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Originally published June 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 18, 2008 at 9:57 AM

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Seattle's housing growth is off the charts

It should come as a surprise to no one that Seattle is growing fast. But this fast? In just over three years, Seattle already is halfway...

Seattle Times staff reporter

It should come as a surprise to no one that Seattle is growing fast.

But this fast?

In just over three years, Seattle already is halfway to reaching its targeted housing growth for 20 years.

And a few sections of town — Ballard, Eastlake, the Central Area, Greenlake, Lower Queen Anne and downtown — already have exceeded their 20-year targets.

The numbers, included within a city report on residential growth, provide fodder for those who argue that runaway growth has sacrificed Seattle's quality of life.

They plan to use the report to oppose a proposal at City Hall that would expand tax exemptions for developers who build condos and apartments in areas targeted for significant growth. To get the tax breaks, some of the units must be priced below market rate.

The City Council's Housing and Economic Development Committee is to consider that proposal today.

"There's been so much focus on Seattle absorbing its fair share of growth to stop suburban sprawl," Councilmember Nick Licata said. "Well, we have to pat ourselves on the back. We are more than meeting our responsibility.

"Now's the time for us to step back and ask ourselves if we are accompanying that growth with improvements to our public services, cultural amenities and open spaces. And I would say the answer to that question is no."

Alan Justad, spokesman for the Department of Planning and Development that created the report, cautioned that the 2024 targets are minimum projections and should not be interpreted as prescribed limits on residential growth.

He said the numbers are neither terribly alarming nor particularly surprising.

"A target is a planning tool to help us decide how to invest to accommodate growth," Justad said. "We expected high and low cycles during this 20 years. We've just been through a very high construction spike — very high. It's quite possible that cycle is changing right now."

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Between January 2005 and March 2008, Seattle experienced a net gain of more than 10,600 housing units, with an additional 13,000 or so in progress. That's 50 percent of the city's 2024 target of 47,000 additional units.

Among the city's 38 urban villages (neighborhood centers targeted for high-density growth), Ballard wins the prize as being the farthest above its 20-year target.

Since 2005, Ballard has added 287 units, with a whopping 1,452 more permitted, many almost ready for occupancy. Combined, that's 174 percent of Ballard's target of adding 1,000 housing units.

"On some level, I'm surprised the numbers are that low," said Catherine Weatbrook, who works on planning issues for the Ballard District Council, a neighborhood group. "I mean, all you have to do is just look around."

She said services to accommodate Ballard's rapid growth are not keeping pace. For example, buses that service Ballard are standing-room-only during rush hour, sometimes so packed they don't even stop to pick up waiting passengers.

"The demand for services is not going down and we don't seem to have the structure in place to respond," she said. "Growth is going to happen. We can plan for it — or we can have chaos."

Jim Jacobson, Metro's deputy general manager, said Metro constantly adjusts its service to meet demand, but that Ballard is only one of several rapidly growing areas wanting more buses. Metro is adding some service to Ballard this fall, he said, "but are we adding as much as people would like? Probably not," he said.

To contain suburban sprawl, the state's Growth Management Act required counties to set growth targets. In King County, Seattle is responsible for absorbing a large percentage of that growth. As part of its planning process, the city apportioned its share among its urban villages.

The targets are to be revised in 2011.

Other parts of King County growing faster than anticipated include downtown Bellevue, downtown Renton, Covington and Maple Valley, while some areas of Southwest King County are behind targeted levels, said Paul Reitenbach, senior policy analyst for King County's Department of Development and Environmental Services.

"It's not unusual to exceed targets where demand for housing really spikes," he said. "To me, it's a healthy thing. I'd rather be on the upper edge with far more growth than lagging behind, which is a sign of a struggling economy."

In Seattle, Eastlake already is at 158 percent of its residential growth target, second only to Ballard.

"While some Eastlake residents might mourn the change of their neighborhood, others appreciate the urban vitality they see growing up around them," said Matthew Stubbs, president of the Eastlake Community Council. "I would not say there is a universal cry to halt development, but there are some common desires for our neighborhood that I hear repeatedly.

"We want to ensure that our voices are heard in the development process. We want our infrastructure to keep pace with our growth. We need access to our neighborhood schools, reliable mass transportation, well-maintained open space and community gathering places. These needs become more critical as each new development opens its doors."

Other parts of town are falling shy of target, such as Rainier Beach, where only 41 additional housing units have been built or permitted since January 2005. That's just 7 percent of its target of 600.

One area where the city is promoting significant growth — Northgate — is at 30 percent of its target of 2,500 additional units. South Lake Union, which was targeted for the most growth at 8,000 new units, is at 19 percent.

The residential-growth report was highlighted in a recent Seattle Displacement Coalition news release that calls for opposing Mayor Greg Nickels' proposal to expand tax exemptions for developers.

The coalition opposes development that jeopardizes low-income housing.

"These numbers ought to dispel the myth that Seattle isn't taking its fair share of responsibility for growth, which is something the mayor uses to justify upzones and other perks for developers and builders," the coalition's John Fox said. "This reinforces people's suspicions that we're accommodating special interests at City Hall."

Nickels' proposal would make the tax incentive available to developers who build housing geared toward people earning just shy of median income — such as rookie cops and firefighters, teachers and hospital workers. It would spread the program across the city, including to areas that have surpassed their 20-year growth targets, such as Ballard, Eastlake, parts of the Central Area, Greenlake and Lower Queen Anne.

"Meeting the growth target doesn't mean an area is at capacity," said Alex Fryer, Nickels' spokesman. "Ballard has more capacity. Growth is going to come there anyway. The mayor just wants to make sure that the new units are affordable for people like school teachers and firefighters."

But Licata said priorities should focus on providing services to areas that already have grown.

"This is an example of some developers latching onto a public subsidy scheme without comparable public benefits," he said. "Just stuffing more people into the city without making investments in infrastructure is irresponsible."

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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