by Josh Feit
Urbanists, YIMBYs, and transit advocates are understandably excited about the pro-housing legislation that state senate transportation committee chair Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds) has proposed this year.
Liias’ legislation would accelerate transit-oriented development—a guiding principle of progressive city planning. TOD helps create sustainable cities by siting housing, retail, and community assets like schools, childcare, green space, and artist spaces around transit hubs. Basically, the idea is: Dense, climate-friendly, urban paradigms become the best routes to equity and opportunity when life’s fundamentals are accessible without a car.
Liias’ bill, SB 5466, would encourage new growth around transit hubs by allowing mid-sized apartment buildings within three-quarters of a mile of rapid transit stops (including bus rapid transit and frequent bus service), and larger buildings within a quarter-mile of light rail stations. The pro-housing intellectuals at Sightline gushed that the legislation “would be a first for Washington, and the strongest statewide policy of its kind in North America.” Urbanists have been pushing for legislation like this since 2009, when a rookie news site called PubliCola editorialized in favor of a bill that would up-zone areas around transit stations while old-fashioned Seattle—and the Seattle Times— predictably and successfully shot it down.
Unfortunately, Liias’ exciting legislation may end up sabotaging an adjacent pro-housing bill.
Almost 15 years on now, with a broad coalition of pro-housing advocates supporting up-zones for transit-oriented development, the chances for Liias’ bill to pass seem good. Unfortunately, Liias’ exciting legislation may end up sabotaging an adjacent pro-housing bill that we’re even more excited about this year: Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) HB 1110.
Bateman’s “middle housing” bill, which I covered last month, would allow fourplexes in residential areas of cities across the state anywhere detached single-family homes are allowed. Erica cannot stand the term “middle housing” (middle of what?), but essentially it means this: Let’s stop forgoing vast amounts of land—75 percent of the residentially zoned land in Seattle—where apartment buildings, triplexes, fourplexes, and sixplexes are currently prohibited. Bateman’s bill would allow all of these housing types, and sixplexes too within a half-mile of transit, if two of the six units are affordable.
Efforts to add multiplex and apartment housing to low-density residential zones routinely bite the dust in Seattle, where NIMBY liberals pay lip service to pro-housing efforts by deferring to Seattle’s outdated, status quo zoning, which sequesters density into designated urban villages centered on large arterial roads. This “urban-village” strategy allows advocates who oppose density in their own residential neighborhoods to pose as urbanists by supporting something they used to oppose: TOD. We’re with you, they say—of course we need housing!—but let’s not change our residential neighborhoods. Instead, let’s sequester all that multifamily housing near busy streets.
Opportunistically seizing on TOD and refashioning it as a bulwark against more density in residential neighborhoods misconstrues the whole point: TOD is meant to build multiple city centers that create a network of spoke and wheel systems citywide, not build islands of sustainability in otherwise unsustainable cities. Let’s be clear: transit nodes only make sense when they function in sync with the surrounding city infrastructure of connector bus lines and abundant housing. More to the point: Connector bus routes are not sustainable without the appropriate density in surrounding neighborhoods.
You can’t put hyper-dense transit hubs flush up against low-density neighborhoods and expect it to generate sustainability in isolation.
Keeping this broader idea of transit oriented communities front and center, pro-housing advocates should insist that Liias’ and Bateman’s bills exist as a package deal. That is: If NIMBYs start using Liias’ bill as cover to dismiss Bateman’s bill, urbanists should pull their support from Liias’ bill. And Liias should too.
“We are investing billions into new transit service,” Liias told me, “and we need to make those work. If we don’t add housing and jobs around transit, we aren’t delivering maximum value for tax payers.”
True. But we aren’t maximizing TOD if we don’t honor its internal logic. You can’t put hyper-dense transit hubs flush up against low-density neighborhoods and expect it to generate sustainability in isolation. Unfortunately, as PubliCola reported earlier this week, Liias seems to be promoting his bill by playing it against Bateman’s. Bad look. He has a chance to call the NIMBYs’ bluff by taking advantage of the consensus on TOD while supporting its corollary: Nearby neighborhoods need to scale up proportionally themselves by adding apartments.
Just as urbanized transit nodes and adjacent residential neighborhoods can work in sync to build the kind of interlocked communities cities need to achieve equity, Liias and Bateman should work in sync to neutralize opponents of new housing options. By identifying different types of increased density, their complementary bills map out gradations of development from tall buildings around light rail stations, to apartment buildings around busy bus stops, to sixplexes nearby, to fourplexes even further out.
By leveraging the universal agreement that dense transit centers are the building blocks of sustainable cities, the Liias and Bateman bills should work in tandem to plug residential neighborhoods into those transit centers. In this tale of two densities, we have a chance to up-zone TOD into EOD—Equity-Oriented Development. It’ll be a shame if housing advocates settle for anything less.