Roosevelt: An E-mail to the City Neighborhood Council

What follows is my response to a forwarded e-mail by my friend (I hope he still is) Tony Provine who sits on the City Neighborhood Council. The City Council today will pass the rezones that have been much ballyhooed, and tonight the CNC will meet with this topic on their agenda. 

I felt that even though I happen to get the e-mail third hand, that the CNC deserved something to counter the comments of Jon V. Fox. Now you might be surprised to know that I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Fox. He’s consistent and not afraid to follow the logic of some of his opinions. I think he’s wrong, but at least he’s honest. 

Hello Tony,

It’s been too long. I hope all is well with you. It seems like a decade since the Friends of SPL days.

I notice that you forwarded a letter from Jon V. Fox on to the CNC. I thought I might share some thoughts with you on that message.

There are a myriad of problems with it.

First, Richard Conlin and the Council have been incremental with big up zones. I can imagine when one has the perspective, as does Fox, that we ought to literally close the door to further growth, any up zone seems like a give away. Again and again, the Council has in fact been largely influenced by calls for less height, bulk, and scale, and more affordable housing. Your voices are being heard.

Second, when it comes to affordable housing, Fox is living in an alternative universe of sorts. True, if the City of Seattle mandated no more growth, that is no more new people moving into the city and further mandated a “unit” of housing for every person living here, affordability might not be an issue. But that isn’t the world we live in.

As more people move into the city they are looking for a variety of options for housing, and today especially, they are looking for rental housing and apartments. Because of the downturn in the housing market and the recession many potential home buyers are avoiding mortgages and staying in the rental market. Fox says:

Under existing zoning, the entire Roosevelt neighborhood is currently zoned for six times the capacity needed to accommodate its 20-year 2024 residential-growth targets, and it has reached 64 percent of that target in just seven years.

Even if we accept that is true, there is no better way to assure affordable housing than to overbuild. Fox is caught in a logic loop: there is no affordable housing, therefore we shouldn’t build anymore.

That doesn’t make any sense. If it were true that the Council secretly wanted to up zone Roosevelt to 10,000 feet and an FAR of 1 million, developers will only build what they think will produce a return on their investment. To talk about overbuilding at this point is counter to the main argument that Fox always makes about housing, that there isn’t enough of it and it is too expensive. If there was more housing–more than we had people who wanted it–then the price would certainly fall. Increased housing supply may not be sufficient to lower price, but certainly is necessary.

I realize that neighbors in Roosevelt legitimately hate Hugh Sisley. But we can’t afford to build our land use policy around the desire to spite one man anymore than we should hand him a golden ticket. Sisley will make money, that’s for sure, but the construction of new housing on the site will eliminate the blight and open the neighborhood to new families and customers for local businesses. This is progress, and years from now nobody will remember this zoning fight, they’ll just know when they get off light rail in Roosevelt there is a “there, there.”

Fox surfaces “quasi-judicial” rezones in his missive. This is a canard. The developers, RDG, were, in fact, seeking a contract rezone which does require that nobody talk to or attempt to influence the outcome. But that effort was scrapped in favor of a legislative rezone a process open to influence by everyone, including the neighborhood.

Now some of your number on the CNC are former colleagues of mine from neighborhood planning days when I was both a citizen planner and a city employee paid to make those plans happen. Perhaps I am a “pro-density” zealot. But even people who are in favor of density live in neighborhoods. Everyone, including Conlin and Fox, keep talking about “polarization.” I don’t know what they’re talking about. Where I come from it’s called “debate.”

But the debate shouldn’t be about who can and who can’t weigh in on density in neighborhoods. Light rail is bringing us together in a way that makes the old distinctions about who should have a voice about zoning and density break down. We’re all part of this city and region. Sure, we disagree. I think Fox has a very consistent position. He is explicitly anti-growth. I don’t have a problem with him holding that view.

However, as a person who lives in a neighborhood myself, I find it unfortunate that disagreement calls into question one’s legitimacy as a person who believes in livable neighborhoods. That kind of thing, questioning one’s bona fides as a neighborhood person, is polarizing. And I hope you and the CNC won’t indulge in it.

Debate on this issues based on our competing visions for the city is a good thing. Sometimes we win, and sometimes, unfortunately, we lose. I don’t see Roosevelt as a massive victory for our side. I also think RDG made terrible mistakes by not knowing who Sisley was and not talking with the neighborhood early enough. I’ve expressed my irritation with developers directly about their frequent lack of planning and consideration of local history and sensibilities when they buy and develop a property. But we’re all in this together, and we have to talk and argue our way through this as best we can.

Fox and I agree on one thing, the Council has to change. I think we might all agree that the nine Councilmembers are pretty disconnected, and, as I often say, seem to hold the views of the last person they talked to. I’ve suggested elsewhere a bigger council with small districts distributed geographically across the city. We could call them boroughs rather than districts, but I think that we’d get better results on land use and on issues related to growth than we currently do with our at large system.

Thanks for your ongoing work for the community, city, and your neighborhood.

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3 Responses to Roosevelt: An E-mail to the City Neighborhood Council

  1. Hello ,
    Interesting Thoughts, There is 1 original oil painting of General Macarthur and then there is another one of President Roosevelt. They were painted by a soldier artist at Fort Meade on army tent canvas. He signed his name, J. Vogelman and the date is March 1943. I can e-mail pics if anyone might have a clue of how much they may be worth.

  2. Tony Provine says:


    I am not sure if you will ever really get it when it comes to the Roosevelt Rezone. This is not a density issue. Roosevelt has been more than ready to increase density beyond what the Mayor, DPD, or the City Council desired. It is about the neighborhood (and by that I mean in addition to the actual defined neighborhood, the neighborhood planning group that was expanded to include nearby neighbors and interest groups along with everyone else from the community) and its desire to have some meaningful role and voice in deciding what form the future “Roosevelt” will take. To preserve what was most important about Roosevelt, the entire community identified the landmark high school and believed that restricting heights on the 3 blocks near the high school was critical to maintaining the prominence of the high school and preserving the heart and soul of the neighborhood. None of this was about Sisley. Over the years the City has failed to remedy the blighted properties that he owns. Now it appears that the City sees an easy out for themselves if they can make developing those properties more attractive to RDG by raising the height limits there.

    No, John Fox is right. If it comes to placating developers or respecting the will of the people, our elected leaders usually side with the developers. And Conlin is right when he says that the City was wrong in how the planning process was conducted. But he is wrong to say that neighborhood residents let their emotions and their feelings about Sisley interfere with their ability to be rational about planning and design. I’d say it was the Mayor and Council members who gave more weight to Sisley and his arrangement with the developer than was appropriate and that their judgment was clouded by interests and emotions regarding this arrangement instead of by principles and procedure. You are wrong to think that in a few years no one will remember this rezone and that shiny new buildings where blighted ones once existed will be happily accepted despite being out of scale with the high school.

    Also, I don’t understand your desire for livable neighborhoods yet your willingness to disregard the people who actually live there. So who are they livable for? It is always a balancing act to maintain the heritage and character of a neighborhood while planning for a major increase in density. The neighborhood’s plan did exactly that but opponents seemed to say that those who live there presently should bow to what others believe are best for them. I can’t imagine that any resident would want to be so disenfranchised in their own neighborhood. The polarization to which you refer comes from this disregard of the people who actually live where others want to see radical change. Note that I said radical, not progressive, as the changes which the Roosevelt community proposed were really a progressive and comprehensive package.

    Lastly, I agree there is growing impatience with the manner in which our City Council operates. There are any number of alternatives that may make those individuals more accountable and representative of the citizens of this City.

    Best regards,
    Tony Provine

  3. Pingback: News Roundup: Snow News Week - Seattle Transit Blog

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