Parking, affordability and transit

phinney flats

Should Phinney Flats, a proposed 4-story, 52-Small-Efficiency-Dwelling-Unit building, with zero parking require no-car leases? (Drawing by Skidmore Janette courtesy of Johnson & Carr)

A neighborhood fight over tiny apartments with no parking leads to city hall proposing a Seattle-wide law to help developers

By George Howland Jr, Contributing Writer

On Phinney Ridge, the issues of parking, affordability and transit have collided.

The site of the crash was Phinney Flats, a proposed 4-story, 52-Small-Efficiency-Dwelling-Unit (SEDU—pronounced “see do”) building with zero parking. Livable Phinney, its neighborhood opponents, appealed the proposed building’s permit and won, most significantly over inadequate transit service.

Now city hall wants to pass a new law that will change the rules going forward so that developers can more easily build multi-family housing without parking. Livable Phinney wants city hall to consider another approach: the no-car lease.

Early next year, the Seattle City Council will take up the issues.

SEDUs are a popular new form of multi-family housing. In a September study, Colliers’ Seattle Multifamily Team projects that 2,271 SEDUs will be developed next year. In comparison, last year 8,300 new residences were built in Seattle, mostly apartments. SEDUs are self-contained, tiny, apartments between 220 and 300 square feet, and the buildings don’t provide parking. According to Colliers, SEDUs’ rents average $1275—significantly cheaper than studio apartments, which average $1546. Colliers also notes that SEDUs are more profitable to build.

The city says building parking spaces is expensive and they add to the skyrocketing cost of housing. “Constructing parking can cost $40,000 per space, which is inevitably passed on to the tenant in the form of higher rents,” states Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection’s (SDCI) spokesperson Bryan Stevens.

In the city’s view, by not building parking, SEDUs create cheaper market-rate housing.

Even though there is no parking in SEDUs, their tenants do not stop owning cars. According to SDCI’s planner Gordon Clowers, between 60 and 70 percent of SEDU tenants do not own cars. In contrast, around 84 percent of all Seattle households own at least one vehicle.

Since SEDU tenants can’t park their cars in their building, they must park on the street or pay for a parking space elsewhere.

Developers’ own study: there’s not enough space for all the cars

At full occupancy, Phinney Flats will have 54 tenants (52 SEDUs, 2 live-work spaces). According to the city’s percentages, there will be 16-22 more cars looking for street or rental parking. And Johnson & Carr’s, Phinney Flats’ developer, own study finds that there won’t be enough spots for all the cars to park nearby. (The study doesn’t analyze a wide area of the neighborhood and only has two days of data.) In fact, even if Phinney Flats is never built, the study shows that the parking utilization of the area, at peak times, will be 91 percent.

SDCI’s Stevens states, “[W]e have said that when on-street parking capacity exceeds 85 percent, finding parking becomes more difficult, and parking mitigation (in areas where we have authority to mitigate parking impacts) may be appropriate.” Stevens explains why parking mitigation won’t be required in the Phinney Flats’ permit. “[O]ur [State Environmental Policy Act] policies say that parking cannot be mitigated in urban villages and urban centers with frequent transit service,” he states.

Back in 2012, according to SDCI’s Clowers, the city began to allow developers to build multi-family housing without any parking spaces provided they are in urban villages with frequent transit service. It doesn’t matter if such a building is a SEDU or luxury condominiums or something in-between, developers no longer must provide parking on-site under the aforementioned conditions.

The Seattle Municipal Code currently defines frequent transit as “transit service headways [time between buses etc.] in at least one direction of 15 minutes or less for at least 12 hours per day, 6 days per week…”

And that’s how Livable Phinney won its appeal.

Livable Phinney’s Irene Wall: a champion of the public’s interest

Livable Phinney’s board member Irene Wall is well-known for her battles for the public interest. In 1999, Wall had her first major victory when she preserved the spectacular view of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains from Victor Steinbrueck Park from a proposed Marriott Hotel on the waterfront. In 2007, Wall and her allies defeated the Garage Mahal, a proposed, unneeded, four-story, $28 million, 700-stall parking garage in the Woodland Park Zoo.

Now, her opponents say she isn’t working in the public interest, but taking a parochial view of parking.

She replies, “We need to push for a rational approach that acknowledges reality—personal cars, share cars, Uber and Lyft cars, electric cars all need a safe place to park and the streets in most urban villages are full now.”

In July, Wall and Livable Phinney won their appeal of the Phinney Flats’ permit. Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil found, among other things, that the Greenwood Phinney Ridge Urban Village was not served by frequent transit. Livable Phinney presented a transit study that showed, over three months, that 38.5 percent of the neighborhoods’ buses did not arrive every 15 minutes.

In November, former Mayor Tim Burgess proposed a new law that would re-define frequent transit service as scheduled headways of 18 minutes. In other words, the actual performance of the transit will no longer matter. Instead, whatever King County Metro Transit etc. puts on its timetables will be the standard for measuring frequent transit service.

SDCI’s Clowers says, “The frequent-transit regulation was never based on the how on-time the transit was on the street.” He adds, “There never was a standard of 15-minutes performance on the street.”

Wall told The Seattle Times the new proposal is equivalent to “changing the rules of the game when you lose.” She predicts dire consequences if the definition of frequent transit service is changed. “The city is willing to let neighborhoods become war zones over parking,” she says.

Wall says she has a better idea: no-car leases. “Make it a condition of the lease: no car while you live in an apartment building without parking.” In return, the tenant will pay less for the apartment compared to buildings that provide parking. “Banks are promoting the idea of a no-car lease,” she notes. In other words, people can qualify for a higher mortgage loans if they don’t have the expense of a car.

SDCI’s Stevens doesn’t like Wall’s idea. “On-street parking is for public use and we don’t deny access to public amenities such as on-street parking or public parks.”

While all this should spark a lively debate in the city council’s chambers, it probably won’t. Although Livable Phinney and Wall will do their best to raise hell, the ruling council consensus in favor of urbanism is so strong that the new law favoring developers will likely pass with very little dissent.

Then again, very few thought Wall could ever save Steinbrueck Park’s view or stop the Garage Mahal.

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Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. He works under his own editorial direction. The Displacement Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy. He has never even been to a Huskies’ football game with the Coalition’s John Fox.


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