I keep thinking I have left the most controversial designation in the code behind me. Neighborhood commercial with its battles against Heightbulkenscale seemed like the most challenging politically. Then downtown comes along and makes that look like a cake walk.
But here comes industrial, probably as controversial and, in my mind, one of the best examples of the Seattle approach to land use: worry about what might happen rather than plan for what we want. Industrial land has defenders that are as staunch, unbending, and emotional as single family defenders. What happens in and near industrial zones has been fought over as much if not more as any effort to change the margins of single family neighborhoods with mixed use development. Much of it revolves around anxieties about jobs and class.
For the defenders of industrial lands the argument is jobs, economic development, and class. But not just any jobs. The argument goes that the industrial land use base provides good living wage jobs to workers whose earning potential would otherwise be limited. People without high school diplomas, jail time, and workers with limited skills can get the training they need to get jobs that start at $20 per hour. Additionally, the businesses in the industrial area provide some huge part of the economic development potential of the city and the region.
For the industrial land defenders the businesses there and the jobs they provide are no less important to building the middle class of the city than single family home ownership. To liquidate the industrial lands and turn them into high yield mixed use or commercial development might seem like a good idea, but it would doom the city, the region and the whole state to economic ruin. What Councilmember wants to be responsible for “losing the industrial area?”
And here’s the big problem. What happens right next to the industrial lands is just as important to what happens in industrial lands. See, when a big hotel or mixed use development is permitted adjacent to industrial lands those people complain about the noise, smells, and truck traffic coming from the industrial lands. And all the traffic and pedestrians make it hard for the big trucks to turn, slowing them down to the point that it damages business.
When that happens the adjacent industrial land owner has no choice but to ask for a rezone. After all, if the guy next door can build a hotel or a condo or a artist loft then the industrial land owner whose business is being damaged should be able to do the same thing. This is what they call “the erosion of the industrial land base.” And remember this isn’t just about land use, it’s about jobs for hardworking young families trying to make it into the middle class.
When real estate is hot, the industrial preservationists argue, then everyone wants to turn the industrial areas into a mixed use Disneyland, with hotels, condos and all kinds of uses that are sexy. When times get tough, the industrial base provides solid old fashioned jobs making things that people can actually buy and use rather than speculative and imaginary things like stock and the internets.
Therefore we have to preserve the industrial lands at all costs. Not one inch should be rezoned or upzoned to support speculative commercial or residential development. Upzones are a step back for the workers who’ll end up working for minimum wage at a Wal Mart rather than driving a truck for $30 an hour if the land use changes. And once those industrial businesses are lost to the Kent Valley, or Kelso, or Long Beach they won’t come back and Seattle will have nothing but a bunch of minimum wage service jobs without union representation. When the real estate market tanks the former industrial area will be a ghost town of empty mixed use buildings.
Oh, and we need the tunnel for the same reasons. And, by the way, bike paths through industrial areas don’t make sense and are also job killers.
Now some folks will say everything I have written is a caricature of the industrial lands preservationists arguments. Maybe. But after listening to these arguments for the last 16 years I think I have them down pat. That’s what I have heard said over and over again.
Here’s my take. I worked in the industrial area as a neighborhood activist and city employee for about 6 years during some of the most heated battles that went on between the preservationists and other interests trying to change the status quo at that time.
- Jobs–I doubt this one. I think anecdotally it is certainly true that many of the jobs in the Duwamish provide unique opportunities. But I think the preservationists do themselves no favors by hyperbolizing the likely outcome of modest or even drastic changes to zoning at the edges of the industrial area. Yes, go ahead and flood me with the studies and the data. That’s not the point. The point is that how hearty are these mighty industrial businesses if a 15 minute delay caused by a family in a minivan going to Costco is going to put them out of business. I know, it’s cumulative. But it just isn’t believable.
- Freight mobility–Here I am totally on board, notwithstanding what I said about the minivan. Mobility should be a pyramid with pedestrians at the top, followed by bikes, then transit, then freight, then the minivan. I think Costco should be in Laurelhurst or Magnolia, not in the Duwamish. I would tend to agree that putting uses that require lots of car trips smack in the middle of trucks and trains makes no sense. And such uses end up generating car trips that, if the use was somewhere else, might not be necessary.
- Eroding base–I think this one is true as well. I remember stories told by people who were managing businesses that had been in the family for generations. But the businesses wasn’t going anywhere. Two blocks away, stadia were going in. The land these folks owned wasn’t generating what it could if it was office, hotel, or commercial. The demand for these uses was there and could result in higher and better use. Often the land was contaminated and the only way to pay for clean up and reuse of the property was to go for a use that really generated lots of return, like retail or commercial use. I think the pressure on land owners from nearby change is real.
- The tunnel–This one makes zero sense to me. Again, someone can flood me with data but there are plenty of other studies that would show something different. I just don’t know what freight traffic would be devastated by the surface option. Is there some huge manufacturing operation in Magnolia I don’t know about?
The bottom line on all this, in my opinion, is that we do need some manufacturing and industrial land use both to preserve existing jobs and industry and also to attract and accommodate new businesses. But I also believe it when I hear that manufacturing and industrial businesses are changing. I wrote about something called 3D printing which seems very promising for certain kinds of manufacturing. Here’s a video showing a built and working airplane turbo prop manufactured using 3D printing:
Can we print our way out of land use questions in the industrial areas of our city? Of course not. But industry is cleaner, quieter, and more sustainable than it was 100 years ago. Sure, there are some uses that are loud and noisy and nobody wants to live next to them or on top of them. But I’d live on near this VW factory in Dresden:
It’s time to start mixing up uses, even industrial uses. It can be done even in Seattle. But we have to stop listening to the hyperbole and start planning for what we want not what we’re afraid of. We can have it all: industrial jobs, housing, and commercial uses all on the same block.
Stay tuned for Chapter 23.50 Industrial Zoning.