Maybe Metropolis: A Tale of Two Densities

TOD in Alexandria, Virginia. Image by m01229; licensed under Creative Commons

by Josh Feit

Urbanists, YIMBYs, and transit advocates are understandably excited about the pro-housing legislation that state senate transportation committee chair Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds) has proposed this year.

Liias’ legislation would accelerate transit-oriented development—a guiding principle of progressive city planning. TOD helps create sustainable cities by siting housing, retail, and community assets like schools, childcare, green space, and artist spaces around transit hubs. Basically, the idea is: Dense, climate-friendly, urban paradigms become the best routes to equity and opportunity when life’s fundamentals are accessible without a car.

Liias’ bill, SB 5466, would encourage new growth around transit hubs by allowing mid-sized apartment buildings within three-quarters of a mile of rapid transit stops (including bus rapid transit and frequent bus service), and larger buildings within a quarter-mile of light rail stations. The pro-housing intellectuals at Sightline gushed that the legislation “would be a first for Washington, and the strongest statewide policy of its kind in North America.” Urbanists have been pushing for legislation like this since 2009, when a rookie news site called PubliCola editorialized in favor of a bill that would up-zone areas around transit stations while old-fashioned Seattle—and the Seattle Times— predictably and successfully shot it down.

Unfortunately, Liias’ exciting legislation may end up sabotaging an adjacent pro-housing bill. 

Almost 15 years on now, with a broad coalition of pro-housing advocates supporting up-zones for transit-oriented development, the chances for Liias’ bill to pass seem good. Unfortunately, Liias’ exciting legislation may end up sabotaging an adjacent pro-housing bill that we’re even more excited about this year: Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) HB 1110.

Bateman’s “middle housing” bill, which I covered last month, would allow fourplexes in residential areas of cities across the state anywhere detached single-family homes are allowed. Erica cannot stand the term “middle housing” (middle of what?), but essentially it means this: Let’s stop forgoing vast amounts of land—75 percent of the residentially zoned land in Seattle—where apartment buildings, triplexes, fourplexes, and sixplexes are currently prohibited. Bateman’s bill would allow all of these housing types, and sixplexes too within a half-mile of transit, if two of the six units are affordable.

Efforts to add multiplex and apartment housing to low-density residential zones routinely bite the dust in Seattle, where NIMBY liberals pay lip service to pro-housing efforts by deferring to Seattle’s outdated, status quo zoning, which sequesters density into designated urban villages centered on large arterial roads. This “urban-village” strategy allows advocates who oppose density in their own residential neighborhoods to pose as urbanists by supporting something they used to oppose: TOD. We’re with you, they say—of course we need housing!—but let’s not change our residential neighborhoods. Instead, let’s sequester all that multifamily housing near busy streets.

Opportunistically seizing on TOD and refashioning it as a bulwark against more density in residential neighborhoods misconstrues the whole point: TOD is meant to build multiple city centers that create a network of spoke and wheel systems citywide, not build islands of sustainability in otherwise unsustainable cities. Let’s be clear: transit nodes only make sense when they function in sync with the surrounding city infrastructure of connector bus lines and abundant housing. More to the point: Connector bus routes are not sustainable without the appropriate density in surrounding neighborhoods.

You can’t put hyper-dense transit hubs flush up against low-density neighborhoods and expect it to generate sustainability in isolation.

Keeping this broader idea of transit oriented communities front and center, pro-housing advocates should insist that Liias’ and Bateman’s bills exist as a package deal. That is: If NIMBYs start using Liias’ bill as cover to dismiss Bateman’s bill, urbanists should pull their support from Liias’ bill. And Liias should too.

“We are investing billions into new transit service,” Liias told me, “and we need to make those work. If we don’t add housing and jobs around transit, we aren’t delivering maximum value for tax payers.”

True. But we aren’t maximizing TOD if we don’t honor its internal logic. You can’t put hyper-dense transit hubs flush up against low-density neighborhoods and expect it to generate sustainability in isolation. Unfortunately, as PubliCola reported earlier this week, Liias seems to be promoting his bill by playing it against Bateman’s. Bad look. He has a chance to call the NIMBYs’ bluff by taking advantage of the consensus on TOD while supporting its corollary: Nearby neighborhoods need to scale up proportionally themselves by adding apartments.

Just as urbanized transit nodes and adjacent residential neighborhoods can work in sync to build the kind of interlocked communities cities need to achieve equity, Liias and Bateman should work in sync to neutralize opponents of new housing options. By identifying different types of increased density, their complementary bills map out gradations of development from tall buildings around light rail stations, to apartment buildings around busy bus stops, to sixplexes nearby, to fourplexes even further out.

By leveraging the universal agreement that dense transit centers are the building blocks of sustainable cities, the Liias and Bateman bills should work in tandem to plug residential neighborhoods into those transit centers.  In this tale of two densities, we have a chance to up-zone TOD into EOD—Equity-Oriented Development. It’ll be a shame if housing advocates settle for anything less.

6 thoughts on “Maybe Metropolis: A Tale of Two Densities”

  1. The Urban Village strategy is another phrase for Transit Oriented Development. It was adopted by Seattle in 1995 and has been copied around the world. It defines an Urban Village as a node with two or more lines of frequent (15-minute) bus transit. The City committed to site investments such as libraries and community centers at these nodes with good accessibility. (Note: No new schools are being sited.) Low-income housing funders require access to frequent transit. Three-quarters of the City’s growth since then has gone to these 29 or so Urban Villages. This density at the nodes has allowed more and better transit. It seems you are straining to make a distinction without a difference.

  2. >But we aren’t maximizing TOD if we don’t honor its internal logic. You can’t put hyper-dense transit hubs flush up against low-density neighborhoods and expect it to generate sustainability in isolation.

    You can’t? Vancouver, Canada, which is has a much higher transit usage than Seattle does this. We’ve done this in Seattle in neighborhoods like Roosevelt and U District. In fact you could make the argument that the only times we’ve been successful in pushing through vast amounts of housing have been in these situations with a stark difference in density.

    California has tried year after year to push missing middle reform across the state, and they’ve actually managed to pass some stuff! However you hardly hear about it because these missing middle bills than generated massive controversy ended up producing single digit units. Meanwhile the TOD bills are actually making a difference in the number of units built in California.

    I’m not enough of an expert to say how close Bateman’s bill is to California’s or Oregon’s missing middle bills, and would love to know how they differ. But in the meantime if I *am* going to pick one I would pick the TOD one. It’s simply more realistic to shove more development near transit stops than it is to rip out SFH zones.

    Hopefully this is not an *or* situation and instead an *and* situation, and that the reasons these failed in previous years was because of bad actors like Pollet and not that these bills were genuinely unpopular among state legislators.

  3. I’ve never seen so beautifully the left/right stalemate accidentally defined by someone with utterly no self-awareness.

    There are two bills proposed. In the Panglossian universe both will pass, and everyone will dance with rainbows and unicorns. And unless we have that result nothing should pass!

    Here’s a clue, shoot for the full loaf but be happy with half. Instead, here we lhave the lefty side of the stalemate that results in no change whatsoever.

    1. There’s little awareness of your own attitude expressed in your claim. Feit says “If NIMBYs start using Liias’ bill as cover to dismiss Bateman’s bill, urbanists should pull their support from Liias’ bill. And Liias should too.” Do you notice the “If” in that sentence? In no way does he say that 1) it is expected that both bills will pass, or 2) if it looks like the Bateman bill won’t pass, the Liias bill shouldn’t pass either. The point is that if Liias truly intends for his bill to be helpful increasing both housing per se, and also housing equity, he should strongly discourage his bill being used to actually oppose more housing. Bill originators and supports are responsible for emphasizinbg the good their bills will do, and not allow them to be used as an excuse to actually prevent that good.

      1. I think it’s all hogwash. Zoning has always been locally controlled and I don’t see that changing. Even if the State legislature wipes out R-1 zoning, local governments still control permitting and impact fees. Local neighborhood NIMBYs are going anywhere and it will be financially impossible to build a trip-plex in Bellevue. Surprise, Surprise!

        I’ve fallowed Washington State politics for 35 years, the dance mostly goes something like this…. there’s a problem and Liberals come up with a solution…..the State and Local governments pay lip service to the solution, but never come up with realistic funding….. every local government looks for somebody else to fix the problem. These housing bills will be no exception.

        Here’s another example…. The State is looking at bonding 4 billion dollars for affordable housing (Good). Nonprofits in greater Seattle have been building low income housing at $400-500k per unit (Bad). So that ballyhoo’ed 4 billion the Governor is crowing about? Maybe 8 thousand new units of housing…. Statewide. All it does it give current law makers something to hide behind.

      2. Sigh. So basically, unless everyone supporting one charges out and supports the other one, and the sponsor hectors everyone to support both while hopping on one foot and singing “Baby got back” or whatever hoops are demanded then all urbanists must petulantly take their marbles and go home? Regardless of the existence of the word “if”, you’re making a distinction without a difference. The fact is some folks will use one against the other, likely both ways in a cynical manner. Also, people will lie about the content of both, and will also intentionally try to link the two to kill both. Welcome to politics.

        Cluetrain: One is far more palatable for the majority than the other, and it’s likely that only that one will pass. If that causes a petulant tantrum, then nothing will pass. Yay, I guess. I think there a saying about cutting off noses on that.

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