There’s an oft stated canard repeated by a mix of anti-growth advocates and single family home owners that says “we’ve got more than enough zoning in Seattle!” It’s another way of saying, “we’re just fine, thanks!” when it comes to density. The facts point in the other direction. Unfortunately the narrative spun by Seattle Times reporter Lynn Thompson would have you believe that the loudest voices against density aren’t against density at all. She quotes the leader of the group opposing upzones on key properties in Roosevelt:
“We sang the song,” said Jim O’Halloran, former president of the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association. “‘Bring the train. We want to make your train the center of our urban village.'”
“Up to a point,” Thompson swoons. The point up to which O’Halloran wants to allow redevelopment on vacant properties isn’t anywhere near what’s needed in Roosevelt to support the more people living and working in the neighborhood.
O’Halloran’s spin works, up to a point; the point where it disintegrates into crypto anti-growth rhetoric parroted by the Seattle Times. There are three reasons why it’s easy to see the NIMBY in O’Halloran’s supposed magnanimity toward growth.
First, the argument depends on the idea that growth is an impact that has to be absorbed. That’s false. All those people, all that traffic, all that height bulk and scale are going to increase the value of property in Roosevelt. The upzone doesn’t just help the property owner who is going to develop, but it also helps all the people living around the new development, especially single-family homeowners. Current homeowners and renters benefit from coming businesses and amenities. Growth isn’t an impact at all, and O’Halloran and his friends will all cry themselves to the bank when the rezones go through and they get a thriving, dense, awesome neighborhood.
Second, O’Halloran believes that it’s his right to decide how much growth to “take.” He and his committee feel that it’s democratic that people who are got to the Roosevelt neighborhood first should determine how many people should come after. It’s a form of reverse red lining based on who lives in Roosevelt now. “We got here first,” O’Halloran is saying, “we decide how many come after us!” That’s a bad way of doing business. Imagine if the first pioneers to the Northwest could slam the door behind them. Seattle wouldn’t exist. None of us would be here. New business, ideas, and jobs come when more people arrive. They have to live somewhere, and Roosevelt is a great place for them to live.
Lastly, O’Halloran and his allies like to say that upzones aren’t necessary. I wrote a post at Sightline a year ago tackling the concept that we “have enough zoning.” It’s a stubborn argument because it uses numbers, and often numbers can be confused with the truth. The fact that Seattle has a lot scattered parcels of land zoned at 65 feet doesn’t mean we can accommodate coming growth. Part of the reason that the market is driving more development in Roosevelt is because people have successfully fought it elsewhere. All those people that could have lived at Waldo Woods, the Goodwill site, and Pioneer Square are going to have to go somewhere. They should go to Roosevelt not Maple Valley. Jim O’Halloran is willing to allow them to come—up to the point it makes him uncomfortable.
The problem with Thompson’s take is that she got spun on the old Lesser Seattle meme: growth is an impact on people here now. Sure, we’re nice people and we’re willing to accommodate these new folks—up to a point. The good news is that Jim O’Halloran doesn’t get to decide. We all do, through our representatives on the City Council. They’ve been spotty on this kind of thing before, but perhaps wisdom and the broader view will prevail, and O’Halloran and his group will get their voices heard—up to a point; the point when the interests of the few people here now get trumped by the many more yet to come.