How a major loophole in the Growth Management Act has allowed unnecessary sprawl and non-compliant development to gobble up our rural lands for decades.
This is the first installment of a three-part series that will explain what the Growth Management Act Vesting Loophole is, what it looks like in practice, and how Futurewise is working to fix the loophole in 2022 to protect our rural lands and communities.
Our Starting Point: A brief history of the Growth Management Act
Before we can get into the loopholes, let’s remind ourselves where we started thirty years ago.
The Growth Management Act (GMA) was written in 1990 when Washington was experiencing unprecedented growth. Lacking the tools to deal with such rapid growth, sprawling, low density developments were gobbling up forests and farmland. This unchecked growth was also driving up costs for taxpayers and rate payers as public facilities and services became more difficult to accommodate.
A group of grassroots activists led the charge to pass the GMA, a first-of-its-kind body of policy to set a statewide framework offering guidance and resources for cities and counties to effectively manage growth and plan for vibrant communities. The GMA sets a vision for Washington with compact, well designed, and well-furnished cities and towns that are encompassed by working farms, forests, mineral resources and rural landscapes. To accomplish this vision, the cities and counties that plan under the GMA are required to write comprehensive plans, updated on eight-year cycles, to in which they articulate plans to accommodate their projected population growth. There are 14 goals that form the basis of city and county comprehensive plans.
What happens when things go sideways: The GMA Appeals Process
The ideals laid out in the GMA are great on paper, but what happens in practice? Well, surprise surprise, not every city or county is super keen on limiting suburban sprawl. That’s where the Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB) comes in.
The (GMHB) is the body that hears and helps resolve disputes regarding the decisions of a city, county, or agency as it pertains to their comprehensive land use plans, development regulations, or shoreline master programs adopted under the GMA. If a city or county is thought to be acting out of compliance with the GMA, a group like Futurewise may bring an appeal to the GMHB, who will then make a ruling on whether or not the proposed action is legal. Thus, the GMHB is the body through which citizens, organizations, and governments can hold cities and counties accountable for adhering to the GMA.
Ok, that all sounds good to me — what’s the problem? Enter: the Vesting Rights Doctrine Loophole
Is it possible to create deeply affordable housing for people making less than 30% of area median income (AMI) without relying on ongoing public subsidies? Nonprofit EcoTHRIVE believes so, and they are seeking to acquire land in Burien to test out their hypothesis. If all goes well, the result will be the transformation of an oversized single-family lot into a “resilient village” of tiny houses owned by residents through a limited equity cooperative.
According to Denise Henrikson, EcoTHRIVE co-founder and board president, EcoTHRIVE’s housing model was inspired in response to the question of how to create permanent housing solutions for people who have experienced homelessness and are currently living in emergency shelter.
“It’s this ‘and then what?’ question that inspired the development of our model. Through the process of answering that question, we believe we’ve developed a model that could serve not only people who are transitioning from houselessness (many people who are houseless are working, some full-time), but other people, with a variety of incomes, who want to invest time, energy and money to live in a creative, mutually supportive, permanently affordable community where they can grow their own food and generate energy,” Henrikson said. “Most people I know, myself included, could be well-served by a housing model that does that.”
EcoTHRIVE’s model is based on the success of nonprofit SquareOne Villages, which creates community owned tiny house villages for low-income people in Oregon. Since beginning with Opportunity Village in Eugene in 2012, the nonprofit has expanded to five additional sites. EcoTHRIVE’s pilot in Burien would be the first of its kind to debut in the Evergreen State.
The City of Burien opened the door for an affordable housing pilot
At this point, you may be asking, why Burien? Well, in 2019 the Burien City Council adopted Ordinance 718 which allowed for the creation of an affordable housing demonstration program. The ordinance allows up to five affordable housing demonstration projects that include housing types and density allowances currently not permitted in the city. So far two housing demonstration projects are already in the works. The first is a six story DESC supportive housing development in Downtown Burien, which will include 95 studio units with onsite services for behavioral health care, crisis intervention, and employment. The proposal was approved in June of this year.
The second proposal was put forth by Habitat for Humanity Seattle-King & Kittias Counties. It would develop 40 affordable townhouse units (typically 3 bedroom 1 ½ bath) across 9 structures at 511 and 515 South 136th Street using a community land trust model. A community center, open space, and 42 units of parking would also be included at the site, and townhomes would be available for purchase by households earning an average of 50% of AMI. The proposal is still pending approval.
Before moving forward with their pilot project, EcoTHRIVE first needs to acquire the right property for development in Burien. Ideally that means an over-sized single family lot within one-quarter mile of public transit and walking distance of a grocery store and other essential services. The lot will also need to be spacious enough to accommodated a shared eating/meeting space, laundry facility and workshop in addition to 18 tiny houses. Potential for urban farming and solar panel installation are desirable too. According to their business plan, EcoTHRIVE has allocated $680,000 for its land acquisition costs. While this is not a high figure for the Seattle region, a quick search for residential parcels in Burien suggested that options are in short supply, but not completely out of reach.
EcoTHRIVE is also open to growing their affordable housing model in other locations where they would have municipal support for zoning they need. Eventually they’d like to see their model replicated across Washington State.
The fall service changes are coming to transit agencies across Puget Sound. They won’t all happen at the same but there are some very significant changes that are coming with the addition of extended light rail service in North Seattle and bus network changes that will be oriented that new service. Pierce Transit (and partly Sound Transit) and Intercity Transit will kick off the service changes on September 19th followed by King County Metro, Community Transit, and Sound Transit on October 2nd, then Metro’s King County Water Taxi service on October 16th, and then Everett Transit on October 24th.
Beginning on September 19th, the following changes go into effect:
S Line (South Sounder)
Two trips will be restored with Train 1507 running from Seattle to Tacoma at 2:35pm and Train 1520 running from Tacoma to Seattle at 4:06pm on weekdays.
560, 577, 590, 592, 594, 595
Schedule times will be adjusted due to traffic levels.
The route will be revised in Renton to avoid traffic.
One additional southbound trip will be added at 10:43pm and schedule times will be adjusted due to traffic levels.
One additional trip will be added to serve Train 1507 at Puyallup Station.
One additional trip will be added to serve Train 1507 at Sumner Station.
Beginning on October 2nd, the following changes go into effect:
1 Line (Central Link)
Service will be extended to Northgate with new stops at U District, Roosevelt, and Northgate Stations.
This route will serve Mountlake Terrace Freeway Station.
The southern terminal of this route will be moved to Northgate Station. Additionally, this route the stop at Ash Way Park & Ride will be moved to Bay 2 from Bay 1.
The southern terminal of this route will be moved to Northgate Station and this route will no longer serve the NE 145th Street freeway stop. Additionally, the stop at Ash Way Park & Ride will be moved to Bay 2 from Bay 1 and, on Sunday nights, the final two northbound trips will run from Downtown Seattle with stops at NE 45th Street and Northgate Station.
The southern terminal of this route will be moved to Northgate Station with increased frequencies. Additionally, this route will serve Bay 1 at Ash Way Park & Ride and Bay D3 at Lynnwood Transit Center.
The southern terminal of this route will be moved to Roosevelt Station with increased weekend frequencies.
The stop at Ash Way Park & Ride will be moved to Bay 2 from Bay 1 and the schedule will be adjusted.
Nineteen trips will be added allowing for 30-minute frequencies.
The western terminal of this route will be moved to U District Station.
A courtesy stop on South Bellevue Way will be delete and the route will serve the bus loop at South Bellevue Park-and-Ride.
Service on this route will be restored after having been suspend during the pandemic. The western terminal of this route will be moved to U District Station with frequency every 30 minutes during peak hours.
Going into the service change, Metro will maintain suspension of 18 routes, including Routes 19, 37, 47, 116, 118X, 119X, 122, 123, 143, 154, 157, 178, 179, 197, 200, 219, 252, and 931. The full suite of service changes shake out as follows:
The overhaul of the Seattle Waterfront, while not exactly close to completely wrapping up, is starting to take shape before our eyes. With work crews having completed one-half of the southern portion of the new Alaskan Way highway, which will be nine lanes south of Columbia Street, stopping by the waterfront now gives you a sense of what the finished project will look like. Other projects planned with the roadway and pedestrian promenade are moving forward as well. Two pedestrian bridges, one of which is already under construction, should improve access around the new highway.
The more significant of these new pedestrian bridges will be the new Marion Street bridge connecting to the new Washington State Ferries terminal at Colman Dock. Currently there is a temporary pedestrian bridge over Alaskan Way at Columbia Street for ferry passengers, which connects to a remaining segment of the old pedestrian bridge at Marion and Western Avenue. The segment of bridge between 1st Avenue and Western will remain, with a new, wider bridge connecting directly between there and the new ferry terminal.
Past that pinch point of the existing bridge, the new structure will be 16 feet wide, compared to the less than the 11 feet width of the existing segment of the bridge closer to 1st Avenue. The bridge is ultimately envisioned as being completely replaced and widened, but that path to doing that remains opaque. The Seattle Design Commission, reviewing the project in early 2019, expressed concern about constructing the project in two phases, raising the possibility that the second phase would drop in priority once the first phase was completed. One commissioner even voted against approving the project because of that lack of clarity on when the second phase would be completed.
Light rail is coming to North Seattle at 130th Street in 2025. Thanks to advocacy by the many grassroots organizers involved in the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) Coalition and deft leadership by Claudia Balducci, a whole new swath of Seattle will have frequent, grade separated transit in just a few short years. Our neighborhoods and the rest of our political leaders need to seize the opportunity.
At the moment, the city is blowing it, with a feeble plan and requests for feedback from a few thousand local residents. This is the perfect way to tee up the aristocratic veto and keep out the working class people who actually need access to great transit. Instead, they should solicit feedback from the tens of thousands of possible future residents, the millions of voters who paid for the station, or (gasp!) people who actually ride transit.
The light rail stop is one of five along the Lynnwood extension, which comes in around $3billion including the infill station costs for NE 130th Street, or roughly $600 million per station. In a state where public investment is limited and often borne more heavily by our working class residents, it’s our moral duty to make sure these tax dollars have maximum impact on climate targets, access to jobs and housing, environmental justice, and quality of life. This means aggressively adding housing, including affordable housing, with top-tier walkways, protected bike lanes, and prioritized transit access. It means carefully avoiding displacement of poor residents, preserving and expanding the tree canopy, and paying close attention to placemaking. In other words, it means doing a much better job than we have in the past.
We blew it last time in the U District, Roosevelt, and Northgate, with many years to prepare. Large swaths of their walksheds are still zoned for single-family homes and lowrise living. In Roosevelt alone, this shut out 11,000 families from a transit-rich neighborhood with great schools and parks, the formula for upward economic mobility. In Roosevelt and the U District, we’ve already built or issued permits for housing beyond what was predicted by 2035 — clearly underestimating demand for housing near stations. We’ve failed to pedestrianize even modest stretches of streets in dense areas. Biking connectivity is incomplete and usually unprotected, and transit prioritization is anemic.
Eye-watering housing supply
We can do much better in Pinehurst and Haller Lake. Let’s start with housing. It is easiest to think about the area in four zones: Core, Inner, Jackson Park (which should be renamed after someone who didn’t commit crimes against humanity), and Outer.
Core needs densities along the lines of the Mirabella in South Lake Union, though only in a very small area around the station, to maximize car-free living. At about 12 stories, these buildings are tall, but still qualify as midrise and can be designed with human scale in mind at the street level. Then we quickly move to more classic mid-rise scales in the Inner zone. We’ll do something similar in the Jackson Park zone, setting aside 60 of the 160 acres for housing, as envisioned by Ryan DiRaimo in these very pages. (Note: I use much more conservative calculations for the number of homes that can be accommodated.)
Since midrise buildings are probably the best urban form for preventing greenhouse gas emissions, I’ve used them in all my zones. Examples abound in places like Paris.
To bring the concept closer to home, in nearby Northeast Seattle, this includes big buildings like the Iron Flats and Trailside, or narrower developments like DXU.
Finally, the Outer Walk would involve more modest four story buildings, like the one that houses Herkimer near Ravenna Boulevard, or found in abundance in Amsterdam. All are close to ideal urban forms when it comes to climate and walkability.
The Core zone could produce 21 million buildable square feet. The Inner zone would offer another 40.7 million. The 60 acres of fairway set aside for building in Park, 14.6 million, and the Outer zone, another 34 million. The total adds up to a bit more than 100 million square feet of zoned capacity. Given 10 million set aside for nonresidential space, that leaves 90 million square feet of residential space
That’s enough for 76,112 homes, assuming they are larger than average for Seattle. We should do this to accommodate more families. Given the neighborhood’s ample parks, the massive building potential, its non-central location, and the dearth of new family housing in the city, this is the perfect neighborhood to target more multi-bedroom units. If we assume the average unit will have just over 1.7 people, that’s 130,000 people, a net of about 122,500 new neighbors. It brings the density to a cosy but not crowded 75,000 people per square mile.
If that sounds extreme, keep in mind that this is slightly less dense than New York’s Greenwich Village, one of our nation’s best known, most walkable neighborhoods. It’s more space per person than several sections of Beacon Hill, arguably Boston’s most beautiful neighborhood and one of our country’s most picturesque. Paris also offers examples: several famous Parisian arrondissements are more thickly populated, like the area around the Church of the Sacred Heart. Pinehurst would be comparable to the arrondissement just to the north of Notre Dame, and the one that houses the Place de Bastille. None of those neighborhoods have high rises or feel crowded; all are destinations in their own right. Pinehurst could be too.
To spread the word about ways our community of readers can engage with furthering the mission of The Urbanist to improve cities and quality of life, we are highlighting events and activities in Seattle during the first half September, which has a lot going on! This article will be the first of semi-regular planned series. If you have information about an event, activity, or opportunity for advocacy that aligns with our mission, don’t hesitate to share it with us using our Contact Us form.
From a City of Seattle volunteer board opportunity to help shape the future of transit in Seattle, to the one of the largest walking, biking, and rolling summits in Washington State, there are many ways to get engaged during September 2021. Read on to learn more.
Thursday, Sept. 9th offers two online opportunities. The Seattle Planning Commission (SPC), a 16-member volunteer body appointed by the Mayor and City Council, is holding an online meeting from 3:00pm to 5:30pm in which they will be updated on the City’s Equitable Development Initiative by Ubax Gardheere, Equity Strategies Manager for the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD). When interviewing SPC co-chairs for my recent article on the commission’s recommendations for the upcoming major Seattle Comprehensive Plan update, both emphasized that their meetings are open to the public and include public comment, which needs to be submitted in advance.
The Urbanist‘s Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) coalition partner, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways (SNG) is hosting its annual racial equity workshop on Sept. 9th as well from 5:30pm to 7:30pm. According to SNG, the online workshop “will focus on how we as a collective can advance anti-racism in our organizing and advocacy. We will spend time learning together, working through challenges in small groups and caucusing by neighborhood group to draft action steps.” Participants are encouraged to register in advance.
Friday, Sept. 10th is the date on which applications close for the Seattle Transit Advisory Board (TAB), which advises the City on challenges and opportunities related to transit and public transportation. (TAB) is accepting applications for three new members to serve two-year terms starting in Fall 2021 and running through August 2023. Applicants can reach out to Nico Martinucci at Nico.Martinucci@seattle.gov with questions and apply online.
Sunday, Sept. 12th will be an open street festival celebrating safe walking, rolling, and biking in Downtown Redmond, which will welcome Link light rail into the neighborhood in 2024. Let’s Move Redmond is sponsored by Move Redmond an active transportation advocacy group that envisions a more accessible, walkable, and affordable Redmond.
Tuesday, Sept. 14th is The Urbanist‘s monthly meet-up, which will be featuring Seattle City Council candidate Nikkita Oliver. Attendees will have the opportunity to learn more about Oliver’s plans for Seattle, including during a question/answer session.
These are sensations I have before today appreciated. But distance away can clarify things, bring into sharp relief what you’ve forgotten was never ordinary.
I’ve been away from the 7 for over a year now for a collection of boring reasons, mostly pandemic and schedule-related (where did the breaks go?). Today I took a rare overtime shift to cover an expense, and when you take on overtime you don’t get much say in the route; you take what’s available, which was a C Line. But when you’ve got a C Line and you’re Nathan, you do what you have to do, which is get to the base early and ask all the operators in sight if they’re by chance about to do a 7, and could we please trade? Pretty please?
I’m pretty sure I made Amrit’s day by trading my C for his 7. He didn’t know when he woke up this morning that he’d get off an hour earlier doing a route he infinitely prefers! Amrit looked at me with pleasant surprise bordering on confusion, as in, is this guy for real? You actually want this?
Did I ever. I had to stop myself from skipping as I walked up to the relief point and took over the big monster, piloting a trolley bus for the first time in a year-plus, taking the turn off Jackson slowwww, the way you do when you’re relishing every moving second of the new day.
After driving diesels in various far-flung and (currently) underpopulated corners of the county, I can say that driving trolleys in town is an altogether different job. I’m frankly surprised they carry the same rate of pay. There is so much more density to process and handle within each moment, from the coach to the wire to the cars to the pedestrians to your riders. There is the anticipation of problems, the need to read people faster and with greater stakes at hand. Time rubs against you lightly; you’re living closer to the leading edge, where everything’s happening at once and the best parts of yourself aren’t just a help, but necessary to the success of this moment.
Nikkita Oliver is our featured guest at The Urbanist’s monthly meetup on September 14th. Oliver (they/them) is a community organizer, cultural worker, artist, attorney, and executive director of youth diversion program Creative Justice. They are fresh off a first-place primary finish in their campaign for Seattle City Council Position 9. They had endorsements from The Urbanist Election Committee, The Stranger, and MLK Labor Council. Hear more about their platform and plans in office.
Oliver will square off with brewery owner Sara Nelson, who was a Council staffer for Richard Conlin before Kshama Sawant pulled off an unexpected upset and unseated the four-term incumbent in 2013. Nelson is running a business-focused campaign and has the Seattle Times endorsement. The race has sharp contrasts. On the the issue of homelessness, Nelson backed the pro-sweeps Compassion Seattle charter amendment, and Oliver has opposed it. That amendment won’t appear on the November ballot after a King County Superior Court struck it down and the Court of Appeals upheld the decision, but Compassion Seattle has pledged to continue the fight by pouring money into the campaigns of Nelson and Bruce Harrell.
Oliver ran for mayor in 2017 and finished third in the primary. In her Council campaign, Oliver has stressed similar themes, such as overhauling the criminal legal system, expanding social housing, and investing in Black and brown communities. They have also stressed the need for more inclusive land use policies, ending exclusionary zoning that have kept single-family dominated neighborhoods largely off limits to Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) households and lower income residents.
Oliver has been a leader with a number of prominent coalitions, including No New Youth Jail and Decriminalize Seattle, which pushed the city to defund the Seattle Police Department (SPD) by 50% and redirect that money toward community-based healthy and public safety and investments in Black communities. In 2020, they helped convene the even broader Solidarity Budget coalition (which The Urbanist signed onto) that helped win a budget that cut SPD by 18%, funded participatory budgeting efforts, undid Durkan-proposed cuts to walking and biking projects, and fully funded the Georgetown-to-South Park Trail.
In its Primary Endorsements, The Urbanist Election Committee (I’m one of its eight members) wrote Oliver has “continued to push the center of our city’s politics left and have challenged the conventional wisdom about what is possible. After police brutalized and tear gassed protesters, Oliver led a 12,000-strong rally to Seattle City Hall and masterfully held Mayor Durkan’s feet to the fire, refusing to negotiate behind closed doors and bringing the Mayor’s utter failure out into the light of day. This is exactly what the city needed at that moment.”
The election committee didn’t mince words about what having Oliver on Council could mean for this city: “We genuinely think Nikkita Oliver is a visionary of the kind that could transform our city’s politics, permanently and for the better, by articulating a clear moral vision of a progressive future and then doing the hard organizing work that gets it done.”
The September meetup is a great opportunity to dive in to Oliver’s plans and vision for the city. You can watch the video below.