Archive for the ‘Zoning’ Category

IZ and Inclusion: Time to Find Better Ideas

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014
Alcyone Apartments in South Lake Union. Photo by author.

Recently the Capitol Hill Housing Improvement Program (CHHIP) decided they are no longer endorsing incentive and inclusionary policy to create affordable housing. Is it possible that even non-profit housing agencies are seeing the light on these bad policies?

Over the course of the first half of this year we’ve spent a lot of time informing the press and public why Incentive Zoning (IZ) and inclusionary zoning are tools that won’t work and the problem they are intended to fix is one we don’t have.

Here’s a summary.

Incentive Zoning

Wrong Tool

Wrong Problem

  • There is no housing crisis for people earning 60 to 80 percent of Area Median Income
  • The real problem is for people who are poor, earning 50 percent or less of Area Median income and families

Inclusionary Zoning

Wrong Tool

Wrong Problem

The evidence against the continued use of Incentive Zoning is overwhelming; it is a policy that will neither lower prices nor help poor people. Instead it adds costs and risks to market rate housing that is currently meeting the demand for housing for people earning 60 to 80 percent Area Median Income.

It’s time to stop and come up with a better analysis of our housing challenge as we plan for coming growth. Smart Growth Seattle has gathered 250 signers for our petition calling for a comprehensive housing plan.

Let’s stop policies that would reverse microhousing development, building in our low-rise zones, and increases in fees on new growth and let’s come up with a plan!


 

Can growth reduce traffic?

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014
Via6, photo by Tim Rice

Often we look at development and wonder what will happen to traffic. This comes up a lot regarding greater Downtown Seattle, particularly the fast-growing northern portions. Actually, the truth might be pretty good.

The reasons are primarily these: 1. Congestion is mostly about peak times, and some buildings’ users spread their travel throughout the day rather than concentrating at rush hour. 2. A large percentage of growth does not add trips, but rather makes them shorter.

Category 1 includes hotels (a big growth area) as well as colleges, hospitals, retail, and art/tourist attractions. While these have peak times, they mostly spread activity throughout the day and night. Even at hospitals, only portions of the staff work bank hours, and few patients arrive at 8:00 am. Hotel guests arrive all day and evening, stay multiple nights while getting around mostly on foot, then leave throughout the morning. Destination retail is often busiest on weekends. Concerts are mostly at night. College students and faculty keep varying class hours. All of these uses avoid making rush hour much worse, while also activating our parks, spreading their lunch dollars to the slower times, and so on.

Housing falls heavily into Category 2. Greater Downtown residents are often greater Downtown workers. They’d already be traveling to these jobs daily, but living nearby means they can walk, use transit, bike, or drive a short distance instead of a long one. Working residents of the three major Downtown zip codes commuted on foot at rates of 47.6% for 98104, 34.1% for 98101, and 32.3% for 98121 in 2012 per Census.gov. They drove alone (often a much shorter distance) only 22.0%, 21.0% and 38.1% of the time. The gap between those figures was mostly transit, which is also much more convenient when you’re downtown. Working at home is also a major category. Expanding to the north, the 98109 area includes South Lake Union but also half of Queen Anne Hill, so its 13.7% walk and 47.6% drive alone rates are less relevant; perhaps SLU’s numbers are more like 98121′s.

Of course, those figures include people who commute to jobs far away from Downtown, who must represent a big chunk of the drivers and transit riders. The pedestrian numbers should be much higher if you only count those who also work Downtown. As for outbound commutes, these are added trips, but might peak a little earlier than inbound commutes (like 7:00-7:30 instead of 7:30-8:00?), and use the less-congested half of Downtown streets. In any case, it seems likely that most new Downtown residents also work here, so there should be a net reduction in traffic.

Many residents are in Category 1 as well, largely traveling outside commute times. This would include many retirees and students without jobs, who are apparently not counted in the commute statistics. These people seem likely to have low driving rates as well. Category 1 would also apply to many workers with non-traditional hours.

This is all relevant to transportation to and from greater Downtown as well. Turning thousands of 20-mile drives into two-mile drives and half-mile walks must be really helpful. If the current greater Downtown housing boom is around 11,500 units including tendrils up Dexter and Pike/Pine (my guesstimate), how many fewer inbound commutes might that represent, and and how many tax dollars might we avoid in future road projects, let alone less-jammed public transit? Between that savings, construction-related sales taxes, and new tax base upon completion, it’s a wonder we charge development fees rather than incentivizing new housing along with nice thank-you letters.

Offices (as well as laboratories) are the other big category of growth, and of course they contribute to rush hours. But our region needs their economic engine. That engine is best served by allowing companies to locate where workers want to work and companies can be near each other. Locating downtown means they’re transit-accessible and many employees can walk, meaning fewer cars on the road overall. They key is to balance office growth with housing growth. It would help if some companies changed their start times a little, much like the construction industry already has.

The concept of living Downtown is supported by demand. Apartments keep getting built because they keep filling up, at good prices. Maybe people like those leisurely walks to work, and choosing from the Downtown smorgasbord on the way home. Maybe they like walking out their doors on weekends and already being somewhere.

It works in other places too. Want less traffic in Redmond? Keep adding housing in that nice downtown area (seriously, take a look) as well as around Microsoft. Downtown Tacoma? Same thing. Everybody wins.

Should you mix affordable and upscale housing?

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013
Outdoor seating and landscaped areas would surround the ground floor of the R.C. Hedreen Co. project. Image courtesyof LMN Architects

Should “affordable” housing be mixed with high-income housing within the same building? That’s the subject of a short video by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat at http://tiny.cc/o5r04w/.

Addressing the question are Nigel Biggs of CBRE, Harry Handelsman of Manhattan Loft Corp., Christoph Ingenhoven of ingenhoven architects, Ian Simpson of Ian Simpson Architects, and Rafael Viñoly of Rafael Viñoly Architects. The video is part of a monthly series by the CTBUH.

In Seattle, R.C. Hedreen Co. has proposed including affordable units in a project that will not have upscale apartments or condos, but will have a hotel.
The project is a 40-story convention hotel complex at Ninth and Stewart that will have a five-story podium with a 35-story, 1,680-room hotel on the south end and 154 units of housing on the north end, reserved for people making 80 percent or less of area median income. Hedreen is building the north end units to get higher density through a city incentive program.

“Vanity Height” added to more skyscrapers

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat has looked at the increasing trend towards extreme spires and other extensions of supertall (300-meter-plus) buildings that do not enclose usable space, and created a new term to describe this – Vanity Height, the distance between a skyscraper’s highest occupiable floor and its architectural top, as determined by CTBUH Height Criteria.

Burj Al Arab in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo by Nicolas Lannuzel

Here are some key findings of the study:
• At 244 meters, the vanity height of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE, could be a skyscraper on its own – in fact, it would be Europe’s 11th-tallest building.
• The Burj Al-Arab, Dubai, UAE, has the greatest vanity ratio of any supertall building – 124 (39 percent) of its 321 meters is devoted to non-occupiable space above the highest occupiable floor.
• Without their vanity height, 44 (61 percent) of the world’s 72 supertalls would measure less than 300 meters – thus losing their supertall status.
• United Arab Emirates clocks in as the nation with the most “vain” supertall buildings, with an average vanity height of 19 percent.
• New York City, USA has two of the tallest 10 vanity heights, and is set to gain a third with the completion of One World Trade Center in 2014.
• According to CTBUH Height Criteria regarding telecommunications towers, a 50 percent vanity height would deem any structure a “non-building.”
• The “vainest” building overall in the CTBUH database, although not a supertall, is the Ukraina Hotel in Moscow, Russia – 42 percent of its 206-meter height is non-occupiable.

Two steps back on affordability?

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

If Seattle aligns on anything, it’s affordable housing. We pass our levies by wide margins, and seem to agree that our city should be available for all income levels, whether for empathy, worker availability, or other reasons. We might also agree that the SHA and non-profits do a good job leveraging our money, and the levies aren’t enough.

Triad Capital Partners project on Capitol Hill. Rendering courtesy of grouparchitect.
Beyond that things get sketchy. In classic Seattle fashion we mix steps forward with steps back. The council is working on two major issues currently – regulation for micro housing projects, and the South Lake Union rezone. In both cases we risk shooting our feet.

The South Lake Union rezone, which got committee approval this week, involves fees of $21.68 to $29.27 per square foot (plus inflation) for space above the original height limits. Let’s look at that. Ideally a tax system should put less burden on things you want to encourage, and more burden on the rest. So where do we put the maximum burden? On new construction projects, and the homes and jobs they’ll contain. On the housing side we’re addressing affordability by directly making this housing more expensive for most people, and disincentivizing new supply, which is our greatest weapon to avoid San Francisco’s fate. On the commercial side, we’re disincentivizing the job creation that supports our overall tax base, and the job centralization that’s crucial to maximize walkability and leverage public transportation. We also risk pushing construction outside the neighborhood, perhaps to other municipalities, losing that sales tax revenue.

Outside the A/E/C/RE industry, people seem to think the added heights are an easy windfall, and sometimes they are. But going tall also has downsides – substantially higher cost per square foot (even before the fees), more space to fill, longer construction duration, etc. On top of that the fees add perhaps 6-8% to total development cost above the old height limit. Taking advantage of the new heights therefore assumes high-rents, and requires a bigger bet. The math will work in some cases, such as a big eager tenant wanting to expand across the street, or apartments with permanent water views. Other projects will likely find that six stories with woodframe pencils more easily, and limits risk. Maybe this is why developers continue to advance new plans to build lowrises in South Lake Union.

So what’s a better solution? If we can expand the housing levy, let’s do that. The voters will support it. And maybe we should be less reticent with one-off deals like Vulcan’s Valley Street swap, or similar versions. And then there are micro units.

Miraculously, a chunk of the affordability puzzle is taking care of itself. Micro units of various types are proliferating and filling up with renters eager to pay rates otherwise unheard of for centrally-located homes in good repair. This includes typical units that are simply very small, as well as the “rooming house” concept, where one “unit” might include eight bedrooms rented separately, with a shared kitchen to augment in-room kitchenettes.

Typically, rooming houses stay below a certain unit count to avoid the design review process and fit perhaps 40 homes into what would otherwise be a fraction of that, in multifamily zones. They often take advantage of what has been called a loophole, but it’s also an essential part of building at the most affordable rents. Seattle’s process costs a lot of money, with design review being part of that. First there’s the added time between tying up land and breaking ground, which involves carrying costs in the tens of thousands of dollars. Second, process means uncertainty about going forward at all, in part due to reduced flexibility in market timing. Third, design review means a choppier, less efficient design process, with higher fees. Of course with more units, the land cost is spread among more homes. Much of this relates directly to development cost. The rest affects cost indirectly – if we reduce supply, we cause scarcity, which will cause higher rents.

Basic unit sizes might become a debate topic. Homes are often in the 200 square foot range (similar to a typical hotel room), and some down to 100 square feet or so. But why is that controversial? Wealthy suburbs have often mandated square footage minimums to keep the poor folks out and protect property values. Many people seem offended at the idea that some renters would live in places they themselves wouldn’t. But surely Seattle isn’t an exclusionary, authoritarian city in those ways. Others talk about humane living conditions, forgetting that $10 per hour might otherwise mean mom’s basement, three roommates, and/or spending two hours a day commuting. Still others complain that their public street parking will get tougher, as the new buildings generally have little or no parking. The last point is at least understandable human nature, though the existing residents have no more claim than anyone else. What’s left? Is there a valid reason to not allow even a 200 square foot home, or even 100 square feet? Why aren’t we celebrating these as a choice for people to live independently, and with less energy and stuff?

(Disclosure: I work for a contractor that builds highrises, but have no connections to the micro trend.)

Making strides on affordability

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Today’s DJC has a good story by Patrick L. Phillips of the ULI about housing affordability, particularly the importance of housing near jobs for people with moderate incomes. This needs to be a priority for Seattle, not because everyone is automatically entitled to live in their favorite neighborhood, but for limiting stress on our transportation system, giving low-wage workers an easier route up the ladder (minus the absurd commute), invigorating neighborhoods, and essentially making the city function for people and as an economic engine.

Terrazza aPodment (rendering courtesy of Kauri Investments)

Thankfully Seattle is doing a lot of things well.

Voters keep approving housing levies.  In 2009 we passed a $145,000,000, seven-year measure, which averages over $20,000,000 per year, most of which goes to rental construction and preservation. This is big reason Seattle always has low-income units under construction. A host of outstanding non-profits, such as LIHI and Plymouth Housing Group,  do an excellent job building and owning housing that both helps people and improves neighborhoods.

Seattle’s reduced/zero parking requirements for new housing are a big reason behind our current housing boom. The economics of 200 one-bedroom homes are much easier with a 0.6 parking ratio vs. a 1.0 or 1.2. The units that get built are cheaper, and more units are getting built, helping keep housing supply/demand in check.

We allow smaller units than most cities. New York and San Francisco have been wringing their hands about allowing 220 square foot units. Seattle already allows much smaller units than that, both with traditional apartments and in rooming houses. These are proliferating on Capitol Hill, in the U District, etc. What a phenomenal idea…the private market providing workforce housing without subsidy! Of course having little or no parking is a necessary precondition for these units.

Most importantly, we’re letting housing get built in sizeable numbers. Our biggest affordability weapon is to avoid undersupply, the bane of the most expensive cities. With decent supply, everyone avoids the worst price war scenario, and the less desirable units tend to be substantially cheaper. This is why the average building from 1920 or 1970 is relatively affordable today. Increasingly, units from 1988 play that role, and someday units from 2013 will as well.

Unfortunately we’re moving backwards in other ways. We’re attaching more bonus fees to taller buildings in some areas. This is counterproductive because it disincentivizes supply, and also makes the units in these building more expensive. (Disclosure: I work for a contractor that builds highrises.) We’re putting the burden on a relatively small number of residents and developers, apparently a politically expedient way to avoid paying it ourselves. It would be better to expand the levy.

And of course we need transit. Seattle is doing moderately ok, but clouds are on the horizon for big cutbacks to Metro.

So, while more needs to be done, we can pat ourselves on the back for doing some good things.

Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘til it’s Gone

Sunday, February 10th, 2013
Photo by Tim Rice Architectural Photography

One would think that moving to the Bay Area would afford great advantages for a mid-career urban planner/designer. What with all of the cutting edge parking management and parklets, there is so much to learn. After 10 months I’m beginning to understand the ins and outs of planning in California. Though there are things that I miss about Washington besides the rain. The one thing I never thought I would reminisce about; I find myself mentioning in even non-planner company, the Growth Management Act.

That delightful piece of state policy borne of the exponential growth of the 80’s and 90’s (and often blamed on Californians) is the one key legislation that is so obviously non-existent in the Golden State, that I find myself quoting it endlessly. While the recession has stemmed the tide of suburban growth, and California has in many places adopted smart growth policies and embraced new urbanism for what it’s worth.  The fact remains that most California policy and legislation does not have the teeth or the checks and balances of the Washington GMA. Though the State has recently worked to tie Green House Gas emissions to Vehicle Miles Traveled, it’s not strong enough to define a minimum density to limit suburban or exurban growth in a meaningful way. California continues to grapple with its love for the automobile- even while proposing to tear down freeways.  While the ex-urbs continue to expand and demand all of the public transit, freeways and other services that support urban areas. I try restrain myself from asking, “What about your urban growth boundary?”.
For all its idiosyncrasies, the GMA is a valuable tool for the urban planner and I for one, miss it greatly.

10 ways to make cities more walkable

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Seattle has a number of walkable neighborhoods, from Capitol Hill to Belltown. An article in The Atlantic Cities offers 10 tips for making cities more walkable

Ballard is an urban village and a fun place to walk. Photo by Clair Enlow.
. The suggestions come from Jeff Speck’s new book, Walkable City.

China to dominate tall building development

Friday, August 31st, 2012

 

Nine of the 20 tallest buildings under construction in the world are located in China, which is now leading the way in the development of supertall buildings, according to the latest research study by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

Bellevue-based MulvannyG2 Architecture designed the Wuxi Chong’an development, which aims to be one of the tallest buildings in Wuxi, China when complete in 2013. It is 755 feet high and has two hotel and residential towers above a retail podium.Rendering Courtesy of MulvannyG2 Architecture

There are 239 buildings taller than 200 meters in advanced stages of development in China, far more than any other country. In 2011 alone China completed 23 buildings taller than 200 meters, which was also the top in the world, CTBUH’s research found.

At the end of 2011, there were only 61 buildings taller than 300 meters in the world; by 2017 China alone will have more than 60.

China’s ascendancy represents a fundamental shift in the construction of supertall buildings. In 1970, 92 of the world’s 100 tallest buildings were located in North America. By the end of 2012 only 29 of the top 100 will be in North America.

“China is dealing with the issues and challenges of developing urban environments on a massive scale,” said Timothy Johnson, chairman of the CTBUH and a partner in NBBJ, in a press release.

The surge in tall building developments in China has drawn criticism recently, with some charging that the buildings are too big and too expensive. A recent newspaper editorial referred to skyscrapers as “white elephants.”

The volume and height of tall building development in China is unprecedented. In 1990 there were five buildings taller than 200 meters in China; by the end of 2012 there will be 249.

The list of towers under development includes the 660-meter Ping An Finance Center, which will be the second tallest building in the world when it is completed, most likely in 2015, and the 632-meter Shanghai Tower.

AIA Seattle supports changes in parking requirements

Friday, May 25th, 2012

The American Institute of Architects Seattle has sent a letter to the city council in support of proposed changes in the land use code that would eliminate the requirement for parking within a ¼ mile radius of  “transit rich” areas of the city.  Go here to see the letter. You can also read more about the issue in a post by SeattleScape contributor Matt Hays.

A group of local investors plans to start construction in the summer of 2013 of a large “workforce” apartment complex near the Mount Baker light rail station. Image courtesy of Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects