A Rapidly Changing Seattle

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We all know Seattle is in the midst of a development renaissance. But just how much development are we experiencing and where? What will that growth look like? And will we still have room for further growth in the future? I set out in search of answers to these questions. To do that, I sat down and dug into the Department of Planning and Development’s permit database. Some project proposals have come and died. Others are still in the works. And many are already in the process of construction.

Below you can see just how much activity is taking place in the central part of the city. Downtown, South Lake Union, and Capitol Hill are going gangbusters. But you probably already knew that. Any trip into these areas makes it easy to see they’re filled with trucks, cranes, construction workers, and advertising for future occupancy in a new apartment.

Central Seattle Development

Using Google Maps, I was able to create feature layers highlighting the project areas. Green features are projects in design, blue are projects under construction, yellow are completed projects, and red are sites ripe for redevelopment (judgement call on my part). I’ve also linked to the permit status and latest design review PDF of each project (a work still in progress).

Projects are in the pipeline all across the city, but there is a big disparity between the central neighbourhoods and the rest of Seattle. I’ve managed to capture almost every project of significance in the University District, Roosevelt, Greenlake, and Fremont. So, it should be pretty easy to see that while stuff is in the pipeline, they just don’t come close in scale to the activity of central Seattle. Still, there are some seriously bold and exciting projects taking place in North Seattle.

North Seattle Development

While admittedly subjective, I have undertaken the effort to determine parcels and buildings that are ripe for redevelopment. I don’t have a strict definition for this, but surface parking, blighting and abandoned structures, or old strip malls in urban centers and villages are obvious catches for redevelopment. The not-so-obvious ones are the creative redevelopments such as constructing on top of existing structures and incorporating historic structures. They are challenging efforts to be sure, but the results can be good. From what I can tell, there is plenty of capacity for continued development across the city.

I’m a numbers, map, design, and planning nerd, so creating this project just for my own interests has been fun. Along the way, I’ve discovered many interesting projects and perhaps you will, too. One of my most favourite projects right now is 801 Dexter (see page 10) in Westlake if only because of Weber Thompson’s design inspiration from bold colours and the outdoorsiness of the PNW. Feel free to pan through my database and explore projects. If you have any suggestions or ideas about how I can improve this or can help fill in the gaps, let me know in the comments or send me a tweet!

Make Housing Cost Our Top Priority

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alley-24
Evil developers building homes for people. Attributed to: Andrew Hitchcock – licenseoriginal

In a previous post we established a few important points. First, the housing market isn’t a solution to be accepted or thrown out but rather a tool we get to design. In many cities, the market is designed very poorly, including in Seattle. The best way to approach how the housing market should work is to first establish goals.

Make Housing Costs Our Most Important Priority

Most cities have development goals. Goals are a reflection of community input and are value statements. Seattle has many goals but one of the most prominent is maintaining neighborhood character. Seattle’s comprehensive plan explicitly endorses the value of maintaining neighborhood character, putting this on a pedestal compared to other needs. Most people would agree that this seems like an important goal but this isn’t most residents’ top priority. In fact, for many residents this is completely unimportant. The Urbanist strongly believes housing cost should be the most important priority when considering development in residential zones. This goal benefits nearly everyone, directly addresses a real crisis and can be measured. Furthermore, all city policies should be examined to determine whether they increase or decrease the cost of housing.

Understanding A Housing Price Problem Versus an Income Crisis

To begin talking about the housing cost problem, it is necessary to point out that we are really tackling two separate but connected issues.

  1. Sufficient income to pay for housing
  2. Prices that reflect the cost of providing housing

To illustrate the difference, imagine someone with no income. Even if rent were minimal, maybe $10 dollars a month, they still wouldn’t be able to afford it. Instead of approaching builders, owners or developers to reduce their price, we would likely provide income or subsidies for the housing.

Conversely, if everyone in the city had enough income to pay for housing but we all paid $10,000 a month in rent, while the cost of providing that housing was only $10 a month, we would have a price problem. In this situation, we would seek to understand why the price was so high and what we could do to bring that down.

Does The Housing Market Work? The Answer Is Obvious But The Question Is Misleading

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Seattle Land Use
Two results of Seattle’s housing market design. Data gathered from here and here.

It has become a common refrain among anyone paying attention to housing costs that the market simply doesn’t work. Many legitimate and important concerns motivate this observation, including rising costs, homelessness, displacement and inequity. Often though, the conversation about housing turns to complaints about the failures of the unfettered free market. It seems that many people see the failures of the housing market as an indictment of free market capitalism. I’m not writing to push for deregulation but it’s inaccurate to use the housing market as an example of unfettered, free market capitalism.

In most cities, the housing market is highly regulated. Regulations include zoning for density, caps on total housing, complicated taxes, safety regulations, parking requirements, controls on rent and much more. Some of these regulations are important and some are questionable. When we equate the failures of the housing market to the failures of capitalism we mislead ourselves, preventing a constructive conversation about the actual regulations. If we are serious about solving most of our housing problems, I encourage us to stop speaking with rhetoric. Rather than dismissing the housing market, let’s examine and formulate a more useful assertion than ‘the market doesn’t work.’ To move beyond the misleading comments, it’s necessary to point out nearly everyone agrees with these two points:

  1.  Some regulation is required and good. The government should require buildings to survive earthquakes and prevent fires. In other words, there will always be government intervention in the housing market.
  2. If the market is not producing the outcome we want, it’s not the existence of the market that’s the problem, it’s our poor design. We can’t remove markets anymore than we can make them completely ‘free.’ Even if all housing in the city were paid for by the government, there would still be a housing market; it would just be designed differently from what we have now. In other words, we can’t blame the market as if it were an interest group to be attacked.

Now that we agree we can’t have a completely free market anymore than we can banish the market, let’s talk about specific regulations. In Seattle, we do a lot of good things for housing but not enough. We also have a lot of really bad regulations. For example, our market is designed to:

  • prioritize aesthetic characteristics over supply
  • require minimum parking
  • limit density

This design prevents people from living in the neighborhoods they wish, decreases mobility, puts power in the hands of landlords and increases costs. We should get our priorities straight and address the specific regulations that are hurting us. Let’s design a market that works.

Bike Lanes Are Social Justice

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Last week, Michael Andersen at People for Bikes posted new data based on the most recent Census that shows the poorest Americans are twice as likely to bike as the richest:

From People for Bikes

As we can see, bicycling infrastructure is a clear social justice issue – it provides affordable transportation for those who need it most.

In Seattle, property owners and businesspeople along Westlake are suing to stop implementation of the city’s Bicycle Master Plan. I’d be willing to bet that this group is collectively in the city’s richest quartile. This raises an uncomfortable question that I don’t think has been asked – isn’t this lawsuit, in effect, an attack on the poor?

Required Bicycle Parking and aPodments

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bicycle-parking
Attributed to: Richard Masoner – licenseoriginal

The city’s draft of microhousing legislation (p. 15) includes a previously proposed regulation for bicycle parking: 1 secure space for every 4 microhousing units.

Seattle currently requires one bike space per four dwelling units in multifamily housing, like typical condos and apartments. In congregate residences, as much microhousing is currently defined, there’s a requirement of only one space for twenty residents. With some microhousing defined as multifamily housing, and an expected limit of eight residents per dwelling unit, this could mean far too few bike parking spaces.

Housing Diversions: We Can End Homelessness

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Gabriel Metcalfe from SPUR proposes an all-of-the-above approach to solving the housing cost problem in San Francisco. He nails it with the comment:

Why Urbanism?

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Sometimes, when having conversations with fellow environmentalists, I find a disconnect in our understanding of urbanization. In the past, cities were regarded as dirty, unhealthy, the source of most of our emissions, and much early environmentalism was focused on rural, self-reliant, self-contained living.

Westlake Policy Ride

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If you’re not doing anything on Sunday afternoon, you could help make Seattle a safer place for cyclist and pedestrians, help improve access to lake union and participate in a nice bicycle ride all at the same time.

The Cascade Bicycle Club is holding a policy ride on Sunday, January 26th to show support for improvements to the bicycle and pedestrian facilities on Westlake. In case you missed the background on this project, the city has fully funded and plans to implement improved facilities along Westlake for cyclists and pedestrians. Even though it would not prevent the project on Westlake, a few people are attempting to delay the city’s bicycle master plan over fear that the Westlake project will result in fewer parking spaces. You can read more about this over at the Seattle Bike Blog here and here.

Sunday, January 26, 2:00-3:00 p.m.
Meet at the Fremont PCC Market
Ride ends at RE:PUBLIC, a restaurant & bar

Find out more or RSVP here.