The Messiah And The Wide-eyed Naive Enviros

Advocates for affordable housing provide a much needed service in a growing city like Seattle, and I have no doubt that John Fox — one of the City’s stalwarts — has the best of intentions. But as his latest rant (co-authored by Carolee Colter) sadly illustrates, his zealotry is once again eclipsing his reason.

Futurewise and the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA) have written a detailed response to set the record straight, most of which is posted below (full pdf here). Unfortunately, as the Rove-led Republicans knew so well, once misinformation is unleashed, it’s exceedingly difficult to undo.

Some background: Futurewise and WLIHA are crafting State legislation designed to help the region fully leverage its investment in transit infrastructure. The proposed bill mandates that within high-capacity transit station areas, zoning must allow an average net housing density of 50-units per acre.

It appears that much of the Fox/Colter hyperventilating stems from a limited understanding of both density metrics, and the interplay between zoning and current land use. They cite gross density data, while the proposed legislation is defined in terms of net density. And they fail to acknowledge that in most urban areas, zoning typically allows several times the capacity of existing land use.

As the Fox/Colter piece notes, Belltown’s existing gross housing unit density is 25/acre. But the net housing unit density is probably closer to 40/acre, while the existing zoning allows hundreds of units per acre. This proposed tower in Belltown has a density of 1200 units/acre. The 4-story mixed-use building at Rainier Vista shown below is about 100 units/acre — not exactly Manhattan.

[ Three stories of residential over retail typically yields about 100 units/acre. ]

The bottom line is that the proposed legislation would have but a minor effect on zoning in most of the Seattle station areas. Existing zoning at the Mount Baker station likely already exceeds the 50 unit/acre threshold. But in the visions of Fox and Colter, the bill would “lay waste to whole communities.”

They also want us to believe that the bill would steal away our trees. To those with a similarly misguided Lorax-complex, one question: Which would result in more net trees lost, (A) one new 100-unit, 6-story mixed-use building, or (B) one hundred new single family homes? 

Furthermore, their fretting over potential single-family upzones — that for the record, the proposed bill would NOT require — makes no sense at all if affordable housing is the goal.  Affordable single-family is a non-sequitur. 

Whether it’s trees or housing or transportation, most density alarmists are apparently incapable of grasping that what happens on the ground in a neighborhood can have effects well beyond the boundaries of that neighborhood. Channeling Seattle’s growth to high-capacity transit station areas is one of our most promising strategies for enhancing sustainability at the citywide, regional, and even planetary scale. People cannot honestly claim to be concerned about equity without acknowledging that the welfare of people and ecosystems spanning the city, region, and planet must be appropriately weighed against the interests of local residents.

Regrettably, when John Fox lets his messiah complex get the better of him and goes all bombastic on “wild-eyed naive enviros” and “social engineering at its worst,” he is alienating many of his best allies in the struggle to ensure the availability of affordable housing in Seattle.

Futurewise/WLIHA Response:

…In response to the Fox/Colter article, we emphasize that the TOC bill would have minimal, if any, impact on the zoning of most future light rail stations in Seattle.

The TOC bill addresses allowed net density, not current use. The Fox/Colter article references the density of current land use (what is on the ground today), but neglects to mention that the TOC bill deals with allowed net density and does not force any change to current land use. The bill requires that zoning in half-mile radius high-capacity transit station areas have an allowed net density (the maximum density allowed under zoning, not including public rights-of-way) of 50 dwelling units per acre, although the current use in most areas would continue to be substantially less than that. Most future Seattle light rail station areas already have sufficient zoning in place to meet this threshold.

For example, the current land use density of Southeast Seattle may be four units per acre. However, even in a typical single-family zone the allowed net density is actually 17 units per acre (8.5 single-family homes + 8.5 detached accessory dwelling units). Multi-family low and mid-rise zones in Southeast Seattle can accommodate 100-300 units per acre. The many L-4 zones in the Hope VI developments can accommodate 72 units per acre (109 units, if lowincome). These developments are already zoned at much higher densities than that called for in the TOC bill.

Second, the TOC bill addresses average density, and would not require changes to single-family zones. Local communities should decide what shape density should take. An entire station area zoned at L-3 (allowing 54 units per acre in three-story structures) would meet the threshold. However, if a community wanted to preserve lower-density zones at the periphery of a station area, the threshold could be met by off-setting the low density zones with higher density zones closer to the core—such as do the many NC-65 sites that can accommodate over 200 units per acre adjacent to the future Mount Baker and Othello stations.

What will the TOC bill do? Because the Seattle station areas strive to be livable and walkable, without the park-and-rides found in other cities, it is imperative that land use, housing and transportation policies allow more people the opportunity to live and work in communities in which they will not need to rely on a car to access homes, jobs, and services. We therefore chose the 50 unit threshold because it is the tipping point at which more trips are taken by walking or transit than by car. The half-mile radius was selected because it is the distance up to which most people are willing to walk to access high-capacity transit.

Therefore a 502-acre station area (approximately 376 net acres) would accommodate 18,800 units. Full build-out would take 50-100 years, at which point the Seattle region is expected to grow by several million additional residents. Because buildings built today may be on the ground for at least 50-100 years, our land use policy must think equally long-term. For example, the Capitol Hill and Northgate station areas have already been zoned for decades at densities many times higher than those called for in the TOC bill. Although it will be many more decades before those communities are built-out, it is important that the zoning considers long-term projections.

…WLIHA is in the process of adding a housing element that will address many of the suggestions laid out in the article, including ways of creating a net increase of housing affordable to low and moderate income in these areas and require that units remain affordable well into the future.