Let It Be: I Can Has Free Markets?

The big house, small lot debate has actually sparked some useful dialogue. We can often talk past one another on land use, mixing terminology, definitions, and quantitative data in a way that muddies things. And too often we don’t address the underlying and fundamental ideas that support what we’re saying.

Councilmember Richard Conlin and I engaged in a back and forth (it included others) via e-mail that was very illuminating even though the Council made it’s decision to shut down what they called a loophole allowing the construction of some big houses on small lots.

We sent volleys back and forth about whether the big houses were really an emergency, legal, and whether they really make a difference in the effort to make Seattle a dense, vibrant city. But something surfaced that I thought was important.

Me:

[me quoting Conlin]”The developer obtains them, and then profits by his arcane knowledge.”

Exactly. It’s called capitalism. Some might even say its financial reward for hard work. I call it innovation.

You all call it an emergency.

Conlin:

Capitalism requires regulatory constraints. See Exxon or the financial meltdown. Are you becoming a conservative libertarian?

At this point someone felt this was an ad hominem attack, as if being a conservative libertarian was the same thing as being called an idiot. Conlin felt the need to apologize.

Me:

And Richard, there’s no need to be so apologetic. You’ve laid open a critical fault line with your comment and a truly important aspect of the big house, little lot debate.

I think good government, not the absence of it, is the best [route] we can take to be truly free and prosperous. However, I don’t think we can regulate our way to recovery.

Our knee jerk response in this town to the idea of allowing the market to work things out is to call it “conservative” or “libertarian” or “trickle down.” We need to break out of our progressive language rut.

I appreciate your work on regulatory reform. It was all modest stuff, yet it faced stiff resistance. Part of that comes from fear of change, but part of it is an ideological bent we all have around here that makes us believe we can think and plan our way to making our city a better, more sustainable place.

I believe Keynes was right. But so was Hayek. There are times when intervention makes sense and other times not so much. Good government knows the difference. Good government sometimes gets out of the way and lets things happen.

Today, I think, Council depends too much on advice from Central Staff and planners at DPD. What do you really want to do? What is your big vision for the City? What would you like to see happen with land use in 5, 10, or 20 years? Can you lead us toward what we want rather than just fight against what we’re afraid of?

Don’t get me wrong, central staff are the smartest and most highly motivated people I’ve ever had the privilege to work with; but they are not visionaries, nor should they be. That’s your job. And you’re not doing it.

Please, give things like big houses on little lots a chance. Sometimes the best intervention is to just “let it be,” at least for awhile.

Conlin seemed responsive to the idea that the City Council should “lead us toward what we want rather than just fight against what we’re afraid of?”

Conlin:

Sounds like a good direction. I’m interested in reshaping the land use code so that it aims towards what we want and doesn’t primarily focus on what we want to prevent, but that is a long and challenging turning of the ship. One idea I have, taking off from the Living Building Ordinance and the Industrial Development District, is to create an Urban Experimental Zone, where people can propose things that would not meet the underlying zoning and get a waiver if they can demonstrate positive results. The other approach is to work through the City neighborhood by neighborhood, as we are doing in Yesler Terrace and will do in South Lake Union. That is easier in some ways, but does not get to the redirection. Anyway it would be interesting to explore alternative ways to get to the vision direction.

Conlin never responded to my response here that this sounds an awful lot like Zero Based Zoning, a process that skips the existing code, seeks out the best ideas that are safe and healthy, reviews them, and then lets them happen. Conlin seems to understand that in order for us to get where we need to be, we need experimentation. But what the Council can’t seem to live with is the unintended consequence. They seem to live in fear of being Dr. Frankenstein, that somehow they’ll create a monster they can’t stop.

Conlin also seems to confound innovation that includes using the existing rules in a different way with libertarianism, a world view that sends shivers down the spine of latte clutching liberals in Seattle. Let people in the marketplace shape the outcome rather than rules and guidelines. The market? My God, man. Are you one of those Libertarians? No, we can still be pro-market, backyard-chicken-hugging, latte-chugging, Prius-driving, hippies without being one of them. Sometimes that means we have to just relax and let it be!

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4 Responses to Let It Be: I Can Has Free Markets?

  1. You seem to think that what you want is only path to a vibrant, livable, sustainable city. And, you don’t like zoning regulations. But the main reason for them is so that people can invest in property and enjoy a particular mix of land and buildings. Owning a piece of property is so much more than having a place to live.
    And because people have different ideas about how they want to live, zoning has developed and made it possible for them to know what to expect in certain surroundings. Some choose the density of cities and high rises. Some prefer 160 acre ranches in Wyoming. That people who invest in a community which has homes with a certain amount of land around them shouldn’t surprise you nor should it offend you.
    Seattle is and has been vibrant and livable long before you showed up to share your ideas with us. Thanks for sharing. But I’m not sure that there are many who share in your wisdom.

  2. Pingback: Update: Conlin Likes the Idea of Zero Based Zoning | Seattle's Land Use Code

  3. Zoning is not there to reassure people of a static future. It is there to steer future growth, or future withering. Glenn, by keeping in city lot sizes the same our city’s future is less bright. Portland and Vancouver bc won’t be making the same mistake we seem to be.

  4. Pingback: Seattle is Ahead of San Francisco on Apodments | Seattle's Land Use Code

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