December 9, 2004

Seattle's goal: create community, not crowds

  • Seattle city center is well on its way to becoming one of America's great, livable urban communities.
    Goody Clancy Associates


    Last month I had the privilege of speaking about 21st century urban neighborhoods at the Center City Seattle forum. Not only did more than 300 people show up on a weeknight to a talk about urban design, but more than two-thirds of them came from outside Center City.

    Let me say what many of them already believed: Seattle city center is well on its way to becoming one of America's great, livable urban communities. It boasts lively neighborhoods endowed with vital "Main Streets"; a downtown that is a terrific place to work, live, shop and play; and several spectacular waterfronts, each within walking distance of substantial neighborhoods or downtown.

    Cities across the country are striving to create the kinds of urban neighborhoods, mixed-use downtowns, and places to enjoy nature in the heart of the city that people in Seattle wake up to every morning.

    This is no accident

    Assembly Square
    Image courtesy Goody Clancy Associates
    In Boston, the Assembly Square neighborhood is somewhat like Seattle's Denny Triangle, both can support increased density. Goody Clancy is the lead architect and master planner for a $3 billion, 10-year revitalization within Assembly Square that will create an urban mixed-use neighborhood with over 2,000 new housing units, retail, office and transit.

    Not long ago Seattle's Center City was in decline. Its renaissance is no accident. The city's nationally respected 1994 Comprehensive Plan was a bold initiative to direct growth toward urban villages. More important, the plan saw this growth as a tool for bucking the national trend of downtown decline by revitalizing older neighborhoods, improving transit, and promoting new growth in declining commercial districts.

    Strong leadership from current and former mayors and planners has borne results: more than 60 percent of Seattle's population growth and 75 percent of its employment growth has occurred in the city's newly designated urban villages.

    In an era when most American downtowns continue to lose population to sprawling suburbs, Seattle's Center City added 25,600 jobs but only 7,800 housing units during the 1995-2002 period.

    A shift in housing demand

    Seattle's focus on urban villages and Center City is succeeding in part because it offers people options they increasingly want and need. Many people think (erroneously) that planners try to "make choices for people," as one audience member told me after my talk. Planning to manage growth is about offering more and better choices, not taking choices away. And the Seattle region is a terrific example of using planning to offer people the right choices. Its demographics are undergoing a sea change along with the rest of America.

    Around 2000, after more than four decades in which baby boomers with children dominated American housing markets and overwhelmingly sought suburban houses, housing demand experienced a historic long-term shift. This demand is now distributed evenly across age groups, creating unprecedented demand for new, and often more urban housing options.

    As recently as 2000 more than half of Seattle and King County's housing was still single-family and geared to the demographics of the previous four decades. Yet households have shrunk, further fueling demand for urban housing.

    The share of households with children has dropped more than 50 percent since 1970, yielding a corresponding rise in "non-traditional" households.

    The city's planning department reports that as Seattle regains its 1960 population it now needs roughly 70,000 more housing units — a 35 percent increase — due to smaller household sizes.

    Fed up with the car

    Households across America are increasingly fed up with the financial and personal costs of dependence on automobiles. For starters, owning a second car adds up to $8,000 yearly to household expenses.

    The Boston Globe recently reported a national poll's finding that for the first time a substantial majority (more than 80 percent) of active homebuyers ranked a short commute as a top priority. In the Boston region, which is only beginning to manage sprawl, total-miles-driven has risen roughly 15 times faster than population since 1970, and congestion grew 10 times faster than population between 1990 and 2000.

    Seattle Center City and urban villages offer people a chance to walk and use transit for a much greater number of trips. Transit use has grown. Seattle residents are now five times as likely to ride transit over the course of a year as other King County residents, a trend that will significantly reduce potential congestion associated with downtown population and job growth.

    Sprawl is expensive

    Sprawl exacts other costs in the form of higher taxes and increased household expenses.

    A survey by the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy recently noted that state and city governments in the Northeastern U.S. could save a collective $40 billion by pursuing more compact forms of development like those laid out in Seattle's comprehensive plan. More to the point, these states and cities don't have this $40 billion and would have to raise taxes to get it, undermining regional competitiveness.

    If the growth in Seattle's urban villages had occurred instead as more sprawl, it would have required tens of millions of dollars in roadway and other infrastructure investments.

    The recent spike in oil prices reflects a long-term structural realignment in the cost of fuel to move cars, heat houses, and many other uses as developing countries worldwide join the competition for scarce oil. Not only does compact development provide alternatives to increasingly expensive gas, it also significantly decreases the amount of fuel needed for home heating and other activities.

    The future? More infill

    The 1994 plan's success in using growth to enhance the quality and character of downtown and nearby neighborhoods — together with continued shrinkage in household sizes and other demographic factors — has positioned Center City to play an even greater role in the region's growth over the next two decades.

    Despite the city's success in focusing growth in urban villages, these areas only accommodated about 12 percent of King County's growth between 1990 and 2000, and suburban employment growth continued to outpace growth in the city, increasing commuting and congestion.

    With the county poised to add more than 400,000 residents over the next 20 years, is there room for significant growth? Could Center City and other urban villages accommodate a larger share of regional growth? Yes.

    The rising value of Center City housing and other uses means the market can, for the first time, support the cost of transforming parking lots, near-vacant industrial facilities, strip retail, Class C office buildings, and other underutilized sites into tens of thousands of units of new housing, more blocks of animated Main Streets, new urban parks and other amenities of urban life.

    Community, not crowding

    Can Center City continue to grow in ways that enhance quality of life and economic opportunity, while preserving Seattle's social and environmental qualities?

    No good deed goes unpunished. While most audience members at last month's forum clearly valued Center City's new vitality, many asked important questions about what form growth should take. A senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute recently noted that "density without amenity and design creates crowding; density with amenity and design creates community."

    What needs to happen in Center City to create more community, not crowding, as the next chapter of growth unfolds?

    Developers will need to tap into rising real estate values to help the city build parks as they add housing. The city can move to expand protection for spectacular mountain and water views, and spell out new protections for historic buildings and districts.

    Center City development could help fund implementation of an ambitious downtown waterfront access plan now under development by the city's planners. Growth should occur near transit — and future development could help pay for enhanced transit, including monorail access. The city should continue to make sure that new affordable housing keeps pace with increasingly expensive market-rate housing to avoid the "Paris effect" of a wealthy Center City surrounded by less affluent neighborhoods.

    I have confidence in the skill of Seattle's planners, the leadership of its mayor, and the commitment of the citizens who showed up for my talk and their neighbors. Working together, they can insure that continued Center City growth creates more community — and continues Seattle's transformation into a model for urban living.

    David Dixon is an urban designer and a principal at Goody Clancy Associates, a Boston-based firm with a national urban practice in architecture, planning and urban design, and preservation. He will chair the AIA's national Regional and Urban Design Committee in 2006.

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