Seattle Land Use Liberalization Bill Fails to Address Key Problems

Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism asked me what I thought of proposed legislation in Seattle that would remove some restrictions on land use and real estate development in parts of the city. Smith points to this summary of the zoning changes that would affect a mere 8 percent of the city, which include: a five-foot increase in the maximum building height restriction, determining building size by floor area ratio rather than building footprint, and eliminating minimum parking requirements.

While I’m all in favor of removing restrictions on the types of structures developers are permitted to build and regulations that limit what owners can do to their real property, this plan will likely augment some of Seattle’s nastier restrictive land-use regulations, particularly those that seek to ratchet up density and promote “transit-oriented” development (i.e., anti-car development) by government fiat.

Nearly two decades ago, King County, Washington, enacted an urban growth boundary. Just like Portland, Seattle’s growth management plan has led to higher housing prices, which has significantly harmed the poor, particularly lower-income minority households. Some have questioned this conclusion because Seattle housing prices didn’t start drastically increasing until a decade after the growth management plan came into being. Of course, it was enacted in the aftermath of the ’80s real estate bubble. Also, the most recent real estate bubble in the United States didn’t really inflate until the 2000s (see charts: Seattle, U.S. index) and strict land-use regulations (particularly growth management plans) drive real estate prices up, making bubbles worse. Compare Houston with Portland, for instance.

Furthermore, Seattle’s officials have bent over backwards in recent decades to make driving as inconvenient as possible through aggressive traffic calming measures and through their pro-congestion Green Streets program. Personal auto ownership can perhaps do more than anything else to increase employment opportunities and wages among lower-skilled, lower-income minorities. More Seattle residents may be carless, but they’re also wealthier and whiter, with more lower-income minorities being pushed to the auto-centric suburbs. I’m certainly no opponent of gentrification per se, but why should land-use regulations be manipulated to benefit wealthy, white liberals? Does this demographic really need government assistance?

I agree with Smith that the zoning changes in Seattle, if enacted, would probably be net positive. Unfortunately, the bill fails to address the real problems caused by the city and county’s land-use regimes, and it is unlikely the powers-that-be will turn to real reform anytime soon.

UPDATE: Welcome, Market Urbanism readers. Here’s my response to Stephen Smith’s response to my original response.

Image credit: jhf’s flickr photostream.