Editor’s Note: Toward Smart Urban Design

As Seattle grows more dense, it’s imperative that we do so intelligently.
During World War II, when accommodations were scarce, the house where I’ve lived for the past 28 years was a flophouse for more than a dozen railroad workers. Beds were lined up six to a room. In the ’60s and ’70s, the house was home to a family with four daughters. My wife and I raised our two children in that house, but now that they are grown and moving on, we are thinking about renting out the basement as an “accessory dwelling unit,” or ADU. It would help us cover the cost of rising real estate fees. ADUs were legalized in 1994 as one of the many ways for Seattle to accommodate a rising tide of new residents.
More recent efforts include allowing multifamily developments in “urban villages” such as Queen Anne that were once zoned for single-family residences. And Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, adopted in 2016, permits more dense development in some areas in exchange for getting developers to contribute directly to the construction of affordable housing.
Such efforts, along with heavy investment in buses and light rail, have helped the Seattle region absorb a population that should hit 700,000 this year, up from 608,000 in 2010. That population growth, in turn, has helped to accommodate a rise in employment. Last year alone, King County added an astounding 50,000 jobs. This year, nearly 6,000 residential units are scheduled for completion in Seattle, more than the previous two years combined. While that pace of construction is expected to continue through 2019, with demand rising, rents could keep climbing, too.
In spite of the worsening traffic and the rising cost of housing, polls show widespread support for increasing density in the region’s cities, says Gene Duvernoy, president of the land conservation group, Forterra. That’s because the density, mandated by the 1990 Growth Management Act, helps protect from urban sprawl the forests, farmlands and rural towns that make our region so attractive.
Josh Brown, executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council, says the Puget Sound area is unusual in its commitment to growth management. Many communities in Silicon Valley, such as Mountain View, Brown notes, have refused to accommodate growth, forcing employees at nearby companies such as Apple to commute long distances to find affordable housing.
Of course, density won’t work if our cities aren’t also great places to live. This nicety requires more than just new apartment buildings. We need affordable homes, including the kind of diverse housing that Seattle supported before stricter single-family zoning rules were introduced. Those zoning rules, says Brown, created an odd reality in which “people with the largest houses have the smallest households.”
More flexibility would not only help make homes more affordable. It could also make for more interesting neighborhoods.
“I think neighborhoods, cities and towns that have evolved are more interesting and delightful than ones that have been carefully top-down planned,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently told Fast Company magazine. Bezos, who has done more than any single person to revitalize Seattle by establishing Amazon’s headquarters in the center of the city, added that “there is something very human” about such communities.
Our region has made a tradeoff in accepting density to save the outdoors. It has resulted in a more vibrant metropolitan area. We must continue to be creative in order to add more diverse, affordable and community-friendly living space. With the right approach, we should be able to accomplish it without turning all our homes into flophouses.
LESLIE HELM is executive editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at leslie.helm@tigeroak.com.

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