In 1994, Seattle passed a comprehensive growth plan centered around “Urban Villages”. Since 2016, Seattle has been the “crane capital of America,” with strong post-recession growth in residential tower construction. In 2017-18, urbanists in Seattle have pushed proposals for expanding urban villages, permitting more Accessible Dwelling Units (granny flats), allowing smaller residential lots, and adding taller & denser apartments to affordable housing plans. Those proposals are connected to Seattle’s densification, but the timeline runs in the direction above: the 1994 Urban Villages plan preceded a 2010s boom in high rise residential construction and that densification was followed by these new proposals. The new proposals are prospective and have little to do with Seattle’s recent or current construction boom.
Bounded on all sides by water and suburbs, the City of Seattle held lengthy community-input sessions to design a new comprehensive plan to manage growth. The result was the 1994 Urban Villages strategy. This 2002 academic study by Daria McDonald and Sasha Tsenkova provides a pre-boom, Canadian view of the strategy. They concluded that it was a “good attempt.. still in its early stages… (that) can already be deemed to be a success.” (p.23) From 1994-2000, “approximately 70% of the city’s new housing units have been constructed in urban centers and urban villages.” (p.21) But the authors were concerned that while new housing had kept up with the plan’s projections, “many more jobs were created than predicted.” (p.19-20) McDonald and Tsenkova focus on the process that created the plan.
For details on the urban village concept as applied to Seattle’s neighborhoods, this 2005 City of Seattle document is worth a look. Six Urban Centers were slated for substantial densification— Downtown, three neighborhoods adjacent to downtown (Uptown, South Lake Union and First Hill/Capitol Hill), the University Community (around the University of Washington), and Northgate. See map at 1.8, and note that Seattle excluded its extensive Manufacturing/Industrial Centers. And here’s a helpful Seattle Met article on 25 neighborhoods in the city if you want more context.
Now, let’s jump ahead to 2017 and see how that played out. Key takeaway is this paragraph from a National Real Estate Investor article:
Since 2010, developers have opened 21,707 new apartments in Seattle’s three urban core markets: Downtown, South Lake Union/Queen Anne and Capitol Hill. That’s a third (33 percent) of the new apartments that opened in the metro area overall. Another 9,378 new apartments are under construction. “That’s 46 percent of everything under construction across the metro,” says Willett.
New apartment construction in Seattle has been focused in Downtown and two adjacent urban villages. Commercial areas have been converted to mixed use and residential. Small apartment complexes have been replaced by towers. Very few single family homes were demolished in the process.
More than half of Seattle land is still zoned as single family residential. Concentrating new residential housing in these three desirable urban centers has led to the perception that the city’s new apartments are “unaffordable”. Obviously, some people can afford them and their construction has contributed to a stabilization of rental prices in the city.
Granny flats have not yet significantly contributed to new residential construction. In 2015, Seattle issued 116 ADU permits; in 2016, 156. That’s about 3% of new apartments. Despite media attention painting Seattle as granny flats-friendly, the rules are still considered a burden.
The urban villages strategy has not caught fire in American urbanist thought. Is that because it’s seen as unsuccessful? I dunno. Urbanist proposals in Seattle call for expanding the boundaries of urban villages & urban centers, but allowing more granny flats and eliminating single family zoning city-wide are outside the urban village strategy. Urbanists seem dissatisfied even though the strategy and market conditions will lead to more apartments built during the 2010s than in the previous 50 years combined.
Putting aside the question of whether the Seattle urban village strategy should be replicated in other cities— can it be replicated? Sure. I think most cities could pick out a few neighborhoods that are currently zoned commercial or multi-family residential and anoint them as densification zones. And it’s worth noting that Seattle imported the strategy from Britain, replicating processes there. In any case, the conversion of London’s Docklands from abandoned wharves to residential & commercial high rises is sort of an urban village strategy and probably has more to teach us.
Did the urban village strategy matter? I’m not sure municipal policy mattered that much, frankly. The two neighborhoods detached from Downtown Seattle that were designated urban centers (Northgate and the University Community) have increased density but not like South Lake Union and Capitol Hill. The designation wasn’t as important as market forces.
And it’s a similar story in the #2 city for cranes in America— Chicago. The city at the heart of this population-stagnant metropolitan area is building a few skyscrapers elsewhere, but the adjacent-to-downtown neighborhoods of Streeterville and the West Loop are seeing the bulk of the activity. The similarities to South Union Lake and Capitol Hill abound. Small apartment buildings, warehouses, and commercial buildings are being replaced by mixed use towers. Yet, Chicago has no urban village strategy. And just like Seattle, many White single-family neighborhoods are losing population, sometimes via downzoning.
The biggest contribution toward density of Seattle’s urban villages plan may have been giving municipal planners a good excuse to stay out of the way of new construction. Chicago uses carrots. The city’s aldermen enjoy wide latitude to nix projects, but property taxes from new construction tends to find its way into TIF (Tax Increment Financing) kitties, which aldermen can use to improve their districts. Limits on the ability to say no— or incentives to say yes— still have to be combined with market forces to yield denser neighborhoods. Municipal policies may not matter as much as we think.