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Why Seattle's future depends on low-rise, older neighborhoods

A new report says diverse, low-rise districts beat new, high-rise ones at fostering creativity and attracting young residents.
Part of the crowd at the Ballard Bike Party: Young people like older neighborhoods, according to a new report.

Part of the crowd at the Ballard Bike Party: Young people like older neighborhoods, according to a new report. Seattle Department of Transportation

Georgetown Pharmacy

Georgetown Pharmacy Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Urban advocates have been questioning whether historic preservation is a good thing for cities. Some argue that anything other than maximum densities hurts the environment and makes cities less affordable. You want low rents? Be like Singapore.

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has argued that preservationists have gone too far, saying that historic districts "freeze" cities and that older, smaller buildings need to be replaced by high-rises. "No living city’s future should become a prisoner to its past," he has written.

But the idea that older parts of the city are "frozen" is challenged by a new study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Green Lab. In a just-released report called "Older, Smaller, Better," the Green Lab researchers looked at the very kinds of districts Glaeser and others would like to redevelop and found that they were in fact the most vibrant, diverse parts of their respective cities.

Preservationists have made such arguments for years, and have pointed to the vitality of historic Main Streets around the country as examples. In Seattle, we have the Pike Place Market Historic District. The market survived due to citizen pushback against urban renewal orthodoxy of the '60s. In fact, Friends of the Market, the grassroots group that spearheaded the effort is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

There is empirical data to defend preservation. Green Lab has been making the argument that building rehabilitation and conservation can and does plays a huge role in sustainability. They've been working with Vulcan on a demonstration project to that end in South Lake Union, the landmark Supply Laundry Building, a part of the Stack House project. The Supply Laundry Building recently won recognition from Historic Seattle for is data-driven eco-innovations. But often much of the defense of preservation has to do with the "feel" of places, or hard to define neighborhood character.

Few people disagree with the idea of saving particular historic landmarks, but the question is, What about commercial districts that can be dramatically redeveloped with greater densities for transit? What about neighborhoods with lots of retail activity which are low-rise, bustling and often full of buildings that are charming and/or useful, but not historic on their own? You see this all over Seattle, from Columbia City to the U District, from Broadway to Ballard.

So, the Green Lab study pushes back with new data — they boast using more than 40 metrics — to attempt to quantify comparisons between largely new development zones and mixed or old-style lower-rise commercial areas. They've analyzed three cities in depth: San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Seattle because they are robust real estate markets and have the kinds of districts — commercial and historic — that are at the center of urban debate.

The Green Lab laid grids over the cities and collected detailed data on the age and scale of buildings, the number of jobs in each area and the kinds of businesses there. They looked at walkability and transit use, business ownership, the use of social media, nightlife, etc. They even have one that measure’s a district’s “granularity” (the number of separate buildings in a given area).

What they found is that older districts — take Pike-Pine on Capitol Hill — have fewer chain retailers and restaurants, are more active around the clock (e.g. greater numbers of people using Flicker or making cell phone calls after 10 p.m. on Fridays), have more jobs per commercial square foot than newer development, and have more new businesses than average in the city. A key element is not just old vs. new but having a built environment with variety. Pike-Pine is growing up, but there's a lively mix and the slate isn’t being wiped clean to make way for maximum deveopment. Pike-Pine and its counterparts are the neighborhoods where people like to sit in outdoor cafes; these are the places with the strongest street life; these are the neighborhood that attract the most creative folks.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, May 22, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Mossback's synopsis is extremely helpful and saves those who are not policy wonks the task of slogging through the data heavy report. Thanks for this.

MJH

Posted Thu, May 22, 10:14 a.m. Inappropriate

People prefer diversity and variety over monoculture. Nothing new here. How to maintain and increase that diversity and variety is what is interesting. Write a persuasive and substantial article about that if you want to add some real value.

Posted Thu, May 22, 11:48 a.m. Inappropriate

" a stricter vetting of rental units " Plain English please.

afreeman

Posted Thu, May 22, 1:03 p.m. Inappropriate

i think what mossback meant was the upcoming enforcement by the city to inspect all residential rental units over the next few years. if they find code violations they would have to be fixed. in an old building that might need a lot of work, the owner might be more tempted to sell to developers, hence speeding up new construction in what otherwise might be a neighborhood that kept an old building longer.

katzjamr

Posted Sun, May 25, 9:51 p.m. Inappropriate

There are probably code violations in every building that is older than 10 years. Whether those older buildings remain rental stock probably depends on what charge the City gives inspectors: safety/hygiene repairs only, or every single code violation?

sarah90

Posted Thu, May 22, 1:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the great piece, Skip. It's a useful counter to the current generation of urbanists who focus on density alone, and those of us with broader concerns get dismissed as NIMBYs.

Great cities are complex places, and Seattle will have a sorry future if the quest for higher density trumps all other values. We should all be glad the NIMBYs prevailed 43 years ago and saved the Pike Place Market from that generation of urbanists.

Posted Thu, May 22, 3:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Clearly, Edward Glaeser has never been to Rome.

gabowker

Posted Thu, May 22, 3:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Clearly, Edward Glaeser has never been to Rome.

gabowker

Posted Thu, May 22, 4:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Young people "love" historic buildings because they are broke and these historic buildings generally have cheaper rent than new hi-rise developments. Small, non-chain businesses love these spaces too for the same reason. The young, creative, entrepreneurial people mentioned here are generally less risk averse...because they don't have a lot to lose and they are more willing to live in small, substandard living spaces.

This is essentially what the report warns about in the ID. "New regulations to ensure buildings don't collapse on their residents in the inevitable event of a major earthquake and enforcement of basic rules for living standards will make it unattractive for slum lords to keep cheap housing available in the city."

Similar outcomes might be achieved though better incentives (or regulations) to create similar cheap rents in new developments. I'm for some historic preservation, but let's not confuse correlation with causation.

Posted Sat, May 24, 5:25 p.m. Inappropriate

"…. to ensure buildings don't collapse on their residents in the inevitable event of a major earthquake.."

What regulation are you talking about? the old buildings have been through serious earthquakes, 1949, for example. They have, at least partly, demonstrated structural stability. I think the threat of earthquake is not a high concern (structural design of low rise buildings is usually governed by wind loads). The inspections I am aware of are aimed at safety, security, ventilation, etc., not structural integrity.

kieth

Posted Thu, May 22, 6:10 p.m. Inappropriate

What attracts people to the city is walkability, culture, entertainment, socializing, access, etc. Density is an effect, not a cause, of that.

Mixed-use development at light-rail stations need not be at the expense of traditional neighborhood business districts or surrounding low-level housing zones. They can complement each other. Development should enhance neighborhoods, not destroy them.

Of course, Ballard is getting higher-rise mixed use development, without a light-rail station, although it is on the edges of the business district (15th and 24th).

Posted Thu, May 22, 6:16 p.m. Inappropriate

There are 3-4 apartment buildings on Cherry between 23rd and MLK that would be a shame to lose. One is just a nice brick building, the other 2 are pretty unique. Since they probably are not done by 'famous' architects and might not have a cultural history recorded, I wonder what can one do to keep them? They'd be gems among what will end up being new construction at some point.

Posted Fri, May 23, 5:07 p.m. Inappropriate

As you ride around on the bus, note how many ghosts of little shops still cluster at the bus stops. Many have been turned to other uses. The phenomenon suggests how bringing back some of these shops, as cafes, bakeries, bars, convenience stores, can make more walkable neighborhoods.
One problem with this, as with preservation generally, is that the owners have often moved out of town or split into family shares. They tend to just wait on repairs and upgrades, expecting a larger return years hence and so not interested in sale. All these fractured ownerships, also, have held back redevelopment in the ID and Pioneer Square. We need stronger regulations to push these people to upgrade or sell.

Posted Sat, May 24, 9:55 p.m. Inappropriate

The mid 1980s downzoning of the Regrade is a fine example of "stronger regulations." Probably not what you had in mind.

A prior upzoning merely convinced owners to sit even tighter while waiting for the market to "catch up" to the zoning. Savvy members of the Planning Commission recommended basing the downzone on the maximum height of what is now called two over five (five floors of wood frame over two non-compustible) that in turn based on fire truck ladders. Seattle's most affordable downtown housing came into being as a result, including rehabilitation of some of the more notable apartment buildings.

More often that not it's the solution that was the problem.

afreeman

Posted Mon, May 26, 8:28 a.m. Inappropriate

Hmm. Was that the previous "transit oriented development"? Doesn't bode well for all the dreaming about thriving businesses near the trains to come. Maybe the promised benefits didn't materialize. And if buses still stop at those stops, why aren't they thriving?

mspat

Posted Sat, May 24, 1:20 p.m. Inappropriate

The most vibrant areas are where pedestrians feel most comfortable. Unfortunately architects of mixed-use developments don't have a clue on how to create a living streetscape.

Older low-level buildings were designed for shops and businesses first, with some housing put on top. Newer high-level buildings are designed for offices or luxury condos/apartments first, with commercial space crammed in below.

Posted Sat, May 24, 2:30 p.m. Inappropriate

These findings, as reported by Knute, appear to echo the arguments made by Jane Jacobs in 1961 (in DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES) about what keeps neighborhoods active and safe. She noted that older buildings were one of the keys (actually a mix of buildings of different ages) and she argued just as the article does that older buildings were more affordable to businesses that were more varied (and this is why shopping centers have chain stores). She also argued in favor of walkability and noted that smaller blocks (which are often found in older neighborhoods) could be another contributing factor.

Posted Mon, May 26, 6:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Jeffrey: The report makes explicit the connection with Jacobs, as you observe. It's framed as supplying hard data that, it turns out, support her theories.

Posted Sun, May 25, 4:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Unfortunately, there's a growing sector of Seattle residents who don't like diversity, and they include both wealthy older long-time residents and just-arriving younger people with tech jobs and limitless money. They prefer to live around others of their demographic. Developers are building for the young, just-arrived people, and the older wealthy people work like hell to keep anything other than high-end houses out of their neighborhoods.

None of that increases housing affordable to non-wealthy people.

sarah90

Posted Mon, May 26, 8:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute, I think you're a tad optimistic about Pike-Pine. It's very busily starting to undergo quite a bit of change, following the numerous mid-rise redevelopments along North Broadway, along 12th, Madison out to 20th, and 15th near Madison. Mostly slab-sided, dull six story jobs. Little in the way of streetscape. The trend is stronger than your premise argues, imo. The die is cast.

Posted Wed, May 28, 8:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Can anyone doubt that younger, creative people are being driven to the edges of the city? We remember Belltown when it was a vibrant center of creative artists, Fremont before the vintage shops were driven out by the high-end clothing stores, Broadway before massification. Georgetown is here now, and maybe the heavy local air pollution immunizes it a bit. But for how long? And it is no surprise that Portland currently has a younger demographic than Seattle. (Even there hip neighborhoods are moving into the far eastside.) Not offering any solutions here, just noting the trends.

Posted Wed, May 28, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Patrick,
Belltown's past displays the only good thing about overzoning (at least overzoning far, far in excess of a market)—low rent to attract hermit crab style vocations, occupations and abodes that pay the taxes until the market catches up (the ship comes in). Neil Smith mentioned neither hermit crabs nor zoning in his otherwise cogent explanation of the relation between Uneven Development & Gentrification.

afreeman

Posted Fri, May 30, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

The reason much of this hand wringing over development seems hollow is because Seattle resisted density for so long, creating the massive backlog in demand for units within the city. A forward looking policy would have allowed more density over time, planning further ahead, protecting historic buildings and neighborhoods while increasing the housing/mixed use space slowly.

Ironically, many who resisted density for so long simply stored up trouble for later, making this type of "tear it down" mentality possible. The rush to develop isn't solely made of a permissive regulatory/zoning/tax environment. The fact is a massive amount of demand is there. There were myriad options for addressing it intelligently and most were simply delayed or killed with our infamous "process."

So when I hear people who have had little or nothing positive to say about any development in the city say that this "tear it down" mentality scares them, the irony hits hard. The massive, pent-up demand that is driving developers to put in ever more units, calling for demolitions and re-zones, street vacations, etc... ALL of this is a product of this city's inability to manage growth through the 80s, 90s and early 00s.

We've hit a tipping point, and we have to get VERY GOOD at growth VERY FAST now, or lose control. And we put ourselves in this position.

nullbull

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