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Dense, denser, densest

Belltown residents call on the city to help keep their neighborhood safe. Credit: Kent Kammerer

In the recent debate comparing Vancouver, BC and Seattle, I quoted Peter Steinbrueck as saying that Belltown was the densest neighborhood in the state. A frequent Crosscut commenter attacked that assertion saying that Belltown isn’t even the densest neighborhood in the city:

Belltown is nowhere near the densest in the state. Capitol Hill and the U District had easily the densest census tracts in 2000, and even the densest tracts in Belltown haven’t caught up yet. (If you count commercial land use, then the CBD obviously becomes the densest.)

Personally, I’d always understood that First Hill was Seattle’s densest neighborhood, but I kept finding recent references to Belltown (not only Steinbrueck’s), though not with a source cited. Since 2000 was nearly a decade ago, I wondered if there weren’t some more up-to-date estimates.

There are. Through the Puget Sound Regional Council’s principal growth planner, Ben Bakkenta, I was provided with spread sheets on neighborhood density estimates for 2008, with data supplied by the City of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development. The estimates are jointly arrived at by the two groups from census block data and job estimates.

The data are arranged in two ways. The first looks density, population, employment, and households per gross acre (waterways excluded), according to “Community Reporting Areas,” which means by neighborhood. The second cut looks more specifically at density and concentration of development within “Urban Centers and Villages,” which are the identified commercial cores of various neighborhoods. These are the areas that often factor in planners’ discussions about neighborhood growth strategies and targets.

In any case, according to DPD’s figures, here are the 10 most dense Seattle neighborhoods in terms of population and household density:

1. Belltown

2. Capitol Hill

3. First Hill

4. Pioneer Square/International District

5. Downtown

6. Cascade/Eastlake

7. Queen Anne

8. Central District/Squire Park

9. Fremont

10. Wallingford.

It’s interesting to note that the top three have populations of 40 or more people per gross acre, but by the time you get to the bottom two on the list, the number of people has dropped off to less than half that number.

The 10 least dense neighborhoods in Seattle are:

1. Duwamish/SODO

2. Georgetown

3. Riverview

4. North Delridge

5. South Park

6. Highland Park

7. Magnolia

8. Laurelhurst/Sand Point

9. South Beacon/New Holly

10. Arbor Heights

Note that most of the least-dense areas are South End industrial neighborhoods, with only a couple of more affluent, northern neighborhoods making the list.

What falls in between is the great residential middle ground where the population is about 9 to 16 people and 4 to 9 housing units per gross acre. These neighborhoods not only predominate, but they are spread out geographically and across landscape and social class. Density-wise, there’s almost no difference between Madison Park and Columbia City.

The top ten most intensely developed, dense urban centers or villages in Seattle are:

1. Belltown

2. Capitol Hill

3. First Hill

4. Upper Queen Anne

5. Pike/Pine

6. University District Northwest

7. Green Lake

8. Denny Triangle

9. Eastlake

10. Chinatown/International District

So the city numbers say that Belltown is the densest neighborhood in Seattle, but what about the state? That’s inferred, Ben Bakkenta says, because while the PSRC collects no statewide neighborhood-to-neighborhood data, the state numbers (2009 figures are available here) show that Seattle, with over 7,100 people per square mile, is nearly twice as dense any other city in the state, including Tacoma, Bellevue, Kirkland, and Spokane. “So while we haven’t done a formal analysis, my gut reaction would be that yes, Belltown and other central Seattle neighborhoods would represent the most densely developed residential areas in the state,” says Bakkenta. It could be that a particular new housing development somewhere is denser, he allows, but unlikely that an entire neighborhood is.

In another sidelight, Bakkenta sent along an overview (the pdf is here) of where the growth in the Puget Sound region has been since 2000, using the state’s 2008 numbers. The Top 10 cities in terms of the greatest percentage of growth in Puget Sound from 2000 to 2008 were:

1. Snoqualmie (473%)

2. Roy (236.5%)

3. DuPont (201.4%)

4. Issaquah (137.7%)

5. Lake Stevens (128.9%)

6. Bonney Lake (67.4%)

7. Renton (57.4%)

8. Fife (57.3%)

9. Auburn (55.7%)

10. Orting (54%)

Notice anything about the list? The growth is not in high-density urban cities but rather in suburban and exurban areas. You have only to drive around places like greater Pierce, Snohomish, and Thurston Counties to see how expansive and extensive the growth has been, despite Seattle’s efforts to “curb” sprawl by soaking growth with greater density. As these cities grow, the seem to generate adjacent sprawl as well, despite (or perhaps because of) the Growth Management Act.

Some of the above growth is due to large annexations (Auburn, Renton, and Roy, for example). However in places like DuPont and Snoqualmie (though the latter may have been somewhat undercounted in the 2000 census), the growth has been, as you might say, real. Seattle gained the most people in the time period (over 29,000), but the rate of growth was 5 percent, a far cry from DuPont’s 201.4 percent. This trend seems to support geographer Dick Morrill’s contention that the market will continue to demand lower density housing options despite New Urbanist planners’ attempts to promote density and in-fill.

At any rate, it now appears the Belltown is the new measure of urban density in Seattle, if not necessarily a regional bellwether.

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