How Seattle Can Become a City of Two Million

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Imagine two million people living in Seattle city limits. You may think this is only possible with a skyline like New York or Hong Kong, but you would be wrong. It won’t take building towers; we won’t have to build the Burj Khalifa in Wallingford. If two million people sounds like a lot, it isn’t. Seattle is bigger than you think, we are only a small town in our mindset. Manhattan has close to two million people on a small isthmus of 20 square miles. Paris handles more than two million on 40 square miles. Geneva, Switzerland fits over a quarter of Seattle’s population on less land than Magnolia and Queen Anne.

Geneva, Switzerland is full of natural beauty, water, powerful views, and there aren’t any towers. (Left Image: By the Author; Right Image: Getty Images)
Geneva, Switzerland is full of natural beauty, water, powerful views, and there aren’t any towers. (Left Image: By the Author; Right Image: Getty Images)

Seattle is 84 square miles, we have the space

Getting to two million people doesn’t require highrises, sky-gardens, and helipads. It simply requires re-legalizing multiplexes and rowhouses. Once upon a time, when we built Wallingford, Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, and many other charming neighborhoods around this city, multiplexes were legal. So much so that Queen Anne has an apartment of 33 units taking up just five levels and a quarter of a city block. These neighborhoods feature brick cladded six-plexes, eight-plexes, and twelve-plexes. They range from three to four to five stories. These were legal to build in every corner of the city. What it takes to get us to house two million people is simply restoring those zoning policies we since banned in favor of racial segregation and exclusivity. 

The Narada Apartments and nearby six-plexes add to Queen Anne’s neighborhood character and are nothing more than simple boxes with multiple units and rich materials. (Left Image: Zillow; Right Image: Redside Partners)
The Narada Apartments and nearby six-plexes add to Queen Anne’s neighborhood character and are nothing more than simple boxes with multiple units and rich materials. (Left Image: Zillow; Right Image: Redside Partners)

Multifamily housing doesn’t always have to be studios, one bedrooms, and small efficiency dwelling units. The Narada Apartments in Queen Anne–remember the one I mentioned above that has 33 units in just five stories? Each unit averages over 1,000 square feet. Big enough for a family or someone who wants to share the rent with roommates. Search Redfin and you’ll find hundreds of single-family homes much smaller than the units at the Narada

For all of Seattle’s neighborhoods, a three-story sixplex fits entirely within the height allowances we regulate for single-family homes. Now, some will say they don’t like living below someone, and that is understandable. Rowhouses are wonderful, charming, and built all over great cities like New York, St. Louis, and Chicago. They are narrow and deep. Seattle builds these wrong, building them too narrow and too shallow, with the stair taking up precious space and ruining the layout. By allowing more lot coverage and removing parking minimums, Seattle can unshackle this building type to mimic what has been done for centuries around the world, building narrow and deep row houses. By allowing this flexibility citywide, this is how we house a city of two million. 

Brooklyn’s Brownstones are narrow and deep, allowing for more full-sized living spaces and less vertical living. Seattle’s townhouses cram everything in narrow and shallow footprints to accommodate parking and limiting lot coverages by code. (Left Image: By the Author; Right Image: Redfin)
Brooklyn’s Brownstones are narrow and deep, allowing for more full-sized living spaces and less vertical living. Seattle’s townhouses cram everything in narrow and shallow footprints to accommodate parking and limiting lot coverages by code. (Left Image: By the Author; Right Image: Redfin)

Speed up the review process

Re-legalizing rowhouses and multiplexes on Seattle’s 30 square miles of single-family zoning isn’t enough. The process from planning to construction needs to speed up. Design review should increase the threshold of qualifying projects to twenty-story towers, or more, and public buildings–like libraries, stadiums, and convention centers. By doing so, these overworked volunteer boards can spend their time focusing on bigger projects rather than delaying small apartments over silly brick arguments that riled up neighbors to mock the process with Dr. Seuss poems. By removing small apartment buildings from the bottleneck of design review, developers can build these faster, saving money and lowering the rent or sale cost.  

Seattle already increased the threshold for qualifying projects, and there is a bill going through that would exempt all qualifying affordable housing projects citywide. With neighborhood specific design guidelines–robust documents ranging from massing practices to material selections–we don’t need more community input. Projects will still provide their design for city review and projects will still be carefully integrated into our existing neighborhood fabric.

Seattle’s infrastructure is set up for two million

Now, you may think that two million people will overextend our utilities and services. Despite the decade of growth that rivaled some of the biggest booms in this city’s history, Seattle City Light is not selling more electricity. In fact, our building efficiencies have increased so much we are flatlined on power generation despite growing the customer base.

Our stormwater system dedicates 90% of our sewer volume for runoff, and the City now requires on-site mitigation to assure our stormwater system doesn’t carry any more load. Bioswales treat the stormwater naturally as if the building isn’t even there. It’s a concept that puts water naturally into the ground and doesn’t overextend our sewer system.

Our transit system can also be upgraded and expanded with the robust bus network that already reaches 90% of the city in a ten-minute walk shed. As we continue to expand our light rail network, with rumors of a fourth, all-urban Sound Transit expansion, we will continue to offer quick, sustainable travel throughout the city and region.  

Our bus system is robust and connects all of Seattle where the more regional Link cannot reach. Sound Transit 4 will upgrade many of these routes and allow our bus upgrades to be used on other lines. (Left Image: Transit Map; Right Image: Seattle Subway)
Our bus system is robust and connects all of Seattle where the more regional Link cannot reach. Sound Transit 4 will upgrade many of these routes and allow our bus upgrades to be used on other lines. (Left Image: Transit Map; Right Image: Seattle Subway)

What we need is leadership

Increased design review thresholds and eliminating parking minimums can be passed with a stroke of a pen. Allowing multiple units–and slightly more lot coverage–in our single-family neighborhoods can be done with the 2024 Comprehensive Plan update. In fact, chances are this would be a popular reform.  

Single-family zoning takes up 75% of the land we can build housing on and doesn’t house the majority of us. The other 25%? That 10 square miles is where the majority of the population lives. And no, they aren’t all renters, even though the city is a majority renter now. 

The United States Census data shows over 60% of homes are in the multifamily category, despite only having 10 square miles where they can be built in Seattle. The other 39.8% of units consume 30 square miles. This chart shows the clear gap in missing middle housing type. (Source: United States Census Bureau)
The United States Census data shows over 60% of homes are in the multifamily category, despite only having 10 square miles where they can be built in Seattle. The other 39.8% of units consume 30 square miles. This chart shows the clear gap in missing middle housing type. (Source: United States Census Bureau)

Multifamily housing makes up 60% of Seattle’s housing stock, with nearly as many homes in large apartments as detached one unit structures. People like the flexibility of housing options, so why not re-legalize it citywide? We have already had this conversation for five years, we already know single-family zoning’s racist and exclusive history. We have beaten this conversation to death. These measures are such obvious no-brainers, such obvious ways to make Seattle more welcoming and affordable. Many of the leaders who have been quoted saying these things are about to be re-elected, so what are we waiting on?

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Ryan DiRaimo (Guest Contributor)

Ryan DiRaimo is a resident of the Aurora Licton-Springs Urban Village and board member of the neighborhood group ALUV. He works at an architecture firm downtown and was a selected participant of the HALA focus group. He advocates for density, pedestrian safety and world class mass transit.

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cam

In your article you mention that there are lots of old buildings with large apartments in our residential neighborhoods. I agree that these old buildings provide great affordable homes that can house families or friends sharing a living space.

However, the areas that have upzoned in Seattle build almost zero apartments like this. From what I can see new apartment buildings in Seattle are almost entirely studios or small 1-bedrooms.

I don’t see any discussion in this article or others like it on the need to upzone but also ensure that the upzoned areas have homes large enough to house families, multi-generational families, and roommates.

Is there a way we can upzone all of our single-family neighborhoods but still provide family-sized housing? What would that look like?

Ryan DiRaimo

I don’t exactly address this, no, but I also think that if Seattle only builds small studios or 1 bedrooms they will over saturate that market and leave them empty. Developers won’t want to do that. As it stands currently, most projects build a mixture of 2 bedrooms in large apartment buildings without requirement. Vancouver has percentage requirements for large apartments to provide 2 and 3 bedroom units, so I imagine something like this could occur.

Right now in Seattle’s Low Rise zones you can build townhouses or small efficiency apartments and I see a lot of townhouses going up because they know they will sell. I think overall we would see a healthy mix.

One way to incentivize family sized units is to allow more lot coverage for rowhouses and plexes that will basically force family sized units.

Eric

It would look like rowhouses, a lot of the time. These are being built in pretty great numbers today.

No reason you couldn’t put a few three-bedroom apartments in one of the big apartment buildings too, and maybe we’ll get there someday. For now there’s such a big slice of residential land where the number of units is restricted so much that building one-bedroom homes makes little financial sense. I’m thinking primarily of the single-family zones, but also the low-rise multifamily zones have provisions that nudge builders into the townhome/rowhouse format.

Meanwhile a majority of our households are just one or two people, for whom a one-bedroom apartment will often be perfectly adequate. These homes are largely restricted to the mixed-use and mid-rise/high-rise zoning. That’s not very much land! Is it any real surprise then that most of the homes built in these zones will be designed for our smaller households? These studio and one-bedroom apartments are very much needed and there’s only so many places where they can be built.

Fix that and you’ll likely see increased diversity of home sizes in all zones: more one-bedroom homes in our current single-family zones and more three-bedroom homes in our bigger apartment buildings.

rdpence

One rather large problem with the author’s premise — Seattle is a built city. All those single-family neighborhoods he wants to rezone are basically filled with single-family houses. To achieve his density, thousands of those existing houses need to be bought up (at *very* high cost), torn down, and his new multiplexes built in their stead. What are the dollar costs with such a program? This sounds to me like just another naive “zoning is a magic pill” solution.

Bryan

Thanks to (bad) zoning for huge minimum single family lot sizes of 5,000, 7,200, and 9,600 square feet, Seattle is a an under built city. If we (re) allowed small lots like in older neighborhoods, we could triple the number of residential structures (whether houses or small apartments) without tearing anything down. (By way of example, thanks to grandfathered lot sizes, our neighbor’s single family house is on 1,500 square feet, while ours (relatively new infill) is on 2,500 – and our house is bang on the size of the triple decker I grew up in (which was 3 x 2 BR apartments).

Last edited 2 months ago by Bryan
rdpence

“without tearing anything down”? Really? There are THAT many vacant parcels in Seattle’s SF zones? Very hard to believe.

Bryan

No – large parcels that can be subdivided. Eyeballing a chart from the city, a majority According to city data [found the full text] 66% of single family lots are 5,000 square feet or greater, and as many as 1 in 10 are 9,000 square feet or more.

Last edited 2 months ago by Bryan
rdpence

Yes, lots of large lots with existing SF homes smack in the middle! They can’t be subdivided into equivalent building lots. More backyard cottages, yes, but that’s it.

Bryan

Why would they need to be equivalent building lots? (Our house for example is on a narrow strip, the older house is on a pokey nub toward the front.)

In fact, it would be a better path toward affordability for new lots to be as small as possible relative to the original!

Eric

More backyard cottages would accommodate a lot of people on its own. Per the article, Seattle has 148,000 detached single-family homes. Put a cottage in half of these backyards, occupied by an average of two people, and you’ve suddenly made homes for 148,000 people. Of course that doesn’t get us to 2 million on its own, but it’s far from nothing.

Meanwhile it’s a failure of imagination to say that backyard cottages are the best we can do without demolishing existing homes. I’ve attached an aerial photo of the end of a block in Ballard. Four existing houses, each on lots measuring exactly 5,000 square feet. The existing houses aren’t “smack in the middle” of the lot. Instead they’re closer to the front of the lot than the back. This is pretty typical. In the case of these houses, they’re more than 60′ apart, back to back.

Relax the rules on dividing your lot below 5,000 square feet, lower the setback requirements, and you could actually fit a pretty big building in the empty space on these four lots.

The blue outlined rectangle is roughly 4,500 square feet. You could develop a new apartment building in this footprint and it would have about 10′ gap between the new building and the existing houses. Make it three stories tall and that’s 13,500 square feet you have to work with. Seems like you should be able to fit a dozen two-bedroom apartments in that space pretty easily.

Ballard block.png
rdpence

Yes, eliminating backyards on these 4 houses would allow for such construction, but there are difficulties involved~ beginning with getting 4 homeowners to come to an agreement!

Eric

Sure, assembling land from four neighbors isn’t easy, but it’s also far from unheard of. Seattle is littered with places where back yards were chopped off to make room for more housing, before such subdivisions were made illegal in the mid-20th century.

There’s one such example on my block. When they were developing my block they decided to subdivide the land at the corner to make room for three houses without back yards instead of two houses with them. All three lots are less than half of the current 5,000 square foot minimum for the zone. That has been the state of things for almost a century and everyone seems fine with their minimal yard space.

You get less yard, but you also pay less for the property in the beginning and have less property tax every year as a result. As our land values keep increasing this is a trade-off that many people might be willing to make. If you could swap your yard for a chunk of cash that would pay off much of your mortgage, and lower your property tax bill going forward, would you do it? Perhaps you wouldn’t, but a lot of folks would.

Backyard house.png
Ryan DiRaimo

I think the point being made is Seattle’s single family homes consume about 15-20% of their lots, leaving 80% or more vacant that can construct more homes. Imagine being able to turn your back yard into a 4 plex or 3 rowhouses? I bet you can make some money and stay in that single family home as well!

Ott Toomet

I imagine growth in single-family zones would largely happen through natural renewal. I am sure you have seen many old (single family) homes coming down and new ones going up, at least this is the case in the older neighborhoods. The city renews anyway, in a natural fashion.

The questions is what is the new one that comes up. Is it a single-family home, or a duplex/quadruplex? Now obviously, if there is a way to earn more money by replacing an old SFH to a quadruplex, we would see somewhat more of old homes torn down and replaced with quadruplexes instead. This will most likely happen at the cheapest end of the homes, i.e. those that are in a need of a major repair anyway.

It is possible that a block will be “torn down”, but it will only happen if the new building promises enough profits but I guess it is rather rare (but go and check what has been removed to make place for the new towers in UDistrict).

Ryan DiRaimo

Every year Seattle issues hundreds of demolition permits for single family homes. These fly under the radar because they don’t go through design review if they are replaced by brand new single family homes.

In 1861 New York City was mostly farms and rural land on Manhattan. By 1880 it had started to become the city we see today.

I guess my overall point is, we already demo single family homes. I think it’s a great idea to grow housing on these lots which will subdivide that real estate acquisition cost among multiple buyers or renters. Just in my neighborhood where Single Family zoning has been upzoned away, we have seen 8 single family homes come down and be replaced by 22 new homes. All within 3 blocks of me.

Liam

I appreciate the article and agree with many of the points brought up in it. Seattle needs to be up-zoned basically everywhere, but how likely (or unlikely) is it that the Industrial District could be rezoned for mixed-use, residential etc.?

After a non-exhaustive look on Google Earth for major cities around the world, I can’t find many others that have so much industrial use so close to its downtown aside from those in the West and Mid-West of North America. But Seattle should not be striving to be like those cities. (The biggest caveat is that most of the cities I looked at didn’t have a harbor right next to downtown). Even so, San Francisco is converting its industrial uses near downtown and Vancouver’s container ports near downtown in Vancouver Harbor aren’t flanked by the same intensity of industrial uses as Seattle. The port and related buildings wouldn’t be moved, but how much use is being made out of the thousands of acres in the Industrial District and Duwamish River Valley? Shouldn’t cities be moving away from polluting industrial uses anyways if combating climate change is a priority? Is there are reason that the Industrial District shouldn’t be touched that I’m completely missing and being totally ignorant about?

My brainstormed pie-in-the-sky vision for the Industrial District would be that everything but the harbor is rezoned for mixed-use, mid-rise and the like with lots sub-divided into relatively small parcels, and the Duwamish River south of Lucile St. is rebuilt to flow the way it did before it was straightened into a canal (Burke Museum Waterlines Project), becoming a very long park (~5.5 mi) with development on either side. There are places in Greater Seattle for industry to be located elsewhere if its necessary.

Seattle could easily support at least 4-5 million people within its limits if the Industrial District was rezoned along with the rest of the city (assuming the necessary transit and utilities are established). This wouldn’t happen within the 21st Century, but I could absolutely see the Seattle metro area going well beyond 10 million people at some point in the future. Who cares that it’ll be beyond our lifetimes?

I don’t think a high population automatically has to be a bad thing if the city is planned in a way that prioritizes livability and the health of people and the environment. Tokyo is the most populous city in the world and yet it’s also almost always in the conversations about the most livable cities in the world. If it can work anywhere else, I don’t see why it can’t be done in Seattle.

Last edited 2 months ago by Liam
Ryan DiRaimo

I think that’s a great observation. My main focus was solely residential land, because we have so much of it. 30 square miles of just single family zoned land is roughly 75% of the size of Paris (roads included!). With so much of this land available, the focus on the industrial lands wasn’t particularly important, but it is definitely a worthwhile discussion.

I like industrial lands because they hold many good, union, well paying jobs that are too often forgotten in our high priced, rapidly changing city. Leaving them space is usually a good thing.

I will say parts of SoDo really could thrive having more urban living around the stadiums. Real Madrid play in the center of the city, in a neighborhood, and there’s no parking around the stadium. So many of these lots could be converted just as you mentioned.

Overall, we just have so much land available we can get by with a simple upzone in our neighborhoods and have the space to more than double the city’s population. But I’m open to everything!

RossB

Excellent article. I agree with all of your points. I personally don’t think we will become a city of 2 million any time soon (if ever) but that doesn’t matter. If you allow more housing choices, then housing will exceed demand, and prices will drop.

I especially like your point about rowhouses and small apartments (multi-plexes). I think this is the most important change that should happen. There are a lot of new houses being built, often on old lots that have been subdivided. In the north and south end, these lots end up being huge (a 25,000 square foot lot gets split into 3 big lots, as the maximum lots size is 7,000). That is enough space for lot of rowhouses or apartments.

I also think it is worth mentioning house conversions. There are some large houses in Seattle, and one of the cheapest ways to add density is to convert a house to an apartment (or condo). If prices drop to the point where building an apartment is just too costly, converting a house is still a good deal. That means that housing prices can continue to drop.

Ryan DiRaimo

For sure. It’s not so much about making sure 2 million people come here, just that we can house them if they do come. Chicago 1990-2000 grew by as many people as Seattle did from 2010-2020. The difference is, Chicago could easily take in 120,000 people where Seattle grappled with the change and rents / real estate doubled in just 5 years. Chicago has the housing to handle it and still remains affordable to this day. I did a recent Zillow search of 3+ bed properties under $300,000 in both Seattle and Chicago. Seattle had 3, Chicago had FIVE THOUSAND.

Many of those were rowhouses or stacked flats or units in sixplexes.

Seattle has about 165,000 single family lots in the city, and with a 2.1 average household size, this grows to a population of 2.1M just in those zones alone with only allowing sixplexes (and maxing it out, of course). And you’re right, it won’t change every lot over night, but as those bigger lots get subdivided, or a house comes down, more units will go up than what was there before.

It’s just such a no-brainer, I don’t know why we don’t just do it.

Fred Ringenburg

If you think Seattle housing is expensive, look at the price per square foot in Manhattan, Paris and Geneva. Tripling the population within the same geographic area will increase the pressure on prices. I love the townhouses of NYC and London and hope Seattle zoning can encourage more of them – but they ain’t cheap.

RossB

Or look at Tokyo, the largest city on earth. Oh wait, that kind of blows your theory, doesn’t it.

In a free market, the cost of goods is the result of supply and demand. There is a lot of demand in Manhattan, Paris, Geneva and Tokyo. The big difference between those cities is that Tokyo builds more places to live, so it far more affordable to live there. There are houses you can buy in Tokyo for around $300,000 that are about as far away from downtown as Northgate is. That’s crazy, given the size (and demand) in Tokyo compared to Seattle. This only happens if you allow a lot of housing (which Tokyo does).

Fred Ringenburg

How much per square foot in Tokyo?

Ryan DiRaimo

Let’s stay state-side. Chicago has over five thousand 3+ bedroom options for under 300,000 and Seattle only has 3 on the market right now.

Seattle isn’t affordable, so you aren’t protecting it from anything. The more housing you build, the less it will cost for older places for many reasons.

Ryan DiRaimo

New construction is always more expensive than old construction, just like new cars are more expensive than used cars. Same goes for clothes, computers, phones, etc. The idea around new density being expensive is, right now there are 5+ offers on every house. So if there’s 5 homes where 1 once stood, all 5 buyers get a place. If not, 1 gets a place and the 4 others competing in that same market go buy another house and another house and another house and now you’ve sold 5 total lots that could have been on 1.

By doing this type of thing, you will relax the prices of older homes so that, for example, a used Ford F-150 with 100,000 miles won’t cost $40,000 which is the same price for a brand new one with no miles.

That’s the housing crisis we have created here by maintaining single family dominance.

Last edited 2 months ago by Ryan DiRaimo
ballardite

Luckily we won’t need to become a city of 2 million for a long time. We have a huge number of empty apartments all over the city thanks to jobs going online and people moving away or moving into single family homes. It will be years and years until our population increases again. The upzones in 27 neighborhoods still haven’t been built out – and they didn’t and aren’t producing the affordable housing that was promised because they were written by developers for developers. Instead of stuffing all the growth into Seattle we should share the wealth with Everett, Tacoma, bellevue, redmond and other cities so job centers can grow there and benefit from less expensive land and housing. This could end up reducing the amount of greenhouse gases needed for communts and have many other benefits.

Ryan DiRaimo

Because Seattle is a city.

I personally welcome people to come to Seattle, just as I once was welcomed some 10 years ago. I think it’s great to create space to house people instead of telling these excited new residents to “get out of town” and go to Everett, Tacoma or Bellevue.

It’s so odd that people don’t mind when a house is sold and new neighbors move in, often times people bring cookies and say “welcome to the neighborhood”. Why can’t we extend that attitude to everyone who moves here, whether it’s in a single family home, rowhouse or apartment?

Bryan

The pandemic will have abated by the end of the year. Seattle has been one of the fastest-growing cities in the country for years, a trend that may slow but most likely not reverse.

Actually there are good reasons to believe Seattle’s growth will accelerate coming out of COVID. The pandemic has accelerated and expanded ecommerce, cloud computing, and remote work, growing the tech sector (and Amazon and Microsoft in particular).

We’ll may have even more growth in tech than we expected, and given that will make our local economy relatively stronger, give others a reason to move to opportunity. For example, if you’re in a struggling city and your restaurant has closed during this crisis, do you start over in a place struggling to recover, or where the population of people with lots to spend stayed strong and continues to grow?

Building houses where the jobs are may also give people a shot at rebuilding lives and careers!

RossB

If there is no market for apartments here, then you won’t mind if we change the zoning. If you are right, then the changes won’t matter, because no one is going to build a new apartment here (given all the empty ones). Fair enough, let’s just go ahead and change them, and see what happens.

cascadian12

Seattle used to be that city where attractive, medium density housing that the middle class could afford to build and buy was widely available. This was in the 1960s and 70s. When I lived there in the early 1980s, I could afford to live on Capitol Hill as a graduate student. What changed? Home-grown tech geniuses started Microsoft and Amazon and tons of people moved there, which created more jobs and more growth, etc. The economic growth has been great, but comes at a price. Other things changed, too, including widening income inequality and other macroeconomic effects. Short of a massive earthquake that requires rebuilding the entire city, there are few infill lots for the type of medium density housing this article talks about, UNLESS you remove cars and parking, which take up a lot of space. And if you do that, you will require very fast and efficient train service that connects the entire central Puget Sound region and beyond, like they have in Paris (which is not affordable). If you want to be Tokyo or Manhattan, you will need that kind of transportation. Surface buses don’t cut it. I don’t see it happening at this rate.

Ryan DiRaimo

This is the ultimatum I see a lot about why Seattle shouldn’t upzone. That’s why I addressed it in the article. My friend in London takes the bus more than the Tube because of many reasons. Our bus network is robust and reaches a lot of places. Also, unlike a subway or streetcar, it can be planned and installed quickly and cheaply. Give them bus only lanes and you will see ridership flourish. The 358 ridership was 11,000 a day until it was upgraded to RapidRide E, giving it a bus only lane, and ridership grew to 18,000 in just 4 years. That change was quick and easy to upgrade. Meanwhile, we are still arguing track sizes about the streetcar and whether a gondola makes more sense than light rail serving West Seattle.

Buses are great