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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Living in the Suburbs Rocks

posted by on November 15 at 16:47 PM

Over at the Daily Journal of Commerce, reporter Lynn Porter talked to civic activist Art Skolnik.

Skolnik—who owns a $359,000 home in Renton, according to the King County Assessor’s Office—praises life in the burbs and says Seattle has urban planning all wrong.

It’s a long rant, so I’ve put it below the jump. There are a lot of comments from urban folks. My favorite comment is from Ryan Bayne, policy director of the Downtown Seattle Association, who says: “[Skolnik’s] argument is built around two contradictory statements — that downtown living is undesirable and that downtown living is unaffordable. The market does not allow those two statements to both be true.”

Good call.

Suburb fan says in-city living is lame

I spoke with Art Skolnik recently and got a rant against in-city living. With all the buzz in the DJC and other publications about the joys of living downtown, I thought I'd offer Skolnik's views in hopes of fostering discussion. I solicited comments from people in the local real estate industry. Their responses follow Skolnik's commentary.
Skolnik has a masters in architecture and urban design from the Pratt Institute. A consultant on architecture, land use, urban design and historic preservation, Skolnik is also a community advocate who ran for office three times unsuccessfully.

Here's his take:

Skolnik thinks in-city living ain't that special and the burbs are getting a bum rap. He's lived on and off in downtown Seattle and now resides in Renton.

In the suburbs developers pony-up for fire stations, parks, open space, schools and libraries, Skolnik said. There's also plenty of free parking, nearby shopping and quiet.

Downtown Seattle residents may have culture, but suburbanites can drive to that, Skolnik said. The city slickers face premiums to park, limited privacy, few schools, dirty alleys, crime, cracked sidewalks, and nightlife “that is problematic and difficult to control,” he said.

Developers don't make living downtown easier, he said. Instead they tout the 24-7 lifestyle in ads, provide limited parking to better their bottom line, and build apartments and condos so small only a contortionist could live in them, he said.

They don't pay their “fair share” for parks, open space, fire stations and the like, he said. The suburbs are “sophisticated” in extracting those things, but Seattle has been negligent, giving away the store to encourage downtown development, he said. Needed infrastructure isn't being built and what's there isn't being maintained.

“It's a big playground for big developers and they're taking us all to the cleaners,” he said. For instance, he said, in fast-growing Belltown, “other than the sculpture garden, have you seen a park built, a tennis court, a baseball diamond?”

Additionally, he said, Seattle isn't ready to be a 24/7 city because it's “not willing to pay to keep people safe” from the negative consequences of such an environment.

So what does Skolnik, who insists “I'm not a Communist,” want to happen?

Mandate that developers build two to three units of low- or moderate-income housing for each high-end unit to bring back people who have been pushed out to the burbs by high prices, he said.

“The last time Seattle had affordable housing was when Boeing fell apart in the 70s,” he said. “There was a lot of vacancies.”

Skolnik also recommends that in-city developers kick in more for public amenities. This might help prevent downtown from becoming an enclave for the rich, who don't rely as much on those amenities, he said.

Skolnik also said Seattle should offer free parking on city streets for periods of time, rather than using parking as a “money maker.” And, he said, it should encourage construction of lots of parking in private buildings to bring down the price.

To address the issue of small market-rate apartments and condos, Skolnik said the city should allow developers who construct larger, reasonably priced units to build denser. “You create a spin that in order to live in the city you have to live in a smaller space” but you don't and it's “unhealthy” because it discourages generations living together, he said.

Kauri Investments President and CEO Kent Angier:

“I live on the Eastside so I am not denigrating people that choose to live there, but perhaps he should look at the demographic of the buyer/renter that wants to live in downtown. They are not usually families with small children that use baseball diamonds, etc. They are either the young that want to be within a short walk of the nightlife and potentially don't even own a car (not so bad in my opinion when it is conscious choice) or the older people that have ‘moved down.' He is not a Communist but he wants to impose affordable housing on each new high-end development, which has the counterproductive effect of increasing the cost of all housing. Not to mention ‘who' is determining what is high end? Him... I hope not!”

Matt Griffin, Pine Street Group managing partner:

“Living downtown isn't for everyone. If you like living in less space with less to worry about, walking more, using mass transit, interacting with more people, and leaving a smaller carbon footprint, it's pretty great.”

Ryan Bayne, policy director Downtown Seattle Association:

“His argument is built around two contradictory statements — that downtown living is undesirable and that downtown living is unaffordable. The market does not allow those two statements to both be true.”

William Justen, managing director of real estate at Samis Land Co.:

“For a guy who has lived most of his adult life on his gentleman farms on Vashon Island and North Bend and needs a car to reach civilization, I can understand why he wants free parking downtown and doesn't like its grittiness. I've lived in downtown Seattle for 30 years. My wife and I own one car which we only use once every 2-3 weeks, so we don't add to congestion or air pollution. We love the diversity and energy of downtown, and we don't bother walking the alleys that are intended for truck deliveries and garbage trucks anyway. As far as developers not contributing to the downtown I again differ with Mr. Skolnik. For the high-rise condominium that I'm working on downtown that's under construction we are paying almost $10 million in sales tax to benefit our community, $1.75 million for low-income housing and the property tax on the project site that was a parking lot will increase from $50,000 a year to $2.5 million per year. Unfortunately, most of this huge amount of new taxes will be used to support general government functions and not new parks for downtown residents.”

Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute:

“Downtown living can be a rich and wonderful experience for families with children. We have proof that it works. LIHI has built family-friendly housing at Denny Park Apartments (50 units) and Lakeview Apartments (57 units) in South Lake Union. Denny Park Apartments are located close to Denny Park, public transportation, shopping and have terrific views of Lake Union and Seattle Center. We have a huge demand for the two- and three-bedroom units, which are priced affordably for families making less than 60 percent of area median income ($46,740 for a family of four). The Lakeview Apartments are located across the street from the Cascade Children's Park and the Cascade People's Center. Our families take full advantage of the after-school activities, the playground, gardening in the P-Patch and educational programs offered there.”

Dean Jones, principal with Realogics, which markets downtown condo projects:

“Suburban development requires far more infrastructure per household and has a heavier carbon-footprint on the environment. In-city developers are responding to buyers seeking greater efficiencies offered by living closer to their jobs, culture, shopping, attractions, etc. High-rise zoning now provides affordable housing benefits, generates property taxes to support civic services and puts stakeholders in the neighborhoods to effect positive changes. Urban residents enjoy more time for a dynamic social lifestyle and are more healthy. The fact that urban condo deliveries are up 1,000 percent in just a year and 90 percent of that inventory is presold suggests this urban lifestyle preference isn't a trend, it's a movement.”

Bruce Blume, chairman and CEO of The Blume Co.:

“First, I want to note that The Blume Co. does not do residential development, but I do follow it closely because it is extremely important to our professional mission, which is developing and managing high-quality, Class A office buildings near downtown Seattle. Living downtown is about much more than ads, parking and the magnetism of cultural institutions. It's really about knowledgeable and responsible urban planning that takes into consideration what residents want and how cities can drive economies and improve society as a whole. I think the late urban writer and activist Jane Jacobs said it best: “Whenever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered rather than stagnated and decayed, creative and workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon... Decaying cities, declining economies, and mounting social troubles travel together. The combination is not coincidental.”

RSS icon Comments


Yep, my old friend Art appears to have slipped a cog or two. But his rant is similar to others I've read, about the undesirability of high-density living, how "nobody" wants to live that way, etc.

Funny thing, however; all those "nobodies" paying $600 a square foot in order to put up with all the negatives that Art and others like to cite.

Posted by Perfect Voter | November 15, 2007 4:53 PM

I think thats actually quite funny.

if there wasnt a demand for urban living, urban living would carry the price tag that it does.

driving to culture is easier said than done.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | November 15, 2007 4:55 PM

Skolnik is part of the problem, not the solution.

If there were an award for self-induced wounds, he'd win it.

And decades from now, when people ask what we did in the War on Global Warming, he'll lie about what he actually did.

Posted by Will in Seattle | November 15, 2007 4:56 PM

Yeah, sure, let's build tons of downtown parking spaces and make them all free. Where are those cars going to go when they're not parked, huh? On the roads, where they'll be parked in traffic.

Posted by Greg | November 15, 2007 5:02 PM

it's great if you want to encourage density. because if you don't like density, you have to want it for moral reasons.

Posted by infrequent | November 15, 2007 5:05 PM

Well, let's do some numbers, shall we? There are about 1.5 million people in King County, about 575,000 of those live in the City of Seattle, and about 20,000 of them live downtown.

Y'all can wish in one hand and shit (or New Urbanize, if you will) in the other and see which one fills up first, but if you look at how people vote with their feet in terms of where they choose to live, Skolnik is essentially right.

Posted by Mr. X | November 15, 2007 5:11 PM

mr.x. that is hardly true. just because there are more people in the suburbs doesn't mean that's where more people want to live. by that logic, people don't want to be millionaires because there are clearly more non-millionaires.

and to say that only 20,000 live in the city -- or "downtown" as you've chosen to frame it -- is not a fair number. there are far more people in the city proper who should be included.

Posted by infrequent | November 15, 2007 5:14 PM

It's funny, how binary these arguments tend to be. It's like there are only two options: a high-rise above the crack dens on 3rd and Pine, or a split-level in Issaquah.

Has this guy never heard of Capitol HIll? Ballard? It is possible, after all, to build denser -- but still leafy and pleasant -- pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

Posted by Frank | November 15, 2007 5:14 PM

what is the value of living in the city, and the value of not doing so? even if seattle has urban planning all wrong, that might not mean there is still greater value in city living.

if you want to waste resources and have a large carbon footprint, and you can't point out how it is enjoyable to do so, that does not mean it is favorable to live that way, or to encourage others to seek that way of life.

Posted by infrequent | November 15, 2007 5:18 PM

I agree - more people in Ballard.

Remember, urban dwellers emit half to one-tenth as much pollution and global warming gasses per person.

Posted by Will in Seattle | November 15, 2007 5:33 PM

As a Ballard resident, I have no problem putting more people there, on two conditions:

1.) New residents do not currently carry nor have ever carried a California or New York driver's license.
2.) New developments don't look like they're straight off some manufactured home lot near the freeway.

@7, read the actual comment -- 20,000 is the downtown number, not the in-city number.

Also, Mr. X has a certain point, though I'm not sure he intended to make it. Everyone shouting that people should live downtown -- don't drive! walk to work! -- fail to consider two things:

1.) Not everyone works downtown.
2.) Even if everyone who does work downtown wanted to and could afford to live downtown as well, we'd need 2-3 times as much condo/apartment space as office space downtown in order to accomodate them. Not. Gonna. Happen.

I won't deny these folks their right to promote their business interests, but downtown living as a solution to global warming? As a solution to congestion? Its usefulness in both aspects is extremely limited.

Posted by joykiller | November 15, 2007 5:49 PM

The whole "why doesn't everyone just live near where they work" seems really disingenuous to me. There are a whole hell of a lot of couples like my husband and I, who don't work anywhere near one another. Nor do we live near where either of us works, as we can't afford housing in either area. We live where we can afford to, and we work where we can get work. It's not like everyone has an interchangeable McJob and can just transfer to the McJob branch nearest their residence, after all.

I'd love to drive less. But there is no direct bus route from my home to my place of work, and the transfers require going far out of my way and taking twice as long (literally) as driving.

My husband would love to drive less. But he is required to have his vehicle at work. It's not like he can just leave it there, either.

Simplistic solutions don't work in complex environments. Just preaching at people to change their lifestyles doesn't work. What would get the two of us to move to a location in between where we both work? Affordable housing in that location (which would be West Seattle). In that sense, Skolnik is right. His stuff about parking is nonsense, though.

Posted by Geni | November 15, 2007 6:02 PM

A study was done in Europe to find correlations to unemployment - the only one they found was higher home ownership - maybe we should increase rental percentages then people could move more easily.

It is hard to believe that a couple can't find housing near one of the jobs or a direct bus line location.

Posted by whatever | November 15, 2007 6:10 PM

I don't live downtown, but live awfully close. I would love to live right downtown but getting a condo with the same space as my house (which isn't that much) would cost three times as much.

Posted by giffy | November 15, 2007 6:25 PM


where exactly in seattle would you find high density housing?

yaletown in vancouver could be considered high density.

but there really isn't any density at all in seattle except a few blocks around the downtown core.

other than that, it's shitty ass single family housing as far as the eye can see.

basically, outside of lower queen anne, pike/pine belltown and peioneer square, it's all kinda 'burb-ish.

Posted by holz | November 15, 2007 6:38 PM

@7 -

Can you read? I said 570,000 live in the City, and 20,000 of those people live downtown. What about those figures is not accurate?

As to your notion that all of those suburbanites would happily move downtown if they could just afford to - well, that makes me laugh so hard I can hardly type. Perhaps some percentage of those who live outside the City would move downtown, but it is Seattle-centric in the extreme to assume that most people would prefer to live in the city.

It is a fact - inconvenient though you may find it - that the rest of King County (not to mention Pierce and Snohomish Counties) is growing at a faster rate than is the City of Seattle. In no small part, this is because of the CHOICES people make as to where they would prefer to live.

@11 - I didn't make that point explicitly in this comment, but have done so frequently on SLOG - and been accused of being a baby-raping Rethug for pointing out simple facts for my trouble.

Personally, if I had $500-700k to buy, it sure as hell wouldn't be a one or two bedroom luxury condo downtown (or on Capitol Hill, for that matter).

And, yes, most of the people who live in the suburbs would NEVER want to live in a downtown Seattle high-rise. That is the reality of the situation, and getting up on your moralistic high horse ain't gonna change it one iota..

Posted by Mr. X | November 15, 2007 7:34 PM

settle on a number, dude. 575, 570--last i checked it was 586. you don't need to fudge, old man.

Posted by Mr. X is a grumpy old man | November 15, 2007 7:49 PM

Yes city = clusterfuck = we need rail transit. We need it connecting SLU/Denny triangle, QA, Ballard, WS, all the dense neighborhoods, not just conv. ctr., UW, 65th and Northgate.
Those are the priorities not stretching it out to Tacoma or Mill Creek,

Then it's useable and you have a way to be mobile despite street congestion.

Bring on a transit plan that makes sense.

Posted by unPC | November 15, 2007 8:07 PM

Fair enough @17 - forgive the slip from posting between tasks - though we won't really know what the population figure is until the next census (and, actually, a higher figure does more to support my larger point - which is that downtown dwellers comprise a small minority of Seattle residents overall and an even smaller one countywide).

Posted by Mr. X | November 15, 2007 8:09 PM

I think that there are certain groups who don't live in the city due to certain reasons

1. Economic- These cannot afford the space they want in the city in the present environment but would like to live in the city to be closer to their jobs and other amenities if they could only afford it.
2. Those that have a general disdain of city life in general due to crowding issues ,etc.
3. Perception that its more dangerous crime wise in the city which depending on what suburb you're living in can be true or not true.
4. Perception that its more noisy. Certain places yes, but take me to a side street in Ballard and its more quiet on a Sunday than in suburbia with cars driving everywhere and tons of people mowing their lawns at the same time. People who live in suburbia or outlying areas are always surprised when I tell them this because when they go to the city they always just go to downtown or to certain noisy areas in the city.
5. Think there's more regulation, although some of those HOA's in the burbs have draconian regulations in their developments to protect the almighty dollar value of their homes.

There's probably more sub groups,etc.

Posted by Brian in Seattle | November 15, 2007 8:24 PM

You couldn't pay me enough to live anywhere in Renton. By any objective measure it's a total shithole. His adoration of that abomination tells you something about who we are dealing with. Have fun down there with the meth heads and gang bangers, Art...

Posted by GoodGrief | November 15, 2007 8:26 PM

As much as I love living in the city, I recognize that other people value other things more. They want to go where the public schools are best, or where they can have a big yard, or whatever.

I would just like the relative prices of each lifestyle choice to reflect the actual cost to society. Within those bounds, people should be free to live where they like without snobbery from either type of fundamentalist.

Posted by MHD | November 15, 2007 9:07 PM

It's important to remember that until the last ten years or so, there wasn't that much housing downtown. And Ballard was pretty much still single-family residences. The level of in-fill has been amazing.

Personally, this is the first time since I've lived in Seattle (and I've pretty much been here since 1985 or so) that I haven't lived close to work. I have to commute from Beacon Hill to 97th and Aurora, and I fucking HATE that. I am trying very hard to get a transfer to the south end location, where I could either bus or bike (or even walk) but its slow going.

Posted by catalina vel-duray | November 16, 2007 6:36 AM

@11 (&16) i said the number 20,000 was pointless to this conversation, and i stand by that. someone like either of you even hinting that a high rise downtown is the only option to suburb living is framing the debate unfairly. and to respond in kind, did either of you actual read my post to comprehend?

one thing i've tried to be clear on that that i am not saying most people would prefer to live in the city. i am saying it is better were they to do so. sure this is a moral high ground, but one tends to take such a position on moral issues. excessively large carbon footprints is a moral issue.

choices are moderated by everything you mention. and many people want to live in the suburbs.

but the fact of the matter is that current market forces are not being appropriately applied to suburb living. the cost to all of us for a larger footprint is not recognized in the price of a suburban home.

this will change over time, and density in this region will increase. until then, there will be suburbs.

and there will be exurbs, the ugly skeletal remains of suburbs that are no longer good enough for the upper middle class as they push further and further out past issaquah and past graham.

so, as i said, it's great when someone like to live in the city -- like on capitol hill where you are near parks and schools. but if you don't want to, that doesn't mean it wouldn't be better to do it anyways. inconveniences abound where ever you choose -- some are merely overlooked for other reasons.

Posted by infrequent | November 16, 2007 8:51 AM

I find amusing the argument that people who live in the city leave a smaller carbon footprint. Do you think all the people in those downtown condos work as baristas and bartenders or write for low-paying weekly newspapers? No, a whole lot of them work at Microsoft and Nintendo and Costco and other suburban companies. If you don't believe me check out the eastbound commute on 520 or 90 each morning. Many of the best-paying jobs are in the suburbs, but people want to live in the city -- for reasons far less high-minded than the environment.

Posted by bigyaz | November 16, 2007 10:26 AM

This blog comments thread is reading like the script for a Kubrick movie about global warming.

Posted by Grant Cogswell | November 16, 2007 10:56 AM

Sightline Institute's blog just did a post about a 2006 Canadian study on urban density and climate emissions. Good data there.

Posted by Patrick McGrath | November 16, 2007 11:20 AM

@27: I'm sure the data's pretty good, but it's frequently misapplied. As #25 mentioned, living in the urban core doesn't reduce your transportation-related GHG footprint if you're commuting to the suburbs every day in a single-occupancy vehicle.

Posted by joykiller | November 16, 2007 11:28 AM

@25 and @26: but it can, and that is the point. so, yeah, some people live in the city and work in the suburbs. and some people live in the suburbs and work from home (or within walking distance). but we are talking about what is best, which -- among other things of course -- would be working near where you live. that is easier and more utilitarian in the city.

Posted by infrequent | November 16, 2007 11:40 AM

There is the possibility that that there is no wrong choice as well. I live in Seattle, not downtown, but a reasonable walk to it. My husband and I would like a family one of these days, but we don't see why we need a huge yard, an SUV to truck lots of equipment to playgrounds 10 miles away, or 3,000sf of house to do that. We've got lots of parks around, within walking distance, as well as all the movies, plays, art, and other cultural events I want my child exposed to, all within a 20 minute walk or a 10 minute bus ride.

Some people want to drive everywhere and think they can't have more than two people in a house if it's not big enough to get lost in. Most people outside of the US would wholeheartedly disagree with them (as would I), but they've got that choice and they can make the tradeoffs necessary to have them.

I wouldn't want those tradeoffs. I do, however, think it's completely disingenous to argue that the only alternative to the burbs is a downtown high-rise. Most of us in Seattle (all 585,000 minus 20,000) live outside of downtown. Many of us quite happily and with plans to raise our families there.

Posted by city dweller | November 16, 2007 11:41 AM


If it's true that significant numbers of people are living downtown despite working elsewhere, you'd be right (check out Driving to Green Buildings), but I'm skeptical that a big percentage of residents are choosing to make the tradeoffs that downtown living entails and still spending potentially hours of their day commuting to areas with cheaper land. But that's merely a speculation.

Now you've got me curious: what percentage of downtown residents work thereabouts? I'll have a look over at PSRC. Maybe they've got the data.

Posted by Patrick McGrath | November 16, 2007 11:57 AM

@31: According to a Seattle Times story about 6,000 of Microsoft's local employees live on this side of the lake.

That's a lot of west-east commutes in the morning. And that's just Microsoft.

Posted by bigyaz | November 16, 2007 3:21 PM

Fuck off, GoodGrief -- you're an idiot. Have you actually been to any part of Renton other than the Arby's on Rainier Ave. or IKEA (which is barely within the city limits)? Renton is almost as old as Seattle, and was established in 1901. Its demographics aren't much different than those of Seattle, either. Unlike, say, Belltown or Pioneer Square, you can actually walk around at night in all parts of Renton (even the low-income areas!) without being accosted or fearing for your life. The violent crime rate, in fact, is lower than Seattle's, and the property crime rate is the same.

I live in an old, charming, and diverse neighborhood that was first settled by coal miner immigrants at the end of the 19th century. I have a view of Lake Washington and downtown Seattle, space for a garden, and neighbors of all types that I actually know. My 94 year-old neighbor across the street was born on the same piece of property she now lives on (in a different house), and her family once owned my lot when it was an orchard.

So, again, fuck off. Once you actually visit and explore Renton, you can criticize it all you want.

Posted by Casper | November 16, 2007 4:12 PM

Who is this Skolnik person anyway, and who's shoving a mike in his face? I can't get the whole story, but give reporter Porter credit for reaching out to people who know what they're talking about.

Posted by TLjr | November 16, 2007 10:45 PM

Interesting debate, but nobody bothered to point out that most of Art's suggestions are kinda stupid. Developers can't afford to build three affordable units for every high-priced one, nor can they afford to pay for parks and playgrounds in downtown, while still making a buck on their investment.

@34: Art is an interesting, charming flake who has 1) been married to sexologist Pepper Schwartz, 2) run for Democratic legislative seats on the Eastside when it was still Republican territory, 3) moved back into the city and made a quixotic run for City Council, and 4) fled for the suburbs again.

Posted by J.R. | November 17, 2007 10:44 AM

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