Last week, I participated in a showcase of environmental art, photography, music and storytelling at Town Hall. Sponsored by Forterra, the conservation group, the event was a live show version of its new magazine. I was paired on-stage with The Stranger's Charles Mudede. We'd both written columns for the first issue and, in a mock game show with "game show host" Gene Duvernoy, we each answered questions about density.
At one point, we were asked for a crazy city-building idea.
Forterra, formerly known as the Cascade Land Conservancy, has expanded its mission — and changed its brand — to embrace something broader than preserving and restoring natural areas. It now includes promoting denser, sustainable cities, so it's as much about the urbs as the exurbs. Their theory is that cities that work well should protect the larger ecosystem and the natural environment. So city building is key to their mission.
It's not often that one is actually invited to expound on one's crackpot ideas, but it just so happened that I had one in my pocket. It was almost literally back-of-the-envelope scratchings — although in this case it was actually back-of-a-program-for-a-density-panel-I'd-recently-participated-in-at-The-Evergreen-State-College scratchings. The density of density discussions seems to be off the charts these days.
My crackpot contribution is this: Is it possible to de-link density and development? In other words, does all new density have to come from new construction that, given the market, is almost all unaffordable for regular folks? Looking at the growth projections for Seattle in 2040, the city is estimated to grow by about 184,000 people. How many could we accommodate without any new construction?
Let's find ways to populate existing housing. Or re-populate it. If, for example, each household in Seattle increased its average number of occupants by .5 persons (and I mean that statistically), that would bring us to the current national average of household size of 2.6. Without any new construction, we'd have room for about 125,000 new residents. In that case, over the next quarter century, we'd only need new construction to accommodate 59,000 people — a much more manageable number.
(By the way, our household size in 1960 was 2.7 per household, thanks in part to the baby boom, so we’ve had larger households in the past.)
How we would do this is up for grabs, but here's one idea: We could offer people who live in single family homes — often empty nesters rattling around inside square footage they don't need — incentives to take in new people. When you walk the streets of Washington Park, there is just so much space in those grand homes just aching to be used! But this would be a citywide endeavor.
Perhaps incentives could encourage owners to sell shares in their property to other residents. Could we "condoize" or co-op-ize single family homes? Could we create a new kind of Homestead Act that aims to use current urban dwelling spaces more efficiently?
If nothing else, such a program might help affordability by increasing housing supply without the drive to maximize profits, which developers and real estate interests are in the business of doing, and that helps make affordable housing so elusive.
Ok, it's just a thought, but it was nutty enough that Charles Mudede liked the idea.
He had one of this own too. The Stranger scribe is a huge fan of the Columbia Center. (He and I disagree on this point. I see the skyscraper as cold and arrogant, he sees it as the modern equivalent of the spire of a Gothic church acting as a literal and inspirational town landmark. To each his own.)
The big idea he offered would be to build another Columbia Center and fill it with micro-housing. Also fill it with urban retail, from shops to strip clubs. In a sense, make an aggressively vertical neighborhood.
I have to admit there's something refreshing about the idea of side-by-side towers, one filled with lawyers and bond brokers in Class A office space, and the other with hipsters and blue collar workers in apodments. In the Columbia Center, business folk and politicos can take a social break in the 40th-floor Starbucks. In Mudede's, they might congregate in a 76th floor Showbox, or Deja Vu.
I'll add one more crackpot amendment to Mudede's tower — which echoes a 1950s Frank Lloyd Wright concept that would have stacked people in a mile-high Chicago high-rise to reduce sprawl. His concept would have been over 500 stories and housed 100,000 people.
How about this for Columbia Center II: Eliminate electric elevators and make everyone use the stairs. This way, the expensive housing would be in 3rd to 6th floor units. The rest would get cheaper the higher you went. The best views would be reserved for the young and the building would promote fitness and use less energy. Owners of a 60th floor walk up would find units that were truly affordable. The building would be walkable — or at least climbable. Apodment penthouses. That's a very cool idea.
Workable or not, we do need some creative problem solving when it come to growth. We need to think outside the development box and the Seattle box house. We need to reckon that the market will not save us, in part because our current economic system is designed to create worsening inequities, and that funding enough public housing is unlikely.
Here's one more crackpot idea: Let's hear more crackpot ideas about how to tackle density.