Maybe Metropolis: The Vibe of the City is the ’90s

Aerial photo of Wallingford in 1969
Image via Seattle Municipal Archives; Creative Commons 2.0 license

by Josh Feit

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s State of the City speech should have urbanists worried. Listening to his address last week made it clear the mayor wants to counter the recent emergence of a new generation of urbanists. This new pro-housing movement, defined by an unprecedented alliance between social justice activists, developers, environmentalists, labor advocates, and transit nerds, has chalked up a series of policy wins in recent years. And judging by Harrell’s speech, he’s trying to stall their momentum.

That might seem like a strange thing to say after Harrell, previewing his “Downtown Activation Plan,” used the speech to paint this colorful urbanist picture: “It may mean a linear arts-entertainment-culture district that connects downtown with multiple neighborhoods or identifying a 24/7 street, a stretch of several blocks where you can find a restaurant, bar, grocery, or your favorite clothing boutique at any hour of the day.”

I’ll be the first to argue that shops close too early in Seattle (especially its pizza places) and that a thrumming nightlife is at the top of any credible urbanist agenda. But Harrell’s limited, “stretch-of-several-blocks” urbanism represents the reverse of what the new movement has been pressing for. Today’s urbanists want to move away from using the downtown core (and a few scattered urban hubs) as an offset for our city’s otherwise suburban and unsustainable land use patterns. Unfortunately, by looking backward to the old downtown-centric model of city building, Harrell is giving cover to single family preservationists who benefit financially when the city limits opportunities for increased density, amenities, and housing citywide.

Erica hilariously titled her report on Harrell’s state of the city speech “The State of the City is Vibes.”   Credit where credit is due, ECB—it’s a headline for the ages. But I’d like to amend it. It seems to me that under Harrell’s vision, the state of the city is: The ‘90s. Specifically, 1995.

Here’s what I mean: The idea that a city’s cultural electricity (and its housing, but more on that in a second) should be focused in the center city is a remnant of Seattle’s 1995 comprehensive plan. That shortsighted plan stuck us with the land use model we have today—one that relegates mixed-use, urban spaces to downtown and tiny slivers of the city along busy, wide arterial streets.

That 1995 model is the root cause of our current gentrification spiral and affordable housing crisis. It puts a crunch on supply by prohibiting apartments, condos, and storefronts almost everywhere. With the neighborhood planning process coming up again next year, Harrell’s retro impulse to focus on downtown put urbanists on notice that efforts to add affordable housing beyond the downtown core or a few scattered urban hubs is anathema to his vision. His speech led with a big pitch about the significance of downtown while failing to acknowledge any other Seattle neighborhood—nor the controversial, classist residential zoning rules that prevail across most of the city.

Unfortunately, by looking backward to the old downtown-centric model of city building, Harrell is giving cover to single family preservationists who benefit financially when the city limits opportunities for increased density, amenities, and housing citywide.

A newly ascendant YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) movement set on reforming this neighborhood inequity has been gaining political momentum in recent years; they won a slight upzone in Seattle’s supposedly inviolable single-family zones in 2019 and, later that same year, removed steep barriers to building accessory dwelling units in residential zones. They’ve also sparked a once unheard-of social justice/development alliance in Olympia that’s currently pushing for statewide upzones. Most notably, they’ve been turning out at city hall and neighborhood meetings in organized numbers that rival the once-dominant NIMBYs.

In what seemed like an effort to curb this urbanist momentum and hijack YIMBY talking points, Harrell talked about downtown the way pro-housing urbanists have been talking about the city as a whole. Seizing on office vacancies as an opportunity to address the housing shortage, Harrell promoted “bold action” downtown which “may mean changing our zoning codes to convert excess unused office space into housing. We need more housing options,” he said. “Let’s make downtown affordable for everyone who wants to live there.”

I’m all for converting excess, unused office space into housing, but a plurality of Seattle’s affordable housing, 35 percent, is already located downtown. Putting more housing there hardly constitutes “bold action.” It would actually be bold to challenge the status quo and change the zoning that needs to change: the exclusive rules in Seattle’s leafy, outlying neighborhoods where multifamily apartments, including low-density fourplexes and sixplexes, are prohibited. As for allowing greater flexibility, that too is needed in the outlying neighborhoods; we need to allow more commercial uses in our residential-only zones.  If the pandemic has taught us anything about urban life, it’s that amenities traditionally reserved for “urban” zones actually fit right into “neighborhood character” elsewhere in the city.

In his state of the city speech Harrell tied his urban hopes solely, and precariously, to downtown.

The mayor’s emphasis on downtown undermines the renaissance afoot in Seattle’s neighborhoods, where urban energy like expanded outdoor seating at local cafes and more pedestrian-oriented streets are becoming the norm. That energy is on the verge of moving Seattle away from its 30-year-old planning model that has stifled economic diversity in our neighborhoods. While density was once the third rail of politics, it was notable in 2021’s election cycle not only that moderators at every candidate forum included a question about citywide upzones, but that nearly every candidate signaled support. Harrell said there is already enough “zoning capacity” in the city to house everyone who needs housing—another vintage ’90s argument that ignores the exclusionary reality on the ground.

In his speech last week, Harrell tied his urban hopes solely, and precariously, to downtown: “I am very pleased that employers like Amazon recognize coming back to work downtown is a great thing,” he said. The very next day the Washington Post hit with the reality check that employees themselves weren’t interested. And that same day, the Puget Sound Business Journal reported a 30 percent drop in demand for Seattle office space since January 2022, running a story about downtown occupancy that featured this alarming quote from a recent report on downtown commercial real estate: “There will be no great return. Seattle’s lights will not just turn back on again. We thought this in 2020 and we were wrong. Too much time has passed.”

Downtown is an important part of the city, but two emergent trends—the recent activation of Seattle’s other neighborhoods and the need to reimagine our downtown for a future with fewer office workers—suggest we need a more  imaginative, beyond-downtown vision as opposed to the 1995 model that tries to sequester density and city life. As the affordable housing crisis persists, it’s disappointing that Mayor Harrell’s only reference to zoning changes in his speech was about creating more housing downtown (where zoning already allows residential housing, by the way). Simultaneously and sadly, he remained silent on the 75 percent of the city where multiplex housing remains illegal.

30 thoughts on “Maybe Metropolis: The Vibe of the City is the ’90s”

  1. If anyone is wondering why most sane people consider urbanists to be about the most insufferable smug out-of-touch with reality privileged knobs on the face of the planet, I give you this article.

    Well played, Feit!

  2. It’s fun when the masks come off. The bottom line, TL:DR of this article is…
    “Sure, downtown is hollowing out in a secular shift about office vs remote work, providing a huge opportunity to massively increase housing near existing transit and amenities. But that won’t screw over the smug middle class in their homes! Now take yer medicine you annoying middle class strivers.”

    And no, changing density won’t change jack in wealthy lake/soundview hoods where the math won’t work for knock down rebuild, and where informal agreements will block as well, so lets not clown about “the rich”.

  3. Josh Feit, in Publicola you wrote:
    “Simultaneously and sadly, he [Mayor Harrell] remained silent on the 75 percent of the city where multiplex housing remains illegal.”

    I know you know this is wrong, so why did you repeat it? The correct statistic is that in some 75% of the city *that is zoned residential* multiplex housing remains illegal. Since the capacity of multifamily zones is many times larger, the comparison is meaningless.

    I would suggest that you add that according to the July 2021 King County Urban Growth Capacity study, Seattle has sufficient zoning to meet all its housing needs for the next 20 years.

    1. I think Feit moved to Seattle from NYC – someone might want to tell him that all of the boroughs that aren’t Manhattan have a fuckton of single family housing, too.

  4. May I suggest you take a drive (or walk or bike or bus) around and pay attention to how SF homes look with a 4-pack or 6 pack of 2 or 3 story boxes next to them? Sun and views blocked, no places to park on the street, buildings right up to the lot lines and lacking much of anything for yards, fewer trees…you get the idea. Allowing larger and multi-unit buildings in SF zones destroys neighborhood character and quality of life. I suspect this doesn’t matter to you and/or you disagree. I respect your right to believe as you wish. I don’t share that point of view and cannot think of any condittions under which I would change my position.

  5. Sp88ky You are using “not enough family/senior housing” as a flimsy excuse to shut down all development. You bought a house in the city, of course things going to change over time lol. I don’t agree with how urbanists frame all this (like “exclusionary” – new luxe apartments mostly serve white tech bros) but people going to keep moving to Seattle and there’s not much we can do but make sure families and seniors and others have housing. So fight for that.

    1. I guess you are not understanding my comments. I don’t consider my point of view to be a “flimsy excuse.” I am throwing the author’s (and those like him) canard back at him where it belongs. That SF zoning is exclusionary is nonsense. If anything is exclusionary it’s what he’s touting. I am espousing exactly that families and seniors have housing. One method I’m espousing is not allowing developers to destroy neighborhoods in order to build “new luxe apartments” that “mostly serve white tech bros” thereby replacing existing family and senior housing. I don’t care whether people move here or not as long as they don’t expect those of us who live here to vacate so they can live in our places, meaning either our existing homes or new homes the construction for which our existing homes have been demolished. I don’t understand how you’re not getting that this is my point. Good luck to you.

      1. “…new homes the construction for which our existing homes have been demolished”. Uh, no. No one is going to force you out of your home. Zoning changes would allow homeowners to have more flexibility to do what they want with their property. For instance, when someone no longer needed the size house they have and/or can no longer afford the ever increasing taxes but they want to stay in their neighborhood, they could convert their house to a duplex. Or if they needed to go to a nursing home they could sell their property at a higher price if a duplex could be built there than if only a single family house was the only thing legal dwelling there. Of course, the homeowner can just leave it as a single family house. No one is coming for your house or your neighbor’s house against your or their will. Zoning changes just give homeowners more options. Why do you want deny people more options? You only own your own land. You do not own the neighborhood.

    2. Um, just to get real here gsmith61, if property taxes are based on the new stuff you can build on the lot your inconvenient home happens to be on, durn tootin’ that this proposal might well force you out of it. Try to be at least a little honest here (and PS – older homes that are owned free and clear provide an awful lot of Seattle’s best rental housing, or at least they will until you Urbanist pukes get your mitts on them).

  6. Great article. There is nothing wrong with or contradictory about promoting downtown AND allowing more housing all over the city. That is what used to happen as cities grew through all of US history until much more restrictive zoning began in the 1960s. Now it is “I’ve got mine. I want nothing to change. And other people can move a hour or two away and commute in.”

    1. “Zoning Changes allow more options. . .”. Luckily Seattle is already zoned to allow triplexes on each lot so we already HAVE options. We don’t need to upzone more as all housing can be accommodated until 2045 under current zoning regs.

      1. “Luckily Seattle is already zoned to allow triplexes on each lot.” Not the same. Seattle is not zoned to permit triplexes as normally defined. Seattle has zoning that permits accessory dwelling units (ADU). These are limited to 1,000 square feet of gross floor area in neighborhood residential zones and 650 square feet in a lowrise zone. There are other restriction such that these have not been very popular to build.

      2. gsmith61,

        Let’s be honest, the reason ADUs are not that popular in Seattle is that they cost $$$$$ to build, with high permit costs and high construction costs. Even if zoning changes and builders could buy a house, tear it down and build 4-6 units, the cost of the house, demolition, utility work permits would work out to something like 150k (likely more) per unit. That’s just to get the lot ready to build on, not construction… that’s like another $250 square foot (or much more). The raw numbers currently new apartment rents over $2500 a month

        Look, the rent in Seattle is over $2500 a month for a nice place to live and there’s a strong market for condos at $500k and above. I think the construction industry has scaled way down in Seattle, but the level of new builds will match the number of rich out-of-staters moving in. It’s worked that way in Seattle for decades. People I worked with in construction in Greater Seattle have now moved on to Utah and Texas. It’s a tough life sometimes.

        I’m not sure about the ups and downs of the Seattle economy, but I do know that there aren’t any builders sitting around waiting to build “affordable” housing in Seattle. I do know a few construction guys hoping zoning changes so there’s more lots to build on, but they’re thinking $750k condos.

    2. Which is why Seattle’s existing zoning already allows up to triplexes on every lot.

  7. Without the downtown business core returning, there is NO $$$ to spend and we slowly become Detroit.

    1. Agree. And agree w/the Mayor that we need to be looking at a new model that includes other ways to collect taxes from down there (although that’s not how he puts it). Keep the growth downtown to the extent it’s possible and leave the rest of us alone.

    2. If we didn’t have all our single family neighborhoods – we’d be Detroit now. Maybe Detroit is the Urbanists Dream.

      1. Actually much of Detroit looks like a poor, rundown version of Seattle….lots of smartly put together neighborhoods mixing apartments, small retail and miles of single family homes. Josh should just move there already. There’s nothing stop the Urbanists in Detroit really…

        American history is a story of colonization after all.

        The Publicola crew are smart hardworking people. The Motor City would welcome them. Seattle? not so much I’m afraid.

  8. Why a zero sum game? Must downtown suffer so neighborhoods flourish? Shouldn’t we bank on downtown’s existing (and fixed) transit infrastructure? If downtown bears too much burden of affordable housing, let’s offset it with upscale housing, open schools. Let’s get people of all walks of life mixing again. I would not wish the blight that is downtown on any residential neighborhood. I just don’t get the resentment.

    1. Schools are down 20% in student count. They are losing hundreds of millions this year and projected next year. SPS already will have to close some schools in 2024. And they won’t even stop building new ones that aren’t started yet or change the plans to make a smaller school. I don’t think taxpayers will be ready for anymore new schools soon.

      1. @Ballardite, my point is get some amenities downtown. Fine you don’t want schools. You don’t want to upzone the neighborhoods, don’t care about downtown. Isn’t this comment section a cranky lot today. Everybody wants nothing less than to turn the clock back. Y’all proving Josh’s 1990s vibe theory to be dead on!

  9. What I see being built in neighborhoods is as exclusionary as anything this writer discusses–stacked boxes requiring constant trips up and down 2 or 3 flights of stairs to get around one’s home–from kitchen to bedroom, for example. That kind of design excludes all but the young and nimble. The older and/or disabled or people with kids who don’t want them by themselves up a flight or two of stairs where they can’t see them are all excluded in this kind of building, and that’s what’s infesting and infecting our once-beautiful neighborhoods. These units are not affordable for families with children or elders on fixed incomes, either, even if they were able and desirous of living in them. So, let’s call the emperor naked, shall we? The model espoused here excludes plenty of people and massively contributes to displacement.

    1. I have a feeling the author would be 100% in favor of making these family friendly, affordable units in your (District 4?) neighborhood! Nice try.

      1. What are you talking about? My point is that what this writer wants to see built/what developers want to and will build is housing for a narrow population, excluding all others all while arguing that that is somehow “inclusive”. I am not in favor of any more building. As I see it, the boomers are dying and will be for another decade or two. This leaves their housing to be reused, which is likely much more sustainable and useful than the 4- and 6-packs being built now. I don’t think there’s a housing shortage at all. Just some people want to live where they can’t afford so they’re trying to demonize the homeowners and wrecking the neighborhoods where they have any success. This urbanist stuff sounds like living downtown everywhere. Not my taste, and not the taste of many others. Tired of the whining and victim stuff from that bunch.
        If you’re one of them, good for you but I respectfully disagree.

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