City Living in the Suburbs Rocks
posted by November 15 at 16:47 PMon
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.”
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.”