Unintended Consequences of the Push for Density

I’ve always loved Seattle, particularly the grittiness of it. Although the grittiness seems to be disappearing apace. But Seattle has always been at the forefront of trying to address difficult urban issues. They don’t always get it right, but unlike many cities, they don’t shy away from trying to find solutions (or at least mitigations) to seemingly intractable urban problems.

That means that Seattle is often the laboratory of urban ideas, policies, and approaches. But at the moment I think there’s a real need to try to balance a series of legitimate public policy priorities. The Mayor, Greg Nickles, is among the leaders in the US on environmental issues, having lead the US Council of Mayors initiative to commit to meeting the Kyoto Protocol in their cities. Certainly a commendable goal. And Mayor Nickles’ primary vehicles to do that are density (writ large, no pun intended) and public transit.But walking around Seattle neighborhoods, talking to neighborhood activists, developers, preservationists and city officials, here’s my observation — there are unintended consequences to this “density above all” approach that need to be addressed. In Seattle three other important public policy priorities seem to be being sacrificed at the altar of density — affordable housing, historic preservation, and small business.

Example one. Here’s a picture of a 1930s apartment house close to downtown. I don’t know exactly, but I’d guess it contained 35 or 40 apartments. I’d also wager that the rents there were on the “affordable” side, relative to much of Seattle, and the proximity to employment centers and public transportation meant one could live there sans automobile. From a preservation perspective it’s ok, but certainly not a building I’d go to the mat for on historic preservation grounds alone. But it is now vacant, awaiting demolition and replacement by a 25 story condo building. Density, certainly, but at the expense of both affordable housing and historic preservation. Without knowing the particulars, I’d wager my exorbitant day’s pay that the units in the new building will be out of reach for 100% of the residents of the old building. And of course the residents of the new high rise will have cars whether they need them or not, so there will be a 305 car parking garage beneath new the building.

Of course the argument is often made in justification of demolition, “well, that’s not what the ‘market’ wants anymore”. Well, in case there’s a doubt whether the “market” would live in a building like this? Not three blocks away is the virtual twin of this building with a “no vacancy” sign in front, while every new high rise residential building I saw in the neighborhood had “for rent” signs.

Example two. Earlier (April 30, 2008) I wrote about the differences between neighborhood business districts and shopping centers in neighborhoods, using Boise, Idaho as an example. Well, unlike Boise, Seattle is fortunate in having lots of great neighborhood business districts. These are commercial areas, almost entirely populated by locally owned, independent businesses, serving the convenience needs of the nearby residents. And most of the buildings housing these businesses are one and two story. Like the apartment building above, one might not make the case for saving these buildings solely on a historic preservation basis, but when it’s combined with providing relatively affordable space for small business, the case for keeping them in place gets stronger.

But in the push for density, these low scale commercial buildings are decidedly at risk. Now Seattle seems to have pretty good urban design guidelines. Across the street from the building above is this building, that meets many of the tests of a good urban structure — built
to the sidewalk, retail on the ground level, relatively good materials, mixed use, and a good design. And it certainly advances the Mayor’s density drive by being six stories rather than one or two. But I can guarantee that none of the locally owned businesses across the street could afford the rents in this new building. And if the modest buildings they now occupy are razed to make room for the next version of this building? They’ll be lost to the Seattle economy as small businesses entirely.

Historic preservation in most of America has moved from being an end in itself — save old buildings in order to save old buidlings — to being a vehicle for larger, and perhaps even more important ends. These two Seattle examples are great illustrations — historic buildings providing affordable housing, and affordable space for small business. And the myopic focus on “density” is putting that substantial contribution of historic preservation at risk.