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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Joel Connelly: Seattle’s Social Engineer

posted by on December 14 at 10:04 AM

In yesterday’s P-I, as ECB Slogged, Joel Connelly grouses about the evils of “social engineering.”

He writes:

Boneheaded behavior does not occur in a vacuum: The Emerald City—formerly the Queen City—has become a sucker for social engineering and sugarplum dreams called urban vision. It’s costing us.

OK, this column warns about global warming, preaches environmental protection, and argues that diversity makes our town a vastly more interesting place to live.

Underpinning these convictions, however, is a belief that Americans will voluntarily do what’s right. We don’t need to get harassed into behaving.

The city is lately going on an anti-automobile kick, in a season when people are drawn downtown and to interesting neighborhood shopping areas (e.g., Madison Park) for the year’s peak shopping time.

The city council adopted new rules Monday that businesses and developers need not provide parking in several of our “urban villages.” Our city fathers (and mothers) did likewise with commercial parking requirements downtown a year ago.

Here’s what bugs me about Connelly’s “populist” complaint against social engineering: Like any trite demagogue, he’s got it ass backwards. Joel: Social engineering is when you prohibit something (smoking indoors) or mandate something (busing).

In this instance—not requiring developers to build parking—the city council isn’t mandating or prohibiting anything.

In fact, they’re doing the opposite: They’re letting the developers decide for themselves. They’re letting developers look to the market to build whatever they want. If developers think they can attract more and charge more for development with parking (which they obviously can), they’re free to do it. If they think they can save money by not building parking, they can do that.

It seems to me, that Connelly’s belief in the status quo—requiring developers to build parking—is the very definition of social engineering. It caters to and promotes a certain lifestyle. That lifestyle just happens to be Connelly’s.

In short: Developers shouldn’t be forced to build parking just to accommodate one lifestyle over another. They should be free to choose. If developers want to build for a pedestrian-oriented community, rather than a car-oriented community, that’s their right. Joel should stop demanding social engineering. He should stop harassing developers to push his lifestyle.

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Touche! (avec l'accent mon ami)

Posted by mirror | December 14, 2006 10:03 AM

If Americans voluntarily do what's right, then they would currently be giving up their cars. Global warming will never be slowed or stopped unless government forces people to change or encourages them to change with, gasp, social engineering (building rapid transit, engineering pedestrian communities, making it less convenient to drive).

Posted by keshmeshi | December 14, 2006 10:08 AM

Except that the developers are a business, and it is currently common practice for businesses (particularly publicly-traded businesses which must answer directly to stockholders) to externalize costs whenever possible. "Let the market decide" is just modern free-market speak for "pass on the costs of doing business to someone else."

I see no problem in reducing available parking as you and Erica seem to be advocating (and by not requiring that parking be built, that is almost certainly what will occur) if it is part of a broader strategy that includes better transit options (which would also be social engineering, I suppose.) The problem is, as we've seen, that the developers will be more than happy to go along with the component of this plan that involves NOT spending money, but as we've already seen, fight tooth and nail against any portion of that plan that COSTS money (like building a monorail for instance.)

So what we'll end up with is half a solution. Less parking but no satisfactory transit options.

Posted by flamingbanjo | December 14, 2006 10:10 AM

Then why are you advocating them to provide 30% green space? It seems totally hypocritical for you to say "don't make developers build parking, but make them have green space". If you want the market to rule, then you won’t mind plain tall condos going up with no green space. Green space costs money not only to put in, but to maintain year round. Having green space supports YOUR lifestyle and not necessarily other peoples. You want to advocate green space cause its "pretty" but not parking because you think it should be up to the builder? WTF? That is asinine.

Posted by Monique | December 14, 2006 10:17 AM


You write: "Then why are you advocating them to provide 30% green space?"

Please show me where I advocated that the legislation nixing parking requirements should say anything about green space.

I didn't.

Posted by Josh Feit | December 14, 2006 10:22 AM

Josh, when are you going to stop covering for Erica?

Posted by pinky | December 14, 2006 10:31 AM

Monique, if you don't like green space then you're living in the wrong city.

Posted by Chris | December 14, 2006 10:34 AM

So, anything which inhibits the freedom of developers is social engineering? Isn’t zoning social engineering?

Damn social engineers, stopping toxic chemical plants from being in residential neighborhoods.

Posted by TT | December 14, 2006 10:40 AM


Talk to Joel. He's the one who's out to condemn social engineering.

Moreover, zoning against toxic chemical plants isn't social engineering.

Stuff like: integration and no-smoking rules are social engineering because they try to dictate our lifestyles: Whites and blacks should live and work together; people shouldn't smoke... etc...

No chemical plants in neighborhoods? That doesn't dictate the personal choices I make... it just protects me.

Posted by Josh Feit | December 14, 2006 10:51 AM

I completely agree. Developers should also be able to decide for themselves how big their storefronts are, how few bars and clubs there should be in any given block, and which businesses constitute "vibrant" development. After all, if developers think they can attract more and charge more for development with large, "condo" retail (which they obviously can), they're free to do it.

We're working for a community of the future here, people. Let's follow Josh and Erica's lead, and make things happen!

Posted by A Nony Mouse | December 14, 2006 10:54 AM

Nony Mouse,

So you don't support this legislation? You think developers should be required to build parking?

Posted by Josh Feit | December 14, 2006 10:58 AM

yes, developers should be required to build parking. the lack of a parking requirement means that the city will end up paying for a parking garage to support business a la pacific place.

the faux new york that everyone wants seattle to be will never happen without the core of the city being a destination for the whole region. That requires parking until transit that suits upper middle class tastes can be built.

Posted by doink | December 14, 2006 11:08 AM

Be careful what you wish for, I guess: Now that said density threatens to shutter some of the Stranger staff's favorite walking-distance watering holes, the paper has done a 180 of sorts, assuming the very same NIMBY stance that it has consistently belittled. To wit, Josh Feit's June 2, 2005 take on Mayor Nickels cowing to developer opposition to new construction around Harbor Steps: "It's Nickels's hypocrisy that's most galling. Typically, Nickels balks at such selfish whining. The mayor has had no problem denouncing complaints against pro-development rezones when the gripes come from neighborhoods like the U-District..But when it comes to stepping on the toes of big property owners, like Harbor Properties, Nickels sings a more conciliatory tune. Such pandering lends credence to Nickels's growing chorus of critics, who denounce his density agenda as a sop to developers...Dennis Meier, a staffer with Nickels's Department of Planning and Development, was candid about the Western Avenue rezone. 'There was a lot of opposition from residents in the area,' Meier said. How do these neighbors differ from the 'anti-job' variety in the U-District? Well, they're richer, and they had a big developer on their side...One resident said, 'We are not opposed to increases in downtown density. We just didn't want a wall of buildings right there.' She went on to acknowledge: 'Clearly we have a proprietary interest.' Again: Classic NIMBYism, except this time Nickels caved."

Faced with a choice between increased density and losing a few killer bars in low-slung buildings that their staff can walk to from their offices on the other side of Broadway, the Stranger doesn't want the buildings right there either. Classic NIMBYism? You be the judge.

Posted by Run, Josh, run! | December 14, 2006 11:26 AM

Josh, the underpinning of Barnett’s argument is that limiting the freedom of developers is social engineering. In a case where you’re on their side, that’s convenient., but it’s a mighty slippery slope that regularly trips up Stranger folk.

The law banning smoking in buildings does not deal with whether people should smoke. It, like laws banning toxic chemical plants in residential neighborhoods, deals with where the activity is allowed. The ban on toxic chemical plants inhibits your freedom to live near them, just as the smoking ban inhibits your freedom to visit smoky bars. You call one a lifestyle choice, the other protection.

Sounds like social engineering is stuff the government does that you don’t like. Not that you’re any different that Joel. I’m sure he doesn’t think all those groovy freeways and ferries that support his lifestyle are social engineering.

Posted by TT | December 14, 2006 11:27 AM


I was primarily trying to point out the hypocrisy in arguing for laissez-faire economics when it suits your interests (parking), and arguing against it when it doesn't ("vibrancy"). But since you're asking...I think the new law is a steaming pile of shit.

It's nice that the city council wants to discourage car culture, and I agree that should be a long-term goal. But as someone who walks, bikes and busses to 95% of the places that I go, I don't think it's even remotely practical for everyone (or even most) people in Seattle to live the way that I live.

Until there is a transit alternative that allows everyone to give up their cars 95% of the time, the elimination of parking is arrogantly punitive.

Posted by A Nony Mouse | December 14, 2006 11:31 AM

Global warming will never be slowed or stopped

There, fixed that for you KeshMeshi. Something about the orbit of the Earth collapsing and the sun going to Red Giant.....

I bet you believe we can blow the world up with all our nuclear bombs too, don't you?

Posted by The guy | December 14, 2006 11:32 AM

Nony Mouse,
And I was trying to point out that Connelly says he's against social engineering, but he's actually for it. He's only against it when it challenges his preferred status quo.

Me? I'm all for social engineering. Especially when it promotes smarth-growth density and an even playing field between rich and poor.

Posted by Josh Feit | December 14, 2006 11:50 AM

What would be really useful would be allowing developers to opt out of the traditional parking requirements in exchange for providing spaces for car-sharing vehicles.

Flexcar is the best kind of social engineering: offering a useful alternative to a second (or first) car. All carrot, no stick.

Posted by Some Jerk | December 14, 2006 12:07 PM

You'll get no argument from me on that point, Josh. But I think that you (as in, you-The-Stranger) do the same thing as Connelly: developers are great when they're eliminating parking for cars and increasing urban density, but they're the Great Satan when they're plowing over old buildings and raising rents.

If I were to put this new law in context, I'd say that it was just another city handout to urban developers (i.e. now they don't have to spend $30,000+ per space on parking, at the expense of street congestion and urban livability). The fact that the law has been green-washed as a way to eliminate cars and increase "open space" is nothing more than smart politics....

Posted by A Nony Mouse | December 14, 2006 12:11 PM

i don't like the term "social engineering" because it implies manipulation, which irritates me. whether it's benevolent or malevolent is secondary.

The last sentence of the post is what has stuck with me, though: "He should stop harassing developers to push his lifestyle." It interests me because if you take that statement and switch "developers" for another noun, it gives you a weird perspective. Take the exact tone of that phrase but make it "S/he should stop harassing gays to push his lifestyle." or "S/he should stop harassing drivers to push his lifestyle." or "S/he should stop harassing bicyclists to push his lifestyle."

Kinda seems to me that the sentence is only operative if it fits with your own "lifestyle", i.e. the lifestyle under harassment (or "hair-ess-ment" if you're british). Otherwise you're just a cry baby, apparently. whaaa?

Posted by charles | December 14, 2006 12:19 PM

Nony Mouse,

I think you mis-read our position on development.

We're for development when it displaces vacant turf and nudges single family zones toward multi-family zoning.

We're concerned about redundant development when it displaces vibrant business strips that serve exisiting, dense housing.

Personally, and I imagine we're talking about Erica's article on Pike/Pine, I'm not in a tizzy about the development that's coming to Pike/Pine. I'll miss the groovy block (I luv the Bus Stop), but new places and neighborhoods will emerge, and city life will move on.

Posted by Josh Feit | December 14, 2006 12:22 PM

Run, Josh, Run:

Density and preservation of historic buildings/establishments can and should go hand-in-hand. The Congress for New Urbanism, a professional society that promotes increased urban density, includes preservation as a core value:

"Preservation and renewal of historic buildings, districts, and landscapes affirm the continuity and evolution of urban society." -- CNU Charter

Posted by green street | December 14, 2006 12:22 PM

What is "vibrant" and who is to decide? The Stranger editorial board? I think not.

Posted by ivan | December 14, 2006 1:47 PM

@Josh Feit: Sorry. When I read the post I thought it was a continuation of the ECB slogs earlier about this legislation. After I submitted, I realized it was you, not her, and not a continuation of earlier posts...So sorry about that. I see the fallacious reasoning you were pointing out. My bad.

@ Chris: I love green space, but I think that if you believe it wrong to require builders to require parking, then it is also wrong to require them to provide green space. Both are things that people want, for different reasons. I would prefer green space, but I can see how many more people could care less about it and want a place to park.

Posted by Monique | December 14, 2006 1:54 PM


To answer your question: Yes, of course we decide.

This isn't as subjective as you pretend. Some obvious measuring sticks: vacancies, foot traffic, bus stops, rents, diversity ...

For example, we don't think Broadway (vacant store fronts) is vibrant, and, gasp!, guess what: We pushed for new condo development there by pushing for height increases ... in defiance of the Capitol Hill NIMBYs.

Obviously,we're the ones who are calling Pike/Pine vibrant if we're the ones who are defending it in those terms.

If someone is critiquing our editorial position, I'm going to spell out, um, our editorial position.. not King Tut's or Captain Kirk's or anyone else's.

We're for development when it displaces vacant turf and nudges single family zones toward multi-family zoning.

We're concerned about redundant development when it displaces vibrant [in our opinion] business strips that serve exisiting, dense housing.

Posted by Josh Feit | December 14, 2006 2:12 PM

the staff of the danger using the imperial "we" ---- god, what hath thou wrought in our midst

change, wherein new cities are built on the ruins of the old - how about that, the "we" folks at the stranger

Posted by Sam | December 14, 2006 2:24 PM

@ 16,

Because global warming is natural, right? Isn't caused by human behavior and isn't going to cause massive problems in the future.

I'm sure you're kids will greatly appreciate your ignorance fifty years from now.

Posted by keshmeshi | December 14, 2006 3:30 PM


Presumably the "we" to which Josh refers is of the editorial variety, NOT the Imperial. Get a clue.

And if change, merely for the sake of change is such a good thing, I'm guessing you'd be all in favor of razing those grubby old buildings in Venice - after all, they're already half drowned anyway, so who needs them, right? Maybe we should insist on tearing down the Parthenon - it's just taking up valuable space that could be put to better use, no? That crumbly old Coleseum - it's already mostly fallen down already, so why not complete the job?

And I'm sure the hundreds of thousands of citizens in Shanghai currently being kicked out of their homes (in which many have lived for 40 years or more) to make way for expensive new condo blocks none of them will be able to afford should just quit their bitching, because - well, change is progress, and all progress is GOOD, right?

Posted by COMTE | December 14, 2006 9:04 PM

Josh says,

We're for development when it displaces vacant turf and nudges single family zones toward multi-family zoning.

We're concerned about redundant development when it displaces vibrant [in our opinion] business strips that serve exisiting, dense housing.

Awfully nuanced position there. Probably took several staff meetings to develop. I think one of the problems is that the Stranger has so much influence in this town. Don't get me wrong, you are all bright, wonderful people. But your world view is what you can see from Capitol Hill. The rest of the world is just like those stories you like to run in the summer making fun of small towns.

You buy ink by the barrel. You have a responsibility to pay attention and take issues seriously, not just dabble.

Posted by just sayin | December 14, 2006 10:12 PM

For the millionth time...

Social engineering doesn't work unless you advise the public of what you want them to do in kind. This is where passive aggressive Seattle fails miserably. For example, if you cut out streets to discourage driving, you're not really going to accomplish much other than piss off the constituents who drive. Maybe some of them give it up for transit, but more than likely, most will sit in that nightmarish traffic and figure out when they can vote your sorry ass out of office for fucking their commute. If you TELL THEM hey, we're cutting out roads and want to encourage you to use public transit... while making improvements to the transit services, you'd likely get a better result, but Seattle doesn't know because they never do things that way. You transit advocates always take the half-ass pussy passive approach, and then wonder why people won't go the way you want to.

You guys must not be very bright.

Posted by Gomez | December 14, 2006 10:21 PM

Connelly is grossly obese. He should walk more.

Posted by Ryan | December 15, 2006 10:33 AM

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