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.
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