Actually, Roosevelt, It’s All About Density

Plans to rezone one Seattle neighborhood have community leaders locked in a heated debated over 25 feet of building height. Roger Valdez of Crosscut unpacks four arguments that opponents of the density-friendly project have been hurling at developers, politicians and journalists alike.

Roosevelt High School: To be dwarfed by rezoning? Joe Mabel

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This piece originally ran on Crosscut.

Discussion and debate about rezoning Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood has gone on for months, through dozens of blog posts, what seems like thousands of comments, and even e-mail exchanges with members of Seattle’s City Neighborhood Council.

After a long and rancorous debate, the City Council opted to up zone blocks in the center of Roosevelt owned by Hugh Sisley from their current 40 feet to 65 feet. The up zone came in spite of consistent and vocal neighborhood resistance, and a failed effort by Councilmember Nick Licata to amend the proposed change.

Some on-the-record comments and exchanges after the Council’s vote to rezone shed some light on what future land use debates might look like:

It’s not about “density.”

Opponents of the rezone say the issue was not density — that is welcoming more development and new people to the community — but the view from 65th. The neighborhood was willing to “take” more density than even Mayor Mike McGinn wanted. In the words of Tony Provine of the City Neighborhood Council, opposing the rezone was about the neighborhood trying “to preserve what was most important about Roosevelt.”

For opponents of up zones, that meant “restricting heights on the three blocks near the high school” in order to maintain “the prominence of the high school and preserving the heart and soul of the neighborhood.” Sisley and his management practices, blighted houses and profits weren’t the issue.

But should those three blocks really be treated any differently than other places in the neighborhood, where there was agreement to “take” more density? If we take the opponents at their word, saving the view from the sidewalk on 65th is worth leaving the Sisley properties in their current state of disrepair; an idea even Nick Licata, an opponent of the up zone, agreed would have been the outcome.

The city council is in the pocket of developers.

Long time anti-growth advocate John Fox weighed in on an e-mail chain debriefing the rezone with members of the neighborhood council. Fox says the Seattle City Council is an obedient servant of development interests. His evidence is the city elections website, which he says “indicates that now a huge chunk of incumbent contributions (about 40 percent) come either from downtown or out-of-town interests.” Fox goes on to say that when put together with people affiliated with “elite interests … it’s the majority of support that incumbents receive.”

But why, if the Council is so beholden to development interests, was the Roosevelt process so drawn out? Why didn’t the final rezone plan include heights like those found near Vancouver, British Columbia light rail, where 120-foot towers are common? Instead the battle over Roosevelt was over 25 feet: The difference between what opponents would want to allow (40 feet) and what the developer was advocating for (65 feet).

The press is in the pocket of developers.

Fox says that in the late 1990s the Seattle Weekly “weathered quite a storm of criticism” for an article entitled “Who REALLY Runs Seattle,” a catalog of the interwoven connections between media ownership, developers, business people, city staff and other “power brokers.” He suggests that media outlets like the Seattle Times, Crosscut and PubliCola are suspect because they take advertising, placing them firmly in favor of new development and slanting what they publish.

This discussion is as old as the written word. There is no question that, in spite of its efforts to remain objective, the press can be subject to influence. Moreover, there has been a visible shift from beat reporting that looks for “just the facts Ma’am,” to more gonzo, point-of-view journalism. While this shift no doubt provides cover for journalist-posing PR types, the majority of journalists have simply grown tired of feigning objectivity. Try conducting an in-depth survey of an issue in any community without developing an opinion. Many of us who write and blog simply support a different point of view.

Some journalists and writers don’t agree with up zone opponents. That does not mean they are being paid by the other side.

People who are here now come first.

Provine makes it pretty clear: We were here first! Preference on land use decisions, he says, should be given to the people who currently live in a neighborhood. “I don’t understand your desire for livable neighborhoods,” Provine said in a comment addressed to me, “yet your willingness to disregard the people who actually live there.” Provine asks plaintively, “So who are they livable for?”

The answer is that zoning changes will make Roosevelt more livable for the neighborhood’s current residents: Boosting the neighborhood’s development capacity means more people in Roosevelt’s commercial core, more customers for local businesses and the replacement of blighted and abandoned buildings. It will also improve the experiences of Seattleites who move in to new housing created on the Sisley properties and those using light rail throughout the region. Provine and many other opponents of Roosevelt’s zoning change believe that people living in Roosevelt right now are more important than its future residents or residents of other neighborhoods.

The bigger question for the city is whether the specific priorities of people currently living in the neighborhood should win out over the creation of a denser, more connected, more livable city. That means the debate really is about density — accommodating more people in a smaller space.

The City Council never seemed to join this fray. Instead the discussion was confined to the proposed height of a few buildings in Roosevelt. All sides of the debate agreed that more leadership is needed to answer the bigger question: What will Seattle do about encouraging more growth around transit citywide and will our land use policies favor people who got here first, or the residents of Seattle’s future?

It is important to remember that density isn’t about buildings after all. To steal a phrase from Soylent Green, density is people. And more, new people will mean a more vibrant neighborhood and economy for Roosevelt.

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Tags: built environmentseattleinclusionary zoning

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