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The series: In this ongoing series, Pacific Northwest magazine explores the forces of change around us and its significance to our future as a community. Readers have been chiming in with their own opinions, suggestions, horror stories and even creative solutions.
Read other installments in the series.
To contribute your comments, e-mail or write to "The Big Squeeze," Pacific Northwest magazine, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.
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Cover Story
WRITTEN BY WILLIAM DIETRICH
PHOTOGRAPHED BY HARLEY SOLTES

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Changing Visions Part 1
The Congestion Question
Defining the future of our crowded communities

Information in this article, originally published December 8 was corrected December 20. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Los Angeles has twice the population density of Seattle and that Seattle's population per square mile is 3,000. L.A.'s density is actually just 17 percent greater: 7,877 per square mile in the 2000 census versus 6,717 in Seattle. The reporter erred in confusing Seattle data that included metropolitan area suburbs with data for the city itself.

What happened? The Seattle we thought we knew is disappearing. And a new city — also called "Seattle" but profoundly different in its mix of people, incomes and lifestyles — is taking its place.
 
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Bainbridge Island residents crowd onto loaded ferries to live in homes with a rural, open-space feel without having to commute long distances by car. Walk-on passengers flood off the 7:05 a.m. sailing onto the streets of downtown Seattle.
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This metamorphosis has been gathering momentum for some time. The office towers of the 1980s came first; the condominium towers of Belltown followed. Now apartments and trendy shops are popping up with more condominiums and creating new "urban villages" in what were once cohesive neighborhoods full of families in their own houses.

Call it Boston West. San Francisco North. Vancouver South. And something undetermined, frightening, promising and uniquely Seattle as well.

The shift recalls the brave promise of the pioneers who splashed ashore on Alki Point and pledged, "New York, by and by." After 40 years of relatively static population, Seattle is starting to get there.

Kicking and screaming, of course. Our transportation quagmire is only hastening the transition as commuters, sick of traffic, are starting to choose city over suburb.

Your life, or that of your children, is going to change with this metamorphosis. Increasingly, we'll live closer, faster, hipper, more exciting and more disturbing lives. More rich, more poor. More culture, more angst.
 
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The Vine, one of many newly constructed apartments and condominium complexes in Belltown, advertises the excitement of living downtown on the window of its sales office.
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Cities are forever reinventing themselves. Seattle rebuilds or remodels an average of 1.5 percent of its structures per year, meaning the entire city could theoretically be redone in a person's lifetime.

But the current rebuilding is increasingly up as well as out, psychological as well as physical, and life-changing as well as life-enhancing.

Seattle natives grew up with a dream and expectation of a middle-class community of single-family homes in easy commuting distance of a reliable employer.

That dream is ending. Unless you're one of the city's new cadre of the disproportionate rich with flexible schedules, your future choice will be to stew in traffic or live in a box. Your "yard" will become the street, and the street will be a more communal place of shops, cafes and pockets of greenery. Your life will have more community and less privacy, more variety and less peace, more opportunity and less job stability.

This new Seattle is a city already split almost 50-50 between increasingly costly single-family homes and more-affordable apartments and condominiums. About 80 percent of the units built since 1994 are multifamily structures, two-thirds of them with 50 dwellings or more.

The new Seattle has a shrinking middle class, sandwiched between the classic poor and low-income Generation Xs and Ys in their 20s and 30s and a growing class of DINKs (double-income, no kids) in their 50s and 60s. In this new Seattle, only 7 percent of the city's homes can be afforded by moderate-income families earning between $25,000 and $40,000 a year.

Almost all families are struggling. Between 1970 and 1998, according to the Washington Research Council, the average cost of a home in Seattle rose from $21,300 to $198,800, a leap of 825 percent. Adjusted for inflation, the increase is 138 percent, but that is still substantial: In 1970 a home cost 2 1-2 times the average annual wage; by 1998 it was five times. Only a quarter of the jump can be attributed to bigger, fancier homes. We've kept up only by having Mom go to work.
 
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Tango dancers Patricio Touceda and Eva Lucero perform at the Buenos Aires Grill, a lively new Argentinean restaurant on Virginia Street. Customers pick up their drinks when the duo moves their act onto the bar.
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There's also been a huge shift in wealth to the rich. The Congressional Budget Office recently noted that between 1979 and 1997, the after-tax incomes of the richest 1 percent of Americans rose 157 percent, compared to 10 percent for families in the middle class.

As a result, the new Seattle is more and more a city of condos and squeezed-in skinny houses — affordable to the middle class — and bloated megahomes for the well-to-do. One disgruntled arsonist burned down a skinny in Ballard, but his protest was unintentional elitism: Shrunken housing is increasingly all that ordinary people can afford.

The new Seattle is also a city of swank new stadiums and concert halls, of coffee shops and cafes, of bike paths and street trees — 30,000 planted just since 1990 — and of new, walkable neighborhood "villages" burgeoning with small businesses and establishing identities as distinct as those of Manhattan or Paris. Seattle's strong neighborhoods are the envy of the nation, and the central core of Pioneer Square, downtown, Belltown and Pike-Pine has reached the critical mass of homeowners to become a true community.
 
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A cluster of Belltown backyards is testimony to the new popularity of this downtown neighborhood.
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The new Seattle is trendy, smart and ruthlessly competitive. The metropolitan area has the third-highest concentration of "creative class" workers in the nation, at 16.9 percent of its population, according to calculations by Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Florida: more than San Francisco or Austin or Boston or New York. These are the people who invent, design, perform, write and teach. They are in the idea business.

Only Washington, D.C., and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., have a higher percentage.

No one voted for this. No one planned it. No one escapes it. King County Executive Ron Sims mentioned at a public forum recently that one of his adult children was living at home because he couldn't afford the cost of housing in the new Seattle.

Hoo, boy.

Many don't want this Seattle, but even if they can manage to avoid it (by staying in an established home and job) their children and grandchildren won't. Accordingly, Pacific Northwest magazine is beginning a periodic series of stories today on the reasons for this new Seattle — and its myriad consequences.

In the months ahead we'll meet downtown urbanites who commute from more-affordable Kent, and Belltown singles who work on the Eastside. The mother of an infant and ex-Manhattanite who was answered with blank stares when she asked the urban enthusiasts, "Where's the stuff for kids?" The Seattle Symphony musician who can walk his bass from home to work. A smoky neighborhood watering hole with mixed feelings about the influx of swell apartments upstairs. Suburbanites who are losing their Lake Washington views to new megahomes, and megahome owners who argue that the only alternative to such "progress" is fossilization of the city.

Early next year we'll compare Seattle to Vancouver and Portland, two cities that are a generation ahead in planning and, when it comes to livability, are kicking our backsides.

We hope you'll listen up because we also want to hear from you.

•   •   •

WE BEGAN this project with a simple question: What does Seattle want to grow up to be?
 
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Cyndi Witschi, owner of Pawsitive Petcare, picks up eight to 10 dogs daily to take them from their homes in downtown apartments for a run in the woods outside the city.
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The answer we got is surprisingly vague.

I asked it with the perspective of an inside-outsider. I grew up in Tacoma, and when I came to work for The Seattle Times in 1982, it took my wife and me only one phone conversation with a demoralized Seattle School District bureaucrat to convince us to locate in Shoreline, where we raised our kids. Housing was cheaper, schools better. We were the classic white suburbanites.

By 1997, my commuting time to The Times had doubled. So, when the youngest graduated from high school, we considered moving into town. But in the time that our house had inflated in value 2 1-2 times, houses in Green Lake or Queen Anne or West Seattle had inflated three, four and five times. What had seemed financially out of reach in 1982 was even more so now: The software industry had exploded, executive wages had mushroomed, and we simply couldn't compete. So we moved near Anacortes instead, using freelancing and telecommuting to try to escape metro angst altogether.

Many of you have made similar choices. Middle-class buying power has been almost stagnant in the United States since the early 1970s: about a 10 percent increase in real income over 29 years, on average. One way to give yourself an effective "raise" is to move farther out to cheaper housing. In grim, zero-sum arithmetic, you pay in hours of freeway-gridlock time for more square footage for your family.
 
Downtown dwellers trade backyards and open space for small view balconies and the vitality of an urban lifestyle. spacer Photo spacer
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Fleeing rising housing prices and urban density, many are forced into time-consuming long-distance commutes that clog freeways and raise tempers as transit solutions languish. spacer Photo
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Now this classic post-World War II tradeoff is breaking down. We're simply reaching the limit of how far people can spread and drive.

When I returned to Seattle periodically from Skagit County, I was astounded at the changes taking place. The city has traditionally been a relatively sparsely-settled sprawl of homes with yards; even ambling Vancouver, B.C., boasting a population density 37 percent greater. But suddenly it seemed there were new apartment and condominium complexes everywhere, houses shoehorned onto improbably small lots, and thrusting high-rises.

Clearly, Washington's 1990 Growth Management Act — which seeks to concentrate growth in existing urban areas — was having an effect. From 1968 to 1990, a period in which the state gained 1.5 million people, Seattle actually lost 20,000. Whatever the city understood intellectually about growth, it failed to feel emotionally: It seemed immune to the changes wrenching the rest of western Washington. Only in the 1990s did the suburbs reach enough of a breaking point that people again chose Seattle. The city has since gained about 54,000 people — still only a sixth of the total county increase of about 300,000 in the last 12 years.

In the next generation, or 23 years, the state Office of Financial Management expects King County to add another 500,000 people. An increasing portion of them will settle in Seattle proper (which now has about 570,000 people). Just how many is deliberately unclear. It's an uncomfortable political question no matter where they settle, and traffic is getting so bad that no one is certain what choices commuters will make.
 
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A posting by the Seattle Department of Design, Construction and Land Use informs neighbors of a plan to convert the historic Bethel Temple building on Second Avenue into the latest Belltown high-rise.
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True, some workers in San Francisco commute two hours each way to homes in the Central Valley; in Los Angeles they commute two hours each way to subdivisions in the desert. But even car-crazy L.A. is twice as dense in population, per square mile, as Seattle. After a while, most people become unwilling to waste their lives in their car.

And for all the official hand-wringing about traffic, the stated plans of both the city and region are to continue to put more jobs into Seattle than there is housing. A city that already has 47,000 more jobs than it has population hopes to have 98,000 more jobs than population within 12 years. In other words, at the same time government is trying to solve traffic by spending billions, it's also planning to worsen it by putting more commuters on the road.

Why? Because business likes to be near business, and jobs create taxes while residents consume services. The game of every smart City Hall is to get as many jobs, and as few residents (unless they're rich) as possible. Seattle is smart when it comes to supercharging its tax base: Its general fund is almost twice as big, per capita, as neighboring Shoreline. That's why almost a quarter-million vehicles enter the central area each day.

So: Some will drive. And some will choose living in boxes on top of each other, opting for a lifestyle that those trying it say is superior to suburbia. More freedom from the car. More natural exercise, walking instead of driving. More freedom from yard work. Less space to heat, less house to paint, less garage to fill with junk.

•   •   •

COULD THE COMING Brave New World actually be better, not worse?
 
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Packing them in
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When I started these stories, I assumed all this was part of a civic master plan.

Well, yes and no.

My biggest surprise was that Seattle, a city notorious for liberalism, environmentalism, process, review, second-guessing and contention, has one of the weakest traditions of urban planning — and one of the feeblest city plans — of any large urban area in the United States.

Unlike other American big cities, it has no separate planning department, instead passing that function around various agencies. Now it's lodged with the building-permit division in the Department of Design, Construction and Land Use, meaning there's little formal separation between planning and permitting.
 
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The scarcity of downtown parks and absence of facilities for children prompted Harbor Properties to provide this one across from their Harbor Steps towers. It must be locked to keep vagrants out, Seattle's street population posing an issue for downtown livability.
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As acting DCLU director Diane Sigamura pointed out, in 13 years the planning office has had five different titles. Administrators have shuttled in and out; Mayor Greg Nickels has had a difficult time hiring a new director. While there was a stab at comprehensive planning in 1968, the city only adopted its first true such plan in 1994, after being prodded to do so by the Growth Management Act. It followed with neighborhood plans in 2000.

And oh, what plans they are. The product of countless citizen meetings, they include just about every idea anyone has ever had, except hard choices or visionary direction. Seattle's comprehensive plan is to coherent decision-making what the U.S. Tax Code is to the Ten Commandments: a document to drown in. The main plan has, by my count, 432 different goals and 1,456 different policies. The neighborhood plans, councilman Richard Conlin says, have 6,000 goals and policies and take up 8 feet of shelf space.

Should the city favor "progress" (i.e., change and development) or "continuity" (i.e., the opposite)? The plan says yes to both. It's also for diversity, environment, health, freedom, education and so on. But except in the most general terms it says very little about exactly how many people Seattle should have, how they will afford to live here, where they should live, and how, specifically, they should get around.

Should we promote a forest of park-encircled high-rises, like central Vancouver? Intriguing neighborhoods of mid-height yuppie condos, like Portland? Cheek-by-jowl townhomes like San Francisco? Or simply freeze old neighborhoods and keep the devils out?

Seattle's vision is to have it both ways — protect its admirably strong network of neighborhoods while at the same time allowing density (the politically-correct term is "urban village") in 38 specified locales. Yet it is density of murky height, matrix and character. The plan promises change with no dramatic change. The result is "planning" that effectively proceeds one block, one lot, at a time.

Seattle's building, design and zoning codes are equally odd. It's astonishing what's allowed: homes squeezed onto 25-foot lots platted a century ago, or homes (if on a slope with dirt carefully piled on one side) that can reach as much as four stories high: higher than that allowed for apartments in some zones. Backyards can be as little as 20 percent of a lot's depth, or as narrow as 10 feet.
 
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Activists in the Puget Sound area such as Dick Falkenbury, dancing on election night when his monorail initiative was ahead, and anti-tax-initiative author Tim Eyman exploit a void in governmental leadership on transportation issues.
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Tradition and the state constitution's enshrinement of private-property rights mean most of the law is on the side of the developer or newcomer. You are allowed and even encouraged to squeeze in more units or build out-of-scale homes in Seattle (and other metro-area cities) because it's more efficient for utilities and transportation and adds to the tax base. If the builder meets the zoning and building codes, there is typically no hearing, and no appeal. The negative cost of blocked views, shadowed yards or crowded street parking — and any resulting decline in property value — is borne by the resident already there.

Of course, existing property owners as a whole have also benefited from this new crowding. Their home values escalated as much as 50 percent in just five years in the late 1990s!

At the same time, the design requirements for larger commercial and residential projects have become a thicket of regulations and guidelines (passed in reaction to previous problems) that both city officials and developers say can't be understood. Every developer I interviewed claimed they could put up more interesting, attractive and affordable buildings if Seattle would refine its design review.

City officials agreed. But it's a thankless task to tackle the code.

Why does the system work this way? Sources said this kind of please-everyone, add-everything planning satisfies several political purposes. It relieves politicians of having to take a stand. It protects neighborhoods from strong central authority. In a city with a deliberately awkward, strong-mayor, strong-council form of government — a recipe for political gridlock that Nickels is trying to break — an absence of strong planning prevents either mayor or council from using it as a tool for power.

Nor can you argue with success. Geography, economic luck and individual choice seem to have produced (until recently, anyway) a highly livable city.

So long as it didn't grow. But now it is.

•   •   •

WHO DOES plan Seattle? The Seattle School Board certainly did, adopting forced busing and setting in motion "white flight" that depleted Seattle of children and unintentionally segregated the area by ideology, with liberals on one side of Lake Washington and conservatives on the other. This makes it hard to achieve the kind of metropolitan consensus that Portland and Vancouver enjoy.
 
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Gerty Botts has lived in West Seattle since 1941. She checks out a sign that Easy Street Records employee Rick Way is hanging for a midnight sale featuring the new Pearl Jam record.
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Because of our weak form of local government, business and developers stepped into the vacuum to create most of the cool stuff Seattle has done, from the World's Fair to the revitalization of First Avenue.

And the metropolitan region of 3.3 million itself has been effectively controlling Seattle by deciding, suburban city by suburban city, how many jobs, people and roads they can absorb. Just since 1990, 10 new cities have incorporated in King County and three in Pierce, totaling 350,000 people. The result is a metro crazy-quilt that makes the Balkans look like a model of order.

Finally, the state and federal Departments of Transportation have historically viewed Seattle as more of an hourglass bottleneck than a destination and threaded it with freeways. They split Seattle in two, walled off its waterfront, and poured roads out to the suburbs.

Which brings us to Seattle's real driving force of the moment: getting here.

With the defeat of R-51, the success of I-776, and paralysis of a divided Legislature, it looks like prevailing opinion on our traffic mess is to hold or slash taxes and do nothing because government is wasteful, no solution will work, bureaucrats are incompetent, blah, blah, blah. I call this the Talk Radio option (not you, Dave Ross!). Also known as the Boeing-is-outta-here option.
 
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This zoning diagram shows how Seattle permits big houses on small lots. On a sloping lot, the downhill side of a house is often permitted to be even higher than the 35 feet shown here.
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A second idea is to simply expand freeways. Traffic has more than doubled since 1970 while freeway construction has stalled. What if freeways had doubled? I call this the Kemper Freeman Jr. option, after the Bellevue Square developer who is promoting it. Not even state Transportation director Doug MacDonald buys this one — where do you get the money and the land, and how do you widen all the interchanges? — but it has a nostalgic appeal.

The third notion centers on the truth that cars take up a lot of room, not only on the roads but in parking lots. One study estimates there are seven parking spaces for every vehicle if you count home, work, store, school, and so on. Some 40 percent of Seattle's land area is paved (the city has more than 1,500 miles of roads) and the American Automobile Association estimates it costs about $6,000 a year to own and operate a mid-size sedan. At that price, why not abandon at least one of your beasts and go for mass transit?

Don't hold your breath. Unfortunately, only about 3 percent of American trips are made by mass transit now.

So here comes the fourth idea, which embraces the third but also bizarrely circles back to the first — and is, in fact, happening. In the words of one of its apostles, Vancouver city councilor Gordon Price, "Congestion is our friend." Why spend billions trying to move people from suburb to city, and vice versa, when doing nothing will result in traffic jams so horrible that it will force you to simply move closer to work?

There's room — if you build up instead of out. Heck, you could fit every person in the state of Washington inside Seattle if the city had Manhattan's population density of 70,000 per square mile, versus the 3,000 now. And density creates a market for mass transit and makes walking for errands practical. This is the "new urbanism" enviro option.

Put another way, imagine flipping the Kemper Freeman Jr. freeway argument on its head. What if we dynamited the Viaduct and instead of rebuilding it spent that money on rail or a monorail? Truckers would choke. West Seattle would scream. And the resulting congestion would literally force downtown workers to live downtown, or near a transit station. So, after years of pain, we'd have more downtown density and less sprawl.
 
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Is there a condo in your future? Are we going to have to pry your Ford Expedition from your cold, dead, fingers? Is my entire thesis a load of horse puckey? Tell us what you think or write to Pacific Northwest magazine, "The Big Squeeze," The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.
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Heaven for some, horror for others.

"Congestion is the only form of traffic management that works in a democratic society," argues Price. It has to be bad enough to make you move or take the bus.

What does Seattle want to be? To a certain extent what it is, or was, is the answer I got from folks ranging from Mayor Nickels to neighborhood shopkeepers. The thesis of this series, however, is that Seattle is fast disappearing, that congestion is here to stay, and that the fourth philosophy — respond to congestion with density — is inevitable because freeways and mass transit remain unbuilt.

Is there a condo in your future? Are we going to have to pry your Ford Expedition from your cold, dead, fingers? Is my entire thesis a load of horse puckey? Tell us what you think or write to Pacific Northwest magazine, "The Big Squeeze," The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.

The city you save may be your own.

William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Harley Soltes is a Seattle Times staff photographer.


Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then Sunday Punch

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