You’re Blocking My View — of the Future!

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In a crowded city having a view is an important and valuable thing; and things of value have a price. One of the charges being leveled at proposed changes in zoning in South Lake Union is that they would result in blocked views of the Space Needle and the lake. How should the City Council weigh the impact on views of new development on private property owners against the manifold public benefits of new development in South Lake Union?  Views are like parking spots, something of value that can be sold at a price when they are in demand, but not something government should require and subsidize so they’re “free.” View protection is really a subsidy of a private benefit at public expense.

In the middle of this debate is my former boss and longtime friend Peter Steinbrueck. I’ve known Peter long enough that we can disagree, I think, in public about these sorts of things. I don’t find it all that odd that he would oppose new development on the grounds that it doesn’t create enough affordable housing, however it gets defined. But views from private homes? That’s what makes his point of view a bit strange:

There are multiple negative impacts as a result of planning, or lack of it, that is driven more by property interests and development goals than a form of growth that respects the established neighborhood, respects the existing residents, and respect the neighborhood’s wider territorial views.

Steinbrueck admits that this is a battle of property owners over a thing of quantifiable value, views. One set of private property owners is outraged because another set of property owners is going to so something to change the value of their private property. View battles are usually about the financial interests of existing property owners. That’s why the law and the courts are not silent on view protection.

The State Court of Appeals found in Anderson v. Issaquah that, “the issue of whether a community can exert control over design issues based solely on accepted community aesthetic values is far from ‘settled,’” but they also concluded that, “aesthetic standards are an appropriate component of land use governance.” That’s why the City of Seattle has gone out of it’s way to legislate to protect views and views of the Space Needle specifically.

I’ve had some fun poking at Steinbrueck’s views on views on my Facebook page, pointing out that when compared to the benefits, the loss of my own view of the iconic remnant from the 1962 World’s Fair is a small price to pay. The World’s Fair was about the future, and the future of Seattle should be to play an active role in teaching the region and the world how to grow smart and sustainably. That view of the future is important.

Let’s see. I might lose my view but we’ll get more people moving into our city, we’ll increase housing supply which will actually put a downward pressure on price, we’ll prevent some sprawl, we’ll use energy more efficiently, we’ll create a bunch of jobs as well, we’ll generate a bunch of sales tax revenue, and we’ll make a 100 year decision in favor of more growth in our city.

Oh, and last but not least, we can help take a bite out of climate change.

That seems like an easy decision. Look at some buildings rather than the Space Needle and get a huge amount of civic benefit for the next several decades. From here, that sure looks like the right thing to do.

Take my view, please!

Views do help make a great city, but someone has to pay for them; like parking spots in the right of way, they aren’t free. When we distort our planning agenda and the free market to preserve private views (even private views from public places) we’re favoring the financial position of the few over the well being of the many. I have my qualms with the way we address problems of affordability in the city, but that, at base, can arguably be a social justice issue. People need shelter from the elements. But should we stop the future to save the views of some relatively well off people?

As Seattle grows the City Council has to make some tough decisions that will inconvenience those of use who are already here to make room for new people moving here in the future. Locking up valuable land that can produce lots of new housing in order to protect an existing view is short sighted; it’s like being against gay marriage because the lines will be too long at the licensing desk. Not liking new development at South Lake Union because it blocks views is a legitimate position. Legally and aesthetically views are something the Council can factor into their decision; but they shouldn’t.

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3 Responses to You’re Blocking My View — of the Future!

  1. Morgan says:

    The notion that we can rely on markets to distribute/allocate all types of resources (views, in this case) efficiently, effectively, and equitably is not well founded. I’m just writing this over coffee & breakfast, so I encourage folks to read about public goods. One of my favorite texts is 1-55963-312-3, by Daly & Farley. To stretch the point, air and water quality are about as pure a public good there is, and no one would leave allocation of pollution to a market, even a ‘free’ market. Similarly with open spaces, habitat, or noise.
    I’ve also been observing in this debate frequent invocation of the “free market”. This is unfortunate, because a free market doesn’t exist anymore than does a frictionless plane or that our governments are democracies. All markets are imperfect, and imperfections, such as laws, and barriers to entry, influence how ‘they’ function.
    I’m a bit saddened by my allies’ use of these two concepts/notions not because they’re inaccurate, this happens all the time as we learn our way through life. I’m mainly saddened, because the conservation right has been invoking the benefits of unfettered market allocation and citing free markets for years to boldly advocate for deregulation of everything, including urban sprawl and auto centric transportation. I really want us to advance the urban sustainability dialogue without relying on these faulty tools.

  2. MarkSJohnson says:

    As with air and water, what we regulate has to be defined. We have air and water quality parameters. We measure and model and ultimately regaulte along those parameters. There are some things we don’t measure and some that we do.

    The same should be true for aesthetics. Not unfettered marketplace, but not an undefined policy of “view protection” either. Are private residential views of the space needle the sort of parameter we want to base height regulations on? I don’t think so.

    That said, I think views are one of the things that offsets compromises that come with apartment living, as compared with suburban living, which is where the majority of Americans still live. That sense of openess that a view imparts is important to the value of an apartment and if we want to create successful dense places, we would do well to think about how to use our scenic resources as an asset to help accomplish the goal of encouraging living in dense neighborhoods. I don’t think the market would maximize that value all on its own. An unfettered market would produce a solid wall adjacent to the best views and the rest would get to look at the backside of the wall.

  3. Ralph M Holmes III says:

    Traditionally land owners have rights to the ground underneath their plots as well as limited rights to the air space directly above the property and property owners have legal standing to bring lawsuits against neighboring parcels for a number of reasons. Landowners have little if any standing to sue someone for blocking a scenic view if the building that is blocking it is miles away. While the ruling in Anderson v Issaquah does state “aesthetic standards are an appropriate component of land use governance.” it also very clearly states

    “While this court has not held that aesthetic factors alone will support an exercise of the police power, such considerations taken together with other factors can support such action.”

    This stance is supported by precedent set forth in Duckworth v Bonney Lake 91 Wn.2d 19. The term “aesthetics” used in these cases are used to describe the physical values of the particular building in question in the court cases. For the terms of buildings blocking scenic views from a parcel I do not believe that the same arguments put forth in the Anderson v Issaquah is applicable. The new buildings being proposed could be designed and constructed to the highest architectural standards and therefor quite ascetically pleasing to some people. In fact the new building could even be more “valuable” to the surrounding community than the view of the space needle. It is difficult to tell this now seeing as the only views of the proposed project are rough sketch-up renders. What is ascetically valuable are subjective this is the main reason the courts have ruled that ascetics alone are not reason enough to block the construction of a project.
    Now, there are numerous reasons for the planning department, zoning board and the general public to be concerned about the proposition to change the allowable building massing in this area. The city should have a more comprehensive list of incentives the rezone would guarantee. This way the community can choose between the values the required amenities any development in this area would offer and the value of a scenic view.

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