Seattle’s Growth: The Benefit of The Boom

Seattle is going through some growing pains—skyrocketing housing costs, changing neighborhood dynamics, snarling traffic congestion—but growth is essential nonetheless. Basically, Seattle is like a gangly young basketball player in the midst of a growth spurt: keep growing and he’ll be tall enough to make it to the NBA. His height would be an asset. Stop growing and he’ll never achieve his dream of making the NBA. He will be tall enough to hit his head on low doorways but not tall enough for his height to truly be an asset.

I, for one, say grow, Seattle, grow. And grow she shall—to a city a million people within forty years, if I was a betting man. I’m not championing growth just so we can brag about being a city of a million citizens. The real perk is population growth is greater tax base to fund the creation of a truly effective transit system and more transit users to put the system to good use and keep it in the black financially. More investment in the public realm will help undo the damage to the urban environment done by car infrastructure: gutting neighborhoods for highways, freeways, parking ramps and surface parking lots.

Our Self-Defeating Car Dependent Transit System

I-5 is a vital clogged artery into the city and a major consumer of valuable real estate. Photo by Long B. Nguyen.

I-5 is a vital clogged artery into the city and a major consumer of valuable real estate. Photo by Long B. Nguyen.

While the 20th century was the time of the automobile, the 21st century cannot continue down that highway for a number of reasons.

  • Climate change. Burning petroleum with our cars is a major contributor of greenhouse gasses. The sprawling land use patterns car culture encourages are also massively destructive to the environment and perpetuate the cycle.
  • Dwindling petroleum supplies. Even if we as society say ‘fuck the environment’ we will exhaust our petroleum supplies eventually. It would only be prudent to convert to a system without an expiration date.
  • Rare earth metals. Rare earth metals are, well, rare and we need them for the batteries for electric cars. We might not have enough of these metals to convert our whole fleet of cars to electric and the world’s supply is currently dominated by China. Extracting earth metals is also very damaging to the environment.
  • Equity. Cars are expensive and more and more Americans are finding they can’t afford them or don’t want to budget for them. High quality transit is essential to reducing poverty. This month, the New York Times reported, “In a large, continuing study of upward mobility based at Harvard, commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty.”
  • Highways = money sinks. Most cities struggle to fund the highways they already have. As cars become more fuel efficient, fuel tax revenues dwindle. States rely on the federal government to subsidy their highway departments but the  Federal Highway Trust Fund is out of money and Congress has balked at raising the federal gas tax and failed to find an alternative.

A 21st Century Transit System

Developer Gerding Edlen's recently submitted rendering for the Capitol Hill Link Light Rail Station shows a design that would help push us toward a 21st century transit system. Protected bicycle lanes, plenty of pedestrian space, green space and active retail fronts. It's all there.

Developer Gerding Edlen’s recently submitted rendering for the Capitol Hill Link Light Rail Station shows a design that would help push us toward a 21st century transit system. Protected bicycle lanes, plenty of pedestrian space, green space and active retail fronts. It’s all there.

What would a 21st century transit system entail? First and foremost, it would have to offer a real alternative to driving everywhere. Light rail is the mode that gets the most attention, but a 21st century could be based on buses (especially the hybrid electric buses Seattle uses). Whatever the mode, the essential element is grade separation in congested areas so buses, streetcars, and trains don’t get stuck in traffic congestion (like they do now in Seattle even with high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes). Transit times have to compete with driving times in order for significant mode shift. It can’t be agonizingly slow.

Another important element is building urban transit stops in a dense walkable area. Leaving a light rail station in a highway trench is a recipe for mediocrity. Integrating transit stops in the highest use areas, such as entertainment districts and residential and office high rises, allows them to maximize their potential and be even more effective at getting more people out of their cars. The urban transit line may be slower than if bee lined going along a freeway or through a industrial area but it serve many more people. Moreover, it will be able to offer higher frequency service which will make up for its slower speed since wait times have to be factored into the total time a commute takes.

The Catch: Money

Sound Transit is seeking $15 billion via a planned ballot initiative to fund a package of transit expansions, and given the metro-wide geographical scope of the projects, even $15 billion won’t be enough to connect all the important locations. There’s no way around it. Providing grade-separated transit is expensive. Seattle found out the hard way with Bertha that tunneling machines are expensive in the best of conditions and even more so when things go wrong.

Building elevated lines isn’t cheap either. Seattle infamously spent $125 million in a failed bid to expand the monorail system only to scuttle the project before anything had been built. Elevated train lines can be unsightly, particularly the mammoth concrete supports for Monorail. Monorail expansion seems highly unlikely after that massive failure. However, traditional elevated lines could be useful in sections where tunneling is impossible or simply too costly. For example, Ballard is one area where Sound Transit has brandied about the idea of elevating light rail lines.

Paying for all this is going to be a hardship, but a necessary one. The more residents Seattle has, the lighter the financial burden will be for each taxpayer. And that growth will mean greater density, which will make each transit stop more efficient and the whole system more financially sound. It’s also politically expedient that Seattle continue to grow faster than its suburbs so that Seattle increases its political leverage over them. Under the system we have with Sound Transit, ultimately we have to get the whole region to vote for the plan and, more importantly, to fund it.

How Much Can Seattle Grow?

Seattle has seen years of rapid growth, recently seeing a gain 18,000 in a one-year period. At that rate, Seattle would be at 1,000,000 in less than 20 years. However, 18,000/year does not seem to be a sustainable trend and likely has much to do with Amazon and other companies adding a ton of jobs that particular year. Local economies inevitably see slowdowns. Nonetheless, I think there’s a good case the City of Seattle’s official trend line—predicting a gain of 115,000 in 20 years—is too conservative.

Even with some cyclical slowdowns, I think Seattle’s tech sector is strong enough to keep churning out jobs at a high rate for a long time. Moreover, if Expedia moving its headquarters from suburban Bellevue to Seattle signals a trend, then we might also see a lot of consolidation of jobs to Seattle from across the whole metro area.

The Single Family Zone

As Seattle booms, easily developable lots will become scarcer. Eventually you must consider up-zoning and building in single-family home neighborhoods. Essentially much of the far north and far south of Seattle is suburban sprawl. It’s not very dense. Seattle will need to grow citywide if it’s going to grow at a healthy rate. It can’t just be downtown, Capitol Hill, and Ballard doing all the growing.

Seattle’s 83.87 square miles would be able to support 1,000,000 residents at an average population density of less than 12,000 people per square mile. Of course Seattle is still an industrial city with many acres dedicated to railyards, shipyards, container ports, factories and warehouses. Seattle is also a green city with a lot of parkland. These areas won’t see much if any residential development. Other areas will need to denser in compensation. Several neighborhoods are already much denser than 12,000 per square mile, but the majority of Seattle’s real estate is composed of single family homes at lower densities.

This preponderance of single-family home zoning and land use patterns across huge swaths of the city is a major obstacle to Seattle growing more populous. We are not talking about razing whole neighborhoods (nor would that be smart growth). However, we do need to grow and to up-zone where our transportation system can accommodate more citizens. Growing on the blocks along existing transit corridors seems to be the political consensus but that alone would not be enough. We need to up-zone not just at the immediate block, but also the next few blocks over to really capitalize on the transit investments and create an urban environment in more of the city. Additionally, we need to add more high frequency transit lines and protected bikeways and allow for growth along these corridors, too.

The Wallingford Example

Wallingford sidewalks overflow with shrubbery and flowers.

Wallingford sidewalks overflow with shrubbery and flowers.

I love Wallingford. Part of me would hate to see the neighborhood change since it’s so beautiful the way it is. The whole neighborhood can feel like a big park due to the spectacular and elaborate gardens and landscaping features many homeowners—or their professional gardeners—painstakingly maintain. However, to show you how serious I am, I’m going to describe ways to grow even in my own favorite neighborhood. As idyllic as those single-family homes are, Wallingford could stand to see some more multi-family units to become a more dynamic and dense neighborhood.

On the plus side, Wallingford’s single-family homes are built close together in a walkable grid. Thus, the neighborhood manages to fit more than 11,000 people per square mile. City-data.com reports Wallingford had a population of 17,848 people on 1.506 square miles in what appeared to be the year 2008 (Note: the City considers Tangletown a part of Wallingford for statistical purposes). It’s likely the population has grown significantly since 2008 given the high number of housing units recently added. These new apartment buildings as well as the old ones that dot Wallingford are mostly along Stone Way or Aurora Avenue at its western fringe, and along 34th Street or Pacific Street on its southern extreme, and along 56th Street near its murky northern border. The big exceptions to that pattern are the apartment buildings along 45th Street in the heart of Wallingford as well as a few along Wallingford Avenue. Other than that, single-family homes and slightly denser row houses or town homes abound. Even one block off 45th Street the single-family home pattern persists.

Box-y fugly townhomes like  these don't do developers any favors as they try to get more projects approved in Wallingford. Better bring your A game. Not this boring block of blah. ... I mean were they going for parking ramp chic?

Box-y fugly townhomes like these don’t do developers any favors as they try to get more projects approved in Wallingford. Better bring your A game. Not this boring block of blah. … I mean were they going for parking ramp chic?

Zoning for and encouraging apartment buildings along 46th Street and 44th Street would help put more people in this business packed, transit-served corridor. This patterns seems to have already been zoned and partially implemented within a few blocks of Stone Way and Aurora/SR-99. We need to implement it on other thoroughfares, too. Wallingford is too valuable of a neighborhood to let stagnate. It’s close to the University. It’s abuts both Green Lake and Lake Union. It already has solid bus service, and I think it’s likely to be served by light rail within a decade thanks to the increasing popularity of the Ballard Spur Light Rail. Let’s build. The construction cranes are already hovering about sites along the Stone Way, 45th Street, and 34th Street. Let’s welcome them to a few more streets.

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