Miller (center)

Dan Bertolet over at Hugeasscity has a great post up asking city council candidate David Miller some fundamental questions about density, development, and whether Miller (a neighborhood and tree activist from Maple Leaf) supports transit-oriented development in the neighborhoods.

The questions themselves are smart (if a little looooooooooooong), but what makes the post great is that Miller answers thoughtfully and at great length—and in ways that don't necessarily acquit him of charges that he's a NIMBY.

Question: You said that “we need to do upzones.”  Please give some examples of specific locations in Seattle that you believe should be upzoned.  And not upzones that would be contingent on meeting this or that precondition, but upzones that you believe should be enacted now.  Would you support upzoning single-family to multifamily anywhere in the City, and if yes, where?

Miller:  I don’t think any upzones should be done without preconditions, particularly for preservation of affordable housing, creation of affordable housing, etc. Seattle has been too quick to give away bonuses with too little in return. Anywhere in the downtown core except along Western, Northgate, in most cases at the center of urban centers and urban villages.

Question: You said that “We also differ in that I do not believe density is automatically affordable…”   Sorry David, because that is nothing but a classic straw man argument.  I have never said that, and neither has the vast majority of people who advocate for urban density.  But perhaps you could explain how preventing high-density housing by only allowing low-density housing will do anything but make housing less affordable?  High-density housing is inherently more affordable because it uses less land, materials, and infrastructure, and it also has the law of supply and demand on its side.  Go to any neighborhood and compare the price of the average single-family house to the price of the average condo.

Miller: If we define “affordable” most simply as a unit costing less than the average price for the area — features and size held constant — explain to me why any meaningful number of developers would give up his/her profit margin to build an affordable unit? They won’t, unless they are encouraged to or subsidized. The only time you get units less than average price (”affordable”) from developers on their own is when you have a housing market deflation. You’ll get a relative few at the end of each bubble, and then developers will simply stop building the N+1 unit that would have been affordable. Simple Econ 101 supply & demand curves (build more widgets, price gets cheaper) don’t work on land use. We have to be more creative than that.

Question: Completing the straw man, you added that “We also differ in that I do not believe density is… automatically environmentally sound.”  While there are examples of high-density housing that is not as green as it could be, in the vast majority of cases high-density housing is greener because it uses less land, materials, resources, energy, and infrastructure, and also because it is a critical ingredient for enabling alternatives to the single-occupant vehicle.  Do you disagree?

Build a city people don’t want to live in and you get urban sprawl. Build a city with a continuing shrinkage of urban tree canopy, and the average Seattleite moves into the ‘burbs, not to mention we’ll be violating our responsibilities under the endangered species act. High density housing in our urban villages and centers is the way we can have our cake and preserve our in-city environment, too. I’ve met more than a few “environmentalists” who believe we should eliminate SF housing in Seattle. The resulting increase in impermeable surface and loss in tree canopy would destroy our urban watersheds and make it impossible to save Elliott Bay, Lake Union, and Lake Washington — even with < 1 car/HH and the best bus system in the world. So the answer is obviously somewhere between what we have now and that extreme. My answer is build in the urban villages and centers and leave the SF areas largely alone to preserve environment.

Read the whole thing here.