Reader Opinion: North Beacon needs higher density

Higher density near the Columbia City light rail station. Photo by Matthew Rutledge.
Higher density near the Columbia City light rail station. Photo by Matthew Rutledge.
(We recently asked a few people to write their opinions about House Bill 1490 and how it relates to Beacon Hill. The bill was altered and no longer directly affects the Hill, but Andrew Smith still has a few things to say about density in our area.)

By Andrew Smith

Recently House Bill 1490 has started a discussion in our region over density and transit-oriented-development. Originally the bill required cities to create zoning packages that would have allowed increased density in a half-mile radius around all light rail and commuter rail stations. In a recent revision, that requirement was scaled back to apply to only communities defined by the Puget Sound Regional Council as “growth centers”: Auburn, Downtown Bellevue, Overlake, Everett, Federal Way, Kent, Lakewood, Lynnwood, Puyallup, Redmond, Seatac, Capitol Hill, Downtown Seattle, Northgate, the University District, Downtown Tacoma, and Tukwila. I imagine many in Southeast Seattle breathed a sigh of relief when they read that, as many in that area were very concerned about increased density changing their neighborhoods. However, I’d like to make the case for increased density in these areas, focusing my argument on Beacon Hill, and point out that while increased density could change the neighborhood, that change might be a better change than what will happen if density is prohibited.

Recently I’ve been touring homes in the area around the Beacon Hill station, looking for a place to buy, where I can raise my daughter. I’m not the only one looking; the prospect of a guaranteed six-minute, congestion-free commute to Downtown Seattle is very enticing, and makes Beacon Hill a very attractive neighborhood to a lot of people. As light rail opens to more places, even more people are going to want to live in the neighborhood, and there are two routes the neighborhood can take to handle the demand.

In the first option, without an increase in the number of housing units around the station, demand will outpace supply and prices will rise to astronomical levels. Beacon Hill around the station will become an exclusive neighborhood where only wealthy people could afford to live, and where only posh businesses open shop. This will definitely be a change from the neighborhood’s currently relaxed middle class flavor; modest single family homes will make way for large-footprint McMansions and the favorite neighborhood Thai restaurant and barbershop will make way for expensive, trendy places or cold, high-end boutiques.

The other option is increased density and more housing units, where supply will rise with demand and keep the neighborhood affordable to middle-class families. Along with the increase in population will come an increase in business, and the favorite neighborhood Thai restaurant and barbershop will be joined by a farmers’ market, the new favorite neighborhood pub, the new favorite neighborhood cafe, and the new favorite neighborhood baby clothes retailer. This will transform the area into a walkable community with all the amenities that come with it. It’s not all roses in this scenario; with more people will come more traffic — though it will be mitigated somewhat by the rail line — and longer waits at that great Thai restaurant, and with construction will come the noise and chaos that we’re all too familiar with.

If you’re a homeowner in the area, you might say you’d prefer the first scenario since your property values will rise more, but in fact, the opposite is the case. Property with mixed use zoning is worth more than property with single family zoning, and thus any property in the area that is up-zoned will become more valuable. Even without the up-zone properties values will rise. Recent work done by Christopher Leinberger shows that walkable communities have a per-square-foot price premium of between 40 and 200 percent, and the homes past the edge of the community will have increases of 20 to 80 percent.

I’d also like to appeal to everyone’s sense of civic fairness. We’ve all been paying sales tax for the past dozen or so years to build this light rail line and this subway station. Now that’s almost done, shouldn’t we try to get our money’s worth and encourage the most riders possible? Increasing density around the stations will mean more people using the system and a better value for all of us. Increased use will also make the station safer: there’ll be more eyes watching for muggers or other predators.

Increased density shouldn’t be that scary. You’ll be trading a little crowdedness for some amenities and higher property values. Most of the people who move to Beacon Hill will be good neighbors. I have a little daughter and I want to make sure the streets in my neighborhood are safe, that the schools have enough volunteers and that the neighborhood businesses have patrons. The alternative is an exclusive community of McMansions and expensive retailers, and people like me forced to live in far flung suburbs. The correct choice seems obvious to me — I hope it is to you.

Andrew Smith posts regularly on Seattle Transit Blog.

Do you want to write an opinion post for the Beacon Hill Blog? Let us know!

27 thoughts on “Reader Opinion: North Beacon needs higher density”

  1. I’m sorry – Beacon Hill has too many problems that will only be compounded by increasing density.
    – crime
    – litter
    – slum lords
    – graffiti
    – illegal parking

    Forcing neighborhoods to get bigger without having services in place will make these issues worse.

    We already live in a fairly densely populated area 7,300 ppsm (according to Puget Sound Regional Council) with an EXISTING high ridership. Why is that being ignored in the density discussion? We don’t need more people to use the bus – we need more buses.

    Increased density does not equal increased ridership. It only means more people in an already crowded neighborhood.

    We don’t want to live like veal.

  2. By what measure is beacon hill crowded? Most neighbrhoods in the city seem more crowded than BH: First Hill, Capitol Hill, Central District, University District, Lake City, Ballard, Queen Anne, Belltown, International District, Little Saigon, etc.

  3. Is crime related to density? It seems euphemistic, to be honest. I think it is much safer to walk along well-lit, and well-populated streets at night than to walk through empty neighborhoods where no one is within an earshot.

    And “slum lords”? Really?

  4. As a 16 year resident of Beacon Hill, I have long dreamed of the day that light rail opens and the area surrounding the station grows into a vibrant neighborhood center. I visit other neighborhoods in the city (madison park, fremont, 15th ave on capitol hill, columbia city) and look on with jealousy at their walkability. I find myself spending time in these places BECAUSE of the density, and wish there was something comparable on my own Beacon Hill.

    Beacon Ave has wonderful potential to become one of these cherished neighborhood commercial districts, and the station located near the intersection of the two major arterials on the hill can jump-start this process.

    As Andrew points out the desire to live near the station will drive change in our neighborhood. We can either let it happen ad-hoc and take whatever it deals us, or embrace the chance to shape our neighborhood into a vibrant place that we want to spend more time. Imagine for a moment getting off of the LINK on your way home from work and stopping at a local pub or restaurant for a bite to eat or meet friends, picking up the dry-cleaning you dropped of on your way in to work, and maybe even pick up a few things from the store before walking a block or two to your home. Or strolling to a restaurant for brunch on a Sunday morning before catching the rail downtown to catch a matinee. This is my dream for Beacon Hill; I hope there are others in the neighborhood who share it.

  5. I think you will have a tough time trying to find a causal relationship between density and crime. For a quick example, do you consider LA to be safer than New York City? I would rather have eyes on the street from larger buildings than sidewalks that are just there for decoration and the occasional dog-walk.

    Litter and slum lords are problems that are essentially universal. I have never noticed more litter in Beacon Hill than other parts of the city, and I have heard stories of a few “slum lords” in Bellevue. Anywhere that housing is rented rather than owned, some people will not maintain it.

    As for graffiti, it is true that houses are rarely “tagged,” but owners of new development tend to have motivation to keep graffiti off of their building. This common maintenance is likely to continue if the area is anchored by a desirable public service, such as a light rail station.

    Lastly, any area near a transporation hub is likely to have an increase in illegal parking, development or no development. I would bet that the city will be more vigilant about policing this over the long term if there are more people in the area due to higher densities.

  6. Slum lords should sell their properties to developers when the land becomes more valuable, so any blight caused by that would go away.

    Even Seattle’s most notorious slumlord, Hugh Sisley in the Roosevelt Neighborhood, has sold development rights to his properties because of the coming light rail station there.

  7. Beacon Hill is a prime candidate for more density. At least within a few blocks of the Lander station, I can think of at least a dozen decrepit houses that could be turned into modestly-dense apartments. Do it!

  8. I’m a (fairly) yourngprofessional and my financee and I might consider moving to Beacon Hill if affordable units (and by affordable, I don’t mean subsidized, but rather units small enough to hit our price point) were available along with services within walking distance. BH is not dense to support the services that would make the neighborhood attractive enough to us, at least in comparison to say, Ballard, or even parts of West Seattle.

  9. Nice article, Andrew, but I have to disagree about the possibility of the neighborhood becoming an exclusive community. The ultra-rich seem to prefer communities with gates or covenants. My personal belief is that Beacon Hill and other close-in neighborhoods have only two options for the future: density through townhomes, which fall under the design review threshold and are already sprouting across the city; or density through zoning changes that allow 3-6 story buildings along arterials, for which the community can exercise some design review if desired. Aesthetically I dislike townhomes, but over the last decade they have provided an in-city living option for middle class .

  10. Andrew…and Beacon Hill,

    Andrew makes good points. All the things he states are possible with density. Neighborhood services will expand and people living there will benefit from the expanded services. The are however a couple things so far not been commented on by the proponents of density.

    First, Time. How long does it take to grow a decent dense neighborhood? How much time should we expect? Do we have enough time considering the dire state of the environment proponents claim? Will targeted density be reached immediately or will it occur in phases? Should we expect incentives to developers to reach those goals? What transitions should we expect during the transition from less dense to more dense?

    Second, how do we promote viable and sustainable businesses at and near stations? What are the success and failure rates of new businesses at or near transit stations? What can residents do to promote the best possible and most successful businesses? How do we create zoning that will promote the creation of more jobs for the neighborhood to keep people working where they live? After all, the most sustainable solution is for as many of the new residents to work in Beacon Hill and not even use the train for a daily commute.

    Third, why does it seem the studies cited by density proponents compare downtown to suburbs? The link provided above compares residential areas outside of major city boundaries not the close in to cities. Beacon Hill is hardly the same density as Federal Way as pointed out by Saltinesgirl. It’s probably more likely that people living on Beacon Hill have a much shorter commute than those traveling from Federal Way. What I’m getting from the point of the linked article is that being able to walk to resources is much better than getting in one’s car to do the same task. It is however, better than getting on a train too.

    Please don’t get me wrong, I’m very pro-density, I love the train (and will use it) and I understand that increased density is likely to happen in Seattle unless we have a meltdown in our job resources on the scale of late 60s and 70s Detroit. We owe it to ourselves to be better educated on the subject. It is the responsibility of those people making decisions for us to arm us with the best knowledge that relates directly to our situation. We will be spending a lot of our money as consumers of neighborhood goods and services and as home owners (arguably the largest purchase we will ever make in our lives) and should have our voice listen to but also we should be given the respect from policy makers and given a comprehensive assessment of the changes to come and how we can best contribute to that positive change.

  11. Speaking as a single-family homeowner who lives about 5 blocks from the BH station, I am in complete agreement with you Andrew. Pete and Ryan also make excellent points.

  12. I’m pleased you used my photo because I’m a very strong believer in appropriate density, which is that a city should be a city. North Beacon could be the next hot neighborhood on the radar if it had more shopping and density. Parts of the eastern slope are as desolate as a Pennsylvania steel town. That can’t really be helped other than having more infill, which will probably pick up in a few years.

    But some kind of apartment building with shops right where Golf Drive and 14th split near Amazon is a very good idea, you get views and you will get a lot of foot traffic from the neighborhood and the employees nearby. There’s nothing over there whatsoever.

    Another opportunity is right at Rainier and Massachusetts. I think that those few blocks are the last undiscovered commercial/mid-density blocks in this part of town. You would turn the neighborhood into something else simply by bringing pedestrian traffic to Rainier.

    It’s not as if there are any affluent homeowners right up against Rainier that would be mad that the abandoned lots were suddenly being built on. If I had money to develop anything, I’d be walking Rainier Avenue and grabbing the first plot of land available – if Seattle were truly visionary and did urban planning the way it is supposed to be done, Rainier Avenue would become Seattle’s version of Barcelona’s L’Eixample neighborhood, with 6-story buildings along a 6-lane boulevard with trees in the middle.

    With the unobstructed mountain views, with the easy access to downtown and the Eastside, and lacking militant homeowners groups to complain, Rainier Avenue could become as important to Seattle’s future as Seattle Center once was. It’s a grand boulevard waiting to happen.

  13. I’m coming to this late, but one of the reasons I’ve stayed on Beacon Hill for so long is because it will change. It will become more dense, and with density will come a return of the rich array of businesses that must once have stretched down Beacon Avenue along the trolley lines. Density is the ticket back to something resemebling a pre-autocentric way of life for a neighborhood like Beacon Hill that’s been so profoundly impacted by re-engineer the city around the needs of the car, not the needs of the people.

    I have to say that I found Andrew’s examples undercut by the repeated appearance of the neighborhood Thai restaurant, which kept making me think he really doesn’t understand the character of Beacon Hill. Thai restaurants are scarce south of I-90 just as Philippine restaurants are scarce north of it. If more density means we can have both, I’d be happy.

  14. For what it’s worth, I considered changing the Thai restaurant to something else when I was copy-editing the article, but decided I would let it stand. I would love a Thai restaurant here. I want to keep the restaurants we have, while adding Thai, Indian, Italian, Cajun…

  15. Oh, and Matthew, thank you very much for taking such wonderful pictures of the area and letting us post them here. You have really done an amazing job of showing us different sides of Beacon Hill.

  16. Andrew’s examples cracked me up too. Besides the barbershop, I’d be thrilled to see ANYTHING he mentioned — Thai places, cold boutiques, pubs, farmer’s markets, even McMansions.

    Recently a McMansion was finished on Orcas east of Beacon, and, I’m ashamed to say, I kind of swoon when I see it. I know they’re ugly and environmentally disastrous, but, my God, it’s great to see someone making some kind of investment in this part of the neighborhood.

    BTW, if any of you middle-class families are looking to buy an in-city home (but not one within walking distance of amenities, unfortunately), you should be looking down here. For instance, there’s a 3-bedroom home that’s not moving at $260K at 5526-20th-Ave-S. You could probably get it for $250K. That seems pretty affordable, and we’d love to have more families as neighbors.

  17. I wouldn’t go so far as to be happy about McMansions — not with all the gorgeous old bungalows on North Beacon that would probably get torn down to build them!

  18. I’ll second Therese and encourage folks to check out the neighborhood plan and current zoning maps.

    The current zoning along Beacon in the immediate area of the Station is NC-40, Neighborhood Commercial, 40 feet. There are almost no buildings that maximize this zoning potential in the “Town Center”. My point is, Beacon Hill could get a lot denser by doing nothing at all. But, considering the fact that the light rail station is going to open in five months and not one new development has happened during the construction, and none are even applying for permits, I doubt anything is going to happen any time soon. Oh yeah, and then there’s that problem with the banks.

    So, we have the opportunity, now, to update the Neighborhood Plan, and if we put a good effort into it, and follow it up with some community driven investment, we could make the neighborhood we want.

    For Thai food, go to Thai Recipe off McClellan near Rainier, behind Schucks. We’ve been going there for a few years.


  19. One thing I’ve noticed as the eastside has grown more dense is that replacing old houses with new condos actual raises the median price. It’s not simple supply and demand because housing units are not eggs. The new condos with jetted tubs and gourmet kitchens are going to trend higher in price than the single family housing unit that got replaced. Likewise the shiny new street level retail of mixed use development is going to attract the very boutique type stores you’re lobbying against. The funky ones are going to look for funky space elsewhere.

    Good development is like BBQ. Slow cooking yields the best results and don’t burn the old recipe when you want to try something new.

  20. All you newbies and non-Beacon residents pondering development on Beacon: Check out the Beacon Hill history book that my friend Mira and I wrote a few years ago. It’s at the library: “Images of America: Seattle’s Beacon Hill”, Frederica Merrell, MIra Latoszek. Take a look at the business district pictures and the description of how many businesses there were at one time (before I-5). We have a fraction of the businesses that were once here, even though our population density has increased. What does this tell you? There are other forces at work on Beacon Hill that have a bigger influence on where people shop than population density.

    Retail development all around the hill has exploded (I remember when there was no Lowe’s on Rainier). The SODO, Southcenter Mall, Columbia City revival and the growth of Little Saigon reinforces a long-standing trend: People live on Beacon Hill and shop elsewhere. Really, these other shopping areas are very close, plenty close enough to use regularly and we do.

    Beacon residents have a unique and powerful connection to the International District. Chinatown is a restaurant and business mecca! How can a Chinese restaurant on Beacon Hill survive that kind of competition? South China lived because it started in the 1940’s! Now it’s gone forever probably never to be repeated. Starting in the late 70’s the Vietnamese community started growing Little Saigon (12th and Jackson). Now the Tamarind Tree is the place to be.

    And residents from Beacon Hill, be it grandma’s, kids, or professionals can grab the 36 and be there in 15 minutes. We have always had great bus (before that the trolley) service on the hill and that has enhanced the off hill shopping relationships. The 36 is the second most used bus line in the County (right after the 7).

    The next big retail project to draw residents off the hill is the Dearborn project. In this environment we can’t afford to be dreamers about retail development on Beacon Hill. We need to be realistic.

    Beacon Hill retail “needs” versus “wants” are going to continue to be pretty slim for Beacon Hill residents. We just have too much active retail just off the hill to support high levels of retail on the hill. The other problem with trying to grow retail is that there is no reverse force because of our topography. People don’t come to Beacon Hill from other neighborhoods. Our urban core isn’t even a pass through to someplace else. Maybe if we got that Saturday Farmer’s market people would come shop here, but I can’t imagine people going out of their way for anything else.

    If we build too much retail, more than we really need, I am concerned that we will have empty storefronts. I have been reading about this phenomena on the DPD site about multifamily and neighborhood commercial zoning revisions (interesting stuff in itself).

    Also, when you think comparables, you might want look at the growth targets for the different 38 villages so you are talking apples to apples. Beacon Hill is one of the smallest urban villages in the city (unlike Ballard, or Queen Anne, or Cap Hill, or Columbia City or all the other comparables I hear people use). Our total growth target (housing units to add) is 490 by 2024. Other neighborhoods have targets in the thousands.

    Hope that is useful. Blog on!


  21. Here’s my two cents on business development on North Beacon Hill, at least in relations to Freddie’s comments.

    I’ll agree that there are a lot of places that are pretty convenient for shopping around the hill (3 miles to Costco from my house) and I can find evening entertainment in Georgetown or Columbia City or Downtown pretty easily. Does that mean we don’t need any new businesses here? Well, honestly, my needs are pretty well met with what exists within a pretty easy drive, or bike ride or bus ride or soon to be train ride. For a lot of business development, we really are talking about wants or want of something more convenient.

    Or are we? I want to have a more active, vibrant business district in the Town Center because when I go to Costco, or Target in Factoria, I don’t bump into my neighbors. I don’t find out about local news or have the spontaneous opportunity to catch up with my neighbors. When I go off the Hill to shop, its a mission. When I head to Georgetown for a beer, its by appointment with specific friends.

    In contrast, when I go to the Beacon HIll Library, I almost always see someone I know, and it gives me a moment to keep up that relationship. I love picking my son up at Beacon Hill International School every day because I see my neighbors and their kids. We may only spend 5 or ten minutes chatting, but over the course of a year, that time can really add up. Convenience actually matters.

    As for the quantity of new retail, I share Freddie’s opinion that we can’t support a mile of new boutiques and places to eat. But we can support some new businesses, and if they have a unique Beacon Hill quality, it just might attract visitors.

    I think the number one catalyst to attract visitors to the Town Center would be a Farmer’s Market. If there were a performing arts space with a various and full schedule, people would come, and then leave. Jefferson Park will be a third (but possibly the first) thing to draw visitors to BH, why not give visitors a reason to take there time and stay for lunch as they walk between the Light Rail Station and the Park?

    Do we need to up zone for that? I doubt it. Could BH benefit from up-zoning in the Town Center? Maybe. I think Freddie needs to be convinced, and she’s not alone.

    Thanks everyone. I look forward to reading more comments.

    David Gackenbach

  22. No one is asking for a mile of new businesses. We just want more than we have now. I disagree strongly that we should say “Oh, SoDo and Rainier and the ID have retail, so we don’t need any here.” A healthy neighborhood has a variety of walkable services and retail, and I honestly don’t believe there are exceptions to this. Neighborhoods that don’t have this end up being car-focused and less livable. Maybe we don’t need a hardware store, but it is stupid to have to take a car or a bus to get a simple slice of pizza.

    We do have a variety of walkable services up here, but we are short on some of the more retail aspects. Most of us can walk to the doctor, dentist, hair salon, etc. But we would still like to see more neighborhood amenities (particularly in the evening) like brewpubs, pizza restaurants, breakfast food, etc. There is no reason whatsoever that Beacon Hill cannot support this now. Plenty of other neighborhoods with similar characteristics do.

  23. For a lot of people in Seattle, density=bad. What people don’t realize is that density does not mean high crime inner city. look at Vancouver, for instance, a city 2 times as dense as Seattle, and the same crime rate. Those who fear density should look at these facts.

    Areas in Washington state with highest crime rates: Centralia and Yakima (not too dense, by the way)
    Densest neighborhoods in Seattle:Capitol Hill, U-District, Downtown Seattle – not the areas with the high crime rates.

    Seattle is going to experience more growth, and it makes sense to concentrate that growth around light rail stations.

    You don’t need to fear density, just badly done dense communities, those communities that have things like bad transit access and low walk ability.

    Heightened density in north Beacon Hill will help the neighborhood, not hurt it.

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