It was interesting to watch. On June 18 at the Central Library, civic leaders Gordon Price of Vancouver and Peter Steinbrueck of Seattle debated the merits of the two cities’ built environments, each arguing as mandated for the other’s city. CR Douglas, possibly the smartest person on Seattle TV, moderated. There was good audience Q&A at the end. You can follow what happened here, including a parallel event in Vancouver on June 16.
It’s not easy being Seattle! Rather than being compared with North American cities in general, where frankly the bar isn’t very high in our size range, we’re constantly getting compared with Vancouver, Portland, and San Francisco, each of which has plenty to be jealous of from an urbanist perspective, whether density (Vancouver and SF), narrow walkable streets (all), cultural diversity (SF and Vancouver), rail transit systems (all), or long history of smart planning decisions (all). Why can’t we go up against Houston?!
Price said lots of nice things about Seattle, noting that our topography helps give our neighborhoods identities, our waterfronts still have function rather than just looking pretty, and we have a strong cadre of rich donors to support civic causes. But as Steinbrueck correctly pointed out, few of those were about HOW we’ve built our city, particularly how we did it until recent years.
Steinbrueck has long used Vancouver as an example of how downtowns can attract families via measures such as inclusionary zoning, but he had a serious misconception and was corrected by Price. Steinbrueck claimed that Vancouver requires family-sized homes in new downtown highrises. Price corrected this, noting that only two megaprojects have this requirement, and the family-sized units are far too expensive for most families. (Edit: the negotiated zoning system does result in a lot of two-bedroom units.) Price noted that one reason for the large number of kids in downtown Vancouver is that many have moved from Hong Kong, where it is common for a family to live in a small apartment, and that these families tend to move out of Downtown when their incomes grow enough. In a different context, he also pointed out that the West End, which was mostly developed decades ago, is now a middle-low income area, which I suspect is related to the number of kids living there, along with the fact many of its streets are quiet and residential-only.
My opinion is that having more kids in Greater Downtown Seattle would be a good thing, but it’s not necessary for a fantastic downtown, and there’s no reason to mandate new family size units in new buildings, which has been discussed locally. We already mandate retail that the market doesn’t need, which is often vacant or rents at a loss. Rather than foisting these costs on the occupants of new buildings, why shouldn’t ALL of us pay to address civic problems? I suggest inclusionary zoning is based in part on cowardice by leaders who would rather ask a tiny number of people to pay, rather than ask the whole electorate.
Ah, retail. That didn’t come up. Vancouver has fantastic retail streets, including some in the West End. Why? Not just because their neighborhoods are denser, but because they concentrate retail on fewer streets. My own neighborhood of Belltown is the poster child of spreading retail to every avenue, meaning it’s far too diluted for a critical mass on any one avenue.
About Steinbrueck’s point that replicating Vancouver’s success will take Seattle a few decades, and that this gives us license to slow down … I don’t know what to think. On one hand he’s right that some development is poorly done. But adding process (at least temporarily) and construction costs (permanently, depending on the new requirements) has two side effects: the city becomes more expensive to live in, and development goes where it’s easier and cheaper, adding to sprawl. We can sacrifice the good in pursuit of the great. Still, I can’t argue for the worst examples of six-pack townhouses that wall themselves from the street and face interior driveway courtyards. Below-grade parking will add cost but perhaps it’s worth it.
There was a vote by applause at the end, which CR declared a win for Price’s defense of Seattle. (Steinbrueck won the Vancouver vote.) I wasn’t clear whether to vote for the city or the guy, or whether to vote for my city or the denser one, and clapped for both.