Boom Prescription for Regional Growth Could Be a Bitter Pill to Swallow
posted by May 1 at 13:35 PMon
In the ballroom of the UW Husky Union Building yesterday, at a daylong “Reality Check” event put on by the Urban Land Institute, about 300 development professionals, public officials, and land-use and neighborhood activists stood around 30 enormous tables, each with a giant map of the Puget Sound region. A box on each table contained LEGOs—each yellow block represented 2,000 new residents, and each red block represented 2,000 new jobs—and pieces of colored yarn, which represented new roads and mass transit lines. Each group was tasked with placing the blocks and string to accommodate the area’s projected population growth.
Although the tools were elementary, the exercise was serious: According to an estimate released last month by the Puget Sound Regional Council, King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish Counties are expected to grow by 1.7 million people—roughly the entire population of greater Portland—by 2040.
“No challenge in our region is greater than the challenge of growth,” says Pat Callahan, senior vice president of Seattle-based Equity Office Properties. “We’re taking this bold step to ensure that the significant work that lies ahead starts now.”
Three trends emerged across the room as the game proceeded: dots sprawling into the green foothills of Snohomish and Pierce Counties; a fairly level swath of density along the I-5 corridor from Everett to Tacoma; and another strip of density hugging I-5, this one peaking sharply in downtown Seattle. Virtually all the plans would have focused growth in urban areas and limited it in rural and suburban areas—however, because none of the plans included rules for making that happen, they were more like guiding principles than specific prescriptions.
Most of those participating in the exercise agreed that there are limited options for growth in the region: Grow up or grow out. “There is a real division of interests [here],” Seattle City Council president Richard Conlin said. “This puts groups together to agree on the facts.” But putting those facts in practice will entail accepting some unwelcome realities.
“It’s hard for elected officials to think beyond their terms,” says Conlin. “But when we are looking at 20-, 30-, 40-year projections, it forces us to start thinking in that way.” He has asked the ULI to make a presentation to the council on the findings from the exercise.
The tallest stack of downtown density was at table 1, where towering LEGO buildings had lost their footing and tumbled into Lake Washington (the group later tied the towers together in a makeshift retrofit). The ringleader of the group, which called itself “Up Not Out,” was Al Clise of Clise Properties, which manages three million square feet of real estate downtown. “Seattle [will be] the preeminent center of commerce in the region for the next 100 years,” he said, explaining why the group elected to focus on central Seattle and avoid rural areas.
Richmond and Clise
“I think the government has been slow to get it,” said Clise. “It’s been so expensive to build in cities, developers go where there are no fees and create sprawl,” he says. “I just hope that the people who do the zoning and planning listen to this.” Clise would like to see more incentives to build dense urban developments, rather than penalties for not doing so.
But that vision of density, while increasingly recognized as the model that will reduce traffic and decrease carbon emissions, raises questions about how focusing the entire region’s development in Seattle will change the city. “The problem is when you get into north and south of the core,” Clise said. “The neighborhoods that will not change dramatically are those representing wealth. Those that don’t represent wealth and power— those neighborhoods will feel the effect of more change.”
Irene Wall, president of the Phinney Ridge Community Council, was a lone voice for neighborhood preservation at her table, where LEGOs were piling up around North Seattle. “If this is about coloring and staying within the lines, we’re wasting our time,” she snapped at the other players, mostly suit-clad developers. Growth shouldn’t have to sacrifice what we love about a city, she told me to the side, “but that’s exactly what’s happening.”
“Along every arterial in the city, you can kiss your ass goodbye to sunlight at every bus stop,” says Wall. “One-point-seven million is too many people. We need to look at directing growth across the entire state… looking at Spokane, Wenatchee, and maybe even Leavenworth.”
Although Wall’s point about scale is valid—planning needs to happen everywhere, not just in urbanized areas like Seattle—it’s not clear neighborhood groups will ever agree to the level of density we need across Seattle. You can’t just wish that people who want to move to Seattle will move to Wenatchee instead, nor can you expect arterials within 10 minutes of downtown to stay single-family forever. Nor should we want to.
It’s part of Seattle’s culture to simultaneously “hate sprawl and despise density,” said Mayor Greg Nickels. But “you can’t have it both ways.”
The underlying problem with regional planning is how to translate the emerging trend on the tables, which leaned toward dense construction centered around Seattle, Everett and Tacoma, to a land use policy the region can actually put into place. For instance, Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman delivered a bitter pill to Clise and other developers at an afternoon forum in the afternoon, when he explained the reasons for the nickel-and-dime taxation of urban development. Without fees and taxes, it would be impossible for cities to provide the services that dense urban areas require.
“As long as we have a regressive tax system in this state, we’ll have a hard time controlling growth,” Bozeman said. And despite the state’s growth management act, which is geared to limit sprawl, there is currently no policy or enforcement body that could enforce the plan set forth at yesterday’s exercise.
“We need regional decision making that is bolder… such as regional permitting and code development,” said Lisa Richmond, Executive Director of Seattle’s chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
“I wonder who is not here at the table?” asked Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, suggesting some policy makers may disagree, such as the absent House Speaker Frank Chopp. Indeed, other than an early speech from Governor Christine Gregoire, representatives from the state were hard to find.
“I don’t know that [other cities] will get on board because of this game,” said Councilmember Sally Clark, chair of the Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee. “Seattle can’t tell other cities to build more housing.” The real challenge, in contrast to Clark’s point, could be halting construction in the exurbs—which would profit from the tax base of a larger population and may resent being left out of the building boom. But the exercise did have a purpose: Giving density proponents the armor and artillery to encourage other areas from adopting bad land-use practices. Said Clark: “This is a great group to make the conversations safer.”