Words repeated often enough can change the growth debate whether true or not

Screenshot 2017-04-04 at 12.25.22 PM - Edited

Percent of city’s land zoned single-family: 35.4%   source: Land Use Appendix, Comp Plan

Many city leaders, the planners representing them, and pro-upzone, pro-developer interests have put communities on the defensive by reframing the debate and mischaracterizing those who stand in their way

Needless to say, it’s a tried and true political technique.  Repeating a big lie over and over again until it’s embedded irreversibly into the public subconscious; conventional wisdom that “everyone knows is true”.  However false a phrase or even use of a word may be in describing something, when repeated often enough in print or in settings by those that can command a stage, it can irrevocably alter the storyline helping either to perpetuate the status quo or “make change imaginable and urgent”.

In his masterpiece of political cynicism written over 500 years ago, “The Prince,” Machiavelli told rulers that “occasionally words must serve to veil the facts.  But let this happen in such a way that no one become aware of it; or, if it should be noticed, excuses must be at hand to be produced immediately.” (source here)

Developers and their “urbanist” apologists, our Mayor, and most at City Hall now on an “upzoning” binge certainly have taken these words to heart.

In this regard, it’d be interesting to examine how pro-density forces came to be identified as “urbanists” associating themselves with Jane Jacobs in order to promote their density uber alles agenda.  Considered one of the first exponents of urbanism, Jacobs was a leading advocate of historic preservation, neighborhood activism, and fought against developers and elitists who called destruction of Greenwich Village “slum clearance.” The ‘urbanists’ of Seattle could care less about these things and if the chance arose, I’m betting they’d gladly line up at a hearing and support tearing down the Pike Place Market and Space Needle if it meant replacing these treasures with $3000 dollar a month rental units.  They’d call it “expanding opportunities for everyone to live in Seattle”.

Right off the top, I can think of numerous examples of this in the context of Seattle politics, but here we’ll focus on just a couple.  Frequent use of the word “NIMBY” (not in my back-yard) a classic of course used to dismiss resident concerns about the impact of growth on their communities.  God forbid they would choose to assemble in order to have some say in land use and development matters that affect both the livability and affordability of their communities.  Our Mayor and pro-growth forces have taken the narrative to an extreme increasingly equating neighborhood efforts to limit or manage growth as somehow racist or an attempt “to build a wall” and “locking up most of our city for rich homeowners”.

In any other context where rationality prevailed (and other than Seattle’s currently charged political environment) this notion would be deemed laughable.  In the last decade, we’ve upzoned the hell out of Seattle nearly doubling it’s zoned capacity from 118,000 to 223,000 units.  That’s triple the amount of zoned capacity Seattle needs to meet it’s regionally assigned GMA (Growth Management Act) target.  The city since 2012 has been experiencing unprecedented growth.  Already, since 2015, permits have been issued or are pending for construction of nearly 35,000 units so we’ve nearly reached half or 2035 growth target in 2 years!  Construction cranes are everywhere testing the city’s physical limits in terms of how much at one time a city actually can add to its skyline while leaping ahead of necessary infrastructure and public dollars needed to support that infrastructure (This is especially true given we expect little from developers in the way of impact fees to ensure they will share the cost like other cities in the region do).

One wonders how so much growth could occur in a town with all its land “locked up” or somehow sequestered for privileged single-family homeowners.  Probably it couldn’t. The reality is that about 35.4% of the city’s total land area (acreage) is given over to single family uses/zones  (total acreage 53151, amount in single family 18818).  That’s according to this source: page 419 Comp Plan  Appendix: http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cs/groups/pan/@pan/documents/web_informational/p2580895.pdf  Earlier versions of the Comp Plan actually did the calculation for you, but now you have to do it yourself.  

(And the meme that all of our single family housing is occupied by privileged white homeowners also is way off base.  Consider that a significant chunk – 25 percent approximately – of the city’s single family structures are occupied by renters (whose incomes average a little more than 55% of area median).  Also note 65% of all African American families are renters and depend heavily upon this stock of larger family sized rental units – precisely the stuff we’re tearing down at record rates to make way for expensive smaller luxury rental housing)

There are several approaches the city and pro-density proponents use to bump up the percent of the city “zoned single family”,  or “zoned exclusively for single family” or “given over to single family”.  They all play fast and loose with the facts or rather conveniently fail to qualify their remarks in a number of ways.

Version 1: Only in this latest version of the Comp Plan have city planners ever defined total land area as “gross” sq footage – a 53,151 acre total.  It always been in past comp plans just total acreage or land area.  They’ve now defined that as gross and added a net sq footage with is defined as gross land area minus area given over to right of way.  Subtracting right of way brings “net” acreage down to 38,998.   Now divide that into the amount given over to single family zoning (18,818 acres) and your amount in single family goes to 48.25 percent.  Here too, however, there is a failure to qualify this as the percent of net acreage (total minus right of way) zoned single family.

Version 2.  Before you take the percent of the city’s total land area 53151 acres given over to single family, subtract parks, open space in addition to right of way from that total city land area.  That brings down total acreage to 34,621.  Then the percent of this reduced total that is given over to single family rises to 54.4 percent.  Again few choose to qualify or explain the figure, although some will say 54 percent of ‘developable land’ is zoned single family.

Note here on the very same city webpage: the City uses both the above methodologies (see figure of 54 percent in bullets and then go to pie chart lower right for the 49 percent figure in single family)  http://www.seattle.gov/dPd/cityplanning/populationdemographics/aboutseattle/landuse/default.htm

Version 3 (preferred by prodensity crowd):  You only take amount of land given over to residential uses which would include single family, multi-family, commercial mixed, industrial and vacant (29,075 acres including 18818 single family).  Now the percent given over to single-family is bumped up to 64.7 percent.  Take out industrial from total and that bumps single family all the way up to 73%.  Rarely do those using these percentages ever qualify their remarks of course – it wouldn’t serve their purpose.

Version 4:  Another version used to bump it up to around 65 percent is to take the amount of acreage given over to single family (18818) and then add to it, the percent of right of way and parks/open space w/in or adjacent to the areas zoned single family – about 15,000 acres.  The total is 34,000 acres. Divide this figure by the amount of the city’s total gross sq footage in Seattle 53151 acres and voila, the amount in single family rises to about 65%.

Version 5:  Use their new ‘net figure’ for total land area of 38,998 (rather than total or gross of 53151).  Add parks and open space to amount of land in single family and that equals a figure of 24195 acres.   Now divide 24,195 by 38998 (net) and you get 62 percent) given over to single family.

For a story about the single family figure/percent manipulations, here is a 2015 Crosscut piece by Eric Scigliano:  http://crosscut.com/2015/08/single-family-seattle-isnt-as-big-as-density-boosters-claim/

And if you’re curious about whether our amount given over to single-family is unusual, here’s a land use comparison we made of Seattle to Vancouver a few years ago – a little dated and needs to be updated, but still has value for the sake of comparison.    http://www.zipcon.net/~jvf4119/vanseacomparison.htm


About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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