New Apartments at Othello

Any Link riders through the Valley have no doubt noticed the monolithic Station at Othello Park going up for what seemed like forever. Well, it’s done*, and the Seattle Times wrote it up:

Other developers will judge the Station at Othello Park’s success by how much rent it can charge and how quickly it fills up.

A new project is doing well if it leases 20 apartments a month, researcher Cain says. By that measure, the Station is right on target.

As for apartment rents, Cain says, the Othello project is charging about 40 percent more per square foot than older buildings in the Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill and the Central District — but about 12 percent less than the average rent at similar new buildings on Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods closer to downtown…

But Southeast Seattle is a new frontier for the industry. Before the Station at Othello Park, “that area hadn’t seen any conventional [for-profit] new construction in many years,”  Cain says…

“I have heard lots of developers say they are waiting to see how the Station at Othello Park does,” said Al Levine, the [Seattle Housing] authority’s deputy director.

It’s nice to hear that the initial reports are good, but as with everything else let’s not judge the first project of a hoped-for  rebirth of the Rainier Valley based on a few months of data.

Because of developer hesitation, this is, however, a relatively important project. And if it turns out that the Rainier Valley is so hopeless for market-rate development than not even light rail can rehabilitate it over the next decade or so, then that would call in question, if not light rail as a whole, then the decision to go through the Rainier Valley in general and especially via MLK in particular.

* The article implies it’s done, but a source tells me the complex is leasing but not quite done with construction.

Waterfront Design Meeting Thursday

Waterfront Seattle February 17th Kickoff Event from WaterfrontSeattle on Vimeo.

Tomorrow is the second design meeting for the waterfront project. For those that didn’t make it to the first presentation check out the video above to get up to speed on what was presented at the last event.

At the last meeting the design team asked the public where they want to be on the waterfront and what they want to do on the waterfront, using a dot exercise. They also asked other more open ended questions. Their presentation was interesting, especially when they described the different waterfront segments and the specific context of each segment. I felt this was the most interesting part and in my mind really helped to define the opportunities and challengers of each segment.

Event details below the jump. Continue reading “Waterfront Design Meeting Thursday”

Impressions of a Zoning Meeting

Mount Baker Community Club (wikimedia)

As I hinted yesterday, I showed up to the Mt. Baker Community Club’s forum on the city’s revised North Rainier Neighborhood Plan. The crowd was mainly from the Mt. Baker neighborhood; my understanding that this not the actual station area or potential upzone, but instead an area dependent on its services and close enough to enjoy (or suffer) whatever impacts arise. There’s actually a pretty nice piece of real transit news that I’ll save for a follow-on post.

Till then, here are some impressions. If you want or read about the draft plan itself there’s a pretty good webpage. Obviously, I’m a partisan in this debate but here I’m trying to articulate the real causes of opposition so that we can resolve them. The truly core objections are, I believe, are (1) more residents, particularly if they create concentrations of poverty; and (2) traffic and parking changes that will make it harder to get around by car.

More detail below the jump.

Continue reading “Impressions of a Zoning Meeting”

Mt. Baker Planning Meeting

The Mt. Baker Community Club is hosting a meeting tonight about the new neighborhood plan, which involves (surprise) more density around the Link station. The MBCC tells me some DPD folks will be there to talk about the plan and solicit comments.

DPD, via Rainier Valley Post

Word has it that the usual NIMBY suspects are organizing, complete with Facebook page with the usual scaremongering. As if “pawn shops” and “payday loans” are the only possible businesses (and jobs, by the way) that come with density.

If you live nearby (as I do) I’d encourage you to show up tonight at 7, at 2811 Mt Rainier Drive South.


Visiting the Seattle Center Dilemma

Seattle Center Monorail, by zargoman

Last week, the Seattle city council unanimously agreed to move forward on including a Dale Chihuly exhibit to replace the old Fun Forest as part of Seattle Center’s redevelopment plans.  The move was praised by the Seattle Times along with numerous city leaders who felt warmly at what a Chihuly exhibit could do for the Center:

“The past sixteen months of negotiations have shown that good public process can lead to good public policy,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, chair of the Parks and Seattle Center Committee. “Seattle will have another world class attraction and Seattle Center will be further invigorated through art, music and a creative new family play space.”

I’m not convinced that Seattle Center’s problem is really the lack of a “world class attraction.”  If anything, this rhetoric of revitalizing the area by luring in even more attractions seems to ignore the common failures often associated with public urban spaces.  There’s much much more to the Center’s dearth of activity than just a “missing piece” or an obsolete amusement park.

More below the jump.

Continue reading “Visiting the Seattle Center Dilemma”

To the City Council!

Often informal groups of people working together can make a difference in the way their communities are run. If you care about the Roosevelt zoning plan and, like I do, would like to see a plan that would create more than 348 units of housing in the station area, the best thing you can do right now is email your city council member to say “please don’t vote for this!” The next best thing you can do is sign this petition I’ve created.

You may or may not be surprised to know that much of the time the Council members only hear from the NIMBY side of these debates, and not from those who support more transit oriented development. The more they hear from people who support TOD, the more import they’ll attach to the issue, and the more likely they are enact a plan to create more housing. I’ve written an easy way to do contact them right after the jump. Please do also sign the petition.

Continue reading “To the City Council!”

Roosevelt Rezone Recommendations

Proposed zoning changes laid over existing zoning

The Seattle Department of Planning and Development has published a draft of its recommendations for the Roosevelt Station area rezone plan. The rezone is a substantial increase from what current is currently zoned, but is quite far from what the increased transportation options can bear. The DPD estimates “the proposed rezones would increase total development capacity by 348 residential units and 215,209 commercial square feet” from 269 units and 10,604 feet of commercial space with current zoning.

I personally feel this proposed zoning to be woefully inadequate. With substantially more aggressive zoning, the Northgate station area has already accommodated that much housing and commercial space on a single block long before the station opens. Most of the proposed height limits in the Roosevelt corridor are just 40 feet, which really isn’t all that different from 65 feet from a sunlight and massing perspective, but would allow a far smaller amount of development.

The Roosevelt station is one of just nine subway stations that will be built  in our region, and as taxpayers I feel we are owed the right to get as much from these stations as we can. I wrote this about the Beacon Hill station area a few years ago:

I’d also like to appeal to everyone’s sense of civic fairness. We’ve all been paying sales tax for the past dozen or so years to build this light rail line and this subway station. Now that’s almost done, shouldn’t we try to get our money’s worth and encourage the most riders possible? Increasing density around the stations will mean more people using the system and a better value for all of us. Increased use will also make the station safer: there’ll be more eyes watching for muggers or other predators.

As Matt Yglesias correctly pointed out the other day (with a bit of hyperbole thrown in) when writing about the upzone in the South Downtown area, nobody will take transit to work unless you build tall buildings near stations. The residential portion of the entire rezone generates only an extra 1,922 riders per day for the light rail system, which will have a fully grade-separated, 16 minute ride to downtown Seattle and just an eight minute ride to the UW. This is a case of Seattle zoning itself to death.

Bellevue seems to get how transit can unleash a lot of development demand and both increase tax revenue and make infrastructure a better value. Leaders there see a surface line and imagine 12-15 story buildings with 4.5 million square feet of commercial space and 5,000 housing units. Seattle sees a subway and envisions just 215,000 square feet and 348 more units. Those of us who desperately want more urbanism and great value from our investment are looking forward to be disappointed again.

Conflated Afforable Housing Arguments

Since we’re on a roll, I’ll add my opinion to this discussion. I started thinking about this last month at the equitable growth dialog but haven’t until now been able to put it in a good context. This discussion has done that.

Simply put Martin and Sherwin are both correct, the problem is they are thinking about afforable housing (and in some ways affordable commercial/retail space) at two different physical and temporal scales. This lack of scale  definition in my opinion is the crux of the problem when talking about affordable housing. Martin and Sherwin each describe one of the two opposing forces that I see playing out with affordable housing, one short term and site specific, the other long term and region wide. Note, for this discussion I’m not talking about single family houses, I’m talking about apartments, condos and townhomes.

In the short term, new housing in the city is almost always more expensive than old housing, unless it is subsidized. This is because it is more expensive to build housing now than it was before, and developers will target the most lucrative market, and cheap housing usually isn’t it. New housing simply demands a premium. So yes new housing is more expensive than old housing.

However, in the long term housing prices are mostly determined by supply and demand. Once housing is built, regardless of the price to build it 15 or 20 years ago the market will determine it’s value. The larger the difference between supply and demand, the higher housing prices become. Additionally, over the long term, new housing become old housing, and old housing is cheaper. I would venture a guess that a large majority of the affordable housing in Seattle is just our older housing stock, not subsidized housing. Old housing in desirable neighborhoods may still be expensive, but building less housing 15 or 20, or even 100 years ago in those neighborhoods wouldn’t make them any cheaper now.

Thus to me I only see a two fold solution. First restricting large increases in housing where we want it (around Link, urban centers, etc) is guaranteed to increase prices in the long term, there is no other possible outcome. Period. Second affordable housing that is lost from a new project should be replaced, through programs like the housing levy and incentive zoning. This is the only solution I see that preserves affordable housing in the short term and builds up an affordable housing stock for the long term.

Is ‘Highest and Best Use’ Always Right?

First Avenue, circa 1910, via Rob Ketcherside

This morning, Martin opined about the council’s recent decision to restrict the upzone in Pioneer Square from 150 feet to 120 feet.  Ironically, his piece was penned at the same time this editorial was being drafted– both written simultaneously with conflicting viewpoints.  While I’ve generally agreed with the call for higher transit-oriented density reflected through this blog, I’m not convinced that the “highest and best use” argument in this context is helpful to the pro-transit cause.

Mathematically, the case for high-density TOD is simple– more people, more riders.  In a less-than-perfect world, however, we often have to deal with social and economic constraints, along with various other wonky forces that affect the choices people make in regards to their mode of travel or their place of residence.  More below the jump.

Continue reading “Is ‘Highest and Best Use’ Always Right?”

What Trumps Density?


Cleverly slipping it in before I was fully caught up from vacation, the City Council voted unanimously yesterday to restrict heights in Pioneer Square to 120 feet, rather than 150. Councilmembers Burgess and Bagshaw initially voted for higher limits, but PubliCola speculates they switched out of some sense of Council solidarity.

Previously, Councilmember Nick Licata and waterfront activist Cary Moon wrote separate pieces in opposition to the loosest possible height limits in Pioneer Square. On the other side, rebuttals from near and far; in particular I’d recommend Roger Valdez’s well-informed arguments.

I’m glad the debate is about how much to increase, rather than whether to increase. Furthermore, the provisions in question are part of a much larger package of upzones (map here) that is, thankfully, uncontroversial. However, Pioneer Square sits on the largest transportation hub in the Northwest. As such, there’s a strong case that as many people and jobs should be sited there as the market can bear.

The centrality of density to a whole series of issues is well documented. More human activity in a given patch of urban space reduces sprawl, energy consumption per capita, car dependence, and housing prices. It puts more bicycles and pedestrians on the ground, increasing their safety, and reduces the economic distortions caused by regulation. Against all that we have an essentially subjective argument about towers “looming” over historic buildings, an aesthetic that works fine in other cities, and the usual Seattle emphasis on public process and broad consensus.

Maximizing density is either a priority or it isn’t. I’m disappointed that vague aesthetic considerations won out over absolutely critical imperatives.