Density is your friend, Roosevelt

Last week's City Council vote to increase housing density in Seattle's Roosevelt neighborhood created a heated local debate. Is there a prescription for talking productively and openly about dense, sustainable development?

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Department of Neighborhoods alum Sally Clark meets Roosevelt residents.

Last week's City Council vote to increase housing density in Seattle's Roosevelt neighborhood created a heated local debate. Is there a prescription for talking productively and openly about dense, sustainable development?

The City Council's Land Use Committee vote last week for more housing in the Roosevelt neighborhood could be a watershed moment for Seattle. The Council has often tried to appease neighborhoods by limiting density that reduces available housing.

On the other hand, it's still possible that this step forward could be followed by two steps back later on. For the Council to keep momentum on this decision they, and all of us, are going to have to change the way we think and talk about growth in the city.

Growth is not an impact. Twenty years ago environmentalists passed the Growth Management Act (GMA) as a response to sprawl, the pattern of development built around huge swaths of single-family homes connected by webs of expensive highways. The GMA (RCW 82.02.050) allows for impact fees to be “imposed for system improvements that are reasonably related to the new development.” 

But neighborhood opponents of growth are now using that language against the very kind of development the GMA prescribes: dense urban infill. That kind of density reduces the impacts of growth all on its own, because it uses less land, requires less driving, and has less impact on the local watershed. 

The truth is that density in the urban core absorbs growth more sustainably than any other pattern of land use. The Puget Sound Partnership, tasked with saving the waters and wildlife of the Puget Sound, found that a key strategy to do that would be to “encourage compact regional growth patterns and create dense, attractive, and mixed-use and transit-oriented communities.” The City Council should be wary when considering opponents who rail against the impacts of density, without accounting and balancing for the many benefits.

Density means more people. What we’re really talking about when we talk about density is more people coming to live here. Buildings don’t shop, or create anything, or open new businesses; it’s people that do those things, and it’s people — lots of them — that will power our way out of this economic downturn.

Density resistance, on the other hand, often focuses on the visual impact of high-rise buildings on views and neighborhood beautification. But it's not always about height. The old canard about Soviet style blockhouse apartment buildings being the logical outcome of density is fading as fast as our memories of the Cold War. The truth is that density simply means more people living in a smaller area. That means allowing more cottages, duplexes, and town homes in single-family neighborhoods, along with more mixed-use.

Which takes us to housing prices. Housing prices are set by supply and demand; affordability is a relationship to price. Every housing unit is affordable to someone. But if policy makers want price to go down, then they should let developers build more housing. One opponent of density in Roosevelt, commenting in a post about housing price, argued that we shouldn't allow developers more capacity because we already have an oversupply of housing. But that’s exactly what we need to create affordable housing — a glut of real estate.  

Neighborhoods matter, but so does the city and region. People that happen to live near transit should have a voice in how it's built and how Transit Oriented Development (TOD) happens, but not an exclusive or disproportionate voice. In this case, the Council seems to have listened to voices all over the city and region, calling for more density in Roosevelt. That should be a precedent for future conversations around urban planning. 

How can we avoid fighting these battles over and over again? One approach is to go for the big play. One commenter, in a recent local blog's commenting war over Roosevelt, wondered when Seattle was going to stop thumb wrestling over every rezone in Seattle, battling these fights out neighborhood by neighborhood.

It’s an accurate characterization. The City Council needs to support proposals that have citywide and regional impact, like removing all zoning restrictions around light rail and allowing developers, property owners, neighbors, and transit advocates to propose plans to facilitate TOD, without being hindered by the existing code.

We ought to shift our prejudices too. Developers are not bad people — just people trying to make a return on an investment. Meanwhile single-family homeowners are doing the same thing. They too have a legitimate financial interest when they oppose new housing. Less supply means their homes hold their value.

Casting developers as rapacious and neighbors as the downtrodden 99 percent, as Councilmember Nick Licata did recently, is simply wrong. Developers have a financial interest in dense, urban growth and single-family neighbors have a financial interest in the status quo. There isn’t anything wrong with making money and protecting the financial interests of homeowners, but those interests should be stated clearly. Too often the people that build housing are the only ones cast with a financial interest. 

Taken together, this new approach and language can help us talk about growth more realistically. Change is not easy, but the Roosevelt re-zone might give us the pattern to start thinking and talking differently as we plan for the future.


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