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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Prescription for Regional Growth Could Be a Bitter Pill to Swallow

posted by on May 1 at 13:35 PM

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.


Local players

“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.”

RSS icon Comments


HA HA HA !!! What a waste of time! Neighborhoods worried about no longer being unique. PLEASE! The developers will plow right over you Phinney Ridge. Mixed-use buildings here we come!!!!!

Posted by Andrew | May 1, 2008 1:51 PM

Irene is right. 1.7 million people is too many to allow in our region. Let's make room for at least one more by shipping her cranky, elist ass over to Spokane.

Posted by Shoot the Nimbys | May 1, 2008 1:56 PM

Do journalism students have to take, like, a module on putting tired metaphors in their headlines?

Posted by Kiru Banzai | May 1, 2008 2:02 PM

I want no sprawl, but I also don't want any increase in density in my neighborhood--it call all happen in your neighborhoods, but don't touch the character of mine! Waaaa!

Leavenworth! Fer christ's sake, I didn't event think of Leavenworth! I say 40 story highrises all across Leavenworth (with Bavarian details, of course, we wouldn't want to change the character of the place).

All this is what I LOVE about the Seattle Process. If I can't get exactly what I want, well then, I'll just do nothing. Hurray!

Oh and by the way, where the fuck is my monorail!

Posted by Westside forever | May 1, 2008 2:05 PM

The idea that growth can be "directed" to other areas is laughable...

Posted by High-Rise | May 1, 2008 2:06 PM

3) I am Dommila the Pun!

Posted by Dominic Holden | May 1, 2008 2:07 PM

the U district can handle more skyscrapers. no more lazy 5 over 1's there.


Posted by max solomon | May 1, 2008 2:15 PM

why does capitol hill want to resist it's destiny of being taller, denser, etc etc?

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 1, 2008 2:19 PM

its destiny. g-damnit.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | May 1, 2008 2:30 PM

Directing growth to Wenatchee? Good God she's out of touch with reality. The kind of people who want to live in the greater Seattle area are not the kind of people who want to live in Wenatchee, and vice versa.

@7 - I know what you mean. I live in the U-District, and they just built two of those townhome 6-packs on my block.

Posted by Hernandez | May 1, 2008 2:37 PM

Most people envision density as large residential and commercial high-rises like you might find in Singapore or Hong Kong. In reality density does not require groslly out-of-proportion zoning. 3-6 story buildings can create a pleasant street scene while still achieving the desired result of more people per square foot. Since people have trouble envisioning pleasing density it should be a priority to educate them and show some examples of pleasant dense communities. This should in turn create the motivation and political will to start working on the right kind of building projects in the core neighborhoods.

No shitty ugly condos! No ghettoization of poor people in high-rise tenements! Come on team! We can do it!

Posted by Sir Learnsalot | May 1, 2008 2:41 PM

Max @7 - What's wrong with townhomes? I would agree that within 2 blocks of arterials or transit connections we need higher density, but what about the other 75% of the city? I'd much rather see a few blocks full of mid-density townhomes than wasteful, sprawl-inducing single family homes. Yeah, so the design aesthetic may not be as high, but aren't we all better off by encouraging the the type of housing product that puts 6 families on a standard 5,000 square foot lot instead of just one? They may be ugly, but for the majority of our city, they are the single (and best) way to dramatically increase density.

Posted by Downtown Chaz | May 1, 2008 2:42 PM

I suddenly feel like playing a game of Risk...

Posted by :: shawn :: | May 1, 2008 2:44 PM

@7 and @12

Townhomes don't have to be ugyly.
They can be pretty.

Posted by Sir Learnsalot | May 1, 2008 2:45 PM

Damn me and my poor linking skills.

Here's the ugly one.

Posted by Sir Learnsalot | May 1, 2008 2:47 PM

Premise of all this is the 1.7 million pop growth estimate, which may make Nickels glow with pride, but the numbers aren't especially convincing. It's not that some growth won't happen, it's that if we accept inflated estimates of pop growth and speed of growth, the panic-driven, slapdash planning will benefit developers even more than they have already. No wonder the fat cats turned out in droves to this event. At least Irene Wall was there. She rocks.

Posted by tomasyalba | May 1, 2008 3:03 PM

One more thing: The Population of the greater Portland area is 2.3 Million not 1.7 Million.

That's my two cents. I'll shut up now.

Posted by Sir Learnsalot | May 1, 2008 3:07 PM

Irene Wall may be a little out of touch with reality, but, like her, I'm sure as hell not going to let the future of my city be decided by downtown real estate interests. And I'm not going to let it be decided by millions of transplants. Fuck transplants.

Posted by joykiller | May 1, 2008 3:16 PM

From the Seattle Times the other day

"From 2000 to 2007 — the first seven years of the Vision 2040 planning period — MacDonald said, only 13 percent of King County's growth went into Seattle and Bellevue, well below the target of 32 percent."

The real world and the fantasy world these urban planners live in are two very different places.

Also, in today's Times, one developer at least had the candor to note that high-rise development and "affordable housing" are mutually exclusive.

And why shouldn't the State put more of its economic development efforts into places like Aberdeen and Spokane?

Posted by Mr. X | May 1, 2008 3:16 PM

@9 it just might work. Next Saturday night, we're sending you back to the future!

Posted by infrequent | May 1, 2008 3:17 PM

@14 (and 15)- Yeah, unfortunately the townhomes going up in the U-District right now definitely fall in the "ugly" category, per your links.

But getting back to the idea of density, you've got a point Chaz @12, but fact is that the U-District could afford to build a bit taller than 3 stories. If they're going to go as far as razing old single-family homes in favor of these six-packs, they might as well build something taller than what they tore down, which isn't really happening.

Posted by Hernandez | May 1, 2008 3:22 PM

@18--fuck immigrants, too, right?

Posted by wow | May 1, 2008 3:22 PM

Hi, we are trying really hard to be rich and white here, so can you maybe go live somewhere else. kthnxbye

Posted by Giffy | May 1, 2008 3:25 PM

@ 18) Half the expected growth will be posterity. Us Western Washington liberals are fucking, and the straight ones are popping out the tenants and homeowners of tomorrow. So if you want to "fuck transplants" -- I hear New Yorkers are good lays -- but you don't want increased population, wear a condom.

Another thought: Watching people stand around and plan the future of Seattle reminded me of the scene in the Devil Wears Prada, where the homely-outfitted protagonist is brusquely informed that the color of her sweater was chosen for her years ago by fashion executives. Likewise, they are currently planning the wardrobe for next year. But, my thinking goes, at least someone put thought into it ahead of time. When it comes to development, biased as the predominant players might be, they are the experts and at least they are planning. I certainly don't want a to live in a region that flies by the seat of its pants when building every new mini mall or state highway. Nor do I want nothing built as a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived threat of what is actually a great thing for our city.

Posted by Dominic Holden | May 1, 2008 3:28 PM

Hernandez @21 - Agreed that many consider the townhomes ugly (but many also considered our old craftsman and foursquare houses ugly in their day). I also agree that in a perfect world we would build taller/denser when we plan new development. Unfortunately, such height and density is not politically feasible here. Because nearly 75% of our land area is zoned single family most efforts to place more residents close to our jobs, services and transit are fought tooth and nail by no-growth types like Irene Wall and Mr. X. They don't even want to see the townhomes in their neighborhoods - forget about anything taller or more dense. They have their little slice of heaven - they want to put up a wall around it and see everyone else go somewhere else.

Posted by Downtown Chaz | May 1, 2008 3:43 PM

@22, only the ones ruining this evening's commute and/or trying to turn Seattle into a "world-class city."

Posted by joykiller | May 1, 2008 3:49 PM

@ 19 Mr. X
You do realize that there's a reason that all of the economic growth in the Western side of the state is in Seattle and Tacoma and not in Aberdeen, right?

Why would I move my company out to Aberdeen, away from everything, away from an interstate or international airport when I can set up shop in King County and have access to all those things. Nothing is going to get big business, or even rich businesses to move out to shitholes like Aberdeen.

Posted by confused anthony | May 1, 2008 4:01 PM

@27: eh, to a point. There's certainly nothing preventing large companies -- especially information services, biotech, financial services, etc. -- from setting up shop in a smaller city. Tacoma is home to Russell Investments; D.A. Davidson is headquartered in Great Falls (!). Future NW economic growth will not be manufacturing-oriented, so access to highways and airports aren't going to be all that critical. All that's really necessary is an education employment base and some decent infrastructure.

In that regard, Aberdeen is probably a stretch, but why not Bellingham (four-year university, etc.)?

Posted by joykiller | May 1, 2008 4:15 PM

I like Dominic's writing a lot more when he's not writing about the drug war.

Posted by Big Sven | May 1, 2008 4:28 PM

@28: The thing that's preventing these companies from setting up shop in the smaller cities is the need for an educated workforce. Would you rather try to find 300 highly-skilled workers in Seattle or Bellingham? If you were one of those targeted workers, would you rather live in Seattle or Bellingham? Sure, there will be a handful that would choose Bellingham - but would many responsible companies ever take that chance? Instead, success breeds success, and Seattle will continue to be an increasingly attractive place for smart, young, high-potential people to locate. Unless we build somewhere for them to live, they'll drive up the price of our existing housing stock and the affordability issues that we face today will seem quaint by comparison (ever try to find an affordable apartment in Manhattan?)

Posted by WWU '96 | May 1, 2008 4:48 PM

I could say I told you so.

But what's the point ... you'll stick your heads in the sand and think we're going to just take our 2-3 story mixed use commercial/res properties and turn them into 4-6 story mixed use commercial/res properties and leave all the vast single family only residential neighborhoods alone.

And price all but the rich and super-rich out of Seattle.

Wake up. Half measures won't fix things.

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 1, 2008 4:49 PM

@30, fair enough. Conversely, one could say that the lack of local competition among employers makes it more ideal. That's what seems to be going on in places like Madison, WI, where until recently it was only state gov't and the university. Some employers, though, have found that many students don't want to relocate -- they love the city -- and those that aren't as dependent on location for other reasons have set up shop there. I know WWU grads who hated to move away, but had to get out to find a good job.

You're probably right, though -- it's not going to happen without some additional incentive (like the kind of incentives the state gives Boeing and Microsoft, and the kind Tacoma's dangling in front of Russell to get them to stay). My point is that, although some of the cities mentioned above aren't really suited for this kind of growth/development (Leavenworth?), there are places outside the central Puget Sound that are. Focusing on this tri-County area exclusively is, I think, introducing a planning contraint that needn't be there.

Oh, and @31: I note with some satisfaction that the tallest buildings in the whole room ended up collapsing into the Sound.

Posted by joykiller | May 1, 2008 6:13 PM

Or you could just reduce the incentive for building in low population areas, by increasing the charge for non-farm non-commercial non-industrial building permits outside of the urban centers.

And use the extra money to pay for interchanges and roads and sewers and police and fire services that they end up getting from the taxpayers in the urban centers, due to the County tax structures.

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 1, 2008 6:33 PM

(as to the buildings collapsing, that's because you forgot to build them right ...)

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 1, 2008 7:34 PM

oh god do i miss seattle.

your arguments about a "world class city" seem so petty. wake up and smell the roses.

Posted by tojos | May 1, 2008 7:52 PM

#17, I think the 1.7 million figure for Portland is the MSA figure, not the CMSA figure. So, yes, it's both.

Posted by Deacon Seattle | May 1, 2008 8:57 PM

#18 - So your people are Native American, right? And, they have lived here in the PNW for thousands of years, right? Okay, 'cause if not - YOU ARE A TRANSPLANT. If you are a transplant, be quiet on your whining. 'Cause you are the problem. Transplant.

Posted by I know I am a transplant | May 1, 2008 9:02 PM

Irene Wall is a nice person and she is smart. But, she is also a transplant. And she does not represent all neighborhood people as she purports to do.

Posted by I know I am a transplant | May 1, 2008 9:06 PM

Of the 1.7 million people--appx 1/2 are transplants, and 1/2 come from current residents having to all those single-family home residents with like 3 $400 strollers out front, if you are concerned with population growth and your precious single-family neighborhood, stop breeding!!

Posted by j | May 2, 2008 4:04 PM

Cool, so 1/2 of those people will inherit their parents' homes. Problem solved.

Posted by Mr. X | May 2, 2008 5:34 PM

@25 - 75% of the land may be zoned single family, but that doesn't mean we don't have enough zoning capacity. In fact, we have 3x more zoning capacity than necessary to meet our 2022 population goals (Google "King County Buildable Lands".

We don't need to upzone anywhere, much less single family, to reach our targets. We simply need to be smarter what we build (one story coffee houses atop zoning for 6-story buildings won't get it done).

You could significantly downzone around most of the singe family areas in the city and still have enough zoning capacity. You won't hear that solution since upzoning puts extra dollars in the pockets of the developer interests who've bought and paid for political leadership in the area.

The overzoning we have now decreases affordability and encourages anti-green development. Is a LEED Platinum development sitting where an urban forest used to be environmentally sound?

Posted by wrongway | May 2, 2008 6:33 PM

"You could significantly downzone around most of the singe family areas in the city and still have enough zoning capacity."

"Is a LEED Platinum development sitting where an urban forest used to be environmentally sound?"

translated: I am really an environmentalist. But, I don't want to pay the price for protecting the greater environment. I care more about my personal environment. And, I don't want "those" people living near me. I worked hard to get here and now that I am here, I don't want anyone else to get a piece of it. Mine, all mine.

Posted by Move the NIMBYs to Detroit | May 3, 2008 9:47 AM

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