What ever happened to the management part of growth management?
Last week after I made the boneheaded move of driving Denny Way at rush hour and it took 20 minutes to inch 10 blocks, it hit me. What Seattle really needs right now is more development.
Likewise when my kids’ middle school ballooned to 1,200 students, nearly a third larger than designed, I said to myself that obviously what Seattle should do is launch into an epic building spree.
Or there was the other night, when more than 40 riders were waiting at my No. 8 bus stop in South Lake Union. When the bus came, it was so jammed that only about 10 of the 40 could get on. Clearly, I thought, what our city cries out for is: more density and growth.
OK, I didn’t think any of these things. It would be about the most counterintuitive thinking possible — to drive these clogged streets, squeeze into these schools and cram onto these buses and then conclude that the solution to Seattle’s growing pains is to supersize the wave that’s swamping the city.
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Yet that seems to be where the city is heading.
“We need density all across the city, everywhere,” was how one member of the mayor’s Housing and Livability Agenda task force summed up the thinking at a panel last month.
Growth and density are surely inevitable, even desirable. But the blindingly obvious caveat is that we aren’t handling the growth and density we’ve got right now.
Those three anecdotes above from my own life are hardly novel. Seattle’s groaning infrastructure was already the talk of the town, long before that leaked housing report put the city’s growth-on-steroids strategy into words.
Some readers asked what I think of the draft ideas, because in that column I didn’t offer much of an opinion. It might surprise people that I think the densinistas are, at least in the big picture, right.
We are going to get denser. We have no choice. I don’t think we need upzones everywhere, as the report suggested. I’m also not sure that density necessarily leads to affordability (see, say, San Francisco or Vancouver, B.C.). But density advocates are absolutely right that it’s greener for our city to grow up than for the region to sprawl out.
I also think Seattle has no choice but to begin transforming from a car-focused town to one with real mass transit. Getting denser, especially in areas served by transit, is crucial to that.
All that said, there used to be this concept called “growth management.” There’s a 25-year-old law, still on the books, called the Growth Management Act. A main point of it was that “uncoordinated and unplanned growth” can be a threat to your most basic quality of life. So cities have a right to manage and even delay some development if the effects of growth start to overwhelm.
Seattle is definitely overwhelmed. But we seem to have concluded that the way to manage this brush fire is to pour rocket fuel on it.
We’re not talking managed growth or smart growth so much as gonzo growth.
I got my start as a reporter in the south and east King County suburbs during the great growth wave of the late 1980s. In the evenings there were lines of SUVs on old two-lane farm roads heading to new subdivisions as far as the eye could see. People demanded that better roads and new schools be built in a more rational fashion, concurrently with the growth. They got called NIMBY and xenophobic for their efforts, as I probably will be today.
But that led to a concept called “concurrency.” It allows cities to demand that basic services, particularly transportation, keep pace with growth. Anyone feel Seattle’s infrastructure is keeping up?
When Microsoft exploded in the 1990s, the city of Redmond was the fastest-growing job center in the state. It was the South Lake Union of its time. But Redmond didn’t allow its city to be swamped into dysfunction, as we are doing. It responded with a series of temporary moratoriums on development so its infrastructure could catch up.
Here, not only is the door wide open. But now we’re saying Seattle’s true growth problem is that we don’t have enough of it!
Balancing all this admittedly is not easy. Pressing pause on development or charging impact fees can make housing more expensive. The task force had some good ideas for subsidizing a range of housing and also for smaller-bore affordability solutions such as more mother-in-law units.
But we have a state law that says we don’t have to genuflect to growth like it’s a god. We ought to use it.