One of the blighted blocks across the street from Roosevelt High School, where residents opposed a six-story development proposal.

Urbanist types will be gather at what is billed as the City Builder Happy Hour.
on Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 5:00 pm at the Pike Brewing Company. Organizers Dan McGrady (city lobbyist for the Vulcan development company and Dan Bertolet (urban planner and CityTank blogger), among others, say the reason for the happy hour is “because better cities are what people want, and what the planet needs," and what better way to promote Seattle as a future better city than to “fill a room with smart, passionate, like-minded folks, judiciously add alcoholic beverages, and stir.”

There is a well-worn myth told around the campfires of NIMBYs all over Seattle about the room full of private developers who control the Seattle City Council. Through their schemes and big bags of cash, they have managed to ruin the city, up zoning everything like crazy. Unfortunately, the City Builder Happy Hour isn’t that room—--yet.

Any rational person knows that there if there was a smoke- (or incense-) filled room where developers mapped the future of the city, Seattle would be a very different city. If you are an impartial observer, just take an evening to attend your local design review committee, where you will find a room full of your fellow citizens fussing over windows and paint swatches for the latest proposed mixed-use development.

Blogger Matthew Yglesias takes up this theme and points out that what is also true in Seattle--—there is no effective pro-development lobby--—is true in cities all over the country.

Development has both costs and benefits, but as some jurisdictions adopt anti-development rules to avoid the costs, other jurisdictions that allow building to happen reap the benefits. What's more, developers would seem to have a strong interest in lobbying for the chance to build things.

And yet we can see in practice that this doesn't happen. Real estate all throughout certain metro areas is way more expensive than in lower-cost areas, indicating that structures are being systematically underprovided, not just blocked out of a few places.

After the 2009 election, some of us in Seattle created what we then called the Party of the Future, an effort to build some political accountability/a> for the slow-moving Seattle City Council. The idea was to create a pro-growth version of the Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC) movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Not much came of the effort, in large part because of the Seattle Fear Factor---the worry that opposing an incumbent or even publicly questioning a council vote might end up hurting a career or project. Even adamant supporters of more density were reluctant to put money behind a pro-density effort that might be traced back to them, especially if it was critical of council members.

It’s easy to intellectualize about density and development at a happy hour or brown-bag lecture; but pile money on a candidate to run against Sally Clark, the Land Use Chair who worried about an oversupply of housing in Roosevelt? Not a chance.

It’s comforting to see that Yglesias sees at a national level what some of us might be tempted to think is a Seattle phenomenon. There is no coherent growth and development party here or in most cities. And if Yglesias is right, without one, we’re likely to see more stand-offs like the one in Roosevelt. I’m hoping that the City Builder Happy Hour might lubricate people’s imaginations a bit and maybe even embolden the idea of real political action to realize what will certainly be a room full of brilliant ideas.
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