Morning Fizz: Last Night's Hearing

By Josh Feit February 19, 2009

For about three weeks now, Morning Fizz has been hyping Seattle City Council Member Sally Clark's local forum on the density bill that's at play in Olympia.

Rather than doing our usual list of caffeinated news and political gossip this morning, we're going to do a report on Clark's meeting, which packed the house at the Langston Hughes Cultural Center auditorium at 17th and E. Yesler Way last night. 

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-34, West Seattle, Vashon), would up-zone the areas around the 40 light rail stations that are being planned for the region to allow for more density. The density would be measured either in housing, jobs, or transit users. It would also mandate preserving a percentage of affordable housing—including assuring 1-for-1 replacement on any existing housing that's lost.

The panel included: Steven Antupit from the Urban Land Institute who explained the concept of transit oriented development—building density around transit hubs; Don Vehige, an architect from GGLO, who showed slides of what different levels of density look like; Bill LaBorde, a lobbyist for Transportation Choices Coalition, who advocated for the bill; Rachael Myers, director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, who advocated for the bill; and John Fox—from the Seattle Displacement Coalition, who's against the bill. 

The panel seemed stacked against Fox, who—arms folded throughout—increasingly seems like Seattle's own Ralph Nader, an angry, reactionary utopian-ist , outnumbered by modern progressives.  

foxJohn Fox. Seattle's Ralph Nader 

Antupit  explained that transportation costs are the second largest part of a family budget (after housing and more than healthcare) and disproportionately so the poorer you get, which "Seems upside down to me," he added.  The point of building densely around transit hubs, he explained, was to bring down both the costs of housing and transportation. 

Vehige, in a clear swipe at Fox, began his slide show  by saying the most important concept to understand when talking about density was to distinguish between net and gross density. Net measures the number of units per acre on the acreage that's being developed, while gross measures the number of units over an entire neighborhood. Fox has been repeatedly schooled by the bill's supporters for comparing the net density mandates in the bill (a minimum of 50-units-per acre) to the lower gross densities in the neighborhood as a whole. His apples to oranges comparison has scared neighbors.

More to the point, Vehige's slide show of housing developments—ranging from a typical single family zone of 9.7 units per acre (net) in South Seattle to 220 units per acre (net) in Belltown—demonstrated that 50 units per acre is not an unreasonable equation for housing clustered around transit hubs. 

TCC's Bill LaBorde, who lives in the South End with two kids and his wife (yes, families support density too), humbly said that the central criticism of the bill was "fair"—namely that Fox and some angry neighbors feel that communities were left out of the process. But LaBorde also explained that the bill has been amended since hearing from the neighborhoods. For example, the five station areas in Seattle that aren't self-identified as "growth centers" will not be required to set a 50-unit-per acre minimum.  Those sites, like the Beacon Hill and Henderson Street stations can make up the difference  by accommodating for that number of transit commuters coming to the station—with improvements for bike and pedestrian access, for example. 

LaBorde showed aerial photos of neighborhoods that are slated to get light rail stations, like Columbia City and Othello, pointing to large swaths of vacant land. He said that failing to mandate smart growth development  would be a "lost opportunity for housing." 

"We're trying to avoid building park and rides," he said, " which is what communities around the country have done [with their mass transit investments.]" LaBorde got big cheers when he concluded this point: "We want to start building communities for people not cars."

Low-income housing advocate Rachael Myers, the only non-suit on the panel, picked up on LaBorde's "lost opportunity for housing" theme. She explained that growth is coming around transit hubs even if we don't mandate denser development standards. (1.7 million people are predicted to move here by 2040.) "As a result," she said, "there's the likelihood of displacement."

In her words: "Just being able to walk out your door onto rapid transit, these are going to be desirable places to live. And so there's a profit to be made for developers. This bill makes sure there are protections in place to preserve affordable housing [in these transit developments]." 

Myers also echoed Antupit's point that low-income people are strapped when it comes to transportation. "I can't afford a Prius," she said.

Myers' low-income cred highlighted Fox's isolation on this issue. Fox's presentation involved a series of math equations showing that a 50-unit-per acre mandate at the Henderson station (which is exempted from the mandate anyway, as LaBorde explained) would really require a 175-units-per acre build up.

Strangely, Fox's presentation did not focus on warnings about housing displacement. He was stuck playing his only card, condemning the advocates for not consulting the community. It's a point that has political traction (it drew cheers from the crowd), but it's off point when weighing the pros and cons of building density around station areas. To that question Fox repeatedly says only that neighbors should have a say on "the impacts."

However, while the bill's supporters—low-income housing advocate Myers and environmentalist LaBorde—spoke directly to the impacts of the bill (preserving low-income housing, providing transit opportunities, building neighborhoods with lighter carbon footprints), Fox wasn't specific on "the impacts."

Yes, he complains about an increase in housing, but that undermines his point. Building more housing to ensure that transit hubs don't cater to park and rides and nearby settlements of expensive single-family homes, is a bulwark against the very gentrification that Fox claims he's against. 

Fox does ask a lot of questions, though. He concluded his presentation with this one: When have Seattle's mandates for density ever stopped sprawl in the suburbs? 

It's a fair question. However, this bill speaks directly to it: Most of the mandates for density standards in HB  1490 are directed at the station areas in the suburbs: Tukwila, Federal Way, Kent, Redmond, Shoreline.  

Even the evening's neutral moderator, City Council Member Sally Clark—who proclaimed at the outset that she didn't want the evening to be a debate, but rather a civil info sharing session—challenged Fox on this point telling him that holding the suburbs accountable was something "I like [about the bill]."

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