The Truth About Density Advocates

City Council Candidate David Miller, known in some circles as a tireless neighborhood advocate and in others as a wackjob NIMBY, had this to say on Publicola a few weeks back:

“There are two thoughts in density in Seattle. One suggests density is inherently good for Seattle and the environment, the other suggests that only density done well is good for Seattle and the environment. I’m firmly in the latter camp.”

Let me be clear: these categories do not exist, and I can only interpret such a statement to be an attempt by David to paint himself as reasonable and to pander to “neighborhood-interest” voters.

Now, the members of the HAC Collaborative be some of the most unrelenting density advocates out there, but not one of us would fall into Mr. Miller’s first category, although I suspect we are the very ones he had in mind with this description. His suggestion that any of us care more about density than quality of life is as overly-simplistic as it is insulting. News flash to David (and John Fox, and anyone else who seems to think there is such as thing as a density-for-density’s-sake-dogma): us density advocates are all people, neighbors, community members. We have homes, some of us even own them, and care about our property values. We have kids in the Seattle Public School system and care about the quality of their education. We live around the corner from this shite and think the city owes residents and neighbors better design in our multi-family housing. We don’t think trees should come down just because a new building is going up. We want our neighborhoods to have better sidewalks, better bike lanes, better transit. In short, we care, very deeply on both personal and collective levels, about the quality of life in our community.

All that said, I don’t think my neighborhood, or any neighborhood, should have a choice about accommodating additional growth. We should allow detached accessory dwelling units in our single-family zones (yep, even mine)—and not just the paltry 50 per year that the city is current proposing—in order to maximize the potential for more flexible and affordable ground related housing, especially for extended family households. We should upzone many of our transit-served arterials (yep, even the one 100 feet from my front door) to maximize the opportunity for people to live near our transit investments. And encouraging more development in our transit-rich station areas and urban centers? Well that is a no-brainer.

Because here is the truth that density advocates understand: Density is good for the environment. And density done well is good for Seattle.

Yes: density is good for the environment. Mitigating climate change. Restoring Puget Sound. Conserving our rural and resource lands. Responsible growth management. Oh yeah, and it’s also good for affordability and physical health.

But to reap the environmental and physical benefits of density, it’s got to be well-designed, offering foot, bike and transit access to homes, jobs, and community services, and affordable to a range of incomes. That makes it livable. And that is good for Seattle.

So how do we ensure density and livability? Well, we plan. But not the way David Miller suggests here a few months back (from PhinneyWood interview):

And while [David believes that] development needs to happen in the city to address housing density issues without creating urban sprawl, “[The city’s] job is to protect the people who already live here.”

Argh! No! Land use planning efforts should not hold my interests (or those of any other current resident of this city) paramount! We density advocates believe that we have a moral responsibility to be a wee more forward thinking than today’s interests, especially when those interests may be at the expense of future generations. After all, a building that goes up today could be on the ground for 100 years, and I sure won’t be around then, so why should my interests come first? I want to city to plan for my kids’ interests, and your kids’ interests, and our kids’ kids’ interests, not to be beholden to the short-term and short-sighted interests of today. Such limits on thinking and innovation are obstacles to implementing long term vision for the region, and necessarily squelch any political leadership to get us there.

And as such, us density advocates believe that the city, and sometimes, yes, the state, has an integral role in ensuring that our land use and transportation policies are forward thinking for the long-term. And sometimes that means making some top-down decisions to make sure that the broader public interest of sustainability is achieved. That is the intent and essence of the Growth Management Act.

So, the David Miller and John Fox types of the world may call my ilk top-down, heavy-handed wide-eyed enviros out to destroy homes and communities. The truth is that we are both environmentally conscious and socially responsible, and understand the absolutely essential role that increased urban density plays in long-term environmental and social sustainability.

And as far as I’m concerned, anyone who does not share this understanding should not be in a position of making public policy.

19 Responses to “The Truth About Density Advocates”

  1. SP

    I wish people would please stop referring to David Miller as a neighborhood advocate. The only neighborhood he is concerned about is his.

  2. Death by Density

    “We density advocates believe that we have a moral responsibility to be a wee more forward thinking than today’s interests, especially when those interests may be at the expense of future generations.”

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Amen.

    And density is about “we” not “me.” Land use decision should start with the best science, be prioritized regionally and at the city level-not parcel by parcel.

    The City’s approach to land use decisions over the last several years has been to treat single family zones as if they were an endangered species needing preservation. Any changes proposed in and around single family (or industrial which is another problem) are treated like the taking of a spotted owl.

    City Council people MUST learn to say ‘yes’ first and then let the David Millers of the world pay the carrying costs of fighting development and growth. Now David Miller, John Fox and Pat Murikami (his fellow travelers) have the benefit of the doubt and the rest of us have to ‘prove’ the world is round over and over again.

    Stop! Please cut it out!

    Electing David Miller will only make matters worse. He is the enemy of sane policy making. He has said before that he would impose huge costs on new development and reduce them only when those developers complied with all kinds of conditions. That does not put in him in our camp our even in the camp of people trying to balance single family interests with coming growth. It makes him anti-growth and therefore a NIMBY.

    Please, folks, don’t vote for Miller. Why vote for a guy who is clearly vague on these issues when there are other candidates in the race that are clear on the issue. Don’t gamble with our future.

  3. Bill Bradburd

    Wow, one leaves town for a month during election season and you miss all sorts of exciting nonsense and bloviating.

    Having in the past been thrown in the camp that @2 draws above, I believe that the camp that should be investigated are those “unrelenting density advocates” (UDA) that make their living from the City’s coffers pushing a develop-without-conditions agenda promoted by our current administration (ala DB)or other folks that feed at the development trough. Perhaps everyone should come clean rather than posting anonymously – where do you live, where do you work, what’s your carbon footprint. How many of you actually live in the newly “dense” parts of the city? Do you make a living off of their development? Or would want to live there for more than a short while as opposed making it your permanent home as the folks in the neighborhoods do?

    As a person who chose to live in an urban village because of its density and growth possibilities, and as someone who has lived in cities and neighborhoods of much higher than ours, it is unfortunate that the those who feel that by their station they have more of a right to define how the city evolves and grows than the citizenry; more so than people like David Miller who obviously understand the issues far better than most the candidates or sitting councilmembers do. Perhaps you are more comfortable with a City Council that doesn’t understand land use issues and needs constant primers or coaching/legislation-development from industry.

    I have experienced first hand this ‘good density’ crap pushed by the UDA crowd – a big box mall destined for the Goodwill site. Far from sustainable, and hardly the model for a smart urban project, it was flogged around uncritically by wonks and the administration and more than a few ‘green’ advocacy groups. And opposition was deemed NIMBY. In reality taht type of project belongs nowhere. BTW, McGinn, HAC’s mayoral choice, was unwilling to take a position on this project – even now that its dead. Hardly not “vague on these issues”.

    “That is the intent and essence of the Growth Management Act.” Sadly, the mechanisms of the GMA are not followed, have been emasculated over the years, and the current administration and planning department do everything to avoid adhering to it. Can anyone say concurrency or non-significance or hearing-examiner?

    “We density advocates believe that we have a moral responsibility…”. Maybe, but maybe a little intellectual honesty would be helpful too. Consumerism, a growing population, and a modern lifestyle all have far greater deleterious affect on our environment than somehow arguing over whether a SF neighborhood should somehow be up-zoned. Perhaps capping livable units in the city is more sustainable. But alas, we need the growing tax base to keep folks like DB employed.

    What is needed is some sane dialog and honest conversation about what we all need to do – if we really want to make the world and Seattle a better and livable place. Unfortunately a lot of what I have seen and read so far doesn’t give me hope. Witness the Dearborn Project and HB1490 and the David Miller/Dan Bartolet saga.

  4. Kathryn

    Wow. Yawn. I love reading ideological posturing for simplistic magic bullets and mantras by people who obviously have not studied the regional growth plan, Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, and the Neighborhood Plans.

    The plan IS for growth and increased density, and might I mention that in this neighborhood I am not hearing about or seeing petitions on the street for up zoning by HAC people and other advocates of the very moot ‘density will solve all ills’ group who live in Single Family zones inside the Urban Villages boundaries — yes even a couple of blocks from the epicenter — exactly where growth and density have been planned for.

    Our zoning currently supports all planned growth for Seattle for decades to come. So, who pray tell is having specious arguments with themselves, unless the argument is to support lots of new buildings to maintain one politically influential sector of the economy?

    Is it perfect? No. We need better multifamily zoning, We need better water management laws, we need better building codes, we need better economic development action, we need better transportation, we need to tweak zoning in a reasonable manner.

    Do we need a real duplex zoning allowable for Single Family zones outside Urban Villages? You betcha. We don’t have one.

    Further, we need to consider that, while density utilizes less resources, devolving growth to one city within a region without regional planning for dense towns and small cities, just produces more sprawl precisely because of the economic vortex of a large city, surrounded by suburban subdivision, strip mall and office park zoning.

    That’s why we have regional planning and attention to suburban jurisdictions doing their part within the UGB.

    The attention to architectural form on this blog is really interesting and worthwhile. But, please understand what you are talking about when it comes ot policy.

  5. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Wow, you guys sound like it should be illegal to have a job as an architect. It’s funny you call on everyone to “come clean” but don’t do so yourselves–I guess being in a neighborhood group makes you exempt? Do you “feed at the art trough”? How do you feel about all those people who “feed at the software development trough” or “feed at the dentistry trough”? I know I’m being rude here, but if Dan wants to burn bridges with David Miller that’s up to him. McMike and O’Mike might be appointed to Obama’s cabinet or something (or I suppose they might even lose), and we’d actually have to work together without name calling. Can you imagine!

    Personally I have no connection to development, I “feed at the non-profit trough” doing medical research myself. Yes, I live in an Urban Center and actually like prefer it to driving around, though we need a lot more housing options. Having read new urbanists and Kunstler and lived briefly in Japan, I really believe we need development to build dense walkable communities. We’ve had 50 years of strip malls and parking lots, a de facto “capping livable units in the city” and it pushes people who want to live here out. Look at the demographics: our birth rate is low, but people from rural areas and small towns continue to move to cities.

  6. MJH

    Bill,
    I personally take offense at your suggestion that the architects, urban planners, designers, etc who advocate for density are doing so just to line their pockets. As a person practicing in the above professions, I can say that it is within this circle of professionals that I meet some of the most visionary, thoughtful, and sustainability-minded folks out there. As stated in this post, these folks are not about density for density sake, but rather they recognize, perhaps more than anyone, that well-designed density is a linchpin to sustainability (to a point of course-and Seattle is far, far away from that point).

    P.S. I do agree with you about the Dearborn project.

    P.S.S. I live in a duplex in the Central District, not in an urban village.

  7. schottsie

    Bill – Dearborn was awful, agreed. The housing density with some level of affordability was great, but the big box and ridiculous amount of parking was horrible. Where does this blog, or this post, ever say that Dearborn-style retail density is a good thing? A similar fight is going on over the Fred Meyer sight in Greenwood. I love the housing that is being proposed, but the big box anchor is wretched and counter to the desired character of the neighborhood.

    Also I agree that there are other societal ills, but let’s not stop progress on some issues just because we aren’t solving ALL issues. It’s like the anti-1490 crowd that argued it was no good because it didn’t address population control. Um, okay, agreed that too many folks are having kids, but what state statutory change are you proposing to deal with that, exactly? I’d might be interested in supporting it, but I don’t think it would be in the GMA.

    Kathryn, actually I am extremely proficient in Vision 2040, our regional land use plan, as well as the Countywide Planning Policies, Seattle Comp Plan, and the mother umbrella GMA. Don’t see how any of my opinions on growth and density are in any way inconsistent with any of those documents. In fact, I find them consistent in the extreme with the intent, if not the implementation, of each. Case in point: the county’s Growth Management Policy Council is currently dividing up new population targets to cities in King County. Very important task to make sure that all cities are absorbing appropriate level of growth the keep the region efficient and functioning. But it’s a tough task because cities fight over who takes the growth, no one wants it, largely because no one wants to fight with neighborhoods over the upzones necessary to provide capacity for that growth–but this top-down process, from state to region to city to neighborhood–is essential to the long term sustainability of this region. And bolstering that process with density minimums (many cities in the county, with the notable exception of Seattle, have them in their multifamily zones) would be a good tool for cities to help them take the growth without as much of a fight.

    Kathryn, agree on the better multifamily zoning and duplexes in SF zones. In fact, I dont really understand where you disagree with me.

  8. Alex

    “…while density utilizes less resources, devolving growth to one city within a region without regional planning for dense towns and small cities, just produces more sprawl precisely because of the economic vortex of a large city, surrounded by suburban subdivision, strip mall and office park zoning.”

    This is the latest talking point in the neighborhood crowd, for which I know of no evidence whatsoever. In fact, the only work I know about on the impacts of central city density on suburban land use (see CNT, Brookings) suggest the opposite is true: that denser central cities produce more dense development in inner-ring suburbs.

    If this is something other than a hail mary rhetorical strategy, I’d like to see the numbers.

  9. Kathryn

    I’d like to see a realistic study of the BosWash, not just a study of inner ring suburbs. Compared to other countries, the US doesn’t have the tools to do what Japan and European countries can. We have the most highly privatized land tenure laws on earth. But, we also have one of the most corporatized political systems when compared to the social interests and public investment that are accounted for when one looks at, for example, Vancouver. I use that as an example that folks seem to admire. Vancouver — BTW has sprawled to the border over areas where 20 years ago we had miles of nothing… Maybe they just did not start soon enough?

    The reaction to this article is a reaction to the explicit and implicit castigation of the motivations of individuals who by the article’s definition ‘are not’ everything that the author purports to support.

    The big ‘yawn’ is that anyone who has lived here more than ten years expected development based on the Urban Village strategy, which focuses planned density, and has moved on onto look at how is that working for us.

    Well it kind of is and kind of isn’t for a number of reasons. Bottom line is that builders and economic development have not even come UP to the level of zoning in many Urban Villages. We also have some issues with zoning designations, zoning laws, and a lack of context based zoning. Having a conversation about the Urban Village strategy versus other models would actually be more productive than presuming that people are not already working with the assumption of the strategy. They are mostly upset with the implementation.

    In the meantime, we have seen incredible sideshows: SLU, Interbay, Dearborn, Stadiums etc, etc., many of which have nothing to do with the plans – may even be totally contrary to the plans, but rather have to do with who has a fistful of money and wants to build. And, we lose the monorail over bad management.

    What is at stake here is not primarily a function of engineering and architecture, it is a function of socio-economics and politics — and power. Mouthing arguments in defense of hamfisted, divorced from reality (except the economic interests of those who pretty much own the state government) proposals is pretty much immediately suspect. The perception is that either folks are working for those interests and against fundamental democracy, they are ivory tower academics, or they are ignorant.

    Bottom line is it is NOT about density. It’s about everything else.

    Suggest that folks check out http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/Earth2100/ and watch until the very end.

  10. Bill Bradburd

    I do appreciate that there are well intentioned and very bright people working in the development industry. And that the best ideas and best practices often emanate from your professions, though sadly often from overseas rather than here at home. I have had the opportunity to work with some visionaries and have drank the proverbial kool-aid. As stated in my previous comment, I have lived in a half-dozen cities bigger and denser than Seattle, and I have traveled extensively, so I have a good feel for what works and what doesn’t. And I have been engaged with neighborhood issues related to development and land use code. So while not a professional in the industry, I am an aficionado – or a backseat driver to some perhaps (doesn’t the GMA seek out us though?).

    And if we separate the wheat from the chaff you’ll find that we probably agree on darn near ever issue raised in comments after mine – new urbanism, sprawl, TOD, bad design, good design, whatever.

    Point is, I’m not trying to make war here – just trying to get a real assessment of who is on who’s side.

    The post which has started this thread leaves many of us quite suspicious. It is absurd to attack David Miller by denying that in this city there is no development – high “density” development – that is “not done well”. Or that there is any such distinction.

    And there are professionals in your industry, wittingly or unwittingly, that are a part of producing these offenses. Whether they design the stuff, approve it at a Design Review Board, or are doing it because “it is the client’s project – I have no say”.

    And sadly, bad development – or bad urban planning – is enabled by and often encouraged by some of our city officials – amplified by a slew of bad land use law at the state and local level.

    Those who speak up against these practices, policies and resultant insults to our built environment – our communities and city as a whole – are tagged as NIMBYs, obstructionists, anti-development, or anti-environment. Or now it seems, as placing ourselves above posterity. Or throwing rhetorical hail mary passes.

    We have gotten these attacks over Dearborn, Greenwood, the multi-family projects, etc etc.

    I do appreciate that often HAC and its readers find these projects offensive – or humorous (and I read the blog because of this angle). But there they are – being even today part of our built environment. But if they don’t, it is often because of people like David Miller or other neighborhood “NIMBYs”.

    One other point – HB1490 – for which we in the neighborhoods took a lot of flak for opposing (though not killing – forces greater than us brought it down). Our objections were always centered around the density mandates and the definition of TOD. As has been pointed out by minds greater than mine – there is a difference between Transit Oriented Development and Transit Adjacent Development. 1490 was a mandate for one-size-fits-all TAD. In the layperson’s world TOD is measured in terms of quality of life (open space and other public amenities), neighborhood character and facets such as walkability, and yes, a range of a housing types and costs . HB1490, even in its final constructs, failed to address these adequately.

    BTW, if any of you Central District dwellers are interested in a longer discussion with the foul David Miller, we are meeting on Thursday. Find me on Face(crack)book and I’ll get you the info.

    We have a lot to talk about and much in common.

  11. Tebici

    “[The city’s] job is to protect the people who already live here.”

    While perhaps sad, the political reality is that is that it is current residents not future residents who vote in the politicos who are in power. While this threatens daily to put me (a planner) out of a job, it’s naiive to think that these people and these politicians are not going to act, on average, in a fairly self-interested way. Therefore it is on us to frame the reasons that planning, smart growth and density can be good for current residents within their lifetimes or at least not be bad for them or on a good day we might be able to get them to “think of the children”. At least we only have to convince 51% of them. Sure, if you find a populace and politicians that are more forward thinking then run with it, but don’t be shocked when that’s not the case.

  12. dan bertolet

    Bill @10: Your reading comprehension does not appear to be in tip top shape. The original post never claimed that there is no such thing high density not done well, and even gave an example of such. The post is calling bullshit on Miller’s charge that there are legions of people out there advocating for density who don’t care about anything else.

    And your critique of HB1490 is exactly what schottsie @7 described: you’re expecting it to solve all TOD issues. What it does address is absolutely critical: you can’t have real TOD without a certain minimum level of density.

    And must you still trot out that “one size fits all” nonsense? Please read this:
    http://hugeasscity.com/2009/03/01/tod-got-street-cred-yo/

    What might help us understand your point of view better, Bill, is if you could give some specific Seattle examples of what you believe to be density done badly (not townhouses, we’ve been there), and describe the policies you would put in place to keep it from happening.

  13. Bill Bradburd

    Dan – I think that if you consider Belltown and other downtown development you’ll find that they are far from wholly balanced dense communities. Where is the family housing, schools, mixed income housing, walkable/bikeable streets, open space, etc. Most of that new development is great if you are young or retired – and wealthy – and don’t mind 400 sqft per person to live in.

    Dearborn is an example of how lopsided 2M+ sqft of development could be in a NC zone. How many professionals and city officials facilitated that project. To many that project read as “density” and they could not discern it’s frightful outcome.

    We will see how successful Cascade is in a few years. But it isn’t “balanced” now and doesn’t seem to be on the way there as far as I can tell.

    These aren’t ancient history, Dan – they are now. And to me at least they do show that “there are legions of people out there advocating for density who don’t care about anything else”. Well, density and maybe more profit and political favor.

    The example you point to in the original post was a townhouse example which you later pull off the table – as “we’ve been there” (I assume you mean HAC) is townhouses. But while it’s been addressed by the blog as a ‘topic’ and may have ‘been there’, we in the neighborhoods are still dealing with it daily. That and NC are the zoning for the bulk of the urban villages that, in theory, are to receive density. And we can agree that there is a segment of folks are happy to design, approve and build that and other “shite”. It is adherence to the urban village strategy the Miller espouses and why I believe he is pointing out that there are people that think 6-packs and big box malls with some housing in town centers equals density equals good. I am pleased to believe that the majority of the HAC posters do not.

    Link Light Rail isn’t solving an existing transit problem – at 12K or 21K daily riders it is a boondoggle. So 1490 is an attempt to pull the fat from the fire by adding density around that spine. Ok, if we do that, let’s do that right. Maybe then we are thinking about future residents. But let’s not do it at the expense of the extant population.

    So maybe we all can philosophically agree on how that should be done, but it remains to be seen how well a DPD-driven process plans that result. What has happened to date in that process leads many of us to conclude that there are those there that cannot discern what is good density (e.g. its all about upzoning – “here, how many big blocks can you put next to a light rail station?”).

    But this all seems to have been about David Miller and your attacks on him and perhaps your perceived attack by him on the UDA.

    As I repeatedly say, I think many of us are all on the same team. But let’s be honest about who is and who is not.

  14. Sara @ Futurewise

    Hey Bill – I know you and I have argued about this tirelessly, but I am going to again argue that 1490 was not one-size-fits-all, even in it’s original format, and that it was in fact advocating for transit ORIENTED, not transit ADJACENT development. I agree that plopping down density near transit does not necessarily make TOD — the formula must also involve neighborhood character, walkability, range of housing types and costs, as you note. That is why the bill REQUIRED that cities plan for all of those considerations — design guidelines, pedestrian safety, bike and ped infrastructure and connectivity, housing affordability, and open space too. The bill would have bolstered concurrency planning in station areas, often times without any changes to zoning at all.
    As for the one-size-fits-all thing, the bill set out minimum average density standards — there are countless ways to zone for an average density, and practically speaking, they would have all involved a range of housing types and sizes, and the bill left that all up to local communities to determine, as it should be.
    But anyway, Bill, how are you? We are starting to think about what we might advocate for in the 2010 session regarding TOD, and I’d love to get your thoughts. I think you mentioned that you were convening some neighborhood meetings over the spring and summer? Maybe we can get together for coffee sometime to discuss?

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    [...] isn’t a critical ingredient of urban density (file under stupid-simple). Density advocates have expended an enormous amount of energy articulating their vision for how density can be [...]

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