The Urbanist does not use the word NIMBY. Except I just did in that headline. Oops! Sorry, I was just so frustrated that “livability” activists are using transit on-time performance to stall much needed housing. Specifically, a project called Phinney Flats aiming to build 57 homes in Phinney Ridge got blocked by a motivated and deep-pocketed group called Livable Phinney that paid the big bucks to hired seasoned environmental land use attorney Jeff Eustis (who also happens to be a board member at Futurewise) to sue the developer.

The Hearing Examiner ruled in favor of Livable Phinney that using printed bus schedules to determine “Frequent Transit Service”–a necessary step in waiving parking requirements within a quarter mile of a transit stop–wasn’t sufficient since the buses were so frequently off schedule in an analysis by a credentialed statistician. In doing so, Livable Phinney exposed new projects across Seattle to opportunistic challenges that could delay new homes when we need them badly.

The Hearing Examiner’s ruling underscored that the Seattle City Council must act to clarify the definition of Frequent Transit Service to “an average of 15-minute frequency.” This would reduce legal challenges to housing based on the technicality that an otherwise frequent local bus route is too often delayed, thus not meeting the narrowly crafted definition of frequent transit that the City Council wrote into law. Councilmember Rob Johnson indicated that the Planning, Land Use, and Zoning Committee, which he chairs, would take up the issue as part of a larger package of reforms.

The bus in question is the Route 5, which passes right by the proposed building on Greenwood Avenue. “Earlier this year, a PhD statistician analyzed bus data over the course of several months and determined that more than 15 minutes passed between buses about 38 percent of the time; 10 percent of the time there was a 20 minute gap, and 2 percent of the time a 25 minute gap,” Daniel Person reported in Seattle Weekly.

Phinney Flats seeks to rise from a site at 6726 Greenwood Ave N, formerly the Stumbling Goat Bistro. (Skidmore Jannette)

The transit schedule issue wasn’t the only issue that Livable Phinney raised. “The Examiner agreed with Livable Phinney that: 1) the building was too close to the rear property line and violated the required setbacks, and; 2) the building had an illegal rooftop structure that did not meet the definition of a clerestory, and that this structure was placed improperly on the rooftop,” Livable Phinney boasted in its press release.

That means the developer may need to revise the Phinney Flats design to be less close to the rear property line, properly setback, and with a code-compliant clerestory. Meanwhile, the solution to the bus schedule issue should come from the City relatively soon and it could be relatively simple. So simple we’ve even provided the code language. Please get on it, Seattle City Council.

Draft Code Language

The crux of the problem lies with the definition in SMC 23.84A.038. To head off future problems, something like the following could eliminate future appeals:

“Transit service, frequent” means transit service headways in at least one direction that average ((of)) 15 minutes or less for at least 12 hours per day, ((6)) six days per week, and transit service headways in at least one direction that average ((of)) 30 minutes or less for at least 18 hours every day according to a printed timetable by a public transit agency. Actual reliability and performance of a frequent transit service shall not be considered in analysis of this definition. Further, weeks with reduced service (e.g., holiday or reduced weekly service, or when the University of Washington is not in session) shall be excluded from analysis for the purposes of this definition

Speeding Up The 5

One can simultaneously attack the problem of not quite technically “Frequent Transit Service” from the operations side. I’m a frequent rider of the Route 5 since I live about five blocks east of a stop. I can certainly attest that the bus rarely hits the printed schedule, but the fact remains it’s still one of the more reliable buses around–one that many neighborhoods would envy. Nonetheless, the PhD’s analysis highlighted that the 5 could use some upgrades to improve its reliability. Some improvements like off-board payment require significant investment since it means payment kiosks at every stop, but perhaps King County Metro Transit could scrounge up the money down the road. Queue jumps with transit signal priority is another somewhat pricey fix but it could save money in the long-run for operations.

Perhaps the most immediate and far-reaching fix would be to make the Third Avenue transit mall work better. Many service disruptions originate Downtown and ripple throughout the system. Photo enforcement of bus only lanes could drive motorist compliance–which is woefully low right now–to high levels that would permit more reliable service. The anticipated Democratic takeover of the state senate has to mean something for Seattle, which reliably sends exclusively Democrats to Olympia, and the suburbs who aren’t far behind on that count. What Seattle should demand is legislation to allow buses to use photo enforcement of dedicated lanes.

This change should be paired with simpler rules for the Third Avenue transit mall. I’d propose no cars ever, but I’d settle for extending bus-only enforcement to 8pm seven days a week. The simpler the rules the better to avoid motorists challenging rules on the grounds they were too complicated to read off a sign–like this guy.

If Livable Phinney is really concerned about the 5’s on-time performance, we could also take out even more street parking than queue jumps would to create dedicated transit lanes. I’d love to see big changes to speed up the 5 and make it more efficient. Does Livable Phinney actually care about that? Perhaps Seattle Department of Transportation will give us a chance to find out soon.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.


  1. I never liked the “frequent transit” clause, and don’t like it now. The easy fix here is to the zoning law. Simply get rid of all required parking.

    Some builders will still add parking, but others won’t. The market will decide whether parking (like swimming pools) is worth building or not.

    Speaking of swimming pools, I’ve noticed that the public pools I’ve used for years are getting crowded. Too many new residents coming in and trying to swim where I’ve always swam. There needs to be a law requiring a pool for every new apartment building. It is only fair to protect the lifestyle for which existing residents are accustomed.

    See how ridiculous that is? Why do we consider free parking a birth right? If it really is important to people, then make everyone pay for it, not just renters. Organize a group to build parking garages in the city. The fact that none of these groups ever proposes this says something. They are eager to push the cost on those with the least wealth (renters) which shows that these people aren’t NIBMY’s — they are simply selfish. Or maybe not very smart.

    • They aren’t entirely ridiculous – the community sure cannot be faulted for asking that pool capacity keep up with number residents – but the flaw in the analogy is location. In one case, where one pool has to be built to serve a number of residents, the solution is an impact fee on development to pay for parks and open space, and make sure that pays for pools. In the other, where one unit serves one resident and its location should be very nearby, the solution is to require development to include its own parking. In neither case is it rolling over and letting apartment developers trash a public resource to increase their profits.

      • So you are saying you are OK with both ideas? Really?

        Again, you are saying — whether with impact fees or mandated parking — that is is OK to charge renters for something that everyone benefits from. Why stop with either proposal? Why not just charge renters for everything? I own a house, I bought it first, so therefore renters should pay for the police, schools and roads.

        Don’t you realize how ridiculously unfair that is? You are asking people who have *less* wealth to pay *more*, just because you happened to buy a house there first. Again, that is not NIBMY, that is just selfish greed, and nothing more.

        • Really! The reason we would need these extra resources, is the many new residents. It isn’t exactly that they didn’t get there first, but that they get there in numbers that change the resource balance – benefiting (both developers and renters) from a land use that’s more efficient with land resources – but not any more efficient with street parking or swimming pools.

          From my point of view, unfair is making that the problem of existing residents, for the sake of developers’ profits that of course they don’t share. I don’t agree that we can assume the new residents are less wealthy, and I don’t agree that we can assume they’re going to bear the economic burden anyway. If that were true, the developers would care less. They’re squealing about this because it really comes out of their pockets, in a scarcity market where prices go beyond cost recovery to whatever the market can bear.

  2. Where is the criticism of the builder for an illegal design? Where is the criticism of the City for habitually permitting illegal buildings, under orders from their former department head to give developers whatever they wanted? Where is the criticism of Metro for delivering abysmal service, not even counting the full #5 buses that skip stops at rush hour? Given the current imbalance of power between the neighborhoods and the developers, we should all be thankful that a neighborhood group stepped up to demand that permitting laws be enforced. Greenwood is far from a wealthy neighborhood.

    • Regular readers of the blog could attest we criticize Metro on a regular basis. My argument was that some snags in transit service isn’t reason enough to abandon the urban village growth strategy. Forcing more parking into Phinney Ridge will induce more demand for driving and slow the 5 down more. It’s a self-defeating strategy. Smaller projects like these, particularly efficiency geared at the middle class, shouldn’t be forced to build parking on a technicality. It wasn’t the intent of the law and it will hurt affordability as it kills project after project.

      • It shouldn’t kill project after project, if the developers are paying attention. We have an apartment building going up here on N 45th, that at first was talking about no parking. There was pushback from the community, now it’s going to have parking. Project not killed.

        Parking is not the source of demand for personal vehicles. The developers are playing you for suckers.

        • The irony being many of the same people complain that new development is all luxury housing, but when you demand underground parking and brick facades (like the project you referenced: that’s the market you end up serving because underground parking is very expensive. It’s possible to build workforce housing new, but requiring parking makes it very difficult to make it work.

          A more workforce-housing-geared project like this would struggle to support an underground parking garage financially:

          • Where’s the data on the cost of one level of underground parking on a sloping lot in Wallingford or Phinney/Greenwood, not downtown? Not added to the rent, but rented separately?

          • No buildings charge the full cost of parking. Every operator charges less for parking than the parking actually cost to build, even when they charge $150/month for a spot. That fee covers only covers a fraction of the cost because estimates put the cost of a structured parking spot in Seattle between $25,000 and $50,000, perhaps more if you incorporate the cost of delays to dig the big hole in the ground. Definitely more with multi-level parking which requires an even bigger and even longer delay.



          • The estimates of $25,000 to $50,000 per space are based on downtown land costs and four to five levels of underground parking. That’s why I specified much cheaper neighborhoods, one level, sloping access. You need to stop using those numbers.

          • Sorry, I don’t have a way of filing or reference comments on social media. Perhaps you can locate it. The 25-pp paper at you link is about street parking, unless you provide a page number. We’re not discussing free parking here, but below-grade parking for an apartment building, for which the developer charges rent. The question is, if 62% car ownership isn’t the right number, what is a data-based projection that is not zero?

            Doesn’t it meet the sniff test, that Greenwood land cost and a single level of at-grade parking would be far, far cheaper than the average quoted?

          • Here’s a better link on Shoup:

            In 2014, Shoup said 35k for an underground spot in Seattle or 25k for at-grade. And construction and land costs have increased sharply since then.

            It’s clear we are building way too much parking since we already have too much of it. (Of course one can complain of more localized shortages.) Half a million on-street spots, not even counting structured parking. It’s more than 2 spots per car. Developers can still choose to build parking and many still do. Requiring parking precludes a lot of more affordable housing options and ignores the potential of car share and the huge investments we’re making in transit to provide an increasingly viable and attractive alternative.

        • Hence the importance of community involvement in the Design Review process, scheduled to be gutted next week by the City Council.

      • You are in denial. Portland experience shows that 61% of the future residents will own cars. If they were given the option to rent underground parking, many of them would do so. Why is this “abandoning the urban growth strategy”?

        • I’m not in denial. I have hope we won’t drive this planet into an early demise with carbon emissions from the operation and production of personal vehicles. Portland’s 61% number represents the past: peak car. When we look at trend lines we see the mode share of personal vehicle on the decline. That’s a trend we should encourage rather than impede with ridiculous lawsuits and concern trolling.

          The urban village growth strategy I was referring to was waiving parking requirements within urban villages since we are focusing our transit service and investments in these areas. I’m sorry but hiring a statistician to show that a glut of single occupant vehicles is delaying the bus isn’t enough reason to stop that. It shows we need even more transit priority. Not less in-fill development four miles from downtown Seattle.

          • Calling a civil conversation “trolling” is disrespectful. Your headline is hugely disrespectful and is bullying. Please remove the N word and promise not to use it again.

            The lawsuit simply asked that actual transit performance, not paper performance, be the standard. If one accepts the intent of the rule, there’s nothing unreasonable about judging based on actual performance. That’s the way most standards are judged. Yeou state that Portland’s 61% of car ownership near transit represents “peak car,” a term of art. If the correct 10-year projection is 50% car ownership, averaged, sobeit. then please recognize that some percentage of car ownership in dense areas is more realistic as a planning assumption than zero car ownership. Your position is wishful thinking, not urban planning.

  3. A recent Portland study found that there was essentially no difference in car ownership between projects that provide parking and projects that are marketed as “car-less”. Ownership was 73 percent, dropping to 63 percent near “frequent transit”. Point being, residents WILL own cars, regardless of how the building is marketed. The difference is that a car-less building leaves no options.

    The study also found little difference in baseline rents for “car-less” buildings, implying that builders are pocketing the savings from not providing parking to increase their profitability rather than to improve affordability, despite what they claim. This is likely due to landlords charging additional rent for those electing to use off-street parking, rather than including the cost in baseline rent, as used to be the case.

    Seattle should establish a baseline off-street parking of 0.5 to 0.6 spaces per unit, regardless of “frequency of transit”. It makes zero sense to tie building code to tenuous bus routes and schedules that seem to change yearly. I can understand connecting policy to a rail line, but a bus route? Asinine. Builders could appeal this requirement based on existing street conditions if they wish to spend the time and effort.

    Projects should be required to mitigate their own impacts as required by SEPA. Costs for providing off-street parking can be easily amortized through rent for the space, especially as on-street parking becomes ever more difficult and the city increases density further, but developers find it “inconvenient”. No one is mandating that folks rent a space, but allowing the option seems prudent and, based on data, reasonable.

    BTW, in this article Mr. Trumm attacks the appellant, however the argument must have been fairly sound as it appears it was convincing to the Hearing Examiner. Mr. Trumm may cry “foul” and resort to name-calling if he wishes, but it appears that the appellants were simply following the due process we all agreed on. Is he implying that the Hearing Examiner is somehow complicit in a conspiracy? Really?

    • Why blame neighborhood activists for pointing out that residents will forego a car if and only if they have frequent, reliable transit. You can’t fool the residents with paper schedules. For bus commuters, averaging is an insult to actual, rush-hour experience.

      It seems to me that the decision to go with a fleet of articulated buses is one place where Metro got off track. Yes, they saved the cost of a driver, but we all got less frequent service. Equipment reliability per route also suffers. I’ll bet a comparison with other cities would show that few have gone with huge, articulated buses. Metro was measuring efficiency by their own standards at the expense of their customers.

      • We are blaming neighborhood residents for pushing up the cost of rent. The fact that they used a silly loophole to do that is, in my opinion, very selfish. If they are concerned about parking, then pay for their own parking garage. Tell the developer they want extra parking, and I’m sure the developer will be happy to build it. Instead they want the renters to pay for it, which is why people are upset with them.

        • The developer should build ground-floor or basement parking for some fraction of the number of units, and then charge rent for the parking spaces. Any landlord would do that. I don’t see how it raises rents on the other units.

          • Because the government gives away car storage for free, renters tend to be quite price sensitive about paying for parking. It’s pretty much unheard of for apartment complexes to charge the actual cost of parking, because people (understandably, since they can get it for free from the taxpayers with a modest loss of convenience) won’t pay enough for on-street parking to cover the amortized cost of building it. People who can afford to, and might be willing to pay 1400 rent/100 parking will forgo the latter at 1250/250, even if that breakdown of costs represented the cost of providing both. In the study I link to below, this dynamic is so pronounced that a) none of the 23 complexes studies charges enough for parking to break even on the cost of a parking spot, and b) the average cross-subsidy non-car owners provided car owners for the cost of storage was over 200 dollars.

            What that means is this: when you mandate parking minimums in new developments, you’re mandating a cross-subsidy; people who don’t own cars will be subsidizing those who do, making car-free living more expensive and

            None of this should be surprising; I don’t see why you’d expect an efficient, functional market in parking spaces to emerge when the provision of the good is legally mandated regardless of demand, and demand itself is severely depressed by the government giving away a similar product a half-block away.

            Much more here:


          • Your cross-subsidy assertion assumes that rents are a function of cost of production, so a more expensive-to-produce unit means either much higher rent for that unit or somewhat higher for all units.

            But I thought you guys were way into market economics, supply and demand? Don’t you think a competitive market means higher rents, irrespective of cost?

            Yes, units with parking, and buildings with parking, will cost more on the average, because they’re a marketable amenity – not because they cost more.

          • But also units with parking definitely cost more to build. Thus they will almost never serve as low of a market as units without parking can serve. That you agree parking is marketable suggests you admit that requiring it drives up prices, at least in the aggregate.

          • Parking is a significant amenity only when some don’t have it. If that’s a problem, then the answer is to require parking on site for every unit. Then it would disappear from the equation. I’m not sure it is a problem, though – if say 2 out of 3 units had parking, closer to the minimum possible need, the remaining units might go at a discount from the prevailing rate.

  4. Blaming Livable Phinney is misplaced. They’re just using legal system to their interest. To criticize this when their interests don’t align with yours is ideological fascism. Rather, see this as a fine opportunity to force our supposed urbanism Council to put some legislation where it’s mouth is. And the fix is easy. This case also (hopefully) provides an opportunity for Metro to work on the frequency and reliability issues that are a disincentive to confident reliance on the bus system. My experience is anecdotal (#50) with buses not showing up often enough for a scheduled stop to cause a tech for the car keys when I’d rather not.

    • >> To criticize this when their interests don’t align with yours is ideological fascism.

      What??? Ideological fascism? You gotta be kidding me. That sounds like a stereotypical portrayal of a liberal arts college (“No, Mr. Jones, don’t criticize what the professor said, doing so is a form of ideological fascism”).

      Criticism is the bedrock of a democracy. It is why a free press is vital. The author of this piece is doing his job, in pointing out the actions of a small, but powerful group. The folks who are slowing this project down are using a loophole to push the cost of housing up for everyone who rents. All so that parking on the street might be a bit easier. I consider that selfish, and worthy of criticism.

      • I agree with you now that you’ve pointed it out. Poor choice of words; to call this a form of fascism is a form of fascism. My point though has to do with the article criticizing the plaintiffs. I find this unproductive because you can’t expect them to act any differently than they are. They’ve identified their interests and are using the legal system to advance those interests. Likewise the Futurewise Board Member status of the attorney is not particularly relevant. Jeff Eustis is a land use attorney and he takes land use cases to make a living. That his proclivity likely leans toward environmentally progressive and pro density is a non issue. Within reason, you take the paying clients and, hopefully, in the long run these plaintiff’s are doing a favor to the urbanist agenda by identifying a fixable flaw in the regs and we can then move on after the City Council does their legislating toward a better future.

      • It’s silly to call Livable Phinney a “small but powerful group”. I mean, you bet, the power to mount an expensive legal challenge makes them likely more powerful than an equivalent group in some parts of the city, but that’s a different between “slight” and “none.” Particularly if they have yet to be able to fully pay off the legal costs, which I suspect is the case. At any lower level of “power”, you’re talking about zero legal recourse, which I suppose is the objective.

        • Who called them a “small but powerful group”? I’m just calling them selfish. They are basically asking someone else (renters) to pay for something that they enjoy (easier parking). They managed to hire a lawyer who happened to find a stupid clause in the zoning rules, and have now exploited it to achieve their demands (less development, or additional parking).

          • It appears I may have misunderstood the referent in 3rd sentence, 3rd paragraph above.
            I imagine Livable Phinney would have preferred to base their appeal on the more substantial grounds of whether some level of transit service should create a situation where developers should be allowed to trash the public resource of street parking, but that wasn’t an option.

  5. First, you really should have gone with your supposed The Urbanist rule, and not used the word “NIMBY”. The Livable Phinney appeal wasn’t aimed at prevent housing from being built in their “back yards”, at that location, it was aimed at requiring parking on site. NIMBY seems to be increasingly a word that reflects poorly on the critical thinking of the people who use it.

    Second, though, your implication that they may not care so much about the No. 5 schedule could be right. The need for parking on site there is not really so closely related to transit service, and improvements to the No. 5 aren’t going to make any real difference at all. But that’s the story the city uses when allowing developers to externalize the cost of parking in urban villages, and thus it becomes the only remedy we have in urban villages, to argue that the transit isn’t up to snuff.

    • Concerns about dense developments taking up on-street parking scream of a sort of entitlement that I’m just not comfortable with. Seattle bends over backwards with Restricted Parking Zones that favor residents. People new to the neighborhood have just as much right to the street as anyone else. If having available parking is a concern to residents not using their own driveways, they can rent a spot.

      Metro bus delays are a straw man – they have nothing to do with new construction. Have a problem with parking? Take it up with SDOT. Don’t hold up desperately needed housing to satisfy other agendas…

      • Your disagreement is as much with the city’s policies as with Livable Phinney. The city’s policy supports residents’ interest in street parking, with the exception of the situation that came before the hearing examiner. If you don’t have frequent transit service or aren’t in an urban village, then your interest in avoiding dysfunctional over-use of street parking is recognized and supported by the city. I don’t know that those conditions make sense, but anyway, clearly in terms of city policy it isn’t just about residents’ equal rights to street parking.

    • I’m sorry you don’t like my critical thinking skills, Donn. But thanks for reading my article anyway!

    • Oh please. They hired a lawyer, and the lawyer found a way to hold up the project. It is no different than the “missing link” Burke Gilman proposal. The law wasn’t written very well, and now they want to slow down development, or at the very least, push up the cost of it. If they are so concerned about parking, then why not build a parking garage. Put their money together, and build one in the neighborhood. No, they would rather force renters (all renters — not just the ones who live here) to pay for parking.

  6. SFH zoning is very much sustainable, no need to try and get rid of it. Not everyone wants to live in an apartment, that is why SFH is so desired. People are willing to pay the price to live in a house to raise their kids and live in for years and years.

    • There is no residential zoning in the US that prohibits single family houses. People could still do this if we allowed more forms, but people who didn’t want to (or couldn’t afford to) could live in duplexes or stacked flats in areas where those options are now banned by law.

      • True, there is no zoning that prohibits SFH, but Seattle property taxes are based upon “best use” of the land. Taxes on SFH rise with rezoning, which can either cause homeowners to sell or landlords to raise rent.

        • This is not really true. The amount of property taxes collected in total doesn’t increase just because the city’s property values went up. The amount collected is fixed. The total amount collected is then split among property owners according to the percent their property accounts for relative to the total.

          Upzones increase the number of newer and bigger buildings. Since new and bigger buildings are worth more, those new buildings account for a larger share of property taxes. This means upzones most likely decrease property taxes collected from SF homeowners relative to what they would pay without the upzones.

          • I think you missed the sense in which she meant “Taxes on SFH rise with rezoning.” The way I interpreted that was “property tax is higher on a lot after it’s rezoned from SF to LR2” – which is pretty obvious, and your analysis mirrors the point – land zoned SF is taxed at lower land value. In Bryan’s libertarian utopia where all is permitted, the sheltering effect of SF zoning would disappear and tax on that land would presumably go up.

          • I don’t think the idea of eliminating a tax shelering effect for landowners who are more wealthy than non-landowners is a “libertarian utopia,” I think it is “common decency.”

          • Don’t worry, the SF landowners are paying a lot more tax than non-owners. In the typical case where there are more of them, per lot area. SF zoning just allows SF owners to avoid paying for value that they have no intention of realizing, by making that official. Zoning allows land valuation to be more precise.

          • Anyone who hasn’t irrevocably committed their windfall home equity to a charitable or public entity is realizing it. Retirement asset. Safety net. On-demand low-cost access to capital. All things non-owners who didn’t win the “right place at the right time lottery” don’t have.

          • “Value they have no intention of realizing” means, the value of the land for apartments. Without SF zoning, land is presumed to have that value regardless of the intention of the owner.

          • This is a common NIMBY refrain that lacks much basis in reality. Similar valued LR1/2 homes adjacent to SF5000 homes generally have tax bills that are nearly identical.

            It’s a classist tactic to block multifamily housing, and nothing else. At a minimum, all our zoning should allow multifamily by right, as German and Austrian zoning codes do.

          • Please remove this reference to the N word. I believe it doesn’t comply with the civility standards of this blog.

          • Land is always taxed at “highest and best use.” Single-family is considered a “highest use,” but when it is upzoned to multifamily, that value in the land increases, relative to the whole, and it continues to be valued against other multifamily parcels with much greater development potential, regardless of what is sitting on the land.

            Last year my valuation postcard said that 47% of my taes were for levies. Now, with Sount Transit, it’s hundreds of dollars more. The levy portion is based on straight cents per $1,000 valuation, not what you said above., which is correct ffor the other portion of the tax bill.

        • Single-family homes are legally “highest and best uses.” It’s rezoning to low-rise that causes land values to rise and puts a target on these homes.

      • The whole idea of Urban Villages is to locate multifamily housing, including low-rise forms, in close proximity to transit. Sprinkling it throughout single-family neighborhoods is wrong-headed and very poor urban planning.

    • You do know how zoning works, right? Just because a neighborhood is zoned for apartments doesn’t mean that you have to build apartments. The existing houses would stay, and some houses would be built. In other words, Mike, it would basically put that argument to the test. Free up the zoning, and see if people really do prefer living in houses. If so, then lots of houses will be built. If not, then lots of apartments will be built. My guess is it would be a mix.

      • Come ross, get real. In Seattle, there are not a lot of empty lots in SFH zoned areas to test your theory. New houses, townhouses, or apartments are built as developers or homeowners by existing properties and teardown or remodel. Developers will do what they can to maximize their profit, return on capital. Make all of Seattle multi family zoned and you will have even more demand from developers to buy existing houses or old apartments and tear down to build apartments at above market rates to maximize their profits. No developer can afford the high cost of land/building acquisition, city fees and permitting costs, and construction costs AND create affordable housing. Economics don’t add up and developers will price their units what the market can bear. As you see today, in the past, and in the future. In addition, Supply of houses or lower cost houses will decrease and house prices will continue to go up. And yes people prefer to live in houses, notice the high demand and prices for houses in Seattle, Tacoma, and the Puget Sound area.

        • This is the point in the conversation where I wonder if you are trolling. Just a review here. Most zoning allows lower density development. So basically, if a property is zoned for an apartment, there is nothing stopping someone from tearing down an apartment, and putting up a big house. This is typical zoning regulation, and sometimes happens in very expensive property (like Malibu). Someone buys up three houses, wipes them out, and puts up a giant house. Are there people who would prefer to live in that house? Sure, but most can’t afford to.

          Which gets us back to Seattle. Despite the fact that it is perfectly legal to replace an apartment with a big house, it is rare, if not unheard of here. But if your theory is correct — that people prefer single family houses — that this should be happening. More to the point, if your theory is correct, then it won’t matter if they change the zoning to allow more apartments. They won’t be built, because people prefer houses.

          Or are you saying something different now? Your first note is clearly at odds with the second. At first you say that people prefer single family homes, then you are saying that given a chance, developers will build apartments instead. Which is it?

          Look, it is very simple. Developers are simply responding to the market, which means they are responding to what people want to buy. That is it. This is not very complicated. When kale suddenly got popular, and prices went up, and farmers started growing lots of kale, it is the same thing.

          Except that unlike kale, the city artificially prevents the construction of new homes. In my neighborhood (Pinehurst) it is now common to see old houses on big lots be torn down. The builder simply builds as many houses as he can. But since THE LAW mandates large lots, they build big houses. In areas where THE LAW allows smaller houses, they build smaller houses. In areas where THE LAW allows apartments, they build apartments. Notice a pattern here? People are building as many places as they possibly can (as small as they can) but it is THE LAW that limits what they can build. What I’m suggesting — what a lot of people are suggesting — is that they change the law, to allow developers to build WHAT THE PEOPLE WANT.

    • Affordable housing in City policy refers to rental units, not single-family homes. No one is promised an affordable single-family home within Seattle. A $700,000 townhouse is not “affordable” to those making far less than $80k, the Area Median Income.

      If Urbanists want to promote affordable homeownership within the city, it starts with middle-class mid-rise condos, but none are being built because of the State Condo Liability Law. Please join me in demanding that the City Council add this issue to their 2018 Legislative Agenda and ask you state reps to fix, not repeal it.

      • Exactly! To address the cost of homeownership, Seattle needs to incentivize construction of smaller, ownership units rather than more apartments. Tearing down ownership units to create apartments only exacerbates the limited supply of ownership units, especially since the first homes to go are usually the smaller, most affordable fixer units, which also drives up the median price reported.

        Smaller family condos and small cottages could be an attractive and lower-impact solution. The cost of new construction is the cost of new construction. Little can be done to lower the sq ft cost other than eliminate some of the “window dressing” like granite countertops, high-end appliances, etc, which makes little to no difference in the cost of new homes. Therefore the only way to create affordable ownership units is to reduce the square footage. For example, a 1000 sq ft condo or cottage would be somewhere in the range of $350k, plus or minus. A 1200 sq ft family-size space would be about $420k. Prices would likely be slightly less for condos, but this is usually offset by monthly association fees.

      • Yes, but the problem isn’t a lack of development (whether condos or apartments) in the areas that allow it. The problem is that too few areas allow it. Take my neighborhood, Pinehurst. There is plenty of development. Small old houses are being torn down every day. But they are being replaced by gigantic houses on big lots. The area is zoned for single family houses with lot sizes of 7200 square feet, which is enormous. So rather than a half dozen regular sized houses, or a dozen row houses, or a small apartment with twenty units, you have three gigantic houses. The policy isn’t preserving anything, really. The old bungalows that people dread losing are still being lost, as is the old character of the neighborhood (this used to be a cheap place to live — we don’t even have sidewalks — and it is nowhere near as desirable as places like Ballard, Wallingford or Capitol Hill). Building cheaper town houses or small apartments would actually be much more in character with the neighborhood, and would likely be OK with neighbors as well (again, this is not a hoity-toity part of town). But the one size fits all, clearly outdated zoning laws have screwed up both the character of the neighborhood as well as the opportunity to build something that could be affordable.

    • Single-family zoning is not the problem, given that upzone to mid-rise increase zone capacity by 8 time or more. There is plenty of room for both, although that might limit developer’s opportinities. Another way of looking at it is that all the growth could be accommodated just by upzoning the entire length of Aurora from Commercial to Neighborhood Commercial with 5 or 6 stories of residential above businesses.

      Lake City’s Bill Pierre family owns 14 acres of the core hub urban village and has been actively marketing it for several years, with no takers. Capacity is not the problem. There is no need to upzone single-family neighborhoods that are not in urban villages and are not served by frequent, reliable transit. Why can’t the two coexist, especially when Mike’s sponsors refuse to build family-sized 3 BR rental housing?

      • Why should tenants have to live along a busy highway? Confining growth to highway corridors is not a humane way to do urban planning. The only way to make this somewhat palatable would be to re-channelize Aurora and lower speed limits. Would Fair Growth support that?

        • Any building built on Aurora would be air conditioned (filtered air) and would have sound-proofing. So not a real objection.

          • I was referring not just to noise and air pollution but the possibility of getting run over by a car and killed. Not a great place for kids. Fine if it’s a fraction of your planned multifamily but bad if you only zone MF on busy highways/arterials.

        • Sure. Instead of addressing an established fact, that we have sufficient multifamily capacity within urban centers and villages to absorb the growth that’s coming, you attack single-family homeowners as racist, or living a lifestyle that is racist.

          Since developers decline to build any 3+BR rental units, larger, multigenerational and immigrant families have no choice but to rent a single-family home. Neighborhoods and schools are becoming more integrated every day.

          The majority of Seattle residents (52%) live in single-family homes, 25% of them as renters. Who are you to tell them their preference is wrong?

          • How can it be a preference when it’s mandated by law? If it were truly a preference, zoning wouldn’t matter, because no one would build up to zoning limits, because everyone prefers to live in smaller units. The unspoken assumption that developers always build the maximum allowed by law proves that the preference is overwhelmingly for more density.

            Confining growth to a few sacrificial zones isn’t a good solution, either. We don’t need two cities within Seattle. We’d be much better off with gradual transitions between high-rises and detached houses—the kind of transition that duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes can provide, as well as cottages and basement apartments.

            And Mike didn’t say that single-family homeowners, only that (correctly) they are fighting to preserve an institution that was formed out of racism. You can try to argue that the function of zoning has changed since its creation, but it was all about keeping the “wrong” kind of people out of neighborhoods when first conceived.

          • You can ask any large, intergenerational immigrant family if single-family housing is racist. They’d look at you as if your’re nuts. Since developers refuse to build any 3 BR multifamily rental housing, the only alternative for, say, a large African family is to rent a house. Only 35% of Seattle is zoned single-family and one quarter of single-family homes are rentals. Calling single-family housing racist is just nuts. What we need is low-rise family zones close to transit. And don’t let the City tell you that a 2-bedroom unit is family housing. That’s roommate housing and we all know it.

          • Again, neither Mike nor I have called single family housing racist. We’ve both noted that zoning, as an institution, has racist origins, and we’re both dubious that it’s overcome them.

          • The willful conflation of “single family zoning” and “single family detached houses” is so breathtakingly dishonest I really have a difficult time accepting that people who do it are arguing in good faith. And it’s not uncommon to encounter a low info person who’s heard somewhere that Cary Moon wants to eradicate single family houses in Seattle, so the disinformation campaign SS is contributing to here can have a real impact.

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