Someone Has To Pay For It

So writes Roger Valdez in a balanced little riff on affordable housing in the DJC.

“First, we know growth is good. Accommodating people in the city is more sustainable than sprawl, but sometimes neighborhoods resist growth. That resistance works to limit supply by making permits more expensive and time-consuming. Welcoming growth can help increase supply, which can reduce prices.”

26 Responses to “Someone Has To Pay For It”

  1. Dan Staley

    I disagree that “growth” is “good”, as I explain here. Mouthing that mantra without thinking simply allows ideologies with which most disagree to further their agenda.

    And I agree that neighborhoods resist growth. Many do. This is human nature. This is also at the root of my many arguments that it is more important to provide good design than it is to wave your finger at a neighborhood and scold them that they need to take their share.

  2. Roger Valdez

    Hello Dan,

    Opinion pieces can sound a bit finger wagging at times. I try to avoid that if I can.

    I agree that the growth is good mantra can be used by developers and others to use “green guilt” to push neighborhoods to “take their share” of growth.

    However, it is often true that worries about design are used by neighborhoods when they react against change. Design is an ideal way for those who simply want things to stay the same to bog projects down.

    That fact should take nothing away from efforts to demand good design just as the Green Guilters in our midst shouldn’t completely prevent us from considering the valid points of welcoming growth.

    Our language needs to continue to evolve on these issues. The city is full of buildings with terrible design, both aesthetically and functionally. I am all for mandating good design as part of our plan to grow. Is that possible?

  3. Spencer

    Without being able to read Roger’s article in the DJC (dead link?) I’m not sure what to think of it’s content. What I can glean from the above conversation is that people living in neighborhoods are being looked at as a nuisance to development.

    I will ask you both, Roger and Dan, a somewhat rhetorical question who knows a neighborhood better than the people who live in it?

    In your article, Roger, in the Seattle Times, you champion your fellow neighbors for knowing what they want in their neighborhood. You also advice for development (in this case the City Library) to listen to people who live nearby and change direction if it is their wishes.

    The trouble with some Developers is they only see the requirements of property and not the actual needs of a neighborhood. Recently, in Columbia City, a building has been proposed for an unused factor site one block off from the main commercial center. This Developer stated they could not make the project viable (not affordable) unless they meet the limits of the allowable building height when the community asked if the building could be shorter. This height limit of this parcel is 20 feet above all but two other parcels in the commercial/multifamily zoning. All three parcels are more then three blocks apart. It is questionable where the logic is for this zoning came from but Columbia City now has to endure two new buildings that will stick up like two big the ears and a large nose.

    Having first hand experience working in development, the reality of it usually has nothing to do what neighbors actually want nor does it have to do with whats best for society. Development has to do with bottom lines and what amount of risk will result in the best profit.
    Columbia City is about the last place in Seattle that people can live affordably while still being able to access different parts of the city quickly with mass transit. In this particular case this developer is not taking advantage of incentives to help lower the end price for people who will live in this building (keeping with the current characteristics of Columbia City) because they know with the light rail coming to Columbia City at the same time this building is complete it will create a higher demand for those units. The developer knows they will get more money for those units.

  4. Matt the Engineer

    I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I think you’ll find that with easy access to Link, Columbia City will see a lot more of zoning maximum height buildings. Building them to be affordable would be wonderful, but can’t be expected for every project (do you want to live in an “affordable” i.e. small and cheap apartment?). Luckily there’s a nice effect of making other units in the area more affordable thanks to the wonders of supply and demand.

    I’m certainly in favor of keeping older homes, but we’re talking about an old factory here. I’m not really seeing the negative effect of new development. Is this about street parking?

  5. Roger Valdez

    Steve,

    Good questions and points.

    My first experience with developers and neighborhoods came more than ten years ago with the Pac Med/Amazon project on Beacon Hill.

    Many of us thought that the neighborhood was treated as a nuisance and an after thought by the Pac Med board. They really didn’t include us in what they were doing which was awful considering the scale of the project.

    However, many of us decided to get over that point and focus on the “how we make it work” issues associated with the project.

    The fact is neighborhoods can be a nuisance and sometimes they should be a nuisance.

    And you are right, development is a business and time is money. And often developers simply build appeals from cranky neighbors into their time line and steam roll them.

    Back in the Schell days the City actually started to play more of a disinterested third party role during neighborhood plan implementation. We were very focused on asking both developers and neighborhoods to work together to find mutually beneficial ways to both make a profit and incorporate neighborhood planning elements into new development.

    We didn’t get very far before Schell lost the election.

    My point is that we need to find the mutual benefits, take some risks and learn from our successes and mistakes. With more people moving to Seattle we have to find a way to compromise.

    Here is a question for you. Why is it that height is, in and of itself, a bad thing? This is something that, along with traffic and parking, always comes up as a negative. Is the height or the number of units?

  6. wes

    I’m not trying to be the Developer Superhero here, but why should NIMBYs be allowed to butt-in on a project by project basis? They already get to keep height limits and FARs artificially lowered during the comprehensive planning process. If the developer is building to what is allowed in the development regulations, then why should he/she have to worry about what silly self-interested neighbor 1 through 1,672 have to say about the project? At most, a developer should have to worry about review boards that supposedly represent the citizenry as a whole, not individuals.

    Dan S: I understand your argument, growth isn’t necessarily good, staying the same is just fine. However, while populations in the country, state, region are still growing, then it is unwise to expect everything to stay stagnant. Doing so indefinitely would lead to our entire country, state, region turning into a massive suburb. Urban Planners should not expect the public to comprehend this. They won’t care because there is no direct consequence to them. Informing them, were they even to listen (have you read the comments section in the PI/Seattle Times on anything that informs the public of impacts of sprawl, induced traffic demand, etc? though not representative of the average citizen, they are probably a good representation of the outspoken special interest citizen), would result in little benefit in terms of them opting for the greater good. If the duty of governments is to protect its citizens, including from themselves, then should they not ignore selfish individuals and make decisions for the greater good? (I realize the notion of the “greater good” is a moving target, i.e. our decision to conduct urban renewal. This, however, should not detract from the idea of a governing body seeking to make decisions based upon best available science in favor of a more laissez-faire ideology.)

  7. Spencer

    Matt,
    Are you saying all the hard work that has gone into creating what CC is now will all be for waste? The only zoned sites after these three 65 foot high ones are the 40 foot ones along Rainer Ave. All but one have proven and sustainable businesses. Are you suggesting they be pushed out for development? What you seem to be suggesting is CC becomes the Ballard of South Seattle where we tear down completely good buildings for “improvement” and density sake.

    The issue for me has nothing to do with parking although my heart does go out for all the alley-less single family houses surrounding this site. The new building will supply 400 parking spaces. The light rail station will certainly draw a share of park and ride drivers too. I haven’t seen any acknowledgment from sound transit on this issue.

    As Roger has surmised my issue is in part, via this example, a height issue but only as it is a symptom. The height and size of this particular building is not responsible to its neighbors. It does not connect through to adjacent commercial property and it places high 40-60 foot volumes next to 1 and 1 1/2 story houses. They are interested in bringing in a big retailer.

    But, what is really disconcerting to me is the neglect on the part of developers, the city and the pro-growth community toward the people of the neighborhoods. The people of the neighborhood have spent a large part of their lives investing in the small businesses and each other turning a community around and making it special. Developers most often arrive after the hard work is done to exploit this prior hard work. In this case it’s to exponentially grow rather than smartly grow. The City has graciously allowed SE Seattle to have detached accessory dwellings. If any of the three above were in support of smart growth they would create sponsorship of this accessory development rather than the “hand of God” development.

    What I find missing from a lot of development that I have learned from living in Columbia City is that community is made by neighbors and not by buildings and not by profit. My particular block in CC is strong because we are friends with our neighbors. We share tools, food and companionship. Most development I’ve seen in Seattle destroys this by dislocation due to increasing property value.

    To me smart and sustainable growth begins with knowing what has made a particular community, learning what that knowledge is, and supporting what is already there.

  8. Dan Staley

    Dan S: I understand your argument, growth isn’t necessarily good, staying the same is just fine. However, while populations in the country, state, region are still growing, then it is unwise to expect everything to stay stagnant. … If the duty of governments is to protect its citizens, including from themselves, then should they not ignore selfish individuals and make decisions for the greater good?

    Sure.

    Until human population growth gets under control, this ‘growth’ conversation is moot. Why?

    Human population growth continues to negatively effect ecosystems (the things on which our socioeconomic systems are built), as I said on Cyburbia.

    wrt NIMBYism and continued development of the built environment, NIMBYism is a normal human reaction. The overarching question is: can we change human nature to do what we need to do to get some sustainability around here.

    I’m a glass half-full guy, but it is half-full of tainted groundwater from big ag. All I figger I can do is create excellent patterns in hopes that we somehow get a clue sometime soon.

  9. Steve

    Spencer -

    Great points — community really is made of people, and to the degree that development drives people away, it undermines that community. That’s a great argument for non-destructive development (a la detached accessory dwellings).

    I’m not sure I understand your objection to the Columbia City development in question, though. It sounds like this development will be going into a currently unused piece of land, so I’m confused how it threatens the community. Are you worried that just by bringing as many people as a six story building can hold, the development will destroy the sense of community that the existing neighbors feel? Or is it something about the kind of people it will draw — that people who live in new apartments are less likely to be invested in the welfare of the overall community than people living in older houses?

  10. Spencer

    Steve,
    What troubles me most about this new development is the lack of thought on the part of the developer to understand and investigate what this neighborhood wants and desires. They, like most developers, assumed that because a parcel is zoned for a building to be 65 feet high and can accommodate 400 new residents that it is best for this neighborhood.
    Sustainable development should, in my opinion, investigate the current conditions of a neighborhood, learns what the people know there and helps those residents develop their neighborhood in a manner they can support.
    Neglect and disrespect of those people who have spent their lifetime living in a neighborhood is a prime character of gentrification. Established residences know their neighborhood. They have seen it grow. They have been the one’s supporting it. They also know their neighbors and share and care for them. Projects like the one proposed for St. Gobain displace people by increasing demand for the neighborhood ultimately ending in higher surrounding property values.
    Sure, this site is an old factory and no houses or apartments will be lost by its immediate construction but it is the long term affects that are concerning. Developers fail to model or consider the impact their projects have on a neighborhood beyond increased population and commerce. They do not consider what affect their project will have on the current residents, who will have to leave, what businesses will fail that are currently serving who lives there now. This is the shot-gun approach to development I mentioned above.
    Don’t get me wrong. I am a pro-growth person. I just don’t support it at the cost of the backs that got Columbia City to where it is now.

  11. Steve

    Spencer-

    I think that makes sense. The thing you’re objecting to, if I understand correctly, is that the developer has realized value from the community (since it’s community work that has made Columbia City desirable) yet has no accountability to the community in their development process.

    How do you think the development process should be structured in order to make the developer accountable to the community?

  12. wes

    Spencer,
    There are many factors that go into the prices of land and homes and I think you are underestimating three major causes when you directly blame developers for rising land values in your neighborhood. The upcoming light rail station and rising populations in the region (like it or not, but Seattle has added 20,000 people to its ranks since 2000) are major contributors to increasing demand for housing in…well, the entire city, county, and region, not just your neighborhood. Combine that with little in the way of upzones, which encourages expectations that supply will not change, and you have your increase in prices in the region. This might be a gross oversimplification, but I believe these are the three major contributors not a singular development in Columbia City.
    Warning, snarkiness ahead (at least I warned you): Until Dave S. sees the controlling of population growth that he is hoping for, then I don’t think you can expect any different. Either figure out how to turn back our progresses in medicine, lower birth rates, or increase death rates. So, since I just can’t help myself, you and Dave should be big fans of people not wearing bicycle helmets, because if not wearing one has as big an impact on the numbers of people dying in the area that you guys think it does, then there is your control on population growth…
    *ducks*
    All joking around aside, I think you should expect more from both the Planning Department and your neighborhood during the planning process, not more from individual developers. If development regulations are not setup ahead of time to guide development towards something more akin to what your neighborhood is look for, then it is due to a failure of either of the afore mentioned parties, or both, when the planning process occurred. Expecting every developer to trudge through endless nitpicking by individuals is neither effective nor fair. Take a look at what Capitol Hill’s beautiful new parking lot right in the center of what was the hot activity zone for a good reason not to let individuals interfere so late in the process. http://slog.thestranger.com/2008/04/how_a_crusade_to_save_pikepine_is_turnin. Good on the neighbor’s intentions to want to have the City impact development in positive ways and to ensure that residents in new buildings on active streets have good sound proofing to be able to survive a night above loud bars, but after permits have already been provided and the old buildings already torn down? Come on, there is plenty of options to get involved ages before that.

  13. wes

    oops, sorry Dan S., I wrote in Dave…

  14. Spencer

    Wes,
    I agree there are many factors to what causes increased property value and I did paint a very simplistic view of the situation but a true on none-th-less.
    I do expect more from both the planning department and our review boards. We all should. This is a community problem with city wide implications. For me it starts with developers. To make a proper contribution to a neighborhood they need to know the best way to get involved. The people who know this answer are the people who live in the area.

    Having worked for a developer I know that most development begins with a proforma. That means they analyze the profit making potential first. There’s nothing wrong with making a profit, but, it shouldn’t be the only reason. It especially shouldn’t be the only reason if we are talking about providing a benefit to the community and providing needed housing. Both of those things come with social responsibility.

  15. Brian

    The problem is most neighbors “know” that what the neighborhood “needs” is more of the same. That’s a recipe for stasis.

  16. Dan Staley

    I appreciate the fact that some folks think that I hope for some kind of command-and-control structure to control human population growth. Those who know me know that I am laughing at these folks and their silly assertion.

    What troubles me most about this new development is the lack of thought on the part of the developer to understand and investigate what this neighborhood wants and desires.

    You cannot mandate that a developer think about the neighborhood.

    You can only hope they do. Nothing more.

    Delaying a project approval to force an unwilling developer to think about the neighborhood raises the project cost, increases housing prices, creates bad will, and makes people resent the gummint even more than they do now.

  17. wes

    Not even a sideways smiley face? That was funny. The bicycle…helmet…ref…ahh, never mind.

    “You cannot mandate that a developer think about the neighborhood.

    You can only hope they do. Nothing more.

    Delaying a project approval to force an unwilling developer to think about the neighborhood raises the project cost, increases housing prices, creates bad will, and makes people resent the gummint even more than they do now.”

    Amen, that is what I’ve been trying to get at. The developer is not responsible to individuals in a neighborhood. Developer’s can be pointed in the correct direction, but the main thing they are going to think about is their money, or bank’s rather. Even the good ones like Liz Dunn (I think that is her name) on Cap Hill. If your neighborhood doesn’t like the product they are producing, again, either your neighborhood failed in the original planning process or the Planning Department is failing your neighborhood. You shouldn’t expect the developer to concern themselves with such.

    I am concerned, however, that underneath all of what Spencer has said, is a desire to keep CC exactly the way it is, or was. Such is not possible (again the growth comment), especially with a light rail stop landing in late 2009. Zoning and development should already reflect this very near future of the neighborhood. Forgive me if I am wrong Spencer, but out of all your posts, I can only gather that the reason this project is an issue is because it will be 65 feet high (only 20 feet higher than surrounding buildings…which doesn’t sound like too much to me) and feature 400 units.

  18. mike

    i call bull because the price of a permit is miniscule compared to the total cost of construction.

  19. Brian

    “What troubles me most about this new development is the lack of thought on the part of the developer to understand and investigate what this neighborhood wants and desires.”

    What does this statement even mean? There is no such thing as “the neighborhood” with specific “wants and desires.” A “neighborhood” is a mix of people with varied interests, connections, histories, and personalities. Many have little interest in the arcana of zoning regulations, little understanding of development economics or population realities. Many don’t even fully understand what said neighborhoods “need.” Heck, there was a neighborhood in my home town that was adamantly opposed to a new park that provided what turned out to be heavily used basketball courts. Why? Because said courts might attract “them” from across the river. (Fort Wayne was a VERY segregated town). So…should we always listen to the NIMBYs’ definition of what the “neighbrohood wants and desires”?

    Some individuals, especially in “progressive” cities like Seattle or the Bay Area (where I live) are especially prone to a particular disease of self righteoussness. “What I want and desire is not only correct, it is morally correct and anyone opposing me is the enemy and immoral.” It becomes WAR. People like this are great at appointing themselves leaders of “the neighborhood.” Their view of morality transcends realities of economics, population growth, the need for change, the need for a return on investment. Generally, they themselves risk nothing, lose nothing, if they serve as obstructionists just for the sake of stopping all change. Note that I am not saying developers are always correct or that neighborhood movements cannot be spontaenously generated and reflect real issues and concerns.

  20. Spencer

    Wes,
    I forgive you for being wrong. It baffles me that all you can glean from my posts is that I have a gripe against the height limit of this particular building. With all your other insight on other subjects I am disappointed with how reductive you are with all I have said. I thought my intentions were clear that I was using this case to illustrate my concerns over the process of development and its effects on neighborhoods. I guess not. Although I see problems with this project no where have I said that I am opposed to it.

    Sure, I would like to see Columbia City stay the same. I would like for all the people who can afford to live there be able to stay there. I would like to know my neighbors are watching out for me just as I watch out for them. I’d like to share dinner in the front yard with them and say hi to everyone I know. I like the diversity make up that is unlike anywhere else in this city. So, excuse me for being concerned, when a developer says they are forgoing the opportunity to provide low cost housing for the one part of our city’s population that needs it. My concern has brought to my attention that some people don’t care about what has made a place strong and would rather exploit rather than extend a helping hand.

    I hate to say the cliche, but I have to ask to agree to disagree on the point of the knowledge people have of their own neighborhood. By denying that knowledge you play into the hands of shortsighted developers and foolish city planners. Day to day people are living and understanding their neighborhoods. They are the organism that makes it work and sustainable. They are the ones who ultimately care for and use their neighborhoods every day. I’m sorry that you all can’t see that people love their neighborhoods and yes they might just want them to stay the way they are. What you are missing from not talking with them is understanding what their real fears of the future are. It may not be that there’s a big building across the street but that the people across the street (in the new big building) won’t care for the street life. They won’t say hi or support the existing businesses that the “locals” helped to keep going through the tough times.

    If I have to put is simply, people fear lack of respect when they’ve put their life into something and someone comes along to change it. Of course they will resist. The mistake most make is thinking People fear change. Change is inevitable. We all know that. People fear loss; loss of what they have poured their life into, what they’ve made out of years of hard work. Don’t assume resistance to growth is out of fear of change. That is being short sighted. That is seeing the symptom and thinking it is the illness.

    Brian,
    so it sounds like what people in Fort Wayne were resistant to was not the physical change to their neighborhood but the sociological change. That’s a huge difference. Maybe the developer of that park saw through their resistance to the acutal park and knew that for the neighborhood it would build bridges? You live through this change is that what you think they saw?

    I’m getting the impression from some of these posts there is a lack of faith in what people actually know and a total reliance on so called experts. In my experience of working with neighborhood groups most people get lost in the jargon that we all comfortably use. They become confused with acronyms and tend to feel talked down to because they “don’t get it”. I’ve heard people say it’s like hearing another language and there is no translation. I’ve seen groups completely bail out on a project that would have been a benefit for them because of the style and wording of a presentation. The presenter even said he did not care how he was saying something but that it would be understood because it was said. There is also little time spent actually addressing the real concerns and resistance. Because time is short and issues are large real concerns get reduced down to simplified ideas.

    I apologize for jumping from one topic to the next. There’s so much ground to cover. The topic has gotten a long way from Roger’s article. Sorry Roger I did not mean to pull it this far away.

  21. BrianM

    But, again, Spencer, you are missing my point. too often “neighborhood activists” are themselves self-appointed “experts” who do not and cannot reflect the diversity of opinions and needs in a neighborhood. More importantly, it is not their money, their company’s future that is directly impacted by negativism for the sake of negativism. A perfect example on Curbed SF (paraphrased): “I think this (proposed) building is bland. I, although my money is not at stake here, would rather have this lot sit vacant for twenty years and be a neighborhood eyesore (current status) than building something that falls short of my hgih-minded ideals for visionary design. Even though I would also oppose visionary, cutting edge architecture as well, because it is ugly. So…build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody!”

    I’m not deferring to “experts,” but neighborhood activists themselves are not always right. As for sociological change-too bad. Neighborhoods do change. They are not frozen in time.

  22. wes

    Spencer,
    I admit to having quickly gleamed over your comments once more before writing that. After a few days of commenting, I start to forget the original comments that brought me to where I am currently at.
    I understand. I wonder if there is some way to alter the process but without making it overly complex…I don’t want to see mine or anyone else’s neighborhood cookie-cuttered, but, likewise, I don’t want to see developments tied up for years over a minor detail like whether it actually has cornices (that’s a crack on the delayed development on Capitol Hill I mentioned before).
    BTW: I think the Columbia City neighborhood plan will be getting an update soonish since the Council wants to combine both station-area planning and neighborhood planning. Should be a good way for residents to have a long-term impact. I don’t believe the City will be updating neighborhood plans in neighborhoods without a future lightrail station.

  23. Spencer

    Brian,

    I agree about “Neighborhood Activist,” they usually have an agenda nor have they usually lived long in a neighborhood. But in my reference I’m not talking about neighborhood activist. I’m talking about the people who live in the neighborhood. I’m sorry that isn’t clear to you.

  24. Spencer

    Wes,

    Agreed. In hindsight I hated seeing my projects being tied down too. We, the owner of the development company and/or I, went door to door talking with neighbors about our projects and listening to their concerns. I would suggest more direct one-on-one contact with people. It makes them feel a little more important, gives them a chance to understand better what the project is about, gives them time to ask their questions and keeps them from being influenced by mob mentality.

    I’m excited to see the future of Columbia City and it’s neighborhood plan. We have a lot of good people doing good development down there. I just don’t want Seattle to be anchored by Ballard North and Ballard South.

    P.s. I’m saying “hi wes” to all the bikers I see without a helmet. Maybe we’ll meet sometime!

  25. BrianM

    Spencer-your last post certainly makes sense. Coming from the Bay Area, where the level of rhetoric and self righteoussness reigns supreme, I become perhaps over-sensitive to “neighbohood outreach.”

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