Category: land use

Council Delays Pedersen Plan to Impose New “Impact” Fees on New Apartments

Rendering for a planned building on South Jackson St. that its developer said would not have been feasible with millions of dollars in new transportation impact fees.

By Erica C. Barnett

Two city council members who have argued for years that developers who build new housing should pay large fees to compensate for their impact on the city’s transportation system may end their terms without seeing their vision realized.

Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Lisa Herbold, who are both leaving the council at the end of this year, have proposed a change to the city’s Comprehensive Plan—the document that guides development in the city—that would dictate how transportation impact fees will be determined in the future and lay out a list of specific projects they will fund. Pedersen, who is leading the charge, wanted to hold the one required public hearing for the change last week, which would queue the changes up for later this month, but land use committee chair Dan Strauss canceled the hearing, saying last week that he wanted to wait for a ruling on a legal challenge related to the fees.

The changes to the comp plan are the second of three necessary steps required to impose the fees; the third and final step would be adopting legislation to implement the fees laid out in the plan.

Pedersen has said fees for new housing could offset the property taxes that pay for the Seattle Transportation Plan, reducing property taxes for homeowners while raising the cost of new apartments. Both property taxes and the cost to build new units ultimately get passed on to renters, but the fees would typically cost far more up front than the annual property taxes for a building, according to both developers’ testimony and PubliCola’s own comparison of actual property taxes for new developments to the fees they would pay under a fee schedule, introduced as part of the city’s defense to the developers’ challenge, which represents the maximum the city could charge for each land use type. The legislation does not include a specific fee schedule.

For example, the owners of a brand-new, 171-unit luxury apartment building called the Ballard Yards will pay about $580,000 in property taxes this year. The impact fee for that same development under the proposed fee scheme, including apartments and the first-floor retail space, would be about $2.2 million, almost four times as much. For a smaller building like the Crane, a five-year-old, 39-unit complex in Interbay, the impact fee would add $495,000 to the cost of development, compared to a little more than $100,000 in annual property taxes.

One reason Pedersen’s proposal would cost developers (and therefore renters) so much more money overall is that the fees are calculated by unit, not development—so that someone building a single-family would pay one fee, while a company building a 100-unit building would pay a separate fee for every unit.

“I’ve tracked this over the years, and every time I dig into it I leave with as many questions as I have answered,” Strauss told PubliCola. For example: “What is the potential impact on MHA? How do we marry it with our budget this year? Are these projects still the right projects?”

During last week’s land use committee meeting, public comment over the proposal was extremely divided, Strauss noted. “To see the divided room—it told me that waiting until the [Seattle] hearing examiner makes their final decision before having that official public hearing was the right choice.”

Earlier this year, the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development determined that the fees would have no significant impact on the environment under the State Environmental Policy Act, prompting a group of developers and housing advocates to file an appeal; the city’s hearing examiner held the final hearing on that appeal next week, and will announce his decision sometime in the coming weeks.

In their appeal, the developers and advocates, organized as the Seattle Mobility Coalition, said the new fees would “raise the cost of development in Seattle across the board, amounting to a tax on new housing, which will reduce housing production, increase housing costs and undermine the goals of the Mandatory Housing Affordability (“MHA”) program,” which allowed more density in certain areas in exchange for new affordable housing.

For example, Mill Creek managing director for development Meredith Holzemer said in a declaration, a 397-unit apartment complex the company is planning on South Jackson Street would cost them several million dollars in impact fees over and above the $10 million they will already pay into MHA; the extra fees, Holzemer said, “will render the project economically infeasible and it will not be constructed.”

Although the proposal would exempt housing built specifically for low-income people, that doesn’t address the situation that’s driving up the cost of housing for everyone else: Wealthy people, including newcomers who move here for high-paying tech jobs, are “bidding up” existing units that would otherwise be affordable to middle-income people, pushing up the cost of housing at every level of the market.

Basing future road usage on past behavior is always a stretch, even without a pandemic that completely upended commute patterns and reduced the amount people are driving at rush hour, possibly for the long term. To name just one very recent (and very consequential) example, the state estimated that around 130,000 people would use the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement by 2030, and used that estimate to justify building an $18 million bypass tunnel and the surface-level waterfront highway that is now under construction.

Pedersen and Herbold were quick to point out that changing the city’s Comprehensive Plan is just a precursor to adopting impact fees—one Herbold called a “small procedural step” that “is not complex” at all. In fact, amending the comp plan is a consequential process that the council sets aside time for once a year, usually rejecting a majority of the proposed amendments that come before them. Setting up a plan and project list in the city’s primary planning document isn’t some mere gesture, but a major first step toward adopting the fees themselves.

One reason Pedersen’s proposal would cost developers (and therefore renters) so much more money overall is that the fees are calculated by unit, not development—so that someone building a single-family would pay one fee, while a company building a 100-unit building would pay a separate fee for every unit. The fee for each new apartment would be a few thousand dollars less than for single-family houses or duplex units, but the overall cost would be much higher; developers would also be encouraged to stay away from single-family areas by discounts for building in already-dense urban villages. The proposed fee structure could have the effect of keeping the city’s suburban-style land use patterns the same while placing another wall around historic single-family zones—a longtime goal for Pedersen.

How could someone living in an apartment in a dense area with easy access to transit service “cost” nearly as much, in terms of negative impacts on the city’s transportation system, as someone building a new house in one of Seattle’s car-centric suburban-style neighborhoods? According to the Pedersen-Herbold amendment—which, if adopted, would become a permanent part of the city’s overarching growth strategy—the costs are based on a couple of factors.

The first is “Seattle’s expected growth in person trips over the next 12 years”—that is, how many “trips” Seattle residents will take using the overall transportation system. This measurement of “person trips” comes partly from vehicle trip estimates from the Institute of Transportation Engineers, which uses its own “trip generation manual” to estimate the number of people using the entire transportation system during the evening rush hour, and the Puget Sound Regional Council, which estimates population growth and surveys commuters on how they get around. Using these two tools, the city estimates there will be about 85,000 new rush hour trips every day by 2024, most of them by car.

Perhaps you are sensing one issue with these estimates: Basing future road usage on past behavior is always a stretch, even without a pandemic that completely upended commute patterns and reduced the amount people are driving at rush hour, possibly for the long term. To name just one very recent (and very consequential) example, the state estimated that around 130,000 people would use the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement by 2030, and used that estimate to justify building an $18 million bypass tunnel and the surface-level waterfront highway that is now under construction. When the drivers didn’t arrive—prior to the pandemic, about 53,000 people drove through the tunnel daily, a number that plummeted to 40,000 in 2020—the state’s plan to use tolls to help pay for the tunnel fell apart.

It’s worth noting that the ITE’s predictions have come under significant scrutiny because they overestimate the traffic generated by new development—and especially new apartment buildings—substantially. One comprehensive study found that the ITE overestimated the trips generated by new development, on average, by 55 percent; for new multifamily buildings, the ITE overestimated trips by 108 percent. The city, in other words, could be assuming twice as much “impact” from new apartments, simply in terms of how many new trips they generate, as they have in reality.

Of course, not all trips are created equal—a solo driver has more impact than a single person riding a bus or biking to work, for example. The city’s plan attempts to address this by measuring how much physical space people using different transportation modes take up on the road. A driver, by this measure, takes up 180 square feet of space, whereas a person biking to work takes up 22.5 square feet, so the driver has about 8 times as much impact on the overall transportation system as someone who walks to work.

It’s easy to see why this measure is somewhat silly. It’s obvious that someone driving a 6,000-pound, gas-guzzling Land Rover—or a 8,500-pound electric Rivian!—contributes far more to the state of Seattle’s roads (and traffic) than a cyclist, whose space needs and physical impact are negligible in the first case and basically nonexistent in the second. (Also, bike lanes typically use space that would otherwise be used by heavier, more impactful cars—so wouldn’t they have a positive impact?) If eight cyclists are the equivalent of one vehicle, then it makes sense to assume an apartment building where almost everyone walks or rides a bike has the same impact as dozens of new lawn-locked single-family houses with two or three vehicles in the driveway.

And, of course, these estimates all assume that every new person has only a negative impact on the transportation system and the environment—ignoring the many positive impacts of living in the city rather than commuting into Seattle by car from a highway-dependent suburb.

Pedersen and Herbold have tried to rush their impact fee proposal through while they’re still on the council—an acknowledgement, perhaps, that this isn’t a priority for other elected officials. None of the people running for open council seats have identified impact fees as a campaign issue, and it’s possible, perhaps likely, that if the proposal doesn’t go forward this year, it will die from lack of interest.

But there are some pretty significant reasons not to push forward with a fee proposal before the end of the year. First of all, it’s pretty clear that the proposal is a bit half-baked. The list of projects the fee would help fund was developed by then-councilmember Mike O’Brien back in 2018, and it’s showing its age. The list includes some projects that have already been fully funded—the bus-rapid transit project on Madison Street, for example—and others that may now be outdated or lower-priority. In theory, the city could enshrine the project list in its comprehensive plan and then amend it list later, but why adopt a major change to the city’s growth plan without a public discussion of the projects a new impact fee would fund?

It’s debatable, for example, whether renters who live in a new building on Capitol Hill ought to be paying directly for improvements for freight trucks driving on East Marginal Way, which is one of many road improvements on the list of projects ostensibly impacted by new housing. And, as Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted last week, it’s unclear whether the project list represents an equitable distribution of improvements around the city, relative to the equity impacts of adding to the cost of housing in areas that may desperately need it.

“I want to make sure that… we look closely at whether or not there is an a disproportionate impact on equity or [Race and Social Justice Initiative issues that our city closely monitors” before adopting impact fees, said Mosqueda, who submitted a list of about a dozen questions about the proposal to the council’s central staff. “I understand the comments that were made” by Pedersen and Herbold “about how [outreach for this proposal includes] every stakeholder that has informed the pedestrian, bike, and transit plans, but that does not equal to me an RSJI equity analysis for this specific proposal.”

Indeed, Pedersen has waved aside concerns about outreach and engagement on his fee proposal by repeatedly pulling up a pie chart, based on undisclosed data, showing that 75 percent of people his office surveyed supported the proposal. Here it is:

Convincing, right?

Beyond the dubious project list, Pedersen and Herbold are trying to move the new fees forward at a pace they would never have allowed a proposal like MHA, which allowed slightly more density in exchange for new fees to fund affordable housing. Herbold, in fact, pushed for more process and deliberation before passing MHA (which she ultimately supported), and Pedersen made opposition to the program a centerpiece of his campaign for office, later hiring a homeowner activist who repeatedly sued the city to stop MHA as his legislative assistant. MHA went through years of deliberation before it even came before the council, followed by months of meetings and extensive outreach to every neighborhood in the city.

In contrast, Pedersen has made it clear he hoped to pass the comprehensive plan amendment, setting up a process to quickly pass impact fees, in the course of a couple of weeks. Now that that won’t happen, it will be up to the council to decide whether to consider the plan before he and Herbold leave. If the hearing examiner comes back with a ruling quickly, and sides with the city, Pedersen will have to provide 30 days’ notice of a new public hearing, which would push the proposal well into the period when the council will be debating the 2024 budget.

If the council decides it’s too busy with the budget to add changing the comprehensive plan to their schedule, it would push the debate into next year, when there’s a distinct possibility that no one will be motivated to bring it up again. Currently, housing construction is on a downward trajectory, thanks in no small part to the city’s slow permitting process, with just 441 master use permits last year compared to 975 in 2015.

Recently, the Puget Sound Business Journal announced that developer Barrientos Ryan backed out of plans to build a 300-unit “workforce housing” development along 15th Ave. W in Interbay, citing new requirements from the city that added more than $1 million in unanticipated costs. Instead of housing, the property will now be home to 20 new pickleball courts.

“Downtown Is You”: Harrell Unveils New Downtown Plan Against Backdrop of Anti-Sweeps Protest

Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks to a crowd of supporters and press at Westlake Park

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell gathered supporters in Westlake Plaza Wednesday morning to announce his latest downtown activation plan, officially titled “Downtown Is You.” But the press event was initially sidelined by a group of anti-sweeps protesters holding signs and chanting, “stop the sweeps” and other slogans from a few feet away. After halting his prepared remarks, Harrell hopped down from the stage and attempted to get the protesters to be quiet, but gave up and returned to the stage after several responded that they didn’t trust his offer to talk to them in a different venue.

“Westlake Center is a center for civic engagement,” he told the audience. “Unfortunately, that’s not civic engagement—that’s just yelling.”

“These [unsheltered] folks you see down here, they’re not strangers to me. I grew up on these streets,” Harrell continued. Gesturing toward the group of young activists, he added: “How dare anyone say I’m going to sweep anybody. I don’t see anyone over there I grew up with.”

Under Harrell, the city has dramatically increased the speed and frequency of encampment removals.

The seven-point downtown plan Harrell announced Wednesday does not directly address encampments. However, it does envision a downtown occupied by shoppers, sports fans, and residents of new high-rise apartment towers along a section of Third Avenue between Stewart and Union Streets, where drug users and unsheltered people frequently congregate. The proposed upzone includes the block that includes a McDonald’s and a check cashing outlet as well as the block anchored by Ross Dress for Less.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, mayoral advisor (and soon-to-be deputy mayor) Tim Burgess said “several” developments in the area were “ready to go” once a proposed upzone goes through. The proposal would increase the maximum height for new buildings from 170 feet to 440 (460 if new developments include child care or education facilities) on about five blocks that are adjacent to a area where 450-foot-high buildings are already allowed. The city’s land use database does not include any active permits for these blocks.

On Tuesday, Burgess said the proposed rezone reflects “a recognition that we need to make some dramatic changes in order to shift what’s been several decades now of problematic street uses and disorder.”

Police almost outnumbered protesters during a demonstration at Mayor Bruce Harrell’s announcement of his downtown activation strategy.

Harrell’s plan also includes legislation to allow a broader mix of uses on the ground floor of buildings (apartments or conference spaces instead of retail, for example) and throughout buildings themselves, in the form of “vertical residential neighborhoods within buildings” that allow residents to access everything they need, from child care to retail stores to pickleball courts, inside their buildings.

The idea is a nod to the fact that—Harrell’s back-to-work order and admonishments notwithstanding—many people have continued to work at least partly from home, leaving significant vacancies in downtown office buildings. “I don’t think this is a philosophical shift away from retail” serving downtown office workers, McIntyre said Tuesday. “It’s embracing some flexibility and some new ideas and wanting to encourage a different mix on the ground floor area as the as the city continues to change.”

Another piece of legislation would make a half-block of Pike Street between First and Second Avenues pedestrian-only, connecting Pike Place Market Market to—well, one half-block of downtown directly adjacent to, but not part of, the market. (Asked whether the mayor would consider prohibiting car traffic in Pike Place Market—where pedestrians compete for space on the historic brick streets with exhaust-spewing cars—Office of Economic Development director Markham McIntyre said the city was still “talking to Pike Place Market … to figure out what what that might look like,” but had no immediate plans to get rid of cars in the Market, a change pedestrian advocates have been demanding for decades.


Beyond those concrete legislative proposals, the plan consists mostly of expanded pilot projects (doubling the number of businesses participating in Seattle Restored, a pop-up project that fills empty storefronts), initiatives that are already underway (reopening City Hall Park, “more murals” downtown), and ideas that are still very much in the whiteboard stages. It also incorporates many aspirational ideas that would require significant additional funding, such as completing the downtown streetcar, putting a lid over I-5, and creating a new “arts district” from South Lake Union to Pioneer Square.

Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks to a group of Stop the Sweeps protesters at Westlake Park.
Mayor Bruce Harrell briefly spoke to protesters before returning to his press event.

And, of course, it assumes a heavier police presence downtown—a mostly unspoken, but bedrock, element of the proposal. “Make Downtown Safe and Welcoming” is actually number one on the plan’s list of seven priorities, starting with arrests of people “distributing and selling illegal drugs” (and, presumably, using them—Harrell mentioned that a bill criminalizing drug possession and public use will likely pass in July). The safety plan also includes a number of initiatives to address addiction that Harrell announced in April, along with a plan to help private property owners remove graffiti—a particular burr under Harrell’s saddle.

Earlier this month, a federal judge issued an injunction barring the police from arresting people for tagging or graffiti, finding that Seattle’s broadly worded law “likely…violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments by being both vague and overbroad.” On Wednesday, I asked Harrell—who had just expounded on the difference, as he sees it, between “art” and “graffiti” (“One word: It’s unwanted”)—what he would do if the judge overturned the law.

“We have to have the ability to arrest people for unwanted graffiti, so if there’s precise language in the law that is unconstitutional, that is vague, that’s ambiguous, we have to fix it,” Harrell said. “If we lose the lawsuit, we go back to the drawing board and figure out what the deficiencies are in the law, and we fix it or remedy it.”

“This graffiti stuff just drives me nuts,” Harrell added.

State Legislature Deals a Blow to Seattle’s Dysfunctional Design Review Process

This proposed apartment building, anchored by a Safeway, spent three years in design review.

By Ryan Packer

In addition to requiring modest upzones across the state and streamlining environmental review, the state legislature took aim this year at a process that has become infamous for slowing down new housing in Seattle: Design review

Under Seattle’s current system,  eight volunteer boards, each focused on a different geographic area, review new developments and have the power to dictate design changes if they don’t like the way a proposed building looks. Design review has been used to reduce the scale of developments, mandate specific colors and materials, and even dictate the location and size of private outdoor space for apartment residents. The process can add months or years to a project’s timeline.

House Bill 1293, sponsored by Rep. Mark Klicker (R-16, Walla Walla), and signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee Monday, requires cities and counties that engage in design review to evaluate only “clear and objective development regulations”, as opposed to aesthetic opinions, and limits design review to one public meeting. Before the bill passed in February, Rep. Andy Barkis (R-1, Olympia) called the new standards “clear and objective,” without all the “redundancies” produced by holding hearing after hearing on a development.

David Neiman, a partner at Neiman Taber Architects, is very familiar with how design review works in Seattle, having watched the program transform from a well-intentioned opportunity for citizens to influence projects in their neighborhoods to the bureaucratic behemoth it is today. “It’s become this thing that takes an enormous amount of effort and time for every project that has to go through it. It’s a significant distortion of how we spend our time and energies in getting a project permitted,” Neiman said. 

“I think it’s fair to say the things you have to do to respond to design review also make the building more expensive,” architect David Neiman said, but “one of the things design review gives us is flexibility.”

In 2021, the design review board for Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood approved a design for a new Safeway-anchored apartment complex that will replace the existing grocery store—a one-story Safeway with a large surface parking lot. The process stalled for three years while the review board debated minute details of the project—everything from how many storefront entrances the store must have to the precise color of brick used in the project. The Safeway saga epitomized the elements of Seattle’s design review process that HB 1293 is supposed to correct.

“We probably spend about $100,000 [worth] of time on the design review and [Master Use Permit] process … and it [typically] adds about a year to the process,” Neiman said. “I think it’s fair to say the things you have to do to respond to design review also make the building more expensive.”

But Neiman doesn’t want to discard design review entirely. For one thing, he said, design review boards have the power to approve variances from city codes that can be rigid. “One of the things design review gives us is flexibility. It’s very, very rare that we can design a building according to all of the code requirements,” Neiman said. “Nine times out of ten, boards will agree, and give us that flexibility, and we’re able to design better buildings.”

If the design review process becomes too inflexible, Neiman worries, architects won’t be able to take a broader view of what city codes are trying to achieve. “In a world where you take away design review, the only tool that you’ll have to try and control the design environment is to just start writing rules.”

In 2017, Seattle expanded its administrative design review program, in which city planners review and sign off on projects without input from the volunteer boards. Affordable-housing projects can now skip the full design review process, as can some smaller market-rate projects. The new state law could lead the city to expand that program even more.

Matt Hutchins, a principal with CAST Architecture and a former design review board member himself, is skeptical that putting design review in the hands of city staffers will definitely result in quicker project approvals. “Objective is only in the eyes of the beholder, and setting up a bureaucratic regimen that produces objective judgements is quite difficult,” he said.

“The benefit with the current design review process is that there’s maybe a little bit more visibility and flexibility, and we really can’t hold the planners’ feet to the fire … the same way” when the process isn’t public, Hutchins said.

City Councilmember Dan Strauss, chair of the city council’s land use committee and sponsor of a 2021 resolution creating a task force to look at how to improve design review (which is still deliberating), said it’s still too soon to know how the change in state law will impact the city.

“While the solutions to fixing design review are not necessarily clear right now, what is clear is that design review is broken,” Strauss said, adding that the process “is being weaponized to stop projects that are important to our community.”

Seattle will have to adhere to the new restrictions on design review by mid-2025. Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections spokesperson Bryan Stevens said it’s still too soon to say how the changes will impact the city’s design review process.

Seeking Compromise, Lawmakers May Preserve Local Parking Mandates in This Year’s Pro-Housing Bills

Photo of empty parking garage
Mandatory parking often sits empty, especially in dense neighborhoods near transit stops. Photo credit: Enoch Leung from Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Ryan Packer

Democrats in Olympia are making good on their pledge to remove local regulatory barriers to housing by proposing bills that would require cities and towns to permit diverse types of new housing. Many of these bills are being passed over the objections of local elected officials, who are wary of changes in state law that take away their authority to maintain status-quo land use policies.

But while lawmakers seem willing to go against the recommendations of some cities when it comes to density limits, they seem more hesitant about getting rid of local parking requirements. Parking requirements add costs to new housing—garages aren’t cheap to build—and are often unnecessary as cities become denser and easier to navigate without a car. Cities across Washington currently require a certain number of parking spaces for each new housing unit they permit, though Seattle has removed that requirement for buildings close to transit lines.

Many of the bills proposed this session remove or reduce minimum parking requirements in order to reduce construction costs. But those provisions are now proving to be a sticking point for both parties.

Rep. Julia Reed (D-36, Seattle) is leading the charge to eliminate parking minimums, particularly in areas that are close to transit. “A lot of these parking minimum laws that are in place from cities and counties, they were created a while ago and they’re not really revisited that often,” Reed said. “It’s not tied to how people really move around that neighborhood, it’s tied to an assumption that parking is needed.” Reed cited the high cost of parking spaces in new buildings: $50,000 or more per spot.

Reed’s House Bill 1351 would prohibit cities from requiring parking in new buildings within a half-mile of frequent transit lines, and within a quarter-mile of half-hourly bus service. But by the time that bill passed the house local government committee this week, the restriction only applied to areas within a quarter-mile of any level of transit service. And even that major change wasn’t enough to get any Republicans in the committee to vote for it, in a year when Democrats are counting on some Republican votes to get their housing votes across the finish line.

The state senate is where that support might matter the most. When the bill’s senate counterpart received a hearing earlier this month, it was a Democrat, Sen Claudia Kauffman (D-47, Kent), who expressed concerns with how this would impact downtown Kent, where street parking is generally free. “If you start reducing [required parking] because of the transit center, it’s going to reduce people’s ability to have their car. … For me, this doesn’t work within the transit system that we have,” Kauffman said. “In my area this just wouldn’t work.”

Many of this year’s senate housing bills would also reduce or remove parking minimums. Senator Marko Liias’ (D-21, Edmonds) Senate Bill 5466 would require cities to allow substantially denser developments around transit stations, and would ban parking minimums within three-quarters of a mile of any major transit stop.

“It doesn’t make sense, when we’re saying [that] in a transit zone, the way we want people to move is by transit, to also require and guarantee that you can get to those destinations by car,” Liias said at the bill’s first public hearing. “Overlaying the two creates really incompatible and inefficient land uses. … When we require parking minimums, that’s when we get empty parking lots right next to light rail stations.”

Under the new version of the bills allowing more apartments near transit, a potential fourplex just outside a transit corridor would have to include  four parking spaces, which might push a homeowner or developer to consider a different type of building altogether—like a single-family home.

Housing advocates are in broad agreement that it’s essential to eliminate parking minimums as part of this year’s housing bills. “If the bill doesn’t do that, local parking mandates will force developers to build more parking than communities need, and that excess parking will undermine the state’s goals to create transit-oriented communities that give residents good alternatives to cars,” Dan Bertolet of the Sightline Institute, the Seattle-based think tank, testified at a committee hearing on SB 5466 this week. A 2021 paper by a researcher at Santa Clara University showed that when Seattle reduced required parking near transit in 2012, developers built 40 percent fewer parking spaces, translating to around 18,000 fewer stalls and over half a billion dollars in reduced housing costs.

Though it’s still early, efforts to weaken parking restrictions are already becoming a trend. This week, the house and senate housing committees approved both House Bill 1110 and its counterpart Senate Bill 5190, which require cities inside the Seattle and Spokane metro areas to allow fourplexes on all residential lots, and sixplexes close to transit. But both chambers did so only after approving a new version that allows cities to require at least one parking spot for each housing unit for areas away from transit, when the previous version only allowed them to require one spot per lot. That means a potential fourplex just outside a transit corridor would have to include four parking spaces, which might push a homeowner or developer to consider a different type of building altogether—like a single-family home.

Even as that bill passed its senate committee with his vote, one of its Republican sponsors, Sen. John Braun (R-20, Centralia), said he isn’t ready to vote “yes” when it gets to the Senate floor, suggesting there’s more bartering ahead on the Senate. A majority of Republicans in both chambers oppose the bills in the name of maintaining local control—as opposed to supporting them based on developers’ private property rights, a traditional conservative position.

With the proposals to eliminate parking minimums getting the most vocal pushback from local leaders, and many lawmakers apparently listening to those concerns, these urbanist provisions might be the first casualties as deadlines approach and leaders in both chambers look to create compromises to reach a deal.

For Seattle’s Next Light Rail Alignment, Sound Transit Weighs Short-Term Impacts Against Long-Term Gains

Plans show a deep Westlake Station, similar to the new U District Station pictured here.

By Lizz Giordano

The massive draft environmental impact statement  (DEIS) for the West Seattle-Ballard light rail extension landed on Sound Transit’s website in late January. It lays out the pros and cons of a variety of elevated and tunnel routes as the agency tries to weave light rail tracks through some of the densest parts of Seattle.

This second Seattle light rail line will start at the current SoDo station and cross the Duwamish Waterway before skirting the north edge of the West Seattle Golf Course on its way to the Alaska Junction. The Ballard spur will start in the Chinatown-International District (CID), then head north through a new tunnel under downtown toward Seattle Center, through Interbay, and over or under Salmon Bay to its terminus in Ballard.

This extension will add a second transit tunnel through downtown to handle increased train volumes (including the new extension to Everett, also part of Sound Transit 3) and new stations near existing ones at Westlake, the CID and SoDo, which will become transfer points between the two light rail lines.

Some options offer better bus connections or more potential for transit-oriented development. Other alternatives lessen construction impacts by moving stations to the fringes of the neighborhood or deep below ground.

While transit-oriented development is hardly the entire answer to Seattle’s housing crisis, building transit around stations is a must-do; in South Seattle, where Sound Transit failed to plan for housing two decades ago, the sparsely populated light rail line represents a series of missed opportunities.

As the Sound Transit board makes a final decision on the route, expected in 2023, board members will be weighing short-term construction impacts against building a system that’s easy and seamless for riders to use for decades. Those decisions might be a little easier now that the costs of elevated routes is similar to that of tunneling. But underground stations don’t always equal a better experience for riders.

To keep certain tunnel routes on the table for West Seattle and Ballard, as requested by many in those neighborhoods, Sound Transit board members representing King County proposed a last-minute compromise in 2019. It stipulated that while the agency staff would continue to study the more expensive tunnel routes, they would not move forward without third-party (non-Sound Transit) funding.

A few years later, the relentless increase in property values has made it just as expensive to build above ground as to tunnel beneath the city for third-party funding.

In Ballard, where there are basically four options—an elevated or underground station at NW Market Street and either 14th or 15th Ave. NW—the price tag for the elevated options is now almost identical to the estimated cost to tunnel: Between $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion, compared to $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion for the tunnel alternatives.

As the cost difference has evaporated, Seattle Subway, a transit advocacy group, hopes to persuade the agency to revive an old proposed route along 20th Avenue Northwest that would deliver riders closer to the core of the neighborhood rather than several blocks east. Serving dense neighborhoods (rather than more car-centric areas on their periphery) is a core urbanist tenet: High-capacity transit works best when it serves a dense core of riders, and easy access to transit can spur more density in urban areas.

To fully resurrect this option, however, Sound Transit would have to create an entirely new environmental impact statement, which is no easy task and could add time to the project.

If that doesn’t happen, routes along 14th Avenue NW might offer the best combination of transit connections and development potential. The 14th Avenue location provides better transfers between buses and trains than alternatives on 15th Avenue, while also avoiding the need to build a moveable bridge over Salmon Bay.

A buried route along 14th would also create opportunities for transit-oriented development on Sound Transit-owned land after construction—up to 450 housing units and 70,000 gross square feet of retail space. While transit-oriented development is hardly the entire answer to Seattle’s housing crisis, building transit around stations is a must-do; in South Seattle, where Sound Transit failed to plan for housing two decades ago, the sparsely populated light rail line represents a series of missed opportunities.

A similar price convergence is also occurring between above and below ground options in West Seattle, where stations are planned for the Junction, the Avalon area and North Delridge.

While a long-requested tunnel route to preserve views and “neighborhood character” from the West Seattle Golf Course to the Alaska Junction—estimated cost: $1.7 billion—is still much more expensive than the two elevated options, which are priced at $900 million and $1.3 billion, respectively. But a shorter tunnel route that would head below ground after the Avalon Station is now estimated to cost $1.1 billion, less than even one of the above ground routes.

Locating a station here at Alaska Avenue and Fauntleroy, one of two preferred alternatives identified in the DEIS, offers less potential for transit-oriented development than building at 41st or 42nd, while also displacing a Safeway.

At the Alaska Junction, future transit-oriented development hinges more on the location of the station than on whether the line is elevated or buried. Stations at 41st or 42nd Avenues SW have the potential to create slightly more residential units and commercial space on leftover Sound Transit land than if the station is further east. Any kind of station on 41st Ave.  offers the best bus connection for what will become a terminus station, according to the DEIS.

While laying tracks underground minimizes construction impacts on the surface and usually displaces the fewest businesses and residents, it doesn’t always lead to a better experience for future riders. This is especially true if the journey out of these deep stations or between lines becomes its own leg of the commute.

At the new Westlake Station downtown, Sound Transit plans to bury the train platform 135 feet below the surface regardless of which alternative the board chooses—more than twice the depth of the existing station. The agency estimates it would take most riders three to six minutes to get from the street to the train platform —two escalators or two elevator rides, or a mix of both (plus a stair option on the last leg), according to the agency.

Expect another long ride to the platform at the Midtown Station at Fifth or Sixth Avenue at Madison St. downtown, which is likely to be buried even deeper: Between 140 and 205 feet. Continue reading “For Seattle’s Next Light Rail Alignment, Sound Transit Weighs Short-Term Impacts Against Long-Term Gains”

Fremont Brewing Is Still Using Concrete Blocks to Prevent RV Parking. So Are the City of Seattle and the US Postal Service.

Ecology blocks outside Seattle City Light's substation in Ballard
Ecology blocks outside Seattle City Light’s substation in Ballard

By Erica C. Barnett

After at least one formal complaint, the Seattle Department of Transportation has issued a warning—but no penalty—to Fremont Brewing, the company co-owned by city council member-elect Sara Nelson, for obstructing the public right-of-way around its Ballard brewing facility with massive concrete “ecology blocks.”

As PubliCola reported last summer, eco blocks—so called because they are a byproduct of concrete production that uses waste that would otherwise occupy landfills—are an inexpensive way for business owners to prevent people living in their vehicles from parking on the street next to their properties.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, when the city stopped enforcing a law requiring people to move their vehicles every three days, the blocks have proliferated throughout Seattle’s industrial areas, which are the only places where people living in oversized vehicles can legally park. Business owners say that the presence of RVs and other types of large vehicles, such as box trucks, discourages patrons, and that large concentrations of RVs can lead to health and safety problems that impact their customers and employees.

Obstructing public streets is illegal, but SDOT has treated eco-blocks differently than other street obstructions; instead of penalizing business owners for taking over public space that belongs to everyone, as they might if a random person set up a tire fort or craft fair in the middle of the street, the department has responded to the proliferation of eco-blocks by essentially throwing up its hands.

Eco-blocks line the street next to Fremont Brewing's production facility in Ballard.
Eco-blocks line the street next to Fremont Brewing’s production facility in Ballard.

This is true not just of Fremont Brewing, which received a written warning, but of many other businesses around the city’s industrial areas as well as the US Postal Service, which surrounded its Ballard sorting facility with eco blocks way back in August 2020.

At the time, USPS spokesman Ernie Swanson told PubliCola that “USPS got the OK from the city to put in the concrete barriers” in response to a proliferation of RVs in the area. The Seattle Department of Transportation disputed this, calling the road-blocking barricades “unpermitted,” but took no action. They’re still there today, graffiti-covered and looking dingy compared to their more recently installed counterparts in front of a Bevmo!-anchored strip mall across the street. 

Contacted for information about why the blocks are still in place more than a year later, Swanson said, “The concrete blocks were placed in front of the Ballard PO as well as other neighboring businesses as a response to a proliferation of needles, human waste and other hazardous materials being discarded on the property. As of this date, the blocks remain not only in front of the PO but also other businesses in the area. We have no knowledge that a permit was ever required.”

"Eco-blox matta": Graffiti on an ecology block in Ballard.

The city’s process for dealing with Fremont Brewing’s ecology blocks was typical. After someone filed an anonymous complaint about the blocks in September, SDOT performed an inspection “and observed ecology blocks” in the street around Fremont Brewing, according to a notice SDOT sent to the company September 17. “We do not allow this type of use in public right-of-way due to traffic safety concerns as well as transportation and utility access needs. Please remove these unpermitted encroachments from public right-of-way by the compliance date indicated below”—November 10.

November 10 came and went; the blocks remained. About a week later, the case was closed.

SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson told PubliCola the department followed “standard procedure” in responding to the complaint. “The first step in the enforcement process is to mail a letter to the adjacent businesses or property owners notifying them of their responsibilities to remove the concrete blocks,” Bergerson said. “The purpose of this letter is to initiate a conversation with the responsible party so that we can find a path forward leading to their removal of the unpermitted concrete blocks. To date, we have sent letters of this nature to property owners and businesses adjacent to concrete blocks left in about a dozen locations around Ballard, SoDo, and Georgetown. … Our approach [with Fremont Brewing] has been consistent with the other locations.”

A reminder for dog walkers is visible behind a fence that blocks sidewalk access next to City Light's Canal substation.
A reminder for dog walkers is visible behind a fence that blocks sidewalk access next to City Light’s Canal substation.

Fremont Brewing owner (and Nelson’s husband) Matt Lincecum, who runs the company day to day, declined to comment for this story, as did Nelson.

SDOT has the authority to take enforcement action against any business (or government entity) that obstructs the public street with eco blocks or other objects that make it impossible for the public to access streets, sidewalks, or parking strips. To date, it has not done so, beyond warnings like the one it issued to Fremont Brewing.

As if to emphasize the city’s lackadaisical approach to enforcement, Seattle City Light has installed its own anti-RV fortifications at its Canal Substation, located two blocks away from Fremont Brewing and the rest of the eco-block-littered Ballard brewery district. In addition to eco-blocks in the street, the north side of the substation is walled off by two layers of fencing that completely obstruct the public sidewalk. A review of historical Google Maps reveals that the eco-blocks were installed sometime after this past August, when several RVs were parked along the south side of the substation. The fence, too, is new; as of June 2021, per Google Maps, several RVs were parked on that side of the substation, too. Since then, the RVs appear to have moved around the corner, to a narrower residential street on the east side of the building.

We’ve reached out to City Light as well as SDOT about the obstructions around the Canal Substation and will update this post when we hear back.

Old and new ecology blocks next to the Ballard postal sorting facility, which installed blocks on parking strips and (around the corner) on the street itself last year.
Old and newer ecology blocks next to the Ballard postal sorting facility, which installed blocks on parking strips and (around the corner) on the street itself last year.

From the point of view of a property owner, ecology blocks solve an immediate problem—people living in RVs or parking large vehicles indefinitely in front of their business—that the city has failed to address. But the fact remains that even if the city continues to turn a blind eye to vigilante street obstructions, nothing will really change until the region stops ignoring the needs of people living in vehicles, who make up as much as half of King County’s homeless population. In the absence of “safe lots,” social services, and affordable, permanent housing, people sleeping in their vehicles will continue to take up space in public,

But no amount of semi-sanctioned street and sidewalk obstruction will fix the underlying problem: The city and county have dedicated virtually no resources to people living in vehicles, who make up as much as half of the region’s unsheltered homeless population.


Council Fast-Tracks Interbay Storm Practice Facility, Contradicting Brand-New Industrial Lands Policy

Street scene outside the property where the Seattle Storm wants to build a new practice arena.
Street scene outside the property where the Seattle Storm wants to build a new practice arena.

By Erica C. Barnett

The city council’s land use committee voted Friday to fast-track a change to the land use code that will allow a new 50,000-square-foot practice facility for the Seattle Storm WNBA team on industrial land owned by Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in Interbay. Mayor Jenny Durkan, who is friends with (and received a campaign contribution from) Gilder, requested the change, which will allow the Storm to build a sports complex five times larger than what’s currently allowed.

“Seattle has a long tradition of investing in its professional sports franchises,” Gilder said during public comment at a committee meeting earlier this week, pointing to stadiums and practice facilities the city has helped build for the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders, and the new NHL team, the Kraken. “Now the city has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to equity, to step forward and expand that tradition of support to its sole professional women’s sports franchise, the Seattle Storm.”

On Friday, committee chair Dan Strauss said, “It’s important that we show the same support for our most winningest team, the Seattle Storm who have more championships than any of [Seattle’s men’s] teams … combined.”

Critics have argued that the exemption, which would bar any similar facilities in a one-mile radius once the Storm practice site is built, constitutes an illegal “spot zone” to benefit one property owner; defenders of the move, including Strauss, have said that because the bill is a code amendment, not a zoning change, it can’t be considered spot zoning. “Because [a sports practice facility] is a use that is already allowed in these zones, it cannot be inconsistent with the surrounding uses,” Strauss said.

Durkan’s office offered another reason they believe the proposal is “not a spot rezone”: Technically, it impacts 45 parcels, any one of whose owners could theoretically propose a sports complex before the Storm does. “Any owner of eligible property could make use of the provision,” a spokeswoman, Chelsea Kellogg, said. This is a legal fiction—in addition to Gilder, Storm star Sue Bird gave public comment in favor of the change, and Juarez suggested a “no” vote would be a blow against professional women’s sports teams and feminism at large—but it may not matter: Unless someone sues to stop the project, the mayor and council’s legal theory won’t have to stand up in court.

At the same time, and contradicting their claims that the sports facility will be virtually unnoticeable to the public, proponents of the practice facility argue that it would benefit the surrounding community by providing recreational space and creating a nexus with the Interbay Athletic Complex, which is located a few blocks away across busy West Dravus Street.

Beyond questions of legality, the exemption is completely at odds with the city’s policy of “preserving industrial lands for industrial use,” which was one of Durkan’s top campaign promises to labor unions who supported her. Just last month, a Durkan-appointed task force, which included Gilder, adopted a new industrial lands policy that includes new restrictions on housing and other non-industrial uses in industrial areas. That work group also proposed an amendment to the city’s give plan that would make it virtually impossible to rezone industrial land in the future. Durkan’s office has also proposed legislation that would set new limits on the size of retail stores and storage facilities in industrial areas.

Supporters say allowing a large new sports facility in an industrial area doesn’t conflict with the goal of “keeping industrial lands industrial,” because the legislation is narrowly tailored and wouldn’t produce the kind of car traffic and street life a retail building or housing would. Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents the area, said, “The planning department made a determination, which I agree with, that it’s somewhat compatible with the uses in the area”—a sliver of Interbay near the BNSF railroad tracks that is not currently in heavy industrial use. “It’s not like we’re taking this land and permanently getting rid of any industrial application for it” by changing the underlying zoning, he said.

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Kellogg, from Durkan’s office, noted that “indoor sports and recreation structures are similar in physical characteristics to industrial structures”—an observation that speaks more to what a building looks like from the outside (big, impenetrable, not for pedestrians) than what happens on the inside. “It does not impede progress towards the Mayor’s proposed strategy to strengthen and grow industrial and maritime sectors,” Kellogg said.

At the same time, and contradicting their claims that the sports facility will be virtually unnoticeable to the public, proponents of the practice facility argue that it would benefit the surrounding community by providing recreational space and creating a nexus with the Interbay Athletic Complex, which is located a few blocks away across five-lane West Dravus Street.

According to a staff report supporting the proposal, the location of the new practice facility “would allow for functional clusters of recreational activities that could support a variety of camps, competitions, and training opportunities”—an idea that, if it actually happened, would certainly result in a lot more regular people tromping through the industrial part of Interbay to access all those new recreational opportunities. Continue reading “Council Fast-Tracks Interbay Storm Practice Facility, Contradicting Brand-New Industrial Lands Policy”

Seattle’s Latest Industrial Plan Will Exclude Housing, Erect New Walls Around Industrial Districts

Evolution Block in Vancouver, B.C.—the kind of multistory industrial building that could come to Seattle under a new proposal for industrial areas. Photo via PC Urban.

by Erica C. Barnett

Walk through the stretch of Ballard that runs roughly from 14th to 8th Ave. NW between NW 53rd Street and Leary Way, and you’ll find no shortage of breweries and taprooms selling hoppy IPAs and farmhouse ales to take home or drink onsite, along with an eclectic assortment of food trucks offering everything from dim sum to burgers to Polish food. What you won’t see is housing: No apartments, condos, or artists’ lofts to break up the area’s single-story industrial monoculture.

The breweries have brought some street-level excitement to this part of Ballard, but the vitality is limited: You can drink beer and buy food from a truck here, but you can’t work in an office, browse in a retail store, or dine at a restaurant—and you certainly can’t live here. Tap rooms (and marijuana shops) represent the limit of what’s allowed in an industrial area like this one in Ballard, which will eventually be a short walk away from Sound Transit’s Ballard light-rail station.

The future of Seattle’s industrial land has been a subject of debate for decades, but the idea of integrating non-industrial uses into these areas, which make up about 12 percent of Seattle’s land, has accelerated in recent years as smaller, more human-scale industrial businesses have replaced smoke-belching traditional manufacturing enterprises in Seattle and across the country. Under a new strategy created at the behest of Mayor Jenny Durkan, however, innovation in these areas would be restricted to small edge zones on the outskirts of industrial districts—and housing would continue to be banned altogether.

In addition to those new restrictions, a proposed amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan (the document that governs land use and zoning in Seattle) would make it virtually impossible to take land out of industrial use for any reason—a zoning restriction on par with laws preserving Seattle’s exclusive single-family zones.

In effect, the amendment would bar anyone who owns industrial land from even asking permission to remove it from industrial use—say, to add housing in an area right next to a light rail station. Historically (including this year), individual land owners have asked permission to change their property from industrial to another use as part of the comprehensive plan amendment process, and historically, including this year, the city has rejected such requests.

On Monday, NAIOP Washington, a lobbying organization for commercial real estate developers, wrote a letter to the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development asking for more zoning flexibility within a quarter-mile of light rail stations and requesting a more flexible definition of “industrial” to allow a wider range of uses. And they asked the city to reject the proposed comprehensive plan amendment. “[W]e do not believe all 5,000 acres of our City’s industrial lands should be treated the same,” the letter, signed by NAIOP Washington director Peggi Lewis Fu, says.

“We believe in some areas, this work could go further… ensuring that this effort fully considers the billion-dollar taxpayer investment in current and future light-rail transit stations that fall within this study area,” the letter continues.

The new recommendations introduce the concept of “high-density employment” in industrial areas near transit stops—multistory industrial buildings that, in some cases, might include office space. In practice, this type of development would encourage a one-way in-migration to jobs and a one-way out-migration to homes, much as 20th-century transit and highway planning assumed people would commute to cities’ downtown cores from distant residential neighborhoods and suburbs.

Jessica Clawson, an attorney at the firm McCullough Hill Leary in Seattle, asked the city council’s land use committee last month to delay considering the comprehensive plan amendment until next year, when the city will have a better idea of where Sound Transit’s new stations in Interbay and Ballard will go.

“Why would the council docket and study a comp plan amendment now that would make it more difficult to consider these really important transportation decisions when making land use changes [in the future]?” she asked. Clawson’s firm is headed by longtime developer attorney (and political heavy hitter) Jack McCullough, who co-chaired the committee that produced the 2017 proposal.

The Industrial Innovation Network—a group of property owners who want to remove their land from industrial use, allowing them to develop it—has filed an appeal to the city’s determination of [environmental] nonsignificance for the amendment, arguing that the proposal would make it impossible for them to develop housing, including affordable housing, in historically industrial areas near light rail stations “In addition, the Proposal’s restriction of land to only industrial uses will cause some properties to remain vacant or underutilized, with buildings in a state of disrepair, resulting in blight,” the appeal, filed by McCullough Hill Leary, says. 

In a letter to OPCD a week before the IIN filed its appeal, Clawson argued that would take away property owners’ rights to “petition their government” for a land-use change, reduce the usefulness of light rail, and contribute to the housing shortage by taking land out of residential use, potentially “in perpetuity.” 

“Locking industrial lands into non-housing use (required by the MIC) will result in significant land use and transportation impacts,” the letter, signed by Clawson, says. In addition to the future light rail station next to Ballard’s brewery district, the SODO Manufacturing and Industrial Area includes a light-rail station that will eventually serve as a bustling transfer point for riders coming to and from West Seattle.

“Locking industrial lands into non-housing use (required by the MIC) will result in significant land use and transportation impacts,” the letter says. In addition to the future light rail station next to Ballard’s brewery district, the SODO Manufacturing and Industrial Area includes a light-rail station that will eventually serve as a bustling transfer point for riders coming to and from West Seattle.

The council voted to move the amendment forward; they haven’t acted on the industrial advisory group’s recommendations, which will face environmental review. The city hearing examiner’s office has the property owners’ appeal on its docket.

Although industrial areas enjoy an enviably low vacancy rate (about 5 percent, compared to an office vacancy rate of 15 percent), the definition of “industrial” continues to shift in ways that have led other cities (notably Portland) to allow some mingling of homes, shops, and restaurants in once walled-off industrial areas. The idea of allowing housing in industrial areas has long been off-limits in Seattle, but the city’s growth—even at the height of COVID, the city grew by 8,400 people, cementing our status as one of the fastest-growing US cities—may force the issue, especially in a city that restricts new apartments to a tiny sliver of its buildable land.

In Seattle, conversations about the future of industrial land have been slow and fitful. In 2016, then-mayor Ed Murray assembled a group of stakeholders—including industrial land owners, planners, developers, and maritime advocacy groups—to come up with a new framework for developing industrial areas in the future. The update was long overdue: Since 2007, when the city dramatically downzoned industrial land by placing strict size limits on office and retail uses, Seattle’s industrial areas have been effectively closed to non-industrial development—a status that keeps land costs lower (no competition with residential and office developers), but can produce dull streetscapes prone to potholes and blight.

“That first [set of meetings] started so contentiously that they couldn’t even have the two sides of the table in the same room for the first three meetings,” SODO Business Improvement Area director Erin Goodman recalled. The argument boiled down to “development version preservation of industrial land—this is a hot button issue down here.” Continue reading “Seattle’s Latest Industrial Plan Will Exclude Housing, Erect New Walls Around Industrial Districts”

It’s Time for a Biden-Era Mandatory Housing Affordability Plan

by Josh Feit

The report is out. Mandatory Housing Affordability: Fail.

With such solid results, how can I say that?

It’s true, the numbers are impressive. MHA dollars accounted for 45 percent of the city’s affordable housing spending in 2020, or $52.3 million. (MHA actually brought in $68.3 million total last year, and the city will carry over the additional $16 million in MHA money for 2021 affordable housing projects.)

And while the longtime Seattle Housing Levy’s $56.7 million accounted for more of 2020’s affordable housing spending, 48 percent, MHA actually created 110 more rent-restricted units than the venerated levy—698 funded by MHA versus 588 funded by the levy.

In short, this brand-new inclusionary housing mechanism, which came online in 2019 after five years of old-school neighborhood lawsuits and challenges, more than matched the levy, a 40-year-old property tax program that cost homeowners a median of $122 a year in 2016.

MHA is an affordable housing mandate that upzoned a sliver of Seattle’s exclusive single-family areas while requiring developers to either pay a fee, which goes into an affordable housing fund, or build a percentage of affordable units on site. MHA applies to every new multifamily or commercial building in the city. And it costs you nothing. Oh, and the $52.3 million for 698 units doesn’t even include the 104 on-site affordable housing units that MHA created; the city does not track on-site units as affordable housing dollars.

So, with such glowing stats, why “fail?”

I mean it the same way Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package was a failure and Democrats are now applauding Biden for going big on his $4.1 trillion infrastructure plan. In other words, if we’re getting a nearly-$70 million-a-year bang for our buck on affordable housing dollars from the polite MHA upzones the council passed in 2019, it’s time to do a Biden and go bigger.

If a bumper-bowling upzone was able to create a fund comparable to the Housing Levy without raising any taxes, imagine what a grown-up upzone would do for affordable housing.

MHA only upzoned 6 percent of the city’s single-family zones, which make up around 65 percent of the city’s developable land. Under MHA, the city also did some earlier upzones between 2017 and 2019 in parts of six  neighborhoods where some density was already allowed, such as downtown, the University District, South Lake Union, and 23rd Avenue in the Central District

Back when the council passed the final pieces of MHA two years ago, the city’s two at-large council members, Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda, were already playing Elizabeth Warren to the mayor’s Larry Summers. Caving to pressure from the slow-growth Seattle Times, former mayor Ed Murray scrapped his initial MHA upzone proposal, which would have raised the ceiling on height regulations in single family zones at large.

“For some, this housing affordability legislation goes too far,” González said from the council dais when the council passed MHA in March 2019, “for others it does not go far enough.” It was clear which side González was on. “So, let’s chat a little bit about that dynamic,” she said. “Contrary to the name of the Select Committee on Citywide MHA, this legislation is not even close to citywide. This legislation impacts a total of only 6 percent of existing areas currently and strictly zoned as single family home zones. That means even with the passage of MHA legislation, approximately 60 percent of the city of Seattle is still under the cloud of exclusionary zoning laws.” She went on to give a history lesson of racist housing covenants in Seattle.

Councilmember Mosqueda sounded the same note. “I’m sad that we’re not actually having a conversation about citywide changes,” she said. “I think that’s the next conversation to have. Larger changes that create a more inclusive Seattle. Again, this is just an effort to look at 6 percent of the single family zoning in our city.”

González is running for mayor this year, and Mosqueda is backing her. Here’s hoping González is actually committed to doing something about “the cloud of exclusionary zoning.” Not only because it will help create a more inclusive city, but according to the numbers, it would be good affordable housing policy.

Think about it. If a bumper-bowling upzone was able to create a fund comparable to the Housing Levy without raising any taxes, imagine what a grown-up upzone would do for affordable housing. While we created 1,300 units last year, we should be building a total of 244,000 net new affordable homes by 2040, according to the King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force, or about 12,000 a year.

Another important stat, one that’s not in the report: $10 million of all MHA proceeds to date have come from developments within the sliver of city land that used to be zoned exclusively single-family.

Upzoning the rest of the city—the part that remains exclusively single-family—would certainly help. Another important stat, one that’s not in the report: $10 million of all MHA proceeds to date have come from developments within the sliver of city land that used to be zoned exclusively single-family.

This is noteworthy. Here’s why. There are three main streams of MHA money: first, payments from developments in selected multifamily hubs that became subject to MHA in 2017, including parts of 23rd Ave. in the Central District, the University District, and Uptown; next, payments from developments in all multifamily zones, from the new MHA legislation that took effect in 2019; and also payments from developments in the upzoned sliver of former single-family zones.

Over the four years between 2016 and 2020, the hub upzones, which went into effect earlier, have generated about 60 percent of the money from MHA, most of that in 2020. But since 2019, when MHA dollars started flowing in from the multifamily areas and the former single-family areas, nearly a third of the additional money from those new revenue sources—$10 million of $36 million remaining total—has been from development in the sliver that used to be single-family.

That outsized stat indicates just how attractive these formerly verboten zones, which sit on the edges of existing urban centers and urban villages, are for new housing. If we actually upzoned all of the city’s exclusive single-family areas, instead of just six percent, we’d have a better chance at generating the money to build the affordable housing stock this city needs.

While the upzoned former single-family zones did generate $10 million for affordable housing, there is another MHA fail. None of the on-site MHA housing was built in those areas. That needs to change. Opening up the entire city to multifamily housing, as opposed to the begrudging 6 percent allotted in MHA, would create more options for on-site multifamily development in these zones themselves. Hopefully, the next conversation about upzones will address how to actually put multifamily housing in amenity-rich SFZs.

The name of this column is Maybe Metropolis. My verdict on MHA?  Emphasis remains on “maybe” until we do mandatory housing affordability right and make it actually citywide.

House Democrats Gut Pro-Renter Backyard Cottage Bill

by Leo Brine

As the legislative session in Olympia ended this week, Democratic lawmakers celebrated the list of historic, progressive bills they passed, such as a capital gains tax, a new clean fuels standard, and police reform.

But as usual, legislators’ attempt to increase access to affordable housing by changing outdated zoning rules  ended in disappointment.

Earlier this year, Sen. Marko Liias proposed legislation (SB 5235) to loosen restrictions on accessory dwelling units—secondary units, such as backyard cottages, that are “accessory” to single-family homes— in cities and counties that are required to plan under the state Growth Management Act. The bill would have banned local governments from imposing owner occupancy requirements for ADUs, except in limited circumstances.

Many cities and counties require property owners to live on site order to rent an accessory unit, effectively prohibiting situations in which renters occupy both the primary house and its secondary apartment. Allowing property owners to live elsewhere would have expanded opportunities for renters to live in cities, including in single-family areas that are often prohibitively expensive.

The original bill passed the senate easily 43-6. However, by the time the bill made it out back to the state senate from the house, it included new changes that effectively gutted the legislation. The bill that eventually passed includes a loophole allowing cities to opt out of the new restrictions and impose owner occupancy requirements on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, simply by going through a brief public feedback process. The changes prompted Liias to remark sarcastically, “Sometimes when we pass a bill out of the Senate and send it over to the House, they really transform it into something even better and stronger than it was before. … This is not one of those cases.”

In fact, one of the original supporters of the bill, the progressive Sightline think tank, sent a letter to Governor Jay Inslee this week asking him to veto several sections the House added to Liias’ bill, writing that the original bill “would have lifted local prohibitions on renters residing in properties with accessory dwelling units. These rules not only discriminate against renters, but are a major impediment to the addition of ADUs. The final version as amended by the House would solve neither problem, and all told, would likely amount to a step backward on ADU policy for the state.”

“The final version as amended by the House would …would likely amount to a step backward on ADU policy for the state.”

The changes to the bill began in the House Local Government Committee, whose chair, Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, North Seattle) told PubliCola the original bill was “a technical nightmare,” and “needed dramatic revision.” Calling the bill his committee passed a work-in-progress, Pollet said he expected other legislators to make further amendments before passing the bill.

Pollet’s amendments, however, did not seem technical. Nor was the House able to restore the bill to anything resembling its former self before sending it back to the senate for final passage. In his committee, Pollet scaled back Liias’ pro-renter mandate by allowing cities and counties to keep owner occupancy rules as long as they allowed property owners to apply for exemptions, leaving it up to cities to decide whether claims for exemptions were legitimate.

Pollet’s version would have also given cities two years after their next required GMA comprehensive plan update to implement the regulations. Washington cities and counties must update their comprehensive plans every eight years; under the current schedule, some jurisdictions would not have to update their owner occupancy rules until 2027.

Reflecting on the committee’s amendments, Sen. Liias said: “Cities don’t like being told what to do. A lot of cities are deeply suspicious of renters—they treat renters with disdain. I think ultimately the language in the house committee amendment reflected that anti-renter sentiment from cities.”

Continue reading “House Democrats Gut Pro-Renter Backyard Cottage Bill”