Growth in Seattle: Do we just throw up our hands?

The growth guru looks at the relatively few things government could do to stop putting coal on the engines of local growth. But they won't be easy politically. For instance, are you okay with expanding the Urban Growth Boundary?
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One of the downsides of the current wave of growth in Seattle is that housing trends favor projects intended for the wealthy, such as condos

The growth guru looks at the relatively few things government could do to stop putting coal on the engines of local growth. But they won't be easy politically. For instance, are you okay with expanding the Urban Growth Boundary?

Write an article on the causes of growth in the Seattle area, as I did recently, and the comments that come back are pretty clear and consistent. Yes, growth is jobs and population were and are inevitable because of the region's attractions, but, because of those attractions, our political leadership should not have so aggressively pursued even more job growth and population densification. Yes, the economy has changed, resulting in great inequality, disproportionately hurting the less competitive, especially through a loss of housing affordability, but these adverse effects could have been lessened. Yes, increased planning was necessary to deal with the amount and pace of growth, traffic and spillovers across jurisdictions, but it could be less heavy-handed and less focused on replacement and redevelopment and less biased to the powerful and affluent. I agree with these propositions, but what will it take to address them? And what are the chances we could or would do so? I am far from optimistic, but it is at least worth trying. Amount and pace of growth. The legitimacy of government and the reelection of leaders has historically rested on the creation of jobs, and this is not likely to change, although the city of Seattle is so relatively over-supplied with jobs -- requiring ever more and longer commuting -- that its voters might go along with lowering Seattle's excessive share of future added jobs (as forecast in Vision 2040). But the city's great need for B&O and property taxes for our high-cost infrastructure and services act against any serious redirection. But then again, the actual job growth and concentration in Seattle is less than planned for and expected. The region's job growth is certainly encouraged and somewhat subsidized by local government, as well as by financial institutions and landowners, but so is that of other cities and counties around the state. Indeed in my critique of earlier GMA job and population forecasts, I predicted that more of the growth would go to other areas, because of central Puget Sound's very high costs, but I underestimated the extent of outsourcing of jobs overseas, and of the growth of professional services and high-tech jobs that so far prefer to locate in the urban core. The state's ability and history of encouraging decentralization is very low, but if we can't deal with the problems of traffic congestion and housing unaffordability and the general high cost of business, then more decentralization could occur through market forces. Inequality, housing and other costs. The region and state do not have any capacity to change the nature of jobs created in the economy, or their remuneration; the national market does that. We already have the highest minimum wage, although it is still low, but we could have a better state health program serving the less affluent, and WE COULD CHANGE THE NATION'S MOST REGRESSIVE TAX SYSTEM. Yes, it is long since time for an income tax and for increases, not decreases in estate taxes. Well, OK, forget that! How about housing and transportation? Not much easier. Is anyone serious about more affordable housing? I doubt it. There are only a few ways to provide more affordable housing, and I put at the bottom of my list the "preferred" way of subsidizing or bribing developers to include a small share of more affordable units. Better would be to admit that the urban growth boundary is too tight, such that the supply of land is so constrained as to force housing to be provided by the market only at the high end. The UGB must be relaxed, not a lot but some. Next, fairly large PUD (planned unit developments) should be built, as permitted by the GMA, but consisting almost entirely of small, affordable single-family and row housing needed by families, and with the state or county providing the land if necessary. But private developers should build the housing, as they are far more efficient than government. And there is a place for sizeable sites with mobile homes, which after all are about a third of the nation's rural housing supply. Further, auxiliary units, as well as doubling up in existing single family homes, should be permitted and encouraged almost everywhere. This is by far the cheapest way to accommodate more people, without unnecessarily destroying houses and neighborhoods by replacement by repetitive, non-family friendly apartment structures. The problem here will be how to avoid a killing degree of over-regulation. Finally, build lots more public housing, and don't bother with social engineering to ensure class and racial mixing. Because economic and job changes (and housing costs) have increased the commuting and transport burdens for less affluent households disproportionately, why not provide free bus passes to the elderly, students, the less affluent, maybe even anyone who can show they use transit at least three days a week. And I'd give up on any more unjustifiable rail transit, in favor of a expanded bus system that actually serves most people and all centers. Government and planning. From the above discussions, the message here is for government to be less focused on pursuing growth, reconstruction, development, and mega projects and to be more receptive to a myriad of smaller-scale forms of intensification, even densification that adapt existing structures and neighborhoods, rather than so widely replace them. Yes, this might mean rolling back to some degree the up-zoning and increased heights, and perhaps especially, it could mean less public partnering with developers for highly uncertain benefits, and more attention to neighborhood revitalization plans. While I recognize and support increased density and more efficient clustering of jobs that can be concentrated, I also believe that we should respond to the market need for slightly relaxed constraints on the urban footprint. Political leaders should remind their idealist planners that most real-world households and jobs do not match the urban village model. Government and planning should serve people's needs and preferences, rather than just telling them how to behave and penalizing them for trying to maintain their quality of life. A case in point is the debate over industrial zoning for Seattle and changes in SODO, south of downtown. This controversy well illustrates why it is so difficult to resolve tough urban issues. Seattle was a strong manufacturing city in 1955. For U.S. cities it still has a meaningful industrial profile, but over the past 50 years most manufacturing and related activities have left the region or country, or relocated to suburban areas with more space, lower costs, and better railway and highway access to external suppliers and markets. The city can still compete for industries like Boeing that are intensive enough to "pay the rent" so to speak, that can make a profit and withstand market pressures for more profitable non-industrial uses of the land. It is certainly desirable to encourage the survival of manufacturing, because its relatively high wages are a key to less-unequal income distributions. There is probably no haste to rezone land in the short run, but if in fact demand for industrial uses collapses, then market and fiscal realities could force change.


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