Why Seattle won't grow as fast as planners say

The common claim that the city's population will double by 2040 is bogus. Historic factors and our own failures at building to a broad market are the main reasons.
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Seattle: getting that shrinking feeling?

The common claim that the city's population will double by 2040 is bogus. Historic factors and our own failures at building to a broad market are the main reasons.

Advertisers understand that if a message is repeated often enough it will sell. Repeat a slogan frequently and it is believed. Repeated messages are inherent in advertising, religion, and politics.

Case in point: Not long ago a representative from Futurewise and a realtor said that Seattle'ꀙs population will double by 2040. I heard the same number quoted again at recent public hearing made by an architect builder. At a candidates' forum several City Council candidates said the same thing, 'ꀜwe must get ready for growth because they're coming'ꀝ! 'ꀜPeople are coming'ꀝ is repeated like the mantra in a religious ceremony.

If Seattle'ꀙs current population does double we would reach 1.2 million. Only a fool would fail to prepare for such a population explosion. Surely urban planners and politicians are right on top of all the numbers and wouldn'ꀙt mislead us? What could they possibly gain by misrepresenting what could happen?

Yet those numbers are almost certainly wrong.

Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) has a division that does major demographic forecasting. In their web site they publish a disclaimer that their data is a calculated guess, but they project that in Snohomish, King, Kitsap, and Pierce counties, 'ꀜthe entire region,'ꀝ will grow by 1.7 million people by 2040. They don'ꀙt say Seattle will double its population by 2040.

They forecast that Bremerton, Everett, Bellevue, Tacoma, and Seattle will together gain 550,000 people divided between them. While each jurisdiction is actively seeking growth, the distribution of the half million people is unlikely to be equal. Bellevue, Tacoma, Bremerton, and Everett will want their share, so I'm going to assume that Seattle will attract roughly a third of that number or around 180,000 new residents.

If Seattle'ꀙs current estimated population is 602,000 and we add the hypothetical 180,000 and you get 782,000 people by 2040 — considerably short of the 1.2 million that some claim are on the way.

Another way to look at the issue is to estimate how many people could live in Seattle, the city's capacity. It'ꀙs nearly impossible to be certain. Are we talking about spaces where buildings can be constructed, "zoned capacity," or how many buildings might be built, "buildable lands"? Two different calculations would result. Seattle'ꀙs zoned capacity is frequently said to be 700-800,000 people, allowing that some buildable space might not be fully utilized. (That's called the squish factor.) The assumption is that right now, without changing or increasing any zoning at all, Seattle has the capacity to provide housing for up to 800,000 people without changing the rules to make buildings more dense like the proposed multifamily update or up zoning single family neighborhoods. Theoretically the capacity is already there.

Whichever means of calculating you use, it turns out we aren'ꀙt anywhere near capacity.

PSRC working with the state growth management board, has already come to that conclusion. Here are findings from that PSRC analysis in the 2007 King County Buildable Lands Report:

  • Seattle has household capacity under current zoning, over three times the 2022 projected household growth. Current residential capacity is for 123,000 new households. Growth targets for 2022 for Seattle are 38,000 new households.
  • Seattle has the largest surplus of household capacity of any area in King County (3.2 times projected population growth). East King County has 1.7 and South King County 2.9. Rural cities have 3.1, but represent a small number.
  • Seattle under existing zoning has capacity for 123,000 new households, compared to 154,000 new households for the all the rest of King County'ꀙs Urban Growth Area.
  • The argument that our population will double by 2040, or even increase by the 180,000 hypothetical share projected by PSRC, makes one wonder whether those numbers are reachable. If they are, that would drastically reverse a 50-year trend.

    In 1960 we had population of 557,087. The last census in 2000 said we had 563,334 people. If the City of Seattle estimate of 602,000 population is accurate, we have in almost 50 years grown by only 44,913 people. Despite all the construction cranes, our population is moving upward very slowly.

    From year 2000 to 2008 Seattle grew by 29,500 people while outside Seattle, King County gained 118,000, Pierce 105,000, and Snohomish 91,000. Yet Futurewise, developers, and some politicians insists that a major migration of new people will come to Seattle — like a swarm of locusts! — so we must build and densify to accommodate them.

    Now let's look at the numbers in a close-up: where in the city is the growth expected to go? Seattle has established housing targets for different areas of the city, based on expected growth. If Seattle were seriously lagging behind the growth targets overall, which it isn't, then our City Council might reasonably come to the conclusion that it should increase zoning to stimulate more housing capacity. But Seattle'ꀙs own analysis says we are at, or far ahead, of our targets for new housing without rezoning or changing what can be built within an existing zone. Why are they telling us we need to build-build-build when we are already building much faster than planned growth has predicted?

    According to Seattle'ꀙs own numbers from January 2005 through March of 2009, over 28,000 housing units have been added to Seattle's stock either built (16,504 units) or permitted and at various stages of construction (11,721 units). Seattle in just 51 months has reached 60 percent of its 20-year target. At this rate we'll add over 110,000 units under current zoning by 2024, over twice the rate needed to fulfill our targets. It'ꀙs more interesting to note that from 2003 to 2008, before the collapse of the lending market, Seattle'ꀙs 2008 vacancy rate averaged around 6.33 percent, varying by the census tract. There is no reliable data yet on how many units are vacant in late 2009 at the height of our economic downturn, but common sense suggests there is a major spike in empty units. As of June 1, for instance, the new complex in Northgate reports selling only one condo out of hundreds.

    If Seattle'ꀙs growth has been steady and moderate for 49 years, curious people will ask why some politicians, greens, developers, and real-estate people believe a major population spike is on the way. What'ꀙs different now that will make such a huge growth spurt possible? Could it be about new high tech jobs? Certainly a valid assumption since the Mayor has been pushing economic development, especially in the high tech fields. But new high tech job opportunities are locating all over the Puget Sound basin not just in Seattle'ꀙs core, and they tend to prefer suburban locations.

    How about the argument from smart-growth advocates that sustainable development will attract people to dense urbanized living? They argue that increasing density is an answer to climate change and sprawl. Will this response to sustainability stimulate a massive surge in population? Again, that seems unlikely, because growth outside Seattle in three counties has been 10.3 times greater than Seattle and consistently so for 20 years.

    Why aren'ꀙt people choosing Seattle in the numbers expected? The answer has to do with a long list of factors big cities find very hard to solve. Do urban schools inspire confidence? Do we have the kind of parks and open spaces that provide for trees and views of our natural beauty? Do we have a variety of housing types from large to small from old to new, and affordably priced?

    Do we have infrastructure that meets Growth Management Act tests for concurrency, and that is well maintained and capable of handling the increased population? Are the roads maintained? Do we have enough good cops and firefighters? Is our government honest and efficient? Does our criminal justice system work properly?

    Do we treat all neighborhoods with the same attention as the downtown core? Do we provide a wide range of transportation choices that includes rail, bus, bikes, and automobiles? Do we provide places for people to park their cars even when they use public transportation every day?

    Do we get nickel and dimed with punitive taxes or fees to support a bloated city government? Seattle sells water to high-growth areas outside Seattle and charges every Seattle rate-payer for the privilege. Is Seattle saving enough water for the 1.2 million that are coming? Will our power grid have sufficient capacity? Will broadband telecommunications be of sufficient speed to handle new high tech expectations? Will we have privacy, light, view corridors and a sense of neighborhood cohesion that offers a us a sense of community? When people make housing the largest investment in their life, predictability about their property is a major issue. Seattle'ꀙs leadership has reneged on supporting neighborhood plans and will break their promise to concentrate development in urban villages when developers seek zoning changes outside those areas.

    I suspect that a major reason we won't have the growth the planners project is that Seattle is creating a less friendly spatial environment, one that seems to be driving prospective new residents out of Seattle into our smaller fringe cities and suburbia. Seattle'ꀙs obsessive drive to be green with massive dense cheap buildings doesn'ꀙt appeal to new arrivals. The glut of vacant condos suggests the folly of favoring a lifestyle that only a segment of the public is accepting.

    In these many ways, the numbers make it clear: Seattle is shooting itself in the foot.

    Footnote. All of the demographic data referenced in this article came from the US census, Puget Sound Regional Council, or the City of Seattle. The http://sites.google.com/site/livableseattle/ web site also uses the same data but presents it in more detail with supporting charts. Included at this site is an outstanding research paper titled 'ꀜHysterial Counterproductive.'ꀝ

    The PSRC web sites are: http://www.psrc.org/projects/vision/pubs/V2040execsumm.pdf, and http://www.psrc.org/publications/pubs/trends/index.htm. The City of Seattle web site is: http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/Research/Population_Demographics/Overview/de….


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