“High-Rises and Dumps,” “No Flowers, No Trees,” and Other Reasons Urbanists Don’t Participate

Walker: “Where are we going to grow?”

One place where the urbanist perspective on growth and development and the anti-density perspective collide, at least superficially, is that both sides claim to want more widespread participation in the process of deciding how to build Seattle for the next 20 or 50 years.  Urbanists talk about the need to provide more information to people who aren’t already engaged, and may not have a ton of flexibility during the day, to help them engage in discussions that tend to be dominated by homeowners and retirees. Density opponents say they’d love to hear what renters and other citizens who aren’t in the typical neighborhood-council demographic have to say, but that those folks  just don’t show up to meetings. Both sides appear to agree that more participation by everyone leads to better outcomes.

Where this surface-level unanimity breaks down, however, is in practice. While casual urbanists and renters with an interest in improving the city (and keeping rents under control) appear to genuinely want an invitation to the table, no one already at the table extends a hand, and meetings dominated by people who make mean-spirited generalizations about renters (or single people, or newcomers, or lower-income groups) as a class can be pretty alienating for members of those groups who do show up. Meanwhile, daytime meetings at City Hall are tailored for those with a lot of time on their hands (like retirees) and financial motivation to show up (like homeowners who want to protect their property values), not those with hourly jobs or those who just want the city to be a welcoming place to the next newcomer but don’t have time for endless subcommittee meetings. I spent a few hours this Saturday at a 9am meeting of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, held at the Central Area Senior Center (now apparently rebranded as “The Central”), where Seattle Office of Housing Director Steve Walker faced off against a roomful homeowners (if there were renters, none identified themselves that way) who responded to  Walker’s brief presentation about what changes the Housing Affordability and Livability Committee had proposed to mitigate displacement, provide affordable housing, and preserve existing single-family neighborhoods with a barrage of mostly-rhetorical questions.

“[The] affordable housing levy that we have passed four times, that remains the darling of the country, that has built over 12,000 units of rent- and income-restricted housing that will remain that way for the next 50 years—that is the foundation” of the city’s affordable housing strategy, Walker said. “It’s the cornerstone to our city’s affordable housing strategy, and what is being proposed [in HALA] is to double down on that strategy.”

Earlier this month, Mayor Ed Murray said he would no longer pursue land-use changes in the 65 percent of Seattle’s land mass zoned exclusively for detached single-family homes off the table in response to blowback from angry homeowners and the Seattle Times, who argued that allowing duplexes and townhouses in some single-family areas would destroy the “character” of Seattle’s historic neighborhoods. (Last week, Murray indicated to me that that decision might not be final.)

If the point of taking single-family off the table was to appease angry neighbors and keep them from fighting other elements of the deal, it hasn’t worked so far. At various times during Saturday’s open-ended meeting, participants likened new residents to a “cancer” on the city (seriously, can we retire this metaphor?), suggested that Seattle could stop growth by making the city less appealing to developers and businesses, and decried the HALA committee as a secretive, closed-door cabal of developers who would have never been able to get away with proposing changes to single-family areas if all their negotiations had been public.

And, of course, there were the requisite murmurs about how everything had been downhill since former mayor Nickels fired former neighborhoods department director Jim Diers … nearly 15 years ago. “We need to talk things through in an open format, not like the secret HALA [process], Beacon Hill resident Roger Pence said. “There’s this myth out there among the urbanist generation that the neighbors are all NIMBYs and we don’t want to see anything built. That was certainly not true in the 1990s. ” Walker noted that the HALA committee included 28 people, plus many others on its advisory subcommittees, and that members were not prohibited from talking to the public or discussing the negotiations with the groups they represented. However, he said, the HALA committee—like a similar committee that came up with the widely praised $15 minimum wage compromise—needed some level of privacy just to build trust. “We had closed meetings because we wanted to generate, within that committee of 28 people with very different views on what makes sense on variety of issues, a  very engaged conversation that was not influenced by the media and was not influenced by politics,” Walker said. “And they, over time, had to develop a sense of trust to just begin to have some of these conversations. It wasn’t intended to be secret. It was intended to generate the kind of intense discussion we had, and a lot of those conversations were intense because the lot of those parties disagreed.”

Little boxes on the hillside.
Little boxes on the hillside.

Walker (along with new neighborhoods department director Kathy Nyland, who joined him for a few minutes in the dunk tank) repeatedly ran up against a fundamental difference of worldview between the city and its discontents. For example, when one man asked Walker a rambling “question” that included quotes from The Monkey Wrench Gang and Cadillac Desert, accused him of being manipulated by a shadowy group of Oz-style developers hiding “in the wings behind the green curtain,” and concluded, “Why are we going lot line to lot line, with no trees, no flowers, no grass, and why do I get the idea that it’s really developers who … on the subcommittees, because none of the neighbors I know were ever invited to serve on those committees?” Walker basically just sighed. “Where are we going to grow?” he asked. “Because people are coming.” “So you’re assuming growth?” the speaker responded. “I’m not assuming; it’s happening.” “My hope is that growth will go to other cities and other states.” Walker left shortly after that particularly discouraging exchange, but the meeting didn’t end there. For another hour and a half or so (I left at noon), residents vented about growth, the planning process, and the “dismay[ing]  “conditions that [some renters] live in.” (The speaker who made that comment claimed he had Realtors knocking on his door and sending him flyers several times a week to try to buy his old house out from under him.) Finally, one resident, Beacon HIll neighborhood activist Melissa Jonas, pointed out one reason urbanists, renters, and other groups that are typically shut out of traditional neighborhood groups might feel unwelcome in echo chambers like this one. “Outreach is not just outreach to people you agree with,” Jonas said. I think neighborhood groups sometimes believe we know best, and we don’t invite people [who disagree]. There’s a sense of, I’ve lived in X neighborhood for X long [so I have a right to speak]. Someone who just moved there has the same right to participate in that conversation, whether they’re a renter or homeowner, driver or nondriver, parent or nonparent—we all have a right to have a voice.”

Leschi Community Council member John Barber scoffed at the notion that neighborhood groups don’t welcome everyone. “I don’t know who these exclusive neighborhood groups are—our neighborhood is dying for people to come to our meetings,” Barber said. “We have a monthly newsletter that is distributed at libraries, grocery stores, by mail, and in many public places. We really want people at our meetings.” The comment reminded me a bit of companies that say, “We’re dying to hire more women and minorities, but they just don’t apply!” If you don’t make an affirmative effort to include those traditionally excluded groups (starting by adjusting the tone of your comments about the poor people and renters you claim you want to see at your meetings), your lament is going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps that fact is best illustrated by another comment the “growth is cancer” guy made after Walker and Nyland left.

“The city council has this idea that we’re all rich. I can tell you right now that [my wife] and I could no more afford our single-family house in Wedgwood [today] than a man on the moon,” the speaker said.

“They have this idea that growth is acceptable and we have to accept it, but we don’t have to accept it on growth’s terms. Because growth is like cancer and it kills cells and growth will kill us,” he continued. Once developers cash in and leave for Santa Fe or Arizona, he said, “we’ll be living with the high-rises and the dumps and all the developments that are built lot line to lot line. … There’s a minority, like those of us in this room, who will participate because we care.”

The implication was that that renters and urbanists and poor people and newcomers and minorities don’t care, because only white single-family homeowners with many years of financial investment in Seattle make the effort to show up at neighborhood council meetings on Saturday mornings. If all those other people cared, they’d be at the Central Area Senior Center. The fact that they weren’t there is proof that they don’t.

Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to prove them wrong.

30 thoughts on ““High-Rises and Dumps,” “No Flowers, No Trees,” and Other Reasons Urbanists Don’t Participate”

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  2. I live in Madrona and pick up the Leschi newsletter on a regular basis at the Grocery Outlet.

    I know the writers mean well. and the neighborhood groups do good work. But the tone and content is 99% White, middle-class, Subaru/Volvo Moms of a Certain Age.

  3. I have been to 5 Seattle Neighborhood Coalition meetings. 3 out of 5 times I was shouted down and the panelists were told they did not have to answer my questions. Last time I was approached by 4 elderly gentlemen and told that bringing my children was inappropriate. My son was too loud when he asked to go pee. I guess I should have left my children home alone or put an adult diaper on them and let them piss themselves like all the other geriatrics in the room. Every one of these meetings in the last 3 years that I have gone to has been so unwelcoming to me and my questions and thoughts that I fear for my safety when I go to them. Thanks but no thanks I would rather go to the dentist and send in my comments privately instead.

    1. As a regular SNC attendee for many years and a current boardmember, I’m saddened by your comments. I have to discount them somewhat, however, because you have chosen to hide behind the cloak of anonymity. What you describe does not coincide with anything I recall at any SNC meeting I’ve attended.

      1. The SNC is an unelected, virtually powerless group of old neighborhood activists who meet once a month to ruminate over coffee about how Seattle was better back in the day. They probably would like you to leave your kids at home (as do your kids), but the claim that you’re “afraid for your safety” is pretty funny stuff.

      2. OF COURSE people who fear for their safety should post their identities, otherwise you won’t find them credible Mr. Older White Male.

  4. The emotional mean spiritedness of the “urbanist” camp that is driving the discussion is the biggest impediment to any sort of consensus.

    1. The fear of us expressing emotions and not acknowledging our different backgrounds is the biggest impediment to any progress. Only Athenian democracy insisted on near absolute consensus and that was not all the time. Those of us who do not fit the demography of the Athenian democracy still are made unwelcome to these talks.

  5. YIMBYballardite: Did you attend the meeting? Have you attended any of these meetings? No one was shouted down. It was all very polite and civil; only the Mayor was uncomfortable because he obviously wasn’t expecting the large turn out and tough questions and left very early. Yes, you could feel the potential for violence from the seniors assembled in one corner of the room, but the situation remained calm and hardly anyone was intimidated. Really, be brave and try talking to people who disagree with you sometime. You might in for a pleasant surprise.

    1. The public schools don’t teach Civics any more. Few people learn how to be an involved and engaged citizen in a democracy. It doesn’t just come automatically. It does involve meeting with other people and speaking with them. I remember the old Norman Rockwell illustration of a working man standing up in a town hall meeting and speaking out. I hope YIMBYballard gives it a try sometime.

      1. The Freedom of Speech painting is what these meetings are like. As the people standing up in a town hall meeting and speaking out look like you, speak like you, work with you, and agree with you, you give them respect. If we do not have the right anatomy, the same opinions, the same age range, the same class, and the same jobs, you tell us why we are not thinking striaght and push us away. You have a long ways to go to make a safe place for people to be involved and engaged in citizen democracy. Attacking us and setting us up with strawmen as we do not agree with you makes us stay away from youur ilk.

  6. An thus my point is proved. These forums are self-selecting, and really leave no room for honest dialogue. Those who do disagree don’t feel that their opinions are welcome. It’s tiring, so I’ll find other ways to make my voice heard.

    I’m not shocked that there would be younger folks at that event, but their mere presence does not indicate that they were there in opposition of a progressive agenda. The loudest voice in one room does not make for a majority.

    My point about the senior center was not that it was terrible to be around seniors, merely that it already frames the intended audience before the meeting is even called: an elementary school would set a similar frame in the other direction.

  7. Urbanists might get further with their agenda if they would stop stereotyping people with different opinions. You’re getting tiresome, and trite.

  8. YIMBYballardite: If you had bothered to attend the Greenwood meeting, you would have observed quite a few Millennial parents with young children there. And you would *not* have seen a lot of support for the urbanist agenda from this crowd. Nope, shocking as it might seem, there are plenty of Millenials who disagree with you and, unlike you, are willing to expend the minimal effort required to turn out at a Saturday afternoon meeting. Even if they had to be around … shudder … some old people at a Senior Center.

  9. Nailed it. Who has time for a 2pm Tuesday or a 9am Saturday meeting – at a Senior Center?

    Not this Urbanist-minded, 9-to-5-working individual with a young family. The same goes for the pitchfork-and-torches homeless camp “meetings.” I’m not able to drop everything on a weeknight and attend this kind of meeting to show support and I’m not going to change any of these people’s minds by attending.

    IMO this is also a generational issue in Seattle. If you want to be crystal clear about how the generational divide is a factor just look at a photo from one of these meetings. Those who fear change and density have a familliar way of sucking up all the oxygen in the debate and drowning-out anyone with dissenting opinions — a classic Baby Boomer move if this Millennial ever saw one. I don’t think we Millennials find this kind of “open” forum to be worth our time because we’ve been watching the Boomers pull this stunts our whole lives.

    Send me an online survey, a grassroots organization or an email form and I’m your guy.

    As for Mr. Roger’s point: I think the primary results, which already skew more conservative and older, show clearly that those making the biggest fuss aren’t necessarily the ones speaking for Seattle in general. NIMBY candidates focused on coded “neighborhood” issues lost pretty clearly. There’s a greater likelihood that Fred would be sorely disappointed by the results of such a vote.

    1. hahaha yes. There is clearly “minimal effort required” to attend a 2pm meeting on a Saturday. There is about a similar effort to say, going to temple. There is far more effort required to raise children, and much more things to be doing on a Saturday such as: going to the parks and enjoying the other parts of the city we’ve been advocating for since before we had kids, instead of sitting in boring meetings. The assumption that people don’t care because they aren’t at *your* meeting, let alone meetings in general, is pretty ridiculous. There are some Psych 101 things going on with anyone who thinks that they represent us based on some arbitrary designation. The onus should be on these groups to demonstrate their value to me over simply taking 10 minutes to email my councilmember’s LA.

  10. Very similar dynamic where I live, in Austin, Texas. My neighborhood is going through the growing pains of densification, and the split between the pro- and anti-change factions is stark. It’s roiling our neighborhood association, online forums, etc. Unlike in other places, it’s not a case of singles versus families: here it’s (mostly younger) families who would like more urbanism (more MF housing, more stores, better transit service, bike lanes) versus (mostly older, often empty nester) families who want things to remain as they are (single-family housing only, everyone driving everywhere rather than walking).

    One thing that is very revealing: right now, there is a battle royale within my neighborhood association to allow online voting. The argument is that people (like me) who have young children can’t easily show up to nighttime meetings to vote in person. It seems sort of amazing to me in a self-professed left-leaning neighborhood in a self-professed left-leaning city, but the opposition to online voting is vociferous.

  11. If the reason for the low urbanist turnout at these events is the inability of (presumably young — kind of ageist, no?) urbanists to turn out during working hours, how do you explain the fact that when Ed Murray appeared at the Greenwood senior center a couple of weeks ago on a Saturday there was nary an urbanist to be found among the 100 or so people who turned out? Have you considered the other possibility: that there’s not a lot of support for the urbanist agenda in the community? Probably not.

    Personally, I would love to see a vote on the proposal, but it will never happen because the leadership in Seattle is afraid of the outcome.

    1. I think the answer may be more prosaic. I think for many people – particularly those who grew up elsewhere – the entire concept that “duplexes damage neighborhoods” (a quote from a Jean Godden email) or that row houses (one of the most popular and enduring forms of housing) ought to be prohibited outside of urban villages is so shocking an out of left field to us that we hadn’t imagined we would need to go to meetings to argue in favor of something we couldn’t imagine anyone would object to.

      1. the entire concept that “duplexes damage neighborhoods” (a quote from a Jean Godden email) or that row houses (one of the most popular and enduring forms of housing) ought to be prohibited outside of urban villages is so shocking an out of left field to us that we hadn’t imagined we would need to go to meetings to argue in favor of something we couldn’t imagine anyone would object to.

        I spent some time discussing HALA with some people who don’t follow local politics at all, and this was the general response–they had no idea duplex construction was illegal, and didn’t understand why people would care one way or the other about a duplex across the street.

      2. Well, duplex construction is not illegal in Seattle. We have lots of lowrise zoning where it’s perfectly OK to build duplexes.

      3. Oh, FFS. You know what I mean. I tend to find that people not previously enconsced in these debates find the ban on duplexes *in the vast majority of the city*, including in neighborhoods with significant numbers of older duplexes that don’t seem to be holding back property values of causing any demonstrable harm, to be very strange indeed. It’s only within the anti-housing, anti-newcomer disguised as anti-developer movement where this has any traction.

      4. The HALA proposal would also have allowed triplexes and stacked flats up to 30′ high. That’s a lot different than the idea many people in Seattle have of a duplex as a converted old home with two households living on two separate floors that fits in with the character of the neighborhood.

  12. Another great article, Erica. I would love to go to (boring) meetings like this, but I didn’t even know it existed! Maybe a good addition to your blog would be a calendar of important events that we can show up and testify in.

    As you said, I’m not available at 2:30 on a Monday because I’m not retired, but the weekend events like the one you cover I would def show up at.

  13. Unfortunately, the whole situation has been framed in an ‘either/or’ question. Either you have ‘lotline-to-lotline, cookie cutter homes’ or single fmaily homes, covering no more than 35% of the lot and the lot must be 5,000 sq ft. That is simply not the case. You can have growth and yet keep the character of the nieghborhood.

    The four pack of small houses where once a single family home stood is not the best use of the 5,000 sq ft lot. Imagine if we had changed the law to allow three houses, with one-quarter of the lot with significant landscape (either leave an existing large tree or plant a large-tree-to-be’ or even a copse of small trees? This would increase density three-fold, retain tree coverage and break ou the monotony of ‘little houses all in a row’.

    A detached ancillary dwelling unit (DADU) or backyard cottage is one thing; a three story, 2,00 sq ft tower plunked in the middle of a backyard of a 750sq ft house is quite another. A law limiting the height and square footage of the ‘cottage’ to less than the ‘mother house’ might be appropriate and yet allow both ‘growth’ and ‘density’. (Not to mention true affordability.)

    With the knowledge that this final point is very close to ‘beating a dead horse’; why not encourage the buildng of apartments over open parking lots? Unless you feel that an acre of parking lot adds to your neightborhood’s ambiance, could we not build tens of thousands of affordable rental units over parking lots? Safeway has used the airspace above three of their parking lots (Alaska Junction, 22 and Madison and another that escapes me for now). That leaves 15 other parking lots available for apartments. With at least one acre each, and 30-40 units per floor, per acre, that is a lot of housing. Then there are the public parking lots like the Veterans’ Hospital (ten acres) North Seattle Community College (13 acres) and the University of Washington Husky Stadium south lot (10 acrs of the most desirable land in Seattle–on the shore, next to the light rail and within walking distance of the hospital).

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