Category: Urbanism

Maybe Metropolis: Outdated Environmentalism Stalls Pro-Housing Legislation in Olympia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Clinging to outdated anti-development tropes, Pollet (who got some naive positive press last week for denouncing a boneheaded Building Industry Association of Washington propaganda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?”

These Streets Were Made for Walking

by Josh Feit

Due to the popularity of closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars—and opening it for walking, biking, and rolling only, as SDOT did during the recent Thanksgiving weekend and over the summer: one mile of the northern portion of Lake Washington Blvd from Mt. Baker Park to Stan Sayres Memorial Park will be a no-car zone this Friday, December 18 through January 3.

Apparently, the popularity of these closures is causing some angst. People who oppose closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars took their case to the joint Board of Parks Commissioners and Park District Oversight Committee meeting last Thursday night.  At the online meeting, SDOT floated the concept of making some of 2020’s COVID-19-era pedestrian-and-bike-only streets permanent. Lake Washington Boulevard isn’t currently under consideration for permanent closure, but SDOT’s anxious critics, intent on nipping the idea in the bud, pointed out that the vaunted Olmsted Brothers originally designed Lake Washington Boulevard for cars. Specifically, they said, for “recreational…pleasure drives.”

I love it when city officials are able to turn original intent arguments back against NIMBYs, and Parks Commissioner Tom Byers did just that. Byers, former deputy mayor under Mayor Paul Schell, pointed out that the typical car speed when the Olmsteds designed the boulevard was 12 mph. Today, it’s 25 mph. (Seems more like 30 or 40 if you’ve ever been biking there and had a car up in your business, but still.) For the past decade, the city has traditionally closed Lake Washington Boulevard to cars on Sundays during summer months. 

This past summer, responding to people’s need for daily recreational opportunities in their neighborhoods during the pandemic, SDOT restricted car access on 26 miles of neighborhood streets, creating bike-and pedestrian-friendly zones known as “Stay Healthy Streets” to create more room for people to walk, bike, and roll while maintaining at least six feet of distance from others. SDOT also teamed up with the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department for four additional miles of closed streets (I consider all these open streets), near Alki Point, near Green Lake, in Goldens Gardens Park, and along Lake Washington Boulevard, to expand park footprints. SDOT called these park-adjacent no-car zones “Keep Moving Streets.”

SDOT is now surveying the public to decide where to make 20 miles of these car-free streets permanent. It’s all part of the department’s pedestrian-centric response to the pandemic, which also now includes 150 sidewalk, converted parking spot, and street permits that neighborhood coffee shops and restaurants have used to set up outdoor seating. That popular program, known as “Safe Starts,” has been extended through October 2021.

In the first installment of this column a couple of months ago, I wrote about all these programs combined, arguing that the ad hoc emergency response was energizing Seattle’s neighborhoods and providing a surprise opportunity to rethink how our city should be planned and zoned.

The notion of re-upping the Lake Washington Boulevard car-free pilot as a pedestrian and bike thoroughfare (thanks for bringing it up, guys!) is a prequel to the overdue debate over reallocating public right-of-way. It’s time to retrofit our growing city to human scale.

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SDOT’s idea isn’t about tradition. It’s about change. And ultimately, that’s what Byers’ “12 mph” quip was getting at.

“I’m really excited about the future potential of these streets,” Seattle Parks District Oversight Committee member Deepa Sivarajan seconded.

Sivarajan, a policy manager at Climate Solutions by day, went even further. “Let’s not prioritize historical intent and historical preservation when thinking about these streets,” she said. “A lot of historical preservation in Seattle tends to preserve an era that was de facto segregationist. Thinking about the historical intent of a ‘driving street’ is not the biggest factor we should be considering.” Sivarajan argued that the city should consider equity above original intent, and her own priorities seemed to also include health and safety; she cited collisions and pollution as something the Olmsteds didn’t consider when designing boulevards for “pleasure drives.”

Sivarajan’s social justice angle served notice on the opponents of SDOT’s potential plan. In addition to the goofy original intent talking points, the preservationists had also been arguing that closing Lake Washington Boulevard to cars would be unfair to communities of color who, they claimed without presenting data, rely on the boulevard to access the city and parks from the Rainier Valley and beyond.

Opponents of a car-free Lake Washington Boulevard also got an earful from Parks Commissioner Dennis Cook, who’s African American. “I’ve walked the lake [for] many, many, many years,” he said. “During the pandemic, I’ve seen more people of color walking Seward Park than I have in the last five to ten years. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful to see because people are out there greeting people and their neighbors, and it’s building community.” Cook noted that the area in question is in the 98118 ZIP code, where the population is 25 percent African American. Seattle is 7 percent Black overall.

Continue reading “These Streets Were Made for Walking”

Maybe Metropolis: Night Vision

by Josh Feit

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget eliminated a position that the city’s cultural community believes is essential, particularly as the COVID-19 crisis is strangling city nightlife: The Nightlife Business Advocate, also known as the Night Mayor. Fortunately, city council member Andrew Lewis took quick action to restore the position last month, getting four more council members—a majority—to sign on as cosponsors to his budget amendment.

The $155,000 save is on track to be part of  next week’s budget deal. I point out Lewis’ pivotal role because he’s the youngest council member (he just turned 31 this week), and still values nightlife as an attribute of city life. “It’s always bothered me that nightlife is seen as something that needs to be managed,” Lewis told me. “I think it’s something that needs to be cultivated.”

That’s essentially what the position, a formal liaison between nightlife businesses and city regulators, was created to do: Nightlife Advocate Scott Plusquellec helps music venues navigate the city’s complex licensing and permitting bureaucracy as well as helping with state regulators such as the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. (Plusquellec was a legislative staffer in Olympia before coming to work at the city.)

The position was created in 2015 and housed in the Office of Economic Development’s Office of Film + Music under the office’s then-director Kate Becker. A veteran of Seattle’s music scene (and its storied battles against things like the Teen Dance Ordinance), Becker was both a founding member of all-ages venue the Vera Project and the Seattle Music Commission. When Becker left in early 2019 to take a job with King County Executive Dow Constantine as the County’s first Creative Economy Strategist, Plusquellec lost his high-level ally.

Becker was never replaced. After Becker left, Plusquellec reportedly had to write up a memo explaining his position to Mayor Durkan’s new OED director Bobby Lee, who started heading up the department in the summer of 2019. Judging from the mayor’s proposed cut, the new regime was not convinced.

Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Night Vision”

Guest Editorial: For a True “15-Minute City,” We Need Action, Not Rhetoric

By Mike Eliason

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly referred to the “15-Minute City” concept as a way of recovering from COVID-19. In the September 19 Durkan Digest, the mayor said she had directed Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development  to “explore the concept of a ’15 Minute City,’ as a potential framework for the next major Comprehensive Plan.”

The 15-Minute City is a sustainable cities concept developed by Sorbonne Professor Carlos Moreno, an advisor to several government and non-governmental agencies, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The concept is a city of complete, sustainable, connected neighborhoods, where every daily need can be met within a very short distance. The goals of a 15-Minute City include coordinated mobility, increased solidarity between residents, improved well-being, greener cities, more access to open space, rapid improvements to residents’ quality of life, and mitigating climate change.

As an architect deeply committed to decarbonized buildings and livable cities, I would gladly welcome a massive shift to a system this transformative and sustainable. However, Seattle’s next major Comprehensive Plan update won’t be adopted until 2024—meaning it would take over a decade to be realized. A framework that delays the transformation cities need to adapt to climate change (and COVID-19) for this long is neither climate action nor a path to economic recovery.

Seattle’s mayor, like nearly every other U.S. mayor, is not making a city for my children. Or yours.

Mayor Hidalgo, arguably one of the most visionary mayors in the world today, ran—and more critically, won—on a platform of massive ecological transformation during COVID. The ‘ville du quart d’heure‘ was a critical component of this. Under Hidalgo’s leadership, Paris installed 50 kilometers of pop-up bike lanes within a few weeks of that city’s COVID-19 lockdown in preparation for recovery. More recently, Hidalgo announced Paris’s iconic Rue de Rivoli will be car-free—permanently. The city is transforming streets from spaces for cars to places for people and nature, with plans to replace 72 percent of on-street parking spaces with public squares, playgrounds, and pedestrian and cycling zones.

I am a huge fan of pedestrian zones. These are urban spaces where cars are generally not allowed, with exceptions for deliveries, accessibility, or resident access. They can vary in size from a single block to entire neighborhoods. In European and Asian cities, they are being expanded to areas outside downtown neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, under the leadership of Mayor Durkan, Seattle still has no fully realized pedestrian zones. The closest the city has come is low-traffic “Stay Healthy Streets,” which, under Durkan’s leadership, are located mostly in single-family neighborhoods, far away from businesses, parks, and apartments. Meanwhile, bike lanes were delayed for years or eliminated completely to appease motorists, resulting in unsafe streets. The Mayor’s proposed budget for 2021 also includes cutting tens of millions of dollars for safe streets and nonmotorized transportation. This is not climate leadership. Continue reading “Guest Editorial: For a True “15-Minute City,” We Need Action, Not Rhetoric”

Maybe Metropolis: Improvising in the Time of COVID

by Josh Feit

A dazzling array of posters adorns the entrance to the Crocodile, Seattle’s destination music venue on 2nd Avenue in Belltown. The colorful posters are an eerie museum of ghostly show bills announcing 2020 concerts that never happened: Wye Oak March 20; Vundabar March 30; Lords of Acid April 13; Patoranking April 26; Juana Molina May 5, Gioli & Assia May 6.

For your convenience, I made a Spotify playlist called “Museum of Lost Shows” commemorating the Crocodile’s spectral season.

“A survey of 51 King County music venues revealed that in the first few months of [COVID-19] 2,100 events were canceled, 650 staff were laid off, and 17,000 musicians’ paid gigs were canceled,” according to Keep Music Live, a relief fund started by local music community advocates who have a goal of raising $10 million to keep Washington state’s small venues (under 1,000 occupancy) open through and after the pandemic.

Their rallying cry that “music venues are hubs of a cultural and economic ecosystem that make Washington’s cities vibrant” is borne out by the numbers. According to the National Independent Venue Association’s 2019 Seattle impact report on live music venues, Seattle clubs generated nearly $67 million in direct economic impact, employed 1,200 people, and sold 1.3 million tickets last year. In short: When it comes to the defining attributes of successful cities, creative music scenes are on the list right alongside dense housing, jobs, universities, mass transit, restaurants, regional medical facilities, cultural diversity, and the fine arts.

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A line around the block for a music show is a political win for any city planning office. Be it Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan or a Saturday night out, SDOT planners and Kremwerk DJs are both trying to figure out how to make things last.

When it comes to the arts, you make it last by getting creative.

So, it’s with some Seattle pride that I note this bit of city planning news: Despite the empty stages, quiet dance floors, lonely box offices, and locked club doors, Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival is improvising this year’s programming by partnering with Town Hall Seattle, the Royal Room, and the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute to make sure the festival goes on with a series of virtual shows.

With outstanding local jazz acts like the Johnaye Kendrick Quartet (Friday, October 23), Marina Albero (Sunday, October 25), the Benjamin Hunter Quintet (Saturday, November 7) taking the stage for live feeds from the aforementioned venues, Earshot will be streaming a series of 25 shows over four weekends this month and into November. It’s a scaled-back version of the festival’s typical 60-concerts-in-30-days tradition, but the resilience of our nationally recognized festival, which debuted in 1989, is an example of Seattle’s crafty and incorrigible arts scene. Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: Improvising in the Time of COVID”

Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model

By Josh Feit

Judging by the sheer number of permits the city has issued in the past five months allowing businesses to turn sidewalks, parking spots, and city streets themselves into places for people to hang out, there’s an unforeseen consequence of the pandemic: A citywide Seattle neighborhood renaissance.

Under a temporary program called “Safe Starts,” SDOT has issued 135 such permits since the COVID-19 crisis hit, with 73 more local business requests for permits in the queue. (The numbers, based on data through September, are actually much higher because the West Seattle Junction Business Improvement Association got an unprecedented single permit allowing all 230 shops and restaurants in the district to set up a single table and chair outside their storefronts).

Seattle’s neighborhood businesses are using all these permit options (they’re free) to turn neighborhoods outside the downtown core into people-centric hot spots. Just grab a table in the middle of the street on 9th Avenue N. between Thomas and John Streets in South Lake Union, and you’ll quickly get a sense of the new block-party atmosphere that’s helped redefine the city in recent months.

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Neighborhoods aren’t merely dedicating more public space for eating and drinking. The elevated energy is also being formalized on neighborhood side streets. As part of another SDOT program called “Stay Healthy Streets,” 13 stretches of neighborhood streets, totaling more than 20 miles, have sidelined cars in favor of people. Instead of reading “Street Closed,” SDOT signs barring cars could just as logically read “Street Open.”

The takeaway for city policy makers should be clear. While inveterate single-family-zoning advocates continue to decry urbanization in any form (in order to preserve neighborhood character, they say), Seattle’s neighborhoods are not as fragile as the naysayers have claimed. On the contrary, the uptick in neighborhood action seems to have amplified, rather than destroyed, neighborhood character.

Hilariously, one business that has chosen to convert sacred parking space into café seating, Café Javasti, was an adamant parking space patriot during Wedgwood’s retrograde fight against a protected bike lane on 35th Ave. NE.

“I don’t understand why we’d ever go back.” — West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift

From “outdoor cafés to outdoor retail racks,” West Seattle Junction BIA Executive Director Lora Swift said, the neighborhood has a “new cadence” and a “more European feel.”

She says she’ll be advocating to keep the permits in play through “at least 2021,” adding that she’d like the programs to stay in place longer than that. “I don’t understand why we’d ever go back,” she said, noting that her enthusiasm is “underscored by requests from the community… to continue to this new Seattle. We’ve gotten so many emails.” Continue reading “Maybe Metropolis: The Pandemic Has Forced Seattle To Reconsider Its Neo-Suburban Model”

Durkan’s Backyard Cottage Plan Would Have Kept Some Old Restrictions, Imposed New Ones

Mayor Jenny Durkan planned to propose her own accessory dwelling unit (ADU) legislation that would have restricted homeowners’ ability to build second and third units on their property, going far beyond the limitations in the legislation the city council passed unanimously yesterday afternoon.

The restrictions Durkan proposed would have been more lenient than previous regulations, which had resulted in just a handful of ADUs per year, but would have included many provisions requested by ADU opponents, including parking requirements for second ADUs, preserving the current owner occupancy requirement, and imposing new limits  on the size of backyard units.

Ultimately, as I reported this morning (item 2), Durkan did not propose her own legislation, and the bill the council passed yesterday does not include any of these restrictions. Still, Durkan’s ADU proposal gives a glimpse into her thinking about how much the city should limit how many people (and what kind of people) should be allowed to live in single-family neighborhoods.

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This report is based on documents I received through a records request filed in March. The mayor’s office provided unredacted versions of these documents this morning.

First, the mayor set out her goals in drafting her own ADU legislation: “1. Encourage ADUs—especially affordable ADUs—throughout Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. 2. Prevent speculative development and the demolition of existing single-family homes.” Her plan also laid out a set of “principles,” which included “Retain existing single-family neighborhood character.”

To those ends, here’s what the mayor’s proposal (which, again, was never sent to the council as legislation) might have done:

1. Imposed a cap of 1,000 accessory units permitted per year. (The legislation the council passed includes no such restriction.)

2. Required homeowners building a second ADU to sign a legally binding document stating that they would never use that ADU as an Airbnb (a new restriction that would allow someone to own two houses on adjoining lots and rent one as an Airbnb, but would ban a neighbor with two ADUs from renting out their backyard unit).

3. Required two years of continuous ownership before a homeowner could build a second ADU, such as a backyard cottage in a house that already has a basement apartment. This restriction went further than council member Lisa Herbold’s proposal for a one-year ownership requirement, which failed; the legislation the council passed does not include any ownership-related restrictions on ADU construction.

4. Required homeowners to build one off-street parking space when they build a second ADU. Notes from staff on the mayor’s proposal indicate that “many infill parcels, especially those without alley access, cannot easily accommodate off-street parking, making this requirement a significant impediment to ADU development.” The legislation that passed yesterday includes no parking mandate.

5. Imposed a new floor-area ratio (a measure of maximum density) on detached units while eliminating the previous minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet. Although getting rid of maximum lot sizes sounds like a good thing, in practice, this measure would have little practical impact while imposing a new restriction on what people on smaller lots could build. I’ve explained this in a bit more detail below*, but the impact would be that any lot smaller than 5,000 square feet would have to build a backyard unit smaller than 1,000 square feet—and the smaller the lot, the smaller the cottage. In contrast, O’Brien’s legislation allows backyard cottages of up to 1,000 square feet on all lots, subject to the city’s existing maximum lot coverage of 35 percent.

Although getting rid of the minimum lot size entirely might seem preferable, the impact would be tiny—according to the city, just 7 percent of the single-family lots in Seattle are smaller than 3,200 square feet, and ADUs on very small lots are unlikely for the reasons I explain below.

6. Required a homeowner or a homeowner’s family member to live on the property for at least six months out of every year. O’Brien’s legislation got rid of the existing six-month owner occupancy requirement because it effectively banned renters from living in at least one of the units on lots with an ADU (suggesting that backyard-cottage renters require owner supervision.) Durkan’s proposal would have continued to prevent renters from occupying every unit on lots with ADUs, but allowed family members to serve as owner proxies. The proposal doesn’t define “family member,” but other elements of the municipal code limit the number of people who can live on a single lot unless they are “related,” a term that is undefined in the code.

Because I filed my request for these documents in March, they don’t include any discussions that happened after April 1 that might shed light on why Durkan decided not to propose her own ADU legislation. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a question about why they dropped the proposal this afternoon.

*Two hypothetical examples illustrate the impact of this change on lots of two different sizes.

A homeowner with a 4,000-square-foot lot could cover a total of 1,400 square feet of that lot with buildings, subject to the maximum height limit of about 30 feet. That could include, say, a 1,600-square-foot two story house (covering 800 square feet of the lot) and a two-story, 1,000-square-foot backyard cottage (covering 500 square feet). Under Durkan’s proposal, though, the backyard cottage would also be restricted by the 0.2 FAR, limiting it to a total of 800 square feet no matter how the rest of the lot is configured. This is the limit that existed before O’Brien’s legislation raised it to 1,000 square feet, so in this case Durkan’s proposal would have preserved the old status quo.

A homeowner with a 2,500-square-foot lot, who couldn’t build a backyard cottage under the rules adopted yesterday, would theoretically be able to do so under Durkan’s proposal. But the restrictions would make this exceedingly unlikely, because the backyard cottage would be limited to a total of 500 square feet—on a lot where only 875 square feet can be developed in the first place. Playing this out presents some very unlikely scenarios, such as a tiny front house towered over by a narrow two-story backyard tower. The point is, the effect of these restrictions would have been primarily to limit the size of backyard units, not to expand homeowners’ ability to build them.

Golf Revenues Remain On Downward Trajectory, Raising Questions About Sustainability

A new report on Seattle’s municipal golf courses by three consultants (Lund, Scanlan, and Cocker Fennessy) concludes that none of the city-owned golf courses—Jefferson Park, Jackson Park, Interbay, and West Seattle—is sustainable without ongoing subsidies, and that all four courses have significant deferred maintenance needs, totaling more than $36 million. Under each of four scenarios the consultants considered, the golf courses, which collectively occupy 528 acres of city-owned land, will continue to lose money—between $4.1 million to $8.4 million a year by 2027. In 2017, the city spent about $8.4 million to operate and maintain the courses, or about 54 percent of their total cost (the rest is funded through fees, merchandise, and restaurant sales.) The city paid just over $104,000 for the study.

Chelsea Kellogg, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, said the city will analyze “long-term models to see the financial sustainability of the courses.” At the same time, she said, the Parks Department, “working with other departments, will also begin to explore a range of potential options for these City-owned properties, which could include continuing these outdoor recreation facilities or other potential uses such as adding additional parks and green space, or creating affordable commercial space and housing.”

Since 2006, city policy has called for the golf courses to be self-sufficient, paying for all their own capital and operating costs and contributing 3.5 percent of their revenues—later increased to 5 percent—to the city’s Park Fund.

The report lays out a number of financial options to reduce the golf courses’ losses. They include: Reducing or eliminating the golf program’s ongoing contributions to the city’s Park Fund; increasing user fees; and farming out maintenance to a private vendor, which would reduce labor costs. Two of the four scenarios in the report also involve issuing bonds to pay for deferred maintenance, which would add annual debt service of up to $3.3 million a year to the cost of the program. The argument for doing this work now, according to the report, is that improving the courses and making them safer will make them more popular with golfers; for example, the nets at the Interbay driving range are too low for people to use clubs with long-ball flights, because of the risk of balls flying into the nearby Seattle Pacific University playing fields. “This is a significant safety liability and also a lost revenue opportunity,” the report says.

Promising projection or misguided optimism? Report predicts a total reversal of the trend of declining interest in golf.

Last year, the city budget moved about half a million dollars from the parks department into the city’s capital budget to help keep the golf courses afloat. At the time, budget director Ben Noble suggested that one reason for shrinking golf revenues is that “golf just isn’t as popular as it used to be.” The report released last week affirms this conclusion—showing that the total number of rounds declined from 242,868 in 2013 to 206,010 in 2017, and that in the Seattle metropolitan area, golfers play about 12 percent fewer rounds per capita than the national average. (Jackson Park, in North Seattle, and Jefferson Park, on Beacon Hill, both had about 22 percent fewer rounds in 2017 than in 2013.)  According to a 2017 survey by EMC Research, about 13 percent of Seattle residents use the golf courses at least twice a year; in that same survey, however, respondents overwhelmingly named golf as their lowest parks spending priority.

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In spite of the downward trend in golfing in Seattle, the report projects that golf rounds will rebound dramatically between 2019 and 2020, spiking 4 percent “when full course play resumes at Jefferson following capital improvements to repair damaged holes.” Overall, the report projects that the number of rounds played will increase, on average, increase 1 percent a year between now and 2027.

The report, which includes comments from a list of 60-plus “stakeholder” in the golfing community, acknowledges that golf is widely considered an “elitist” sport, but attributes this to the fact that private golf courses and country clubs are expensive and exclusive. “If the City does not offer golf as a recreational opportunity, golf will indeed be limited to only those who can afford private or privately-owned public courses where fees are substantially higher than those charged at the City’s four municipal golf courses. In addition to direct cost of fees, players would need to travel outside of the City to find a course.”

These numbers, which use widely varying age ranges, indicate that the only course where a majority of patrons are under 50 is the Interbay Golf Center, which has a 9-hole course, a driving range, and a mini-golf course.

One reason for the perception that golf is elitist and expensive that the report does not mention is that although it is—as the report puts it—”open to all,” golfers must either invest in and transport their own equipment or rent it on-site, which adds significant costs—golf clubs, for example, cost $20 a round. That’s on top of fees of $33.75 per round for adults ($38 on weekends). The report recommends that the city consider a new fee for a maintenance fund at each golf course, while noting that raising fees “runs counter to providing access to lower income people,” and that the more discount programs the golf courses offer to schools, youth groups, and off-peak players, the more revenue they lose.

The city has limited demographic information about who uses its golf courses. They do know that the participation rate among women, at 10-17 percent, is lower than the national average of 24 percent, and that participation among people under 50 is well below 50 percent at all of the 18-hole courses. At the Interbay Golf Center, which has 9 holes and includes a driving range and mini-golf course, 53 percent of patrons are under 50.  According to the report, however, “There is no data available regarding minority participation rates at Seattle public golf courses.” The report suggests increasing marketing to women and people of color, tracking golfer demographics, and “enhanc[ing] the clubhouse experience to be welcoming to all, including non-golfers.”

Golf in Seattle remains an overwhelmingly male sport.

Affordable-housing proponents have suggested closing down at least one of the city’s golf courses and using the land to develop new affordable housing. Last year, then-parks director Christopher Williams said, “Maybe we can’t sustain four golf courses. Maybe we can only sustain the two most profitable golf courses in the city ultimately. But we don’t feel we have enough information to be in a place where we can make a compelling case that golf courses should become places for affordable housing.” Another potential obstacle to the affordable-housing plan is that golf courses count as part of the city’s public green space, so that closing even the smallest golf course, the Interbay Golf Center, would represent a loss of 52 acres of “public” parkland.

Durkan’s office says they’re open to the idea. “As we weigh options for the future of the City of Seattle’s four golf courses, Mayor Durkan believes we have an opportunity to examine our golf courses with the goals of supporting our parks and green space, addressing affordability and meeting our racial equity goals as we build a city of the future.”

After Five Years, Seattle’s Scaled-Back Density Plan Moves Forward

Seattle's density plan gets a green light
Image credit: iStock

This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

After almost five years, dozens of hearings, hundreds of public comments, multiple legal challenges, and enough environmental and legal analysis to fill a small apartment, the Seattle City Council is finally poised to pass the citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) plan, which has been in the works, as part of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, since 2014.

The city council passed the plan out of committee on a unanimous 8-0 vote last Monday, February 25, a fact that is remarkable in itself. The council spent hours debating some final nuances of the legislation (and ultimately rolled back upzones in some areas), but all nine council members fundamentally agreed on the overall goal of building more housing, including affordable housing, throughout the city—a notable turnaround from just four and a half years ago, when Seattle Times story on a leaked draft of the plan sparked so much backlash that then-mayor Ed Murray decided to scale back the proposal.

MHA allows developers to build taller, denser residential and commercial buildings in the city’s multifamily and commercial areas and urban villages—neighborhood centers, typically located along major arterial streets, that have long been designated for future growth because of their proximity to transit, jobs, and services. It also expands some of those urban villages to allow second houses, townhomes, duplexes, and small apartment buildings on about 6 percent of the land that is currently zoned exclusively for detached single-family houses.

The rest of the city’s single-family areas, which occupy about 75 percent of the city’s developable residential land, will be untouched by the changes. This was a major point of contention during the MHA deliberations. Urbanists pointed to Seattle’s history of redlining and studies showing that exclusive single-family zoning perpetuates racial and income inequality to argue that the city should get rid of single-family zoning altogether.

In exchange for greater density, developers are required to build or pay into a fund to build housing that is affordable to people making less than 60 percent of the Seattle median income—currently $48,150 for a family of two. The city hopes that MHA will result in 6,000 units of new low-income housing over the next 10 years. The plan has already been partially implemented—six neighborhoods, including downtown, South Lake Union, and the University District—were upzoned two years ago. The legislation the council has been considering for much of the last year concerns the rest of the city.

The plan, on the whole, is modest, and its impacts won’t be visible right away. In most places, it bumps land up just one or two zoning designations—allowing two-story stacked flats, for example, in areas where only townhouses are allowed today, or raising the maximum height for apartment buildings from 30 feet to 40. It also restricts most of the biggest changes to major arterials, which already tend to be pretty dense. And since many of the changes in MHA are subtle (houses built under a new type of zoning called Residential Small Lot, for example, may be virtually indistinguishable from houses built under the previous zoning), people living in single-family areas that get upzoned might not even notice the difference.

The city has prevailed against legal challenges to the plan so far. The most recent of these was in November, when a city hearing examiner ruled against neighborhood activists who claimed the city didn’t do a sufficient environmental analysis of the proposal. But the final legislation does include a “clawback” provision, supported by MHA opponents and sponsored by West Seattle council member Lisa Herbold. It states the council’s intent to invalidate any upzones implemented under the plan if a court finds MHA’s affordability requirements invalid in the future.

This was another point of contention. Opponents said including the clawback provision in the bill was an invitation to lawsuits, while proponents argued that the provision ensured that developers wouldn’t get “something for nothing”—that is, if a court ruled against the city’s affordable-housing requirement, they wouldn’t be allowed to build denser housing anyway.

The full council is expected to approve the final MHA plan on March 18.