Midweek Video: How Do Cities Get Enough Fresh Water?


Dave Amos dives into the issue of water, the lifeblood of cities. He explores how climate change, over-development, and other impacts can pose challenges to sustaining quality water access for cities and highlights solutions to water shortages.

Pierce County Updates Plans for Central Urban Growth Areas

A view of development along SR-7 in Pierce County. (Google Maps)
A view of development along SR-7 in Pierce County. (Google Maps)

In October, the Pierce County Council adopted updates to the community plans of Frederickson, Mid-County, Parkland-Spanaway-Midland, and South Hill that should encourage denser development near the planned Pacific Avenue bus rapid transit (BRT) line. These communities were outlined in a 2016 “Urban Communities of Pierce” report that called for growth being directed to them to increase walkability and transit access. The four updated plans themselves formalize transportation corridors in the communities, rezoning the corridors with new development standards to mostly allow for more multifamily and commercial development.

These updates follow a 2015 action to conduct a periodic review and update of the Comprehensive Plan, including update of individual community plans. Then in 2016, movement began to develop the changes to the community plans that we see in the 2020 update. The changes were expected to be effective on March 1, 2021, but three submitted appeals that have been consolidated (case number 21-3-0003c) by the Growth Management Hearings Board may delay that date for weeks or months.

The relationship of the four communities covered by the planning process. (Credit: Pierce County)
The relationship of the four communities covered by the planning process. (Credit: Pierce County)

Pierce County is expecting the population of unincorporated urban growth areas to increase by 57,000 people between 2010 and 2030. So far, the plan to continue absorbing the growth is solely focused on increasing density and language on increasing transit-focus in and around half-mile wide Corridors and Centers, rather than reforming the vast swathes of rural and low-density residential zones. Examination of incoming zoning changes demonstrates the unbalanced actions the Pierce County Council is making.

Inspecting the changes

  • Overview of zoning changes by the update. (Credit: Pierce County)
  • Parkland-Spanaway-Midland zoning changes by the update. (Credit: Pierce County)
  • South Hill zoning changes by the update. (Credit: Pierce County)
  • Frederickson zoning changes by the update. (Credit: Pierce County)
  • Mid-County zoning changes by the update. (Credit: Pierce County)

Of all the community plans, the Parkland-Spanaway-Midland plan includes the most upzoning of land. These changes predominantly occur on the SR-7 and 112th St E corridors, with lesser changes on Portland Ave E and 176th St E. Along the corridors, the previous mix of zoning designations are consolidated into strips of corridor zones. For the most part, this consolidation produces increases of allowed housing units per acre that double or more than double the previous maximum housing density (the highest previous maximum density was 30 housing units per acre). The median maximum height increases by 10 feet.

The most dramatic increases occur where “Towne Center” zoning goes and where the rare and small patches of previously single-family or residential resource zones are captured by the new half-mile wide corridor zones. The Towne Center designation is where the densest development is allowed in the unincorporated urban growth areas, with a somewhat underwhelming maximum of 80 housing units per acre and 65 feet in maximum height–or 85 feet if 20% of units are affordable. The designation also comes with a minimum density requirement of 15 housing units per acre In the plans, these Towne Centers are placed in preparation for bus rapid transit stations–already funded is the SR-7 BRT route that is planned to be operational in 2024.

The “Urban Corridor” and “Neighborhood Corridor” zones are more widespread versions of the Towne Center zone. For Urban Corridor zoning, the maximum density is 60 housing units per acre and maximum height is generally 55 feet. Neighborhood Corridor allows for a maximum density of 25 housing units per acre and generally 45 feet of height. All three zoning types benefit from no setbacks.

Seattle and Metro Hash Out Agreement for Prop 1 Transit Investments


As a first step to authorizing a new transit funding agreement with King County Metro, the Seattle City Council approved an updated agreement on Monday to guide the process for purchasing and providing service in the city. The agreement sets out the responsibilities and binding terms that both agencies are expected follow in making bus service changes and funding decisions through the end of 2027. Most of the terms are similar to the original agreement, but circumstances of over the past few years have led to the City and Metro to seek more certainty on specific matters like revenue sharing and ramping down service.

Changes to the agreement terms were precipitated by renewal of the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) in November via Proposition 1. Voters overwhelmingly approved Prop 1’s new six-year 0.15% sales tax for transit investments. This replaced the $60 car tab fees and 0.1% sales tax that had been in force for six years but were set to expire in December. A new car tab fee extension was not included in the ballot measure due to uncertainty from a pending statewide court case. That case was only resolved in October when the Washington Supreme Court struck down I-976, allowing local transportation car tab fees to continue being collected.

Agreement terms and cost considerations

Under the terms of the original agreement, there are several critical principles that are outlined and will be carried forward into the new agreement. These include things like:

  • Metro not supplanting local service required by the service guidelines with City funding (i.e., funding is for additive service over baseline service);
  • Ensuring that Metro provides credits to the City for farebox revenue collected in relation to additive service on City-funded routes; and
  • Requiring that transit service is consistent with both the City’s transit master plan and County’s service guidelines.

Traditionally, Seattle purchases bus service at a rate that matches Metro’s basic full hourly service cost unlike other contractors that may pay a mark-up price. This basic cost, referred to a “fully allocated cost”, includes things like wages and benefits, fuel, maintenance, and some administrative costs (e.g., planning and human resources). However, Seattle does get a modest cost reduction on this for farebox credits and equipment purchases (i.e., extra buses the city purchased for trolleybus routes) under the agreement. This has usually meant that the hourly service cost is about 25% less than it otherwise would be. Costs are invoiced on a quarterly basis and paid by the City, but an end-of-year reconciliation process is conducted to deal with any differences from estimated costs and assumed service hours delivered versus actuals.

District Energy Is a Fit for Seattle

The Marstal central solar heating plant in Marstal, Denmark (Credit: Erik Christensen)

In Seattle’s latest update to its energy code, bans were levied on fossil fuel and electric resistance heating systems in commercial buildings and three-plus-story multifamily residences. One exception to that ban was for district heating systems that can and do burn carbon fuels in Seattle. District heating is a subset of district energy, which according to the United States Energy Information Administration involves systems that have a central plant or plants that produce steam, hot water, or chilled water that is then pumped through a network of insulated pipes to provide space heating, cooling, or hot water for nearby buildings. More than 660 district exist in the United States.

One of these systems is operated by Enwave Seattle (formerly Seattle Steam Company), which has been has been heating buildings in the downtown area and First Hill since the 1890s with piped steam that is generated from centralized boilers. The district heating company has used coal, oil, biomass, natural gas, and electricity to power its boilers. Today, the company burns wood chips and natural gas to provide heat and hot water to around 200 buildings. Another similar system exists at the University of Washington that operates a central power plant of five natural gas boilers that supply steam heat, chilled water air condition, compressed air, and emergency power to all the buildings on the main campus and medical center.

David Easton of Enwave Seattle, formerly Seattle Steam, points to a chart of steam lines running underneath Seattle. (Credit: Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
David Easton of Enwave Seattle, formerly Seattle Steam, points to a chart of steam lines running underneath Seattle. (Credit: Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

While many district energy systems currently burn fossil fuels, they do operate with high energy efficiency at economies of scale. Most of this advantage manifests in being able to aggregate the varied heating and cooling loads of multiple nearby buildings into a more steady and predictable combined load, which is generally more efficient than an inefficient need to ramp up and down heating and cooling systems of individual buildings. The distribution system of a district energy system also has the effect of energy storage, which smooths out energy generation of the central plant and allows the central plant to operate at high load factors. This operation results in higher levels of efficiency by reducing the need for excess peak heating or cooling capacity. The large scales also allows for cost efficient operation of high efficiency technologies and equipment like condensing economizers that wouldn’t be feasible for the smaller heating systems of individual buildings.

Why district energy matters

In the United States, spatial heating, air conditioning, and water heating consist of the vast majority of our residential energy consumption. According to the 2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey, just shy of two thirds of American single-family residential energy use is consumed by space and water heating. Including air conditioning takes that fraction up to three quarters. Apartments brings that fraction down to up to two thirds for all three needs. Residential temperature regulation is also a major contributor to American greenhouse gas emissions, as the combination of natural gas, propane, and fuel oil/kerosene dominate U.S. household end-use energy consumption.

While many existing district energy systems also use fossil fuels, they are immensely flexible with the kind of fuel used to power their equipment. At home, the Seattle Steam Company–now Enwave Seattle–was converting its then oil-fired boiler to electricity-powered boilers in the 1970s. At one point, it was one of Seattle City Light’s four largest costumers, but Seattle Steam converted its boilers to natural gas in 1977 after Seattle City Light faced an energy shortage. Close by, Amazon’s headquarters relies on a district energy system powered by waste heat from a nearby data center.

Growing Social Housing in Seattle

Seven-story midrise apartments along a pedestrian plaza.
Capitol Hill Station is getting 428 apartments right over the station. 110 will be social housing operated by Community Roots and another 67 or so will be MFTE. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Social housing composes 8.6% of Seattle’s housing stock, which is well below many peer cities around the globe. Some standouts are far ahead. In Singapore, that number is around 80% and in Vienna it’s more than 60%. Other cities are gaining ground fast. Paris is on pace to hit 25% social housing by 2025, and 30% by 2030.

Seattle is picking up the pace of production for social housing, but so too are market-rate developers. That means the social housing percentage isn’t projected to increase much, barring further investments. Social housing encompasses several forms of affordable housing including public housing, nonprofit housing, and rent-restricted homes in market-rate buildings offered via incentive programs like inclusionary zoning. There’s a really strong case Seattle should be building more social housing than it is. Doing so would combat displacement and shrink commutes for working class people, who keep the city functioning and culturally vibrant. Social housing investment would engender mixed-income neighborhoods rather than Seattle slipping into a one-class city of the rich.

“Everyone should have the possibility to live in Paris,” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said during her last election campaign.

Hidalgo has pointed to retaining working class residents as the impetus for Paris’ social housing program, without which those folks would be increasingly priced out and pushed out. “To help retain those low- and middle-income residents, Paris has been creating upwards of 7,000 units of new social housing a year under Hidalgo (up from roughly 5,000 a year under Delanoë), for a total of more than 100,000 units added since 2001,” Colin Kinniburgh reported in France24. “It has achieved this through a combination of new construction, conversion of existing buildings and, to a lesser extent, simply buying apartments to take them off the private market.”

What would it take for Seattle to achieve a social housing triumph similar to Paris? Starting just shy of 9% social housing, we have a steeper climb. Nevertheless, the route is open to us if we’re willing to commit, and the need is great.

“We as a city need to do more,” said Mary Steele, Interim Executive Director of Compass Housing Alliance. “Affordable, permanent housing is the foundation for a stable life and the need in Seattle keeps climbing year over year.”

Social housing today

In 2015, the Seattle Office of Housing (OH) estimated the city had 27,217 social housing units in the Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan, and 80% of them were in designated Urban Centers and Villages. In fact, Urban Centers (the Downtown core, University District, and Northgate) accounted for 42% of the city’s total–11,591 social housing units. While there is a popular conception that Downtown is only for the rich residents, that’s not the full story–in fact much of the our social housing stock is there. Urban Villages hosted another 10,873 social housing units. The rest of the city, which is predominantly single-family zoning, accounted for just 4,711 social housing units, meaning just 2.5% of housing in these zones.

A graph shows income/rent-restricted units by neighborhood type.
Estimates from the 2015 Comprehensive Plan show 80% of social housing is in Urban Centers and Village. Note these figures do not include Section 8 Vouchers. (City of Seattle)

Miriam Roskin, Acting Communications Manager at the OH, said OH through its partners has increased the social housing portfolio by more than 5,000 since 2015, pushing Seattle past 32,000 social housing units. Investments announced in December 2020 will add 1,285 social housing units and preserve another 154 units.

Top social housing sources in Seattle

That social housing production must hold surf in a city where market-rate production is also robust. Seattle had 372,011 housing units according to the 2019 American Communities Survey. In the last three years, Seattle has built about 10,000 new homes per year. Growth has been overwhelmingly via apartment buildings in the city’s Urban Centers and Urban Villages, planning designations with the most permissive zoning and land use codes that compose less than a tenth of the city.

Imagine the housing options we’d have if “urban villages” were the norm instead of the exception. Social housing providers would have a lot more room and less intense bidding wars if that were the case. More of the city would be open to social housing and people priced out of market housing.

Metro Previews Policy Updates for System Growth and Equity Focus

A Metro bus operating on a snowy Beacon Hill. (Owen Pickford)
A Metro bus operating on a snowy Beacon Hill. (Owen Pickford)

Updates to King County Metro’s key policy documents have been delayed due to Covid-induced impacts, but the agency hopes to complete them this year to chart the agency’s service future. The trio of key policy documents include the Strategic Plan for Public Transportation, Service Guidelines, and Metro Connects. Each document addresses different aspects of how the agency plans and implements service across the county’s bus network over the near- and long-term. Informing much of the updates are the Mobility Framework recommendations that were developed in partnership with the Regional Equity Cabinet. Implementing the longer-term goals of a more expansive, frequent bus network, however, will take more funding that has yet to materialize.

Updates to the Strategic Plan for Transportation

The cover page from the Strategic Plan for Public Transportation updated in 2015 and adopted in 2016. (King County)
The cover page from the Strategic Plan for Public Transportation updated in 2015 and adopted in 2016. (King County)

The Strategic Plan for Public Transportation was last updated in 2016 and provides transportation goals, outlines strategies and objectives to implement the goals, and contains specific performance measures to assess success with the plan. Eight goals are outlined in the plan, including: safety, human potential, economic growth and the built environment, environmental sustainability, service excellence, financial stewardship, public engagement and transparency, and quality workforce.

The 2021 update to the plan will focus on aligning the goals and policies with the Mobility Framework’s guiding principles and recommendations. Substantive revisions will also incorporate new information on the King County Water Taxi (which was folded into Metro recently), climate goals, innovative transportation, and equitable transit-oriented communities’ objectives. In addition, Metro will pursue simplification of performance measures and ensure that they align with key policy drivers.

Right now, there are 68 performance measures that get reported out to the county council every two years. Metro wants these to be less static and more useful to the public and policymakers. To address this, Metro plans to launch an online dashboard by July–similar to The Dash that was rolled out late last year to measure operational metrics related to Covid–that will be regularly updated and the number of performance measures will be reduced by about half.

In an effort to revamp the plan goals, Metro intends to use the Mobility Framework’s guiding principles that happen to largely overlap with existing goals in the plan. There are several cases (i.e. “improve access to mobility” and “innovate equitably and sustainably”) where the incorporated guiding principles will be fully new goals in the plan. The guiding principles are being recast somewhat so that they are full actionable goal statements, but the overall intent is the same.

Sunday Video: How China’s Flagship Belt and Road Project Stalled Out


China has been heavily focused on global infrastructure initiatives through its Belt and Road strategy to increase the country’s prosperity and influence. A key project in Pakistan, however, has hit a snag and stalled out, a rarity in China’s global development strategy. Bloomberg Quicktake explores this case.

What We’re Reading: Parked Out, Delayed Again, and HSR Now

A snowy Beacon Hill near the local light rail station. (Owen Pickford)
A snowy Beacon Hill near the local light rail station. (Owen Pickford)

Repeal Faircloth: The Faircloth Amendment is still on the books. What does that mean for public housing?

Parked out: Car ownership rates have peaked in Seattle, but only one other of the ten densest major cities in America has a higher rate of car ownership ($).

Helmet review begins: King County is taking another look at the bike helmet law, which could lead to repeal.

If cities were in charges: What would the next national infrastructure bill look like if cities were in charge?

Hotels for housing: Will King County shelters be able to keep using hotels for people experiencing homelessness? The future is unclear.

Closing stores: Kroger is closing two underperforming QFC grocery stores in Seattle.

Charting paths: The SkyTrain extension to University of British Columbia along Broadway is still uncharted, but regional discussions in Vancouver are ongoing.

Transit access as priority: Moving on from the pandemic, Bloomberg CityLab suggests that transit agencies should look beyond the ridership metric and instead to transit access.

Dystopian: A Nevada bill could allow tech companies to make their own local governments.

Shrunken street: The Green Lake Keep Moving Street is set to shrink this week.

LAX highway pricing: A decongestion pricing study is taking shape in Los Angeles.