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:
“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.