There He Goes Again

In case you missed it, the final verdict on transit-oriented development is in:

“Displacement Coalition says TOD bad for people, business & environment”

So reads the headline for yet another ludicrous compilation of specious arguments from the ever-prolific Carolee Colter and John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition.  Not satisfied only with fear-mongering through mendacious interpretations of the density targets proposed in the “Creating Transit-Oriented Communities” legislation (HB 1490), Colter and Fox are now striving to sow false seeds of doubt about the merits of transit-oriented development itself. Applying the time-tested model of the global warming deniers, their tactic is to raise questions that are irrelevant (e.g. it snowed in London!), but nonetheless appear to be troubling contradictions unless you get beyond a surface level understanding.

For a piece so packed with illogical arguments, false conjecture, and sloppy facts, a full rebuttal is a tedious prospect (like this).  So why bother responding at all?  Because the Colter/Fox noise machine works.  There is no shortage of people who eat it right up (as anyone who was at last week’s Mt. Baker Community Club meeting could attest), and these people have the potential to create significant road blocks to badly needed progress.

In what follows I stick to the overarching flaws in their case, with the hope that commenters will weigh in on some of the gory details.  Though it may be hard to believe (for me, at least), this blog — potty-mouthed name and all — captures a fair share of eyeballs from policy makers.  So if you care about this issue, know that your comments have the potential to be a resource for decision makers.


Right out of the gate, Colter and Fox allege that the benefits of TOD are just another fantasy of those wacky enviros:

“On the surface TOD sounds plausible. But where’s the scientific evidence that it will actually work?”

Of course, this is just a slippery tactic for creating the impression that there is none.  But alas, Carolee and John, that is the farthest thing from the truth.   There are piles of published studies on compact development and TOD that demonstrate the environmental benefits.  One good source is the Urban Land Institute’s recently published book Growing Cooler, which posits a mathematical relationship between density and CO2 emissions based on a wide survey of published literature.  Colter and Fox are either staggeringly ignorant about the topic on which they are writing, or they are liars.

Throughout the rest of the piece the authors disregard their own demand for scientific evidence and proceed to speculate freely about all manner of possible development impacts, while providing nothing in the way of analysis or hard data to support their contention that TOD would do more harm than good.

But here’s the crux of it:  There is a gaping flaw in logic that forms a common thread running all through Colter and Fox’s arguments, and that is their failure to acknowledge the fact that if growth is not accommodated in TOD, it will have to go somewhere else.  Apparently they fantasize that development has magical powers to create growth where there was none before, and that the demographers’ projections of regional population growth will be proven wrong if only TOD could be stopped.   

So for example, the embodied energy sacrificed with the demolition of a building is only part of the story.  For honest accounting, you would have to compare the total impact of the TOD scenario with the total impact of the no TOD scenario.  And no TOD doesn’t  translate to no new construction — the same amount of new housing units would have to be built in some other location.  And since that other location would invariably be less urban and lower density, it is all but certain that TOD would have a lower net environmental impact.

Same goes for the scenario in which a resident is displaced to the suburbs and ends up driving more miles.  Let’s say for example that the redeveloped building could house ten people for every one that lived in the existing building.  What Colter and Fox are ignoring is that if the old building was preserved, then you would end up with ten people forced to live in places where they would have to drive more, instead of just one.

And same again with trees: if you have to provide a given number of new housing units somewhere, and you want to minimize the loss of carbon sequestration by trees, then clearly the best solution is to locate the new housing in an already developed urban area, and build it as dense and as tall as possible.  The result of curtailing TOD would be precisely the opposite of what Colter and Fox contend:  more trees would be lost overall, more viable habitat would be destroyed, and greenhouse gas emissions would increase.  Climate change is not a neighborhood-scale phenomenon.

The Seattle Displacement Coalition has a noble mission, and the impact of redevelopment on the most vulnerable in our communities is an important equity issue. But the babble of Carolee and Fox reveal a mindset trapped in one-issue tunnel vision and remarkably oblivious to the realities of the present day.  If we do not make drastic, systemic changes to the way we live, climate change will displace hundreds of millions of the poor and vulnerable across the globe.  And one of the most promising strategies we have for systemic change is to create compact, mixed-use communities with easy access to high-capacity transit.  That is, TOD.

Affordable housing and TOD are not mutually exclusive, and there are countless smart and dedicated people working on solutions that will help create both.  Too bad the members of the Seattle Displacement Coalition are not among them.

31 Responses to “There He Goes Again”

  1. Joshua

    Dan, you nailed it on the head towards the end of your appreciated rant. Yes, by not pursuing TOD, we are able to preserve some lower income housing. This argument engages people in an emotive way (like those damn “Save the Children” kids on the street who make me feel like a baby-hater everyday). But the overall effects of global warming on developing countries is far more drastic. Folks like Colter and Fox (could their last names be any more apropos?) have found a soapbox and tapped into a simplistic line of logic that makes sense when viewed through the tunnel vision so prevalent in our society. But this battle is a long one, unfortunately – it’s only when the newer generations grow up reading the blog that we’ll have “real change”. Maybe I’ll go save one of those babies…

  2. Matt the Engineer

    I don’t think we need to go as far as 3rd world countries to save lower income housing. Building a greater supply of housing decreases overall housing prices _right here_ in Seattle. It’s basic supply and demand.

  3. New Yorker

    “On the surface TOD sounds plausible. But where’s the scientific evidence that it will actually work?”

    Greenwich Village. There’s the evidence.

  4. JoshMahar

    It’s sad that the Displacement Coalition can’t see that this bill is something they should be rallying behind and cooperatively discussing. The entire point of this bill is to make sure that a bunch of wealthy people don’t buy up all the land near the transit stations and build luxury homes for a very small number of people. Perhaps it’s not perfect but it certainly is an attempt to direct the inevitable change that will take place around transit hubs towards positive, equitable solutions for everyone.

  5. Bill LaBorde

    Fox’s argument is easily summed up as light rail/density = gentrification = poor people out on the street. Yet, the part he misses is that the gentrification was coming to SE Seattle anyway, even without light rail and certainly without this bill. Yes, light rail will accelerate the process of gentrification, and probably keep it going even in a terrible economy. But, HB 1490 makes little difference to transformation of light rail station areas in SE Seattle where densities are already close to what’s called for in the bill. But, what the bill does to protect SE Seattle is ensure a mix of market rate, low-income and work force housing in station areas.

    This is where Fox is completely out to lunch. He refuses to acknowledge that gentrification is well on it’s way in SE Seattle and that HB 1490 is the only game in town for ensuring a mix of housing types with good access to light rail. This is why the bill is a priority for the Low-Income Housing Alliance, as well as housing activists like Rep. Mark Miloscia and even Frank Chopp.

    Fox’s allies in this fight are not housing activists, they are NIMBY’s who oppose low-income housing and services for low-income people in the Rainier Valley. Pat Murakami and Ray Akers are their leaders. Fox has no allies in the housing community so he has resorted to crass opportunism to ally himself with folks who hate poor people.

  6. serial catowner

    This post is a wonderfully succinct refutation of Foxian verbalizing, using that most elegant of tools, logic.

    As noted, increased housing stocks in TOD lowers price pressure on housing outside TOD. NIMBYs should relocate outside transportation corridors and enjoy the free ride they get when others relocate inside transportation corridors.

  7. R on Beacon Hill

    The latest from Colter and Fox took root because of HB 1490, a high-handed, top-down approach to dealing with neighborhood planning issues. There are lots of right-minded people in the affected Seattle neighborhoods who can and do support well-designed higher-density development around light rail stations, but they don’t want it imposed from Olympia via surprise legislation.

    The folks who were drafting this bill last fall seemed to go out of their way to not engage with any neighborhood leaders in SE Seattle. They received very poor strategic advice (or maybe none at all?) and the result is needless dustup and a setback for TOD.

  8. Renee

    What do you think of Sally Clark’s comments in the Rainier Valley Post that: “The jury’s out on the bill for me,” adds Clark. “I like the bill’s goals…but then I put my elected official hat on and I’m not as wild about growth management on that detailed a level being handed down from the state to neighborhoods. I’m a believer in the sanctity of grassroots urban planning.”

    It seems to me that many grassroots urban planning activists (and grassroots environmentalists and grassroots affordable housing advocates and neighborhood leaders and normal grassroots neighborhood people) want to see the type of detailed guidance that is being proposed.

  9. Anna Markee

    Affordable housing providers who recognize that government money will never be able to fund enough affordable housing have been working on ensuring that a portion of new development is available for working families. We have had mixed results in Seattle. This bill has great provisions not only to protect current low-income renters but also to set-aside a portion of new housing at lower prices.

    Everyone should have the opportunity to live in a safe, decent, affordable home. The Transit Oriented Communities Bill gives us a chance to accomplish that value while also reducing climate change and giving people more time to spend with their families.

    It’s better for society, the environment and families if people can afford to live close to where they work.

  10. michael

    “I’m a believer in the sanctity of grassroots urban planning”

    this is all fine and good until you have a neighborhood that has an agenda that runs counter to goals and issues that extend far beyond that neighborhood, i.e. climate change, regional mobility, affordable housing, etc.

  11. joshuadf

    Wishing development would go away is not helping the displaced, but I’d like to draw attention to an organization that is actually providing TOD to working families today, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI). They have hundreds of units in Seattle and surrounding areas, most reserved for those making 30% or 40% of King County’s Adjusted Median Income (AMI). They use high quality design and green construction, see for example the Denny Park Apartments in South Lake Union. Unfortunately LIHI has closed new applications because they “have over 6,000 families and individuals on our waitlist.” I wish the first number was larger and the second was zero.

  12. Spencer

    As a supporter in the previous post of what Seattle Displacement Coalition said, I have to say I disagree with what they have posted in the Rainier Valley Post. Although they are correct in much of the statistics of their arguement it really has no bearing on this issue.

    With that said I am still not convinced with HB 1490. First off, I have to say I agree with Anna Markee. This bill has some better provisions for housing preservation then the City’s current offering. But, I think the main question we should be asking ourselves is do we want this legislation coming from the top down? Is TOD best coming from a state level? Is it in our city zoning’s best interest to have yet another overlay based on the State’s requirements?

    I really feel Futurewise and its supporting cast have missed an opportunity to work with a few existing communities to improve density and neighborhood building. Their method instead goes over everyone’s head instead of building on the support of key communities and cities by developing good city and neighborhood ordinances. Real ground breaking work could have happened if Futurewise engaged and worked locally. People at the Columbia City meeting were all in favor of TOD but disliked the way their concerns with disregarded by Futurewise.

    The Transportation Choices representative at this meeting stated that the real concerns for this Bill were to enforce dense development in the neighboring cites to Seattle. So does this mean that Seattle is just the collateral damage to this Bill?

    Could another method have been followed that was more inclusive? Could Futurewise and allies spent their resources working with the first communities impacted by their ideas? I think there could have been another way.

    Gaining the support of a diverse range of cities and neighborhoods could have built a strong supportive case as examples to other towns, cities and neighborhoods. Instead we now will have a piece of legislation that will immediately cause controversy.

    If you think the NYMBYs are out now, HB 1490 only will bring more dissent from NYMBYs when future station locations are debated. Because of this stations will likely be in less convenient locations.

    I’d also like to put two cents toward the sustainability aspect of this Bill and the discussion. The talk thus far is about housing and transporting people. There is little talk of providing work for people. The TOD discussion as well as the work of Futurewise and friends could have a greater impact on carbon emissions and sustainability if it includes the mention of jobs. So far we have a train and housing, but all these people need work to do. The best place for them to do work and the most sustainable place for them to do work is not by getting on the train. I think you all would agree that if all these new residents could walk directly to work that would be the most carbon efficient and sustainable method. The truth of the matter is most, if not all, of these people will be leaving the Rainier Valley to work some where else. That’s a pitty. If any part of our city needs a leg up it’s the Rainier Valley.

  13. Spencer


    You said, “gentrification was coming to SE Seattle anyway,” and “gentrification is well on it’s way in SE Seattle.” Coming from one of the leaders of this bill this is not a positive attitude to take considering you are a spokesperson for bill and some people of the Rainier Valley feel gentrification is destroying the neighborhood quality of the SE. If you are out to preserve gentrification you are missing what the SE is all about and should really take a long look at the people living there now and help respect, preserve and improve their way of life.

    You have an opportunity to create a better community then just gentrification. Your comments on gentrification are misguided and likely will be met with resistance from the long standing members of the Rainier Valley if you continue to believe that it is a positive situation for the SE.

  14. justin

    “some people of the Rainier Valley feel gentrification is destroying the neighborhood quality of the SE”

    ah yes great qualities like hearing gunshots at night and being scared to walk alone… I guess some people would enjoy that, but I would never move my family there.

  15. tres_arboles

    The complaint from those who purport to support the idea behind the bill but “dislike the way it has been introduced” (“top-down” “no neighborhood engagement”) is utterly disingenuious.

    Pardon me if I gag on statements like “meeting with neighborhood leaders” etc that are so typical of the mostly appropriately-maligned “Seattle Process.” First, do these “leaders,” even if they self-identify a such, have any authentic authority? If they do, then how is that any less “top down?” If they don’t, what’s the point?

    And then, for the pragmatists among us, how do you expect that taking input from myriad, self-identified “neighborhood leaders” supposed to lead to an end product that beats the proposed solution from a public policy standpoint? Oh yeah. We fulfill that other famous Seattle pooka: “Consensus.”

    Look, either you support the goals of legislation or you don’t. Faulting process while supporting the endpoint is a cop out. Blaming the tiny non-profit that is carrying all the water on this issue for the entire State is bullshit.

  16. Sara @ Futurewise

    R on Beacon Hill and Spencer and others,
    Without a doubt it would have been great, better even, to have had the luxury of time to meet with the communities impacted by this legislation — 42 station areas in all, under current transit plans — before introducing this bill. But time is a luxury that we dont have. We were presented with the Land Use and Climate Change committee recommendations in December, and with the sentiment surrounding the passage of Prop 1, had the opportunity to advocate for some bold changes in the 2009 session that would take effect in time for the 2011 Comprehensive Plan updates. If we miss this window to impact the 2011 updates, then the next chance we have is in 2018. By 2018, the Central Link and University Link will have been running for years, with North, East and South Link only another couple years away. Land use patterns will have been determined in the intervening years — in many cases resulting in low-density neighborhoods that don’t meet our long term growth needs, don’t offer affordable housing options, and don’t sufficiently help with our overall goal to reduce greenhouse gas production and vehicle miles traveled.
    And as I probably dont need to tell anyone who reads this blog, when it comes to addressing global warming, 2018 is too late. It is too late.

  17. Dan Staley

    Faulting process while supporting the endpoint is a cop out.

    Those that can’t or won’t or refuse to do anything do this. Others STFU and get sh*t done.

  18. Bill LaBorde

    Spencer @13: Seems to me that the downside of gentrification in the case of the Rainier Valley is loss of lower-income housing, especially loss of low-income rental housing, and the displacement that comes from loss of such housing. But, that is exactly why this bill is so much better than the status quo.

    Again, anyone who’s looked around in the last few years has seen that the Valley is changing. Light rail is a factor, but a bigger reason is that the Valley has a lot of good quality housing stock, cheaper than even a lot of surrounding suburbs, and because it’s only a few miles from two major job centers – downtown Seattle and downtown Bellevue.

    The status quo will lead to continued gentrification, even in a down economy, which will then lead to pricing a lot of longtime residents out of the neighborhood. HB 1490 deals with this head-on. It requires set-asides for low-income and workforce housing, one-for-one replacement of affordable housing lost to new development, and notice and relocation assistance for displaced renters.

    So, given that the bill makes a far-reaching attempt to address the down-side of gentrification, I’m hard pressed to see why we’re being insensitive to the community. Given that the bill is really focused on station areas outside of Seattle, the low-income housing provisions were mostly developed for the benefit of SE Seattle. And, BTW, I live in the Rainier Valley, with kids either in, or headed to, public schools in the Rainier Valley.

  19. Finishtag

    I just finished doing the density calculation for First & Cedar apartments, supportive housing for homeless individuals. (Noted on HAC for having no parking)

    549 units per acre.

    Just saying.

  20. Hey Wait

    I already posted my take on John Fox in the comments on Slog.

    I’ll save you time; here’s the conclusion:
    “I guess what it comes down to is that Fox has totally given up on us ever being able to create enough new very low-income housing to meet the need, so he just focuses on what we’ve got left. That might work for a while… but it’s just not sustainable. Thankfully, mainstream affordable housing groups are working toward that goal. While they’re willing to admit that they can’t do it themselves, they’re pushing hard to enlist for-profits by having the City create incentives for them. (It’s long and it’s slow and people get angry seeing developers incentivized to create what looks like expensive “affordable” housing, but it’s the right fight.)”

  21. R D

    Seattle’s neighborhood planning process, last undertaken in the ’90s and completed in ’98, was a sensible, community-driven, consensus-building process. Contrary to the notion that citizens are NIMBYs, communities all over Seattle recognized the benefits of density, welcomed it, and planned for it. I suggest that anyone who is curious review the current plans.

    The Mayor has begun the process of revising and updating those neighborhood plans, with the direction of adding the goal of climate protection. I expect the communities who participate in the process to be as informed and thoughtful as we were ten years ago.

    I believe that HB 1490’s claim to target global warming to be disingenuous. We all agree that density may help, and we all agree that transit oriented development will help. In the past ten years, density has appeared in the designated Urban Villages and Urban Hubs, and by some measures it has exceeded the City’s goal to comply with the targets of the State’s Growth Management Act.

    We are also all concerned with the preservation of affordable housing, and this is not something Seattle is good at. We’re ready to try incentive zoning, because we’ve been told that a developer won’t build affordable housing without being compensated with the opportunity to build more profitable housing as well. I would argue that depending upon the private sector to solve our affordable housing needs is inefficient and indicative of our collective reluctance to take on the task ourselves, with a well-funded public sector effort.

    HB 1490 uses “inclusive” zoning. In this case, the incentive is not made directly to individual developers, but rather to the community of developers. In exchange for a new mandate to build affordable housing, zoning changes will allow developers to build more, and more densely, and at greater reward to themselves.

    As evidence of developers’ interests, note that the state commission that developed HB1490 included developers and realtors (though in an advisory and non-voting capacity) and did not include local Seattle community members who have already demonstrated their ability to write neighborhood plans that accommodate density.

    I’m also concerned with the mechanisms the bill establishes for setting rents. Please note that there isn’t a square-foot for square-foot balance: A renter can be given a $500 per month apartment, but as I understand it , the bill leaves it up to the developer to decide how big the apartment is and its level of amenity.

    But I’ll stop here. I work with private, non-profit developers who are building affordable housing, and I need to go the office.

  22. Spencer


    Quickly. No where have I supported the status quo. My point is that your language does not help your cause. People in the SE have built a community and do not want to see their hard work dismissed and destroyed. The process you all have taken did not respect the hard work people have already put into this neighborhood. These changes are seen as opportunistic to many people in the SE even though they have strong potential to add to the community.

  23. Spencer


    I’m sorry you did not have time to work in the ways you wanted to, but, the other ways are a little nebulous to the rest of us. Some better PR in those communities with the immediate impact would have helped. Getting out to groups, events and people in those neighborhoods could have helped avoid a lot of grumbling.

    It seems if you could get glowing reviews and strong support from the first neighborhoods and cities and the organizations in them it would put you on stronger footings for those areas effected later.

  24. Spencer

    I’d like to open to further discussion how we can improve and speed up the commercial characteristics of these new transit stations. If we can stop or reduce people from having to drive by increasing density and mass transit. can we go the next step and reduce people’s need to get on mass transit and work in their neighborhoods? In short, how do we increase the likelihood and success rate of new business in the TODs?

    Housing plus jobs plus the flexibility of mass transit sounds like a better idea…to me. How about you tes arbols, dan, justin?

  25. Nate Cole-Daum

    Props, and further citing of sources, from Sightline:

  26. Tom Robinson

    I was at the Mt. Baker Community Club meeting, and although the crowd seemed almost nasty to Futurewise reps, after the meeting many people expressed more moderate views, or even found Fox’s arguments lacking.

    What is important for any community is an open and transparent conversation, and Sara and Jared sat through several real insults to portray the honest facts about possible densities near Mt. Baker Station.

  27. serial catowner

    How do you create more jobs in the TOD districts? You make them more dense! Not exactly rocket science- more people support more small businesses at the street level. Make one building tall enough and it will support take-out food and a cleaning shop on the ground level all by itself.

    Businesses need customers. People commuting by train like small shops they can stop at on the way home to buy food and sundries, or sundaes, as the case may be.

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