A report released last year from the Livable Seattle Movement declared that Seattle’s existing zoning is more than enough—three times more—than we need to accommodate expected growth. Phew! What a relief. And here we thought the Seattle region would have to undergo some painful, politically-rending rezones in order to sop up all the new people—as many as 106,000 households—arriving in the next decade. And, by extension, it would also mean we don’t need the backyard cottages being proposed by the City of Seattle.

But does this conclusion pass the “red face” test? Nope—faces are red. Or at least they should be. Why? Because their data is suspect and it doesn’t take into account any kind of community objections or other unforeseen obstacles even when the existing code allows development.

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  • The data that Livable Seattle Movement uses is from the most recent King County Buildable Lands Report, a report that looks at what land is available for new construction and redevelopment for housing and jobs.

    Here is a crucial passage from that report:

    At projected household sizes, the 289,000 new housing units, together with the existing housing stock in 2006, could accommodate more than 400,000 additional persons within the UGA [Urban Growth Area]. This is more than twice the population growth needed to meet the remaining part of the 2002 OFM projection of 2,048,000 total population for King County in 2022.

    Now Livable Seattle’s numbers (3 times the capacity in Seattle) are extrapolated from a subset of King County’s UGA numbers, called the Sea-Shore Subarea. This is problematic because the Sea-Shore Subarea includes two cities other than Seattle, Lake Forest Park and Shoreline, and an unincorporated area, North Highline. The Movement’s analysis of the Buildable Lands Report doesn’t make any effort to disaggregate the Seattle data from these other areas that have, in some cases, radically different land use patterns and policies. They use the terms Seattle and Seashore interchangeably.

    Nevertheless, let’s take Livable Seattle’s conclusions at face value:

    Seattle’s city government should not make radical changes in our established zoning and neighborhood plans with the idea that such changes are needed to accommodate future growth. The rules in place provide for more than enough opportunities in growth in housing. A recent, reliable study confirms that the city is already zoned to accommodate three times the housing growth planned for the next 14 years. So, there is no need, no rational basis, for such ideas as “unlocking” single-family zoning to improve affordability or for effectively abandoning the urban village strategy in order to increase capacity. The King County Buildable Lands Report tells the story.

    So we’re all squared away. Crazy schemes to “unlock” the single family black box or up zone the city are ill founded. We have the capacity we need. Is that true? Two words sum up the answer: Waldo Woods.

    All Squared Away Waldo Map

    The Waldo Woods (the neighborhood’s term for the property) is part of aa 1.6 acre site in Seattle’s Maple Leaf neighborhood. It is the site of an old hospital building and it is zoned for townhouses. A developer submitted a proposal to build 39 units on the property. Those are part of the 39 units Livable Seattle says will allow us to accommodate growth with out any soul-crushing rezones.

    When can you move in? You can’t, because the project isn’t going forward. Neighboring single-family residents were outraged that the developers would be removing trees from the site. They rallied around the trees, organized themselves, and eventually the developer backed out. The owner of the property wound up selling the building and property to a private school. The neighborhood won and the region lost, even though the developer would have been removing fewer trees than they legally could.

    If we take Livable Seattle at its word, they should be mobilizing for projects like Waldo Woods proposed in Maple Leaf. Instead, one if its members was actually the major leader of the project’s opposition. While Livable Seattle’s report is kind of old news and has been tackled before, these arguments are sure to be offered in opposition to backyard cottages in Seattle. Along with loss of parking, more noise, and loss of privacy, a new argument can now be offered: we have enough capacity.

    But the truth is that this argument is suspect. Livable Seattle’s report fails to look closely at Seattle without the inclusion of other subareas and it doesn’t account for the fact that many projects, even when they are to be built according to the existing code, fail because of neighborhood opposition. As Seattle begins to look at supporting compact communities it’s going to need to develop more good ideas like the ones I have written about before, especially Vancouver’s Laneway Housing Program and Portland’s introduction of  courtyard housing into their code. Whether the code allows development or not, changes doesn’t come without obstacles. Seattle can learn a lot from Portland and Vancouver about how to persuade neighborhoods that more variety of housing type is a net benefit, not a something to resist.