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The Roosevelt Rezone Dustup: Simple Issue Uncovers Complex Questions

2011 June 12
by Chris Fiori

Only in Seattle does a seemingly benign rezone proposal in a relatively sleepy area for development raise discord that rises all the way to the top of a City Hall agenda. In a City facing major, vexing policy decisions (such as not-to-be-named transportation projects), the proposed rezone itself should be a relative no-brainer, if there is broad-based support for the underlying policies driving the process.

On its face, the rezone plan is a logical, diligent, response to local initiative and adds additional capacity around a future transit station. The degree to which many diverse, pro-sustainable development interests have come out against a SEPA DNS (repeat: since when does anyone pro-development oppose a DNS?) for a rezone nonetheless, suggests that adjustments to several key planning policies may need some consideration.

Roosevelt is one of the few places in town where a neighborhood group has supported adding density and, although minor in scale, changing some single-family zoning to more intense uses.  DPD, meanwhile, has published a very thorough analysis of the rezone, painstakingly documenting the rationale for each of the rezone changes in light of current City policies. While the rezone adds just 20% more zoned capacity (according to the analysis), the rezoned capacity would amount to approximately 2,000 new units, which, until the Roosevelt Station opens in ten years and provides 15-minute service to downtown Seattle, is plenty of capacity for now.

The most likely outcome of this rezone debate will be moderately increasing maximum heights to 6-8 stores between 12th and 15th Avenues, and between 65th and 66th, but stopping short of the locally reviled “towers” with 125’ heights as proposed by the Roosevelt Development Group.  Much of the remainder of the proposal will likely remain intact.

The more interesting aspects of this debate are the ongoing subplots that typify broader Seattle land use policy questions. These include:

  • How do we successfully balance the need for local participation in planning with a balanced regional growth perspective? The Roosevelt debate pits neighborhood stakeholders (largely existing residents) with those who arguably are supporting the interests of future residents, and, generally speaking, “smart growth” principles that are valuable to a much broader group of stakeholders. Should the 2012 Comprehensive Plan update seek to re-examine the degree to which land use planning power is vested in neighborhood plans?
  • How can we better balance planning considerations with market realities? Good planning tends to capitalize on market trends with positive externalities, rather than attempt to drive a market that is not viable.  Many of the proponents of increased density above the planned rezone capacities seem to think that all additional zoned units of capacity are equal, be they mid-rise stacked flats, high-rise stacked flats, townhomes, or single family homes, with each added unit of capacity reducing demand for units elsewhere, presumably in sprawling suburbs.  However, these products all have different supply and demand dynamics.  Seattle may in fact have plenty of development capacity for small, vertically stacked units but a shortage of affordable larger units (this speculation is a good subject for another post). If that statement was in fact true, adding larger units via “L” zones would tend to reduce sprawl more than adding capacity in vertical development above 65’. Is there a way that we can better align market realities, zoned capacities by unit type, and growth targets that are embedded in City policy making as directed by the Growth Management Act?
  • Is Seattle ready to consider any major changes to single-family zones? The Roosevelt rezone debate is being played out against the backdrop of policies favoring the near-absolute protection of single-family zoned areas, focusing debate at on adding additional height in areas already zoned for mixed-use and multi-family.  Some additional heights in these areas are sensible, anchored by strong urban design principles and market support. However, keeping 65% (at last estimate) of the City’s total land mass locked up in single-family zones places an incredible burden on mixed-use zones to build out to perceived maximum densities. The cottage housing ordinance was a step in the right direction, but figuring out how to yield more units, particularly two and three-bedroom units, in areas within easing walking/biking distance of transit stops will require a re-visitation of single-family zoning policies. What other rezoning criteria could be enacted that would revitalize and support moderate density neighborhoods while adding to the City’s stock of 2-3 bedroom units near transit?

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Chris Fiori is a Senior Project Manager at Heartland, LLC, a real estate consulting, investment, and development firm based in Seattle. Chris is a Roosevelt-Ravenna resident, and recently finished serving on the Seattle Planning Commission.

Disclosure: Heartland manages an LLC that currently owns a Roosevelt-area development site.

 

 

 

 

 

29 Responses leave one →
  1. Dan Staley permalink
    June 12, 2011

    I do enjoy your pieces Chris.

    Two things stand out for me in your essay.

    Many of the proponents of increased density above the planned rezone capacities seem to think that all additional zoned units of capacity are equal, be they mid-rise stacked flats, high-rise stacked flats, townhomes, or single family homes, with each added unit of capacity reducing demand for units elsewhere, presumably in sprawling suburbs. However, these products all have different supply and demand dynamics.

    I don’t understand how folks can say that building more units of stacked flats will result in fewer 2450 sf houses on 7700 sf parcels in the burbs. I can’t wrap my mind around it.

    It is true when cheap energy goes away, some (or many, depending on how well we find replacements) from the far-flung frontier will move to such places. But we must have a variety of housing closer in, as a wider variety of people will be migrating closer. We cannot expect them to cram themselves into Soviet bloc blocks, even though opponents like to raise such visions to create fear.

    Which leads me to:

    keeping 65% …of the City’s total land mass locked up in single-family zones places an incredible burden on mixed-use zones to build out to perceived maximum densities. … figuring out how to yield more units, particularly two and three-bedroom units, in areas within easing walking/biking distance of transit stops will require a re-visitation of single-family zoning policies.

    Further vexing policy analysis is the knowledge that the built environment is durable, and planners advocating sustainability (whether or not it is possible, they are planning as if it is) want us to re-use structures to conserve embodied energy. If the older stock turns over slowly, equity issues arise, in that small parcels are common, and raising building heights impedes the right-to-light, especially if there are roofs being used to generate power or hot water (this will be key in the medium-term future).

    That is: there are many key goals at odds with one another. We still have to prioritize our goals before we choose our path.

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      June 14, 2011

      I don’t think you’re alone in having trouble wrapping your mind around the *displacing suburban homes* aspect of density. I spend a significant amount of time writing about it because it is such a hard concept to get. When someone builds an extra 150sf “apodment” space, that clearly won’t attract someone from a 2500sf exurban home, right? Of course not. But the math tells us that any additional people we add to Seattle absolutely are people that won’t be moving the the suburbs/exurbs. So how can both of these facts be true at the same time? I can explain it in two ways – I much prefer the macroeconomic approach, but I’ll start with the microeconomic approach.

      Microeconomics:

      Bob finally took a job as a janitor – his unemployment insurance ran out months ago and he had to sell his condo. He finds an ad for the apodment, and thinks it’s all he needs while he waits for the construction industry to get back on its feet and he can find another architect job. Fred and Martha have a home in Lynnwood and have been looking for a condo downtown to remove their commute. Prices for downtown condos were a bit much for them, but when prices drop slightly (thanks to the extra condo on the market – Bob’s condo), they buy it. Ed and Lynda are looking for a home in the Puget Sound area. The huge home and land in Carnation look appealing, but Lynda’s afraid of the long commute. Prices go down slightly in Lynnwood (thanks to Fred and Martha), just enough to push them into the smaller home.

      Macroeconomics:

      High prices directly correlate with high demand. Housing prices are more expensive in all markets in Seattle than the far suburbs. This directly shows that there are people that would rather live in Seattle, but choose not to because of price. Increase the number of housing units in Seattle and Seattle’s population absolutely will go up. Since our region is roughly a closed system (it would take a change in prices for the whole region to increase or decrease the number of people moving in from elsewhere), any net new residents in Seattle are a net loss of residents from the region as a whole.

      It’s tough to see the microeconomic scenario, because human choices are so complex. But it’s easy to see the macroeconomic case. One new home in Seattle moves a family from the suburbs. One thousand new homes in Seattle moves a thousand families from the suburbs. The size and shape of the new units don’t matter as long as they fill up.

      • Dan Staley permalink
        June 14, 2011

        One new home in Seattle moves a family from the suburbs. One thousand new homes in Seattle moves a thousand families from the suburbs. The size and shape of the new units don’t matter as long as they fill up.

        Yes, thank you for illustrating what Chris was bemoaning and what I highlighted in my comment above. Would that urban dynamics were so binary and simplistic!.

        • Matt the Engineer permalink
          June 14, 2011

          Tell me how they aren’t. Yes, it’s important to understand the market dynamics if you’re a developer trying to figure out what housing type will earn the best profit. And it’s important to be careful with zoning to create interesting neighborhoods. But it would take real effort to build a home in Seattle that you couldn’t sell at any price. And every home you sell here is one fewer home sold in the exurbs.

          • Dan Staley permalink
            June 14, 2011

            Your assertion was that demand met in the city directly decreases demand in the suburbs, despite Chris’ assertion that the products all have different supply and demand dynamics.

            That is: the demand for in-city housing is different than suburban housing. Yet you assert differently, and show no evidence to back your assertion. What evidence do you have that supports your claim and refutes Chris’?

          • Matt the Engineer permalink
            June 14, 2011

            “demand met in the city directly decreases demand in the suburbs” I don’t think Chris has argued against that. And I’m not sure I understand the argument. Are you saying that increased housing in Seattle is met by – what – Californians? That the very slight cost difference in having the housing stock increase determines whether or not someone relocates here from a completely different market? I’ll be happy to argue that point with you, but is that really what you’re claiming?

            If it isn’t then we have a fixed group of pebbles and a bunch of cups. If you put more pebbles in one cup, you must have taken them from other cups. This is logic, not market research, and doesn’t demand evidence.

  2. Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
    June 13, 2011

    Simple answer: there were a lot of those proverbial 2450 sf houses built, I’ve seen them, and I don’t want them. If you trust Leinberger’s surveys, about half of Americans don’t want “Tony Soprano” subdivisions, we want “Seinfeld” walkable urbanism, but 80% of the supply is Sopranos:
    http://www.infrastructurist.com/2009/02/10/how-to-save-the-suburbs-an-interview-with-christopher-leinberger/
    Anecdotally, I keep hearing from friends who did move out of the city, “I wish I’d never bought that house”–mostly due to the real estate downturn, but they also miss the convenience of city life vs the burdens of home upkeep and long expensive drives just for necessities.

    Also keep in mind that today’s “small” 2-bd apartment is actually larger and better equipped than the average 1950s single family house. My family of four comfortably lives in one, in a midrise building; the only things it doesn’t have are a driveway and yard, and since live near many zipcars and a great park that’s a pretty minor tradeoff. Another note, as Eric de Place recently pointed out on Sightline, Seattle has a higher number of single parents, again making smaller units with less upkeep a more attractive option. Not that recent apartment developments are perfect; there are embarrassingly few 3-bd units and the lower floors could do a much better job of relating to outdoor courtyards rather than funneling everyone who’s not in a ground floor unit into elevators.

    I’d also love to see better options in Lx zones, but in recent Seattle experience that’s been mainly car-oriented townhomes that are more or less the same small stacked configuration except over a garage, not to mention they have for-sale prices that are hardly “affordable” to middle-income people due to the high land values. Hopefully we’ll see some good rowhouse designs come out of the recent code update.

    • Dan Staley permalink
      June 13, 2011

      I’m quite familiar with what Chris writes about and all the various surveys out there detailing stated preference. What is important here is two things:

      o Avoiding hasty generalization fallacies.

      o The detail in the surveys. Teased out in some of the more detailed analyses is the fact that many of these preferences are for walkability and proximate services. Folks are not eschewing the house, they are eschewing the Euclidean zoning for endless expanses of SFD and nothing else.

      My point is not defending some pro-Breugmann/Kotkin suburban fantasy. It is for providing a wide range of choices in a durable built environment that also has preserving embodied energy as a goal.

  3. Yep permalink
    June 13, 2011

    Great post, Chris. I hope DPD is reading this….there is a pervasive belief at DPD that Seattle retains sufficient zoned capacity to build units for the people that are projected to move here. But DPD fails to embrace two facts: 1) the market doesn’t want to build those types of units (too expensive to build), and 2) if the units were built, they would be very expensive, exacerbating the main problem with our city–lack of low and middle income housing.

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      June 14, 2011

      The cost to build housing doesn’t necessarily influence it’s selling price. Nobody would build a unit they don’t think they can make money on, but if they do build it for more than market value then they have to drop their price to the market rate and lose money. This doesn’t negatively affect overall affordability. Actually, every extra unit on the market – despite the price paid for it – decreases the average price of a home slightly (increased supply, untouched demand = lower price).

  4. Mark permalink
    June 13, 2011

    I certainly hope that in all this planning for where to stuff all those people you don’t fail to leave room for the Soylent Green factory.

    • Matthew 'Anc' Johnson permalink
      June 14, 2011

      You do realize that the more people you put into cities the less you have building out in the exurbs wasting precious arable land, making the a Soylent Green situation LESS LIKELY right?

  5. Dan Staley permalink
    June 14, 2011

    If it isn’t then we have a fixed group of pebbles and a bunch of cups. If you put more pebbles in one cup, you must have taken them from other cups. This is logic, not market research, and doesn’t demand evidence.

    Your logic is from a false premise. You want to argue that one set of cups is filled by gravity, another by wind, because that is how the different cups get filled. That is: what is the reason the cups get filled? Chris is arguing the different cups are filled in different ways. You want the different cups to all be filled in the same way.

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      June 15, 2011

      I don’t care how the cups are filled up. To put more pebbles in the Seattle cup, you must take them from the others. Do you agree?

      If you’re arguing that additional units won’t be filled in Seattle at any price, I’m happy to have that discussion with you. Is that what you’re arguing?

      • Chris permalink
        June 15, 2011

        Matt,

        It’s not that they wouldn’t be filled at any price, it’s that no reasonable, profit-motivated person would build them in the first place. I grant you that if the city raised a $1 billion bond to build 3 bedroom units in 30-story buildings, they would all be filled at some price. But the reality is that most buildings at created by virtue of a market that has to believe demand exists for a product a price point that exceeds the projected cost to build it. Much excess capacity exists in Seattle in places where zoned capacity exists but projected demand – at assumed constriction costs and prices – does not.

        The crux of the issue is construction cost, which, as a gross generality, increases with density on a per-square-foot basis (townhouse<LR apartment<HR apartment), making less dense units cheaper to build than more dense units. There are certainly other factors – school districts, views, access to amenities, preference for city living, gardens, etc. – but construction price points is a major reason why most larger household sizes choose not to live in stacked flats in Seattle. The vast majority of new, stacked flat studio, one and two-bedroom units are occupied by one or two people. Therefore, creating more capacity for what are highly likely to be small units occupied by small households does not necessarily impact demand for larger unit by larger households in the suburbs.

        I'm sure there are more robust works out there on this topic, but I hope this makes sense

        • Matt the Engineer permalink
          June 15, 2011

          I appreciate the comment [Chris]. I have two responses.

          1. Even bringing in one and two person households brings people in from the suburbs. See the pebble & cup argument. Plus I personally know quite a few singles and couples that live in large homes in suburbia. And at one point in my life I was one of them. These singles and couples have to come to the city from somewhere. They come from the suburbs (or if they come from elsewhere they’ll go to the suburbs if we don’t make room for them).

          2. The “at any price” part of my argument was added to make sure we were talking about the demand side of housing. On the supply side I agree with much of your post – designing our zoning to what builders can make a profit building will get us more density for our zoning effort.

          • dan bertolet permalink*
            June 15, 2011

            I would add that if there is unmet demand for smaller multifamily units in Seattle,then demand and prices for larger housing units and single-family will rise. Plenty of singles and childless couples can and do live in towhhouses and single-family in Seattle. Give them more and better options for smaller multifamily,and you effectively make room for the larger households that really need the larger housing.

      • Dan Staley permalink
        June 15, 2011

        I don’t care how the cups are filled up. To put more pebbles in the Seattle cup, you must take them from the others. Do you agree?

        I don’t agree. If you don’t care how the cups are filled up, you can’t speak to urban economics and land dynamics. This lack of understanding is why a 1:1 equivalence is argued. The argument is in error.

        • Matt the Engineer permalink
          June 15, 2011

          Less insult, more content please.

          I’m asking you to explain where the people will come from. Where will the people come from? Zoning can not create people.

          • Dan Staley permalink
            June 15, 2011

            Matt, it is not an insult to point out that if you don’t understand that the pebbles filling the cups are not homgeneous and don’t fill all the cups equally, then your assumptions are problematic. Chris made a statement in his post – and then further explained in his reply – that points out the markets for suburban and urban housing are different. You cannot meet the demand of one or both markets by drawing from the same pool. The reason the Floridas, Leinbergers, and Nelsons of the world continue to write about housing dynamics is that they are complex systems with heterogeneous actors looking for different amenities. The subtleties in the urban or suburban demand are many. Perhaps this detail in the latest Realtor preference survey can help you out. Many folks, still, want the privacy of a SFD but now the majority want it in a walkable neighborhood. Not a dense urban core or TOD neighborhood, as Florida teases out.

            Its not a one-to-one trade. You do not fill 1000 DUs in the core by transferring demand from, say, Lakewood. That’s not how it works. When gas is permanently over 5.00/gal, we can revisit and see how many have bitten the bullet and swallowed their preferences for a DU near a TOD or bikeable from home, but it still won’t be a 1:1. That’s not how the world works.

          • Matt the Engineer permalink
            June 15, 2011

            There’s absolutely a finite pool of people that want to live in the city – in every home style. But housing prices (in every home style) tell us there are far more people that live outside Seattle that want to live inside Seattle.

            But that’s all beside the point. Heterogeneous or not, every person that moves to Seattle lives in Seattle and not somewhere else. That’s 1:1. Every single person. (doh! except people that have more than one home! you got me.)

  6. Barb Wilson permalink
    June 15, 2011

    Spoken like a (former) Planning Commissioner.

  7. dan cortland permalink
    June 15, 2011

    “Even bringing in one and two person households brings people in from the suburbs. See the pebble & cup argument. Plus I personally know quite a few singles and couples that live in large homes in suburbia. And at one point in my life I was one of them. These singles and couples have to come to the city from somewhere.”

    Don’t sell their suburban houses to others? Or do they leave them vacant when they move to the city?

    Perhaps it isn’t a closed system. Did the high in-migration to King County in 1985-1990 have anything to do with the significant increase in the median price of a house in that period?

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      June 16, 2011

      “Don’t sell their suburban houses to others? Or do they leave them vacant when they move to the city?”

      There’s a constant increase in population in our area – from births and from a net positive amount of people moving here. The question isn’t whether these houses sit empty, but how many new houses are built in the exurbs.

      I think our region can be considered a closed system if any set of actions doesn’t change the price of housing dramatically. Add a million homes in Seattle and you’ll definately drop prices enough to attract people from elsewhere. But I wouldn’t think small changes in housing price have a strong effect on the balance of people moving here. People follow jobs, not houses.

      I think it’s fairly clear the net increase in jobs was the factor in the ’80s. (my Google karma is strong today – I can’t imagine finding a better graph)

      • June 16, 2011

        Besides the net increase in jobs, you have the net increase in wealth from Microsoft employees and investors seeing that there was no limit then to how much money they had. So they could work in Redmond but live in Seattle and along with MSofty spinoffs and tech-tag-alongs our population with money grew. Add to that the “anyone can get a loan” concept in the 2000+ years further fueled people moving to Green Lake and the surrounding city. Now we have a continuing recession. Growth projections need be based on jobs as you say, Matt.

        The pebbles in a cup doesn’t make sense to me. Like at a fast food joint, all you are doing is selecting a bigger cup. That will make prices cheaper, but ask any owner seller and they will tell you that the cup is to big and there are not enough pebbles. In case you haven’t noticed, real estate prices are down about 35% over the past 4 years and there are about 1800 vacant houses for sale in Seattle.

        Vancouver is experiencing growth and that is mainly to to immigration from China. Immigrants from China seem to have lots of money and family and are very welcome there. I have a cousin in law that would love Canadian citizenship and because they are financially lower middle class, they get a flat “No.”

        I don’t see a huge influx of transit riders coming from outside the area for intercity jobs any time soon. I see the need to get current commuters on the damn train.

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