Industrial Zoning: Not In My Smokestack

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.

Photo of railroad tracks in Seattle: jppi from

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9 Responses to Industrial Zoning: Not In My Smokestack

  1. It’s sort of funny that you talk about this because I was just thinking about this exact topic last night. We already have residential near Georgetown and highly underutilised industrial lands throughout the district. How do we mix up some of the places to help preserve industrial uses, but get local density and live-work/studio development. The college campus down there could really offer an innovative link in all this too. The area has plenty of potential. I don’t by the preservationist attitude that residential and limited retail uses in the area would damage the viability of the area so long as we have extremely prescriptive regulations in place to say that development MUST have X amount of industrial development, X amount of retail, X amount residential. With policies in place, the land value fluctuations could be minimised, create diverse spaces, and better utilise the area, which presently is half vacant.

  2. Mark S Johnson says:

    The issue regarding mixing up uses is that indistrial uses do not generate the same rate of return as retail or office uses. Like it or not, industrial zoning, like shoreline regulations, are protectionist regualtions favoring some businesses over others. A retail store can go just about anywhere- a boatyard or freight terminal cannot. It is not just about the nuisances (although those are real issues), but really about having enough land to have a healthy manufacturing and shipping base. It is about maintaining a diverse economic base. Speculation a few years back that the City would allow rezones of industrial land in SODO drove prices up far faster than the superhot residential market, with the idea that office buildings could replace those “ineffciently used” industrial properties located so close to downtown, i.e where rail, highway, and marine shipping terminals meet.

    I won’t argue that no industrial land should be rezoned, but looking at the big picture, the City should only consider rezoning industrial land outside of the manifacturing and industrial centers, and should try to ensure that the new uses that will flood into the cheap land are compatible with continued industrial uses nearby.

    • I would hardly say industrial land is cheap, it’s far more valuable than residential. But as compared to commercial industrial, retail, and offices, sure. I don’t think most comprehensive planners would advocate for wholesale replacement or forcing out manufacturing. But there is simply no question that there is severe underutilisation within the industrial district, and it’s not simply because of land values being too high. I don’t buy that argument at all. It’s not true. Mixing is possible and can be mutually beneficial if approached right. I’ve seen plenty of examples in Europe firsthand. In fact, if anything, mixed development oriented to the industrial nature could spur additional investment in industrial development.

  3. Mark S Johnson says:

    @ Stephen Fesler- Comparing industrial versus single family land, you may find that industrial land is a bit more expensive, but no one is suggesting that ind of rezone. Land zoned for multifamily and office development tends to be higher than industrial land, simply because the returns are higher. Big box retail returns more per square foot than your average machine shop. In fact, if multifamily residential and commercially zoned land were cheaper than industrial land, there would not be a problem. These uses would not be seeking to move into industrial areas.
    I have nothing against mixing appropriate industrial uses into land that is zoned for mixed use, but why invite incompatible uses into an industrial area? There are industrial uses that don’t mix well with office and residential uses – e.g. cement manufacturing (dust and noise), ship repair (noise), shipping terminals (lighting, noise, trucks)- and these need to have a place. The fact that it is possible to build highrises on the waterfront doesn’t make the waterfront underutilized. Similarly, there are social values that are better served by limiting the use of industrial land so that rents remain reaonable and other uses don’t crowd out this part of our economic base.

  4. Matt the Engineer says:

    This actually exists, right here in Seattle. Check out McKinstry – a design/build mechanical firm. I’m sure they only get away with this because they also manufacture ductwork and assemble mechanical equipment on-site, but they have their corporate offices in the middle of an industrial area. Of course this just means everyone has to drive or take taxis to get to meetings downtown and probably even go to lunch, but I’m sure it was much cheaper to build an office there.

    Another example is Seattle Steam. They’re boxed in by high-value real estate, so when they rebuilt their plant on Western (to convert to biomass!) they built up.

    I think one simple fix would be requiring a fixed amount of industrial use volume. Want to build a 12 story office in SoDo? Then show that you’ll have the physical volume (cubic feet) of industrial space that exists now (or even better – has ever existed, to keep developers from closing down industrial plants before applying). You’ll end up with, say, a 4-story cardboard assembly plant on half a lot with offices on the other half – and potentially on top of the plant as well.

  5. Josh Mahar says:

    Every time I bike through SODO I think, “Man, I wish my neighborhood was this flat!”

    But seriously, it’s simple economics.
    – Industrial jobs tend to require less inter-business mingling. Yes they need regular parts shipments but still far less than the many trips of many different employees in say a financial firm or legal office. Center city clustering is far more valuable to office firms.
    – Transport costs have dramatically fallen in the last century. Being near a rail, sea, or air port can easily be forgone as long as accessibility remains. (Which the tunnel does not help at all)
    – Industrial is much less flexible in substituting capital for land (building up), so they simply can’t compete with other desired uses.
    – Middle class jobs means drawing less from the city and more from the suburbs. Locating nearer these places means lower transit costs for workers which means slightly lower wages (lower labor costs).

    By these assumptions the free market would dictate that industry will indeed locate in the suburbs and I’m not sure why that is a problem? The idea that Seattle is somehow competing with Kent is ridiculous, we’re the same metropolitan area! Allowing businesses to locate where they want should lead to the most efficient use of space.

    (Caveat: This assumes businesses moving between urban areas, not to resource/natural lands which come with a host of externalities that would need to be accounted for)

  6. Josh Mahar says:

    I should also mention, I am all for fostering smaller, start-up type industrial jobs in the city. If a firm is trying to develop a product they can greatly benefit by being around a diverse mix of other firms and businesses and having access to a large knowledge pool.

  7. Pingback: Chapter 23.50: Industrial Zoning | Seattle's Land Use Code

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