As 47 people run for City Council in Tuesday’s primary election, the idea of allowing duplexes and triplexes across Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods is dying on arrival at City Hall.
“City Hall is coming our way,” reads the election mailer, the words imposed over a giant bulldozer aiming its menacing blade at an unsuspecting home behind a hedge.
It was probably inevitable that Seattle’s election would turn into a referendum on our dizzying growth and development. And has it ever in the past few weeks.
“It comes up again and again, every time we’re out campaigning,” says Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who is running for re-election. The primary is next Tuesday, Aug. 4.
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The unsubtle mailer with the home-wrecking bulldozer was sent out this week by Tony Provine, a candidate in the city’s new 4th District (centered on the U District and Ravenna). He says he has doorbelled 15,000 homes.
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“Traffic, parking and whether there’s going to be a triplex next door,” said Provine’s campaign manager, Laura Bernstein. “That’s what people ask about the most.”
About that triplex: Burgess announced Tuesday he now is opposing the idea of upzoning Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods citywide to allow duplexes, triplexes or three stacked flats. Mayor Ed Murray has proposed relaxing building restrictions across the city’s single-family areas as a way of building more housing.
Burgess said he was taken to task about this idea even at a campaign fundraiser, an event made up only of people supportive of his campaign. When they’re going after you at your own fundraiser, something is up, he said.
The single-family proposal is dragging down the rest of the mayor’s 65-point plan to bring more affordable housing to Seattle, Burgess said. Other ideas, such as upzoning near transit centers in return for caps on rent, have more potential to bring real affordability anyway, he said.
City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who heads the special committee overseeing all the housing ideas, has also come out against the single-family changes.
“I do not support zoning changes that would lead to rapid redevelopment of our single family zones and the replacement of existing single family housing with newly constructed multifamily housing,” O’Brien said in a statement. “I don’t believe this will help with affordability.”
Both Burgess and O’Brien said they favor adding more mother-in-law units in most single-family areas instead.
Another councilmember said the rollback of single-family zoning is dead, at least on the current council.
“I don’t think you’re going to see duplexes and triplexes in the single-family areas, not from this council,” Nick Licata said. “They’re getting roughed up for it out there. It isn’t worth it.”
Interesting. Maybe the spirit of Emmett Watson is still with us after all?
Maybe. Licata has an interesting perspective on Seattle’s growth politics. He got his start in the 1970s campaigning against that lone “skyscraper” in the University District, the UW Plaza tower, which quaintly is only 22 stories tall. It’s hard to explain to newcomers, but Seattle as recently as the 1980s was so passionate about staying small that city voters passed an anti-skyscraper initiative.
But Licata said the neighborhood groups lost influence over time. They have been replaced by a pro-growth, pro-density movement made up of environmentalists, social-justice advocates and developers.
“This newer movement captured the progressive ideology of Seattle, and then linked it to the moneyed interests,” Licata said. “It’s a very potent combination.”
It also has some good arguments. We need growth for jobs, and only with a denser city can mass transit work effectively. But the slow-growthers have legitimate livability concerns, especially when pell-mell growth swamps the infrastructure, as it is doing today.
Licata said he didn’t know which side would prevail, or if either would. It’s complicated further as the 47 (!) candidates for City Council have nuanced views — most aren’t fully on one side or the other.
“For all the issues we talk about at City Hall, what we actually do here that defines the city is permitting and zoning,” Licata said. “The real-estate game is the city game. So we should be having an election about it.”
The apparent death of the single-family upzones suggests the public debate already is being heard.