Category: Maybe Metropolis

Maybe Metropolis: Flatten the City

By Josh Feit 

With additional reporting by Maryam Noor

“There’s something I want you to try,” my friend said after we finished our burritos and stepped onto Pike St. to grab our bikes for the uphill ride home.

My pal, who used to write a bike blog in San Francisco and work at a bike shop there too, unlocked his Orbea Katu, a boutique Spanish brand, and nudged it toward me. “Let’s trade,” he said slyly—like we were 14, and he was offering me my first hit of pot. He took my banged-up 2009 Marin Kentfield, and I got on his $2,700 e-bike.

Minutes later, it seemed I actually had taken that imaginary puff of pot. I was giggling with glee as I coasted through Capitol Hill, cruising along at 18 miles an hour with the electric-assist motor doing just the right amount of work.

I was hooked. Less than a month later, I bought an e-bike. Not a fancy one like my friend’s—I’m not a bike dude like he is. I bought a basic model that replicated my pal’s ride well enough for an aging Gen-Xer like me who simply relies on bikes for commuting and meeting friends. It’s not, god forbid, for those nutso bike trips people seem to take all over the Pacific Northwest. I bought the bike from Rad Power Bikes, a budget-friendly Ballard-based all e-bike company, where prices average about $1,500, but go as low as $1,000.

Rad Bikes, with its friendly superstore in Ballard, may be on the cusp of bringing e-biking to the masses; described as “the largest e-bike in the US,” they already have 1,000 commercial customers, including Domino’s Pizza, and claim 200,000 Rad bikers worldwide.

Geared up from a $150 million investment in February, and planning to double its 325-person staff this year, Rad Bikes’ sales spiked nearly 300 percent year-over-year as of April 2020, according to a report from Geekwire.

Local bike shops that sell a mix of e-bikes and pedal bikes are seeing the e-bike spike too. Thomas Swann, a technician at Greenlake’s Gregg’s Cycle, a nearly century-old Seattle shop, said, “There definitely is a boom. [E-bike sales] are way up.” Swann estimates that just five years ago, Gregg’s sold about one e-bike for every 20 pedal bikes; now, he said, that ratio is more like one to five.

“More people biking, whether with electric motors or not, means more people who might be noticing how all the bike lanes seem to end whenever you get to a busy street.” —Seattle Bike Blog Editor Tom Fucoloro

Swann attributes the jump in sales to new technology, namely improvements to lithium-ion batteries.  “We’ve got batteries pretty much figured out to the point that is financially available to people. Batteries are only going to get better. It’s gonna skyrocket,” he said.

The drop in prices over the last decade has put a number of more-affordable e-bikes on the market. Recent COVID-era market factors stalled the price decline earlier this year, but companies like Rad are nudging the price-point trajectory down again.

Some Seattle bike snobs might look at Rad Bikes the same way coffee snobs viewed Starbucks in the early ‘90s—like it’s besmirching a secret handshake culture. But thankfully, not all longtime bike enthusiasts scoff at the booming user-friendly e-bike trend. In fact, it was my bike buddy who eagerly steered me to Rad Power bikes because he shares my pro-city, YIMBY philosophy that human-scale cities are better for the environment and the economy. And he realizes: City Hall is more likely to get serious about building that model city when biking is a central component of life here.

Noting how giddy I was after zooming up Capitol Hill that first night trying an e-bike, my non-bike-snob-bike-snob-friend said, “Yeah, it’s amazing. They flatten the city.”

That’s the perfect way to think about electric bikes—and not just because they magically negate the hills that intrude on so many Seattle rides (including every conceivable route to my Capitol Hill apartment). They help equalize transportation, flattening out the inequities that often complicate people’s access to work, childcare, groceries, and other daily to-dos. Much sturdier and heavier than traditional bikes, e-bikes don’t flinch at additional passengers and grocery bags. “When someone says, ‘Oh, you know, cycling is great for people who don’t have children,’” Davey Oil, owner of G & O Family Cyclery in Greenwood, quipped, “I’m just like, ‘Hold my juice box, I have three kids on this bike.’”

The League of American Bicyclists ranks “Washington state, particularly the Seattle area”  No. 1  for the E-bike market.

It’s no wonder. There’s a range of options, including:

Homegrown, single-brand shops such as  Hilltopper Electric Bike Company (which also does conversions) and Rad Power Bikes.

Local retailers that simply carry different brands of E-bikes such as G & O Family Cyclery, Electric & Folding Bikes Northwest, Seattle Electric Bike, and Seattle E-Bike.

National & International single-brand outlets such as EVELO and Pedego, and VanMoof

Custom shops that’ll convert your current bike to an E-Bike such as Bike Swift.

While $1,500 for a bike still might seem Team Bourgeois as opposed to Team Budweiser, “it’s also a lot less expensive than a car,” said Anna Zivarts, local bike advocate and Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington. “And,” she added, “it is my car.”

Zivarts, who recently swapped her traditional cargo bike for the motorized version, said her new e-bike is perfect for her and her kid. “The main reason I like it compared to a non-e-bike is that it allows me and the kid to take routes that have less car traffic, even if they’re really hilly,” she said. “There’s no flat routes from South Seattle to downtown that aren’t MLK Blvd., Beacon Ave., Rainier Ave., or Lake Washington Boulevard, all of which have pretty fast cars.” Zivarts said she avoids those intimidating streets now by biking right up the hilly Beacon Hill greenway or through Mt. Baker. “When I was tired before the e-bike,” she said,  “I’d often risk our safety by riding one of the flatter, busier streets. Now I don’t have to make that tradeoff.”

When G & O Family Cyclery opened its doors eight years ago with a consumer-friendly focus on catering to families, it mostly sold traditional cargo bikes and kids’ bikes. Electric assist bikes made up only about 10% of their sales. “Now,” G & O owner Oil said, “it’s become 100% of the bikes we sell.”

Meanwhile, Seattle’s bike share system, those red e-bikes you see everywhere, is up by 50,000 daily rides, a near 20% increase, compared to this time last year.

It’s worth noting: E-bikes outsold electric cars 2-to-1 in the U.S. in 2020. Despite the e-bike “throttle” option, which you can use to take a break from pedaling up a particularly rough hill, they’re still great for your health, and as opposed to electric cars, e-bikes are actually green because they don’t require highways and suburban-style infrastructure.

And p.s. to the macho road warrior crowd who say riding an e-bike is “cheating”: E-bikers like me are likely to get more exercise than they do on analog bikes. The fact that biking across town is no longer so daunting means I’m going to bike a lot more.

Longtime local bike advocate Tom Fucoloro, who has been writing Seattle Bike Blog since 2010, thinks the popularity of e-bikes is good news politically.

“It’s more people,” Fucoloro said about the current spike in e-bikes. “And more people biking, whether with electric motors or not, means more people who might be noticing how all the bike lanes seem to end whenever you get to a busy street. More people asking ‘Well, that neighborhood has bikes lanes, why doesn’t this one?’ When there’s more people asking those questions, within a couple days, they are knocking on the doors of City Hall.”

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Flatten the City”

Maybe Metropolis: Time Share

Instead of letting new spaces languish during “off hours,” let’s time share the public right-of-way throughout the day.

by Josh Feit

All summer, I’ve been setting up my computer and working afternoons at a picnic table under one of those outdoor dining canopies—one of the approximately 230 that have sprung up during the pandemic. My impromptu afternoon office is at E. Harrison St. on Capitol Hill next to Rione XIII, an Italian spot that seats diners outside under the plywood and plastic roofing all evening. When I settle in there, the restaurant is closed. Typically, I’m the only one using the space at that time of day. I did walk by on Tuesday night last week—the restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday nights—and notice that a singer-songwriter with a PA, microphone, and guitar had commandeered the place for a performance; a small audience had gathered.

Turning city right-of-way into curbside seating instead of parking spots is one of the ways we’ve reconfigured city space during the pandemic—and not just for sanctioned dining it seems, but also for DIY uses such as music performances and potential co-working spots.

This amorphous moment has created an opportunity for the city to harness a relatively untapped zoning asset: Time. Designating the same space for different uses at different times—like applying the concept of “adult swim” to city spaces— could remake Seattle, particularly if we apply the time-share concept with sustainability and social justice in mind. I’m definitely not talking about Ping-Pong in the Park.

We saw some examples of businesses using time creatively during the pandemic—senior-only shopping hours at grocery stores, for example. But pre-pandemic, with only a handful of exceptions, the city has never truly (or formally) explored the tactic of reserving the same space for different uses at different times. Closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars on summer Sundays—and opening it for people to walk, bike, and roll—is perhaps the most notable, and coolest, example, along with (briefly) making a few blocks of Capitol Hill’s nightlife district pedestrian-only on weekend evenings, and turning Ballard Ave. over to a farmers’ market on Sundays.

We have an opportunity to harness an untapped zoning asset: Time. Designating the same space for different uses at different times could remake the city for the better.

Generally speaking, Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development Interim Director Rico Quirindongo is excited about the way the pandemic has upended traditionally designated uses.

Prior to COVID-19, he said, “the public realm was owned by single-occupancy vehicles,” and “parking was king. What has happened in a time of COVID is a transformation of that, where [the public realm] was assessed differently. The necessity was around public health. We couldn’t gather indoors. So there was a land grab, if you will, where we the people took it back. We took it back for gathering, we took it back for protest, we took it back for celebrating, we took it back for retail. Are all those things that we want to keep? Hell to the yes.”

As the former chair of the Pike Place Market PDA Council, Quirindongo says he sees the potential for divvying uses up by time. The idea is already afoot organically in the Market, he says. “With Pike Place Market, the lines have been blurred between around to whom does the space belong, and when does it belong to whom. Sometimes it is a marketplace, sometimes it is closed. Sometimes people are walking down the middle the streets, sometimes it is a loading zone. Sometimes it is single-occupancy vehicles. And when and how that happens, is just left up to the organic nature of people and time.” He notes, though, whenever the PDA broached the idea of formally closing the the block to cars in favor of pedestrians, the businesses told them no. Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Time Share”

What’s a YIMBY To Do? Part 2

Mayoral Candidate Lorena González Photo credit: Steve Dipaola

by Josh Feit

Historically, Seattle mayoral campaigns have been frustrating for voters like me. Pro-city YIMBYs are usually stuck picking between two disappointing choices. There’s the establishment candidate who stands by Seattle’s formula of sequestering development downtown and into select hubs, while obediently keeping density out of exclusionary single-family neighborhoods. Or there’s the populist candidate for whom development is a dirty word that only means one thing—gentrification.

Fortunately, with a wide-open field this year, there’s room for an urbanist to defy Seattle’s traditional, binary script and step in with a progressive third way that calls for transit-oriented neighborhoods, where density and mixed-use zoning can remake our city for equity. (The pandemic has certainly provided breathing room to this new vision by letting voters actually experience their neighborhoods as more than just bedroom communities for downtown.)

In March, when the race first got underway, I flagged two potentially promising candidates, Jessyn Farrell and Andrew Grant Houston, who could step in and rally the long-overlooked pro-city constituency—Farrell due to her record of transit advocacy or Houston with his exciting to-do list.

Last week, however, at a mayoral candidate forum co-sponsored by the MASS Coalition and other key urbanist groups (moderated by PubliCola’s own Erica C. Barnett), a different candidate emerged as the unflinching, outspoken leader of the pro-urban cause: Seattle City Council president Lorena González. González is an at-large city council member who was first elected in 2015 as a police accountability activist and attorney.

Here’s what I wrote about González in March, explaining why I chose to highlight Farrell and Houston: “That’s not to say police accountability superstar González hasn’t voted for YIMBY legislation, but it’s far from the focus of her agenda.” However, when Barnett pressed the candidates to articulate their pro-city agenda during last week’s forum, González flew the urbanist flag more unapologetically and forcefully than anyone else in the crowded field. It’s also worth noting that González has already won two citywide races—she was re-elected in 2017—and has a history of supporting progressive legislation at City Hall.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by González’s righteous edge on urbanism; when the city deigned to modestly increase density on the fringes of Seattle’s single-family zones back in 2019, González was all in, saying let’s do this already, and also saying it wasn’t nearly enough. She used the occasion to school the NIMBYs about the city’s “cloud of exclusionary zoning.” 

The fight to rid the city of exclusionary zoning as a front-and-center-policy choice seems to define González’s agenda. Asked to name the single most important thing she could do as mayor to fight climate change, González, unlike any of the other candidates at the forum, went right after single-family zoning.

Listen to her connect the dots: “We have to build a city that gives people incentive to get out of cars and stay in their neighborhoods. We can build that kind of city across every single neighborhood. I think the most important thing we can do is dismantle exclusionary zoning laws that create the most expensive and the least climate-friendly buildings for living. Those are single-family homes.”

“I think the most important thing we can do is dismantle exclusionary zoning laws.”—City Council President Lorena González

The once-radical belief that single-family zones are exclusionary, and that easing Seattle’s affordable housing crisis will require eliminating them, is finally widely accepted. And as we pointed out earlier this week, most candidates generically support the concept. González, however, goes beyond just checking that box; she connects all her dots to the issue, making equitable and complete neighborhoods the centerpiece of her city planning vision. (Newcomer Houston is adamant about getting rid of single-family zoning too.)

Several of González’s answers to questions during the forum were defined by remaking Seattle’s neighborhoods.

In her opening statement, she rushed right to the comprehensive plan, the city’s governing neighborhood planning document, saying city hall needed to take the pending 2024 Comp Plan update as a chance to “build a 15-minute city”—a guiding urbanist principle that means every household citywide should have 15-minute access, “without relying on a single-occupant vehicle,” to goods and services.

And when asked during the “Yes or No” lightning round whether she supported making SDOT’s COVID-19-era pedestrian-friendly streets permanent, González not only said Yes, duh, but felt compelled to add: “Already working on it. And I would also make sure that they are not mixed modality.” In fact, earlier in the forum, she brought this issue up on her own, segueing into an anti-car tirade: “I love the [pandemic-era pedestrian streets], but they are still mixed modalities. We need to eliminate cars on those streets to make sure they continue to be safe, and will be safe for those of us who are not in a steel machine.”

González’s star turn at the MASS Coalition forum also featured this refreshing bit of impatience with Seattle’s car-centric status quo. Asked if she would take action (where the current mayor has not) to set up an enforcement-camera pilot to protect bus-only lanes and bike lanes, she said: “Yes, and yes. And I would just do it. I don’t think we need a pilot project to know that this is something that is effective.”

Lest you think former police accountability attorney González, with her history of taking on biased policing, has subbed out her racial justice lens for a pro-transit lens—nope. She added: “I will also say, it’s really important to make sure we are not creating any disproportionate or disparate impacts on low income or people of color who might be targeted through the automated enforcement.”

Urbanism and social justice have been inching toward each other for nearly a decade, but the over-simplistic dynamics of Seattle’s mayoral elections have thwarted the smart combo by forcing pro-city voters to choose one or the other. No longer.

Ultimately, this is the power of González’s urbanism. Just as her call for multifamily housing in Seattle’s exclusive neighborhoods is fueled by her visceral sense of racism (go to the 2:06:18 mark for  her 2019 history lesson about redlining), so are her calls for transit access.

Urbanism and social justice have been inching toward each other for nearly a decade, but the over-simplistic dynamics of Seattle’s mayoral elections have thwarted the smart combo by forcing pro-city voters to choose one or the other. No longer. Judging from her momentum at the MASS Coalition forum, González is the right woman at the right time to press the Jane Jacobs agenda.

Two important footnotes.

1) Houston, who is young,  BIPOC, and queer, also runs urbanism through a smart social justice lens. For example, he stood out during the MASS Coalition forum lightning round by coming out against congestion pricing, saying simply, “No, it’s inequitable.” Everyone—even the unimpressive Bruce Harrell—gets that congestion pricing will hit poorer people harder because housing prices force poor people into far-flung, car-dependent suburban living. I respect Houston’s hard-line stance (as did ECB!), but the ultimate wisdom of charging people to drive downtown (González said yes) can easily be designed to exempt poor people. As mayor, there’s no question Latinx González will craft a just congestion pricing program.

Yeah yeah, they’ve got their spoiled-brat campaign against Sawant (which reads like a Brett Kavanaugh temper tantrum)

And, here’s a thought about the council election:

2) If you believe the Seattle Times, establishment polling firms, and conventional wisdom, Seattle voters are fed up with the City Council—their woke politics, their YIMBY POV, their commitment to organized labor, their “permissive” (harm reduction) approach to homelessness, and the fact that they had the nerve to hold Carmen Best accountable for the SPD.

Reality check: NO LEGIT CANDIDATE CHOSE TO RUN AGAINST THE COUNCIL’S AT-LARGE LEADER OF THESE AWESOME POLITICS, Position 8 Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda.

Probably because the establishment is gaslighting you, and they actually know there’s no way to beat Mosqueda, because people actually agree with her progressive, YIMBY agenda. Meanwhile, the establishment’s former bestie, the mayor, dropped out of her bid for reelection. Hmmm.

Yeah, yeah, they’ve got their spoiled-brat campaign against Sawant (which reads like a Brett Kavanaugh temper tantrum), but that’s a longstanding obsession, and it’s unrelated to Mosqueda’s specific, get-shit done, agenda.

Josh@PubliCola.com

Maybe Metropolis: Launching Seattle’s New “Neighborhood Character”

District 6 Councilmember Dan Strauss’ legislation is an acknowledgment that Seattle’s neighborhood character is changing.

by Josh Feit

City Council member Dan Strauss passed legislation this week that extends the city’s sidewalk and curbside permitting program for Seattle businesses for another year. Standing next to one of the semi-permanent “pergolas” that now line Ballard Avenue, Strauss said, “we want them here forever.” Mike Stewart, head of the Ballard Alliance, noted the “great symbiotic relationship between restaurants, retailers, and the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market. By supporting any one of those,” Stewart said, customers help support the neighborhood’s whole urban core.

It’s a good start. In fact, I inaugurated the “Maybe Metropolis” column during the tumult of the pandemic last Fall by seizing on the street seating program as a promising sign that the COVID-19 crisis was unlocking Seattle’s larger urbanist sensibility.

But…

Strauss’ legislation doesn’t fully capitalize on this pivotal moment. Public momentum is currently pushing Seattle in an urban direction. In just one year, the city has now issued 233 outdoor restaurant permits, compared to about 384 outdoor dining permits issued over the previous 12 years combined.

Obviously, part of that increase is related to that fact that the permits were free this year; ordinarily there’s a square footage charge and a $232 up-front free. Nonetheless, this year’s permits represent an increase of more than 700 percent over the previous years’ average—a tremendous spike.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s that Seattle’s “neighborhood character” has a different personality type than we thought. Long a coded excuse against everything from more mother-in-law apartments, to triplexes, to nighttime lights in parks, it turns out Seattle’s “neighborhood character” is far more malleable and exciting than Seattle’s reactionary reflex suggests.

If we miss this opportunity to transform Seattle’s non-downtown neighborhoods on a grander scale than simply allowing outdoor seating while failing to make our local communities places that actually support our lives—as opposed to supporting Stepford lives—we will have squandered 2021’s urban revelation.

Certainly, some of the pent-up energy is specific to the pandemic, but given that trends like working from home were already in play prior to 2020—teleworking in Seattle increased 113 percent between 2010 and 2019—it seems the pandemic has actually revealed, rather than invented, neighborhood needs and preferences.

For example, the jump in working from home was not a function of Seattle’s simultaneous population boom, as it dramatically outpaced other modes like driving (which actually decreased) and walking. The need for more neighborhood options to do business, shop, and go out nearby isn’t going away if people continue to work in greater numbers at home.

The pandemic has actually revealed, rather than invented, neighborhood needs and preferences..

The change in mood that has coincided with the need for more activated neighborhoods has certainly nudged the city to already relax some rigid rules this past year. In addition to making it easier for businesses to set up sidewalk and street dining, the council has also eased restrictions on small home businesses and made some streets pedestrian and bike only zones.

It’s a good look. But rather than taking a piecemeal approach, council members need to think comprehensively about making all our city neighborhoods more neighbor-friendly. This means recalibrating zoning (more density and uses), restriping existing pavement (more bus and bike lanes), and retaking the public right of way (with bioswales, bike racks, P-Patches, microparks, and closing streets to cars.)

In March, I published a list of seven neighborhood Must Dos for meeting this moment, which mostly focused on increasing housing density in non-downtown neighborhoods (end single family zoning, please!) and increasing the density of indie businesses as well. Along those lines, I wrote: “With hundreds of businesses getting street (or sidewalk) seating permits … it needs to be a permanent option.” Since the council seems to be responding to the zeitgeist, I’d like to take advantage of the momentum and offer some more necessary fixes for Seattle’s neighborhoods.

Because District 6 Councilmember Strauss is showing such leadership on this issue, I’m proposing Ballard, which makes up the bulk of District 6, as the first neighborhood to implement the following recommendations for acknowledging and activating our new neighborhood character.

We can call it the Ballard Action District, or BAD.

Ballard Ave.

First, while allowing multifamily housing in Seattle’s exclusive single-family zones must be central to any plan to reinvent our neighborhoods, let’s start by upzoning the real estate that’s adjacent to our neighborhood parks and schools, creating Parks Oriented Development (POD) and Schools Oriented Development (SOD).

Eighty-nine percent of the city’s parks and open spaces are in single family zones. Similarly, the vast majority of the city’s top-performing elementary schools are in single-family areas. Let’s give more people access. In order to redistribute these assets, let’s start undoing those single-family enclaves, which make up 65 percent of the city’s developable land, by prioritizing real estate around parks and schools for multi-family and affordable housing.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Launching Seattle’s New “Neighborhood Character””

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.

Josh@PubliCola.com

The Urbanist Case Against the Homelessness Charter Amendment

by Josh Feit

Last week, I channeled the progressive opposition to what I’m calling the sweeps and shelter initiative—a proposed charter amendment that couples spending on homelessness with a trigger for sweeps.

Short version: Combining these divergent approaches in one initiative is an attempt by pro-sweeps liberals to rationalize a law-and-order crackdown on homeless people by co-opting “compassion.” The amendment literally codifies the “Of course we’re compassionate, but…” mantra into the city charter. The tell: There’s no funding for the housing part of the initiative.

This week, I’ll channel the urbanist argument against the charter amendment, which begins, actually, with the one pro-urbanist element of the proposal: It says “to accelerate the production of emergency and permanent housing” the city “shall, to the full extent permitted by state law, waive land use code and regulation requirements as necessary to urgently site [emergency and permanent housing]…”

It goes on to say the city must waive permitting fees, put projects first in line to expedite permitting, and refund city-imposed project costs. Hear, hear!

This nod to YIMBYism correctly identifies that Seattle’s land use and zoning codes squash housing development.

Unfortunately, this promising language ends up highlighting the limited scope of the charter amendment. The rules are only waived for “housing serving homeless individuals.”

The urbanist approach to homelessness understands that the problem is larger than its symptoms—homelessness—by identifying the cause of homelessness: A dearth of affordable housing.

But the charter amendment misses this larger, systematic problem and then exacerbates it by opting for liberal tinkering. The amendment calls for 12 percent of the city’s general fund (about $190 million) to go to shelter and services through a new human services fund, or about one percent higher than what the city will spend this year. Slightly recalibrating the city budget this way to dedicate money to homelessness, creating the illusion of action, will unwittingly promote this type of spending as the solution, and take political pressure off the city to do what actually needs to be done: Change the city’s zoning rules, so we can meet housing demand with housing supply. For example, 75 percent of the city’s residential land is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses. If you haven’t heard, prohibiting multifamily housing is class war from above.

Spending more dollars on the symptoms of housing scarcity, such as tents in parks, will take the city’s eyes of the actual problem: Housing scarcity.

Spending more dollars to address the symptoms of housing scarcity, such as tents in parks, will take the city’s eyes off the actual problem: Housing scarcity. As I said, Seattle currently spends about $190 million on programs for people experiencing homelessness, including shelter. While I’m all for increasing those dollars to help people in crisis, I don’t harbor any illusions that it’s the way to end the crisis.

The only way to do that is to understand that the real crisis is the affordable housing crisis and the real solution is to build more affordable housing stock. All told, through the Housing Levy, the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, incentive zoning, the Multi-Family Housing Tax Exemption program, and other funds, Seattle spent around $115 million on affordable housing in 2020.

It’s clearly not enough. The money translated into about 1,300 affordable units, or about 11,000 units shy of what we need to be creating annually. In order to reset our housing economy so more people can actually afford to live here, we need a total of 244,000 net new affordable homes by 2040, according to the King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force. Our current spending doesn’t come close.

Talking in regional numbers brings up another urbanist critique of the charter amendment proposal: An isolated Seattle response to homelessness will be about as successful as a climate action policy that caps carbon emissions in New York, but not in Texas. Urbanism is about community: creating sustainable metro regions that are connected by sympatico transit, land use, environmental, and housing policy. It’s why we created the King County Regional Homelessness Authority last year, and recently hired a CEO. Seattle shouldn’t undermine this approach, particularly not with a charter amendment that awkwardly justifies a crackdown policy.

Our homelessness policy needs to be about building more affordable housing. An affordable housing approach will check poverty and the downward spiral into homelessness. The cruelty of the sweeps and shelter initiative is that it blames homeless people for the homelessness crisis. It’s like addressing police murders of African Americans by telling African Americans to stop getting pulled over.

Josh@PubliCola.com

Maybe Metropolis: The Sweeps and Shelter Initiative

by Josh Feit

When I think about the charter amendment on homelessness that’s making its way to the November ballot, I’m reminded of the “Roads and Transit” debates that roiled Seattle progressives back in the late 2000s. In order to pass transit expansion at the polls, transit advocates felt compelled to couple their light rail vision with a roads package to ensure universal buy-in.

Yeah. No. Voters soundly rejected the 2007 measure, and it wasn’t until transit advocates came back a year later with a light rail-only measure that voters approved this region’s historic transit expansion plan. The 2021 version of “Roads and Transit” appears to be the charter amendment on homelessness, which boils down to “Sweeps and Shelter.”

In this instance, housing advocates, such as Downtown Emergency Center, the Public Defender Association, and Chief Seattle Club have signed on with “Compassion Seattle,” the Tim Burgess-led campaign behind the initiative; former council member Burgess, who once pushed anti-panhandling legislation, is the chief proponent of the sweeps and shelter combo. (Actually, it’s even less than that because although it requires the city to spend money on shelter—or housing, but let’s be real about which is cheaper and therefore more likely to happen—it doesn’t provide any new funds to balance sweeps with the shelter half of the equation.)

Housing advocates seem to believe voters won’t back a housing solution without the un-compassionate sweeps component. Admittedly, this time, they’re likely right. Polling is reportedly off the charts in favor of removing homeless encampments from around the city.

But this should raise a question for progressives: Why the need to couple the issues? If the polling is so definitive, and the establishment doesn’t need the do-gooders, why has Compassion Seattle gone out of its way to enlist them and present itself as a smiley coalition?

For starters, the establishment wants to avoid a divisive campaign; a broad coalition is good karma, even if they don’t actually need one. That’s one interpretation. Here’s another, not mutually exclusive from the earnest one: Compassion Seattle has pulled one over on the left: It’s not that the housing advocates need the “Seattle is Dying” vote, it’s that the pro-sweeps people need the housing advocates.

It’s not that the housing advocates need the “Seattle is Dying” vote, it’s that the pro-sweeps people need the housing advocates.

Given the pro-sweeps polling, how can this be? Like this: Yes, a sweeps initiative would likely pass without the homeless advocates signing on. For now. But given the U.S. Supreme Court’s December 2019  decision not to reconsider the 9th Circuit ruling in Martin v Boise saying cities cannot punish homeless people for sleeping outside without offering adequate alternatives, any sweeps law is vulnerable to a challenge from homeless advocates. So, while the current political zeitgeist seems to favor a sweeps-only program, the legal reality does not.

By co-opting homeless advocates into their cause now (or scaring them with polling numbers), Compassion Seattle has given themselves insurance against a substantive future challenge to sweeps. Consider: The city already has the legislative authority to remove encampments if they offer people adequate alternatives to sleeping outside. One way to inoculate sweeps against a future Martin v Boise challenge is to formally tie them to the compassionate idea of housing and shelter by bringing housing advocates on board.

To be clear: Most homeless advocacy groups (as opposed to groups that receive city funds for their own shelter and housing programs) have not weighed in on this initiative. But the ones that are on board, largely institutional players that often work with the mainstream political class and who arguably have something to gain if the city commits to funding housing, are enough. Their presence gives the general public the impression that the sweeps and shelter agenda—the notion that the city shouldn’t build low-income housing unless it also adopts a punitive sweeps policy— has gotten a stamp of approval from the left.

Homeless advocates shouldn’t fall for this. They’ve been right all along. Funding shelter and housing as a standalone policy is the way to address the current crisis.

Homeless advocates should call sweeps proponents’ bluff and let Compassion Seattle run an initiative without them, so they’ve got the political credibility to challenge sweeps when the city starts using the initiative’s overly broad language to make “public spaces open and clear of encampments” via sweeps.

Otherwise, once sweeps and shelter become intertwined, and the stigma of sweeps is removed (“Oh, don’t worry, the city also has to spend money on housing”), the inhumanity of an overly aggressive policing to address homelessness will become the norm. If the left signs off on this carrot and stick paradigm, they will cede the point that sweeps are an inherently logical policy.

Ever since the call for sweeps started turning into a political movement, proponents of sweeps haven’t been able to ignore the compelling argument from the left: Sweeps are unjust if there isn’t any housing available. Funding housing is already a compassionate policy in its own right. Sweeps are not.

In other words, a shelter (and, more importantly, housing) policy does not need a sweeps policy to be worthy of the name “Compassion Seattle.” Let’s not blur these divergent approaches to homelessness by joining them at the hip. Simply providing adequate shelter and housing will do away with the need for encampments (and thus sweeps).

You’ll notice, the initiative’s housing component doesn’t come with any money.

Housing advocates should let the resentment against homeless encampments dissipate as the pressures of the pandemic begin to recede, and follow the lessons of the “Roads and Transit” story by supporting a “housing only” program that actually puts up the money to help the homeless; that’s what the right is afraid of and that’s why they’ve co-opted the idea and strategically tied it to their sweeps agenda. I repeat: The initiative’s housing component doesn’t come with any money.

Again, the city already has the legislative wiggle room to sweep homeless people. Why run the risk of fortifying it against a legal challenge by enshrining it in law as a moral twin of housing?

Maybe Metropolis: Outdated Environmentalism Stalls Pro-Housing Legislation in Olympia

Despite his old-school, anti-development environmentalism, Accessory Dwelling Units fit right into Rep. Pollet’s North Seattle district. He should stop stalling them in cities statewide.

By Josh Feit

Back in 2017, the environmental group Futurewise had an “OK Boomer” moment when it came to light that two of their board members, Jeffrey Eustis and Dave Bricklin, were independently suing the city of Seattle to stop two affordable housing initiatives: The city wanted to increase the production of accessory dwelling units (also known as granny flats) and upzone a small portion of Seattle’s exclusive single-family zones to accommodate more density.

The old-school, anti-development environmentalists (Eustis against ADUs and Bricklin against zoning increases) didn’t grok that Futurewise’s up-to-date vision of environmentalism now prioritized urban density as a component of equity and sustainability. After years of process monkeywrenching, Eustis, representing the Queen Anne Community Council, and Bricklin, representing the Wallingford Community Council, failed to stop Seattle’s zoning changes. In an appropriate denouement that signaled its shift forward, Futurewise replaced the anti-development pair (who were both founding board members) with new faces, including Angela Compton, the young woman who actually led the grassroots campaign to pass the city’s upzone agenda. Ouch.

Futurewise, currently advocating for a slate of pro-density bills in the state legislature, may be experiencing yet another “OK Boomer” moment, as longtime North Seattle State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle) has already tabled a Futurewise-backed bill that would have encouraged more ADUs in cities statewide.

Clinging to outdated anti-development tropes, Pollet (who got some naive positive press last week for denouncing a boneheaded Building Industry Association of Washington propaganda video) has been the number-one opponent of the inclusive, pro-housing agenda in Olympia over the last several legislative sessions.

For three years straight, Pollet, the chair of the pivotal House Local Government Committee, has sabotaged a series of pro-housing bills that would have reformed ADU laws in urban areas by prohibiting owner occupancy requirements, eliminating parking mandates, loosening minimum lot size and square footage requirements, and getting rid of street improvement mandates. The urban planning nerds at Sightline get into the weeds of the latest ADU bills here.

By the way, I understand that cities need to do something more dramatic than add ADUs to housing stock if they want to successfully address the affordable housing crisis, but it’s a necessary first step to dismantling exclusionary zoning rules.

And the numbers in Seattle, Tacoma, California, and Oregon show that reforms like these  do increase ADU production. For example, after Seattle adopted new rules in 2019 to allow two ADUs per lot and eliminate parking and owner occupancy mandates, the numbers soared. In fact, ADU production grew 69 percent in Seattle in 2020 compared to 2018. The fact that this swift growth represents an increase from 227 new ADUs to 566 just illustrates the need for more far-reaching pro-density policies.

A quick history lesson: In 2019, Pollet watered down a pro-ADU bill proposed by Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33, Kent) and supported by Reps. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), and Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle, Vashon Island)—to the point that the policy architects behind the bill, Sightline, pulled their support. After that, the legislation died.

In 2020, after Gregerson passed another sweeping pro-ADU bill through Fitzgibbon’s Environment and Energy Committee, Pollet voted against it in the Appropriations Committee (even though it was watered down), and it eventually died in the Rules committee.

The legislature did pass another pro-ADU bill that year. However, it was dramatically watered down; the original bill would have gotten rid of owner occupancy requirements, allowed two ADUs per lot, and eliminated parking requirements for ADUs within a half mile of transit. The final bill got rid of the first two reforms and sliced down the new parking rule to a quarter mile.

This year, Pollet’s committee tabled yet another best-practices ADU bill that was proposed by Gregerson and supported by Seattle progressives like Macri and Kirsten Harris-Talley (D-37, Seattle). And then, last week,  Pollet and his committee gutted SB 5235, an additional pro-housing bill, this one sponsored by Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Mukilteo); Liias passed the legislation out of the senate 46-3 with support from Seattle progressives such as Rebecca Saldaña (D-37, Seattle) and Joe Nguyen (D-34, Seattle).

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Outdated Environmentalism Stalls Pro-Housing Legislation in Olympia”

Maybe Metropolis: What’s a YIMBY to Do?

by Josh Feit

It’s mayoral election season. And once again, Seattle’s intransigent ideological factions are seeking the candidate who most aligns with their agenda. As candidates vie to consolidate support, this makes for entertaining political contortions.

On the candidate side in recent races, this has been embarrassing (Tim Burgess trying to be cool by setting up headquarters on Capitol Hill in 2013); disingenuous (Mike McGinn assuring people he wasn’t going to fight the tunnel in 2009); or awkward (Cary Moon trying to woo Nikkita Oliver supporters in 2017.)

On the voter side, things can be even rougher. For example, who the heck is a YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) voter supposed to support when Seattle’s dominant factions—KUOW yuppies turned Make-Seattle-Great-Again stalwarts, KEXP Gen-Xers turned provincial populists,  and “Seattle is Dying” KOMO voters—frame the debate.

I wrote a YIMBY manifesto last week (short version: Build multi-family housing in single family zones, support small business in every neighborhood, preserve cultural spaces citywide, and establish civic services across Seattle, all overlaid with an accessible, seamless transit and pedestrian network.)

But since urbanist Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda isn’t running for mayor, things are a bit tricky for upzone-infill-Green Metropolis nerds like me, who want a departure from the same old “downtown” vs. “neighborhood” mayoral campaign season script. (And p.s., the Seattle Times vs. Stranger divide isn’t much of a guide anymore; their standoff lost meaning when both publications went for testosterone socialist Jon Grant over Mosqueda in 2017’s citywide council contest.)

Race is going to be a major factor in 2021, which you’d think would help the YIMBY cause. After all, YIMBYs have put exclusive single-family zoning on notice; allowing more affordable multi-family housing in single-family zones is the number one YIMBY agenda item, if not obsession.

But nope. Both the KEXP and KUOW factions (which include Millennials too, by the way) think developers are akin to Trumpists (um, aren’t the anti-development voters the ones with the keep-people-out pathology?) That contradiction aside, thanks to widespread anti-developer sentiment, the pro-housing position that’s central to the Yes-in-My-Back-Yard voter will undoubtedly get suffocated by easy anti-gentrification soundbites.

I don’t know how many times I have to say this: Gentrification is happening now, in the current context of Seattle’s protected single-family zone paradigm, not in some imagined bogeyman context where developers supposedly have access to the majority of Seattle’s neighborhoods. The NIMBY fear-mongering argument reminds me of Trump showing video of riots that happened during Trump’s presidency and saying: “This is Joe Biden’s America!”

Since the contours of Seattle politics make it hard for candidates to run on the pro-neighborhood-housing, pro-neighborhood-business, pro-transit, pro-rights-of-way (plural), pro-nightlife, and pro-harm reduction agenda, what’s a YIMBY to do?

If there’s one thing establishment and populist candidates always agree on, it’s that allowing development in single family zones is inimical to Seattle’s character. This is your moment YIMBY. Step in and step up for a pro-housing agenda.

Well, there’s conceptual apartment buildings architect Andrew Grant Houston, aka “Ace the Architect,” a young, Black and Latino, queer, 100% YIMBY candidate, who has stunned everyone with his early fundraising ($60K raised, according the most recent Seattle Ethics and Elections reports).

Some of Seattle’s most visible bright lights, big city advocates have contributed (at least nominally) to Houston’s campaign, including: former mayoral candidate Moon, Futurewise executive director Alex Brennan, Share the Cities activist Laura Bernstein, Urbanist blog writers Ryan Packer and Doug Trumm, Seattle disabilities/transit advocate Anna Zivarts, and Mosqueda herself, though Mosqueda donated much more to council colleague and mayoral candidate Lorena González. (Houston is currently Mosqueda’s interim policy manager at City Hall.)

Houston, whose campaign website vision page says Seattle should operate on a 24/7 basis (I agree!) and that personal vehicles should no longer exist in Seattle by 2030 (I want to agree?), is on the board of a revamped Futurewise, the environmental nonprofit that’s leading the cause of urban density in the state legislature right now.

Gentrification is happening now, in the current context of Seattle’s protected single-family zone paradigm, not in some imagined bogeyman context where developers supposedly have access to the majority of Seattle’s neighborhoods.

There is also recently announced candidate Jessyn Farrell, a former progressive state rep from North Seattle who used to head up Transportation Choices Coalition, the premier pro-transit advocacy non-profit in the state. She currently works for Nick Hanauer’s left-progressive think tank, Civic Ventures (which, full disclosure, is a contributor to this site). As a legislator in Olympia, from 2013 to 2017, Farrell was vice chair of the House Transportation Committee and led the 2015 legislative fight for Sound Transit 3’s authorizing legislation.

For Farrell, an urban planning progressive, transit goes hand in hand with housing. She was instrumental in adding amendments that A) tied the authorizing legislation to a commitment from Sound Transit to contribute $20 million to an affordable housing fund and B) helped activate the agency’s transit-oriented  development policy; the TOD legislation has helped create, or put into the housing pipeline, 1,500 affordable units near transit stations to date.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: What’s a YIMBY to Do?”

Maybe Metropolis: Seven Must Dos for Seattle’s Recovery

Public right-of-way isn’t just for cars anymore.

by Josh Feit

In a recent opinion column for the Seattle Times, Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rachel Smith and Downtown Seattle Association President and CEO Jon Scholes published “7 ‘must dos’ for downtown Seattle’s recovery,” a prescription for renewing downtown after the pandemic. Their list is premised on the idea that, “Every great city has a great downtown. Downtowns are the heartbeat of a region.” In other words, downtowns make the city go.

I like a lit-up downtown as much as anyone, but their column represents pre-pandemic thinking. The focus on “saving downtown” that’s emerging right now (most recently as a nascent local campaign issue) is a revamped version of a bygone Seattle policy agenda dressed up as urbanism; while it appears to be about bright lights and big cities, following this fussy narrative will simply drag us right back to where we’ve always been stuck: In a mindset that promotes suburban seclusion within the city itself.

There are certainly some important ideas on Smith and Scholes’ list, especially their calls for a robust transit system and for keeping shovels in motion on major infrastructure projects (which repeats the mass transit shoutout). Additionally, two of their seven agenda items, which I see as intertwined—activating public space and making it easier for entrepreneurs to set up shop—are also smart.

But these concepts are more urgent and relevant in the rest of the city; promoting them as downtown ideas runs the risk of reiterating and re-instituting a false dichotomy that has set Seattle off course for decades: The old-fashioned idea that downtown, not the rest of the city, is the only place for growth and energy.

The post-pandemic focus for making Seattle vital again should be on harnessing the new neighborhood energy—not sending it back downtown.

What we’ve actually learned during the past year not spending much time downtown is this: neighborhoods are the magic quadrants of cities. I don’t mean this in the trite, anti-downtown tribalist way of the old neighborhood movement, which saw every public-private partnership as some elitist conspiracy to crush the Wedgwood Community Council and rob the city of its authenticity. What I mean—as I’ve documented before—is that the past year has energized business districts outside the city center and alerted us to a new Seattle model. The post-pandemic focus for making Seattle vital again should be on harnessing the new neighborhood energy—not sending it back downtown.

Our past strategy of channeling city action to core neighborhoods such as downtown and Capitol Hill has prevented density in other sectors of the city, which has led to a housing shortage, and thus untenable housing prices. It also makes for dull neighborhoods.

The good news is: There are signs we’re moving in a new direction. Talk of sticking with outdoor street dining is already afoot. And just look at one of the key items on the DSA/Chamber list: “Completion of major infrastructure projects.” This item (unwittingly?) pinpoints where the real focus already is and should be.

Their first example? Light rail expansion. Well, light rail already exists downtown. The bulk of the expansion is coming to the non-downtown neighborhoods. Starting this year, that means the University District, Roosevelt, and Northgate. In 2023, that means Judkins Park (perhaps the most underrated and overlooked transformative capital project in the city!) After that, it means four stations from SoDo out to West Seattle and nine stations from the International District out to Ballard.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Seven Must Dos for Seattle’s Recovery”