After a bruising and emotional public debate, Seattle’s quest to create more densely developed neighborhoods is about to go citywide.
We’re residents of downtown where the Mandatory Housing Affordability rules already are in place. We see the problem isn’t density but the lack of controls to integrate massive towers into crowded blocks while safeguarding the rights of those in existing buildings.
With a possible economic slowdown on the horizon, developers and city leaders are united in the drive to approve buildings before the music stops. Adding more density has driven speculation and land prices so developers expect the only guiding parameter is whatever maximum zoning allows. Anything less won’t meet their expected return on investment.
The result is box towers worth hundreds of millions with designs that will cripple the transportation grid, surrounding buildings and public health and safety. Few if any have affordable housing.
The average tower holds 1,000 people on lots a quarter block or less, but none we’ve surveyed contain accessible, adequate sized loading berths and in some cases no berths at all. This as city transportation research tells us e-commerce deliveries are doubling and curb space is shrinking. That means more gridlock as trucks block alleys and circle blocks in search of parking.
The new towers lack low podiums or significant setbacks that allow light to their neighbors and pedestrians on the streets below. In a city known for gray days, it’s not a recipe for good health.
As it’s being administered, density has given rise to a growing underclass of existing buildings whose frustrated owners are scrambling to preserve the viability of their homes and businesses.
Neighbors trying to lessen adverse impacts are directed to Seattle Design Review. But design guidelines are nonbinding and subject to interpretation. In the past year reviewers have declined to consider substantive design elements like loading berths and mitigating massing, bulk and scale, even when adjacent buildings are in a different land-use zone.
The process has taken on a courtroom atmosphere with developers accompanied by lawyers ready to push back on changes that could reduce the investment’s bottom line. Rather than get tangled in requests for meaningful mitigations, the city tells neighbors adverse impacts will be addressed later through the State Environmental Protection Act review. By that time the design is largely set and the only recourse is a costly legal challenge once a building permit has been issued.
We speak from experience as neighbors of a proposed development in central downtown. Our residents live in an 8-story, 1912 city landmark directly behind 50 and 16-story towers. A 16-foot alley divides the block into zones allowing heights of 500-feet to the west and 170-feet to the east.
At a recent community meeting, the project architect spoke of its complex urban conditions and said the first priority was to be a good neighbor. Someone asked if placing windows and balconies 16 feet away from adjacent homes was good neighborly design. Her response: “Define neighborly.”
We asked for setbacks explaining that at such close range people will look directly into our living rooms and bedrooms. The response: : “And you can look right back into theirs.”
The developer’s representative went on to say it’s “city living.” That depends on the kind of city Seattle wants to become. New towers feature light as a marketing point. But Seattle’s goal of “healthy environments for all” is impossible when access to daylight becomes a commodity for sale instead of a shared resource that should be protected like green space.
The new density policy is effectively picking winners and losers. If tower neighbors are deprived of sustainable living conditions, the block suffers.
Upzoning legislation needs a Density Bill of Rights. This amendment would supplement zoning and set sustainable development rules for site conditions, shared public resources and the rights of all stakeholders on a block. It would define expectations for all parties and tamp down market speculation.
We need political leadership to act now or the failures of unrestrained towers will be Seattle’s irreversible legacy in just three to five years.
If the developers and city can’t profit and expand the tax base with responsible development, the costs of density will overwhelm any benefits.