Enviro “Eco”? Eh.
posted by May 16 at 13:26 PMon
I admit I was immediately skeptical when I read the headline, “Jobs, homes proposal for Snohomish County touted as eco-friendly,” in Wednesday’s Seattle Times. Would that be the same Snohomish County that was sanctioned by the governor for violating the state Growth Management Act? The same Snohomish County whose council opposed infill development, arguing that density did not belong in existing urban areas? The same Snohomish County where officials have not hesitated to fight for developers’ right to turn rural farmland into sprawling exurban developments? The same Snohomish County where even modest pushes toward a sensible growth strategy were met with cries of overregulation and excessive government intrusion on private property rights?
Yeah, that would be the one. So like I said, I was skeptical.
Here, as far as I can tell, is what’s “eco-friendly” about this exurban development, to be located on 600 acres in Cathcart, past Mill Creek near Highway 9:
• It’ll have a transit hub and a job center—the same type of job center that has failed spectacularly at containing sprawl and auto dependency at Snoqualmie Ridge.
• It will include four-story condo buildings, plus “green” businesses “such as hydroponic greenhouses and solar-energy production on land once slated for a county landfill.”
• And it will include 170 acres of open space, including some restored wetlands.
Here’s the problem, though. Unless all those new condo dwellers work where they live—unlikely, as the example provided by Snoqualmie Ridge has shown—they’ll all need to commute somewhere, and most of them will do so by car. Non-commute trips—which make up 75 percent of all car trips—will likely increase as well. (Sound Transit provides bus service in Snohomish County, but their tax base there is already stretched thin, making a major service expansion unlikely even if voters do back a Sound Transit expansion in 2008. And much of which could end up going toward a fund for future light rail, anyway.) Making a community “self-contained” (with jobs, retail, and housing in one places) rarely accomplishes much if that community’s also isolated from surrounding cities.
Meanwhile, the people who work in all that ground-level retail that’s being planned as part of this mixed-use development would most likely commute in from elsewhere. (I’m guessing workers at, say, Bed, Bath & Beyond can’t afford a brand-new condo in a highly publicized “eco-development.”) So while, you know, yay for a transit hub (after all, it’s easier to provide transit when you only have to stop at one central location), I’m skeptical that the improvements in transit are going to translate into less congestion on the roads and emissions in the air.
Finally, on the subject of wetlands: “Restoring” wetlands—AKA creating new wetlands to replace wetlands that have been destroyed—is not the same thing as preserving existing wetlands. Wetlands are complex ecosystems that are extremely difficult to establish and maintain; restoring wetlands is far inferior to simply preserving them in the first place. And, de Place notes, “[developers] preserve the wetlands on these sites because it’s illegal not to.” And “clustering a bunch of impervious surface [driveways, roads, and rooftops] around wetlands can pretty seriously degrade their quality.”
Paul Krugman touches briefly on the subject of exurban development today on his blog, noting that the suburbs were designed with the assumption that oil prices would stay low forever. Now that gas prices are high and climbing, exurban dwellers—people who live in places like eastern Snohomish County— with few or no alternatives to driving are the hardest hit.