Category: Density

Two Candidates With Roots In Central Seattle Council District Will Seek Sawant’s Longtime Seat

Alex Hudson
Alex Hudson

By Erica C. Barnett

Two longtime residents of City Council District 3, Alex Hudson and Joy Hollingsworth, have announced they’re running for the council seat occupied for the last 10 years by Kshama Sawant, who announced earlier this month that she won’t seek reelection.

In conversations with PubliCola on Wednesday, both Hudson and Hollingsworth said they planned their campaigns assuming they would be taking on Sawant directly. Now that the firebrand socialist is no longer a factor, both said they feel a sense of relief that they’ll be able to talk more about their own priorities, rather than defending themselves against an incumbent whose fiery denunciations of “corporate Democrats” (including all eight of her council colleagues) have a tendency to suck all the air out of the room.

Although there are months to go before the filing deadline, Hudson and Hollingsworth are both well-positioned to be frontrunners in the race for District 3. Hollingsworth, whose family owns and operates a cannabis farm in Mason County, was born and raised in the Central District; her grandmother, Dorothy Hollingsworth, was a civil rights trailblazer and the first Black woman to serve on a school board in Washington state.

Hudson, the director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, is a longtime renter on First Hill who led the pro-density First Hill Improvement Association before working to pass big major transportation policy and funding packages, including last year’s Move Ahead Washington statewide funding bill.

If elected, Hudson would bring a long history of transportation advocacy and expertise to the council at a time when the city is failing to make progress toward Vision Zero, a plan to end traffic deaths and serious injuries in the next seven years. To get there, Hudson said the city needs to stop debating how to implement its Vision Zero goals and start implementing strategies it already knows are effective.

“There should not be as many fatalities, near misses, or injuries on our roadways as there are right now in the city, and that should be the primary focus of the Seattle Transportation Plan that they’re putting together now,” Hudson said. For example, she said, the city could easily install bike lanes, curb bulbs, spaces between parking and bike lanes, crosswalks, and lighting—design changes that slow down drivers and provide redundant protections for others on the road—without going through the usual years-long public process.

“Ludi’s”—a now-shuttered downtown diner, formerly known as the Turf, that mostly served low-income patrons—”was a place where you could go and get a hot meal and some protein and kick it in community. And I don’t know another place right now, anywhere in downtown, where you could do that.”

In our conversation, Hudson emphasized her experience building coalitions while also pushing boundaries. As head of First Hill’s neighborhood association, Hudson defied stereotypes about neighborhood activism, pushing for dense affordable housing at a Sound Transit-owned property and organizing to bring two new homeless shelters to the neighborhood. While it’s common to see organized neighborhood opposition to shelters or services, Hudson said that “with deep organizing, [by the time] we had the community meeting about it in the basement of First Presbyterian, site of one of the two shelters, every single person who was there spoke up and was like, ‘We want it. How can we help you?”

Hudson said she’s still learning about the city’s current response to homelessness, which consists largely of disruptive, traumatizing encampment sweeps. (The city-funded King County Regional Homelessness Authority, whose policies the city can influence through its annual budget, now controls all homeless service contracts). In general, she said, “there’s no point in just pushing people around, if what that is going to do is just further traumatize someone, disinvest them from what little belongings and stability and community that they have, and create a further cycle of distrust in the system.”

At the same time, she added, “unauthorized encampments in our parks isn’t a solution that works for everybody, including the people who want to use those parks.” For example, she supported the removal of a large encampment in and around Miller Park, which is next to Meany Middle School. One solution, she said, might be allowing more authorized encampments where people can connect with services and get on a path to housing. “Homelessness is a housing problem, and we need more housing,” she said. “But that doesn’t solve the problem for people sleeping in a tent tonight.”

Although downtown Seattle isn’t in District 3, policies to address homelessness downtown could impact every other district, because the KCRHA and the city have made a policy decision to focus most of their housing resources on downtown, through a public-private partnership called Partnership for Zero—”zero” referring to the number of people sleeping outdoors in the area for more than a brief period.

Hudson said the emphasis on downtown makes sense—”having some resources that are specifically targeted to downtown to support people, is a good and important thing”—but she said it needs to be coupled with efforts to give lower-income people, including those experiencing homelessness, places to go during the day besides social service providers.

“Ludi’s”—a now-shuttered downtown diner, formerly known as the Turf, that mostly served low-income patrons—”was a place where you could go and get a hot meal and some protein and kick it in community. And I don’t know another place right now, anywhere in downtown, where you could do that.” Commercial rent stabilization, city programs to support small businesses that cater to people who aren’t white-collar office workers, and partnerships with landlords trying to fill empty storefronts could help fill that need, Hudson said.

Hudson didn’t commit to a specific set of policies on policing, such as an ideal number of police officers or a path toward hiring more non-police responders, although she said that as a resident of First Hill, she often witnesses situations, like people in crisis, where police would only make the problem worse.

She was unequivocal, however, about another “public safety hazard”—the large concrete blocks, known as “ecology blocks” or eco-blocks, that businesses dump in public rights-of-way to prevent people living in RVs from parking in the city. Although blocking public streets and parking areas is illegal, the city has indicated it will not enforce the law, effectively allowing businesses to take over public space with impunity.

“The public right-of-way is for everyone, and so we can’t just [let businesses] drop hostile architecture all over the place, and call it good,” Hudson said. How would she propose making that happen, when the Seattle Department of Transportation has said it would be too difficult to remove the hundreds of heavy blocks that now litter the city? “Forklift comes, picks them up and moves them away. I don’t think it’s that complicated.”

“We’ve got to do better,” Hudson added. “If people can’t trust the city to move a piece of concrete, how can people trust the government to solve problems?”

Joy Hollingsworth

Joy Hollingsworth

Hollingsworth, too, told me she was frustrated with the city about its slow response to road safety issues—so much so that she installed a camera at 23rd and John and recorded every crash at the intersection, posting clips on Youtube. It took five years to get the city to add turn signals and pedestrian safety improvements, Hollingsworth said. “There has to be a sense of urgency to take care of this stuff,” Hollingsworth said. “When a kid got hit on a scooter”—a crash her camera captured—I feel like that’s when the city started to pay attention to this corner.”

In our conversation, Hollingsworth emphasized her deep roots in the Central District and Capitol Hill neighborhoods, where she went to school (at Meany Middle School and Seattle Prep) and has lived all her life except during college, when she studied and played basketball at the University of Arizona. During that time, the Central District has lost most of its Black residents, gentrifying rapidly without meaningful anti-displacement measures that could help people stay in the area.

“The density has been very extreme in District Three,” Hollingsworth said. “And I say that because I don’t think we think of the impact that that’s had on certain neighborhoods. Seattle is very, very good at protecting white neighborhoods and not Black neighborhoods.”

As neighborhoods have gotten more multifamily housing, she continued, infrastructure hasn’t kept up.

“As we think about density, we have to also think about how it’s going to impact that neighborhood. How does it impact our water, our sewer, our garbage, our electricity?” Several current council members, including Lisa Herbold (D1) and Alex Pedersen (D4) support requiring developers to pay impact fees for the perceived negative impact of new density. Hollingsworth said impact fees might be part of the solution. So, she said, could programs to help homeowners convert their single-family houses into duplexes and triplexes without “changing the façade of the home.”

Hollingsworth said new residents have also impacted the availability of parking and clogged neighborhood streets. “We’ve gotten a lot of new congestion” because of new residents who live in buildings without parking, she said. “We thought people would come here and not bring their cars and just live in apartments” car-free, she said. “That’s not the case.”

“As we think about density, we have to also think about how it’s going to impact that neighborhood. How does it impact our water, our sewer, our garbage, our electricity?… We thought people would come here and not bring their cars. That’s not the case.”—District 3 candidate Joy Hollingsworth

Hollingsworth endorsed now-Mayor Bruce Harrell in 2021, and is widely expected to receive his endorsement. Asked whether she supports the mayor’s encampment removal policies, she demurred. “It’s a health hazard to people who are there for them to be living in those conditions… and we have to do better as a city,” she said.

What about hiring more police officers, another priority of both the mayor and most members of current council? Hollingsworth said her focus would be on hiring “good officers” at a rate that can produce “great response times,” not a hard and fast number. “We need to be  investing in things that create safe neighborhoods,” like Byrd Barr Place and the Central Area Senior Center, she said, in addition to hiring officers. “It’s a holistic approach— not just ‘Joy wants more police.’ I think that’s a notion that’s been significantly put out there to scare people, and I think I’m thinking of community safety holistically, in a different, thoughtful way.”

Hollingsworth expressed frustration at being portrayed, in her view simplistically as the candidate who “wants to repair relations with police. That relationship has to be rebuilt, and there’s also some places where … we can’t deny that there has been overpolicing.”

“But we also know that they are a piece of the public safety” picture, she continued, adding that ideally, “we’d have our EMTs responding to medical, medical emergencies, we’d have health care providers or social workers responding to our unhoused neighbor… and we’d have [police] responding to potentially violent crimes.”

If elected, Hollingsworth would be the only Black councilmember since Harrell left the council in 2019, and one of the only queer Black women in the council’s history. She said her identity as a Black queer woman would add an important perspective to the council, because “a lot of the policies… we’re trying to do are based on dismantling systemic racism, and that comes from anti-Blackness.” But, she added, “I don’t want to be just the Black candidate, I want to be the best candidate. Being black is just a part of who I am, being queer is part of who I am, being a female is just part of who am. It’s my identity, but it doesn’t define me.”

Editor’s note: This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that Sherry Harris was the first out queer Black woman on the council, as a commenter pointed out.

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.

Josh@PubliCola.com

Sponsors of Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Emphasize Statewide Affordability Crisis

Image of a four-unit apartment building
One Salient Oversight at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Ryan Packer

In response to rising housing costs and increased homelessness statewide, the state legislature is considering an unprecedented number of bills that would influence the ability of cities across the state to set local policy around housing, density, and land use. 

Among the proposals introduced so far: A bill that would eliminate most minimum parking requirements near transit stations; one cutting local design review boards out of the approval process for residential construction; one streamlining permitting; one allowing residential lots to be split into multiple lots so additional units can be built on those lots; and one reforming condominium laws. Many of these bills have already had a public hearing and are headed toward committee votes—extremely fast work compared to past years.

House Bill 1110, introduced by Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) and Rep. Andy Barkis (R-2, Olympia), is taking center stage as a retooled version of similar legislation, HB 1782, that never made it to the House floor last year. This year’s bill would require cities to legalize sixplexes within one-half mile of frequent transit. It would also allow fourplexes as a base level of density in areas in and around Seattle and Spokane, and in towns and cities with more than 6,000 residents elsewhere in the state.

This so-called “missing middle” bill would attempt to add a level of density between single family homes and large apartment buildings currently absent from many Washington cities.

Last year, opposition from the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), a lobbying group for cities, helped prevent HB 1782 and other housing bills from advancing; the group argued that zoning changes that preempted city rules would take away local control and impose “one-size-fits-all” regulations on cities across the state. In 2023, legislators hope to bypass that criticism by focusing on the impacts of high housing costs.

“I feel more confident this year because we’ve been doing a lot of coalition building and a lot of work to talk about the real causes of our housing shortage and crisis,” Bateman said. During its first hearing last week, elected officials from Olympia, Bothell, Everett, and Burien turned out to support the bill, with much less direct opposition than last year.

Supporters also say they’ve done work to broaden the coalition that supports the bill. The AWC, unlike last year, is not currently opposing HB 1110, but is pushing to water down changes to single-family zones to only include triplexes, and to not impact every lot within a city.

Another bill, introduced by Senator Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), focuses on loosening restrictions on density directly around transit stations, preserving traditional single-family zoning in wide swaths of cities across the state. That bill may prove an easier political sell compared to opening up single-family areas to increased density, particularly in the state senate, where there are fewer Republicans ready to partner on housing bills.

“As I talk to my constituents, I’ve got folks in Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mukilteo, that are really wary about missing middle [housing]” housing, Liias said, referring to moderately dense housing that’s affordable to middle-income earners. In contrast, Liias said, “when I talked about transit-oriented development, virtually everybody’s in agreement that we should be siting more housing next to transit. That’s a much more consensus perspective.”

The local control issue may still be a hurdle, though. Rep. Spencer Hutchins (R-26, Gig Harbor), who sits on the housing committee, suggested during a meeting with the Gig Harbor city council earlier this month that even if he agrees with a policy change on housing, he might still oppose it on principle. “I will be looking at things through the lens of, making sure that we are protecting the ability of our local governments to represent their local citizens well, and not have Olympia run roughshod over cities and counties,” Hutchins said.

Rep. Bateman doesn’t give a lot of credence to the local control argument. “Currently what cities are doing is, they’re limiting what private property owners can do with their property,” she said. “You don’t have the freedom to make your own decision about adapting to the market, responding to what the market need is. People want more diverse housing options.” 

This year, Democrats are trying to zoom out on the issue of housing and focusing on multiple aspects of the state’s housing crisis. The Democratic caucuses in both chambers have begun referring to three “pillars” that lawmakers will attempt to tackle around housing this session: Increasing public subsidies for affordable housing, passing tenant protections for renters, and loosening restrictions on housing supply that are limiting growth. 

The first housing “pillar” is clearly a priority for Governor Jay Inslee, who is pushing to raise the state’s debt limit to fund $4 billion in investments in housing over the next six years. That proposal, even if lawmakers approve it, would need to go to voters statewide in November, adding an extra level of uncertainty. 

The sheer number of housing bills this session  is itself a strategy to avoid a repeat of last year, when almost no housing bills made it past legislative deadlines. “It’s one thing to say that one bill can’t solve all the problems, but it’s another thing to actually have a whole bunch of other bills that are working to solve these challenging areas that make it more difficult to build housing,” Rep. Bateman said. 

ryan@publicola.com

In Reversal, Council Poised to Preserve Landmarked Drive-Through Walgreen’s

Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

Update on Tuesday, Jan. 10: The council voted to adopt Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s amendment, described in more detail below, to impose controls and incentives preventing any changes to the landmarked Walgreen’s building on Denny Way while removing the surface parking lot from the area subject to landmark protections. Herbold’s “compromise” plan also included a new amendment from Andrew Lewis that added the driveway and a few other small elements of the property to the part of the lot that won’t be subject to restrictions, increasing the non-protected part of the property to around 14,000 square feet.

Council members who voted for Herbold’s proposal cited various reasons for doing so. Lewis said he supported preserving the façade of the building (seen above) while allowing development; however, the protections the council imposed actually bar changes to the entire building unless the city’s landmarks board approves them.

Kshama Sawant railed against the council’s “Democrats” and housing developers in general, raising a straw-man argument about the fact that any potential housing on the site wouldn’t be affordable to low-income people, which no one suggested it would. And Sara Nelson, who voted against protecting the Walgreen’s just last week, justified her change of heart by saying that aligning the city’s housing goals with historic preservation would take a “long time” and would need to be done at some later date. Ultimately, the legislation passed unanimously, with Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda voting against the initial Herbold amendment but supporting it once it was the only option on the table.

Original post follows:

In a reversal of a committee vote last week, the Seattle city council appears poised to preserve a drive-through Walgreen’s on the edge of South Lake Union, after Councilmember Tammy Morales (who previously opposed preservation) accepted as a “friendly amendment” a proposal by Councilmember Lisa Herbold to “protect” the one-story building and driveway, but not its parking lot. The legislation on the council’s agenda Tuesday afternoon would require Walgreen’s, or any subsequent owner, to obtain approval from the city’s landmarks board before making any visible changes to the building.

PubliCola has written extensively about the 1950 structure, which was originally a drive-through bank—a novel convenience at a time when American car culture was just ramping up. The building was one of many copies of a 1946 prototype created for Seattle-First National Bank, many of which are still standing in Seattle and across the region.

A lot of things have changed since the former bank building was landmarked in 2010. An explosion of jobs brought a need for new housing in Uptown and South Lake Union, and the council voted to upzone the area in 2017, allowing new apartment towers to serve the thousands of new people working in the burgeoning tech hub. The site where the Walgreen’s stands, for example, was rezoned to allow a 160-foot tower. Today, the building stands out as one of the only car-oriented, single-story businesses in the area.

How could it be that a parking lot that makes up less than half of the Walgreen’s site could yield more housing than the entire property? The answer is: It can’t, except on paper.

Morales, along with her colleague Andrew Lewis, appeared convinced Monday by a staff analysis that concluded a developer could actually fit more housing on the Walgreen’s block if the housing was squeezed onto the 12,000-square-foot parking lot—up to 310 units, or even more if the building included amenities like a school, which many downtown residents have been trying to site for years.

“Compared to what is possible if we completely remove the controls and incentives or if we leave the legislation as is, there are additional 30 to 60 units possible,” Morales said at the council’s weekly briefing.

“I really appreciate the the creativity of Councilmember Herbold in presenting all these incentives together to show the potential of what the maximum number of units could be,” Lewis added.

How could it be that a parking lot that makes up less than half of the Walgreen’s site could yield more housing than the entire property? The answer is: It can’t, except on paper.

Setting aside the unlikely possibility of a new school inside a skinny residential tower, getting to 310 units requires some creative math. To build that many units, a developer would have to qualify for every incentive available under city law, including one that allows a development to cover more of a lot if their building includes at least ten units of “family sized” housing with three bedrooms or more. In practice, apartment developers rarely build units that size, because they don’t pencil out—two-parent families who can afford to pay $5,000 to $12,000 a month (the going rate for the handful of available three-bedroom apartments in new buildings near South Lake Union) would usually be better off buying a place instead

Even in the analysis Herbold used to argue that a smaller building would have more apartments, a council staffer acknowledged that it “would be hard to fit [that many units] on the lot without building above the bank building”—that is, demolishing the Walgreen’s and putting up a new building in its place, perhaps preserving the façade. This alternative is basically the same as not preserving the building at all—except that it couldn’t happen without  the approval of the same landmarks board that requested protections for the building in the first place.

Another scenario would be a skinny tower on the site of the current parking lot, which, at just 11,700 square feet, would be among the smallest tower locations in the city. This would be unlikely to pencil out under any circumstances, because so much of the oddly-shaped site would be taken up by the building’s elevator shaft, but the presence of the SR 99 tunnel directly underneath the site would make building a tall, thin tower even more of an underground engineering challenge. For this scenario to pencil out, the building would almost certainly be limited (like many others in the area) to studio or micro-units, which rent for more per square foot than larger apartments—great for young tech migrants, but less ideal for producing a neighborhood with a diverse range of ages, incomes, and family types.

Even in the analysis Herbold used to argue that a smaller building would have more apartments, a council staffer acknowledged that it “would be hard to fit [that many units] on the lot without building above the bank building”—that is, demolishing the Walgreen’s and putting up a new building in its place, perhaps preserving the façade. This alternative is basically the same as not preserving the building at all—except that it couldn’t happen without the approval of the same landmarks board that requested protections for the building in the first place.

The other alternative—the one that preservationists like Historic Seattle and Herbold seem to actually support—is to allow Walgreen’s to sell off the development rights for the lot to another developer in the neighborhood, preserving the building and its drive-through lane in perpetuity while allowing development elsewhere.

The problem is that selling the development potential of the Walgreen’s site almost certainly wouldn’t lead to an equivalent number of new apartments. That’s because when property owners sell development rights, what they’re really selling is extra floor-area ratio (FAR), a measure of how much of a piece of land a building can occupy. The more FAR a developer has, the taller or wider the building, depending on the rules in that area. In the Uptown, where 160-foot building are already allowed everywhere, additional FAR will allow developers to build outward, eliminating amenities they would otherwise have to include, like open space, green streets, and setbacks between sidewalks and the building.

The council will vote on Herbold’s proposal tomorrow afternoon. So far, only Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda has publicly expressed reservations about the plan, saying she worried that Herbold’s proposal “would reduce the site to such [an extent] that it would not be feasible to build to build multifamily units on this site.”

Alex Pedersen Wasn’t the “Voice of Reason” on the Council. He Was the Voice of “No.”

Councilmember Alex Pedersen responds to written questions at a public meeting in January 2020.

By Erica C. Barnett

In preparation for sparring with Sandeep about Alex Pedersen’s record on Seattle Nice this week, I looked back through our coverage of the one-term council member, who recently announced he won’t seek reelection.

Pedersen’s decision to join his frequent ally Sara Nelson in voting against the city’s 2023-2024 budget was freshest in my mind, and not just because the move brought the city within one vote of a funding crisis.

Instead, it spoke to Pedersen’s penchant for spinning up misleading narratives to flatter his conservative-for-Seattle base. (Pedersen, like most of the technically nonpartisan council, is a Democrat). In a statement explaining his vote to reject the budget, Pedersen accused his council colleagues of defunding the police—an inflammatory (and patently false) claim that council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda called “a willful attempt to spread misinformation.”

Pedersen’s throwback agenda went beyond putting as many cops on the streets as possible. The former Tim Burgess council aide consistently treated new housing like a burden to be borne by existing homeowners, rather than an asset that keeps neighborhoods lively and neighborhood businesses alive. Even before he ran for office, Pedersen argued in his newsletter, Four to Explore, that “density ideologues” were trying to shove housing into neighborhoods that were already full; unsurprisingly, he vehemently opposed the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), which allowed modest density increases in a tiny swath of Seattle’s dominant single-family areas.

Pedersen picked up on this theme as soon as he was elected, using one of the city’s most enviable attributes—our (inequitably distributed) tree canopy—to argue against new housing. One of his first acts as council member was to call a meeting to discuss future legislation to “protect” individual trees on privately owned land by preventing development of denser housing where single-family homes now stand. Draft legislation to make it harder and more expensive to remove trees is still moving forward with support from Pedersen and his Northwest Seattle colleague Dan Strauss. Pedersen has also consistently supported “impact fees” that would make dense rental housing more costly to build—an anti-affordability strategy wrapped in an anti-displacement façade.

One of his first acts as council member was to call a meeting to discuss future legislation to “protect” individual trees on privately owned land by preventing development of denser housing where single-family homes now stand.

Even when Pedersen supported legislation that would be beneficial to renters—such as a bill, also backed by socialist District 3 Councilmember Kshama Sawant, that would have required landlords to disclose the rents they charge—his rationale was still anti-development. In the case of the rent transparency bill (which Mayor Bruce Harrell ultimately vetoed), Pedersen said the data would be a useful argument for preserving development restrictions in the city’s upcoming comprehensive plan update. Separately, Pedersen opposed statewide legislation that would have allowed fourplexes and sixplexes in more areas, calling it an “ill-conceived” preemption of local control that would destroy “naturally occurring” single-family affordable housing in Seattle.

Advocates for nonmotorized transportation were understandably concerned when Pedersen became chair of the council transportation committee, a position he still holds. Years before his 2019 election, Pedersen argued against renewing the city’s transportation levy, in part because it supposedly prioritized bike lanes over “basics” like sidewalks, “traffic congestion,” and bridges. He also opposed Sound Transit 3, the 2016 light-rail expansion measure, and the completion of the downtown streetcar, arguing that buses are cheaper and more flexible—a familiar argument that is also, ultimately, an argument against transit-oriented density.

Pedersen’s term as transportation chair was largely dominated by the closure and subsequent repair of the West Seattle bridge. Still, during a time when pedestrian and cyclist deaths reached unprecedented levels, his lack of enthusiasm for bike lanes never diminished. In his first year on the council, Pedersen opposed a protected bike lane in his district, saying the safety upgrade was unnecessary because cyclists could simply zigzag from street to street, using disconnected short stretches of future bike-friendly “greenways” to avoid busy Eastlake Ave. He expanded this argument to apply to the city as a whole, arguing year after year that bridge maintenance should be a higher priority than bike and pedestrian infrastructure. 

Few things, however, got Pedersen quite so worked up as the council’s habit of expressing their views on various issues via nonbinding resolution, a practice he found so irksome that he proposed (and passed) not one but two bills intended to curb them.

Pedersen’s political supporters (like my friend Sandeep) argue that he has served as a “voice of reason” on the council, preventing the council’s left wing from running amok. In reality, Pedersen generated little original legislation and spent much of his time arguing against his colleagues’ proposals.

For example, Pedersen consistently opposed even modest reductions to the police department’s budget; legislation allowing more food trucks in commercial areas; a proposal that would have allowed defense attorneys to argue that a defendant’s poverty played a role in crimes such as shoplifting; protections for renters facing eviction; a program allowing motorized scooter sharing in Seattle; funding for health services for drug users; an increase in the levy that funds city parks; and raises for city employees.

Few things, however, got Pedersen quite so worked up as the council’s habit of expressing their views on various issues via nonbinding resolution, a practice he found so irksome that he proposed (and passed) not one but two bills intended to curb them. The first, in response to a Sawant-backed bill condemning an anti-Muslim citizenship law in India, was a sarcastic resolution condemning “all forms of oppression affecting communities throughout the world.” The second allowed councilmembers to refrain from voting on nonbinding resolutions entirely—an option he and his closest ally Sara Nelson have exercised repeatedly ever since.

In his announcement that he won’t seek reelection, Pedersen padded his list of geniune accomplishments (progress toward banning leaf blowers, more speed cameras in school zones, a new tiny house village in his district) with squishier stuff: Supporting Harrell’s agenda on police funding and homelessness, the renewal of a transportation tax for bus service, the approval of two Harrell appointments, and working to stop the sale of the National Archives building at Sand Point, a Trump-era decision that President Biden reversed in 2021. The modesty of these achievements suggests Pedersen’s true legacy on the council: Not a voice of reason, but the voice of “no.”

Maybe Metropolis: Pro-Housing Democrats Poised for Action in 2023 After Ousting Obstructionist Seattle Rep. Pollet

Finetooth, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons via Wikimedia Commons

By Josh Feit

Before I get to last week’s quiet yet encouraging news out of Olympia—House Democrats removed single family zoning preservationist Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N. Seattle) from his position overseeing housing policy—I’d like to review a couple of other recent, below-the-radar news items that provide context for why such a seemingly picayune parliamentary move in the state legislature matters for Seattle.

First, in October, the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation decided to okay a request from Wallingford homeowners to put hundreds of houses in Wallingford on the National Register of Historic Places; this week, the National Parks Service made it official.

Expect to see more and more attempts by “In this House” Seattleites to weaponize “historic” districts as a tool against reforming local land use policy that could otherwise increase affordable housing and density in Seattle.

Meanwhile, another quiet zoning decision reflected the opposite path: Last month, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted against landmarking the “unremarkable” (as Erica hilariously put it) two-story wood-framed Jai Thai building on Capitol Hill. The decision cleared the way for a new seven-story affordable housing development.

You can attribute Pollet’s NIMBY politics to an old-fashioned brand of lefty populism that elevates provincialism (knee-jerk suspicion of development mixed with tired exhortations about neighborhood “character”) into a fight to preserve single-family zoning.

Unfortunately, these two decisions taken together ultimately reaffirm the prevalence of Seattle’s off-kilter city planning philosophy: Seattle confines multi-story density to the same neighborhoods over and over, while foregoing opportunities for new housing in the hefty majority of the city—75 percent— that’s currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. Sadly, Capitol Hill’s density is a Catch-22 for urbanists: Enthusiastically adding units to one of Seattle’s densest neighborhoods provides fodder for the city’s redundant single-family zones to ward off reforms that could create new housing. This preserves the status quo: Skyrocketing housing prices. The Seattle area has some of the most expensive housing prices in the country, with median rents above $1,700 (over $2,200 in the Seattle region) and a median sale price of $810,000.

It’s no wonder King County says we need to build around 240,000 new affordable units in the next 20 years, or 12,000 new units a year. Currently, we’re nowhere close to that pace; over the last two years, according to the Seattle Office of Housing, the city averaged about 1,300 affordable units a year.

Thankfully, pro-housing folks are fighting to reverse this trend. Witness the long overdue progressive coup in Olympia. Earlier this month, under youthful, new leadership, the state house Democrats finally removed Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N Seattle) as chair of the pivotal House local government committee. As we have been reporting for years, Rep. Pollet has repeatedly used his position to kill pro-housing bills. (No surprise, The Urbanist has also called out Pollet for undermining housing legislation.) You can attribute Pollet’s NIMBY politics to an old-fashioned brand of lefty populism that elevates provincialism (knee-jerk suspicion of development mixed with tired exhortations about neighborhood “character”) into a fight to preserve single-family zoning.

Initially, frustrated with Pollet’s history of watering down pro-housing legislation, the House Democratic Caucus voted in late November to shrink the scope of Pollet’s committee by moving all housing issues into the housing committee, whose chair, Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Everett) supports urbanist legislation. Last year, for example, Peterson co-sponsored Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) bill, HB 1782, that would have authorized duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in residential areas within a half-mile of a major transit stops. It was one of several pro-density bills Pollet helped kill last year. 

The move to take housing policy out of Pollet’s committee was orchestrated by a new generation of Democrats who want to send a message that affordable housing (tied to density) will be a top priority in 2023.

Two weeks later—evidently not done sending their message—the caucus voted to remove Pollet as chair of the local government committee altogether, handing the reins to Rep. Devina Duerr (D-1, Bothell), another co-sponsor of last year’s failed density bill.

With much better odds of passing their bills intact out of Peterson’s committee than under Pollet’s provincialism, pro-housing legislators could bring some necessary state governance to Seattle’s failed local policies.

The Seattle Times, whose editorial board shares Pollet’s preservationist POV, ran an editorial last week lamenting the leadership sea change by parroting Pollet’s go-to  “local control” mantra, claiming that pro-housing bills would prohibit local governments from enacting affordable housing requirements. That’s untrue. The bills that urbanists like Rep. Bateman support simply give local jurisdictions the option to allow multifamily housing in single-family neighborhoods, leaving affordable housing requirements in the hands of local jurisdictions.

“If we’re really concerned with affordable housing,” Rep. Bateman told PubliCola, “let’s first acknowledge some basic facts: Single-family zoning is 100 percent displacing people and causing gentrification.”

This status quo—not the bogeyman of future development—constitutes a current threat to housing affordability. For example, existing policy not only squeezes supply by making most of the available land in Seattle off-limits to multifamily housing, it also encourages teardowns and McMansions. Rep. Bateman’s pending, more ambitious 2023 proposal will challenge that status quo by authorizing fourplexes in residential areas of cities across the state—anywhere detached single-family homes are allowed.

Data show that even this modest increase in density improves affordability. Portland made fourplexes legal citywide two years ago and the first set of numbers indicates that they are more affordable to rent or purchase than duplexes, triplexes, or single-family homes. Additionally, Bateman said her legislation will create an affordability incentive with a “density bonus” that allows scaling up to sixplexes if two of the units are affordable to people making between 30 and 80 percent of the area median income.

On the state senate side, Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Everett) is cueing up legislation that would target upzones (more dramatic ones) specifically near transit hubs.

This is all to say, for more news that could end up having big implications in the coming year: Pay attention to the state legislature’s prefiled bills page and watch for new pro-housing legislation. With much better odds of passing their bills intact out of Peterson’s committee than under Pollet’s provincialism, pro-housing legislators could bring some necessary state governance to Seattle’s failed local policies.

For a Welcoming City, Design Review Reforms Must Go Further

Image via Phinneyflats.com
This four-story building, the Phinney Flats on busy Greenwood Avenue North, was delayed for years by design review meetings in which critics called it “Soviet-style” architecture and said renters would disrupt their peace and quiet with loud rooftop parties.

By Laura Loe

Editor’s note: This is a followup to It’s Time to Ditch Design Review.

I’ve been advocating for reforming Seattle’s design review process, in which appointed boards impose aesthetic requirements (and delays) on dense new housing, since 2016. I’ve attended many hours-long design review meetings, hosted lunch-and-learns about this gate-kept and arcane process, and created user-friendly advocacy documents to help community members participate in the process. But design review is irreparably broken. It’s a way to object to new neighbors, not an opportunity to make neighborhoods better.

The city appears to agree: In 2013, the Department of Construction and Inspections recommended simplifying the process in response to public feedback. “Most complaints [during public comment for design review] are NIMBY-ism,” one focus group participant put it.

On December 8, 2022, the City Council’s land use committee unanimously passed legislation from committee chair Dan Strauss that will extend COVID-era rules exempting some affordable housing from design review for one year. While the bill is a rare win for Seattle’s future, it does not address the scale and scope of our housing crisis.

But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either.

Exempting affordable housing from design review is a win for those of us who have advocated for reforms—a clear acknowledgement that design review makes affordable housing less affordable.

But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either. Multi-family, market-rate development in Seattle provides essential housing for Seattle renters. It contributes to Mandatory Housing Affordability, a program that requires developers to fund affordable housing either elsewhere or on site. And it increases our overall supply of housing—a necessity if we’re going combat the housing scarcity that leads to homelessness, as housing scholar Gregg Colburn and data journalist Clayton Aldern documented recently in the book Homelessness is a Housing Problem.

There have even been recent examples where market-rate housing has become available to those with deep housing insecurity through “rapid acquisition” by affordable housing developers.

A few weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that the one-year extension of the design review exemption will allow the city to conduct a full environmental review of legislation that would permanently exempt some affordable housing projects from design review and begin two new pilot programs, each lasting two years.

The first pilot would exempt from design review any projects that use the city’s (highly effective) Mandatory Housing Affordability program to produce new units on-site, instead of contributing to a housing fund. The second would allow developers of all kinds of housing, including market-rate housing, to choose whether to participate in the full design review process or a shorter Administrative Design Review (ADR) by city staff.

ADR follows the same steps as full design review; the difference is that the applications are reviewed privately by a Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) planner, not a public design review board.

The interim legislation, which is expected to pass at the tomorrow’s city council meeting, is an acknowledgment that design review is a superfluous hurdle to addressing our housing crisis. We hope to see additional bold proposals from Strauss.

While we celebrate this rare win, we are disappointed that Harrell’s announcement does not address the flaws in design review generally and doesn’t address challenges with the administrative design review (ADR) processes at all.

Merely exempting subsidized housing projects from the current design review process doesn’t come close to meeting the breadth of recommendations from community coalitions in September 2021 to fix this onerous, costly, and undemocratic process. We would like to see a complete overhaul of the program instead of the pilot Mayor Harrell has proposed, including a transformation of administrative design review itself.

One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may opt for the “devil you know” public design review process.

Although ADR is less onerous than the full design-review process, it’s still no picnic for professionals trying to build housing. One study documented delays at a high level. After initial community engagement in the early stages, projects that go through administrative review are not visible to the public. This means NIMBY neighbors can’t interfere, but it also means advocates like myself lack insight into internal deliberations and can’t to counter potential NIMBY objections from city staff.

According to several builders I’ve spoken to, ADR can be significantly more unpredictable, lengthy, and costly than going through a design review board. Builders describe city staffers interjecting their personal aesthetic tastes as they pick and choose which design guidelines to enforce— an ineffective and unjust way to apply policy. One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may not opt for administrative review and will continue to participate in the “devil you know” public design review process.

Design review is not making our city more resilient, more climate-friendly, more affordable, or more welcoming. Let’s not continue to conflate nostalgia and anti-renter calls for preserving neighborhood “character” with livability and wellbeing for all. The city must follow this rare win for Seattle’s future with the comprehensive reforms outlined by Seattle For Everyone, a pro-housing coalition that includes developers and housing advocates, with a particular focus on reforms to administrative design review.

The council will take public comment on its design review reform legislation at 2pm tomorrow, December 13. Please write or call in to support the provision to exempt low-income affordable projects from design review while pushing the city (and the mayor) to systematically fix the process.

Laura Loe is the founder of Share The Cities Organizing Collective, an all-volunteer advocacy group.

No Historic Protections for Drive-Through Walgreen’s, More Delays for Sound Transit, Food Trucks Will Face Extra Scrutiny

Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1. A city council committee declined to impose restrictions on a one-story former bank in South Lake Union Friday, arguing that the building, which now houses a drive-through Walgreen’s, is not historic enough to merit long-term preservation. The proposed restrictions, which were approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board, would have given the landmarks board veto power over any changes to the interior or exterior of the building. The city has repeatedly increased allowed building heights in the area around the building, which is now surrounded by towers as tall as 160 feet.

The landmark designation for the 1950 building says the structure epitomizes mid-century banking architecture, which focused on convenience for middle-class consumers with cars, and says it also constitutes the outstanding work of a single designer. In fact (as the landmarks board also noted) the bank was just one of many similar structures in Seattle based on a prototype for a drive-through bank. Walgreen’s, which owns the building, had hoped to sell off the development rights for the property, keeping the building as-is but enabling another developer to build densely in a “receiving site” elsewhere in the city.

Neighborhoods committee chair Tammy Morales, who set the Walgreen’s building aside for further discussion back in April, said she saw no reason to prevent future development of the Walgreen’s site, given that there are four other similar buildings in Seattle. “Preserving this particular one-story building doesn’t make sense, given the housing crisis that we’re in and that the neighborhood has changed dramatically since 2006,” when the building got its landmark status.

The committee’s unanimous (four-member) vote against preserving the building also marks a dramatic change, as elected officials (and even the landmarks board) increasingly acknowledge that the need for housing often outweighs preservationists’ desire to see every old (and not-so-old) building protected.

2. In another sign of the times, another council committee agreed to extend the city’s “cafe streets” program, which allowed restaurants to create outdoor dining spaces during COVID, and impose new fees on businesses that take advantage of the program. (Originally, the permits were free).

Advocates for the proposal were concerned about an amendment by Northeast Seattle Councilmember Alex Pedersen to reinstate a rule that banned food trucks within 50 feet of any brick-and-mortar restaurant. Before COVID, this rule effectively prohibited food trucks in business districts all around the city—basically all the areas where people might actually be around to patronize a food truck.

Although the legislation that passed gets rid of this protectionist provision, it still subjects food trucks to extra scrutiny, requiring the Seattle Department of Transportation to report back on any “potential impacts from food trucks or other vending activity occurring in close proximity to brick-and-mortar businesses.”

Pedersen, who sponsored the amendment imposing this extra scrutiny on food truck operators, said the intent of the original 50-foot rule was “to mitigate the potential effects to small existing businesses that take on the risk of additional expenses, of capital improvements, inventory, and wages for workers to keep their brick-and-mortar operations afloat.”

Morales responded that by applying special scrutiny to food trucks, the council would be saying that food trucks—which are often run by immigrants and people of color—have a negative impact on other businesses. “The presumption with this amendment seems to be that we should protect existing businesses from competition,” Morales said, yet “we don’t ask anything of the corporations in this city that regularly squeeze out independent businesses through mergers and acquisitions.” The amendment passed, with Morales voting no, Dan Strauss abstaining, and Pedersen and Kshama Sawant voting yes.

3. Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, announced on Thursday that the extension of its existing Tacoma light rail line, which runs between downtown Tacoma and the Tacomadome, will be delayed for an unknown period due to “quality and safety issues” with the project. In a blog post, agency CEO Julie Timm said Sound Transit has already addressed multiple previous “quality issues” with the project, adding that the latest problem, which involves “track geometry,” will push the opening date until later in 2023.

“We have some folks flying in to look at some of the issues that were identified,” Timm said, but did not specify what the issues are, saying ST will have more to announce next week.

This isn’t the first time Sound Transit has identified shoddy work by its contractors since the pandemic began. Earlier this year, the agency announced it would have to delay the opening of the East Link line connecting Seattle to Bellevue because of multiple quality issues with the light rail extension across I-90. Those problems included problems with “nearly all” the concrete plinths and fasteners that affix the rails to the bridge, cracking concrete supports, missing rebar, and other structural and safety issues.

Because of those significant delays, Sound Transit has proposed changing the order in which it will open new light rail extensions. Under the new proposed schedule, the extension of the existing 1 line to Lynnwood would open in 2024, and the new line to Bellevue and downtown Redmond would open in 2025. Sound Transit doesn’t have a new opening date for a southern extension to Federal Way, which was delayed after a 200-foot section of embankment along the route slid nine feet earlier this year.

Prompted by a request from King County Councilmember and Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci, Sound Transit staff drafted a plan to open an eight-station, Eastside-only “starter line” connecting downtown Bellevue and Redmond that will provide Eastside residents with some rail transit starting next year while Sound Transit works out the problems with the I-90 crossing.

Chamber Poll On Homelessness, Public Safety Shows That It Matters How You Frame the Questions

Graph showing high support among Seattle voters for removing encampments

By Erica C. Barnett

A new poll from the Greater Metro Chamber of Commerce, produced by EMC Research, reveals that many Seattle voters’ “top concern” has shifted from homelessness to crime, but fails to shed any light on the reasons behind the shift. whether this shift represents declining empathy toward people living on Seattle streets.

Overall, according to the poll of 700 registered Seattle voters, 57 percent of people named homelessness as one of the issues they were most “frustrated or concerned about,” followed by “crime/drugs/public safety” at 46 percent. Both categories declined slightly from last year, while “racial issues/policing/police brutality” and “taxes” ranked slightly higher as matters of public concern. Asked what changes would improve the “quality of life” in Seattle, “closing encampments in parks, on sidewalks,” and in public rights-of-way ranked number one on the list, with 79 percent of voters saying their lives would be improved by encampment removals.

“I think our voters are pretty sophisticated. This is a community that does not assume that all people experiencing homelessness are also committing crimes and does not conflate homelessness and criminal activity.”—Seattle Metro Chamber CEO Rachel Smith

During a media presentation on the poll results, Seattle Chamber CEO Rachel Smith said she believed voters are somewhat less concerned about homelessness because of “an all-hands-on-deck regional approach that has made a visible difference” in the number of tents on the street. As we’ve reported, Mayor Bruce Harrell has dramatically accelerated homeless encampment removals since taking office, and has proposed expanding the city’s homeless outreach and encampment removal team and making many temporary “cleanup” positions permanent.

“I think our voters are pretty sophisticated,” Smith continued. “This is a community that does not assume that all people experiencing homelessness are also committing crimes and does not conflate homelessness and criminal activity.” Andrew Thibault, an EMC partner, added that most of the voters in the survey identify as Democrats and progressives.

Breakdown by demographic category of support for encampment removals among Seattle voters

Like all the previous versions of this annual survey, the poll framed a question about homeless encampments in a misleading way that does not represent what the city actually offers unsheltered people during sweeps, nor the reasons people “refuse” shelter or services that may be unsuitable for their needs. The survey asked voters whether they would support the city “continu[ing] to close homeless encampments once people have been offered shelter and services, even if it means those who refuse help will be displaced.” Only 18 percent of respondents said they would oppose such a policy.

The problem is that this policy does not exist, nor can it be “continued.” In reality, the city has only “closed” two encampments—one at Woodland Park and another at the Ballard Commons, which remains fenced-off and inaccessible—by making individualized offers of shelter and services to encampment residents. Other than these exceptions, the city removes encampments the same way it always has—typically, by posting a notice two or three days in advance so people know they have to leave, giving encampment residents the option to take one of the handful of shelter beds typically available citywide on any night, and sweeping anyone who remains on site on the appointed day. That’s a far cry from “offering shelter and services” to people who, for whatever (presumably irrational) reason, “refuse” to take them.

As long as the question describes a far more ideal scenario than the one that actually exists, people who might oppose removals will likely continue supporting them—after all, who can blame the city for sweeping people who simply don’t want any help?

Voters, particularly Republicans and people living in North Seattle, said they felt less safe than they did last year and supported hiring more police; more than half also said they were “actively” thinking about leaving Seattle, largely because of crime. These question routinely get high positive responses, to the point that you might think bullets were routinely whizzing through the empty streets of Phinney Ridge and Laurelhurst, past empty houses abandoned by people fleeing the city.

Graphs showing support among all demographic categories, except Republicans, for "more housing in your neighborhood"

Poll respondents also said they didn’t trust the Seattle City Council to reform the police department—an oddly worded question, given that the mayor, not the council, oversees SPD and is responsible for setting policy for department. There was no corresponding question about the mayor. Blaming the council for problems at the police department and other departments that are controlled by the mayor is a longstanding Seattle pastime—one that reflects a general misunderstanding about how city government works that is exacerbated by polls suggesting the council has more power than it does.

Voters continue to support the general idea of “more housing in my neighborhood”; however, as in previous years, the Chamber’s poll doesn’t push that question beyond “duplexes and triplexes” to include denser housing types that might also include affordable housing. As the Urbanist noted in its coverage, the Chamber has supported legislation to increase density further in single-family areas and Smith said the framing of the question wasn’t meant to indicate that triplexes should be the upper limit.

The poll includes a demographic breakdown of respondents that lumps all BIPOC people into a single “POC” category—a grouping necessitated, according to Thibault, by the fact that breaking the categories down further would lead to an excessive margin of error. According to the crosstabs provided by EMC, the “POC” group included 26 Black voters in all, an average of fewer than nine Black respondents for each of three broad geographic areas sampled in the poll.

Put Westneat’s “Little Kabul” in Seattle’s Single-Family Zones

Photo by Lauri Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons

by Josh Feit

How sweet: Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat supports ghettos. In a flawless example of peak Seattle—i.e., a middle-aged white guy explaining how great Seattle was back in the Dan Evans 1970s and ’80s—Westneat wrote: “Go ahead, Republican Governors Association. Send us your buses. Previous migrants started Little Saigon in Seattle; maybe these will start Little Caracas or Little Kabul. Both the question and the answer repeat through history: Do you want these people? Yes, we do.”

Do we? Maybe we should answer another question first: Where do we want “Little Kabul” or “Little Caracas” to be located? Can it be built in Seattle’s segregated single-family areas, which make up about 75% of the city?

This defining fact about our city—which studies show drive up housing prices, and which I’ve been grousing about since 2004—is what makes Westneat’s column so unconvincing. It’s the editorial embodiment of one of those “in this house” signs that claim to be all about inclusion, but dot yards in exclusive neighborhoods that don’t allow multi-family housing.

This petulant housing lockout is particularly problematic in a city like Seattle that’s facing a pressing housing shortage while still growing by tens of thousands annually; despite the pandemic, we added a stunning 20,100 residents between April 2021 and April 2022.

Westneat was writing about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ recent gross political stunt; DeSantis chartered two planes—from Texas, weirdly—to fly about fifty undocumented migrants to that metonym for liberal elitism, Martha’s Vineyard. Westneat makes the case that Seattle would proudly accept migrants. I guess, judging from the 1970s scenario he lovingly conjures, we’d show that evil Ron DeSantis by cordoning these migrants into tiny quadrants of Seattle that, among other things, lack parks and good schools. Confined to arterial streets, multi-family housing zones in Seattle also expose their residents to more pollution.

Tell you what. I’ll second Westneat’s idea, but on one condition: We upzone neighborhoods such as Blue Ridge, Madrona, and Laurelhurst for multifamily housing and build “Little Kabuls” throughout our leafy city. Seattle actually tried to upzone its single-family zones (now called “neighborhood residential” zones)—back in 2015, but we inelegantly backed off when Seattle’s core NIMBY values rose up, and, championed by the anti-upzone Seattle Times editorial board, stopped the idea in its tracks. It was, in fact, a Westneat column— alerting the public to the fact that a task force was poised to recommend upzoning Seattle’s residential zones—that unleashed public animosity against adding density to our sacred neighborhoods.

I’ll second Westneat’s “Little Kabul” idea, but on one condition: We upzone neighborhoods such as Blue Ridge, Madrona, and Laurelhurst for multifamily housing and build “Little Kabuls” throughout our leafy city.

Indeed, the problem with Westneat’s liberal posturing is that existing Seattle housing policy won’t back it up. In short, his “Little Kabul” column reads more like white virtue signaling than like a workable idea.

For the last two legislative sessions in Olympia, a promising new alliance of pro-development and social justice legislators and advocates have proposed reforms to land use police policy that would make Seattle actually embrace the mantra of inclusion. The YIMBY legislation would allow multifamily housing deep inside neighborhoods near transit stops, not just at the edges—a vision of transit-oriented development that goes beyond the timid status quo, which only allows density immediately next to transit hubs. Facing opposition from old-fashioned liberals like longtime local government committee chair, Seattle’s own Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, N. Seattle), and lacking a champion in the mayor’s office (former mayor Jenny Durkan and current Mayor Bruce Harrell are standard, Lesser-Seattle politicians), the legislation hasn’t been a priority for Seattle.

Thankfully, the diverse and progressive Seattle Planning Commission has an ambitious pro-housing blueprint cued up for the pending Seattle Comprehensive Plan update, coming in 2024. Their agenda, backed by progressive council members like at-large Council member Teresa Mosqueda, includes “expanding and adding more urban villages.” I say, put Blue Ridge and Madrona and Laurelhurst on the list. And add Magnolia and Phinney Ridge while we’re at it.

Hopefully, the Seattle Times won’t repeat the anti-housing crusade they waged against Seattle’s last attempt to upzone Seattle’s extensive single family zones. But given that Westneat, who likes to warn against “unfettered growth,”  owns a multi-family rental property that benefits from keeping the vast majority of the rest of the city off-limits to new multi-family housing (can you believe this conflict of interest at the Seattle Times?), I wouldn’t be surprised if my version of the “Little Kabul” idea doesn’t win his support.

josh@publicola.com