Time to Re-Think Zoning

University District - Seattle
U-District, photo by Brewbooks

Dan Savage points to this Atrios post contrasting today’s urban zoning and the buildings that currently exist in urban neighborhoods:

One thing I mention frequently but which some seem not to believe is that just about everywhere in this country it would be illegal to build the kind of dense residential urban neighborhoods one associates with, well, urban living. My block, a completely typical South Philly block (not my block, but similar), could not be built today without an unlikely to receive zoning waiver. Most units on my block, and in my area generally, do not have dedicated off street parking. Any new development – say, a new block of rowhouses – with 5 units or more requires dedicated parking for each unit. Parking takes up space, requiring more land which increases (sic) the cost/sq. ft, and reduces, all things equal, residential density.

I mentioned this idea briefly my post about Bellevue’s plans for transit oriented development in the Bel-Red neighborhood. I live in the U-District and my home has a perfect 100 walkscore. Most of the myriad of small businesses and apartments that make the neighborhood walkable are in old buildings that could never be built under today’s zoning: retail without parking isn’t allowed, and neither are tall, affordable and parkingless apartment buildings. These requirements existing in what is probably the residential neighborhood that is best served by transit in the state.

North of 50th street a lot of townhomes have been built recently (south of 50th st the zoning is NC-65, or six stories, north of 50th it’s L3, or townhome zoning), and all have parking, most in the ugly mini-cul-de-sac formation that is so despised. The nicer designs have the cul-de-sac facing the alley instead of the street, but it doesn’t do much for affordability.  On Roosevelt and 55th, a ten-unit student-priced housing development is going through with five parking spaces, and a zoning exception was required to allow less than the usual ten parking spots. In fifteen years that development will be walking distance to two light rail stations. How many of the residents will need cars or even be able to afford them? Parking requirements and height restrictions need to be re-thought, especially in dense neighborhoods that already have many buildings that without parking and others taller than the height restrictions.

Inside-out Cities

There’s a great new article in The Atlantic about the trend towards urban living and the likelihood of exurbs becoming low-income neighborhoods. The takeaway is that if you own property in a place like Marysville or Black Diamond, you should sell.

I’m not the best person to critique the article, because it entirely reinforces my prejudices, but I’ve always thought that the hollowing out of our inner cities has been a peculiarly American product of mid-20th-century racism and the breakdown in law enforcement in the 1960s. As those causes recede, we’ll probably end up with a more European-style configuration where the rich people live in the city center and the poor are warehoused out on the fringes.

But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay…

The experience of cities during the 1950s through the ’80s suggests that the fate of many single-family homes on the metropolitan fringes will be resale, at rock-bottom prices, to lower-income families—and in all likelihood, eventual conversion to apartments.

But don’t panic, Bellevue residents:

Of course, not all suburbs will suffer this fate. Those that are affluent and relatively close to central cities—especially those along rail lines—are likely to remain in high demand. Some, especially those that offer a thriving, walkable urban core, may find that even the large-lot, residential-only neighborhoods around that core increase in value. Single-family homes next to the downtowns of Redmond, Washington; Evanston, Illinois; and Birmingham, Michigan, for example, are likely to hold their values just fine.

A little further out, though, oy:

But much of the future decline is likely to occur on the fringes, in towns far away from the central city, not served by rail transit, and lacking any real core. In other words, some of the worst problems are likely to be seen in some of the country’s more recently developed areas—and not only those inhabited by subprime-mortgage borrowers. Many of these areas will become magnets for poverty, crime, and social dysfunction.

This has implications for transit planning. For one thing, effective high-capacity transit is a crucial amenity in those dense urban centers; to not have one is a debit against the city’s quality of life in the same way that a giant chemical plant in the middle of downtown would be. Additionally, the people that will absolutely require transit — who are now the urban poor — may become the “periphery poor,” creating new challenges for transit planners. So perhaps those long-haul transit services, so derided by The Stranger and West Seattlites, may be serving the strongest future markets for transit.

BTW, Seattlest beat me to posting about this by quite a bit.

Metro’s ridership growth quadrupling population growth

Metro seems to be experiencing a massive increase in ridership over the past year. The press release says “(o)verall, Metro’s 2007 ridership is running almost 7 percent higher than 2006”, I got about 6.8%, not bad at all. Here’s my chart:

Metro sites high gas prices, Transit Now funded increased transit service, and increased employment.

We know population growth has been about 1.4%. I looked for employment numbers, but couldn’t find one that was accurate enough on a year-over-year level for the region. Gas prices seem to have gone up by about 10~12%, though that is not an inflation adjusted amount, and when you look at inflation of about 4%, we’d get to about 6~8% price increase.

My guess is, part of it is population increase – probably about the 1.4%. Part of it is oil price increase, not the whole 6% because oil price changes are very inelastic because people purchase cars and choose houses on long schedules: people can’t just sell there cars and move quickly to adjust for oil price changes. Part of it is people tired of traffic, and the last part is people becoming more acceptant of transit lifestyles. Some people are accepting the global warming situation and moving to live a greener lifestyle. Also, the younger generation now joining the workforce as fresh grads or recent immigrations have a different attitude toward transit, urban living and a more flexible idea of what an ideal lifestyle is.

But that’s a long post for another day.