Making Density Work: Lessons from Seattle and Matthew Yglesias

Photos and story by Tara Sulzen, Outreach Director (except where noted)

In early August, I had the opportunity to visit Seattle for the Urban Land Institute Northwest Young Leaders Regional Conference.  The conference focused on the the ways thatwork and housing preferences are changing, and how cities must adapt to reflect these trends. The conference was held at Melrose Market in Seattle, which was renovated in 2009 as flexible small vendor space with minimal new construction. It received the Preservation of Neighborhood Character Award in 2011 from Historic Seattle, and has been touted as a successful small business incubator project. 

Though Oregon is known nationwide for how well it promotes new development within urban growth boundaries, it is clear that new development is occurring at a much faster pace in Seattle. There seemed to be cranes around every turn in Capitol Hill and South Lake Union, but in addition to the new construction, many projects involved renovating existing buildings to attract small businesses and start-ups.

A day of walking tours, guest speakers, panel discussions, and some discussion with real estate professionals, developers, and advocates left me with some big ideas and takeaways to bring home to Portland and to inspire the work of 1000 Friends.

1. Planning for good density requires strong advocates.

We kicked off the morning with an encouraging discussion with Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who has an advocacy background with the Sierra Club and Great City, a nonprofit that he founded to advocate for smart and responsible urbanism. Mayor McGinn acknowledged that there are often too many barriers to new infill development. Transit-supportive, walkable and mixed-use projects can also support existing neighborhoods, but there must be strong advocates making the case for good density.  Promoting good density reflects changing demographics by providing incentives for new construction along transit corridors , promoting walkability, incorporating more flexible and open workspaces into building designs, ensuring housing choices for a variety of income levels, and leveraging existing buildings to emphasize the neighborhood’s character.

2. The “Activity Index” is worth tracking: Measuring and monitoring neighborhood and building activity is often more telling than measuring density and land uses.

The Seattle firm Dunn and Hobbes has successfully built a variety of projects in high density, low-rise urban villages to “maximize the appeal of urban living.” We heard from the firm's Principal Liz Dunn about the unfortunate presence of a false dichotomy between density and preservation. Instead, she said, the focus should be on promoting a mix of old and new buildings through adaptive reuse of old buildings, “skinny” infill projects, and prioritizing activity, durability, and adaptability. It’s possible to make the case for good density in creative ways, she said, such as by evaluating changes in Walkscore and changes in building stock over time to show the positive economic impacts of adaptive reuse through increased activity. Dr. Alan Ehrenhalt, the conference’s keynote speaker and author of The Great Inversion, went on to discuss how research shows that the Millennial Generation is moving to cities, and will pay more to live in these walkable neighborhoods. Read more about his book here.

Following these discussions we took a walking tour of Capitol Hill adaptive reuse and green infrastructure projects to better understand how these new developments fit into the existing neighborhood. We stopped at Oddfellows Building, pictured above, which has become a McMenamins-esque large rehabilitation project, attracting a variety of businesses, restaurants, bars, entertainment spaces (including the very popular and delicious Molly Moons Ice Cream) into a long-neglected historic building. We also had the opportunity to visit the construction site of the Bullitt Foundation’s future home (right), which will become the greenest commercial building in the world. By selecting a site in a transit-connected neighborhood close to the new light rail line and easily accessible to partners, this project encapsulates how the importance of place and location are essential to make a project truly sustainable.

These conversations set the stage for a deeper discussion about what policy strategies must be in place to prepare for changing demographics driving new residents and businesses to cities like Seattle and Portland.

3. Finding the right mix of market-based and regulatory strategies can make adaptive reuse profitable for developers and support neighborhood goals.

The challenge with promoting and building neighborhood supportive projects is often that most developers and lenders are not in the practice of adaptive reuse or skinny infill. Filling in the “missing teeth” to achieve better- connected neighborhood economic districts is a less familiar practice for many developers and architects, but the industry is growing.

Both Portland and Seattle have a variety of market and regulatory tools in place to incentivize good urban development. Tools such as reuse tax credits and demolition fees can promote redevelopment of existing buildings, but ultimately, many developers say removing parking minimums is the most effective way to move new infill or adaptive reuse projects forward. Zoning codes in both cities support reducing parking minimums along frequent service transit corridors, and it is an important tool to ensure that development occurs in target areas. 

4. Lessons from Matthew Yglesias

Soon after I returned from Seattle, 1000 Friends had the opportunity to discuss some of these market-based and policy strategies for promoting good urban development with Slate columnist and political thinker Matthew Yglesias at a happy hour we co-hosted with the Oregon Bus Project.  Along with a packed room, we discussed the economic benefits of removing parking minimums, and how urban growth boundaries have supported the type of development that is right for the Portland region. Yglesias was surprised by the disconnect of the central city and central eastside neighborhoods, and by the commitment to single family residential zoning throughout much of the city. He later followed up on his observations on his Slate blog, by going straight to the source – Portland’s zoning code

Update, August 9: Yglesias has published a more comprehensive piece on Slate explaining why a a lot of what people say about Portland is wrong--the city's doing a lot better than "Portlandia" stereotypes would seem to suggest.

1000 Friends was honored to co-host Matt’s first trip to Portland, and we will consider his observations as we champion strategies that will promote a more livable, economically prosperous and walkable region.