Not Vancouver Yet

Right now, possibly September 26th specifically, represents the largest amount of new housing construction greater Downtown Seattle has ever had. This is very exciting for those who want Seattle to feel and function like a real big city, with the vibe, services, walkable lifestyles, and so on that entails.

The “largest” is based upon my own napkin count of housing under construction in about 2,000 acres, from Lower Queen Anne and South Lake Union to the dense part of Capitol Hill to First Hill and the stadiums, gerrymandered up to 901 Dexter and 15th & Pine. It’s imprecise but probably errs low, particularly east of I-5. The 2006 in-construction number topped out at 5,500 units. This week, including some projects that just got building permits and have had some sort of recent activity (at least demo), or had DJC coverage about starting this week, the number is 6,400 units. Or call it 6,000, in case some aren’t real starts.

So where does that leave us in that journey to big citydom, or, using the Vancouver example, smaller-but-more-vibrant-in-some-ways citydom?

The Downtown Seattle Association reports 60,000 residents in 2012, based on census tracts that are vaguely similar to the area I described. They call it 20,510 residents per square mile. By comparison, Vancouver’s Downtown Peninsula, in just 1,420 acres, had 99,000 residents in 2011 for a density of 44,387 per square mile. Including Seattle’s recent completions plus the 6,000 units and a normal multiplier, we should end up with 70,000 residents. That’s excellent by US standards for a city our size (roughly double a similar count in Denver or Minneapolis, which are well ahead of Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, and many others), but to reach Vancouver’s Downtown Peninsula density, we’d need 130,000. At Manhattan density, we’d have 210,000.

Whether we’ll continue along this path hardly seems debatable. New construction might outpace demand, briefly. But Amazon and a steady inflow of local employer relocations are expanding greater Downtown’s workforce. Perhaps the most important driver, basic desire to live in the center, should grow as services are added and new residents make neighborhoods feel friendlier, a circular effect. The demographics will be fantastic for a while due to both baby boomers and their kids. And apparently driving to work is never going to be cheap or quick again, making a short walk attractive to more people. Even if people start buying rather than renting, very little supply will be available, particularly condos. And that will kick off more condo projects.

So here’s hoping the boom never ends (!) or at least keeps coming back, preferably with soft landings. And maybe when we hit 80,000 Belltown will have a supermarket and a conveyor-belt sushi place.

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6 Responses to Not Vancouver Yet

  1. Glenn says:

    Why Vancouver? You apparently picked Seattle as a place to live. Because you hoped it would become Vancouver? I can’t quite get a grasp on why the vocal few are insisting that Seattle “become” something else. It’s bee ndoing just fine for a good long time. Why rush into one person’s ideal? Most of it like it just the way it is growing,

  2. Matt says:

    And cities constantly change and become more (or less) than they were. Whether we were born here (as I was) or not, it’s important to fight for the city we want. Collectively we’ve done just that — we’ve specifically chosen to grow this way, with growth management, highrise zoning, the urban village plan, transit, etc.
    As for the benefits of getting denser, there’s sustainable transportation (more mode choices or at least shorter drives), sustainable land use (less reason for sprawl), economic health (some industries do best in urban settings), tax base, and so on. But it’s also my personal preference.

  3. New York isn’t Vancouver yet. Chicago isn’t Vancouver yet. Philadelphia isn’t Vancouver yet. Boston isn’t Vancouver yet. San Francisco isn’t Vancouver yet. None of these places are Vancouver yet. They’ve all developed differently from Vancouver. They are dense, but they also have a healthy, heterogeneous mixture of building uses and architectural types. Moving toward density does not necessarily mean moving toward the stark, sterile, uniform skyline of downtown Vancouver. Moreover, Vancouver is NOT a big city–it just happens to be a relatively densely-populated tourist draw. But so is Venice.

  4. Matt says:

    To me, the West End is analagous to much of the area I included in the Seattle figure — First Hill, the near part of Capitol Hill, Lower Queen Anne, maybe the far half of Belltown, etc. I’d argue in the opposite direction, and think about including some of the opposite shore of False Creek, which has a large volume of pedestrian commuters from the CBD.
    What’s considered “downtown” is purely subjective for this type of use (cities divide things for administrative reasons, DSA-type groups focus on members and PR, brokerages simply want to divide the hunting grounds or simplify statistical tracking, etc.). I use “greater Downtown” with the intent of showing areas within walking distance and have higher densities, and/or have downtown-type functions.

  5. I don’t get why we don’t have a proper grocery store in Belltown. The density of Belltown is actually higher than the density of the “denser part of Capitol Hill”. So the hill has two huge QFCs (one of which is 24/7) less than a mile apart and we have what? Teeny tiny little grocers…. I can’t understand what’s wrong. Whole Foods (or PCC), please please, put a store on 3rd and Bell. That will do wonders to the vibrancy of Belltown as people start walking to and from that location. There are a couple old buildings there that need to be redeveloped and I think it’s the perfect location for a grocery store. Belltown buyers will totally buy into Whole Foods as well – in my apartment building on 3rd and Cedar most people shop there already, me including.

  6. Josh Mahar says:

    It really is awesome (in the true sense of the word) how much new development is taking place in our city right now. Truly exciting. Thanks for putting some real figures to it!

    Things become even more exciting when you expand the lense. Lots of Seattle’s outlying neighborhoods are becoming hubs in themselves. The West Seattle Junction-Triangle, Ballard-Fremont, and the U-District-Ravenna. And I don’t think its just housing that’s growing in these areas. While it may not be the standard office-style employment, I think there’s a lot of entrepreneurial type stuff that’s taking off that make these places truly vibrant even during business hours.

    To me this is something that sets Seattle’s growth apart from some of the other burgeoning American cities (PDX, Austin, Minneapolis). Were not just growing out from the core, but we’re growing from multiple places. Personally I think that’s a function of our unique geography, but nonetheless I think its better in the long term.

    I grew up in Bellingham, certainly not a tiny town with 80,000+ people, a major university, and at the center of a greater 200,000 pop. urban area. Yet, every time I go to Ballard it feels like a bigger and more lively city to me.

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