Thursday, March 5, 2009

- please circulate - please circulate -

Outside City Hall - reprinted from the March 4th edition of the South Seattle Beacon

Carolee Colter and John Fox respond to their critics in the debate over density:

"Only modest transit development needed and more buses serving the majority in the region not served by rail"

We sure stirred up a hornet’s nest! Our last two columns--critiquing the Futurewise bill mandating minimum densities of 50 units per acre around transit hubs, and questioning whether transit-oriented development (TOD) will help climate change—generated more controversy than any time in the four years we’ve been writing “Outside City Hall.”

A segment of the environmental community is enraged with us because we’ve challenged a key assumption of theirs--that the only way to prevent sprawl, make housing more affordable, and prevent climate change is to cram more housing into Seattle’s neighborhoods. However, there are many residents of southeast Seattle already contending with increased density and gentrification, who agree with us.

"People need yards and open space to be mentally healthy,” said Pat Murakami, president of Southeast Seattle Neighborhood District Council, in the Seattle Times. “Are we supposed to live like sardines crammed into a can?"

Yes, say the proponents of greater density. You must sacrifice your open space, your trees, the very scale of your neighborhood that allows you to know your neighbors. And furthermore, you must make that sacrifice on faith, without guarantees that any particular land anywhere is saved as a result.

Since 2004 Seattle has reached 50% of its 20-year growth targets and we have three times the zoning capacity to meet them. In contrast, many smaller cities around the region aren't meeting their targets. Meanwhile, 30 to 40% of growth in Pierce and Snohomish Counties occurred outside the growth boundaries, (compared to only 2% in King County.) Obviously county and city governments out there on the margins are not effectively holding the line on strip developments and subdivisions.

While Seattle has been absorbing much more than its share of growth in recent years, it’s made no dent in reducing sprawl. Although we have grave concerns about Transfer of Development Rights as a concept, at least it would protect an actual parcel of rural land from suburban sprawl in exchange for urban dwellers “living like sardines.”

But looming over us is an even larger threat than sprawl—global warming. And without a doubt, automobile use is a major cause of that . No one involved in this density debate, us included, questions this science.

What we’re missing, however, is the hard data proving that a minimum of 50 units per acre will reduce automobile use enough to offset the environmental destruction caused by tearing down neighborhoods of smaller, older buildings, wasting the energy embodied in these buildings from their original construction, producing massive amounts of greenhouse gas-emitting concrete and destroying the mature trees.

Proponents point to studies showing a theoretical tipping point with “vehicle miles traveled” falling at 50 units per acre – when most people switch to transit. There is debate even among transit gurus, however, over this tipping point and many say one size does not fit all.

More to the point, those studies extolling 50 units per acre ignore the costs and environmental impacts of removing what's in these communities already. And they don’t even consider the question of whether there is adequate transit capacity in place to absorb those densities.

Take a look at this quote from a recent L.A. Times story on four TOD projects:

“New Urbanist planners have long hoped that building high-density, mixed-use, multiple-unit developments on or near public transit lines would encourage AngeleƱos to leave their cars and start taking buses and trains. Instead, the properties that Times reporters studied have substantially increased vehicular traffic.”

What the reporters found is that while many people were attracted to the mix of housing and shopping, they were not foregoing their cars.

When Portland built its first MAX light rail line, several transit-oriented housing projects sprang up near stations. However, according to a study by the Cascade Policy Institute, very few living in those buildings used the rail station. Most in fact got in their cars to drive away in the morning. Because parking requirements for these TOD projects had been waived, residents created “guerilla parking spaces” and blocked neighbors’ driveways. Meanwhile commuters from outside the neighborhood drove to the rail station, exacerbating the parking crunch.

Unless car ownership can actually be prohibited (something we doubt), TOD residents will probably still have cars and will still use them, and transit riders from outside the area will drive to transit stations.

If some current residents of neighborhoods near transit stops are displaced from their homes by demolition and higher prices, and others lose their trees and open space, their sacrifice should at least have achieved the desired result of significantly reduced auto trips. We shouldn’t be messing with people’s lives based on wishful thinking.

It’s a disservice to the Growth Management Act and the cause of combating global warming to blindly assume that solutions rest with massive increases in density clustered around a handful of rail stations serving only a small fraction of the region’s commuters.

We advocate for many smaller-scale TOD’s distributed around the Puget Sound region and centered on bus transit and vanpooling. These modest projects could meet the needs of the 95% of commuters who won’t be served by light rail, including those in the hinterlands who currently have no alternative to the auto. In fact there are centers now in existence with unused capacity – with infrastructure already in place that can support more employment and more residents.

Building more office towers in Seattle and a six-lane 520 bridge is going in the wrong direction. Instead of badmouthing suburbia, and expecting all those suburbanites to move to the city, it makes more sense to promote moderate-density TOD suburban centers so that people living there can work closer to home and ride public transit.

The fight against climate change begins with managed and more modest levels of growth here in Seattle done without any more loss of trees, open space and urban streams. The burden of proof rests with those who tell us we must sacrifice our environment on faith in order to preserve it somewhere else. Urgent action is needed that will actually make a difference, not just destroy people’s homes and make developers rich.

- John V. Fox and Carolee Colter (for more information contact 206-632-0668)

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