Posts Tagged ‘Zoning’

Musings on affordability

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

We often hear the “30% of income” statistic used to define housing affordability. This is clearly inadequate. No one statistic will recognize our wide variables in lifestyle and situation. A suitable housing cost can be very different, for example, if a person doesn’t have a car, has a big family, doesn’t have a family, eats for free at a restaurant job, spends half their income on medical bills, etc.

If your expenses are mostly housing and food, paying 30% for housing seems downright quaint, however admirable and however great for retirement savings.

If a single metric is useful, how about 50% for housing plus transportation? It’s not perfect, but it’s much closer to the truth for pretty much everyone.

Local governments can do great things to encourage affordability. Some are happening now, and some aren’t.

First, take this...
Helping people live well without cars is a big start. It’s already easy for some people, but not enough. This means more housing near jobs and near transit, as well as better transit. It means corner stores, supermarkets, and other conveniences. Car sharing, taxis, and bike routes all help. We don’t have enough taxis because we don’t have enough customers, partially because we don’t have enough taxis. Again I’ll recommend a Seattle-only measure to increase bus service, since many neighborhoods are barely touched by Metro’s and Sound Transit’s planned improvements, and never will be with the 80/20 requirement.

Housing construction is expensive, and some of it is our own fault. Buildable sites are expensive because not enough land is zoned higher than what’s already there. Seattle’s famous “process” adds significant cost and risk for every project. We’re tacking on massive new fees onto projects above the older zoned heights. We’re disincentivizing new construction even though new supply is our greatest weapon to avoid SF/NY prices.

More on that: I don’t mean the new supply is affordable, because construction is expensive. But new supply means less demand for the old supply. That allows the old supply to gradually become cheaper over the years. That’s why the middle-class housing of 1920 or 1970 is generally more affordable today. (And the opposite is why similar housing in San Francisco or Manhattan is still outrageously expensive.)

Major kudos to the City for reducing parking requirements. This is already paying off as developers are developing parking in line with demand, rather than the average nimby’s idea of demand. The savings are dramatic for every space not built, and some projects that didn’t pencil with 25 spaces now pencil with 20 (with garage geometries, even one added space will sometimes trigger new costs in the hundreds of thousands).

In the third-rail department, our own expectations are part of the problem. In the US we tend to think 2,000 square feet is necessary for a family, and 800 square feet is barely livable for an individual. Basically we think we’re entitled to what much of the world would consider out-of-reach luxury. Why can’t a couple with two kids live in a two-bedroom apartment on a quiet street a few blocks from a park, at least until their careers advance a little?

Could Interbay become Seattle’s Pearl District?

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

My travels this week led me to Portland’s Pearl District. I couldn’t help but think about places in Seattle that could benefit from broad changes like those that created the Pearl. We don’t have Tax Increment Financing, but we do have Interbay 

Recently the Interbay/Dravus rezone passed out of the Planning Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee, but has run into some trouble on the way to the full council. 

Should the rezone be subject to the pending incentive zoning proposal? The mayor seems to want this to happen as do some councilmembers. Additionally the Seattle Department of Transportation seems to have some issues with infrastructure missing as part of the rezone. At the PLUNC meeting where the rezone passed, concerns were raised that sidewalks and road improvements wouldn’t happen. 

But Interbay’s time has come.  

Like the warehouse district in Portland that became the Pearl District, Interbay is now a mix of low-intensity uses with no housing to speak of. Because of its location, more people living here is not sparking dissent from neighboring single family neighborhoods. Even the industrial community seems to be supporting the changes.

 The council needs to avoid getting into a battle over the many ‘what ifs’ that could hold this up. The project should look at non-traditional sidewalks to address the SDOT concerns, and a reasonable target needs to be set for affordability. Sustainable reuse of buildings like the Ecotrust building in the Pearl should also be encouraged.  

The council should take the time to get these things sorted out and set some indicators to measure whether the rezone lives up to our expectations. But we’ve waited long enough. 


First Hill, meet downtown. Downtown, this is First Hill.

Monday, March 31st, 2008

DPD is floating an idea to cap I-5 to turn it into a walkable space that reconnects First Hill and Capitol Hill with downtown.

Freeway Park

Interstate-5 has cut Fifth from Sixth Avenue for about four decades. And as anyone who’s gotten off the No. 11 or No. 10 bus right where the three neighborhoods meet can attest, the scale is almost Soviet. Freeway Park makes for a green connection near the convention center, but crossing elsewhere is cement city.

The idea is in early discussion and costs or specifics are nonexistent. It’s one of 21 possible comprehensive plan amendments that had an initial hearing Monday night at City Hall. The comp plan sets the framework for city zoning and planning policy and can be amended once a year.

Other amendments up for consideration:

Not everybody likes the Burke
Stopping Burke-Gilman in Ballard: An amendment from the North Seattle Industrial Association would prevent construction of bike trails within 100 feet of an existing short line railroad franchise that is in or next to the Ballard Interbay manufacturing and industrial center. The amendment is referring to the Burke-Gilman bike trail, which runs through the area. Eugene Wasserman, who wrote the amendment, says it is unsafe to build bike paths close to truck and rail transport and hurts the maritime industry.

Protecting tree canopy: A proposal written by Ilze Jones of Jones and Jones Architects and Landscape Architects would set goals and policies for increasing the city’s tree canopy. Kit O’Neill and Cheryl Trivison are co-sponsors of the proposal, which would make trees an element for consideration in land use planning and recommends the city set aside 48,000 acres for trees.

The urban canopy, aka trees
The proposal also suggests naming a tree czar.

A dozen up-zones and rezones, including changing specific industrial zones in Ballard, South Lake Union, Harbour Avenue and Stadium East to mixed-use or commercial use.

City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee held its first hearing on comp plan amendments Monday night. Contact Committee Chair Sally Clark to let her know what you think.