Thinking About Gentrification, Part 2

So last post I highlighted tax increment financing and inclusionary zoning as two policies to reduce displacement caused by gentrification. Then, I talked about the Seattle City Council was up to and how little that had to do with good urban planning and actually achieving a healthy amount of affordable housing. I can’t emphasize enough how shortsighted the Seattle City Council has been, particularly in the recent population boom.

If you need recent proof of that shortsightedness, look no further than this. To sum Erica C. Barnett’s great summary of recent council machinations, Seattle City Council members Nick Licata, Mike O’Brien and Tim Burgess are seeking an “Alternative 5” for Seattle 2035—an important plan that would direct growth for the next two decades—that would essentially put the kibosh on transit-oriented development. Barnett explained it thusly:

“The “fifth alternative” they were requesting, the three council members wrote, would address the high potential for displacement in Seattle’s “high-risk” communities, mostly near transit hubs in South Seattle, by directing growth away from those areas and toward areas with “high access to opportunity” and “low displacement risk” areas, and by adopting strategies to reduce displacement in those high-risk neighborhoods. In practice, that could mean abandoning the goal of “transit-oriented development” by discouraging development near transit centers (where lots of “marginalized populations,” to use the city’s term, currently live) and encouraging it in the most expensive parts of the city—places like Upper Queen Anne, Ravenna, and Fremont, according to the city’s equity analysis of the four alternatives.”

Alternative 5 sounds like a recipe for disaster. The city might succeed in freezing South Seattle like it is for a few years longer, but when the Seattle housing market doesn’t grow as fast as Seattle job market—as is inevitable when you exempt entire regions and try to get Upper Queen Anne, of all places, to be a leader in dense development—the whole city will end up expensive regardless of location. Moreover, abandoning transit-oriented development almost guarantees worsening traffic congestion. And congestion is already pretty bad.

Babying The Developers

As disastrous as Alternative 5 would be, I wouldn’t go as far as Barnett in handing over all the incentives to the developers. She seems dismissive of one-for-one replacement schemes in which developers have to build low-income units to replace affordable housing stock they demolish to make way for their new developments: “The issues with this scheme are pretty obvious (what developer in his right mind would build apartments that could rent for $2,000 and lease them for $600, and how much government subsidy would it take to make him change his mind?), but that doesn’t keep it from being popular…” The point of a mixed income apartment complex isn’t to construct all luxury $2,000 apartments and mandate a huge financial loss for the developer or a huge government subsidy to house low-income tenants.

The developer can add in the frills—the granite counter tops, elegant balconies, and in-unit washer/dryers—that help an apartment rent for $2,000 to the luxury units and build more modest units for low-income tenants. The ample profit margin on the market rate units should compensate for the low rates on the low-income units. The City of Seattle could sweeten the deal for participating developers by decreasing permitting fees and expediting the lengthy permitting process. Time is big money for developers and a faster and less costly process might be enough to make them stop whining about requirements for low-income units. And even more importantly, the city council could stop dragging its feet and up-zone more city acres to lessen the bottleneck on housing.

Barnett is right, though, that Alternative 5 is set up to fail as a development strategy. Seattle is adding too many jobs for a tentative and half-assed strategy for adding new housing. A massive increase in housing stock is the only way to keep Seattle an even moderately affordable city.

Downtown Growth Engine

Downtown Seattle is booming with a whooping 15 million square feet in office space under construction downtown. For perspective, downtown Seattle already contains 44 million square feet in office space—half of all office space in the metropolitan region—15 million square feet is a big effin’ deal—to paraphrase Joe Biden—a 34 percent jump in office space downtown. Housing growth has to keep pace with job growth. That is, UNLESS you want well-paid techies to bid up the limited housing in Seattle, driving the price ever skyward. Some techies might end up in the suburbs—and some Seattleites would say good riddance. But actually, considering again their high paying jobs, it’s more likely you (you know someone not pulling in six figures) end up in the suburbs and they end up paying the rent you can no longer afford in a trendy Seattle neighborhood.

So if you think there is Brogrammer Backlash now, wait until rent hits San Francisco levels due to the knee jerk reactions of our city council to avoid displacement and keep an ineffable sense of neighborhood character through a quixotic campaign of ill-conceived measures that essentially failed before they even began.

‘Burb Your Enthusiasm

One glaring hole in the “let the suburbs absorb the growth” theory is the suburbs don’t want to grow either—at least not in their expansive single-family home zones. Mercer Island has literally put a moratorium on development. Other suburbs wouldn’t be far behind in this scenario. Another glaring hole is climate change. Sprawling out rather than building up levels carbon-absorbing forests, covers more land in heat trapping concrete and asphalt, and demands ever-greater carbon-belching vehicle miles, not to mention forcing extremely costly investments in far-flung infrastructure.

City Council Member Mike O'Brien is fourth from the right. He's very active in the shaking your fist at Shell Oil arena, not as active in making a coherent smart growth strategy for Seattle.

City Council Member Mike O’Brien is fourth from the right. He’s very active in the shaking your fist at Shell Oil arena, not as active in making a coherent smart growth strategy for Seattle.

Seattle has a lot of laudable sustainability and equity goals, but when it comes to implementation in the here and now, we dither, think small, and pass the problem off on another city or another generation. Seattle’s leaders have been cowards. It’s one thing to hop in a kayak and navigate it to a drilling rig to angrily wave your paddle at Big Oil like ‘kayaktivist’ council member Mike O’Brien. It’s another thing to navigate your city to a better future where many more Seattlites use much less fossil fuel, not because we are a city of the filthy rich and everyone can afford to own a Tesla, but because we have harnessed growth to build high speed mass transit and affordable housing all across the city and to make the city inviting to newcomers rather than let it decay into the curmudgeonly, aristocratic enclave we seem to be in the process of enshrining. Seattle is good at externalizing its problems; it’s not good at challenging the status quo and forging a smarter path to follow.

Thinking About Gentrification

As I’ve been contemplating a career in urban planning, I’ve thinking a lot about gentrification. After all, gentrification could be a harm urban planners cause in their work. That curiosity led me to read There Goes The ‘Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up. The book’s author, Lance Freeman, is a professor of urban planning at Columbia University; he happens to be black and live in the gentrifying Clinton Hill neighborhood of New York City. Freeman lays out the goal of more fully considering the perspectives of the poor residents of gentrifying ghettoes since they are frequently regarded as victims soon to be displaced but seldom are even asked their opinion or considered as agents of change in their own neighborhood. Ultimately, Freeman concludes that gentrification is more complicated than the rhetoric, bringing both stressors and opportunities. Harnessing it for good is a lot more productive than trying to stop it in its tracks, which is nearly impossible.


Freeman sketches the history of Clinton Hill and Harlem. Harlem is an interesting case study and perhaps anomaly in that it became a predominantly black neighborhood partially by accident after a speculative real estate bubble burst and landlords found they could only rent out their units if they loosened their discriminatory practices and opened their buildings to black renters. Of course, whites later tried to take back their hoity-toity development when the economy improved. In 1904, white Harlem landlords tried to evict blacks, but blacks organized and black realtor Phillip Payton Jr. bought up many buildings to protect their status in the neighborhood and evict whites to retaliate. So, as Freeman said: “Thus it came to be that African Americans occupied one of the choicest sections of New York City.”

The history was truly illuminating and perhaps it’s telling that Harlem, the Capital of Black America developed not by government action but by blacks taking advantage of the slightest of openings presented by a series of failed real estate speculations by white developers. In other words, whites helped blacks more by mistake than they did on purpose. Redlining and other forms of economic discrimination ended up reversing Harlem’s fortunes in the postwar period and the neighborhood was ravaged with drug violence and arson and partly abandoned.

Establishing the base of history, Freeman delved into the qualitative interviews he conducted with long time residents of Harlem and Clinton Hill. He did see the backlash and resentment toward gentrification in his interviews, but there was also appreciation for the greater amenities gentrification brings and occasionally for a hope for a more heterogeneous neighborhood. Among interviewees there was much anxiety about displacement but not many people had actually been displaced as of yet.

The ability of poor residents to weather the tide of gentrification was in part particular to New York City’s advanced affordable housing policies including rent regulation and housing co-ops where poor residents are allowed to buy their apartment rather than just rent. Seattle does not have such advanced and progressive practices and has seen many blacks displaced from its historically black neighborhood, Central District, to the point less than 20 percent of the neighborhood is now black after being more than 50% black two decades years ago. Neighborhood leaders are trying to rise to the occasion and have a a stronger say. The Union Street Business Association is trying to buy one prime piece of real estate at 23rd and Union and develop it in a more community oriented way, but they face an uphill battle.

Each corner of 23rd and Union is being redeveloped in the heart of the Central District. Photo by Kelly O/The Stranger.

Each corner of 23rd and Union is being redeveloped in the heart of the Central District. Photo by Kelly O/The Stranger.

Consequently, it might not be possible to generalize the resiliency of New York City’s black neighborhoods to the rest of the country. But Freeman’s prescription for maintaining affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods should help harness the potential of gentrification. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) would divert the gain in property tax revenues to building more affordable housing. Inclusionary zoning, which require new housing developments to set aside a portion of units to be affordable to moderate income households, would also help.

Instead we get a Seattle City Council that is currently contemplating draconian anti-density regulations thanks to conservative old fogey Democrat council members Rasmussen, Licata, and Godden who sit on the influential Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee and hi-jacked a bill with eight anti-density amendments. We get a socialist city council member, Sawant, who not only voted for two of the anti-density amendments, but also sponsored a bill to decrease the transportation levy. It’s a topsy-turvy world.

Build A Frelard Canal Underpass

Seattle has a smorgasbord of transportation issues, but living in Fremont, one of the most immediate is bridge congestion. During rush hour any route is going to be backed up. Plus the drawbridge going up will cause an additional 5 to 10 minute delay. Three bridges serve the Fremont/Ballard area. Building drawbridges is expensive and still wouldn’t solve the fundamental problem of delays when the bridge is up. Building another suspension bridge like Aurora’s is even pricier and extremely disruptive. That’s why a different solution is needed. The ever-tinkering engineers in the Netherlands have devised a solution: digging an underpass under the canal. It’s really a very elegant solution.

The Dutch are always pushing the envelope. This underpass is at the Ringvaar canal in North Holland. Building a Fremont Cut underpass would allow a north south connection without the inevitable drawbridge up delay. Most likely it would also be less expensive than a movable bridge.

The Dutch are always pushing the envelope. This underpass transverses the Ringvaart canal in North Holland. Building a Fremont Cut underpass would allow a north south connection without the inevitable drawbridge up delay. Most likely it would also be less expensive than a new movable bridge.

I came across the solution thanks to the comments section on a SeattleTransitBlog post about ship canal crossings. The Fremont Cut canal is only 30 feet deep and 100 feet wide, so we really wouldn’t need to dig a particularly deep or long tunnel. The traffic layout floated in the article was funneling car traffic to the new tunnel underpass and converting the Fremont Avenue Bridge to transit/bicycle/pedestrian only. That would certainly help downtown Lower Fremont from being such a congested car sewer.

The obvious choice for a new crossing is at 3rd Ave West since it’s an arterial on both sides and is situated about halfway between the Fremont Bridge and the Ballard Bridge. A few commentators argue the Fremont Siphon sewer project would block the potential the new underpass. However, I don’t think the siphon presents an insurmountable obstacle. You could simply dig the underpass deeper or perhaps skirt around it. We should at least study the feasibility.

Doing nothing seems continually less tenable as North Seattle grows and more and more stress is put on the limited canal crossings we have. Seattle needs to think big as it addresses its mounting mobility issues throughout the city. There are costs to rapid population growth—and a big one is the need for a rapid expansion of transit and transportation network capacity.

Admiring The Winning Twins From Afar

One big surprise of my relocation to Seattle has been that right after I left Minnesota, the hapless Twins started winning after four dismal seasons (basically the whole time I lived in Minneapolis.) They have clawed their way to the top of the division. Not many people predicted an even .500 club, but new manager Paul Molitor has turned the club around. In a weird twist, the much hyped Seattle Mariners have been pretty damn bad despite acquiring Nelson Cruz, who is a triple crown threat. So the more exciting team is 1,600 miles away and I’m stuck with the bumbling Mariners. I can admire the Twins from afar and it’s a pretty darn likable team dontcha know! Here are the players:

Brian Dozier: The Star

Brian Dozier #2 of the Minnesota Twins attempts to make a diving play during a game against the Chicago White Sox on May 13, 2013 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The Twins defeated the White Sox 10 to 3.  Photo: Ben Krause

The Twins success starts with lead off hitter Brian Dozier, who leads the league in runs scored with 47 and extra base hits with 32. He also leads the club in home runs with 11. On the defensive end, Dozier sucks up everything hit his way at second base like a industrial strength vacuum cleaner. Easily the MVP of the club with a .266/.339/.872 line and top of the line defense.

Torii Hunter: The Wizened Vet


Hunter brings the veteran mentality to celebrations. Goggles are a must near projectile champagne.

Former Twins all-star Torii Hunter is back, but now he is now 40 years old and seemed to be in decline. Surprisingly, he is having a resurgent year, leading the club in batting average and RBI’s. Hunter used to patrol center field, but, having lost a couple steps, he is now a right fielder and a slow one at that.

Joe Mauer: The First Base Man

Mauer hits singles with the best of them. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Mauer hits singles with the best of them. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Statistically Joe Mauer is in decline. His on-base percentage is at .330, despite making .400 look easy and routine in his prime. His home runs only come once in a blue moon now with two this season, but Mauer still anchors the 3 spot in the line up and plays first base as well as a catcher can be expected to. Ideally teams want more power out of their first basemen, but Mauer seems to get big hits in big situations so you kind of have to put up with it. Plus that 250 million dollar contract and all.

Trevor Plouffe: The Stud Third Baseman

He's a good looking dude and he's good with the bat.

Plouffe’s a good looking dude and he’s good with the bat. (Credit: CBS)

Usually batting clean up, third baseman Trevor Plouffe has been playing at an elite level with a .320 OBP and 9 home runs. Even more refreshing has been his improving defense. His Range Factor is near the top for his position and his error rate has gone way down.

Kurt Suzuki: The Steady Vet Catcher

Suzuki is a great free agent pickup at catcher last season. (Credit: JERRY HOLT)

Suzuki is a great free agent pickup at catcher last season. (Credit: JERRY HOLT)

Suzuki hasn’t been able to maintain his fantastic offensive numbers from last year (.345 OBP), but is dependable as a catcher and his .319 OBP is good for his position.

Eduardo Escobar: Mr. Utility

Hopefully Escobar turns it around and maybe lands a starting spot this season. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Hopefully Escobar turns it around and maybe lands a starting spot this season. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Eduardo Escobar plays third base, shortstop and left field as needed and is a streaky hitter. He tends to start the year on a tear, but he has slumped mightily recently dropping his OBP to .250. Last year he posted solid offensive numbers with a .275/.315/.721 line in 433 at-bats.

Eddie Rosario: The Rookie Phenom

Fleet footed Eddie Rosario could patrol the Twins outfield for a long time to come. (Credit: Aaron Gleeman)

Fleet footed Eddie Rosario could patrol the Twins outfield for a long time to come. (Credit: Aaron Gleeman)

Eddie Rosario made a splash in his big league debut, crushing a home run in his first at-bat. More importantly, Rosario has brought speed to an outfield sorely needing it, tracking down liners in left field. He has batted .289 so far and brought speed to the base paths.

Aaron Hicks: The Five Tool Fool

Minnesota Twins outfielder Aaron Hicks (63) jokes around with his teammates during Photo Day during the Minnesota Twins' Spring Training at the Lee County Sports Complex in Fort Myers, Florida, Tuesday, February 19, 2013.  (Pioneer Press: John Autey)

Aaron Hicks has struggled at the plate, but his defense is good enough to excuse a little mediocrity for the time being. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)

Aaron Hicks was billed at a five tool center fielder: bringing running speed, arm strength, hitting for average, hitting for power, and fielding. He hasn’t been able to deliver on the hitting categories and has was sent down last season and didn’t make the club out of spring training. He got called up when utility outfielder Jordan Shaffer went down with an injury and showed glimmers of his five tool promise, making amazing grabs in center. Nonetheless, he has slumped at the plate with a .280 OBP. He has held on to his center field starting job thanks to his spectacular defense and the hope he’ll come around at the plate.

Danny Santana: The Slumping Sophomore Shortstop

Danny Santana is in dire need of a hot streak to end his season long slump. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Danny Santana is in dire need of a hot streak to end his season long slump. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Danny Santana had a dazzling rookie season that turned me into a Danny Santan-Fan. He batted .319 in 101 games, good enough for fifth best batting average in the league. Unfortunately, Santana has slumped as a sophomore batting just.217 with a dismal .235 OBP. Also troubling, he has committed 12 errors at 418 innings at shortstop, after committing only 2 errors in 261 innings at short last year.

Designated Hitter: A Void: Where’s Oswaldo?

Oswaldo Arcia hip flexor was his Achilles heel this season. He's been stuck in the minors until he gets his moonshot homer stroke back.

Oswaldo Arcia hip flexor was his Achilles heel this season. He’s been stuck in the minors until he gets his moonshot homer stroke back.

The Twins have had a hell of time finding a dependable DH. They sent down slugger Kennys Vargas and Oswaldo Arcia hasn’t gotten called up from a rehab assignment yet after suffering a hip flexor injury. That leaves a shortage of power and no obvious choice for DH. Utility infielder Nunez has seen time at DH as has Torii Hunter when they opt for younger legs in RF. Hunter makes sense, but whoever they plug in, the position is batting .247 with 3 home runs this season. Not very good for a slot literally designated to hitting. Personally I hope they call up Arcia and that he can build on his impressive 20 homers last year in 372 at bats. He only managed .300 OBP but that’s still an improvement at DH for us.

Mike Pelfrey: The Zombie Arm Ace

Pelfrey is having a career year. His pitching arm is back from the dead. (Credit: Ann Heisenfelt / Associated Press)

Pelfrey is having a career year. His arm is back from the dead! (Credit: Ann Heisenfelt)

Starter Mike Pelfrey’s arm was dead to me after two pathetic years marred by injuries and starts resembling batting practice. Then it came back to life this year! He is dominating hitters and lowered his ERA to 2.28 after today’s eight shutout innings. He’s 5-2 and out of nowhere is in the Cy Young discussion.

Kyle Gibson: The Sophomore Slinger

Gibson followed up a decent rookie season with an even stronger sophomore year so far posting a 3.00 ERA and 4-3 record so far. That’s pretty good for a Twins rotation that was dead last in ERA and strikeouts last year.

Phil Hughes: The Icarus Ace

Phil Hughes was the sole bright spot of the rotation last year, going 16-10 with a 3.52 ERA and an outstanding 1.13 WHIP. As a career 4.36 ERA pitcher, Hughes was pitching too close to the sun and this year his wings melted off and he dropped down to earth. His ERA has ballooned to 4.96 and he has gone 4-5.

Trevor May: The Rook

Trevor May didn’t look so hot in ten starts last year, posting a rotund 7.88 ERA. This year, he’s sharpened his stuff and posted a 4.35 ERA and a 4-3 record with 50 K’s in 56 innings.

Ricky Nolasco: The Lucky Belly Itcher

Ricky Nolasco started the season injured and is injured now, but in seven starts he posted a 5-1 record despite a 5.51 ERA. Talk about luck! Nolasco posted a 5.38 ERA last year, so unfortunately he seems to be more of a belly itcher than a pitcher. Maybe his luck and run support holds out though.

Glen Perkins: The Untouchable Closer

Glen Perkins used to be a crap starter and now he's a star closer. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

Glen Perkins used to be a crap starter and now he’s a star closer. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

Glen Perkins has converted all of his 21 save opportunities. He is a big reason the Twins have the best record in the American League. His ERA is a minuscule 1.67.

Blaine Boyer: The Sharp Set-Up Man

Boyer has been almost as untouchable as Perkins as the set up man. He’s posted a 2.17 ERA and amassed 11 holds. Boyer was an off season acquisition with a career 4.39 ERA so he wasn’t expected to be such a catch. But sometimes free agents pan out.

The Middle Relief: A Bunch of Scrubs

The rest of the bullpen is pretty mediocre. Pressly, Graham, Fien and Thompson are solid enough, but Duensing, Stauffer and Thielbar are terrible. Sending down Duensing seems long overdue and it’d make room for a decent hitter to use as DH.