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March 22, 2006

Seattle's Growing Up

Tower Solid article in the Seattle Times today on the rising building height limits in downtown Seattle.

The article even includes a brief historical note on the 1989 voter-approved height cap following the construction of the super-tall and hideous Columbia Center Columbia Seafirst Center Bank of America Tower BankAmerica Tower Columbia Tower. Seattle's thinking on downtown density has changed quite a bit since then. Instead of constricting development, most are enthusiastic about new development in the city's core--development that is revivifying once-dormant neighborhoods.

Seattleites have change their minds partly because of the dawning realization that downtown density is good environmental policy. It's a superbly efficient use of land (among many other environmental benefits). Over the last two decades, residents watched sprawl devour the Cascade foothills and lowland farms and realized that the salvation for natural spaces was partly in the city.

The article does include once curious bit:

There's scant evidence, however, that the changes would curb sprawl over the next 20 years by pulling more people downtown. Under current or proposed zoning, city studies project about 10,000 new households downtown and 29,000 new jobs in that period. [Emphasis mine.]

That's a non-trivial number of households and jobs, but it's odd--at the least--that city growth projections are the same with or without the height increase.

What's going on here? Are the projections mistaken? Or is the height zoning change just a matter of aesthetics, not a substantive policy to increase downtown density?

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink

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» Nonsense. In fact downtown development will encourage expansion elsewhere. from City Comforts, the blog
Seattle's skyline headed upward. From downtown residents who want more neighbors to developers trying to build to environmental groups fighting sprawl, there's been widespread support for funneling residents and jobs to the city's core in taller buildi... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 23, 2006 3:17:57 PM

» Nonsense. In fact downtown development will encourage expansion elsewhere. from City Comforts, the blog
Seattle's skyline headed upward. From downtown residents who want more neighbors to developers trying to build to environmental groups fighting sprawl, there's been widespread support for funneling residents and jobs to the city's core in taller buildi... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 23, 2006 3:45:57 PM

» Nonsense. In fact downtown development will encourage expansion elsewhere. from City Comforts, the blog
Seattle's skyline headed upward. From downtown residents who want more neighbors to developers trying to build to environmental groups fighting sprawl, there's been widespread support for funneling residents and jobs to the city's core in taller buildi... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 23, 2006 4:26:23 PM

Comments

"Seattleites have changed their minds partly because of the dawning realization that downtown density is good environmental policy. "

That still won't pull in folks who don't like density, however. Nothing will. Nor will it pull in folks who can't afford the amenities that downtown offers.

As long as we understand that this is not a panacea to stop sprawl, that's great.

It's only one of about 14 things to do, the very most important, tippy-top on the list is to decrease the birth rate. If you don't do that, you won't stop sprawl in America.

(BTW, 10K housing units is a tiny bite out of the projected number needed to accomodate future growth in the region:
Housing: http://www.ofm.wa.gov/pop/poptrends/housing2005.xls
Population: http://www.ofm.wa.gov/pop/gma/gmintermediate.pdf).

As to your question at the end, Eric, I suspect the reporter missed it.


Posted by: Dan Staley | Mar 22, 2006 5:10:13 PM

The idea that very many people with children -- not Donald Trumps in 5000 SF penthouses -- are going to desire (or abe able to afford) to live in a high-rise is just blissful idiocy and typical of Seattle discussions.

Posted by: Raw Data | Mar 23, 2006 4:46:00 AM

I have nothing against downtown high-rises and am indifferent to them one way or another --- but it is just koo-koo to think they will have any impact on suburban expansion.

Just look at the numbers that you are quoting. They are insignificant.

Posted by: Raw Data | Mar 23, 2006 4:48:59 AM

Couple of quick responses.

Dan--

I agree that downtown density is only one of many strategies to slow sprawl. Decreasing the birthrate is surely important too, though there are plenty examples of cities in the Midwest and East where metro populations are declining and yet the metro physical size is still expanding. It's important that compact neigbhorhoods offer an attractive alternative to sprawl.

Thanks too for providing the links (I should have done so in the post). The OFM growth projections under the GMA say that King County will take on 232,000 new residents between now and 2020. So...

RawData,

Those numbers are not isignficant. Seattle projects to accomodate 10,000 new households, or roughly 6.5% of the growth in King County (assuming that those new households have only 1.5 people on average). It's certainly not going to stop sprawl all by itself, but that is still a non-trivial share. For comparision, Issaquah's big Talus development will have only 1,700 housing units.

Also, I think you're missing the point about downtown living. The idea is NOT to appeal to large families. But look at the demographic facts: people are getting married later, married couples are having children later, and the baby boom is reaching retirement age. There's ample reason to think that huge slices of Puget Sound's population would be attracted to downtown living. (Indeed, the marketplace is proof of that--many of the new developments sell out before construction even begins.)

I don't see why every form of housing development should be targeted toward 4-person nuclear families-- it just doesn't reflect reality that well anymore for many, many people. If a large share of singles/dinks/empty-nesters choose downtown, that frees up sf houses for families in existing urban or suburban locations, instead of pushing out the exurban fringe.

Posted by: Eric de Place | Mar 23, 2006 9:07:07 AM

Eric,
Take a look at what City Comforts is saying. Like him, I am ALL FOR downtown development. It's fine. It's great in and of itself. But don't sell it as antisprawl.

Posted by: Raw Data | Mar 23, 2006 9:57:23 AM

For the record, not everyone thinks the Columbia Tower is ugly. It's sleek, unfussy and relatively minimalist. That beats a LOT of other buildings downtown such as the existing WaMu tower (http://www.emporis.com/en/wm/bu/?id=119425) or the US Bank center (http://www.emporis.com/en/wm/bu/?id=119459). Yick. Those are ugly.

Posted by: Maarten | Mar 23, 2006 10:59:18 AM

The problem with the Columbia Center isn't that it's ugly, or that it's tall. Neither of those issues are important to civic life.

What's important is that it is such a civic disaster at street level. Those massive black shiny featureless walls along the sidewalk say "screw you, little man" to every person forced to come near the thing.

Tall buildings can contribute to civic life if they have plentiful, varied, street-level, ACCESSIBLE commercial activity. I.e., shops and restaurants, and not all upscale ones. And none of this cross-a-plaza, descend-an-escalator business: I mean RIGHT ON THE STREET.

If they take up the whole block, there should be publicly-accessible pass-throughs in all directions as well. Seattle blocks ar HUGE.

Posted by: Steve T. | Mar 23, 2006 4:07:02 PM

As far as I can tell, City Comforts' argument is that downtown development makes an area more vibrant, more appealing, etc., which in turn draws even more people into the suburbs, thereby increasing sprawl.

I think there are two flaws with this argument:

1) I'm not sure there's any evidence that a vibrant downtown is a stronger recruitment factor for a region than, say, jobs. Sure, a vibrant downtown may make some people want to live downtown rather than in outlying neighborhoods. But I don't see vibrant downtowns drawing people in from other regions.

2) Even if taller downtown condos do somehow make other people move into the region and live in suburbia, those people would have had to live somewhere in whatever region they move from, and odds are it was also suburbia -- so there's no net gain of sprawl nationwide. And in fact, moving people from suburbs in states without growth boundaries to suburbs in states with growth boundaries probably does decrease overall sprawl.

At any rate, I don't think anyone's claiming that all we need to do is allow taller buildings and soon all families with kids will be downtown and the outer suburbs will be desolate.

That said, it's also wrong to claim that downtown density has no effect on sprawl. It's hard to imagine that, say, Vancouver wouldn't have a more Houston-ish footprint if Vancouver didn't encourage people to live downtown by permitting high-rises, encouraging street life, etc.

Posted by: Steve Mooney | Mar 23, 2006 4:08:40 PM

By the way, sprawl can ONLY be addressed at the site. You can build anything you want downtown and it won't help in rural King, Snohomish or Skagit County one iota. Sprawl can only be addressed by making it MORE DIFFICULT to drive to and from there, and MORE DIFFICULT to build there. And even then, the pressure to build on pristine land is relentless and unending. Witness the cluster of new houses going up on State Route 530, halfway between Arlington and Darrington, in an area that is "protected" by laws. They're disgusting; they clearcut something like 100 acres right along this beautiful drive to build them. Welcome to our future: Marysvilles in every direction for a hundred miles and more. Look for a huge explosion on Key Peninsula after the open the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Posted by: Steve T. | Mar 23, 2006 4:12:16 PM

Steve T.
I think I saw that same development.
"Bizarre" is the only word I can suggest.

Posted by: Raw Data | Mar 23, 2006 5:56:51 PM

Married couples with children are now fewer than 1/4 of American households, yet most of the housing stock built in this country is detached housing. Much of the demand for new housing in America stems from higher standards, not population growth: from 1970-2005, the square footage per capita in America has grown 94%!

"I don't see vibrant downtowns drawing people in from other regions."

Quite on the contrary: I moved to economically stagnant Chicago from booming Raleigh-Durham not so that I could get stuck cursing snowstorms in late March, but to be surrounded by a vibrant city. Even anti-urban commentator Joel Kotkin has recommended that sprawling non-cities like Raleigh build more vibrant downtowns, precisely because some people (like me) won't live anywhere else, and since it takes all types to build a vibrant economy.
.pc

Posted by: payton | Mar 24, 2006 1:33:27 AM

Sure, density is good. I enjoyed in many respects living for a few years in one of the more vibrant parts of Cleveland, Ohio. Imagine having pretty much whatever stores and services one needed within a three-block radius, lively (and safe) street life, and wonderfully convenient light-rail service to the airport!

At the same time, when I read this blog I sometimes wonder whether you folks spend enough time outside of urban Puget Sound. Like it or not, this is a predominantly suburban and rural region. Your argument for high-rises sounds suspiciously like the mindset of transplanted East Coasters. Yes, the high-rise life will appeal to a certain sector of the public. Yes, it is one tool for reducing sprawl. But is “Viva la high rise!” a potent rallying cry?

Eh.. . . It sounds out of touch with the region’s culture to me. Increasing density (and civic space) in suburbs would seem to be a more pragmatic focus.

Posted by: Steven Salmi | Mar 24, 2006 10:45:08 PM

While I think it is prudent environmentally to build dense cities and leave the outlying areas alone, I agree wtih Steven in that I don't see building up downtown Seattle even more containing sprawl in the Puget Sound region. I think what *would* help contain sprawl in smaller cities (suburbs of Seattle, if you will) is creating more vibrant neighborhoods with amenities nearby. Maybe that would keep more people in some of the suburbs (as an attractive element) rather than people reasoning that they will move outside of the suburbs since they have to drive to amenities anyway. I also think that people are going to have to reshape their ideas of what "adequate" housing is if sprawl is to ever stop. Do people really need 4,000 square feet for a family of 4??? No way! If we look back a couple of generations, people had larger families and lived in smaller houses than we live in now. Kids did not each have their own rooms and people didn't live in houses with lots of wasted space.

I am one of the 25% of the population that is part of a married couple with a child and I'd live downtown in a minute if I could afford it and it was safer. Being able to walk to amenities, entertainment, parks, etc. is highly appealing to me, but there's no way my family can afford it at this point in time. Maybe when we're older and no longer have a child at home . . . . :-)

Posted by: Kate West | Mar 25, 2006 8:53:26 PM