Article Note: This is the first of two pieces by Alex Brennan on the Seattle 2035 growth alternatives. Next week, he’ll share his vision for an Alternative 5. You can read the second part in full here.

Figure 1: Current Urban Village Boundaries
Figure 1: Current Urban Village Boundaries

Determining where and how we want our city to accommodate future growth is the central purpose of the comprehensive plan process mandated by the State as part of the Growth Management Act. The state develops population and employment growth projections that are passed down through the regional councils and eventually end up allocated to specific cities. Those cities then have to decide where the growth they have been allocated should go within the city. In 1994, Seattle created its first comprehensive plan, which identified “Urban Villages,” places within the city where growth should be directed. The plan gets a major update every 10 years (we are a little late this time). Seattle has grown and changed a lot since 1994, but our Urban Village boundaries remain essentially the same. When you are in the urban villages surrounded by construction cranes and streets closed for construction it is easy to forget that, in most of the city, the vast majority located outside of the urban villages, there is almost no construction or physical change at all. That massive disparity is thanks to the Comprehensive Plan and the zoning and neighborhood plans that flow from it.

If we want to be an affordable city, a racially equitable city, an environmentally sustainable city, and a great place to live, getting the comprehensive plan right is really important. Seattle is at a critical juncture in the comprehensive plan update process. The City has released four alternative growth scenarios as part of the draft environmental impact statement. Until June 18, you can give input on which alternative you think is best or if you think the existing alternatives do not represent the best way to meet city goals and a new option needs to be added. I’m going to argue the latter.

These plans come with a lot of aspirational language about all sorts of things, but it’s important to focus on the real power of the plan, the location of population and employment growth. There are two main variables to look at. The first is should we grow a little bit in a lot of places or a lot in just a few places? The second is where within the city should those places be? Let’s take them one at a time and then together.

Should we grow a little bit in a lot of places or a lot in just a few places?

The gut urbanist response to this question is often that we should concentrate growth in fewer places. Growing a little bit in a lot of places sounds like sprawl. Growing a lot in a few places sounds like the kind of compact development that is associated with walking, transit, and a complete community. That’s true at the regional scale, when dispersal means new car-dependent suburbs replacing farms and forests, but not when allocating growth within a central city.

All of Seattle has the potential to be a compact complete community. If you concentrate growth in just a few neighborhoods either you get the wholesale redevelopment of that neighborhood, essentially a market based version of 1950’s urban renewal, or you get highrise (over 70 feet tall) buildings that for safety reasons must be built in an expensive way (or you get both like in South Lake Union). It can be hard for the people and culture of a neighborhood to make it through overly concentrated growth. I see this in the residents and small businesses in Pike/Pine that have been sandwiched between multiple construction projects with sidewalks closed on all sides, trucks and construction noise blaring for most of the day. Spreading growth out more, on the other hand, allows neighborhoods to change more gradually, use a mix of lower cost building types, and, in many cases, build up the critical mass to become a complete community with basic goods and services, community gathering spaces, jobs, and homes all nearby.

The high cost of highrise construction is really important for thinking about affordability, displacement and who can live in Seattle. RSMeans, a construction cost data provider, offers some rough estimates online for cost comparison. Building the first 5 stories (RSMeans says 3, but as far as I can tell they are referring to type 5 construction which in Seattle you can build up to 4 stories on its own and 5 stories on top of 1 or 2 stories of more expensive type 1 construction) costs between $146 and $159 per square foot.  The next two stories inch up a little bit $160 to $175 per square foot. After that it jumps to between $196 and $214 per square foot and when you get above 7 stories you have to switch construction types for everything, so the first 7 stories go up to $196 to $214 per square foot along with the higher stories (though again it’s a little unclear if this is already factored into the added cost).

Construction costs vary by site and are only one part of housing costs. Land costs (among the many additional costs) also play an important role. The benefit of building higher is that you have less land cost per square foot of construction. Cities like Vancouver, BC are expensive in part because they combine single family neighborhoods that have high land costs per square foot with highrise neighborhoods that have high construction costs per square foot.

This decision about the concentration of growth also has environmental implications. Making low density single family neighborhoods in Seattle a little denser has a much bigger benefit to walking, biking, and transit than making mid-rise neighborhoods become even denser highrise neighborhoods. This is born out in countless studies whether they look within cities like this one:

Driving v Residential Density

Or compare different metropolitan areas like this one:

Urban Desnity and Transpo Energy Consumption

The comprehensive plan DEIS alternatives offer a range of options between continuing to grow in the same limited area we have been growing in since 1994, Alternative 1, even more concentrated growth, Alternative 2, or more dispersed growth, Alternative 3 and especially Alternative 4 (see Figure 2). In regards to the issue of concentration or dispersal, Alternative 4 is the clear winner and Alternative 2 is the terrifying loser. If you take away anything from this post, it’s that Alternative 2 is bad, really bad.

Figure 2: Alternatives 3 and 4
Figure 2: Alternatives 3 and 4

Many residents do not want their neighborhoods to change, especially single family homeowners in middle class and wealthy neighborhoods (more on that in the next post). Constraining growth to our current urban villages has only made the option of becoming an urban village appear more overwhelming as more and more growth is squeezed into the same limited area. Thus, the longer we wait to expand the urban village boundaries, the harder it is to do politically.

For these reasons I am proud that the planning department (with, I can only assume, the support of the Mayor and City Council) took the politically difficult step of including expanded urban village boundaries in not just one, but two, of the four alternatives released a few weeks ago.

Where should we grow?

Even if growth becomes more spread out, it is still likely to be focused to some extent. Should it be focused around certain criteria?  The current proposed Alternatives identify two primary criteria, equity and proximity to recent transit investments.  Unfortunately, these two pieces of criteria conflict. Proximity to transit investment (in this context!) is a flawed metric, bad for equity and bad for the environment. First, here is some background on the equity analysis.

The planning department has conducted a terrific equity analysis that provides data and maps on displacement risk and access to opportunity. The City Council recently identified equity as a major guiding principle for the update. Despite the date of the linked announcement, it was not meant as an April Fools joke, but the equity analysis shows the limitations of the Alternatives currently on the table.

Figure 3: Notice any correlation between the new Alternatives and the displacement map?
Figure 3: Notice any correlation between the new Alternatives and the displacement map?

In Alternative 3 all of the areas suggested for urban village expansion, with the exception of a small slice of Roosevelt, also have high risk of displacement. Alternative 4 is better, it adds expansions in some lower displacement risk areas like Ballard and West Seattle as well, but the expansions are still concentrated in the high displacement risk areas. While the calculations for displacement risk and access to opportunity are complex, they essentially show us where poor people and people of color live and where wealthy people and white people live.  While transit access does not have to be correlated with neighborhood wealth and race, in practice it usually is.

People of color, and even more so poor people, are more likely to use transit, so they are more likely to live in neighborhoods well served by transit. Transit agencies want good ridership and are therefore more likely, all else being equal, to locate new transit investments in poor neighborhoods. This is especially true if we are thinking about low density neighborhoods, the neighborhoods not already part of an urban village. Therefore, the only low density neighborhoods likely to have good ridership are almost inherently going to have a high displacement risk. When Sound Transit decided to locate its first light rail segment through the Rainier Valley, it reinforced this bias, exacerbating the displacement risk of Alternatives 3 and 4.

Viewed through this lens, the decision to consider expanding urban villages near recent transit investments, and only near those investments, could contribute to furthering displacement. Alternatives 3 and 4 suggest that the poor should be the ones to deal with the discomfort of growth. They also focus development in the areas with the cheapest existing housing stock contributing to a more rapid erosion of that stock. This is not a new decision for Seattle or the US.

It is easy to forget now that South Lake Union was one of the poorest (and most affordable) neighborhoods in the city before Vulcan and Amazon were given the zoning capacity to transform it. Yesler Terrace, and the preceding public housing redevelopment projects in High Point, New Holly, and Rainier Vista, are other examples, not only of our cities decision to grow in poor neighborhoods, but of federal policy supporting that decision. Light industrial areas, and the working class jobs they provide, are also often targets, think South Lake Union again, as well as current hotspots of development in the West Seattle Junction, Pike Pine, and Stone Way which were all once centers of warehousing and light manufacturing.

The City’s equity analysis of the alternatives suggests that Alternative 2 has the least risk of displacement. As mentioned earlier, Alternative 2 takes all of the development and focuses it (even more than our current comprehensive plan) in just a few places where buildings can go very high and accommodate a lot of growth – downtown, the U District, and Northgate – the urban villages designated as “urban centers.” These areas are identified as having lower displacement risk and there are fewer total places, so the thinking goes that displacement will happen in fewer places.

The problem, as I mentioned before (and as noted in the equity analysis but I think underemphasized), is that development in these areas will be highrise development, the most expensive kind of development. If we only allow the most expensive type of new housing, in the long run will that really prevent displacement? Most people are not directly displaced by their building being torn down for new development; they are displaced by rising rents for them and the family, friends, goods, and services that make up their community. Alternative 2 is the rising rents Alternative. Underemphasizing this point is one of two critical flaws in an otherwise incredibly useful equity analysis.

The equity analysis leaves us with a choice between the lesser of two evils. We can choose Alternative 2 that keeps development and growth out of vulnerable communities, but will drive up housing prices across the city or we can choose Alternatives 3 or 4 which spread out development, but only into our most vulnerable communities.

We have a regional housing supply crisis on our hands. People want to live in walkable, centrally located neighborhoods and we have not been building enough housing for them.  We have a global climate crisis worsened by rich countries and their sprawling, car dependent development patterns. We have a fiscal crisis exacerbated by the same sprawling development and its high infrastructure costs.  Poor people are disproportionately hurt by these problems too. They are disproportionately hurt by not allowing growth in the central city. Stopping growth is not the answer either.

The equity analysis takes the need to accommodate growth and the bad growth Alternatives currently on the table and attempts to resolve these conflicts through mitigation measures. At this risk of simplifying the analysis, the mitigation measures focus on economic opportunity programs and anti-displacement regulatory strategies. It also mentions a strategy of “equitable access to all neighborhoods” where it argues, as I have been arguing, that growth needs to be spread out to middle class and wealthy neighborhoods to take the pressure off of poor neighborhoods.  However, here we get to the second critical flaw in the analysis. The scope of the equity analysis is only to look at the four Alternatives. If we really want “equitable access to all neighborhoods,” if we really want to spread out growth enough that communities can healthily absorb that growth, especially our most vulnerable communities, then we need more space to grow, we need new urban villages in other neighborhoods, we need an Alternative 5.

What could an Alternative 5 look like? Stay tuned. That’s the subject of the next post.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent analysis. I completely agree. This is one of the best articles about public policy in Seattle that I’ve read in a long time. I have a couple suggestions:

    First, you have a typo in the last sentence of the second paragraph. It says “I’m going to argue that latter.”. I’m not sure if you meant “I’m going to argue the latter” or “I’m going to argue that later” or even “I’m going to argue the latter later” (they all work in this context). I’m guessing you changed the sentence and created the error (I do that all the time).

    Second, it would be really nice if the images were hyperlinks to full size pictures. I know that takes a bit more work, but it really makes it a lot easier to read.

    As to the substance or your piece, I completely agree. Focusing growth on only a handful of areas pushes up the cost of rent, and probably leads to less preservation, not more. There are very few house to apartment conversions in the city, despite the high cost of rent. This is because there are very few places where this is allowed, and rent is sky high. You can convert a house into a three unit apartment, or tear it down and replace it with a 12 unit apartment. The former is much cheaper than the latter, but the latter gives you more units. This means that the latter only makes sense if rent is high — by limiting the amount of land we allow to be apartments, we pretty much guarantee that.

    I also agree that too much focus is given on transit, or rather areas considered to be good for transit, when it comes to zoning. There are areas where transit is bad, but there are very few areas where transit is outstanding. Other than downtown (and maybe the U-District) getting to every other place in the city is bound to be difficult. Getting from Lake City to Bitter Lake, for example, is difficult. So if your job is in one and you want to get to the other, you will likely drive. But both would probably meet any reasonable measure of frequent transit. At the same time,that measure often ignores bike infrastructure. If I’m a couple blocks from the Burke Gilman, and within five miles of the UW, I’m pretty well connected (directly to many places, and indirectly via a bus transfer to many more) yet it is likely that my area performs poorly on a “frequent transit” scale. Finally, transportation isn’t everything. If I live in a neighborhood like Fremont, that has just about everything nearby (jobs, grocery stores, bars, restaurants, shops, etc.) then maybe the bus system is largely irrelevant. For those few times that I need to get to another neighborhood, I can rent a car or call a cab. It is simply a very difficult thing to measure and a poor criteria for focused growth.

    Looking at the map, it seems silly to suggest that huge swaths of the city — including areas close to our biggest centers (areas like Magnolia, which is close to downtown or Laurelhurst, next to the UW) — experience no growth at all while other areas aren’t supposed to change. That just seems wrong, and is bound to push up the cost of rent.

    I very much look forward to your next installment.

  2. How are the highrise buildings we’re getting likely to do in an economic downturn? Are the operating costs as well as the building costs permanently higher, so that they can’t age into relatively inexpensive housing?

    I’m Old-Seattle enough to remember some busts…

    • If we do have a bust (either because of an economic downturn or just because we managed to finally catch up with demand) then prices would drop. A couple years ago, I remember some experts in Ballard predicting that. So far, it hasn’t happened. I know some fear it, but I personally would welcome it (as many other people would). I don’t think the new buildings are any more expensive to operate, so basically this would lead to cheaper rents.

      • Why do you think the new buildings aren’t cheaper to operate (once they’re not new)? Arguments against: They have many more mechanical systems — bathrooms in interior rooms, for instance — exterior work done above the third story has to be pricey — there ought to be efficiencies in shared HVAC, but in the year the HVAC needs repair, whoa-ah.

        • I don’t the cost of operation makes a bit of difference in the cost of rent. If I had to guess, I would guess they are cheaper to operate, but again, I don’t think it matters. If there is a glut, then prices will go down — so far, that seems unlikely to happen (and prices will remain high).

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