The author of the definitive study of Seattle’s Urban Village strategy says HALA undermines that strategy by splashing upzones across the city.
Peter Steinbreuck authored the “Seattle Sustainable Neighborhoods Assessment Project” (SSNAP) in 2014 under a contract from the City of Seattle. The study was commissioned to provide baseline data for the consideration of the Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan. Steinbreuck concluded in his report that the Urban Village strategy (established by the 1994 Comp Plan) is working and viable. (See: a short Power Point or the complete report at Steinbreuck’s website.)
The critical tactics of the Urban Village strategy are to concentrate growth – job growth and population growth – in designated areas, and to support that growth with high-capacity transit services. In parallel, four core values are to be preserved: community, environmental stewardship, economic opportunity, and social equity.
But now, according to Steinbreuck, Mayor Ed Murray is destroying the Urban Village strategy with HALA – the “Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda.” HALA encourages density by giving developers “upzones,” or increased development capacity, in return for a small percentage (2-8%) of rent-restricted units or payments to build such units elsewhere.
The problem is that Murray has decided to implement HALA not just inside urban villages, but on arterial roads throughout the city. (See the nearby map.) This, Steinbreuck said in an email, is a fundamental error, because it spreads growth instead of concentrating it:
HALA would destroy the city’s 25-year commitment to the Urban Village Strategy, is anti-high-capacity transit, and is antithetical to “smart growth.” More than half the city’s 30 designated urban villages still are no more than half the population and employment densities needed to support high-capacity transit and complete, walkable neighborhoods. HALA is car-centric, as it extends densities along the city’s many car-dominated arterials and corridors outside the urban villages, akin to opening up the county’s urban growth boundaries on a regional scale. It is nothing more than the worst city-planning dumbness and a public sale of land use development rights with little public benefit. It is ruinous to the city’s urban village focus, and to strong, complete neighborhoods, and smart growth.
Murray has betrayed the vision of the Urban Villages strategy embodied in the 1994 Comp Plan. Why? Because in his rush to respond to the housing-affordability crisis, he has opted to privatize the creation of affordable housing. Instead of providing public funding – with bonds or allocations from revenue – he is buying the cooperation of the private sector by handing over the public’s development rights. That’s what “upzoning” is: the delivery of a public asset – development capacity – into private hands.
And he’s being stupid about it in at least two distinct ways:
- He’s not concentrating HALA growth in the Urban Villages, as Steinbreuck says he should, and,
- He’s only getting 2-8% affordable housing in return for upzones, when other cities around the country get at least 10% and up to 30%.
Or maybe he’s not stupid. Maybe Mayor Murray is deliberately paying off an industry that he knows will give him money for his next campaign. Maybe this is simple, venal corruption, dressed up in the language of “growth” and “equity.”
In any case, it spells the death of the city as we have known it, and it points to a grim future where profit-seeking developers call the shots.