The effect of the upzone to urban villages that HALA proposes is clear as we have already seen it happen in Ballard. Older homes and apartments will be shredded and displace thousands, driving out current residents and turning neighborhoods into unlivable construction zones as the transformation takes place. Further, all the new people that move in will swamp our already overloaded transportation systems and schools, driving up property taxes as we try to catch up and further damaging housing affordability and livability in our city. Do we really need to destroy Wallingford in order to save it, as Rick argued?
The main argument in favor of HALA is that the “do nothing” vision is similarly ugly. Doing nothing amounts to driving up rents ever more and replacing older single family homes with lot-maximizing modern boxes that sell for millions. Being able to buy a single family home in Seattle is already the exclusive privilege of the upper classes. Seattle as a whole is becoming an unaffordable place for teachers and police officers to move to, even as renters. Even if you disagree with the cure, the disease HALA is trying to address is real.
So what key goals is HALA ignoring? It’s ignoring the goal of preserving older housing and business districts. It ignores the need to create more urban villages and to convert car-centric neighborhoods into ones that are built for walking and transit. It ignores the goals of funding transportation, schools, and infrastructure. There is a pathway to fix HALA and provide for all these goals, but it requires a dramatic change of course.
To begin with, HALA needs to look to create new urban villages on cemeteries and golf courses. A key advantage of building new urban villages rather than upzoning existing ones is that they can have new infrastructure designed and built using developer impact fees. Seattle government officials repeatedly say that developer impact fees are too difficult to impose as part of redevelopment of existing land, but the same is not true for an entirely new community. Developer impact fees are being used in new communities all around Seattle to fund infrastructure. In a master planned community, new transit, schools, and parks can be part of the urban village plan that is funded by developers, not after thoughts for which there is no land or funding available.
A map of Seattle shows several undeveloped locations that are clear candidates to become new urban villages. The dead people in Washelli Cemetery are not going to protest if their land is displaced by a new urban village. Private, invitation-only country clubs and golf courses like the Seattle Golf Club, Broadmoor, and the Sand Point Country Club are luxuries of the ultra-rich that can be rezoned and taxed to encourage redevelopment. Public golf courses like the Jackson Park Golf Course, Interbay Golf Center and Jefferson Park Golf Course are located on or near light rail lines. Each of these large areas could be redeveloped as new communities with space for an urban village, schools, and transit. The impacts of redeveloping these areas will be far less than what is involved with shredding an existing urban center, and the end result will be entirely new neighborhoods where people can walk to groceries, restaurants, transit, and schools.
Second, HALA proposals to encourage more housing units on existing properties (ADUs and DADUs) need to be extended to encourage the preservation of existing housing. The program should create financing and provide contractor assistance in exchange for the insertion of affordable housing units alongside older homes. Current plans provide no incentive to preserve existing housing, encouraging the destruction and waste involved in tearing down older homes to put up new ones that invariably have higher occupancy costs. If HALA was done right, single family neighborhoods throughout the city should see more affordable homes alongside older housing instead of giant new boxes displacing older homes.
Finally, upzones in older neighborhoods should be allowed if neighbors agree to it. If the adjacent neighbors of a residence agree to that location being upzoned or subdivided, then why not let that take place? As a homeowner or renter in a property, if your choice is between the lot next to you becoming a giant new modern box or giant new condos plus you also get $10,000, perhaps you’ll be happy with the condos. In this way, when the economics for an upzone make sense and the neighbors are in favor, more housing can happen.
In the end, developing under-utilized open space makes a lot more sense than going down the path HALA currently proposes. Instead of displacing thousands from existing housing, we’ll be displacing golf balls, dead people, and backyard grills. Instead of pretending that more people will have zero impact on schools and roads, we can have developers pay for new schools and transit solutions. Instead of envisioning a city divided into rich drivers in mansions untouched by HALA and everyone else crammed into apartment blocks without cars, we can envision a more unified city that preserves and builds on what has been best about Seattle- affordable, walkable neighborhoods that are built at a human scale and that are networked with transit.