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The Mossback Manifesto on urban density

Density's delights: bookstores, sidewalk cafes, getting around by foot or bike. Credit: Joe Mabel

There’s been a bit of a cool down in the growth wars since the Great Recession kicked-in and the housing bubble burst. Still, the cranes, like swallows to Capistrano, have returned to South Lake Union, and skirmishes are breaking out here and there around town.

One brewing battle is over the possible Sonics arena in SoDo, and the threat it might pose to the industrial area and the Port of Seattle. Is freight mobility compatible with NBA basketball? How many stadiums can a stadium district or a city this size support?

Another is the redevelopment of a key chunk of Capitol Hill’s Pike-Pine neighborhood — the impending leveling of the Bauhaus half-block and its possible replacement with a large project by a (gasp) Bellevue developer. As Dominic Holden wrote in The Stranger, “Understandably, people went apeshit.” Many other projects are in the pipeline for the neighborhood. The city has passed regulations to “conserve” the district, but is that really working?

Another argument is over whether parking requirements should be relaxed for some developments near transit corridors.

Growth wars here quickly turn into culture wars: What kind of city are we building, whose city is it? Will it still have a “soul” when it’s over? The ghosts of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses in their eternal struggle.

After some time off from development skirmishes, I wanted to review some of the principles that guide my thinking going forward. I do this as someone who has both criticized, and often been mis-characterized, on issues like density and historic preservation. In some cases, I’ve gotten what I deserved because I have also been willing to paint with a broad brush. Contrary to popular belief, I am not mindlessly anti-density and pro-car, nor do I wish to live in the Seattle of 1972. I also recognize that density proponents are not intent on destroying Seattle.

My favored form of urbanism, call it Mossback Urbanism, shares some common ground with those who often see themselves on the other side of the fence. Diversity, vitality, yes, even some density (the North Parking Lot) can be desirable. One thing that is true, however: I don’t think NIMBYs are always wrong. It’s not an epithet in my vocabulary. In fact, they often get a bum rap for caring too much at a time when too many citizens don’t care enough. NIMBYs are often good folks acting locally and who often know more than the people with clipboards and white boards.

That said, I don’t think the Not-in-My-Backyard stance is sustainable as a guiding philosophy. I think of NIMBYs like those little crabs you find on the beach that raise their claws when you’ve turned over their rock. They often come by their defensiveness honestly, but you can’t live life in a defensive crouch. Everyone needs to be proactive in shaping the kind of city we want.

Seattle is a town driven by the twin engines of exploitation and utopianism. It’s a great place to make a buck, and, as Mayor Mike McGinn phrased it in a recent speech, we’re a city of promise. In addition to the scenery and great coffee, we offer a chance for change and improvement. Idealism and greed are the bipolar dilemma around which so many disputes revolve. The truth is, we need some of both, though not in equal measure.

Here are some of the things I’m keeping in mind when thinking about development to come:

Creativity: Commercial development is largely a copy-cat business, driven by code and the desire to reduce risk. That’s partly how you end up with a plague of six-pack town homes, a rash of skinny houses, or an uplift of soulless box towers. We need to find ways of incentivizing creativity and flexibility. The problem is, without strong design review too much defaults to mediocrity or worse. On the other side, too much overview and design by committee and rule book can also yield poor results.

Ideally, I’d love to see a system in which architects and builders can operate the Nordstrom way: use your best judgment, do what’s right for the customer. In this case, the customer is the city and the neighborhood. How does the project enhance city life? Sterile, inaccessible public spaces aren’t enough. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we live in a society that cultivates that kind of wisdom or responsible behavior. Still we have plenty of examples of how great design can make a difference in the public and private sector: the downtown Koolhaas library, the Link Light Rail stations in South Seattle, the Space Needle, the new Federal Courthouse, the IBM Building, and Gas Works Park, to name a few.

Behavior: If builders are judged less on following specific rules and more on outcomes, the behavior of tenants naturally becomes more crucial. How we live in spaces is as critical as their design. For example, if parking requirements are eased for new condos or apartments near transit corridors, their success or failure will largely be judged by whether or not their inhabitants will actually live without cars. If developers want a quicker and cheaper way to adapt old structures, an option could be filling them with tenants who agree to live without air conditioning, or limit the power consumption of their servers.

In addition to the structure, the behavior of the occupants should count. That, of course, can be tricky to monitor, so measurements need to be developed short of spying on them with SPD’s new unmanned drone. A trade-off here is the level of nannyism people accept. In Seattle, I suspect there’ll be many people comfortable with living by such rules; look at the local pride in recycling. It might not be for everyone, but if folks want to live with such strictures, great.

Density and scale: The key is to increase density without treating it like a panacea for urban health. There’s good density and bad, there’s turning a parking lot into a great apartment complex, and there’s displacing thriving small businesses with big-box development (the Pike-Pine dilemma). There is a lot of opportunity around Seattle (The Highway 99 corridor and new waterfront, etc.). Density is a way to get somewhere in an urban plan — not an end in itself. A project should not be judged as dense and therefore good or even tolerable, an argument some urbanists often make. Nor is it the answer everywhere. People who are pro-density still care about the quality of the density, what it adds or doesn’t. A neighborhood isn’t numbers.

There are different ways to address density, even without new construction. One is to find ways to increase the number of people living in single family homes (increasing the population of children, co-housing, permitting old-fashioned boarding houses, etc.). But beyond that, we should discourage projects driven by gigantism or profit-maximization in favor of smaller, dense developments — creating modern versions of the Pike Place Market that are fascinating warrens of commercial and residential activity rather than large, sterile complexes. Bigger is not always better. To do this, we’ll need to begin to re-define “highest and best use” by emphasizing “best” rather than bottom line. Sometimes best is building a high rise, sometimes it’s leaving things alone.

Choice: This was the mantra of the late Kent Kammerer, grassroots activist and observer of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition. Kent wanted a city where people could live densely, or not; in trailer parks or in their cars; in single family homes or town homes. He also believed in the wisdom of the folk, in getting to know your neighbor, and lending a helping hand. Seattle needs to be diverse, not just racially or ethnically, but in terms of class and taste, values — and age. A city of young, middle and elderly, with a great mixing of generations. A city of walkers, bikers, drivers and truckers. Kent’s lack of cynicism for small “d” democracy was inspiring, and involved taking time to listen and to think. If the city isn’t quite the village he imagined, it certainly contains a multitude of villages, or neighborhoods, where this kind of thinking is put into practice every day. The bottom line was, can Seattle keep its egalitarian traditions?

Self-Reliance: I tend to favor policies that make it easier for people to live and work on their own: live/work spaces, neighborhood retail, corner stores, support for mom & pops, backyard cottages, pea patches, urban farming, local co-ops, etc. The great fabric of the city was laid during the Craftsman era, when it was easy to build bungalows ordered from Sears & Roebuck, raise a garden, make your own furniture. Schools taught industrial arts, home economics, and crafts. Now we have the Web, smart phones, and can run an empire from a nearby Tully’s.

The point being that I think we can measure the desirability of projects in whether they encourage entrepreneurship, family businesses, less commuting, and increased self-reliance. This is an urban fabric that helps disconnect us from corporate agendas and, sometimes, the macro-economic trends that are exploitive and not sustainable. We need more, not less, control over our economic lives and careers, more options and opportunity, more ways to support DIY culture. The Great Recession has been a Great Reminder.

Heritage: Whether NIMBY or developer, we all need to care more and know more about place. We can’t have too much history or culture. We also need to find better ways of working with the existing city fabric. New and creative is great, but adapting the old is usually greener and helps enrich the urban environment. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab project is currently pioneering ways to give developers more options with projects, such as finding ways to encourage more adaptive reuse of older buildings by easing some requirements for things like energy upgrades, for example, and moving to a performance-based system. Occupants will be judged not on the double pane windows they install, but the amount of energy they save by other means, like opening windows instead of installing air conditioning.

The landmark Supply Laundry Building in South Lake Union’s Cascade neighborhood, being renovated by Vulcan as part of a larger mixed-use residential and retail project called Stack House, is a guinea pig nationally for how to do this. The key is — and this applies to SLU, Pike-Pine, and all over town — can effective incentives be found to encourage adaptive reuse of non-landmark, non-historic older stock that can be recycled, reused, and kept out of the landfill? Such efforts are incredibly worthy, and if successful, they’ll help maintain and adapt the urban character that keeps us rooted. History and preservation are becoming key elements to the remaking of South Lake Union, which is a fascinating laboratory for this blending of old and new.

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