by Josh Feit
Mayor Bruce Harrell’s State of the City speech should have urbanists worried. Listening to his address last week made it clear the mayor wants to counter the recent emergence of a new generation of urbanists. This new pro-housing movement, defined by an unprecedented alliance between social justice activists, developers, environmentalists, labor advocates, and transit nerds, has chalked up a series of policy wins in recent years. And judging by Harrell’s speech, he’s trying to stall their momentum.
That might seem like a strange thing to say after Harrell, previewing his “Downtown Activation Plan,” used the speech to paint this colorful urbanist picture: “It may mean a linear arts-entertainment-culture district that connects downtown with multiple neighborhoods or identifying a 24/7 street, a stretch of several blocks where you can find a restaurant, bar, grocery, or your favorite clothing boutique at any hour of the day.”
I’ll be the first to argue that shops close too early in Seattle (especially its pizza places) and that a thrumming nightlife is at the top of any credible urbanist agenda. But Harrell’s limited, “stretch-of-several-blocks” urbanism represents the reverse of what the new movement has been pressing for. Today’s urbanists want to move away from using the downtown core (and a few scattered urban hubs) as an offset for our city’s otherwise suburban and unsustainable land use patterns. Unfortunately, by looking backward to the old downtown-centric model of city building, Harrell is giving cover to single family preservationists who benefit financially when the city limits opportunities for increased density, amenities, and housing citywide.
Erica hilariously titled her report on Harrell’s state of the city speech “The State of the City is Vibes.” Credit where credit is due, ECB—it’s a headline for the ages. But I’d like to amend it. It seems to me that under Harrell’s vision, the state of the city is: The ‘90s. Specifically, 1995.
Here’s what I mean: The idea that a city’s cultural electricity (and its housing, but more on that in a second) should be focused in the center city is a remnant of Seattle’s 1995 comprehensive plan. That shortsighted plan stuck us with the land use model we have today—one that relegates mixed-use, urban spaces to downtown and tiny slivers of the city along busy, wide arterial streets.
That 1995 model is the root cause of our current gentrification spiral and affordable housing crisis. It puts a crunch on supply by prohibiting apartments, condos, and storefronts almost everywhere. With the neighborhood planning process coming up again next year, Harrell’s retro impulse to focus on downtown put urbanists on notice that efforts to add affordable housing beyond the downtown core or a few scattered urban hubs is anathema to his vision. His speech led with a big pitch about the significance of downtown while failing to acknowledge any other Seattle neighborhood—nor the controversial, classist residential zoning rules that prevail across most of the city.
Unfortunately, by looking backward to the old downtown-centric model of city building, Harrell is giving cover to single family preservationists who benefit financially when the city limits opportunities for increased density, amenities, and housing citywide.
A newly ascendant YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) movement set on reforming this neighborhood inequity has been gaining political momentum in recent years; they won a slight upzone in Seattle’s supposedly inviolable single-family zones in 2019 and, later that same year, removed steep barriers to building accessory dwelling units in residential zones. They’ve also sparked a once unheard-of social justice/development alliance in Olympia that’s currently pushing for statewide upzones. Most notably, they’ve been turning out at city hall and neighborhood meetings in organized numbers that rival the once-dominant NIMBYs.
In what seemed like an effort to curb this urbanist momentum and hijack YIMBY talking points, Harrell talked about downtown the way pro-housing urbanists have been talking about the city as a whole. Seizing on office vacancies as an opportunity to address the housing shortage, Harrell promoted “bold action” downtown which “may mean changing our zoning codes to convert excess unused office space into housing. We need more housing options,” he said. “Let’s make downtown affordable for everyone who wants to live there.”
I’m all for converting excess, unused office space into housing, but a plurality of Seattle’s affordable housing, 35 percent, is already located downtown. Putting more housing there hardly constitutes “bold action.” It would actually be bold to challenge the status quo and change the zoning that needs to change: the exclusive rules in Seattle’s leafy, outlying neighborhoods where multifamily apartments, including low-density fourplexes and sixplexes, are prohibited. As for allowing greater flexibility, that too is needed in the outlying neighborhoods; we need to allow more commercial uses in our residential-only zones. If the pandemic has taught us anything about urban life, it’s that amenities traditionally reserved for “urban” zones actually fit right into “neighborhood character” elsewhere in the city.
In his state of the city speech Harrell tied his urban hopes solely, and precariously, to downtown.
The mayor’s emphasis on downtown undermines the renaissance afoot in Seattle’s neighborhoods, where urban energy like expanded outdoor seating at local cafes and more pedestrian-oriented streets are becoming the norm. That energy is on the verge of moving Seattle away from its 30-year-old planning model that has stifled economic diversity in our neighborhoods. While density was once the third rail of politics, it was notable in 2021’s election cycle not only that moderators at every candidate forum included a question about citywide upzones, but that nearly every candidate signaled support. Harrell said there is already enough “zoning capacity” in the city to house everyone who needs housing—another vintage ’90s argument that ignores the exclusionary reality on the ground.
In his speech last week, Harrell tied his urban hopes solely, and precariously, to downtown: “I am very pleased that employers like Amazon recognize coming back to work downtown is a great thing,” he said. The very next day the Washington Post hit with the reality check that employees themselves weren’t interested. And that same day, the Puget Sound Business Journal reported a 30 percent drop in demand for Seattle office space since January 2022, running a story about downtown occupancy that featured this alarming quote from a recent report on downtown commercial real estate: “There will be no great return. Seattle’s lights will not just turn back on again. We thought this in 2020 and we were wrong. Too much time has passed.”
Downtown is an important part of the city, but two emergent trends—the recent activation of Seattle’s other neighborhoods and the need to reimagine our downtown for a future with fewer office workers—suggest we need a more imaginative, beyond-downtown vision as opposed to the 1995 model that tries to sequester density and city life. As the affordable housing crisis persists, it’s disappointing that Mayor Harrell’s only reference to zoning changes in his speech was about creating more housing downtown (where zoning already allows residential housing, by the way). Simultaneously and sadly, he remained silent on the 75 percent of the city where multiplex housing remains illegal.