Next week, the Seattle city council will take up a package of modest but important regulatory reforms. These are precisely the sort of fixes Sightline has been advocating: targeted updates that move us toward a more sustainable city—one that’s not only cleaner but that also offers richer economic opportunities to its residents.
Interestingly, many of them are actually “back to the future” type proposals. For example:
- Coffee shop-size neighborhood commerce—the old corner stores—will once again be allowed in places zoned for low-rise density.
- Outside of designated pedestrian zones, the city will relax the stringent requirements for ground-floor commercial space that isn’t supported by the market.
- In places with good transit service, the law will return to the way it was when the city was built: officials will no longer force private property owners to supply a minimum number of parking spaces.
That last one is particularly popular with institutions like Seattle Central Community College. Consider the absurdity of the current situation: the college is located just a few minutes walk from downtown and it’s served by multiple bus lines, as well as a forthcoming streetcar and light rail station. Not surprisingly, its existing parking facilities are under-subscribed. Yet it cannot expand its classroom space without also building costly new parking structures. Oy.
The new reforms will scrub that requirement, letting the college spend its money on education rather than car storage.
Given the modest nature of the proposals, there’s been exceedingly little concern over them. True, in an article about the policy package, the Seattle Times did manage to find a few grumpy folks concerned about crowded on-street parking in central city neighborhoods. Yet an examination of the “problems” cited in the article serve to highlight how utterly undramatic the changes are.
Let’s take a quick look.
For example, the article goes on at length about Aegis Living, a new assisted living facility that some neighbors are opposing over on-street parking worries. It’s interesting, I guess, but it’s got absolutely nothing to do with the proposed reforms. They don’t impact the Aegis development at all.
Or this example:
Jim Hobbs, who has run his car-repair shop for 30 years, the city’s proposal to eliminate parking requirements smacks of a political agenda…
“The city of Seattle doesn’t want us here,” he said of his auto-centric business. “It’s the whole anti-car thing…
“Everybody owns a car,” he said. “Or two.”
Yet this it is completely wrong. In fact, fully 15 percent of Seattle households (not individuals mind you), have no car. More than a quarter of Seattle’s renting households don’t own a car, and 40 percent of low income households don’t either. (In fact, even among households in Seattle with somebody employed—that is, not counting students, retired folks, or the out-of-work—44 percent have access to one or no cars.)
So, just for the record: no, “everybody” does not own a car or two.
More to the point, eliminating parking mandates in selected and highly urbanized areas is not exactly the same thing as eliminating parking. In fact, the city estimates that even where no parking at all is required for multifamily buildings, developers typically supply parking for 60 to 75 percent of the residents. For example, the North Lot Stadium Place development is not required to provide any parking, and yet developers are planning on around 900 parking stalls.
That’s just the way it should be. Builders should respond to reality—and they should supply what the market actually wants for parking. (Hint: not everybody owns a car.)
Okay, enough grousing. The balance of the regulatory reform package is similarly modest. It will streamline some duplicative red tape for new development in urban centers and near light rail stations; it will slightly expand opportunities for home-based entrepreneurship; and it will clarify some of the language in the land use code around backyard cottages and temporary use permits in the public right-of-way.
These are not exactly earth-shattering policy changes, but they amount to good and useful progress all the same.
Citizens will have a chance to voice their support on Wednesday, March 28 at 9:30 a.m. in City Council Chambers. I’ll be there.
Matt the Engineer
I live two blocks from Hobbs, and me and several of my neighbors use our garages for storage or workout rooms, and park our cars on the street. Because street parking is free and plentiful in my neighborhood – I rarely have a problem finding a spot right in front of my house.
Is there any chance his occupation might benefit from more people having cars?
Well, Eric. I just wasted 15 minutes on an angry FB update, and here you go writing an actual substantive piece. Well done.
Here’s my rant. (I do think noting the biased language in the piece is important.)
How to write an entire news feature on transportation and land use, w/ an outright and strong bias towards cars (in 2012):
Start by framing the issue entirely around parking and the supposed needs of drivers. Don’t frame it as “how do we build the best city we can, that’ll work best for the most people” which is, after all, local government’s job.
Then call the idea that people living in denser communities tend to drive less, taking transit more, a “theory” despite being probably the best-proven finding in urban planning.
Paraphrase a source saying it “smacks of a political agenda” and make sure to claim proponents want “more reliance on transit” (not more availability or choices or service… “reliance”).
Include one bland statement from a bureaucrat, one tepid statement of support, then four statements against, as well as citing generalized “activists” who “say there already is a shortage of parking.”
Use a final quote (“Everybody owns a car. Or two.”) that’s simply false: two clicks on Google reveal the fact that 1/6 of households in Seattle don’t own an auto. (40% of Seattleites, if I remember rightly, don’t drive.)
Erica C. Barnett
“It’s interesting, I guess, but it’s got absolutely nothing to do with the proposed reforms. They don’t impact the Aegis development at all.”
I’ve been LOLing at that line all morning.
Yes, 16% of Seattle’s households don’t own a car, according to the Census Bureau. That’s the same percentage as 10 years ago. McGinn tried lie about that and say the number rose to 19%, but he was caught lying. Not by Sightline, of course. If your allies tell lies, you’ll overlook it.
The Seattle Times found “a few grumps” who worry about parking in central city neighborhoods, you say.
Surely you noticed the latest Survey USA poll. It showed that McGinn’s support rating is 32%, same as it ever was, and that 87% of respondents have a car. And McGinn’s support is only 20% among the young, who are the most likely to be renters. 70% think it’s harder to finding parking than it was five years ago; 73% think parking rates are too high; 67% think the increases downtown have not made spots easier to find, as McGinn promised; 61% say that those rates have made them less likely to go downtown.
No mention of any of this by Sightline. You wouldn’t want to make your ally, McGinn, look bad. And downtown commerce? That’s not your department. In Seattle, no “progressive” worth his salt ever once cared about the people who work here.
I see the comment from Erica C. Barnett. She’s one of the writers at Publicola, a “progressive” website. It is owned by Greg Smith, a real estate developer. The same Greg Smith is on McGinn’s handpicked “citizens committee” chosen to promote his forthcoming $200 million tax subsidy to a California hedge fund billionaire. Who funds Sightline?
The “progressive” idea of “sustainability” is to hope that people keep their cars, and tax the living hell out of them for their playthings, be they bike paths, or trains, or new reports to be issued by the city’s bloated staff of urban planners.
It’s a nice scam. Will it continue? I’m not so sure. Keep telling yourselves that it will, but you just might be in for a rude shock.
Eric de Place
Yes, McGinn said 19% but the real number was actually 16%. Shocking! It took some real ace investigative journalism to sort that one out.
As for downtown commerce, it may come as a surprise to you the the parking modifications — modest though they are — enjoy strong support from Seattle’s business community, including the Chamber.
The progressive idea of sustainability I have is this radical: I want government to stop forcing parking down our throats. I want government to stop telling builders how much parking they MUST build; I want government to get out of the parking business; and I want to leave parking prices and availability up to the free market.
Meanwhile, if you actually wanted to understand why people are driving less and less these days — it’s a well-documented fact — you need look no farther than the record profits of oil companies and notice the fact that gasoline is well over $4/gallon. Simple economics dictates that people want and need cheaper solutions. Now, if only we can get government to stop forcing us to devote valuable land all over the city to ever more parking.
McGinn overstated the number of people with cars by more than one-fifth. It was a bald faced lie, but blad faced lies are fine with your group as long as they’re for a good cause.
If people are driving so much less, why is the percentage of people in Seattle with cars the same as it was 10 years ago? Why do more people in Seattle have three cars than have no cars?
I’m happy to see your new-found love of the free market. I will look forward to the next article on Sightline demanding that transit fares cover the full costs of operations, maintenance, and capital investment. Or, more likely, to a new set of lies about the numbers.
Oh yeah, and you didn’t answer my question: Exactly who funds Sightline, and in what amounts? Afraid to tell us?
As for the “free market,” don’t make me laugh. If you believed
Correction: McGinn overstated the number of people WITHOUT cars by more than one-fifth, at least until he was caught lying, and not by you.
Speaking of the free market, is Sightline going to agitate for the removal of the various inducements to put retail on the first floors of new buildings? Those spaces are vacant all over the city. Not too “vibrant,” if you ask me.
Eric de Place
You’re in luck. The package of reforms the city is considering — and that Sightline is supporting — does indeed include relaxing some of the requirements around ground-floor retail.
I’m not sure why you think we’re anti-market. Sightline has worked for years advocating market-based carbon pricing, markets for car sharing, and market-rate pricing of insurance just to name a few. Properly structured markets do a great job of making prices clear, and it is my contention that if we had to pay the full price of driving, we’d do it at lower rates.
You also might want to brush up on your math. McGinn’s overstatement/misstatement was an error of less than 19% (not “more than one-fifth” as you state).
It doesn’t do much good to agitate for the removal of the first-floor retail space inducements, and then turn right around and revoke residential zoning. That’s not a “free market” move. It’s bald-faced corruption, funded by developers.
Eric de Place
Your trolling is starting to wear thin.
The proposal relaxes, not removes, first floor retail requirements.
Just so, it does not “revoke” residential zoning, but rather in areas that are already zoned for multifamily or low-rise it allows a small degree of mingling of small-scale commercial uses — much like the old corner stores — subject to a number of restrictions.
The Seattle Planning Commission has reviewed and endorsed the proposals.
Eric, I didn’t appreciate your direct and rather bold lie on the other thread. So I guess we have reason to complain about each other. Now, if you’re a typical Seattle “progressive,” you will now declare me unconstructive or impolite or some such. “Progressives” rarely want to have an honest debate with an opponent.
I attended the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability hearing on the issue held May 9th. Just as you mischaracterized my comments about the cost of driving between Seattle and Portland, you are not honest about what the zoning proposal will do.
In fact, it will allow rezone a large portion of Capitol Hill from residential to commercial, allowing storefronts anywhere in the area, including their bright signs and high traffic. It is the Houston no-zoning model brought to Seattle.
Please, Eric, if you are going to talk about these things, tell the truth. It’s not that difficult. People tend to notice these things. If you don’t want me to post here, please don’t couch it in the usual “progressive” weasel words. Have courage, and simply declare that you claim the exclusive right to tell lies, and that you are afraid of truthful opposition. Then I’ll be gone.
Eric de Place
Let’s get this straight. We welcome robust debate and argument in comments. We don’t welcome pointless insults, which nearly all of your comments include, so can it.
Your characterization of the proposal is off-base. It will not, in fact, “rezone a large portion of Capitol Hill from residential to commercial etc…” It stipulates small floor areas and includes a number of restrictions for occupancy type, signage, outdoor seating, noise, odors, deliveries, and so on.
I can’t locate a copy of the Seattle Planning Commission recommendations online, but if readers email me I’ll send them an electronic copy. I thought they were very thoughtful, and they included some suggestions to further modify and restrain the reform.
I understand that the City Council members, especially those who are running to replace the current mayoral train wreck, were taken aback by the strength of the dissent in the meeting, so they decided to throw Capitol Hill a bone.
I guess they hope that none of the other neighborhoods notice. We’ll see about that. Tell your friends in the city that people are watching them this time.
If allowing commercial uses in residential zones isn’t re-zoning then what is? This is a boon to developers and a slap in the face to homeowners anhd residents of Capitol Hill. You may think that’s a charming restaurant in that old house, but the neighbor who has had their peace and quiet taken away may think otherwise. If this proposal is as modest as the author seems to think it is, then why is the PLUS committee trying to get it through without meaningful neighborhood input?
Eric de Place
I do want to honor the neighborhood’s legitimate concerns, but at the same time I think there are a couple of clarifications in order:
** The Volunteer Park Cafe, which everyone uses as an example of what this reform would bring, actually is not. According to the zoning maps I’ve seen, uses like that would continue not to be allowed in that type of residential zone. (That cafe exists owing to a grandfathered zoning condition that I believe extends back, tortuously, for many decades.) A better example might be Lighthouse Coffee in upper Fremont.
** The PLUS committee has held 3 or 4 public hearings on the matter now, spread out over a couple of months. I’d also point out that the reforms were first proposed back in July 2011 when they were covered by Sightline, Slog, Crosscut, PubliCola, King 5 News, and numerous other media outlets. (See here, for example, http://www.sightline.org/2011/07/08/seattle-starts-making-sustainability-legal/) Since then, there were advertised several public forums and notices posted. (E.g. http://www.sightline.org/2011/08/09/sightline-and-great-city-on-regulatory-reform/)
I’m told that the city did not conduct some level of ordinary neighborhood outreach that residents expected. I can’t really speak to that because it’s not something I understand.
I’ll try to address more of your points in a reply to another commenter, below.
Dear Eric, I love much of what Sightline advocates and understand your vision. Here’s the however. One of the areas designated for the introduction of commercial within the residential setting is the neighborhood in which I have lived for two dozen years and it already IS the sustainable model. I chose to live here, and moved from an apartment to my current house one block away, because I could walk to everything. My street is beyond the line for rezoning and I still have five grocery stores within four blocks from me. I wanted my kids to grow up in a racially diverse neighborhood. I have that. My neighborhood is zoned multi-family. I know my neighbors well because we are all out in our neighborhood, as pedestrians, as gardeners, as friends now. What I don’t want is for this easy-access residential-to-commercial set up, which is fabulous, to be overtaken by business. We and our neighbors chose to live here for all of the Sightline approved reasons. We love that we can be pedestrians. We love the proximity of buses and services but we also love that we can sleep and garden and play on our quiet, residential streets. I would advocate that the neighborhoods that really need the corner stores are not those outlined by the city council’s current map but those that are thick with single-family residences and are more than six blocks away from a business district or bus line. Those are the parts of the city where people hop into cars for everything. I wish that Sightline would focus on helping those communities in which there are few pedestrians.
A separate issue is that the city has not included residents in their planning but has included many developers. I have seen the list of folks on the planning committee and they are not my neighbors. The developers have less interest in an aspect of sustainability which may be of less interest to Sightline as well but is of great interest to me and my neighbors and that is of sustaining the individual character and history of each of Seattle’s neighborhoods. We are about to lose two 1890’s houses–one in very good condition and the oldest structure for this part of the city–to a 4-storey, 31 unit building. I’m in favor of increased density in the city–and our couple of blocks has seen 4 houses turn into about 30 town houses over the last five years and I have no issue with those changes–but I do when the change is at the expense of a sound, attractive and interesting structure.
Eric de Place
I think you make some perfectly fair points here.
Capitol Hill has managed to strike a balance that few other neighborhoods in Seattle are even close to replicating. In fact, the intent of the proposal was to nudge some of those other neighborhoods a little closer toward walkability and improved access. Personally, I’m very open to the notion that what’s needed in Capitol Hill is different than what’s needed in, say, Ballard (where I live) or in West Seattle or Beacon Hill.
If you haven’t already seen it, the Seattle Planning Commission’s assessment of the reforms provided a very thoughtful treatment of this element. It even included some suggested modifications to make it more suitable for places like Capitol Hill. I can’t find it online, but if you email me I’ll send you an electronic copy.