Thursday, 13 August, 2020

2015 Seattle City Council Election, District 5: Debora Juarez Interview


Article Note: The Urbanist is publishing a series of interviews with a selection of 2015 Seattle City Council candidates. In June, we will release our endorsements.

Debora Juarez

Debora Juarez is running for Seattle City Council in District 5, where she has lived for the past 25 years. Juarez grew up on the Puyallup reservation in Tacoma, and is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation. She has worked in the legal profession for 28 years, with roles spanning the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Currently, she chairs the Tribal Practice Group at Williams Kastner.

What would you do to make housing affordable for everyone in Seattle?

Juarez believes that mixed-income and mixed-use neighborhoods are a key part of the solution. She supports policies to promote job growth and new housing in transit-accessible places outside of downtown, so that people can live, work, and play in the same area. She also supports looking into rent stabilization.

Juarez criticized the use of divisive language in discussions about affordable housing. She stated, “Seattle still sees itself as a small city. We’re not.” She believes that the public discourse and culture of the current Seattle City Council is an obstacle to solving the housing affordability problem.

How does planning, transit policy, and development affect racial, social, and economic inequalities in our city? What policies and efforts can we make to combat these inequalities?

Juarez pointed out that there is a long history of using transit and housing policy to create “pockets of poverty”. She said that she “laughs when people think it happens by accident”. She praised the new system of city council districts for giving a greater political voice to neighborhoods outside of downtown Seattle.

In terms of policies, Juarez called for greater transparency into the city budget. She noted that, for years, private Wall Street firms have been able to measure their revenue and expenses in real time. She supports building a similar system for the City of Seattle, so that stakeholders can learn more about how the city is actually spending its money.

More generally, Juarez supports using housing and transit policy to encourage mixed-income neighborhoods.

Council District No. 5
Council District No. 5

Seattle’s Vision Zero plan aims to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. Do you think that this target is achievable? Why or why not?

Juarez thinks that Vision Zero is a “really good approach to road safety”. She does believe that the target is achievable. She stated, “There are [accidents] that are going to happen, but if there are people [between the ages of] 5-24 [whose] deaths are preventable, that is a good thing.”

How best should the city accommodate the next 20 years of growth?

Juarez reiterated that Seattle “has to recognize that it is a big city”. She wants North Seattle to be a job center and city-wide destination, rather than just a bedroom community for other parts of the city. She pointed to Lake City Way as an example of a corridor that should be targeted for additional growth.

What is the most important transportation project in your district?

Juarez believes that the biggest transportation problem in District 5 is the difficulty of east-west travel, particularly crossing I-5. To that end, she strongly supports the proposed light rail station at NE 130th St and the Northgate Pedestrian & Bicycle Bridge, both of which will improve the district’s access to light rail. She thinks that the federal grant for the bridge was “really well done”, and that if there is a strong advocate on the city council who lives in the project’s district, it will have a good chance of passing.

Read our interviews with other District 5 candidates, Halei Watkins and Sandy Brown.

Take Action: Speak Up For Lowrise Housing

Lowrise housing in Capitol Hill via Google Streeview.
Lowrise housing in Capitol Hill via Google Streeview.

Seattle could soon see significant changes to Lowrise zoning development regulations if the City Council passes legislation on the issue. Spurred on by many neighbor concerns and the activists of Seattle Speaks Up, the City Council has wrestled for over a year on how to craft sensitive legislation to address Lowrise zoning. With a desire to balance the need for development in the zones, the City has explored regulatory changes that would tackle aesthetic issues like design, bulk, and scales in Lowrise developments. The Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee will meet this afternoon in order to consider final legislation before being sent to the full council.

However, Seattleites should be deeply concerned with a set of additional amendments that could find their way into the package of legislative changes. Last week, Jesse Piedfort highlighted how these amendments came to be and why they don’t serve the interests of average Seattle residents. These changes include: reducing possible heights, increasing setbacks, and creating stricter design review requirements.

Yet, the most impactful change will affect how FAR (floor area ratio) is calculated. This change would effectively reduce the number of people that can live in a neighborhood. At the moment, it appears that this particular change has Council support.

With 10% of zoned land in Seattle designated as Lowrise, these amendments would result in a substantial impact on housing in the city. Setting new development limits will reduce housing and density while creating extensive nonconformity of residential structures and uses. This should be a concern to all.

You can show your support for housing growth to the City Council by sending an e-mail expressing your opposition to additional amendments to O’Brien’s legislation. You can also attend the PLUS Committee meeting today (June 16th) and provide public testimony on the matter at 2:00 PM.

Support Alternative 5 for Seattle 2035


Seattle is growing fast. Over the next 20 years, 120,000 new residents will make Seattle their home, and employers will add 115,000 new jobs within city limits. In today’s terms, the Seattle of 2035 will have as many residents as Fort Worth, and it will be as dense as Long Beach.

Accommodating this level of growth requires serious planning, and the City of Seattle has spent the past two years doing just that.

Two proposed growth alternatives for Seattle. Left: Alternative 4. Right: Alternative 3.
Two proposed growth alternatives for Seattle. Left: Alternative 4. Right: Alternative 3.

In early May, the city offered up four different alternatives for growth. The first two largely mimic the city’s current pattern of growth while the second set of alternatives could change how the city focuses growth. In an earlier article, Stephen Fesler summarized these changes as follows:

  • Alternative 1 encourages development in the same patterns seen over the past 20 years. It focuses job growth in Downtown and South Lake Union while residential growth takes place in urban centers and villages. It assumes market trends remain generally the same as today and the vast amount of people commute to the city center for work.
  • Alternative 2 packs growth into the city’s established urban centers. It assumes these centers will become more dominant destinations for new residents and jobs. It further encourages people to walk and bike by placing more jobs near housing and reducing dependence on driving.
  • Alternative 3 focuses growth in the city’s urban villages near light rail. While growth in urban centers remains important, special emphasis is placed on accommodating growth in urban villages served by light rail. Boundary changes are possible within 10-minute walksheds of existing and planned light rail stations. For instance, a new urban village could be designated at I-5 and NE 130th St in conjunction with the opening of light rail stations. A reconfiguration of the Mount Baker and Jackson-23rd & Union urban villages could also occur.
  • Alternative 4 envisions growth for urban villages near frequent transit, which includes both high quality bus and rail service–not just light rail. More urban villages would be slated for increased growth capacity than conceived by Alternative 3, including expanded urban villages in Ballard, Crown Hill, Fremont, and Alaska Junction.
Alternatives 1 and 2 would keep growth where it is already planned.
Alternatives 1 and 2 would keep growth where it is already planned.

Business as usual

The least surprising option is Alternative 1, which simply continues the city’s existing growth patterns. Under this alternative, 42% of household growth would be focused in urban centers, 35% in urban villages, and 23% in single-family neighborhoods. There would be no changes to urban center/village boundaries. Instead, growth would be sustained by infilling parcels of remaining developable or redevelopable land.

The city could implement strategies to increase building capacity within these areas through upzones or modifications to development regulations. Indeed, some urban villages still have excess land supply that is zoned for urban low-density residential. Those familiar with the city’s zoning maps would notice, for instance, that the Roosevelt Residential Urban Village is one such place with single-family-to-urban-zoning potential. These areas could be rezoned to support more growth, though this would likely involve lengthy planning processes.

Ballard development capacity.
Ballard development capacity.

Meanwhile, some urban villages, like Ballard, are approaching their total development capacity under today’s land use regulations. It’s likely that there isn’t enough remaining development potential in Ballard to meet the legal requirement to provide 20 years of capacity. Over the past 20 years, 3,516 new dwelling units have been built in Ballard, of which 2,836 net new dwelling units were built in the past 10 years alone. And development isn’t slowing down; dozens of new projects are currently being planned or constructed. If this level of growth continues, it won’t be long before there aren’t any parcels in Ballard left to develop.

To its credit, the city is engaging in a process to determine how the central area of Ballard can be designed to absorb more growth through the Ballard Urban Design Framework. But Ballard is just one of many urban villages that have seen rapid growth, and like Roosevelt, Ballard’s urban design framework will likely need to be revisited sooner rather than later if growth continues at its current pace.

Displacement and Opportunity Index, courtesy of DPD.
Displacement and Opportunity Index, courtesy of DPD.

Double or nothing

Alternative 2 similarly offers no changes to the city’s urban center or urban village boundaries. Where it differs from Alternative 1 is its emphasis on urban centers, to the exclusion of urban villages and single-family residential areas. Alternative 2 would focus a staggering 66% of households in urban centers, while only 21% would be allocated to urban villages and 13% to single-family areas. Under this alternative, urban villages would absorb 10,000 fewer households than under Alternative 1, while urban centers would absorb 17,000 more.

On the face of it, Alternative 2 might seem like a great vision for the city. Urban centers have excellent access to jobs, high quality transit, city services, and shopping opportunities. Alternative 2 would concentrate growth in these well-connected areas, while relieving pressure on areas of the city at high risk for displacement, like Southeast and Northeast Seattle.

But there’s a catch. This level of concentrated growth would amplify the rate of change in the urban centers. As cheap, older buildings are cleared out to make way for new, expensive ones, it will become that much harder for anyone but the rich to afford to live in those areas. Lower-income households would be effectively shut out of the most vibrant and thriving parts of the city.

Additionally, despite fairly generous zoning in urban centers, there’s no guarantee that projects would come anywhere near the allowed limits. They certainly don’t today. It’s entirely possible that changes in the market could push developers to seek other types of development than high-rises. If this happens, development would essentially be unplanned.

South Lake Union is a clear demonstration of both of these problems. The neighborhood changed so quickly that it lost its low cost building, and yet many of the new projects didn’t maximize the neighborhood’s zoning capacity.

Transit-oriented displacement

Alternatives 3 and 4 are more ambitious in their approaches to growth in the city. Underlying both alternatives is the thesis that high-quality transit, like light rail and/or bus rapid transit, are key to expanding access to urban benefits. Both alternatives would expand the boundaries of urban villages near light rail stations at Rainier Beach, Othello, Mount Baker, Beacon Hill, and Roosevelt, and would establish new urban villages centered on the future Judkins Park and N 130th St stations. Alternative 4 would additionally expand urban village boundaries in Crown Hill, Ballard, Fremont, and Alaska Junction. Under both alternatives, the city would take steps to implement zoning and regulatory changes to facilitate urban development.

Transit-oriented development is a fantastic way to extend the reach of urban benefits, but it is not a panacea. Both alternatives run the risk of severe displacement in Rainier Beach, Othello, Mount Baker, and Beacon Hill, as well as dozens of other locations in the city’s urban villages slated for future development and regulatory changes under these two alternatives. In fact, the city’s own analysis suggests that the potential for displacement is higher under the latter two alternatives. It would be unfair and inequitable to ask lower-income residents to bear the brunt of the city’s growth — and yet both alternatives essentially gloss over new and effective potential mitigations for this problem.

Support Alternative 5: The Urbanist Alternative

As our readers know, The Urbanist is not one to be boxed in.

The Urbanist’s editorial staff believe that all four of the provided alternatives would lead to an unacceptably high level of displacement and inequity. We cannot, in good conscience, endorse any of them. Instead, we are endorsing a fifth option, which we have creatively dubbed Alternative 5.

Growth can be a wonderful thing. Seattle is growing, and it behooves us to direct that growth in a way that will most benefit our residents, our city, and our planet. Yet growth also has costs, and we must not allow those costs to fall disproportionately on those who are least able to pay them. If we want to accommodate the next 20 years’ worth of growth without large-scale displacement or turning Northgate into a gated community, we must find a way to spread that growth — and the benefits of urbanism — to a wide swath of the city. High-density growth must be paired with high-quality transit, such that walkability and car-free living are no longer the sole privilege of those who live downtown.

Concretely, Alternative 5 makes four proposals:

  1. All areas of the city have an obligation to support growth, and the right to access the urban benefits that come with it. Regardless of wealth, race, class, or zoning, each portion of the city must support its share of the city’s growth. As an example, single-family residential zones are appropriate for many of the common Missing Middle housing types, such as cottage housing, detached accessory dwelling units, duplexes, triplexes, townhouses, and even rowhouses. These housing options should be broadly allowed with minimal interference from neighbors. These building types are equitable, desirable, and compatible with the character of residential neighborhoods. While this type of growth may seem painful to some, it presents a wide range of opportunities and benefits: proximity to jobs, access to high-quality transit, grocery stores and restaurants, parks, schools, and more. All these benefits come from growth and density, not the other way around. All residents, whether new or old, deserve to partake in these urban benefits, regardless of where they live.
  2. Expand the number and size of urban villages to accommodate growth throughout the city. There are ample commercial and medium-density residential areas in the city that have no urban center or urban village designation, such as Aurora Avenue (north of N 36th St to N 85th St), Upper Fremont, “Frelard”, Westlake, Nickerson, Madison Park, Wedgwood, South Magnolia, Interbay, Graham, and many more. Each of these areas presents an opportunity to absorb growth while providing tremendous urban benefits. The city should also consider extending boundaries in these areas beyond just the immediate medium-density residential and commercial core properties. Transit walksheds extend beyond the core, and bikesheds extend even farther. Connecting bike rides with transit, something that will become even easier with Pronto!’s expansion, shows that the urban villages can be much larger. Overconcentration of growth leads to targeted displacement and disruption. Only by spreading growth throughout the city can we ensure that no single area experiences an unreasonable share.
  3. Expand urban zoning in urban villages and urban centers. Designating areas as urban villages isn’t enough. The city needs to go further and expand the areas of urban development in urban villages and high-intensity zoning in urban centers, especially where there is extraordinary demand for housing (e.g. Ballard, Wallingford, South Lake Union, and the University District). This will reduce the number of people that are displaced due to demolitions.
  4. Actively mitigate the impacts of growth in areas where displacement risk is high. We support adopting policies that will alleviate or prevent actual displacement. This might include mandatory participation in the multifamily tax exemption (or a similar program), mandatory inclusionary zoning or linkage fees, one-to-one replacement of affordable units in perpetuity, focusing housing levy dollars in these areas, using the city’s bonding authority for sustainable affordable housing options, and other socially progressive housing strategies through the land use code or city actions in the form of programs and partnerships.

Seattle deserves an equitable approach to growth, and we believe that Alternative 5 is that approach.

Take Action

The comment period on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Seattle 2035 ends on Thursday, June 18. Please share your thoughts with the Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and let them know that you think The Urbanist Alternative 5 is the best approach to growth over the next 20 years. Brief comments are greatly appreciated by city officials, as are comments that make compelling and thorough arguments. You’re welcome to quote our four points above verbatim in your letter to DPD.

Take the survey and leave your detailed feedback for DPD staff.

Seattle 2035: Toward A More Equitable Growth Plan Alternative


Article Note: This is the second part of a two part series by Alex Brennan on Seattle 2035 growth alternatives. In this article, Alex discusses what an Alternative 5 should look like. The Urbanist Editorial Board will issue an endorsement on the topic tomorrow that follows in the spirit of Alex’s proposal.

On Friday, I penned an article on the history of Seattle’s comprehensive planning efforts and evaluated all four growth alternatives proposed by the City as part of the Seattle 2035 comprehensive plan update. In my estimation, each of the four alternatives presented have significant inequities in them that could be addressed by another alternative. This second articles suggest a fifth alternative that better meets the City’s race and social equity and environmental criteria.

To recap a bit, what would an equitable Alternative 5 look like? I expect that many low income communities targeted for new or expanded urban villages in Alternatives 3 and 4 will want to protect their neighborhoods by advocating for Alternative 2, which on the surface looks like it has less displacement impact. However, as I argued in Part 1, Alternative 2 means high housing prices and more urban renewal like growth in the limited areas where growth is allowed. That’s not an equitable strategy. Dispersion is good for equity. Rather than retreating from the expansion of urban village boundaries (as Alternative 2 does), an equitable alternative would further expand the boundaries and spread out growth into more middle class and wealthy neighborhoods. We need more development to keep prices down, but we also need it to happen in less concentrated doses and we need it to be less focused in vulnerable communities where it is replacing our limited stock of low cost housing and can lead to displacement.

Putting new urban villages near recent transit investments (as Alternatives 3 and 4 do) is a good thing.  More people should be able to enjoy the benefits of those investments. The problem is only putting new urban villages in those locations. On its own, proximity to recent transit investments (light rail and RapidRide) is a flawed framework because it concentrates growth in those most vulnerable communities while preventing low-density wealthy neighborhoods from ever developing the neighborhood centers that can support walking, biking and transit. So what would be a better framework?

A Not So New Framework for Adding Urban Villages

A better approach would supplement Alternative 4 by ensuring every part of the city is within walking distance of an urban village. Everyone should have a neighborhood business district they can walk to–a dense, mixed-use place with street life, stores, and restaurants. Every part of the city should be within walking distance of low cost housing types like rowhouses and small apartment buildings to foster economic diversity. Every part of the city should be within walking distance of a neighborhood business district with jobs so at least some people can walk to work. Every part of the city should be within walking distance of a growing neighborhood center that can support great transit service. Adding urban villages in these new areas relieves pressure on the working class urban villages, makes our wealthy neighborhoods more accessible, and provides the environmental benefits of more walkable, transit supportive communities.

This approach is essentially the Urban Village strategy Seattle created in 1994. Most of the city is within walking distance of an urban village—we just left out a few places. Now let’s add them back in. Welcome to Alternative 5 (trumpets play).

What were the most egregious omissions in 1994? That would be almost all of Northeast Seattle, along with Magnolia and Madison Park. The graphic below shows the ½ mile walksheds—as the crow flies—for the existing urban villages alongside the displacement index map from the City’s equity analysis. These three areas circled in orange—Northeast Seattle, Magnolia, and Madison Park—pop out on both maps as being outside the urban village walksheds and having very low displacement risk.

Displacement Index compared to proposed Urban Village walksheds (click for larger version).
Displacement Index compared to proposed Urban Village walksheds (click for larger version).

There are a few other areas in red on the periphery of the city (and Delridge), but these three areas stand out for their size and proximity to downtown. Magnolia and Madison Park would appear larger on a more precise walkshed map because they are separated from the nearest urban villages by steep hills, bodies of water, train tracks (for Magnolia), and gated communities (for Madison Park). All three areas are significantly wealthier and whiter than the city as a whole and generally have less diversity in housing types (except Madison Park) as shown in the table below.

Comparative demographic data data.
Comparative demographic data data.

Northeast Seattle

Let’s start with Northeast Seattle, the biggest of the three areas, spanning the neighborhoods of Bryant, Wedgwood, Laurelhurst, Windermere, View Ridge, and Sand Point. From the University District to Lake City, there are no urban villages to the east. As shown above, these neighborhoods together are home to over 36,000 people. It’s an exclusive area with median household income at $100,129 (compared to $65,277 citywide) and a racial make up of 80% white (compared to 67% citywide). About 20% of the households make over $200,000 a year, and in Laurelhurst, that number rises to 34%. Explaining this disparity (and thanks to the lack of an urban village) single-family, detached homes make up 76% of the housing units compared to 45% citywide. Despite the low densities and lack of frequent transit service, only 58% of residents drive alone to work compared to 52% for city as a whole. This indicates that the biggest alternative transportation challenge is for trips like shopping and meeting up with friends, the kind of trips that could be helped more by a better neighborhood business district than by increased transit service.

Is there a good place to locate an urban village in Northeast Seattle? Yes! Two good candidates stand out.

The most obvious is 35th Ave NE from about NE 65th St to NE 95th St (right by my childhood elementary school). While this central strip through Wedgwood remains very auto-oriented, it has good street grid bones and a host of destinations from the northeast library, to major grocery stores, houses of worship, and a smattering of other shops and places to eat mixed in with trees, surface parking lots, and tiny houses. Eckstein Middle School is right there, too. 35th Ave NE and NE 65th St may even soon become a high frequency transit node as part of Metro’s University Link restructure. Such a long, skinny Urban Village would not be unprecedented. The Phinney Ridge-Greenwood Urban Village similarly follows Phinney and Greenwood Avenues from 65th to 90th Streets.

Top: Some businesses on 35th Ave NE are trying to take a more pedestrian-oriented approach. Bottom: Most businesses still sit behind a row of off-street surface parking.
Top: Some businesses on 35th Ave NE are trying to take a more pedestrian-oriented approach. Bottom: Most businesses still sit behind a row of off-street surface parking.
One-story new construction, like the building below, is a missed opportunity. New zoning would allow for taller mixed-use development.
One-story new construction, like the building below, is a missed opportunity. New zoning would allow for taller mixed-use development.
A produce vendor takes advantage of a large, unused surface parking lot. In the winter, you can buy a Christmas tree here.
A produce vendor takes advantage of a large, unused surface parking lot. In the winter, you can buy a Christmas tree here.

The Wedgwood Urban Village described above is a start, but providing good coverage for all of Northeast Seattle requires a second urban village further east. The area around Magnuson Park is probably the best candidate. The former military buildings on the north end of the park have been repurposed bringing employment and a variety of facilities and services including almost 500,000 square feet of office space for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Western Regional Center. Low-income housing has also been built there and more is coming bringing a low-car ownership population to the area. However, there are almost no stores for these workers and low-income residents to walk to. Each sector feels isolated and not part of an urban fabric. Urban village designation could be the beginning of a strategy to knit Magnuson Park with the neighborhood on the other side of Sand Point Way and add more neighborhood serving retail.

Left: The beginning of a sidewalk at one of the only retail establishments in Sand Point. Right: Large facilities from the Sand Point Naval base now housing recreation activities and major employers like NOAA and the University of Washington.
Left: The beginning of a sidewalk at one of the only retail establishments in Sand Point. Right: Large facilities from the Sand Point Naval base now housing recreation activities and major employers like NOAA and the University of Washington.
New Wedgwood and Sand Point Urban Villages in pink.
New Wedgwood and Sand Point Urban Villages in pink.


Magnolia is actually closer to Downtown Seattle than the West Seattle Junction and could have a similar type of urban village. However, it is currently one of the most isolated and exclusive neighborhoods in the city. As noted in the table above, over 12,000 people currently live in Magnolia. 88% of them are white and the median household income reaches $112,301; 24% percent of households make over $200,000 per year. The housing make up of Magnolia is 84% single-family detached units. The southern half of the peninsula boasts even more extreme demographics with a median household income of $147,765, a 99.6% housing share of single-family detached units, and a racial breakdown of 90% white. Meanwhile, 60% of employed residents report that they drive alone to work. As with Northeast Seattle, this rate is not much higher than the city average.

Magnolia has almost no retail or basic services. Building up a neighborhood business district would be a long-term project. Despite its limited stature, the area around the Magnolia Community Center is the obvious location for a new urban village. Located in the geographic center of the neighborhood, these few blocks also contain two schools, a playfield, library, a smattering of multi-family housing, and a cluster of stores and restaurants around W McGraw St and 32nd Ave W.

New Magnolia Urban Village in pink.
New Magnolia Urban Village in pink.

Madison Park

The final urban village addition would be Madison Park. This neighborhood is in many ways a mirror image of Magnolia. Fronting on Lake Washington instead of the Puget Sound, close to Downtown but isolated, incredibly wealthy (median household income $106,908) and white (87%), Madison Park is home to Seattle’s only consistently Republican-voting electoral precinct (the gated community of Broadmoor). The one main difference is housing types. Madison Park is home to two large residential towers of the Park Shore Retirement Community, which knock its single-family detached housing percentage down to 47%, although these retirees do not show up in the commute data, 65% of employed residents drive to work alone. These residential towers, and the cluster of stores next to them, could lay the foundation for the final urban village addition. The Seattle Department of Transportation is currently looking at a new bus rapid transit line on Madison St, but Madison Park itself does not have the ridership to support extending the line all the way to the lake today. A new urban village here could eventually change that dynamic allowing for a future extension of the line.

New Madison Park Urban Village in pink.
New Madison Park Urban Village in pink.

Adding Wedgwood, Sand Point, Magnolia and Madison Park as Urban Villages helps these neighborhoods become more urban, walkable, economically diverse places. However, I want to emphasize again that the equity impacts are broader. As the original 1994 Urban Villages start to fill up, adding wealthy parts of the city to the urban village mix helps take pressure off the working class neighborhoods in the Rainier Valley and elsewhere already under consideration for expansion. Alternative 5’s broader set of urban villages can be part of a comprehensive arsenal of mitigation strategies (discussed in Part 1 and in the City’s equity analysis) that can make growth in working class neighborhoods more equitable.

Alternative 5 Map with additional Urban Villages approximated in bright red.
Alternative 5 Map with additional Urban Villages approximated in bright red.

Fear of Traffic

Why would we not want to add these urban villages? Why were they not included in previous alternatives? Discarding the notion that exclusive enclaves should remain exclusive to retain their neighborhood character, I think the main objection to Alternative 5 rests on fear that these neighborhoods have inadequate infrastructure—mainly in the form of transportation. Seattle has a fear of adding density before adding transit, which is ultimately a fear of traffic. We have horrible traffic and no one wants to make it worse. Won’t adding density before adding transit make traffic worse? Isn’t that how we got ourselves into this traffic mess in the first place?

A traditional level of service traffic analysis will certainly tell you that adding more density will make traffic worse, but level of service analyses are shown to be highly inaccurate in urban settings and are starting to be rejected as a methodology for measuring development impacts. If you recall the density-vehicle miles traveled charts from Part 1, vehicle miles traveled per capita goes down as density goes up. Beyond that, there are three reasons why I think the traffic impacts will not be that bad.

First, Seattle suffers from what Eric Eidlin calls dense sprawl. Like Los Angeles, much of our region is too dense for free flowing car traffic, but has a dearth of places dense enough to support transit, walking, biking, and proximate trips. Making the transition from dense sprawl to urban neighborhoods is what the Urban Village strategy is all about. The suburban retrofit is another way to talk about this transition.

Second, proximity and walkability are often just as good as transit service at traffic reduction. Urban villages do not just add density; they add the things that a neighborhood needs to be a neighborhood. Right now if you live in Magnolia and you want to try a new restaurant, go to the movies, or get your nails done, you have to get in your car and drive (or take a circuitous bus ride if it’s even an option) to some other neighborhood that has such things because there is no local urban village option that’s a short walk away. This is less true for commute trips (rush hour bus service to downtown is decent and Magnolia’s Urban Village probably wouldn’t have a lot of jobs for the foreseeable future), but, as mentioned earlier, commute trips aren’t Magnolia’s problem. An overemphasis on commute trips blinds us to the benefits of proximity and walkability. Research is growing that “walkable urbanism” is more important for reducing car trips than “transit-oriented development.”

Third, this is a gradual process. Imagine in a couple of years that NE 35th Ave gets a few new apartment buildings with ground floor retail. Is the traffic bad yet? It gets a few more and a small office building to boot. How about now? Is the traffic really bad now? Part of the whole goal of spreading development to more parts of the city is that every neighborhood gets a more gradual growth experience with more opportunity for adjustments and accommodations. There should be time to see traffic problems as they develop and address them before they become problematic. These neighborhoods do have some transit service already and that service can get gradually better as the neighborhood grows.

Other Considerations

For people that want a transit-oriented city there is a political factor to keep in mind as well.

Providing the transit first assumes that the density will come afterwards. However, many our transit station areas have sat without development for years, partly because of the recession, but mostly because zoning restrictions were not lifted. When you let the density happen first, you know it will be there to support the transit service that is eventually added.

While more transit doesn’t make changing zoning politically easier, more density does make adding transit service and transit (and walking and biking) priority easier. If SDOT had told people 10 years ago that it was going to make two lanes on Westlake Avenue transit-only because that was the only way to accommodate all the growth that was planned for South Lake Union, most people would have been confused if not furious at the inconvenience. Won’t taking away lanes make traffic worse? Now that the growth has arrived, the lane decision seems obvious and overdue with even the Seattle Times acknowledging that turning car lanes over to transit is “by far the most cost-effective way to move more people through a congested city.”

For people that want an equitable and inclusive city, it’s also important to keep the traffic problem in perspective. Is the risk of a few years of bad traffic in a few wealthy neighborhoods really an excuse for focusing development in ways that exacerbate our affordability crisis and displace poor people and people of color from our city?

2015 Seattle City Council Election, District 9: Bill Bradburd Interview


Article Note: The Urbanist is publishing a series of interviews with a selection of 2015 Seattle City Council candidates. In June, we will release our endorsements.

Bill Bradburd

Bill Bradburd retired from a career in technology and moved to Seattle where he lives in the Central District.  He is a dad, a musician and an artist and he has been a neighborhood activist for the past decade.  Most of Bradburd’s activism has been around land use where he is interested in affordability and gentrification.  He was also one of the organizers of the district elections campaign that passed in November 2013 and made possible the new district elections being held this year.  Bradburd considered running in District 3 where he lives, but choose not to due to his support for and relationship as an advisor on land use issues to Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who is running in District 3.  Instead, Bradburd is running in the race for city-wide Position 9.

What would you do to make housing affordable for everyone in Seattle?

“I don’t think you can make housing affordable, but you can make affordable housing.” Bradburd sees that housing in Seattle is expensive to build and he expects that housing prices are not going to decrease until the economy slows down.  He attributes part of the increase in housing costs to new, highly-compensated high tech workers who are moving to Seattle and who are able and willing to pay higher rents than blue collar workers and other lower-paid workers who are competing in the same housing market.

Bradburd says that he would like to see more new housing units built, especially units that are family-sized and that are subsidized for workers who earn wages lower than those usually targeted through programs such as the Multifamily Property Tax Exemption (MFTE) Program.  He would like to see a special focus on building units for those making in the 30 – 50% range of area median income (AMI). Bradburd is also concerned that Seattle is running out of available units for renters using Section 8 vouchers and that the new ability of developers to utilize the MFTE for micro-housing will result in too many micro-housing units being built at the expense of much-needed family-sized units.

How does planning, transit policy, and development affect racial, social, and economic inequalities in our city? What policies and efforts can we make to combat these inequalities?

Bradburd’s perspective is that all policies in Seattle are ultimately about land use and zoning.  He asks, “How do we do build in a way that is socially equitable and does not have a negative environmental impact?”  Seattle was historically a blue-collar town and it is transforming into more of a high-tech town. Bradburd is concerned that we need to preserve our industrial lands for the blue-collar jobs they support.

Bradburd is also concerned about how Seattle approaches in-fill development, especially when the city does not adequately educate neighborhoods about the impact of rezones and when lower-income residents are displaced. Bradburd would like to find ways to do in-fill development without rezoning.  An example he gave was allowing homeowners to add mother-in-law units to their homes.  He sees this as an opportunity for homeowners to get additional income and participate in the economic upside of density without having single-family homes torn down and replaced with townhomes. Another related idea that Bradburd mentioned is the formation of land trusts for owning land on which new multi-family housing would be built by public or private developers.

Regarding transit policies, Bradburd believes that Seattle transit systems have not been equitable to the poor.  He would like to see the city buy more hours from Metro and would look into the possibility of locally-owned jitney services to provide transit around light rail stations. Bradburd believes that bad choices have been made when determining transit stops and light rail alignments. For example, Bradburd would have chosen a Route 99 alignment for Lynnwood LINK rather than the selected I-5 alignment.  He believes that an I-5 alignment should be used for high speed rail and not for local light rail stops as is planned in Lynnwood LINK.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 23.11.55
At-large Seattle City Council Positions 8 & 9

Seattle’s Vision Zero plan aims to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. Do you think that this target is achievable? Why or why not?

Bradburd thinks the target is “not realistic” but he agrees with the objectives of Vision Zero. Bradburd noted that Stockholm, where Vision Zero was founded, moved out their target date to 2050. Bradburd would vote for safety improvements when he could, but instead of the Vision Zero plan, Bradburd would like to see the Seattle Department of Transportation focus efforts and limited funds on the goal of getting people out of cars. Bradburd is concerned that car ownership and congestion in Seattle continue to rise. “We can’t put more people in the city if we’re putting them in cars.”

Bradburd would focus on more localized mode shifting such as encouraging walking and biking to schools to reduce what he understands are the 30% of rush hour road trips generated by people taking kids to school.  If infrastructure investments such as new sidewalks are needed to achieve these goals, he would make them.  He would also look at ways to encourage local amenities that allow people to stay within their neighborhoods for work, shopping, and recreation. He would look at land use and zoning as part of this work to allow people to do much of their activities within their own neighborhoods and to not need to drive.

Bradburd is concerned that too much development has occurred in some areas of the city while other areas could take on additional development. “Put a tarp on Capitol Hill and Ballard and let those areas become areas of stability.”  He would designate new urban villages and provide land use changes, transportation, and other investments along with new development. In the new development, Bradburd would focus on strategies to accommodate affordable housing. He would use linkage and impact fees as tools to help slow growth in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Ballard that have taken on significant growth.

Bradburd went through a few more thoughts on land use including: He believes that the King County Buildable Lands Report shows that there are plenty of places to build in the urban villages.  He wants to make sure that new development or infill housing is gentle to existing neighborhoods. He would remove fees and parking requirements associated with mother-in-law and detached accessory dwelling units (DADU) and would also look at subsidized financing of both. Bradburd would like to see 25% of new housing generated through mother-in-law and DADU units.

Bradburd is also a “big fan” of city-owned housing.  He sees that non-profit developers cannot produce housing fast enough for the current need.  He would like to look at opportunities for for-profit developers to use city financing and to build on city-owned or land trust land. Bradburd is less inclined to look at rent control as it is currently illegal under state law. Bradburd also noted that a large portion of rental units are held by small owners.  He is concerned about inflow of capital markets funds causing people to flip. With this in mind, he would work to protect small rental housing owners.

What is the most important transportation project in your district?

Bradburd started by noting that a lot of attention has been given to changes on 23rd Avenue E and that he is not happy with the plan so far.  However, he did not go into detail about what he is unhappy with or what he would change.

The bulk of Bradburd’s discussion focused on the new LINK Light Rail station planned for I-90 and Rainier Avenue. Current development around the new station is low-density and Bradburd identifies current residents as low-income. Bradburd is concerned about displacing those current residents. He is also concerned that much Seattle station-area planning has been focused on high density at station areas. “TOD does not mean ‘transit adjacent development.’”  Instead, Bradburd wants to see focus on complete communities when planning station areas, including schools, shopping, and cultural amenities.  For the new I-90 and Rainier Avenue station area, Bradburd would not do large rezoning and he like to see a park focus. He envisions a station that downtown Seattle and Bellevue office workers could visit at lunch or at the end of their workdays.

Sunday Video: Shed The Monster


It’s summer time, get out there and bike; you’ll be glad you did.



What We’re Reading: Going All In On Timber

Woodframe construction in Portland.
Woodframe construction in Portland.

This week in design: Finland goes all in on its first big cross laminated timber project, Vancouver is going super boxy for a new tower, and New York may end up with a modern Brutalist meets modern glass and steel.

Two Cap Hill projectsDesign review has begun on the old Piecora’s and Hugo House sites in Capitol Hill.

What’s in a name: The Sound Transit Board settles on station names for East Link, some are likeable, others are, well, lame.

Garbage no more: Seattle is taking its crap seriously and completely redefining what “garbage” is with new composting rules.

Highway fights: As driving continues to plummet across the country, there’s a backlash rising against superfluous highway projects.

No muni broadband: A report out this week by the City of Seattle claims that building municipal broadband is too expensive.

Growing housing, growing rents: Since 1998, the number of apartments in Capitol Hill, First Hill, and the Central District have climbed 80% yet rents have shot up 40% in real terms.

Biking news: Tom at Seattle Bike Blog gets into the weeds of the Broadway bikeway extension on a block-by-block basis, highlights two Ballard greenways that will finally intersect, and breaks the news of a citywide Pronto expansion plan.

Long commutes: Thanks to our socially unequal society, the poor get the brunt of long commutes and pay a disproportionate amount for them.

Map of the Week: Locations of every film ever made in New York City mapped block by block.

The power of an M: 77 different versions of the letter “M” all representing a “Metro”.

The Barcelona plan: A look at how Barcelona was planned but took a completely different turn when it was actually realized.

Moving on in: Bike Portland compares metropolitan cities across the region to see just how much housing has been built near their centers since 1990.

Tough nut to crackThe Seattle Times discusses the challenges facing Seattle for affordable housing and some of the ideas out there to tackle the issue ($).

Toronto fail: The City of Toronto had an opportunity to finally be rid an unsightly and unhealthy an expressway, but instead chose a hybrid option in their development plan.

Amsterdam style: Amsterdam wants to build 18,000 homes for 45,000 residents with at least 30% being affordable; to do this, they’re constructing 10 islands.

Big money, big towers: The money that’s behind all of the luxury towers going up globally.

Tower cities: Toronto is trying to figure out how to deal with the 1,200+ ageing highrise towers that house more than 500,000 residents, many of whom are low-income, by creating a mixed income and diverse districts.

Plunging homeownership: Millennials (ages 25 to 34) in King County just aren’t getting into the whole homeownership thing with only a one-quarter owning ($)–half the rate of 1980 for the same cohort at that time.

Segregation is alive: A look at McKinney, Texas where segregation is alive and well despite efforts to eliminate it.

Pulling us apart: Emily Badger of the Washington Post says that our cars, neighborhoods, and schools are pulling us part socially.

Speaking Up For Lowrise Housing

An example of the mixed uses possible in a Lowrise zone. Several single-family homes, occupied by renters, across from traditional apartment buildings and a brand new micro-housing building via Google Street View.

Given the challenge posed by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s directive to add 50,000 new housing units in the next ten years, you might think it would be a strange time for the city to be contemplating code changes that would restrict new housing construction. Yet, legislation is currently working its way through City Hall that could do exactly that.

Next week, the Seattle City Council’s Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee will send a set of revisions to lowrise zone code regulations to the full City Council.  Depending on how the legislation is amended in committee, the result could be a significant reduction in the amount of housing that can be produced in lowrise zones in the coming years.

The Backstory

First, some background: Lowrise zones (ranging from LR-1 to LR-3) constitute about 10% of Seattle’s gross land area and offer a middle ground between single-family neighborhoods and midrise zones featuring larger apartment blocks. Instead, lowrise zones allow small apartment buildings, townhouses and rowhouses, in addition to single-family homes. They are often found near arterials well-served by transit, making them an ideal place to channel growth.

The current legislation is partially a response to complaints arising from a 2010 rewrite of lowrise zone code regulations that, along with Seattle’s current housing boom, were successful in spurring the construction of new housing. (Between 2011-2014, more than 4,000 new housing units were built or permitted in lowrise zones.) Complaints about the scale of new projects and their impacts on neighborhoods led City Council to instruct the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to review the new regulations, and DPD responded with draft legislation in 2014. Following an unsuccessful 2014 appeal of DPD’s environmental review and additional review of the proposed legislation by the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Committee, Councilmember Mike O’Brien introduced legislation that imposes some of the DPD-recommended new requirements on lowrise construction.

Proposed Legislation

O’Brien’s proposal represents a good-faith effort at compromise to address some of the challenges associated with Seattle’s lowrise zone growing pains without drastically impeding new construction. Notable proposed changes include:

  • Limiting the number of townhouses and rowhouses that can go on a lot in LR1 zones; in some cases the code currently allows an extra unit on two subdivided lots than it does on a single unified lot of equal size. This legislation corrects that discrepancy.

  • New upper-level setback requirements; on buildings taller than a certain height, the top floor would be required to have a setback from the street-facing side of the building unless the designer can show a better way to address concerns about a building’s perceived scale and bulk. The idea behind this requirement is to attempt to minimize the perceived bulk of new construction while continuing to allowing it to reach a similar height.

  • New design review requirements for LR2 zones, which could impact buildings with as few as eight units.

Making It Worse

It’s likely that even as written, the proposed rules will result in a modest decrease in the number of new housing units produced compared to the last several years. Unfortunately, for a vocal group of neighborhood activists long-opposed to “out-of-scale” development in lowrise zones, the changes included in the current legislation don’t go nearly far enough. This group, who call themselves Seattle Speaks Up, packed last week’s hearing on the proposed changes, likening Seattle’s lowrise zones to a modern reinterpretation of Stalinist apartment blocks seen in gloomy Eastern European capitals. (Erica C. Barnett covered the hearing at The C is For Crank.)

Seattle Speaks Up is asking for a series of changes to O’Brien’s legislation which would both make new housing more costly to build and allow less of it. Proposed changes requested include eliminating height and density bonuses for partially below-grade buildings, a variety of new setback requirements, and onerous new design review processes.

One of the most impactful amendments sought by Seattle Speaks Up is a change to how a building’s Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is calculated. (FAR is a measurement of a building’s floor area compared to lot size; the greater the FAR, the greater the density.) The group is seeking to include more unusable living space such as exterior stairways, breezeways, and basement storage areas in FAR calculations. (O’Brien’s proposed legislation would include some exterior hallways in the FAR calculation, if they are at least 50% enclosed.) Because buildings in lowrise zones must abide by maximum FAR limits, this change will means that builders will not be able to include as many units in new construction projects. Fewer projects will be started, and the ones that are started will include fewer units.

What makes this situation even more troubling is that several councilmembers, including retiring Tom Rasmussen and Nick Licata, have expressed support for these requested provisions and pledged to push for amendments that would add them into the legislation.

Why It Matters

This new threat to housing in Seattle couldn’t come at a worse time. By 2040, the Puget Sound region is expected to add as many as 1.4 million new residents. Those unable to find housing in urban, transit-accessible areas like Seattle lowrise zones will often end up living further away and relying more on automobile travel. That’s not an effective strategy for fighting climate change, congestion, or the urban sprawl that threatens our nearby farms, forests, and wild places.

Any additional restrictions on new housing in lowrise zones will also exacerbate our affordable housing crisis. Mayor Murray’s stated goal of 50,000 new units in the next ten years will be difficult to attain even without onerous new restrictions that disincentivize new construction. With population and job growth expected to remain strong in coming years, continuing to allow new supply in lowrise zones should be an important component of any strategy for keeping Seattle housing prices from spiraling permanently out of control.

If you’d like to show the City Council you support continued housing growth in our lowrise zones, please consider a) emailing the City Council expressing your opposition to further amendments to O’Brien’s legislation, and b) attending the PLUS Committee meeting on Tuesday, June 16th at 2:00 PM.

Jesse Piedfort is Chair of the Sierra Club – Seattle Group.

Editor’s Note: The original publication included a photo that was not from a Lowrise zone and omitted the fact that many buildings in Lowrise zones are single-family homes, occupied by both renters and homeowners.