Tag: seattle 2035

Another Anti-Density Appeal, This Time in Ballard


Citizens for Livability in Ballard, a group that includes one current and two former presidents of the Ballard District Council, is appealing the proposed Seattle 2035 comprehensive plan update under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), and has submitted a kitchen-sink discovery request that could end up costing city taxpayers $100,000 or more.

Olympic Manor Community Club representative (and current BDC president) Joe Wert, 36th District Republicans representative Kirk Robbins, and Sunset West Condominium Association representative Steve Cohn filed the appeal, which claims the city hasn’t done an adequate environmental analysis of the proposed comp plan update. That plan, which the city council is considering in conjunction with Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (which itself is being appealed by Queen Anne homeowner Marty Kaplan) would expand the city’s urban village boundaries to allow more density around neighborhood centers.

The appeal, which you can read in full here, charges that the city made up its mind about how it wanted to shape future zoning before doing a full assessment of the traffic, parking, and “character” impacts the new plan would have on the city’s neighborhoods, and that the proposal allows “upzoning of all [urban villages] into the highs [sic] density provided for in the zoning code with no guidance from the Comprehensive Plan.” It also charges that the plan fails to consider the “fact” that people will always need to own cars, because they’ll always want to drive to the forest.

“Travel mode choice for work or shopping trips has little effect on the individual choice of automobile ownership,” the complaint alleges. (In fact, countless analyses have shown that people with access to frequent, reliable transit are much less likely to own cars). “One of the attractions of the Pacific Northwest is a variety of year-round recreational opportunities. Most of those opportunities for hiking, skiing and other activities are only accessible by private automobile.” Because as everyone knows, Seattle is the only city in the country with natural beauty within driving distance, making it uniquely necessary for every citizen to own a car.

At any rate, the city has asked the hearing examiner to dismiss Citizens’ appeal because this is the first time the group has ever commented on the environmental statement (you’re supposed to raise any objections when an EIS is in the draft phase), and because they can’t identify any specific harm that will result if the 2035 plan goes forward. (The appeal says, vaguely, that Citizens has standing because “the appellants are residents of Seattle and adversely affected” by the land-use changes in the proposal, but the city’s motion for dismissal argues that living in the city doesn’t give you standing to hold up the city’s entire planning process).

As part of the appeal, Citizens has submitted a laundry list of documents it wants the city to provide in discovery, which, if the hearing examiner decides to take up the case, “is probably going to cost the taxpayers at least $100,000 in additional legal costs, if not more,” according to a local land-use attorney familiar with SEPA appeals. The demands include “any auto ownership studies prepared by the city since 2005,” “All parks demand analysis prepared by the City since 2005,” “All travel time surveys or models performed by the City since 2005,” and “The additional number of residential units or commercial, office or other space provided for in all proposed expansions of Urban Centers and Urban Villages,” among nearly two dozen equally broad demands.

Fundamentally, the 2035 proposal is a plan to make room for the 120,000 new Seattle residents who are expected to move here in the next 20 years. The city’s plan is to give those residents opportunities to live in the heart of thriving neighborhood commercial districts. Homeowners who managed to buy in to single-family neighborhoods when they were still affordable, and now dominate groups like the Ballard District Council, are pushing a very different vision.

Density, Affordability, and Livability Are Compatible: The HALA Report

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I’ll be on KUOW’s live show from the District 4 this Friday at 10, countering the anti-development, pro-NIMBY narrative you may have caught on last week’s Week in Review. Listen in on 94.9FM or on KUOW’s website.

It’s a rule in Seattle that policies having to do with density, neighborhood “character,” and development tend to get hacked down to a nub by the blunt machete of consensus, even more so when that consensus is reached by a committee numbering in the dozens.

It’s even more of a rule that when committees like the 28-member Housing Affordability and Livability Committee announce multiple delays, that means they’re on the verge of imploding.

Throw in a disgruntled committee member who leaked a draft copy of the group’s long-anticipated report to the press, and there was every reason to believe that the HALA committee would come up short; the day the draft leaked to NIMBY apologist Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times, in fact, the committee frantically disavowed the draft, calling it “outdated and inaccurate.”

So it was a true jaw-dropper when Mayor Ed Murray’s HALA Committee recommendations emerged Monday largely intact. The plan (which replaces controversial linkage fees on residential development with inclusionary zoning, upzones multifamily areas across the city, eliminates many parking mandates for new development, and promises 20,000 new units of low-income housing) fully embraces the reality that it’s impossible to create an affordable city while simultaneously protecting the two-thirds of Seattle land that consists of unaffordable single-family houses on 5,000-square-foot lots. We live, essentially, on an island–an island where tens of thousands of new people want to live. The built environment must change to welcome (and “accommodate”) those new neighbors.

By acknowledging the fundamental incompatibility of protectionist NIMBYism and affordability, HALA spit in the eyes of the pitchfork-wielding old guard that really just wants to keep “outsiders” out, that resents new residents, that sees growth as numbers, not neighbors.

The city council will undoubtedly come under tremendous pressure from hardline neighborhood activists who think ceding 6 percent of their protected land area to slightly greater density will bring their homes and property values crashing around them. Those activists are organized, and they are loud. Their allies on the council, including the departing Tom Rasmussen, have amplified their voices and encouraged them to drown reality-based advocates for density out. And it will take all of urbanists’ effort to keep them from scuttling the plan, from preserving the old Seattle (which was, as HALA points out in its report, created and sustained by restrictive racial covenants) and keeping everyone new outside the walls protecting suburban-style city development patterns.

But Murray didn’t call this plan a “Grand Bargain” for nothing, and the HALA committee wouldn’t be making its plan public now if it didn’t have rock-solid support from the vast majority of the players. (One outspoken exception is committee member and council candidate Jon Grant, who not only abstained from the vote but held a press conference immediately after HALA’s announcement to roll out his own sour-grapes plan, flanked by supporters including Kshama Sawant, Position 9 candidate Bill Bradburd, and North Seattle neighborhood activist Sarajane Siegfriedt, calling for rent control and the reinstatement of linkage fees.) Despite the volume of shouting from the old guard, I’m hopeful that the consensus and determination HALA has demonstrated will hold together despite the shouting, and despite the possibility, remote but real, that a renegade developer could sue the city and scuttle the whole deal.

It’s been a crazy few days. Between life and work and blogging, I haven’t had much time to sit down and process my thoughts about HALA in black and white. Instead, I’ve been talking to friends and fellow urbanists about what the plan will mean and how we can convince our friends in the world of affordable-housing advocacy that growth is not just inevitable but good and how we can help hold the plan together until the city council passes the goddamn thing over Tom Rasmussen’s dead body. (Sorry, Tom.)

So I can’t add much to the already rapturous (and detailed) coverage from the density proponents at Sightline, PubliCola, and, well, The C Is for Crank.  Nor can I thumb my nose more disdainfully at the hardline NIMBYs at Crosscut and the Seattle Times. I can, however, encourage you to cross your fingers, write your city council members and neighborhood representatives, and urge them to support the plan that represents the best shot we’ve had in decades to preserve what’s best about our city while making sure it’s livable for the tens of thousands of people who want to become our newest neighbors.

We Can’t Solve 21st Century Housing Problems with Failed 20th Century Strategies

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Last week, three city council members—frequent allies Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien, along with their less-likely comrade Tim Burgess, who’s facing two serious challengers in the August primary—sent a letter to Department of Planning and Development director Diane Sugimura asking DPD to come up with a fifth alternative for Seattle 2035, the policy document that will direct Seattle’s growth for the next 20 years. The four alternatives in the current plan range from doing nothing, to concentrating density in the city’s already-dense urban centers, to dispersing density strategically across the city’s light-rail and bus hubs so that new residents will have easy access to transit.

The “fifth alternative” they were requesting, the three council members wrote, would address the high potential for displacement in Seattle’s “high-risk” communities, mostly near transit hubs in South Seattle, by directing growth away from those areas and toward areas with “high access to opportunity” and “low displacement risk” areas, and by adopting strategies to reduce displacement in those high-risk neighborhoods. In practice, that could mean abandoning the goal of “transit-oriented development” by discouraging development near transit centers (where lots of “marginalized populations,” to use the city’s term, currently live) and encouraging it in the most expensive parts of the city—places like Upper Queen Anne, Ravenna, and Fremont, according to the city’s equity analysis of the four alternatives.

That strategy, by itself, wouldn’t put much of a dent in Seattle’s projected housing need. Since these are mostly fancy single-family neighborhoods (with exceptions like South Lake Union, which is a fancy multi-family neighborhood), most of the new development in these areas would (again according to the city’s equity analysis) consist of backyard cottages and row homes. We aren’t going to accommodate 120,000 new residents with mother-in-law apartments and four-pack townhomes. So not only will directing growth to high-income neighborhoods be unpopular with the city’s powerful homeowner lobby, it will be designed to fail.

In addition to directing new housing away from areas like Othello, Rainier Beach, and Beacon Hill, Burgess, Licata, and O’Brien also suggested placing new controls on development, including mandatory inclusionary zoning (requiring developers to build permanently affordable housing on-site) and potentially one-for-one “or even greater” replacement of all de facto affordable housing demolished for new development. One-for-one replacement is a decades-old aspiration of activists like Seattle Displacement Coalition leader John Fox, who believe the city should never tear down a dilapidated ’60s apartment building without replacing the previous’ tenants housing with new units at below-market rents.

The issues with this scheme are pretty obvious (what developer in his right mind would build apartments that could rent for $2,000 and lease them for $600, and how much government subsidy would it take to make him change his mind?), but that doesn’t keep it from being popular—who wouldn’t be in favor of letting low-income people stay in their homes, or even better, get fancy new ones at the same price, instead of watching their neighborhoods morph into white yuppie playgrounds? Even if the city did get past that hurdle, by, for example, massively subsidizing new replacement housing, the result would be short-term gain (preserved housing now) for long-term pain (no economic reinvestment in low-income areas, which will continue to lack basics like diverse housing, sidewalks, and town centers). Like rent control, the idea of one-for-one replacement is economically unrealistic, but emotionally appealing.

Even so-called urbanists are getting on the anti-TOD, tax-the-developers bandwagon. In a recent editorial arguing for their own version of the council members’ “alternative 5,” The Urbanist’s editorial board (which previously called for significant new taxes on development) decried what they called “transit-oriented displacement”—meaning, if you build transit and let people build apartments near it, the people who are already there will get priced out and have to leave. “It would be unfair and inequitable to ask lower-income residents to bear the brunt of the city’s growth — and yet both alternatives [3 and 4, the ones that concentrate growth near transit] essentially gloss over new and effective potential mitigations for this problem,” the board writes.

Gauntlet thrown. Growth, in this description, is explicitly a “problem.” Something people must to “bear the brunt of.” Something that could, if unchecked, cause Northgate to turn “into a gated community,” make walkability “the sole privilege of those who live downtown,” and gobble up all developable land in Ballard, to use just three examples from the Urbanist’s (essentially anti-growth) editorial.

In reality, there’s plenty of development capacity left in Ballard, building housing and town centers increases walkability, and limiting housing supply by reducing “growth,” which is to say housing for those 120,000 new people, will only drive prices up. And the alternative–preserving Sound Transit’s empty, fenced-off gravel lots as if they’re historical sites, “saving” rundown six-unit apartment buildings and the overgrown lots they sit on, making sure the vast majority of poor people never have the opportunity to live in areas well served by transit–is short-sighted and won’t work.

How about this “Alternative 5”? Let’s stop thinking of “growth” as a monster threatening to swallow our city, and instead think of it as new people we should welcome. Let’s stop talking about “bearing the burden” of those new people and start figuring out how we can accommodate all of us without resorting to market-distortions like rules that make transit-oriented development impractical. Let’s figure out a smart way to fund affordable housing without artificially constraining development Let’s stop doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

New Rules Would Further Limit Density


Contrary to the recommendations of Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Afforability and Livability Agenda committee, city council member Mike O’Brien has proposed additional design review requirements for buildings with eight or more units in low-rise 2 areas of the city–neighborhoods where small, two-to-three-story low-rise multifamily buildings (essentially, a range of uses from townhouse to apartment building, depending on the designation) are allowed.

Mayor Ed Murray wrote a letter to O’Brien opposing the proposed new requirements, which O’Brien said are worth considering because of concerns about excessive density in those areas (remember, we’re talking about eight-unit apartment buildings here) from neighborhood residents.

In the letter, Murray notes that HALA never even discussed imposing the often costly, time-consuming design review process on small buildings, and noted that such a requirement “could run counter to some of the emerging recommendations for ways to reduce the cost of new housing.

“I could be more supportive of this revised legislation if this unexpected addition of a new design review threshold in the LR2 zone were removed, and considered instead as a part of more comprehensive design review improvements.”

Low-rise areas make up just 10 percent of the city’s land area, and are located either in urban centers or urban villages, or along major arterials, according to a 2014 analysis by the Department of Planning and Development.


The council will also consider several new rules that would reduce allowed density in low-rise zones–up to 25 percent less density in low-rise 1 zones, and up to 20 percent less in low-rise 3, according to DPD’s analysis. Among the proposed changes, many of which do echo HALA’s recommendations:

An amendment that would count unenclosed external areas, like outside staircases, toward a development’s total density. This would reduce the number of units that could be built in a new building. The recommendation, council staffer Sara Belz told the committee, came after the city started “observing larger, bulkier buildings in low-rise zones than were anticipated in 2010,” when the council adopted a package of amendments to multifamily zoning regulations.

A proposal that would limit the size of clerestories (my new favorite word), which are small (around four-foot) additions on top of apartment buildings that allow developers to include skylight or loft space above the building’s maximum allowable height. The logic there, O’Brien explained, is that many developers are using clerestories as, essentially, a “height bonus” across the entire roofs of buildings, which, he said, “doesn’t serve the purpose of a clerestory.”

Continuing to allow a four-foot height bonus for partially buried buildings (to allow daylight basement apartments on the downhill side of slopes), while simultaneously requiring wedding-cake-style stepbacks at the tops of low-rise buildings where they face the street, so that a four-story building, for example, would only look from the street like a three-story building. This one didn’t raise many questions, except from Tom Rasmussen, who wondered why the elevation drawing featured a sharp-looking ’50s Ford Fairlane. (A mini Don Draper also shows up in the left bottom corner).

Vanishing rowhouses.
Vanishing rowhouses.

New limits on the number of townhomes on a single lot. The proposed rules would increase the threshold for “rounding up” the minimum ratio of building to land in multifamily areas. Instead of four townhomes on a 5,000-square-foot lot, for example, the new rules would only allow three. The rules would also limit density in low-rise 1, already the least dense low-rise zone, to prohibit four-packs of rowhouses. “We get a lot of complaints about lot subdivisions” into rowhouses, committee member Tim Burgess said.

Requiring a certain amount of space between rowhouse developments and adjoining lots, a proposal that came out of “concerns about adjacency impacts associated with not requiring a side setback for some rowhouse projects.” The proposal would lead to 3-and-a-half-foot gap between rowhouses on adjacent lots. Although Licata said a photo in the council presentation of a rowhouse butting up next to a single-family house next door “is why people are angry about these type of structures in their neighborhoods,” Rasmussen noted that leaving unusable gaps between rowhouses leads to the accumulation of litter and creates spaces that are “not easy to landscape” and “dark.”

The committee also talked about the Seattle 2035 plan, a complete overhaul of the comprehensive plan that guides all city development. During the brief discussion, Rasmussen suggested that he was opposed to 2035 Plan Alternative 4, which would encourage transit-oriented development around both light rail stations and frequent bus transit hubs like RapidRide stops, because “Metro [which funds buses] doesn’t have a stable funding source.” Metro relies heavily on sales tax; Sound Transit, which builds light rail, has a dedicated levy for that purpose.

Rasmussen also told his colleagues that although there were good arguments for building a light-rail station at N 130th St.(something the neighborhood wants, and which O’Brien has supported), transit-oriented development in the Lake City neighborhood could displace the people who live in “modest” homes along that street, pushing those residents into the suburbs.

Two things about that: One, the houses Rasmussen was referring to are mostly owner-occupied, and so owners would benefit if house values went up dramatically because they were suddenly on desirable, developable land. And two, it’s more than a little ironic to hear Rasmussen worrying about low-income residents while simultaneously pushing a proposal for neighborhood conservation districts that would make it harder to build new apartments and so increase the cost of housing.