Growth is kicking our ass. King County's population is expected to grow by almost 300,000 in the next 12 years. Growth is pushing rents up, crowding neighborhoods, and gridlocking traffic. Meanwhile, sprawl continues to chew up farms and forests all around us, and gentrification drives the poor out of Seattle.
We have only one rational choice for dealing with growth, and that's to become -- very quickly -- a denser, less car-dependent city. Are the candidates -- despite all their talk about "finding transportation solutions" and "preserving affordable housing" -- just exploiting voters' concerns about growth without tackling the thorny politics of growth management? The candidates' "positions" on four critical issues may answer that question.
Light Rail. The Sound Transit light rail plan is the backbone of any real future transit system. If this "phase one" stalls out, all chances of expansion -- like branch lines across the lake to the Eastside, south to Tacoma, to Ballard, and West Seattle -- die with it. It's light rail or eternal gridlock; take your choice.
The candidates, unfortunately, want light rail without making any politically difficult choices. There's practically been a love-in on the idea of Seattle becoming "a city you don't need a car to live in," but none of the candidates has been willing to stand up to downtown businesses or Rainier Valley NIMBYs, and say, "Tough -- this needs to happen, and while we'll help you deal with its effects, it's going to happen."
Neighborhood Planning. The density war is over: Density won. The central cores of our neighborhoods, all across the city, are slated for thousands of new units of housing and commercial space. Given the alternative, this is all for the good. But density can be done right, or it can be totally fucked up. Our major (or perhaps only) bid to do it right comes from the neighborhood plans -- 38 blueprints that detail a mishmash of new services and amenities to accommodate mandated density. The plans call for more parks, libraries, community centers, and sidewalks. The trick is funding them, at an estimated price tag in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
All the candidates are for neighborhoods and planning and amenities, of course. The problem is, few will give straight answers on how to find the money. Are we going to go to the ballot with a neighborhood planning bond? If not, where will we cut the city budget? Instead of plain answers, the candidates are giving soft-headed lines about working with developers, the power of volunteerism, or making pledges to spend a couple million a year (at which rate we should have the neighborhood plans paid for by late next century).
ADUs. Accessory dwelling units -- also known as mother-in-law apartments -- are the closest thing we have to a silver bullet for our housing problems. By allowing more homeowners to rent out their basements or build backyard cottages, we can create, nearly instantly, thousands of affordable units across the city. Thus far, real reform has been stalled by neighborhood types fearing an influx of dreaded renters, and a compromise solution worked out by the city council makes it too difficult to get a new unit approved. We need to make it fast, easy, and cheap.
This is one issue where most of the candidates seem to be on the right track. "All for them," says Nicastro. "A win-win," says Mason. "All in favor of it," says Firestone. "I strongly support ADUs," says Wills. But, tellingly, none of the candidates has yet made much of a campaign issue out of getting these rules changed.
Industrial Lands. This is a tough one. On the one hand, industry and labor say if we don't preserve industrial areas like Georgetown, we'll lose family-wage jobs. On the other hand, much industrial land in Seattle is underbuilt, vacant, and/or heavily polluted. Both Vancouver and Portland have similar problems, and both responded by redeveloping large swaths of run-down and abandoned industrial land into very dense new neighborhoods -- chock full of amenities. If we're really going to handle our growth effectively, remaking industrial land is a solution we shouldn't rule out.
With the exception of Peter Steinbrueck, who's a fierce opponent of converting industrial lands to other uses, the candidates' views range from milquetoast to soggy corn flakes. Even the newcomers respond with admirable noncommitment when asked about this issue. All are in favor of family-wage jobs. But all are also in favor of new housing. All say they'll have to study the issue some more.
Now that the primary is over and the field has been narrowed to the serious candidates, we're hoping they're ready to be serious about the big issue: growth.