City Hall

Extra Fizz: "For Your Neighborhood's Survival"

Neighborhood activists mobilize against a proposal to encourage density near transit service.

By Erica C. Barnett March 14, 2013

As I reported yesterday, the city council is holding a hearing tonight on proposed amendments to the city's comprehensive plan—the document that guides development across the city—including one proposed by the city's Planning Commission that would state the city's commitment to replacing "station area overlay" zones with a new, five-tiered overlay called "transit communities."

The argument is that station area overlays, which encourage density around light rail stations, don't give the city enough flexibility to rezone in areas with frequent transit service (defined as transit service at least every 15 minutes from early in the morning until late at night every day of the week), including bus service.

The amendment would identify areas (most of which overlap geograpically not with single family zones but with Seattle's existing urban villages, where the city already zones for more density) within a ten-minute walk of frequent transit service, while considering factors like the number of jobs, retail uses, housing units, parks and schools in an area. Density critic Chris Leman argues that a new transit overlay threatens "your neighborhood's survival" and could turn Seattle's neighborhoods into "transit ghettoes" marked with "the bulls-eye of a transit community."

So: Density near places with easy access to transit, with lots of residents, jobs, and street life. Sounds reasonable.

Nonetheless, neighborhood density opponents are mobilizing against the amendment, arguing that, as a letter from City Neighborhood Council head Chris Leman put it, replacing station overlays with transit community districts threatens "your [single-family] neighborhood's survival" and could turn Seattle's neighborhoods into "transit ghettoes" marked with "the bulls-eye of a transit community."

Elaborating, Leman writes that the amendment will "promote upzones and crowding throughout Seattle (including areas now zoned 'single family') anywhere near vaguely defined and unstable 'frequent' transit service [and] make the [adopted] neighborhood plans a dead letter."

Here, for the visually inclined, is a map of the areas of the city with "frequent transit service" within a ten-minute walk. Hardly a picture of "upzones throughout Seattle," it shows a number of small areas, mostly along large arterials (and transit lines), where it might make sense to consider denser zoning. 

These kind of claims are hardly new: Density-crazed social engineers want to destroy the character of Seattle's single-family neighborhoods. But the fact is, in a city where more than 75 percent of land zoned for housing is already dedicated exclusively to single-family homes (and where "preserving our single-family neighborhoods" is a sacrosanct promise of any politician who wants to get elected), allowing a little more flexibility in areas that aren't single-family is hardly the apocolypse. 

Or, as Planning Commission director Barb Wilson put it in a letter to supporters of the proposal: 

Putting a critical mass of jobs and housing near transit is both good economic development as well as good environmental policy. From a tax perspective, it makes a lot of sense to create these compact and connected communities around really great transit service by focusing scarce resources. Since transportation is the second highest household cost after housing, it makes sense to locate housing affordable for all incomes within and 5 or 10 minute walk of frequent and reliable transit.

The city already supports these goals in the Comp Plan.  The proposed transit communities policy just makes it more clear and intentional in the Comp Plan that land use, investments and programs should be better aligned to leverage all of the billions of dollars in major transit projects to create great communities and neighborhoods.  

Should be an interesting meeting: 5:30 tonight at City Hall, 600 4th Ave., or streaming live on the Seattle Channel

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