Cascadia Needs New Zoning, Not New Cities

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Lion's Gate Bridge with Van City skyline in background. (Courtesy of Cascadia Innovation Corridor)

Abolishing apartment bans is how we grow as a region, not sprouting entire new cities in pasture.

The Cascadia Vision 2050 report made it onto KUOW with its claim that four cities of 300,000 to 400,000 residents need to be built from scratch in the I-5 corridor running from British Columbia to Oregon in order to accommodate growth.

Natalie Bicknell covered the “hub cities” idea in depth in an October article. There are pros and cons, obviously, but it seems more clear the study is being used to justify a fatalistic attitude toward reforming zoning in the Seattle region, rather than an idea really centered around environmental sustainability as billed.

“Unless existing cities like Seattle are willing to bulldoze 40% of their single-family homes, those cities won’t grow dense enough to fit all the people coming to the area in the next few decades,” KUOW’s Joshua McNichols said. “Because of this, housing will get more expensive, urban sprawl will increase and emissions will rise, the report says.”

The Cascadia Vision report comes from Cascadia Innovation Corridor, a partnership between the Business Council of British Columbia and Challenge Seattle, which is led by Christine Gregoire, former Washington Governor, and brings together the region corporate moguls to try to solve problems and influence long-term planning. While the partnership made its name pushing for high-speed rail from Vancouver to Portland–which is a goal The Urbanist shares–they may be tackling the wrong problem with their hub cities plan. In contrast, Shaun Scott’s op-ed today in Crosscut laid bare that ending apartment bans is the fight, not simply to meet ambitious growth projections but to create more equitable, less segregated communities everywhere.

Ending apartment bans

The “bulldozing single-family homes” language from the report invokes the imagery of housing opponents and is misleading and inflammatory. For one, converting oneplexes (detached single-family homes) to fourplexes would not necessarily require demolitions. Accessory dwelling units (ADU) offer a way to add density without teardowns. Seattle, Tacoma, Burien, Olympia, and several other cities already laws permitting and promoting ADU conversion.

Cascadia Vision 2050 cited the example of Forest Cit, Malaysia, which is an eco-focused edge-city made from scratch near Singapore and on the planned light rail line to Kuala Lumpur. (Rendering by Sasaki Design)

Moreover, the 40% figure sounds dramatic but over 30 years that only requires about 1.2% of single family homes to be converted to fourplexes per year. And we do not need to assume only fourplexes can be built in their place, we could allow more options than that and create something akin to the Forest City example the report cites in existing cities. Some neighborhoods are already seeing teardown rates exceeding that rate, and unfortunately too often these teardowns are leading to bigger, posher homes rather than more homes. Changing our housing rules can make the construction we’re already seeing anyway more equitable by encouraging more affordable options.

We can also promote more sustainable buildings. Washington state recently increased its height limit for mass timber towers to 18 stories. Now we just need the proper zoning to allow mass timber towers to go up in more places–and incentives and public investment to jumpstart the industry. Rather than grafting cities onto rural areas, we can build mass timber eco-districts in existing cities and generate a sustainable forestry employment boom in rural communities so they can grow in a more natural way.

Oregon recently legalized duplexes in cities statewide, and Portland made waves by legalizing fourplexes everywhere housing is allowed. Instead of arguing Washington and British Columbia should follow Portland’s lead and go further, Gregoire and friends are throwing up their hands their hands and proposing development in rural or exurban areas.

Chris Gregoire’s highway-building track record

The help Gregoire is offering the high-speed rail effort is commendable, but her track record on climate and transportation isn’t great. As Governor, she went all in on the SR-99 viaduct replacement tunnel (with a surface highway to boot) and steamrolled Seattle’s efforts to block the megaproject. This expansion of highway infrastructure in Downtown Seattle wasn’t just ungodly expensive and maligned with overruns and delays, it also blocked the alternative vision Cary Moon presented of transit upgrades and safer infrastructure for people walking, rolling, and biking. Governor Gregoire also pumped billions into highway building statewide, while underinvesting in transit.

Former Governor Chris Gregoire is on the left between Governor Inslee and Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbes, who are holding the ribbon at a 2019 ceremony outside North Portal to the new SR-99 tunnel. (Credit: WSDOT)

So what are we to make of Gregoire and Challenge Seattle presenting themselves as sustainability gurus and urban visionaries? They may mean well, but it’s not clear they get it, as their push for routing high-speed rail to Bellevue rather than Seattle illustrates. The growth machine that Gregoire embodies can help us, but we need to harness it for maximum benefit rather than getting roped into dubious projects that distract from core goals around equitable development, urgent climate action, and preserving ecosystems and wilderness spaces. Megaprojects might provide lucrative contracts and windfalls to the developers, bankers, investors, and real estate CEOs that compose Challenge Seattle, but we have to be sure we’re picking the right projects and the public benefit is there.

The Cascadia Vision report said “hub cities” should be built 40 miles outside exiting urban areas “to keep land costs down,” without specifying where. That condition is probably too restricting to work, unless we aren’t counting places like Olympia and Bellingham as urban areas. Either way, there are only so many places that fit the bill, and since most of the relatively undeveloped spaces between Portland and Vancouver, B.C., is in Washington that’s where they are. Places like Mount Vernon, Burlington, Centralia, and Kelso have been thrown around as hub city sites, but it’s not clear development there will be that much easier than in cities, since people already live there and may fight for their “neighborhood character” and against change just as some Seattleites do.

Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau was a panelist at 2019 Cascadia Conference , where distributing growth along the planned high-speed rail corridor was a theme. Mayor Boudreau said her community could take growth while still maintaining a high quality of life, but that was before the unveiling of the hub city idea targeting upwards of 400,000 residents. Roughly halfway between Vancouver and Seattle, Mount Vernon has a population of about 35,000 (and 12 square miles) and would be about a half hour away from either metropolis with high-speed rail.

Where would hub cities even go?

Even if land costs are low, it’s going to be expensive to build a city from scratch. Sewers, roads, hospitals, municipal courts, schools, libraries, water, and garbage facilities: none of that is cheap to build, even if the land is. Plus a city of 400,000 even at twice the density of Seattle would consume 22 square miles. Achieving that density (18,000 residents per square mile) would require mostly avoiding detached single family home development, which consumes the majority of land in virtually every Cascadian city as it stands. And even achieving that, it’s not clear there’s one site with 22 square miles of undeveloped buildable land ready for taking, let alone four such sites.

Cascadia Rail‘s latest map. (Oran Viriyincy)

In a way, the proposal is a return to the railroad landgrab days of our past, which brought cities like Tacoma into existence for Northern Pacific to exploit and turn into a company town. This helped railroad magnates recoup their expenses and turn a healthy profit building transcontinental railroads, but it didn’t make for healthy, equitable cities. I wonder if we’re repeating our mistakes here?

Cascadia should build a high-speed rail line and tons of housing near the stations. Rather than putting hub cities out into hayfields, we should reform our zoning and invest in sustainable social housing in existing cities. Cities like Tacoma, Everett, Bellingham, Olympia, and Seattle deserve that investment and they already make sense as high-speed rail stops. Rather than look outward for solutions, let’s look inward and upward.

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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.

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AJ

I generally agree, but I would make two counterpoints.

One, while we should refute the “bulldoze SF homes” narrative and push for low-impact infill, I think it would also be helpful to reframe the narrative from “new cities” to “new neighborhoods.”   A city needs a diverse mix of housing stock, so going all in on fourplexes is flawed just like building only apartment towers or only building single family homes.   Rather than 4 new cities of 400K, we need dozens new neighborhoods AND robust but incremental missing middle housing.  I think this would be a much more effective framing for the regional discourse and highlight that we need to re-imagine many different parts of our region to provide housing for all.   The ambition that transformed SLU and now the U District needs to be extended throughout the region. 

Two, while I agree the fixation on greenfield as a path to low land cost for housing is silly, I do think that it is good framing when asking how we will have sufficient industrial space for a growing region.   Unlike housing, which can clearly be delivered affordable & dense, industrial space generally needs cheap land.  Multi-story warehousing may work in some locations, but it’s likely not scalable across the region; we don’t want industrial land costs to get so high to support multi-storied warehouses in places like Arlington.   Therefore, I do think it is helpful to have a regional conversation about where we are going to create more Industrial land, in addition to how we can use our existing MICs efficiently and perhaps create more to serve a growing region.   How can we better connect some underutilized spaces like Bremerton MIC or Mose Lake?  Is Lewis County a good location for a regional logistic hub? Etc. 

Industrial land won’t create hot real estate markets like HSR commuter towns, but still plenty of room for creativity from the CIC. 

RossB

“A city needs a diverse mix of housing stock, so going all in on fourplexes is flawed just like building only apartment towers or only building single family homes.”

I agree, but so far as I know, no one is doing that. To begin with, there is a significant part of the city which has big apartments — some built recently, some old. Second, there are a certain number of single family houses that will probably always remain houses (there are houses in New York City). Finally, if you look at what cities are doing, they allow a mix of housing types. Allowing low rise everywhere does not mean that you build the same housing types everywhere, let alone that they all look the same. If you look at the plans, the offer up a mix, which means that some places will have multi-plexes, while others will have row houses, or small apartments.

The thing about multi-plexes, is that often they are just houses, converted to apartments. That is by far the cheapest way to add density and it leads to a mix of housing styles. If you look at some of the prettiest cities or parts of cities, they often look like that. Amsterdam has really skinny houses. Montreal, Brooklyn and the village parts of Manhattan are essentially row houses converted to apartments. Paris has lots of short apartments. They have density similar to, or exceeding Belltown, despite the relatively short height. It can be done, we just need to allow it.

RossB

” Some neighborhoods are already seeing teardown rates exceeding that rate, and unfortunately too often these teardowns are leading to bigger, posher homes rather than more homes. Changing our housing rules can make the construction we’re already seeing anyway more equitable by encouraging more affordable options.”

Absolutely. This really could use its own article. I would suggest a few case studies — they are common in my neighborhood. For example, this is one of three houses recently built in Pinehurst: https://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/12051-20th-Ave-NE-98125/home/171917350. The neighborhood is nothing special (no sidewalks, no views, no great parks, and average in terms of transit or driving). The house is huge (obviously) which is why it costs so much. The three houses together cost about 4 million. This is a recent subdivision.

The land originally held one small, older house. It sat on about 25,000 square feet of land. The area is zoned for 7,200 minimum. That means three houses, at most, can be built there, each sitting on an enormous lot. That is exactly what they built (the smallest lot was 7,200 feet, the one I linked to is 9,400).

They could have built twenty townhouses, with a giant common area left over. At 300 grand a house, that would have been more profitable for the builder, while a bargain for a new house.

You could also build low-rise condos with 30 units, easily. At 2K a unit (again, a huge bargain) the builder would gross way more money.

Again, this is just napkin math. The Urbanist writers have the experience in this area to come up with more accurate numbers (along with examples). But it is clear that the only reason they built big houses was because it was all they could build. If you are going to build a new house on a big lot, you might as well build a big house, since it doesn’t cost much more.

I should point out that this is (or at least was) a middle-class neighborhood that isn’t that concerned with what your neighbors house looks like. This isn’t Wallingford, let alone Laurelhurst. This is your typical house: https://goo.gl/maps/t3zsexbVDwJDWYxP9. The point being, if the goal is to keep the same “neighborhood character”, then the zoning fails, and fails miserably. People built here because it was cheap. They moved here because they couldn’t afford to live in nicer neighborhoods. Town houses or condos/apartments (both visible here: https://goo.gl/maps/V2wQDLVMXp3FEDCLA) are far more in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.

rdpence

I continue to have problems with this “zoning is the magic pill” approach to affordable housing solutions. Please go talk to the builder of those 3 McMansions at $1.3mil each, and ask him what he would’ve done with LR zoning on that parcel, what he could have financed, built, and sold at the market.

Douglas Trumm

To be clear, what I’m proposing is widespread zoning reform AND massive investment in social housing. (Plus, reducing wealth inequality through progressive tax reform and a stronger social safety net.) I’m under no illusion that the market can fix this alone.

Ending apartment bans won’t stop McMansion development alone either–although we could follow Portland’s lead and cap the size of new homes. You’ll find some examples where developers still built luxurious single family homes anyway. But, crucially, there will ample opportunities for social housing providers and missing middle developers to get their projects built. Right now, far too much urban land is off-limits to them.

Daniel Thompson

I agree with Doug on this one, and posted about how absurd this idea was when the Urbanist had an article praising the Cascade 2050 Vision Statement (which apparently has been removed). https://www.theurbanist.org/2020/10/06/hub-cities-can-solve-affordability-and-sustainability-challenges/ I have no idea why former Gov. Gregoire would sign onto this, and it worries me she is so involved with Futurewise’s current land use proposals re: density before the legislature.

Putting aside climate, the cost was prohibitive, and the future population growth estimates wildly exaggerated when the four county region is growing at around 1.37%/year. The Cascadia region would need to add 10 million residents to make this idea economically viable. Why would residents want to live in an Urban Vancouver WA? How would employers attract employees?

Even when evaluating climate, the Cascadia 2050 Vision Statement made no sense. It’s sole carbon savings plan was to encourage residents from Vancouver to Portland to take the train rather than fly, when most drive this route anyway. It had no analysis on the enormous carbon emissions from building all these new cities, or requiring so many trips between hub cities. Even assuming wildly exaggerated population growth, how would creating numerous cities in this corridor reduce carbon emissions? If you ask me the Cascadia 2050 Vision and Futurewise’s current legislative proposals serve developers more than climate action or equity, and are fundamentally opposed to the goals of the GMA.

IMO, the Cascadia 2050 Vision is a prime example of special interest groups coopting climate change and carbon emissions for totally contradictory purposes (development), ones that financially benefit them.

When it comes to eliminating zoning there are cities that have tried that. One is Houston, often considered the worst planned large city in America. In fact, before the catastrophic floods Houston was so ridiculed when hosting the Super Bowl it began to introduce zoning controls. After the terrible floods more stringent zoning controls were required by FEMA. Density requires impervious surfaces, and it eliminates yard setbacks, so neighborhoods become very ungreen quickly.

ADU’s have their plusses and their minuses, and I have been involved in ADU zoning for some time. The two keys with ADU’s/DADU’s are whether to require the property owner to live in one of the units to prevent the properties from becoming absentee landlord rental properties which changes the character of residential neighborhoods, and whether to allow greater GFAR (gross floor area to lot area ratios) for DADU’s, which includes whether to allow DADU’s to intrude into the yard setbacks for the property and affects how green a residential neighborhood remains. Trees grow in the yard setbacks. They are also expensive to build, and subject to the same building codes as the main house; just because a DADU is small doesn’t mean it can be dangerous to live in.

When it comes to upzoning, the ideals proposed by the Urbanist in which Seattle’s wealthy residential neighborhoods are mildly upzoned to multi-family housing do little to address affordable housing, equity, or global warming, but do benefit developers.

First, if you want to get serious about density, and to create real Urban areas with real rich street retail, you need to go big, like Bellevue or downtown Seattle. 277′ height limits in very circumscribed areas like downtown Seattle, where there is adequate transit and underlying infrastructure like water and sewer lines. Four unit apartments, or three story/unit structures, will rarely create a rich street retail scene. Unfortunately this housing will not be affordable.

If you want to get serious about equity, then you need to limit upzoning to disadvantage communities and communities of color, often called enterprise zones. You incentivize developers to build in destressed communities through density, but you have to very careful of gentrification.

If you upzone wealthy white neighborhoods at the same time as disadvantaged communities all the development will flow to the wealthy neighborhoods because it is more profitable, and that is exactly what has happened in Seattle. By creating enterprise zones you locate the new development where it is needed, although you have to get over the reluctance of white Urbanists to live in Black neighborhoods.

Finally, although we have had this discussion before, I don’t think density of housing will reduce carbon emissions. Soon in 2026 buses are to be electric, but so will most transportation. Working from home is the best remedy to reduce carbon from commuting. Density and new construction simply does not reduce carbon when you remove commuting from the equation, and even in upzoned residential Seattle neighborhoods those residents will likely commute someplace for work.

Finally the fundamental issue with affordable housing that is not publicly subsidized is new construction — especially in areas where the underlying land is valuable — is always the least affordable. I know I have repeated that concept many times, but it seems like well meaning folks keep ignoring it, and we keep building more and more unaffordable housing in neighborhoods that are unaffordable to begin with. Building more and more unaffordable housing does not help the poor, and building in wealthy white neighborhoods does not create equity.

Anyway thanks for exposing the Cascadia 2050 “Vision” Report. To be honest I was surprised the Urbanist reported favorably on the Report earlier. I would be very skeptical of Gregoire’s involvement in Futurewise’s new legislation, that this time coopts “equity” for more development.

dericke

RE: “I don’t think density of housing will reduce carbon emissions. Soon in 2026 buses are to be electric, but so will most transportation. Working from home is the best remedy to reduce carbon from commuting. Density and new construction simply does not reduce carbon when you remove commuting from the equation”

Commuting is only somewhere between ⅕ and ⅓ of vehicle miles driven: https://nhts.ornl.gov/vehicle-miles (I removed “Home” from the stats to get ⅓, since I assume it to be the return leg of most of the other trips)

Working from home will certainly reduce carbon emissions, but it’s only one part of the solution. It doesn’t solve the problem on its own. Same with electric vehicles, which still contribute some carbon emissions in manufacture and shipping, and in the proportion of our energy mix that is still not carbon-free. Both are important parts of reducing carbon emissions, but so is density.

Ott Toomet

” Building more and more unaffordable housing does not help the poor…” See Mast (2019) paper https://research.upjohn.org/up_workingpapers/307/.

The author analyses the movements of people. The rich who move to expensive housing leaves another unit behind, and that other unit will be taken by someone else. The someone else is also leaving from somewhere… At the end the author estimates that one expensive new unit creates 0.4 units in poor (lower quintile) neighborhoods. (This process is called “filtering”).

Asquith et al (2019) (https://research.upjohn.org/up_workingpapers/316/) analyze rental prices near new constructions and finds that a new apartment building in low-income neighborhoods suppresses rents by $150, approximately $1 per one new apartment constructed.

So we have at least some evidence that building more, both in rich and poor neighborhoods helps in terms of making housing affordable.

asdf2

Upzoning increases the supply of housing in the neighborhood. Without it, you still get gentrification. The only difference is that the old houses get replaced with McMansions, rather than townhomes or apartments.

Ultimately, trying to fight gentrification is a losing battle anyway, almost like trying to defy the laws of gravity. The common anti-gentrification arguments I hear go along the lines of “My neighborhood is a dump. To keep the rent from going up, my neighborhood must remain a dump. Therefore, any investment in the area that makes the neighborhood a more desirable place to live must be opposed.” Ultimately, it’s a very defeatist argument, which has been used to oppose any neighborhood improvements from parks to sidewalks to light rail.

The solution to keeping rents down is not to make neighborhoods suck, it’s to increase the supply of housing everywhere to better align with demand.

@bryan_kirschner

“Unless existing cities like Seattle are willing to bulldoze 40% of their single-family homes, those cities won’t grow dense enough to fit all the people coming to the area in the next few decades,”

To put another point of emphasis on how misleading and inflammatory this claim is, in Seattle more than 6,300 acres of land is currently zoned single family 9,600 or 7,200 square foot minimum lot size. The average lost size per existing house is over 10,000 square feet.

Just dropping the average single family lot size to 3,000 square feet – a common size in older neighborhoods like Wallingford and Queen Anne – would allow 65,000 new single family houses.

And of course is they were fourplexes, that’s a quarter of a million new homes.

All without touching a single existing single family house.

billt47

Tell me how you “[drop] the average single family lot size to 3,000 square feet,” down from 10,000, and build 65,000 new structures, “All without touching a single existing single family house” that are already on those lots?

@bryan_kirschner

“Tell me how you “[drop] the average single family lot size to 3,000 square feet,” down from 10,000, and build 65,000 new structures, “All without touching a single existing single family house” that are already on those lots?”

Allow existing property owners to subdivide their lots.