Density Opponents: Seattle Will Look Like “Eastern Europe” Unless Council Intervenes


Density opponents mobilized in their dozens for this afternoon’s council planning and land use committee meeting, winning plaudits from neighborhood conservation district booster Tom Rasmussen and foreshadowing a potential vote for a more-extreme version of a proposal to restrict development in low-rise neighborhoods.

The legislation, which I described in detail last month, would effectively downzone Seattle’s low-rise neighborhoods–areas that make up about 10 percent of the city’s land–by placing new restrictions on what can be built in those neighborhoods and by recalculating what counts as housing development. The proposed changes include counting things like exterior stairways toward density limits, limiting the height clerestories (small additions to allow lofted ceilings) mandating wedding-cake-style setbacks at the tops of buildings, and prohibiting some row houses.

The effect of all the new regulations, which were proposed by council member Mike O’Brien over objections from Mayor Ed Murray, would be to decrease allowed density in low-rise zones between 20 and 25 percent.

However, because O’Brien’s version does eliminate some of the more egregious elements of the Department of Planning and Development proposal (including a provision that would effectively bar daylight basement apartments on sloped lots and one that would have mandated a three-foot gap between many “row houses”), single-family homeowners were out in force, hankies and photos of their “ruined” neighborhoods in hand. (Seriously: At least two speakers cried during their testimony about the impact newcomers would have on their neighborhoods).

Only two or three folks who supported scaling back the downzone slightly showed up to speak, thanks most likely to the fact that the meeting was held at 2 in the afternoon, a time much friendlier to the retirees who came out to speak than the renters who didn’t. People often say policy is determined by who shows up. But when you structure the whole system so that only homeowners, the wealthy, and those with leisure time can do so, it becomes pretty hard to argue that the system isn’t rigged.

So, who showed up? In shorthand terms, people who argued that their neighborhoods were being destroyed; people who suggested that newcomers were all rich and didn’t care about the neighborhoods were destroying; people who believed, and said explicitly, that people who moved here more recently should have less say over what happens in their neighborhoods; and people who seemed to genuinely think that homeowners should have the right to dictate the terms of development, no matter what the law or city council have to say about it.

Remember, the homeowners who turn out to object to development in low-rise zones by and large do not live in single-family areas, which are protected and treated as sacrosanct by all the city’s long-term planning documents.

Some themes that emerged from the hearing, which began, as all good public hearings do, with indistinct shouting:

Gay people/poor people/old people will end up on the street if you don’t downzone low-rise neighborhoods to be as much like single-family zones as possible.

“I’ve lived in Fremont since 1981. No one seems to be speaking for Fremont because everybody has left. The people moving in to Fremont now make $100,000 a year.”

“I bought house when I was making $7 an hour. Please protect your people from the ravages of greed that have been unleashed over them.”

“‘Affordable housing’ is only a ruse for further profit.” (Oh, wait: That last one was city council member Kshama Sawant).

Conversely, if you allow this particular downzone to pass, those people are going to come here, which will also ruin the neighborhood.


“The process has been discarded into the round file. Microhousing [buildings are] hotels for transient people coming in[to] our Ravenna Woods urban village. … We are going to be receiving over 110 micro units with no provision for parking or design review.”

People have dreams, and the city council exists to crush them.

“My husband and I dreamed of moving into Seattle and living where we only need one car or no car. With 44 units [going in], I’m not sure we’re going to be able to have that dream anymore. It shouldn’t always be about next residents that are coming into town. What about the people who are here?”

“I love my house. I always thought I would die in our house. And as soon as my daughter goes to college, I’m leaving. I can’t stand what you have done to our neighborhoods.”

Neighborhood residents (those who own houses, at least), not the city, should have the power to dictate what development looks like.

“If you’re listening to these people (developers), I’m afraid. Please, can you make them look like houses in our neighborhood?” (The speaker later clarified that these were “Craftsman houses.”)

“[We’re saying], keep the neighborhoods the way they were when we first saw them, and in comes a bunch of developers with shoddy development and very little concern about working with the community.

Density (again: we’re talking four-story buildings here) will turn once-quaint neighborhoods into barren urban hellscapes/Cold War Romania/treeless wastelands where the sky is only a distant memory. But mostly, post-communist Eastern Europe.

“Dear architects, please stop this city from looking like an Eastern Bloc city. … You are creating a monster of gridlock such that in an emergency, no one will be able to get out of the city.”

“What you are doing is sanctioning these developers to cram in as many wealthy people as possible into giant buildings that look like they’re in an Eastern Bloc city.”

“I recently traveled to Eastern Europe, and I look at Ballard and I see that, Oh my god, this is Eastern Europe. This is where we’re headed. Do you not get it?”

At the end of public comment, after one speaker responded to Mike O’Brien, who told her she was at the end of her time, by spitting, “And so are you!”, Rasmussen praised the crowd for a “very, very impressive turnout,” adding, perhaps unwittingly, that “if we had had it in the evening, we would have had a much bigger turnout.

“I want to assure those who are here and those who can’t be here that I will ensure that your voices and your concerns will be reflected in the legislation that I will put before the council,” Rasmussen said, before promising to either amend the legislation to increase its density restrictions or propose legislation of his own–apparently an oblique reference to his proposed neighborhood conservation district proposal, which would effectively create and empower homeowners’ associations in Seattle neighborhoods.

Rasmussen, Licata, and Sawant (who does not sit on the PLUS committee but showed up for this hearing) will likely vote to roll back the O’Brien changes when they come up for a committee vote later this month.

27 thoughts on “Density Opponents: Seattle Will Look Like “Eastern Europe” Unless Council Intervenes”

  1. Um, the Berlin Wall fell 26 years ago. I would be totally OK with parts of Seattle looking like Prenzlauer Berg, or Weisensee.

  2. No, it might only look like Eastern Europe if normal people compromise with damned nimbys instead of rightfully running them out of town (or having them cope with the future), and build 4-5 story apartments straight from the 80ies.
    If developed properly, it might just look like Vancouver, which happens to be the best and most livable city in North America.

  3. Although the crowd was mostly older people, your didn’t report the comments of the one, young renter who spoke and said she returned to Seattle after graduating from college in Boston and encouraged some of her recent-graduate friends to come to Seattle. She said some are having such a hard time finding affordable housing that they are not sure they can stay here. Your response to me discusses young people moving here, but according to the report of what appeared to be a bright, college-educated woman, that’s not as easy as you make it sound. In many cases, the new housing that is being built, is very expensive. If Seattle wants to become like Manhattan, okay, but let’s not pretend that what is happening in terms of development is making Seattle better for young renters or homeowners.

    1. Any new housing (so long as it increases the housing stock) helps young renters and homeowners. The scarcity of housing is what makes it so expensive. You can object to some of the new development on aesthetic grounds, but to make a utilitarian argument is plain wrong. Building a lot of new housing is precisely what Seattle needs to keep the city affordable.

      1. Doug,
        You couldn’t be more wrong. What’s driving up prices are people that have the money to pay them. It’s happened in NY, Boston, San Francisco, Portland and every other place that has highly paid workers. Developers will keep building high priced buildings as long as they can get people to pay for them. It’s as simple as that. Plus the fact that so many international investors want to keep their money invested wherever they can get the highest return.

  4. I don’t get what the fuss is all about anyway, I used to live in Serbia and it was great. The buildings were drab, but at least the cityscape was vibrant and dynamic. Do these people seriously think that what makes places like Manhattan and Paris great to live in is how the buildings look?

      1. YES. This is exactly the problem. And in my experience, a lot of them have never been there and don’t want to.

  5. Diane, I wasn’t taking a shot at the people who showed up, just pointing out that retirees and others with more flexible work schedules are able to show up to a 2pm meeting, making their voices more likely to be heard than the majority of Seattle residents who are renters and not “upper middle class.” And the notion that multifamily housing adjacent to single-family zones is going to decrease your property values is absurd. First, because property values in Seattle have historically gone up and will continue to do so as long as it continues to be a place where people want to move (i.e. an attractive place to live). Those people have to live somewhere, and we should welcome them rather than suggesting they’re going to somehow bring blight along with them. And two, density and new young residents with money to spend improves business districts, keeps neighborhoods vibrant, and draws more investment from companies that want to locate or expand here. If we send a message to those companies that we don’t want to change, that single-family zones are sacrosanct and their people can just live somewhere else, like outside the city, they’re not going to invest here and Seattle will indeed return to the way it was in the 1970s. Few people want us to be a backwater with no vibrancy or innovation today.

    1. Erica,
      I appreciate that you took the time to respond. I hear your points and agree with most of what you said, but I don’t feel that rampant, cheap, thoughtless growth is good for a city. And that is pretty much all we’ve gotten Money isn’t the only consideration. Just because your property value is increasing, it doesn’t mean you don’t or shouldn’t care about quality of life and beauty.
      Also, if the cost of living and doing business gets too expensive and there is not enough infrastructure, and bad mass transit, and an ugly city, businesses and tourists will stop wanting to be here. It’s a double-edged sword.

    2. Erica, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such an unempathetic person as yourself, at least as you express yourself here — “single-family homeowners were out in force, hankies and photos of their “ruined” neighborhoods in hand. (Seriously: At least two speakers cried during their testimony about the impact newcomers would have on their neighborhoods) You are also classist and ageist in your depiction of retirees. Many of us bought our houses and lived at 30-40 % of AMI, working 2 and 3 jobs in order to pay the mortgage over 30 – 40 years. Your depiction of people who oppose density is obnoxious and shows no knowledge whatsoever of their particular circumstances (other than that gleaned from overheated neighbor meetings). As a professional journalist you owe your readers valid evidence on which you base your sarcastic and uninformed claims. Why don’t yo do some actual research before you spout off? Your antipathy clearly seems born more out of jealousy for those who were just lucky enough to buy a house 30 years ago, than it does concern for low-income tenants and first time home buyers. Unsnarl you lips and swallow your resentment and you might get more people to listen to you.

  6. One other point I’d like to make about the comments of the woman who said this:
    “My husband and I dreamed of moving into Seattle and living where we only need one car or no car. With 44 units [going in], I’m not sure we’re going to be able to have that dream anymore. It shouldn’t always be about next residents that are coming into town. What about the people who are here?”
    I don’t recall that she objected to 44-unit building. What she was questioning was the fact that it had no parking spaces and the city or developers report said it would have, “no impact on traffic.” She commented that many of the building residents’, their friends, delivery people, and service and repair people will certainly be driving there.

      1. She was saying that there will be much more traffic on her street and the developer is being allowed to say, “There will be no traffic impact.” She was not commenting on her ability to live with or without a car.

      2. Here’s what she said:

        “So my husband’s and my dream of moving into Seattle and living where we’d only need one car or no car—I’m not sure that’s a dream anymore because of the way the street’s going to get turned upside down due to this infill project.”

        She really does seem to be saying–the plain text meaning of her words–is that the traffic disruptions would make it impossible for her to go carless. It makes no sense.

        And, of course, the complaint is nonsense–the more parking spaces you provide, the more cars you’re going to attract, which leads to more traffic. If you decrease the capacity for car storage in an area, fewer people will try to store (and, therefore, drive) cars in that area. This isn’t some wacky theory, it’s been born out by lots of urban planning research. See here for a relevant example, but there’s lots more:

  7. Erica,
    I think you are misrepresenting the people who spoke. I don’t recall very many who said they were anti-density. In fact, I opened my statements by saying I am not anti-density or anti-growth, but I want smart growth that adds to this city instead of detracting from it. What people are objecting to is growth that makes their property values decline due to lack of setbacks from property lines, blank walls with no windows, cheap materials, bulky, tall buildings with the wiring and hardware on the outside. For many, their homes are a source of pride and their single greatest retirement asset. It’s hard to watch that be taken away. That is why those two different people were moved to tears.
    People are concerned about density because our infrastructure is already strained. My neighborhood is served by the #5 bus and sometimes during peak commuting hours, the bus doesn’t stop at our stops because the bus is full. So, until we have better mass transit and infrastructure, slow down on the effort to get as many people here as fast as possible.
    You also didn’t touch on the point made by some speakers that developers have been promising with each corner the city allows them to cut (less parking, strange rules on what actually counts as part of the building, etc.) that they can build “more affordable housing.” We all know that is not happening, so that’s been a false promise
    Also, in some cases, what is being constructed will not be a good investment for the people who buy it because it is so poorly constructed. Case in point, the McGuire apartment building downtown that was 9 years old and had to be torn down in 2010 because it was so poorly constructed it was unsafe. On a three-pack that was built across the street from me recently, the siding was nailed on, instead of being screwed in, so we’ll see how long before it starts popping off. It’s the same property where the developer illegally cut down a huge red cedar. When neighbors notified the city, the developer was retroactively granted a tree-cutting permit and the property was still able to advertise it met some kind of “green” score from the city. Only the developers win in these cases.
    So, I think THAT’S the story you should have written after sitting through that hearing.
    And cheap shot on the timing of the hearing. The people there had nothing to do with the timing, so attacking them for being there at 2 p.m. is a weak argument. I am not a retiree and was there because it is important to me. Whether I am rich or poor, I have every right to speak up. I am not embarrassed to be upper middle class and working to preserve this beautiful city where I was born.

    1. I think you are misrepresenting the people who spoke. I don’t recall very many who said they were anti-density.

      Pretty much every density opponent is always careful to make sure they don’t come out as anti-density in the abstract. They’re always anti-*this* density.

      What people are objecting to is growth that makes their property values decline due to lack of setbacks from property lines, blank walls with no windows, cheap materials, bulky, tall buildings with the wiring and hardware on the outside.

      Please provide evidence of this. I know people with single family homes in LR1, with lots of new townhome construction in the neighborhood. They get a bit less sunlight and privacy in their yard, and they get unsolicited cash offers for 2-3 times what they paid for their homes 10-15 years ago. Precisely because we so severely restrict housing growth in 70% of the city, they are getting a windfall profit.

    2. Also, your neighborhood is getting improvements from prop 1 money–longer 15 minute headway periods and 4 extra express trips, which should help with peak overcrowding on the 5 local. But generally speaking, transit improvements respond to increased demand; they almost never precede it.

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