October 7, 2004

Let's learn about 'smart growth' — quickly

  • We are at the beginning of a housing boom in downtown Seattle and other local cities.
    Gregory Broderick Smith Real Estate

    Second and Pike
    Photo courtesy Gregory Broderick Smith Real Estate
    A proposed condo tower at Second and Pike is expected to turn a downtrodden parking lot into a home for 250 people and a link between Pike Place Market and the retail district.

    The entire Puget Sound region is about to get more downtown housing — of all styles and prices.

    Not just in downtown Seattle — where a lot is coming — but also in Bellevue, Renton, Redmond, Lynnwood, Tacoma and Everett.

    Why? Because it makes sense.

    What makes our area unique is our natural environment. Just look outside. It's a big part of our envied quality of life.

    We must fight to ensure that this remains — even from a business and economic development standpoint.

    We also have to accept that growth is going to happen. It's going to come to this region. We just have to make it "smart growth."

    Downtown housing boom

    The Growth Management Act directs growth inward. And there's a limited supply of land left to develop within the growth management boundary.

    Downtown Seattle, for example, is projected to have 27,000 residents by 2014, up from more than 17,000 now.

    As we all know too well, traffic congestion over the past 15 years has gotten bad. To escape that, people more and more want to live closer to where they work. They're moving into the downtowns, and using public transit.

    I predict we are at the beginning of a major housing boom in downtown Seattle.

    Baby boomers are getting older and becoming empty nesters. People just want to simplify their lives.

    The younger generations have watched shows like "Friends" and "Seinfeld" that show the positives of urban living.

    Cities have become more dynamic and exciting cultural places. Downtown has the restaurants, the sports, retail, all sorts of fun, all within walking distance.

    Downtowns are already major transportation hubs. The infrastructure is already there. Smart planning means placing our growth where that infrastructure is already in place.

    As we add more housing to the region's downtowns, that will feed itself, and feed the economy of the region and of the state. Housing breeds housing — and retail and restaurants and jobs.

    Lessons learned

    I've traveled to Europe and Australia, along with Vancouver, B.C., and many American cities, in the past year to see their urban planning and development.

    The lesson is that well-planned urban residential works extremely well.

    In Australia, Sidney's downtown has everything within walking distance. In Malmo, Sweden, we visited a former industrial area that is become a sustainable district with housing for 10,000 people and offices for 20,000 employees.

    Vancouver now has more than 70,000 downtown residents. San Diego will add more than 2,300 condominium units to its downtown this year, led by the new stadium district called East Village.

    Studies show that urban residential is the heartbeat of regional economic development.

    But for Seattle and the Puget Sound region to make similar progress and reach the potential that it has, we can't just presume it will happen. We have to encourage it.

    We need to prioritize our land-use policies toward protecting our environment and promoting urban density. Building transit, like the streetcar, and using that transit, has to be a priority.

    Much of the right land use starts with zoning -- which we can improve.

    Belltown was rezoned, and look what's happened over the last 15 years.

    Now Mayor Nickels and others are looking at improving the zoning in the downtown core to promote more residential development there. Proposals have arisen for improving the zoning in South Lake Union to South Downtown.

    In short, each of these proposals aims to increase flexibility and density to build more housing of all types — affordable, work-force, market rate and high end.

    We need a balanced housing community.

    Projects under way

    My firm is planning a slender condominium tower at Second and Pike, a block from Pike Place Market. This project will turn a troubled parking lot into a great place for more than 250 people to live within walking distance of jobs, the market, Benaroya Hall and the retail core. It will turn an embarrassingly difficult street into a proper gateway to and from the market.

    My firm also built one of downtown's first mixed-use high-rise buildings — Millennium Tower — that places condominiums atop a full office building and ground-floor retail.

    I've also been working with major property owners in south downtown, where the largest transportation hubs are located. This group has put forth a vision for how that area can transform into an urban village with another 10,000 housing units along with thousands of jobs, open space, restaurants and amenities.

    We've presented that vision to more than 50 groups throughout the community and received enthusiastic support everywhere we've gone.

    That effort involves competitors putting the competition aside to work together. To make smart growth happen, we have to work collaboratively with industry, environmentalists, housing advocates, hotel associations, trade unions, arts groups, political leaders and more.

    We need to think regionally. We need to educate each other. We need to work with the University of Washington.

    A new Seattle District of the Urban Land Institute started up last spring. It will provide a great place for discussions and learning about how to make urban residential environments that are livable for families.

    The discussions already deal with how to get the Alaskan Way Viaduct put underground, how to provide the needed green and open spaces and how to improve the zoning for more housing.

    Mayor Nickels has been particularly well tuned in on this. There's still a lot more educating to do.

    Greg Smith is a principal of Gregory Broderick Smith Real Estate in downtown Seattle.

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