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Coffee Shop Neighborhoods for the Next Seattle

2012 January 30
by Brock Howell

I need to let you know about some super-wonky process moving through at the King County Council. But first I am going to tell you why I love my neighborhood.

Every morning I walk to the same coffee shop, order a doppio and cinnamon roll scone, read my RSS news feeds, and then ride either my Metro Bus #66 or bicycle seven miles to my downtown office. With the winter snows and rains, I’ve definitely been riding the bus more than the bicycle.

This routine gives me a sense of satisfaction. The baristas know my name and they know what I’m going to order. I don’t have to overthink how I’m going to start my day — the decision was already made by habit. And most importantly, as a relative newcomer to my neighborhood, I have an instant sense of place and belonging as if I’ve always lived here.

Better health and and a social safety net are also big benefits. I can’t claim that my morning food choices are healthy, but the walk to my coffee shop and the following ride to work are definitely good for me. A recently published study in the European Heart Journal found that people who own a car and television are 27% more likely to suffer a heart attack. (I may not be out of the woods on this one: I own a car and watch plenty of Hulu & Netflix.)

Like a growing number of Americans in their 20s and 30s, I have put off marriage and children and I live 3 hours from my nuclear family. As a result, my local social safety net is small. To make up for this deficit, it’s important to regularly meet neighbors and make new friends.

This one of the great things about my coffee shop. When I forget my wallet, I can pay next time. When I need to make change for bus fare, it’s no big deal. If I go on vacation for a week, when I come back my baristas ask why I wasn’t around. In a world where social networks are increasingly digital, I’m comforted to know I also have a social safety network founded in place and neighborhood.

What’s more, this is the financially sustainable lifestyle. By not driving and instead depending on the bus, I save piles of cash. The American Public Transportation Association regularly publishes what the average Seattle household can save by switching from car-dependency to the bus; the latest was $11,749 per year.

I doubt I’m saying anything that’s revolutionary to any Citytank reader. We share similar experiences and passions as city dwellers and New Urbanists. But I keep thinking about the 700,000 new people coming to King County by 2040. That’s more than the entire current population of Seattle. Will they be able to walk to their neighborhood coffee shop?

Right now, we can help shape that future. King County is updating its comprehensive plan. Love them or hate them, comprehensive plans are the foundational documents for planning and building our communities and protecting farms and forests in Washington State. We will only be as good as our best comprehensive plan.

King County does not have jurisdiction over the density (yes, the famed “d-word”) in the incorporated areas. But the county can determine the location of urban area boundaries and the density of the urban area that remains unincorporated. Citytankers, you should pay attention now.

The county planning staff put out their draft recommendations back in October. Here’s a couple of thoughts.

First, the urban area must not expand. Low-density sprawl creates new unwalkable neighborhoods and diminishes our ability to add more housing and job opportunities within the current urban area. That’s why it’s so important to hold the line on our urban boundaries.

In order to create great, vibrant neighborhoods, more people need to live closer to their local coffee shops. Conversely, coffee shops need more people living nearby to stay in business. And this doesn’t just apply to coffee shops, it also applies to corner markets, restaurants and, really, any small business that can be decoupled from the petroleum economy.

The good news is that the staff recommendation keeps the urban growth area boundaries as is. Unfortunately, there’s a proposal floating to expand the Woodinville urban area into the Sammamish Valley farmlands and rural area. Given that the existing urban growth area has sufficient capacity for housing and employment for the next 20 or more years, this expansion proposal is simply unacceptable.

Second, the County needs to plan the unincorporated urban area for high performance:

  • sufficient density to support transit,
  • fine-grained street grids to promote walking,
  • streets that are safe for pedestrians and cyclists of all abilities,
  • minimal surface parking,
  • public plazas to promote civic engagement,
  • a balanced mix of businesses and housing,
  • housing affordable to all ranges of incomes, and
  • complementary phased public infrastructure investments.

These are minimal requirements for creating functioning urban places and should be applied to the several types of neighborhoods designated by the county, including: Unincorporated Activity Centers, Community Business Centers, Neighborhood Business Centers, Areas for Commercial Site Improvement and Public Service, and Fully Contained Communities. The current staff recommendation would simply continue the old requirements, which, frankly, are not good enough.

While the official public comment period closed in December, there’s still time. The King County Executive’s office is finalizing its recommendations that will go to the County Council on March 1.

Let’s make sure King County’s urban area is a great place for the next 700,000 people. Let’s make sure they can walk to their coffee shop, know their barista, and ride a bus or bike. With your help, we can make it happen.


For the rest of Futurewise’s comments to the King County planning staff, visit For questions about how to get more involved, contact Brock Howell, King County Program Director for Futurewise, at