Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model

By Josh Feit

Judging by the sheer number of permits the city has issued in the past five months allowing businesses to turn sidewalks, parking spots, and city streets themselves into places for people to hang out, there’s an unforeseen consequence of the pandemic: A citywide Seattle neighborhood renaissance.

Under a temporary program called “Safe Starts,” SDOT has issued 135 such permits since the COVID-19 crisis hit, with 73 more local business requests for permits in the queue. (The numbers, based on data through September, are actually much higher because the West Seattle Junction Business Improvement Association got an unprecedented single permit allowing all 230 shops and restaurants in the district to set up a single table and chair outside their storefronts).

Seattle’s neighborhood businesses are using all these permit options (they’re free) to turn neighborhoods outside the downtown core into people-centric hot spots. Just grab a table in the middle of the street on 9th Avenue N. between Thomas and John Streets in South Lake Union, and you’ll quickly get a sense of the new block-party atmosphere that’s helped redefine the city in recent months.

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Neighborhoods aren’t merely dedicating more public space for eating and drinking. The elevated energy is also being formalized on neighborhood side streets. As part of another SDOT program called “Stay Healthy Streets,” 13 stretches of neighborhood streets, totaling more than 20 miles, have sidelined cars in favor of people. Instead of reading “Street Closed,” SDOT signs barring cars could just as logically read “Street Open.”

The takeaway for city policy makers should be clear. While inveterate single-family-zoning advocates continue to decry urbanization in any form (in order to preserve neighborhood character, they say), Seattle’s neighborhoods are not as fragile as the naysayers have claimed. On the contrary, the uptick in neighborhood action seems to have amplified, rather than destroyed, neighborhood character.

Hilariously, one business that has chosen to convert sacred parking space into café seating, Café Javasti, was an adamant parking space patriot during Wedgwood’s retrograde fight against a protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE.

“I don’t understand why we’d ever go back.” — West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift

From “outdoor cafés to outdoor retail racks,” West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift said, the neighborhood has a “new cadence” and a “more European feel.”

She says she’ll be advocating to keep the permits in play through “at least 2021,” adding that she’d like the programs to stay in place longer than that. “I don’t understand why we’d ever go back,” she said, noting that her enthusiasm is “underscored by requests from the community… to continue to this new Seattle. We’ve gotten so many emails.”

This year has certainly forced Seattle’s neighborhoods to take on more flexible identities, accommodating exciting changes that may last beyond the pandemic. For example, the activated local business districts are no doubt related to the presence of more daytime workers. Have you noticed that you’re in the nearest convenience store a lot more? Well, consider: Even before the pandemic, the trend toward telecommuting was already underway; According to Commute Seattle, working from home grew 207% between 2010 and 2019.*

A function of changing times, these permits are a slippery slope! What’s next, adjusting single family zones—currently 75 percent of the city—to accept more density? What is this, Manhattan?!?

The city council did lightly alter single family neighborhoods in 2018, passing Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation that instituted upzones at the edges of single-family zones. The changes, which channel development dollars into city affordable housing funds, are intended to generate more multifamily triplexes and duplexes; what pro-housing advocates call the “Missing Middle.”

Let’s be honest, though, those changes only affected 6 percent of single-family zones; the Missing Middle housing is going to remain missing unless we get serious about the commitment to more housing

As we’ve begun experimenting and re-imagining our neighborhoods during COVID-19, one thing has become clear: Seattle’s neo-suburban model, where neighborhoods are enclaves from city life, rather than engaged in city life, is up for a change. Let’s embrace it.

There’s an immediate challenge to the new Seattle, though: The weather. I was out on a cold and misty Saturday evening earlier this month enjoying a plate of fries and an Irish Coffee on Capitol Hill’s packed 11th Avenue street dining drag (tables and umbrellas, wooden fencing, and no cars allowed). I asked a business owner if they expected commerce to fall off as the chilly season picked up. They said heat lamps would keep the scene alive, but loading up on the lamps might be prohibitively pricey.

A thought: Just as the city has with free street use permits, Seattle should partner with neighborhood business groups and go all in on subsidizing heat lamps.

Not only will the investment eventually pay for itself by keeping businesses (and business tax revenue) alive, it will be an investment in the reconception of Seattle that’s taking place right before our eyes.

*Working from home is certainly more of a trend for high income, white workers than it is for people of color and essential workers, but it’s the predominately higher-income neighborhoods that need to undergo zoning changes to create more missing middle housing.

3 thoughts on “Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model”

  1. Yeah what Seattle needs right now is some smug urbanists finger wagging “told you so” while conveniently forgetting nobody rides a bus any more for health reasons, and a year ago a better use of that parking space was a bike lane. Of *course* priorities change when the world changes. But I do love my neighborhood and at the end of the day put more stock into what my local businesses say they need over what journalists several neighborhoods (towns?) over think they need. Love my neighborhood so much <3!

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