reduce the price of transit, at the fare box or anywhere else, big changes are needed in the way we do land use and plan for growth. These solutions involve using the market to our advantage, something I doubt the We Won’t Pay movement has reached consensus on.

I’ve pointed out before that if we consider simple supply and demand, the problem with transit pricing is that the demand is diffuse which drives up costs to supply that demand. It’s the same reason that pizza delivery restaurants often have a service delivery area. I might want a pizza from that cool pizza place in Seward Park, but for them to drive it to me in Capitol Hill is cost prohibitive to them. The same is true of transit, when demand is spread all over the county then it’s going to get more and more expensive to operate the system.

But unlike a private pizza business, the community and political system has decided we do need to support the transit system even with all the costs. As part of the social contract we invest in things that we may not use or that wouldn’t make a profit. That’s why we use tax dollars to keep transit going. More after the jump.

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Station Area Zoning In Seattle: Legislation or Initiative?

The past?

It’s true. I am impatient. During the ongoing discussion and debate about land use around Sound Transit Link Light Rail stations, I have been thinking, “there ought to be a law!” Specifically, I’ve been dreaming of legislation that would substantially up zone around all light rail stations in the city of Seattle, and create options for innovative ways to create the density that makes light rail work. There are a lot of discussions about doing just that, but I decided I’d take a crack at writing the legislation myself.

There are a number of problems affecting light rail and land use in Seattle. First, there is the lack of market appropriate land use to produce more housing and commercial space next to light rail. Second, there are vested interests wanting to keep things just about like they are, willing to accept only incremental change. Lastly, the City Council, just by the nature of politics, always has to try to make everyone happy, and that’s tough.

More below the fold.

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How About a Charter Amendment For a TOD “Superagency?”

Beacon Hill

When I was reading Seattle’s Land Use code I pointed out how helpful it would be to have a “superagency” to make Transit Oriented Development happen. I even suggested a charter amendment that could make the Planning Commission that agency. I think putting a charter amendment on the ballot soon to create what I called the Seattle Planning and Development Commission would facilitate a healthy debate on TOD and development in Seattle and, if it was successful, create an agency well equipped to start work now and benefit from changes at the state level that, hopefully, are forthcoming. Portland, for example, has the Portland Development Commission (PDC). I’ve heard a lot of PDC envy in Seattle over the last few years.

But why do we need a super agency? First, the City Council has a tough time doing the right thing when it comes to land use. Fear of change has a vocal constituency, and strong majorities in neighborhoods. It’s tough to listen to hundreds of people saying, as they have in Roosevelt, “we’ve taken enough density” and then impose more anyway. These are taxpaying voters after all, and one could argue that even if the Seattle City Council wanted to max out development in Roosevelt they shouldn’t: it’s not what most people there want.

Second, many of the financing tools are lacking right now for a hefty TOD program. While most of these problems—especially the lack of Tax Increment Financing and prohibitions against the lending of public credit—are state level problems, a Seattle Planning and Development Commission could function as a Public Development Authority (PDA). In Washington PDAs have some unique and appropriate tools, the most important being the ability to issue bonds. While PDAs are expressly prohibited from using eminent domain, that power could be added with a suite of constitutional amendments and legislation in the future.

Lastly, I love my friends at the Seattle Planning Commission, but they don’t have enough power. And even though I don’t always agree with them, the Planning Commission is the right place to work out the future of Seattle’s land use. An amendment could transform todays Commission into something approaching a “superagency,” immune from the influence of both fearful neighbors and smart growth land use fads. Giving the new agency the power to legislate zoning could save us from the incremental and piecemeal approach the City Council always seems to take. More after the jump.

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Another voice from Roosevelt

Roosevelt Multifamily

It’s been quite entertaining and satisfying to read all the comments here at STB and elsewhere about my satirical take on Monday night’s meeting in Roosevelt. One of my favorites was Wally who asked me whether I was a hypocrite, preaching the density gospel while living in single-family home. No, Wally, I’m not a hypocrite and I really don’t want you to know where I live. But that has been the tone of much of the “density debate” in Roosevelt. Who’d want to live in a cubby hole? And rent? God forbid? Density is so bad in Wally’s estimation, that living in it is like being celibate, taking a vow of chastity and avoiding the joy of single family conjugal bliss.

But out of all that noise comes Janice, a renter and parent who articulates the points some of us have made but more succinctly and beautifully. I hope commenters will refrain from calling her, as some did speakers in favor of the DPD plan, a “fake neighbor.” Here’s Janice:

Janice says:
September 21, 2011 at 11:55 am

As a resident of Roosevelt I was embarrassed to see people booing and yelling at people who were there to give earnest testimony. Sad day for Roosevelt and I was also perplexed that no one in charge of the meeting put a stop to it until a man at the very end had to stop and ask for quiet while he tried to finish. I think many people like me where there to listen because I got an email through our PTA list essentially saying that the City was trying to ruin the neighborhood. Obviously I felt compelled to go and hear what this was all about.

After the presentation by both groups (City DPD v. SLRP) it seemed there was not a whole lot that was different. After listening to the testimony I went home and looked at both proposals. It seems to me that both proposals are pretty darn similar other than WHERE the new housing density and taller buildings will occur. Seems like one proposal puts a small amount east of the station and near the school but most to the west of the station (city). The other proposal by SLRP puts all the density to the west of the station only.

One woman made the point that higher density housing should go close to the school and park because it makes the higher density housing more desirable and livable. That makes a lot sense to me. I live in an apartment with my daughter west of 12th. I would love to be able to live in an apartment closer to the school and park so my daughter could run around on the field or just go a few blocks south and be at Cowen Park. She’ll be in high school before I know it so it would be great to stay in this neighborhood so she could walk to school and I could get to my job at the UW on the train.

It’s just nicer for those of us with kids, living in apartments that don’t have yards to be close to that open space instead of closer to the freeway. I am going to support the city plan for that reason. But what can I do to support that?

Ole! Upzone proposal gets skewered in Roosevelt

Wait, you won

What was publicly billed as a hearing of the Seattle City Council in at Roosevelt High School last night quickly devolved into a bullfight of sorts, with Roosevelt Neighborhood Association land use committee chair Jim O’Halloran as the matador and the proposal for more density in the neighborhood as the bull. We all know what happens to the bull. After a presentation of the proposal by City staff most of the meeting was spent hammering the nine members of the City Council over and over again with the reasons why near by neighbors think increases in height near the high school would be a terrible thing.

The neighborhood’s reasons stated over and over, came down to three stated and one unstated one. First, neighbors feel that any changes from their plan would be an abrogation of the sovereignty of those who live “near by.” That is, there is privilege that comes simply from living down the street from a proposed project that should afford those people the right to veto changes to zoning in their neighborhood. And let’s not forget the “many hours in meetings” neighborhood planners invested. Rejecting that would be a slap in the face by the Council to hard working citizen planners.

Second, the views in and out of the high school would be blocked. On the few days a year when cloud cover breaks, local neighbors want high schoolers busy at work on reading Moby Dick perhaps, to be able to look up and see the tip of Mount Rainier. And they want to be sure as they walk their dogs on 65th they can gaze up at the iconic high school after scooping. I’m not sure why it is so important to keep an eye on the school so intently. Is someone trying to steal it? I thought David Copperfield was retired, had he threatened to make it disappear? More after the jump.

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Roosevelt rezones up for discussion tonight

Vacant Roosevelt: What

A recent and rich study, by Needham Hurst “How Does Light Rail Transit Affect Urban Land Use?” takes a close look at how land use changed around light rail stations in Minneapolis over the last decade. The study confirms the obvious: light rail transforms land use patterns, promoting the development of vacant and underutilized land. Light rail stations also boost demand for housing and commercial space and contribute to an overall transformation of the built environment.

Tonight the Seattle City Council will consider land use changes in the Roosevelt neighborhood, where a new Link Light Rail station is planned. What’s at stake in Roosevelt is the future of light rail in Seattle. Until now, the course of land use decisions in station areas has trended toward conservative and incremental change when there has been change at all.

Hurst’s work confirms many of the suspicions of “density freaks” that see the opportunity to channel growth into a tight circle around transit stations, especially areas with vacant land like Roosevelt:

Vacant land experienced the highest magnitude and radius of LRT’s effect. Vacant land was the first type of property to be converted to denser uses—indicating the Hiawatha Line increased the marginal accessibility of properties enough to generate higher housing demand, high prices, and which in turn incentivized development on vacant properties.

In Roosevelt there is a panhandle of vacant and derelict land that extends from the station area entrance for a few blocks east, paralleling the high school and 65th. Neighbors justifiably upset with the owner of the panhandle are bitterly opposed to his realizing a profit from turning those properties into mixed-use development. More after the jump.

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The New York Times: Density is better for the local economy

Soylent Density: Density is people! (photo by author)

Last week I wrote about how limiting housing supply in the urban core forces demand for transit into the suburbs, increasing the costs of supplying that demand. Sunday’s New York times has an important article that more or less bulids on the points I made last week: density also makes economic sense.

But elected leaders in cities like Seattle continue to play rhetorical and political games with land use, caving to the single-family lobby out to keep the status quo. Think I’m ranting? Here’s what Ryan Avent, the author of the article in the Times says about the single-family status quo crowd:

[They] fight development, aiming to protect old buildings and precious views, limit crime and traffic, and maintain high-quality schools. But what makes a city a city and a not-city a not-city is the fact that a city is dense and a not-city isn’t. The idea of it may chill a homeowner’s heart, but the wealth supported by urban density is what gives urban homes their great value in the first place.

What many single-family advocates forget is  their home is more valuable because of the great stuff just a few blocks away, in dense commercial and residential urban villages. How about density it’s effect on housing supply? When housing gets cheap in sprawling areas because supply gets attenuated in the urban core, many people follow the lower prices.

Factors like taste and taxes account for some of the migration, but the biggest reason for the shift is housing costs. The average Phoenix home is worth about 30 percent of the price of a house in San Jose. The difference in prices is mostly due to differences in building. In every year from 1992 to 2009, Phoenix granted permits for two to three times as many new homes as did the San Francisco and San Jose metropolitan areas combined. Around the San Francisco Bay, neighborhoods dead set against change successfully squeezed the housing supply, just as OPEC limits the supply of oil when it wishes to raise its price.

Exactly. When the Seattle City Council dithers on big land use decisions, or tries to split the baby by supporting 65 feet when developers ask for 85, they do for housing supply what OPEC does for oil supply: reduce it. Less housing with increasing demand ensures higher prices. Higher prices for owner or renter occupied multifamily housing in the city just feeds the single-family lobby more ammunition and fulfills their prophecy of gentrification. What’s the obstacle to making density happen in Seattle and what’s at stake?

Rapid urban growth would mean denser neighborhoods, which makes many Americans uncomfortable. Preventing this density, however, denies workers access to the best opportunities, constraining the mechanism that helps support a strong middle class.

The standard, single-family home in Seattle is presented by the single-family lobby as apple pie. But Avent points out that the idea that density is a bad, socialist potion just isn’t true. To make our country, region, and city work we have to see land use as fiscal policy–loosen regulations and expand what housing suppliers can do and we can create not just more jobs but better jobs and more and better housing. The more we support density the better life, work, and play can become.

The public hearing on density in Roosevelt is right around the corner, September 19th. Now that the New York Times has weighed in, perhaps members of the Seattle City Council will give more credence to the arguments that squashing housing supply to appease single family home owners is bad for our local economy and way of life, not to mention transit, air and water quality, and climate.

Want to Save Transit? Try Better Land Use

Sky Train, Expo Line: Great transit needs lots of people in one place

There was some good discussion generated from the summing up of my reading of the land use code at Crosscut. One thing I learned from reading the code is that we should take the simple rules of supply and demand seriously and apply them when land use decisions get made. When it comes to land use and transit that lesson tells me that along with pushing for $20 car tab fees and $60 Vehicle Licensing Fees, advocates of bus service and light rail also need to push for better land use decisions that reflect basic and sound economic principles.
When our land use policies diffuse housing supply the demand for that housing will usually follow that supply, especially when it is kept cheap by externalizing the cost for transportation infrastructure (roads and buses). But that diffusion of housing supply to the ‘burbs, also means disaggregated demand for transit which drives up its costs, forcing it to rely on flaky King County Council politics and fickle voters at the ballot box.

The greatest offender when it comes to making bad land use decisions that negatively affect transit has been the Seattle City Council, a city that should be leading the way on showing the region how to grow. The Council’s worry about developers making a windfall from up zones has made them do something that doesn’t make any sense: make it harder to develop housing in the city. The more they worry about developer profit the more rules they impose (take incentive zoning, for example), which limits supply. Again, the simple rule is that if you limit supply and demand stays constant or goes up, you’ll increase prices, making housing by the usual standard “unaffordable.”

As people look for housing in our region they run up against limited supply in the places we most want people to live, the city. If it’s easier to build new single-family housing or sell that housing out in the ‘burbs, the supply out there will be greater. Seattle’s hesitant attitude toward up zones to create Transit Oriented Development not only keeps housing prices high, but also means that costs for maintaining transit service to far flung reaches of King County will go up too.

Among the many great things density does (lower emissions, more efficient energy use, less impact on water), it also aggregates demand for transit. Lots of demand for transit in one place makes it less expensive to supply. It’s as simple as visualizing a bus stop on Third Avenue versus a stop somewhere in Maple Valley, there’s going to be a lot more people, more fares, and fewer operating costs. Density is good for transit’s bottom line in King County. More people in a smaller space can mean more efficiency.

The more that Seattle resists density, the more expensive it is going to be to operate transit. We talk a good talk about sustainability but our land use policy is in direct conflict with it. So when Seattle constrains housing supply, it’s actively pushing up the operating costs for Metro and stretching subsidies to the breaking point. Meanwhile County politics dictates more and more of that subsidy go to keep bus service cheap where it is most expensive, a pathological cycle of codependence and inefficiency. Seattle’s land use policies drive up the price of transit, forcing local governments to pay for the City Council’s mistakes with extraordinary revenue from more fees and taxes.

This is why transit advocates have to be just as enthusiastic in their support of up zones as they are for subsidies through tax and fee increases. And those subsidies should be seen as a bridge to keep transit viable until we get our land use right. Then, maybe, the subsidies can largely go away. I know that the idea of a transit system paying for itself is kind of like Eldorado. But if demand is aggregated with good land use policy the idea that transit could be self-sustaining is not as farfetched as it is today.

Game over: What comes next after tunnel debate?

Tunnel opponents (and I am one) have failed to make their case to the voters who cast their ballots in the election on Referendum 1, for all practical purposes an up or down vote on the deep bore tunnel. The question some of us find more interesting than parsing whether this means Seattle is becoming decisive all of a sudden, or if this was a referendum on the Mayor, is what do we talk about now. The answer, I think, is shifting our attention to the far more critical issue of appropriate land use decisions around light rail stations and the expansion of Transit Oriented Development beyond light rail station areas.

The Mayor has conceded that “he public said move ahead with the tunnel, and that’s what we’re going to do.” That doesn’t mean the tunnel is a good idea. And it doesn’t mean the tunnel is going to happen. The project has lots of problems.

But we do have a chance to shift our focus from the tunnel project to a broader range of more relevant and, in the long run, important issues. How will we get the density we need around light rail stations? What will we do to create sustainable financing for regional and local transit? What can we do to encourage regional governance? Is there a way to give Sound Transit the power to be a more powerful TOD agency? Can we get all these things done?

This is what the Mayor and all sides of the tunnel debate should start talking about. Putting the tunnel aside doesn’t mean acquiescence but pragmatism. The tunnel is truly a wasteful use of resources at a time when we’re seeing a decline in Vehicle Miles Traveled and when we have a policy agenda focused on transit and alternatives to driving. Nevertheless, the opportunities from shifting our discussions away from tunnel or no tunnel and toward these opportunities far out weighs the cost of the tunnel even with overruns and cut budgets.

Ballard and beyond: $80 VLF helps realize a Monorail dream

It seems like a long time ago already, but there was a lot of momentum behind this thing called the Monorail. I won’t even get into the details, the politics, and the goofiness of what became a battle about whether light rail or mono rail would carry the day. In the end, the monorail disintegrated under many of the same circumstances that some of us think will pull down the tunnel; Frankenfinancing, just-trust-us politics, and poor planning. But the latest effort for a hearty Vehicle Licensing Fee (VLF) could keep one of the promises that the monorail mess couldn’t keep, rail transit for Ballard.

I’m going to quote from a memo written by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) asking for an $80 VLF in order to plan and execute rail to Ballard. High Capacity Transit is really another way of saying rail. Feel free to challenge that assessment in the comments, but here’s what SDOT is asking for:

For the Ballard and Eastlake corridors, HCT is the only option that meets projected transit ridership demand.  There are also travel time and greenhouse gas emission reductions that would not be attainable through other modes. Having the flexibility to pursue additional HCT planning would create a phasing process of (1.) 6-7 years of bus corridor development while simultaneously doing planning and design for two HCT corridors: Center City Connector and Ballard, and (2.) in years 7+,  focus on HCT corridor implementation and continued bus corridor improvements.

The experts are saying a longer collection period of the full $100 in VLF ($20 is VLF already happening) allowed by law would meet the demand for transit to and from Ballard. I am a demand side guy when it comes to transit, and that’s a big reason why I am a “density advocate.” Much of the whining and complaining about density has come from Ballard. Remember Edith Macefield? She’s the Ballard woman elevated to hero worship status by a peans written by Knute Berger and others because she held out against invasive “highest and best use” of land in Ballard. The truth is that Ballard has changed. Old Ballard has given way to the future many of us talk about. The old Googie Denny’s is gone in favor of density and everywhere you look there are people waiting in absurdly long lines to pay lots of money for fancy dinners.

Ballard, like it or not, has done much of it’s part in transforming Seattle into the dense, walkable, fully built out neighborhood that aggregates demand for transit, just like we density believers say it should. We’ve got the demand, now where’s the transit? It makes it hard on density advocates like me when the transit doesn’t follow the density. We’ve put all our rhetorical eggs in the density basket. If the City doesn’t up zone around transit or follow density with investment in transit where there already is density, it kicks us right in the eggs. The Council should do the right thing by Ballard on Monday, and support the maximum use of VLF so we can be sure that we put our money where our density is. If nothing else, do it for Edith.

Amend Seattle’s land use code to get real Transit Oriented Development

Roosevelt Night Life (Photo by author)

This summer has been good for land use and transit in Seattle largely because of the discussion—some would say argument—over appropriate density around the Roosevelt station area. Wednesday this week is a big day for Roosevelt, the Seattle City Council’s Committee on the Built Environment (COBE) is having a hearing on the subject and later that day Leadership for Great Neighborhoods is having a brown bag lunch discussion. The discussion in both places ought to include something about amending Seattle’s toothless station area overlay designation in its land use code.

Seattle hasn’t encouraged or even allowed true Transit Oriented Development. Any visitor to Beacon Hill will attest to the bizarre sight of a light rail station sticking out of the ground like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other station areas have yet to deliver on the promise of dense, walkable, housing and retail built around light rail stops. Why does Seattle lag so far behind places like British Columbia and Vancouver where there is lots of new housing around light rail?

Part of the problem is our single-family focused culture and economy. It’s easy to forget that one big private property interest in Seattle is single-family homeowners who benefit from attenuating the supply of housing. That’s not a slur, but a simple economic point. If housing is in short supply, then those who already own it benefit by keeping that supply limited. Diminished supply and increasing demand means existing homeowners can watch their property values increase.

Another reason is our land use code. Each and every stop along light rail will force a fight between vested single-family interests clinging to the status quo, and “outsiders” who are advocating for appropriate land use to fit the massive investment the region has made in light rail. Amending the code to give more TOD teeth to chapter 23.61 of the code, the chapter that covers land use around light rail stations—would be a great start in having that argument once and for all station areas in Seattle.

But I don’t think that simply mandating big heights and FAR at all station areas is what we should do. One size does not fit all when it comes to well planned and executed TOD. The answer is to let the housing market and design set the standard rather than arbitrary height limits. Amending 23.61 of the Seattle Municipal Code to encourage what I have called Zero Based Zoning and others have called Form Based Code, is the best place to start. Loosing code restrictions to allow proposals for what works rather than slavish adherence to code language that tries to prevent bad things could produce good results for everyone.

Development around light rail stations in Seattle should match the economic potential of the years ahead and the land use code should reflect not just the economic interests today’s vocal private property interests. Instead the City ought to consider the people who will be living here in the future. Loosening restrictions around light rail stations could make Seattle a regional leader in making light rail work through an open minded, future focused approach to TOD rather than one based on the fears of the moment. Seattle should have that discussion now when it amends chapter 23.61 of the land use code.

Neighborhood and Station Area Planning Brown Bag Forum
Wednesday, August 10 at Noon
GGLO, Harbor Steps (1301 First Avenue, Suite 301)

Seattle City Council Committee on the Built Environment
Council Chambers City Hall
Wednesday, August 10, 2011 9:30 a.m.

Deep bore trouble: Public financing and public trust

The credit rating of the United States of America was downgraded on Friday to AA+ from AAA. For many this might inspire as much fear as the phrase “lions, tigers, and bears? Oh my!” But the truth is that the downgrade our national government’s credit rating should keep us awake at night, especially for those of us who see the future of sustainability in good land use and public transit. Sustainable solutions often rely heavily on publicly financed capital infrastructure (during the debt lid debacle I wrote about how a downgrade could increase the cost of the deep bore tunnel).

It’s true that such projects usually don’t state interest costs. There are good reasons for that, the most obvious one being that issuances of public debt in the form of bonds are often negotiated sales; the interest rate isn’t known during project planning because it doesn’t get established until a deal is struck between the borrower and the leader. We should be careful that in criticizing the lack of specifics on interest on the tunnel, that we don’t feed NIMBY know nothing rhetoric about good projects at a time when elected officials are irrationally paranoid about debt.

However, these are not ordinary times and the tunnel is not a straightforward project. And by saying “not straightforward” I don’t mean “complex.” I mean that so much of the stated financing of the project has been sketchy and vague on details like where the port will find the funding to pay for it’s promised $300 million, will the functioning project really deliver $400 million in tolls, and how much will the City of Seattle have to borrow to fix the decaying seawall? The fact that the country’s credit has been downgraded means that the cost of the project could go up beyond the usual expectations. A downgrade has never happened in the 70 years since the US got its AAA rating, in 1941, the year Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Asking questions about tunnel financing has become synonymous with tunnel opposition. And I’ll admit I am a tunnel opponent (and a fan of debt). But we’re talking here about a first-time-in-70-years downgrade in the credit rating of the government managing the world’s largest economy. The ding to the credit rating is likely to affect borrowing on projects like the tunnel (local governments here are already on a downgrade watch list).  But current evasion by the State of Washington of the question of “how are we going to pay for it?” hurts the tunnel, and it also fuels skepticism that government actually can manage the public’s money and the public’s trust.  That troubles me and should trouble all supporters of debt funded but sustainable projects.

I’ll be dancing on the tunnel’s grave if it dies, but not quite so much if the autopsy finds the cause of death was public skepticism of the use of borrowed money by government for all big, complicated projects. That would make the tunnel patient zero in a plague of unwarranted local debt skepticism.