Roosevelt Needs a Zoning Refresh

17
Lucille Apartments is a recent addition at Roosevelt Way and 68th Street. (Photos by Doug Trumm)

With an overly limited urban village around its light rail station, Roosevelt could really use an expansion.

I moved my family to the edge of Roosevelt in 2016, right on the boundary with Ravenna and a few steps away from the University District. We came for the gorgeous parks, great schools, budding amenities, and the fact that it would soon be connected by subway to so much more of the city. With the blistering pace of development today, it’s clear we weren’t the only ones to notice. This growth will build up our local businesses and bring new ones to the area, which will make it an even better place to live. It will also make the neighborhood more inclusive, funding lots of subsidized housing via the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program

And, speaking of inclusivity, we were delighted to see that most of our neighbors welcomed the 253 units of affordable housing and a daycare that are under construction right now at the light rail station. We are fast becoming a 15-minute neighborhood, and more importantly, a neighborhood that also understands it should include everyone.

But this wasn’t always true, and that past is about to haunt us, robbing taxpayers of our rightful return on investment, and excluding thousands of families from our neighborhood. I figured this out because I have been surprised to see low-density townhomes being built just a few steps from the brand new station. Nerd that I am, I pulled out the zoning maps. It turns out that dense developments, including even mid-sized multifamily buildings, are prohibited in a big part of the area around our brand new subway stop. In some spots, only single-family homes are allowed. My (very) rough count finds 86 acres of low-density zoning within a 10-minute walk. This does not include the single-family homes in the Ravenna-Cowen Historic District, which the City removed from the upzone and urban village in deference to homeowners who got the area placed on the National Register. Given that wrinkle, I kept it out of the count.

Limiting 86 acres to low-density housing when they are next to a shiny new subway station in a high-opportunity neighborhood is a reckless waste of resources. Northgate Link cost $1.9 billion, and Roosevelt is one of only three stops. Shouldn’t we aim to get more out of our $633 million in taxpayer investment? If the goal is a more connected, green Seattle, why limit ourselves to townhomes in this transit paradise? Townhomes are missing middle housing, which is a great addition to most communities. We need millions of units around the country. But land next to billion-dollar transit is vanishingly rare, and needs much wiser stewardship.  

The return on high capacity transit investment can be measured in lots of ways: financial, impact on traffic, air quality, carbon emissions, convenience, connectivity to more of the city, access to jobs, walkability, noise, community development, and public health. All of those returns will be far higher if we fix this zoning mess now. 

The rest of the walkable distance should match the ambition of the more intensive blocks in the area, like Centerline or the affordable Cedar Crossing. This would allow over 210 units per developable acre, plus space for other ground floor uses. This means that the 86 acres could hold 18,000 homes, along with loads of restaurants, coffee shops, daycares, pharmacies, grocery stores, dry cleaners, gyms, banks, bars, boutiques, and bookstores. More modest four-story and five-story buildings would allow 8,600 homes. It looks like building 12,000 homes is well within reach. 

Bellwether Housing’s Cedar Crossing are rising from the subway station construction site. (Rendering by VIA Architecture)

But the current single-family and sometimes townhome zoning on that land will generate fewer than 1,000 homes, confining the dense development to just a dozen blocks or so. That means we are using our city’s zoning authority to shut out 11,000 families, preventing them from living next to an expensive light rail station paid for by those same taxpayers. If we let them in, they’d have easy, low carbon access to hundreds of thousands of jobs, outstanding schools, sumptuous parks, and a walkable neighborhood. Through MHA, it would fund 1,000 affordable homes for families that need some extra help. Instead, our plan is to keep single-family homes or build housing that is just large enough that it will take generations before more intensive replacement pencils out. Neither contributes much to affordable housing. It is inefficient, unjust, and environmental sabotage.

The Roosevelt Urban Villages saw a good deal of lowrise zoning. Around the station there are some blocks of 95-foot Neighborhood Commercial zoning. (City of Seattle)

Why talk about inclusive, 15-minute cities if we aren’t even willing to commit the small sliver of land around a subway stop to being a fully utilized 15-minute neighborhood? If Seattle wants to show the nation what a progressive city can do, we have to commit. If we want people to have access to livable, environmentally responsible, and upwardly mobile lifestyles, we have to tear the gates off all the unused land in our high opportunity, transit connected communities. 

Roosevelt would be a great place to start. We’ve come a long way since neighbors fought to keep the light rail mostly just for themselves. We are more progressive, more aware of the risks of climate change, more attuned to the value of a walkable, connected neighborhood, more tired of driving on Seattle roads. It’s time for Roosevelt to lead the way for our city.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Ron Davis (Guest Contributor)

Ron Davis is an entrepreneur that has spent most of his professional life working to improve the lives of workers and seniors. He's a former member of the Citizen Oversight Panel for Sound Transit and is active in trying to make Seattle a more just, inclusive, clean, walkable, city. He has a JD from Harvard Law School and lives in Northeast Seattle with his wife, a family physician, and their two boys.

17 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
James

“The rest of the walkable distance should match the ambition of the more intensive blocks in the area, like Centerline or the affordable Cedar Crossing.”

Ah, Centerline . . . one-bedrooms range from $2,420 to $2,950, hardly affordable and certainly not a good investment for the majority of renters for any period of time. We sold our Green Lake house in 2018 after 34 years to downsize, and moved to this area to rent in one of these newer apartments. Love the area, but the one, very big downside, are the constant rent increases. 6% after the first year, 7% after the second. The third was stymied by the pandemic, but rents are now back to where they were pre-pandemic – even higher – and we’re counting on an especially big pop at the end of this term for catch up. There are some real attractions to urban villages like Roosevelt, but the rent increases aren’t one of them. In this area they’re especially driven by the light rail station and the greed of developers who know there’s a market that will pay these rates . . . at least for the short-term. 

Last edited 5 months ago by James
derek

Rent will go up NO MATTER WHAT. That’s how supply and demand works. If you don’t build the new housing then prices for what remains would go up even more. So rather than spending that much for a nice/new one bed you’d be paying that much for an old studio built in the 70’s and poorer folks wouldn’t be able to live there at all. This is like….the entire argument around up-zoning. https://cityobservatory.org/how-gentrification-benefits-long-time-residents-of-low-income-neighborhoods/

Neil

I support greater density in the vicinity of mass transit, when part of an overall, well-thought out plan. What I saw in San Francisco was developers rushing to maximize their profits by building ugly apartment blocks, maximizing every inch of each lot, with no plan to create or even preserve the necessary services. Typically these buildings had gyms – but for their residents. Already the Roosevelt area lost the QFC supermarket. We can wish for the creation of a vibrant urban environment with lots of community-serving businesses, but simply changing the zoning to allow apartment blocks will not create that, and instead create a bleak zone of indistinguishable buildings, wind tunnels of shade, and some very rich developers.

Pat

Speaking of profit, how much more is your house worth now than when you bought it? Have you put an equivalent amount of work into it, or is that increment entirely unearned?

The very simple fact is that there are thousands of people living in those indistinguishable buildings, myself included, who would not be able to afford to live here otherwise because houses are well into the 7 figures. Is a neighborhood only accessible to millionaires what you want?

RDPence

Hmmm. I look at the Roosevelt district and see an urbanist success story. New apartments too numerous to count, many blocks of the sought-after density, all within walking distance of a new light rail station. And someone chooses to complain because a few blocks of SF housing is allowed to remain?

When I was studying planning years ago, the best neighborhoods had a variety of housing types, including single-family dwellings. I still see the wisdom of that, and I’m not buying the notion that SF homes are evil and subject to elimination.

Bryan

Single family homes are not evil, nor are they subject to elimination.

But single family large lot zoning is evil, and should be subject to eliminaton.

Pat

This.

In a place with sane land use regulations, rising land values would naturally beget higher-intensity uses, like apartments, which provide a social benefit (more people can live near and take advantage of public investments like Link). But because of SF zoning, all that land value increase goes directly into the pocket of the homeowner, with no corresponding societal benefit, at the expense of the public.

Indeed, many people like their single family houses. They are not going away any time soon, but they should at least be made to compete for space on their own merits instead.

Amy

The “single family” zoning adjacent to the station, that isn’t within the historic district is RSL – residential small lot. This isn’t really “single family” with a density max of one unit per 2,000 sqft….. Duplexes and triplexes are permitted in this zone.

A blanket increase to say, NC-55 or MR would result in even higher land values and homeowners and renters unable to remain in existing housing. Zoning is balance and compromise.

Pat

Zoning is a “compromise” in that the artificially enforced scarcity makes *you* richer and makes *my* rent go up. In other news, being mugged at gunpoint is also a “compromise.”

Neel B

I grew up in that neighborhood. Cowen Park and Ravenna Park areas have always been NIMBY zones, and part of the negotiated settlement of zoning increases was a continued sop to their failed, self-serving policy ideas.

As a long time Seatttleite, SF Zoning needs to go. LIke, completely. HALA version 1 had it right. Duplexes should be allowed everywhere. Also, limitations on multi-story, multi-family housing like requirements for elevators, parking, etc. should be changed. Otherwise, we’ll continue to have the bifurcated, artificially expensive market we have today.

Bryan

I grew up in that neighborhood. Cowen Park and Ravenna Park areas have always been NIMBY zones, and part of the negotiated settlement of zoning increases was a continued sop to their failed, self-serving policy ideas.

Yeah here’s some class animus written in to the 1990s neighborhood plan:

The community’s wish is to have existing housing, particularly single-family homes, retained as well maintained, owner-occupant housing. Newer housing would be predominantly multifamily structures designed to accommodate a range of incomes.

[C]oncerns include: The speculative purchase of existing single-family housing for rental purposes, with the ensuing lack of neighborhood commitment characteristic of non-owner, transient residents.

https://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/Neighborhoods/Planning/Plan/Roosevelt-plan.pdf

Last edited 5 months ago by Bryan
RossB

I agree, Neel. While there is some merit to the changes proposed by the author of this piece, it would do very little to address the larger problem in Seattle (and the region). Drawing little circles and saying “build here, and only here” results in expensive property everywhere. Areas with pretty good density get bulldozed, while low density areas remain low density. The houses aren’t even preserved, as McMansions replace small houses. It is a failed policy, that is not unique to the United States: https://viewpointvancouver.ca/2019/10/17/the-grand-bargain-illustrated/

What we need instead is low rise development. Keep the same height limits in single-family zones, but get rid of the density limit. You should be able to build an apartment the exact same size as a house. Get rid of the side setbacks, to allow row houses. Allow for smaller lots (again, to allow for rowhouses). Get rid of the parking requirements. Do this everywhere. Every residential zone should allow this level of housing.

Historic districts should have no zoning connotations. Structures should be preserved on an individual basis. If you can make the case to preserve a house in Ravenna for architectural/cultural reasons, so be it. Preserve it, while allowing an owner to convert it into an apartment (we need more house-to-apartment conversions).

There will still be areas of the city where bigger buildings are allowed. But we don’t need to obsess over making those tiny bubbles just a little bit bigger. We need to focus on the vast majority of the privately held land in the city, and open it up to more density, even if the heights remain the same.

Pat

Great piece! This much legally mandated low intensity land use next to a light rail station is a travesty and a direct transfer of transit funds into homeowners’ equity. Expand the UV, or better yet, abolish single family zoning altogether.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that the current urban village zoning was explicitly designed to concentrate development right next to I-5, and use the bodies and lungs of new renters to “buffer” the rest of the neighborhood from freeway noise and pollution. Super gross and inequitable.

Amy

Great point about cramming multi-family into the buffer from I-5! Agree, its unacceptable and inequitable.

In terms of the lower density adjacent to the station, I think I’m a bit more of a realist, and have seen the tremendous change in this neighborhood in the last 15 years (as the author rightly points out). Zoning is constantly changing, and in another 10 years, the neighborhood will be more accepting of more density closer to the station. Zoning is compromise. I know this comment is probably the minority opinion among folks reading….. but remember Roosevelt 15 years ago!?!?

Pat

I don’t think it’s right to punt additional zoning changes another 10 years out, actually. Assuaging longtime residents’ aesthetic sensibilities is not and should not be one of the City’s priorities.

I don’t remember Roosevelt 15 years ago because I was in middle school in a depressing small town 2,000 miles away. I am glad that Roosevelt made room for people like me to move here, because it is an awesome neighborhood where car ownership is truly optional. Being gifted a multibillion dollar public investment like Link means that we should make it possible for more people to move here and live car free if they want to, now, not 10 years from now.

Sea Wolf

What makes you think owners of single family homes near the Link station will sell? Some already have and others will, but I sure as heck won’t.

Pat

Why ask a question if you just answer it in the next sentence? If you don’t want to sell, good for you. Free country. Others have, and will.