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Just Say Nay

2012 May 30
by dan bertolet

For those who hope for the kind of transformational change that will be necessary to create a truly sustainable and resilient Seattle, the City’s disproportionate reaction to Mayor McGinn’s recently proposed set of regulatory reforms is a far more important issue to tackle than the reforms themselves.  Consisting of relatively modest, low-hanging-fruit tweaks to the land use code intended to enhance livability and the local economy, the proposal has generated an astounding amount of opposition, most recently with a crowd of naysayers at a Council hearing that succeeded in getting one major component of the proposal thrown out.

The psychology behind this scenario is complex. The ugly legacy of urban renewal still casts its shadow, and at the core we’re dealing with a wariness of change that is basic human nature.  But while this attitude can be an obstacle to progress in many U.S. cities, here in Seattle it has festered with a mix of timid political leadership and an expectation that everyone must be not only heard but appeased, to form a singularly toxic political dysfunction that would be an entertaining intellectual curiosity if it wasn’t so potentially detrimental to the future of the City.

This is not to say that Seattle is making no progress. It is. But considering all the brainpower, wealth, and environmental concern to be found among Seattleites, our eccentric political culture is the biggest impediment to public policy that would bring Seattle to the international forefront of sustainability.

The Developer Stigma
Consider McGinn’s regulatory reform proposal as illustrative example.  First of all, as played up in the Seattle Times, the fact that some of the people on the advisory group have connections to the development community is apparently all we need to know in order to conclude that it’s all about lining developers’ pockets.  Never mind the reality that Seattle has one of the most progressive development communities in the country.  And never mind that developers know a thing or two about putting up buildings, which happen to be something that we want more of in Seattle, both to satisfy demand from people who want to live here, and to garner the local and regional benefits of smart growth. And never mind that urban infill redevelopment has the potential to be a massive economic engine that fills the gap left by the decline in construction of sprawl.

Why is this knee-jerk enmity of developers so prevalent in Seattle?  Where are the existing development horror stories that people are so afraid of repeating?  Sure, there are a few clunker buildings here and there, but by and large Seattle’s built environment is good and getting better. And Seattle is a city thick with corporate influence—so why do developers take so much heat for being fat cats?  I see no rational answers.

What’s Not To Like?
The piece of the reform package that was shot down last week would have allowed small commercial establishments in some multifamily zones, as a strategy to help “bring back the corner store.”  First of all, how, one might ask, would this benefit developer interests? It doesn’t, and in fact one could argue that it is against their interests because it would open up competition for the retail spaces that are typically part of new mixed-use projects.

There are no doubt some who fear the invasion of ludicrous commercial uses—A topless barbershop!  A corner Walmart!—but these concerns are irrational and deserve to be ignored as such. Others object more judiciously to new uses that would be “out of character” with the neighborhood, that handy catch-all phrase for anything someone doesn’t particularly like.

But wait, last I checked I thought we progressive Seattleites were supposed to be all enamored with exactly the kind of small independent businesses that this policy was designed to promote. And don’t we all love the idea of the kid running to the corner store for a quart of milk? What on earth is everyone so afraid of? It’s like Seattle’s angst-ridden debate over backyard cottages all over again.

Too Much Walkability?
Some residents of Capitol Hill expressed more nuanced objections:  Why allow commercial uses in more areas when there are already so many empty existing street-level retail spaces, and when many urban villages in Seattle have great walkability as is?  In response to Walkscore being cited to support the latter, Walkscore’s Matt Lerner tweeted that he “never imagined a high Walkscore would be used to prevent walkability.” Furthermore, the code would apply to areas across the entire City of Seattle, which has plenty of neighborhoods that lack walkable access to stores and services.

It is true that street-level retail is less viable when spread out and diluted. However, the reason many existing spaces aren’t landing tenants is because they are too expensive, or don’t have the right spatial layout, or are poorly located. Indeed, a common complaint about new mixed-use buildings is that the retail spaces are too large and expensive for small-scale independent businesses.  The proposed reform would have helped open up affordable, usable alternatives to these spaces—otherwise known as creating economic opportunity for the little guy.

In any case, as we have learned from the current glut of vacant street-level retail spaces scattered across Seattle, a flexible, market-based approach to small-scale commercial is likely to be more successful than trying to mandate where it should or shouldn’t be.  After all, that’s how Seattle’s best neighborhood centers developed in the first place, organically creating the kind of practical, livable mixed-use urban form that we’re trying to emulate today.

Naysayers Win
Given how relatively benign the commercial use proposal was, it’s apparent that much of the opposition was driven by indignation over being left out of the process. Yes, Mayor McGinn deserves some blame for that, and yes, Seattle’s residents have much insight to contribute. But I have to wonder if some opponents are letting their indignation preclude a fair assessment of the issue at hand. If it’s a good idea, who cares who proposed it? Is the full-on, dragged-out Seattle process really necessary for every policy decision?

In hindsight, the smarter political approach would have been to put stricter limits on the proposal, such as a smaller allowed floor area, or an exclusion of particularly objectionable business types. This would have helped ease concerns and diffuse opposition, and there would always be the opportunity to update the code after people got more comfortable with it over time. Incremental change is better than no change.

And what of the Council’s acquiescence to the naysayers? Those who testify at Council hearings do not necessarily reflect the sentiments of the entire community—especially at hearings in the middle of the day when most people work.  Nor do neighborhood group leaders necessarily speak for the majority in their neighborhoods. And on my read, the views expressed by Capitol Hill residents who were agitated enough to show up at last week’s hearing are not shared by most people who live in “vibrant, walkable urban centers,” in contrast to what Councilmembers apparently assumed.

The fact that a few dozen motivated naysayers so easily swayed the Council to abruptly kill a thoughtful policy proposal a year in the making is classic Seattle-style political dysfunction. And if Seattle’s electeds continue to be incapable of providing consolidated leadership in the face of opposition to relatively painless policy changes like McGinn’s regulatory reform, we might as well forget about ambitious goals such as carbon neutrality that are guaranteed to involve far more challenging policy and politics.


Dan Bertolet is a Seattle resident and the creator of Citytank.

(P.S.  The regulatory reform proposal also contains two other components—adjustment of the SEPA categorical exemption, and elimination of off-street parking requirements within a quarter mile of frequent transit—that have already generated controversy, and will no doubt stir up more as they are taken up by Council. I’m hoping that my masochistic tendencies will sufficiently motivate me to address these in followup posts.)