Seattle's own density debate raging

Post by Mike Klassen in ,

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J.P. Patches

It was heartening to discover that our neighbours to the south in Seattle are having their own political debate about density (thanks, Re:Place for the link). For a while there I thought that it was only Lotusland that had gone completely nuts over the issues of creating more dense, walkable places, and getting people out of their cars in exchange for amenity-rich, transit-oriented communities.

Whole sections of Vancouver had kinipshins over the D-word during Sullivan's term. My CityCaucus.com colleague Daniel while working in the mayor's office came up with the handle EcoDensity, a term that stirred much fear and mistrust at home. Yet it is precisely how our planners, engineers, politicians and citizenry embrace urban density makes Vancouver the envy of other cities.

Now the rumour is that the EcoDensity name itself will be scrubbed from City Hall's lexicon, replaced by EcoCity. A small incision to remove the "dense" part of that expression, all in an effort to make it less controversial if not altogether different.

Seattle it seems is suffering under the weight of high-priced housing in the same way we are here. They have come up with the rather dry planning term "incentive zoning" to describe what Vancouver has been doing for years: using density, or building "lift" as a bargaining tool to improve public services.

The shortcoming of this system, as Seattle may already understand, is that bonus density only gets you so much. You can't always squeeze the developer, who might want to help you build a local park, but might balk at paying for sub-market housing (or visa versa). And you have to be sensitive to communities on their willingness to accept growth, as we've seen recently here in a variety of boroughs.

The complications of creating affordable housing by zoning for higher density are many. Part of the resistance Seattle neighbourhoods have is that zoning for higher density immediately raises property values, in some cases by quite a lot. Before you know it, existing residents can no longer afford to live there.

Despite the negatives, density is a tool that has helped Vancouver to create some very successful communities such as Yaletown, Downtown South and the evolving Broadway & Cambie hub.

If I have any words of advice to our American friends they are to embrace these changes, but do so while respecting the views of fellow stakeholders. As well cite the experiences of other cities like Vancouver or Portand and, importantly, get on with it.

Cities, and the world's climate can't continue to wait while everyone makes up their minds.

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