Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An Alert to neighborhood activists and inner-city "tree huggers"

Seattle Displacement Coalition Comments on the Land Use White Paper from the September 14th “Achieving Carbon Neutrality” Forum before Mike O’Brien’s Public Utilities and Neighborhoods Committee which can be found here:

An Alert to neighborhood activists and inner-city "tree huggers":  The Land Use "White Paper" presented by an advisory group at last week's Carbon Neutrality Forum is essentially a manifesto for the destruction of single-family neighborhoods and the cramming of still more growth into all of Seattle. It calls for an array of changes to the zoning code and new financing tools to achieve these goals, and especially for adding densities around rail and major bus stops, in so-called Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) areas.  The authors, described as representative of “community groups” also want to dramatically expand the definition and size of those TOD areas.  Also, their strategy leans heavily on use of Tax Increment Financing (twice struck down by the courts), a tool that robs cities of huge chunks of their tax base to pay for targeted special interest redevelopment schemes.

Be sure to read Appendix A on page 7, which lists members of the Advisory Committee that produced the “white paper”. With only a couple of exceptions, the 30 member group is dominated by pro-density-at-all-cost advocates who either work for developers or with organizations receiving funds from them.

There is one good suggestion contained in their white paper --the call for use of inclusionary zoning to ensure that developers share in the cost of providing some existing low-income housing in redeveloping (or gentrifying) areas.  But with the density increases they are calling for in communities like Southeast Seattle that are predominantly lower density, multi-racial, and lower income, no set of inclusionary zoning, one-for-one replacement, or other preservation strategies would be enough to offset housing losses set in motion by their pro-density policies.

Their land use white paper also makes no mention of the need to be responsive to concerns or wishes of affected inner-city communities.  Quite the opposite, it calls for reorganization of how permitting decisions are made so as to more effectively circumvent participation from these affected neighborhoods.  Also, no caution is expressed over the potential negative impacts associated with runaway growth on the quality of life in our city or even in the communities that are directly affected – as if the inner-city was a tabla rasa.

In the Carbon Neutrality Land Use Advisory Committee vision:
- They call for creation of an overarching centralized city-planning agency (a Department of Planning and Development on steroids) with power to override decisions and recommendations made at the grassroots.  The minimal formal land use authority now in the hands of the Neighborhood District Councils and Community Groups would be further eroded if not eliminated.
- Any and all parking minimums for new construction would be eliminated and maximums would also be set as low as possible in denser areas.
- They suggest upzoning outright all single-family areas within five to ten minute walk of a transit station.  Large swaths of Southeast Seattle where low income and minority families now live would be seriously affected if such a policy is actually played out.
- For all of our city’s single-family zoned areas, they call for nothing short of wholesale  “duplexing” of these communities and allowing attached, detached, and cottage housing without restriction.  No rationale is given for such sweeping changes other than their mantra “density, density, density”.  (Parenthetically, how does such a policy fit with their goal of concentrating growth around rail stations and in “urban villages” as opposed to dispersing it into these single family areas? If they are assuming this will lead to more affordable housing, they are sorely mistaken. Twenty-five percent of our city’s rental stock is located in single family housing.  It is largely what remains of our lower income rental supply of larger units for low income and working families (indeed data shows that most families with kids in Seattle now are renters, not homeowners).  Single-family rentals also sometimes serve up to eight unrelated lower income individuals. How does the “commercialization” of these single-family areas affect this critical element of our affordable rental stock? How much of our rental housing for families would be lost due to such policies? For that matter how would such a loss affect inner-city school enrollment?)
- Master Planning processes would be created and given jurisdiction over entire neighborhoods, with area-wide Environmental Impact Statements or one big EIS for all TOD areas, and “more streamlining of permitting.”
No matter that we have reached 60% of our 20-year GMA growth targets in just 5 years.  We must give up our inner-city open space and tree canopy, and existing lower density communities and affordable housing stock for still more density.  We must also cede our democratic participation in land use planning itself—all for the sake of curbing carbon emissions.

But when it comes to the evidence that these sacrifices would in fact reduce greenhouse gases, this advisory committee and indeed this wing (or should it be called a 'sect') of the environmental movement - view it as an article of faith.  Their proposals are legitimized on the basis of one thesis--the more density we accept in Seattle's communities, the fewer cars we'll have on our streets, and hence, less CO2 emissions.

No other benchmark shall be used for evaluating the merit of public policy. And there seems to be no attempt to analyze or weigh the thesis in the context of current patterns of growth here in Seattle and the Puget Sound region. There’s no attempt to analyze how at various levels of densities in Seattle, it may practically affect Seattle and the region.  It doesn't seem to matter.

What’s scary about this of course is the implication that no increased level of density is adequate. More is always better. This may explain why there is an increasing overlap of interests between this group and inner-city development interests.  “Give us more” upzones, expedited permitting, fewer environmental rules, more of our tax dollars, more more more.  That’s always been the refrain of developers. Now it comes shrink-wrapped in a veneer of green.

We share and strongly support the goal of curbing global warming.  But more density is not necessarily going to achieve this goal.  To take just one example, if we follow the policy recommended in the white paper, we would see an increase in auto use into and out of the downtown core.  Consider that we've recently upzoned downtown for the equivalent of 12 more Columbia Towers.  When all this space is built out, we’d add some 55,000 more office workers to the core.  If all those workers sought to live in the city, they would drive up the price of housing, outbidding low-income renters and homeowners who would be forced to live further away and commute to their jobs—unless those with lower incomes were already driven out as their lower-cost housing is torn down to make way for bigger buildings, always with higher rents.

But the majority of those 55,000 new office workers, no matter what we do to beg, cajole, or reward them, are going to continue to seek housing in the suburbs.  Why do we say this?  The 2000 census shows that 49 percent of Seattle workers actually lived in the city. But a check of 2008 data made available through the U.S Census "LED" Local Employment Dynamics partnership (and accessed here: indicates that in 2008, that number was only at 38.2 percent. Even though this latter figure is an estimate, it suggests that the trend is downward.  As growth accelerated in this decade in Seattle, a greater share of the downtown workforce chose the suburbs.

Even with a doubling or tripling of mass transit ridership into and out of Seattle from the suburbs, a significant percent of those additional 55,000 office job holders are going to commute by car, spilling more noise, air pollution, traffic and congestion into our neighborhood and generating more CO2 emissions than an entire city of green roofs and "woonerf's" (A woonerf (Dutch plural: woonerven) in the Netherlands and Flanders is a street where pedestrians and cyclists have legal priority over motorists, see could ever offset.

One of the greatest costs to a regional transportation system whether by rail, bus or car, whether measured in terms of dollars, energy consumed or CO2 emissions, is the cost of moving ever increasing numbers of commuters longer and longer distances to and from their place of work.  This is not a sustainable or environmentally sound growth model.

As our lower density neighborhoods become too crowded, and rents and housing prices skyrocket, we hit a level of growth--an economy of scale if you will--that drives people out of Seattle.  By contrast, more modest densities here in Seattle (that we're already achieving under our existing code) coupled with encouragement of modest increases in density in the other "activity or urban centers" scattered around the region--a poly-centered regional growth model--is a better way to go.  Relocating jobs closer to where a large and increasing portion of the workforce is choosing to live anyway is a more sustainable and environmentally responsible way to reduce carbon emissions from transportation.

Nowhere is the Carbon Neutrality Advisory Committee’s disregard for Seattle's communities more on display than in its call for implementation of a county or region wide system of Transfer of Development Rights (TDR).  Their plan would allow developers building in "receiving areas" (meaning Seattle's neighborhoods) to build denser, bigger, taller, bulkier projects if in return they contribute cash to acquiring and saving a piece of green space or air rights above that green space somewhere else in the county.  We must trade away trees and open space here to preserve them somewhere else.  It's a false, crude and unacceptable trade-off.

I have a better idea.  Let's promote rational environmentally sound land use and transportation policies that preserve and enhance open space, tree canopy, urban agriculture, our shores and streams (and our affordable housing) both out in the county and right here in the City. You don't trade away those values one for the other.

It's nothing short of weird to me to watch a bunch of self-professed enviro's jettison their credentials and become our city's most rabid pro-development interest group just because they cross the city line. I could go on but I recommend you read the white paper for yourselves. It should be circulated broadly to the neighborhoods and serve as a clear warning of what we are up against and must continue to fight.

- John Fox for the Seattle Displacement Coalition  206-632-0668

P.S. We will provide a report soon on the results of Councilmember Licata's recent forum held earlier this week:  "Can we achieve Social Equity while Pursuing Smart Growth Principles?"

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