Seattle 2035: Five maps that will determine the city's future

By Ari Cetron
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The question isn't whether Seattle will grow, but how.

By Ari Cetron

For those in Seattle who believe smaller is better, the news continues to be bad. Though the city lost its title as America’s fastest growing metroplex this year, current projections from the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) show Seattle growing by 120,000 people over the next 20 years, requiring about 70,000 housing units.

At City Hall Wednesday night, DPD laid out ideas for where those units would go. City officials were on hand to take comments from an audience of roughly 100 Seattleites, and to unpack the options for the city’s next Comprehensive Plan, a deeply influential document that will guide the city’s development for 20 years.

The essential question posed: should we concentrate our growth into only a few areas or spread it around, with denser buildings across the city?

“We’re anticipating we might have to make changes in the Comprehensive Plan that are significant,” DPD Senior Planner Patrice Carroll told Crosscut. “Washington law states that when we’re doing big policy changes, we go through this process, where people can comment on them.”

That phase won’t last long, however. Four overarching growth options have been presented for public comment, but that ends June 18. These four alternatives will be narrowed to a single proposal by July. Following this and more public comment, the Mayor will propose a plan to City Council, which will be reviewed, amended and possibly adopted in early 2016.

With limited time to consider and lodge your comments on the growth options, we present a quick rundown of them below.

Growing Pains

There are some certainties regarding Seattle’s future. Regardless of the housing strategy the city adopts, there will be taller, bulkier buildings added throughout the city. Further, DPD expects “localized land use compatibility issues” in coming years. Translated, this means people living in single-family homes could have big buildings sprouting up next door, and may not be too excited about that.

Housing affordability will remain a problem. Two proposed alternatives spread housing growth around the city further, which will prompt development in currently low-income areas, encouraging displacement. The map below illustrates areas most at risk for this to displacement, according to DPD.

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When reviewing Seattle’s different visions of the housing future, the key thing to understand is the Urban Village concept. This is the model we’ve been using for the past 20 years, since the adoption of the first Comprehensive Plan in 1994. Under this model, the city is honeycombed into different sorts of areas: six Urban Centers, six Hub Urban Villages and 18 Residential Urban Villages. Outside these centers, there are industrial areas (Duwamish, Interbay) and low-density residential areas (Magnolia, Montlake, Wedgewood).

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This model will continue. What’s at issue is how the city will manage growth in these different zones. In this respect, each of the city’s four growth alternatives will result in a different sort of Seattle.

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Alternative One is considered the “no action” option, as it doesn’t make any real changes to the city’s growth plan for the past two decades. We would continue to guide most job growth into Urban Centers and most housing into Hub Urban Villages. If adopted, this would mean 61 percent of new jobs and 42 percent of new housing goes to the six Urban Centers. As a nod to the tech boom, South Lake Union would see the biggest housing growth relative to current supply.

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Alternative Two would focus on bolstering Urban Centers, while slowing growth elsewhere. Under this option, Urban Centers would see 72 percent of the new jobs and 66 percent of the new housing. This is where we’d see skyscraper-creep. To fit all this growth into such a small area means building upward, and allowing more mid- to high-rise residential options in those areas.

This would also mean that we’d see much less growth outside those urban centers. Under this option, for example, places like Ballard and Columbia City, while still growing, would stay more or less how they are. First Hill, Capitol Hill and Northgate could start to look more like Downtown and South Lake Union.

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Alternative Three spreads the growth around. While it still focuses on the Urban Centers, it also targets growth around existing and planned light rail stations, such as in Mount Baker, Columbia City, and Rainier Beach. It would expand the boundaries for Hub Urban Villages near light rail to encompass an area about a 10-minute walk from the station. It also considers adding a new urban village in North Seattle, near the station at 130th Street.

Under this growth plan, we likely get low-to mid-rise buildings around these stations, with over 100 percent growth in many areas of South Seattle relative to current housing unit supply. In the Urban Centers, we see the mid-range of residential growth (49 percent) and low job growth (51 percent). Once you get outside those Hub Urban Villages, growth patterns would stay roughly the same.

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Alternative Four spreads things around even more. In addition to the light rail stations, it focuses growth in four neighborhoods considered to have good bus service: Ballard, Fremont, West Seattle Junction and Crown Hill. This, once again, gives us those low-to mid-rise buildings, but in four additional places. For Urban Centers, it means 49 percent of the housing and 53 percent of the jobs, almost identical to Alternative Three.

Next steps

Between all the plans, similarities coexist with pronounced differences. For example, the DPD optimistically predicts greenhouse gas emissions will drop citywide under all of the options, due to the improved fuel efficiency of vehicles. Alternative Two, however, would instigate the biggest drop, given that its tight clustering of growth would reduce the need for people to drive.

Housing affordability will be a problem for the foreseeable future, but the challenges presented by each plan are different. Alternative Two will give us high-rise buildings, for example, but these could all end up being pricey places to live. That could contribute to “income stratification,” deepening the city’s rich neighborhood vs. poor neighborhood divisions. As noted, Alternative Three and Alternative Four increase the risk of displacing low-income residents from their neighborhoods, particularly around the light rail stations in South Seattle.

The DPD's document is 394 pages, but full of interesting details, charts, graphs and maps. Further, it lays out what the next 20 years could look like for Seattle as a whole, and for different neighborhoods. The city loves to write plans and studies, but even the uninitiated should take a moment to read it over, and understand the impacts the city is facing. With less than three weeks to weigh in on the options, visit the sites below to get involved. Comments end June 18.

 The options


The survey

All maps courtesy Seattle Department of Planning and Development


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Ari Cetron

Ari Cetron is a Seattle-based journalist who’s trying to figure out how to be a newspaperman in a world with fewer and fewer newspapers. The former editor of the Sammamish Review, his work has also appeared in Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business and