History, politics, people of Oly WA

Month: January 2018

Renters are nice people and other thoughts on the demagoguery of the Missing Middle

Missing Middle from AIA Austin

Right now the Olympia planning commission is considering a list of recommendations about the so-called Missing Middle. These recommendations would hopefully increase density in Olympia’s least dense neighborhoods by allowing duplexes, townhomes, courtyard apartments and ADUs in the mostly the upper elevation swaths of single-family homes neighborhoods.

As you would expect, there are a bunch of people who are not fans of this idea. And as you might expect, they belong to existing neighborhood organizations in well established (but I would argue not traditional) residential neighborhoods. As Whitney Bowerman argued in this excellent email she sent to the planning commission, these organizations represent mostly older homeowners who want to preserve the low-density character of their neighborhoods.

This testimony to the planning commission I think almost perfectly encompasses this attitude.

First off, she makes a point that we shouldn’t follow the example of Seattle. Implying that by increasing density you don’t do much to decrease housing costs. The fact is that rents and housing costs have started to decline in Seattle, mostly because of all those cranes on the skyline are starting to make a dent in demand.

Renters are not bad, I’m a renter

About two minutes into her testimony, she starts to get into a caricature of homeownership. “For generations, working people have dreamed of owning a house,” she said. Specifically a house, and in her mind, a detached single family home. Which is also a specific type of home that hasn’t been historically accessible to many people or even now.

“It is not just a financial investment, it is an emotional investment and a social investment as well,” she said. Apparently, when you own a home, your emotions should matter more and your memories are deeper and richer.

“Outside those walls and over the fences, they (homeowners) create social networks,” she said. “Perhaps not in the days of old when someone was home and could build social capital in the neighborhood, but people do participate in Nextdoor, attend annual meetings… they are literally invested in their neighborhoods.”

This is all a slam on the nature of renting a home. Personally, I’ve done both. I’ve rented in almost every quadrant of Olympia and owned two homes in East Olympia. Currently, I rent an apartment in Southeast Olympia and hope one day to own again, but not a single family detached home. My goal is a townhouse with as little yard as possible.

But this belies the philosophy behind this anti-density testimony. The neighbor I had that called me a piece of shit while I was outside with my toddler owned his home. He still owned it when the police arrested him for waving a gun at his wife. I’m sure he had memories in my neighborhood, but they weren’t more meaningful because he paid a mortgage.

I’ve also had a series of neighbors that have quickly moved in from out of state, bought a home and relatively quickly moved out without making a dent in my community. They were not literally invested in anything and their presence, while pleasant, did not have a deeper impact on the neighborhood.

It isn’t about renters vs. homeowners, it’s about density and affordability

I agree the research indicates that homeownership by-in-large means better things for a community.

The testimony is also moving the ball from a debate on increasing density in Olympia’s low-density neighborhoods to a debate over the value of homeowners vs. renters. At least in the examples of townhomes and possibly courtyard apartments, the Missing Middle will be the only actual path to homeownership that some people can ever use. And, the option of duplexes and ADUs will possibly allow some folks, who would like to set down permanent roots in a neighborhood, stay in a neighborhood.

Imagine for a moment a single mother who got a late start on retirement. She has an addition in her small home that she can easily transition into an ADU if it was allowed by the city. That would keep her in her home past retirement.

Currently, a lot of neighborhoods in Olympia fail the test of liveability in two major ways. They are too low density to really be considered walkable. Even if a small neighborhood center like Wildwood did want to located inside some of these neighborhoods, it wouldn’t survive because single-family neighborhoods simply aren’t dense enough.

Also, we fail in terms of variety of housing types, especially in the car-dependent SE neighborhoods. A good neighborhood ensures that multiple generations of the same family can live in the area, that people from a variety of backgrounds can come together. Large swaths of single-family homes, while protecting the nature of a neighborhood, does not promote diversity.

If you work outside Thurston County, you’re more likely to not like downtown Olympia

The city of Olympia commissioned a public opinion poll in December. The poll mostly covered concrete things like how important various city services are and how well they’re being delivered.

But the survey also got into an interesting line of questioning about how residents perceive safety in Olympia. The pollsters asked whether we feel safe in our neighborhoods during the day and night, and more important, how we feel downtown during the day and at night.

Here are the totally unsurprising results:

Most people felt most safe in their own neighborhoods, and then less safe in Olympia in general and then even less safe downtown and especially at night. There were several groups that drove down the results for downtown. If you were from the Northwest neighborhood, if you thought the quality of life in Olympia was low, if you only had a high school education or if you worked outside of Thurston County, you feared downtown more.

The last one is the one that I’m most interested in exploring. If you commute outside of Olympia on a daily basis, I’m going to assume other things about you. You probably also shop in between home and work. Which likely means that at best you do most of your shopping on the Westside, but more than likely you shop in Lacey or in Tumwater. Your daily habits are tied to the freeways your commute doesn’t take you downtown.

Here’s an interesting tidbit, 17.2 percent of Olympians commute outside of the county for work, according to the American Community Survey. This is up from 16.9 percent in 2015, but the census bureau has only asked this question in the last two years. If you take commute times though, 22.8 percent of Olympians have a commute over 30 minutes. For most people, I’d assume this takes them out of the county, but at least well outside of Olympia so it might as well be out of the county. And, this number took a significant jump between 2011 and 2013 when it went from 18.8 percent to 22.8 percent (it’s remained steady since then).

This wrinkle with long-distance commuting and downtown combined with another result of the city survey makes me think that familiarity of Olympia is a leading indicator of how people perceive their own safety. Literally not one of the survey respondents said they feel very unsafe in their own neighborhoods during the day.

So, what does this mean for governing Olympia? A good majority of the complaints about downtown come from people who are obviously not familiar with downtown. They are fearful about downtown, but I doubt very much that they’re even downtown at night. Is it the responsibility of the city to govern in the direction of unfamiliarity with reality?

As neighborhoods go, downtown Olympia is pretty valuable

One of the most incredible things happened last week. The Thurston County GeoData Center released a huge swath of datasets that had previously been prohibitively expensive to access.
All the datasets are available to download, and if you have your own GIS application, you can play with them there. But with a few of the datasets, you can access and play with directly. One of them is this dataset in particular that puts together a lot of information about parcels in Thurston County. Including total acreage and the total value of the parcel.
By comparing value and acreage, you can really see where the most value is in terms of Thurston County neighborhoods. Downtown Olympia, seen here in mostly deep blue, is generally pretty valuable to the county’s bottom line. These tightly developed blocks are fairly consistently assessed at a high value.
When you get out to the Capital Mall area, the colors become less pronounced. There are still a few deep blue parcels, but the mall itself is a lighter shade of blue and its surrounding commercial developments are getting yellow.

When you get out on Martin Way, really the only highly valued property is one brand new commercial building.

The same is in Southeast Olympia, where the highly valued properties are newer, nicer homes or actual newer “missing middle” townhomes.

You see the same pattern in interior Lacey, where parking lot developments like the South Sound Mall and Fred Meyer are less highly valued than smaller parcels in Lacey’s adjacent “downtown.”

I made a similar point earlier using anecdotal evidence comparing a downtown block with a similarly sized parcel on the Westside.  When you make the same analysis using businesses next door to each other (but only in Tacoma, not Olympia), the result is the same. 
Traditional development is more productive than development that prioritizes car infrastructure. 

When you compare traditional, non-car centric, blocks to parking lot dominant commercial development, the traditional blocks are always more valuable. They provide more to the community. The video below points out that the blocks in downtown Olympia are a lot like the blocks that we’ve built in cities for thousands of years. These are the dense, easily walkable blocks that have only become rare in communities that were built in the last 60 years. Only newer cities like Lacey lack them at all.

A map of Lacey that you can’t unsee

Take a close look at this map:

What do you see?
This map is from a page buried deep in the city of Lacey’s 2017 State of the Streets report. I took a look at the report originally because I was looking for data on pedestrian accidents. Which, by the way, are collected by the federal government, but are also very hard to work with.
Anyway, I found this map and had an immediate head-smack moment. What I saw totally blew me away.
Can you see it yet?
Now take a closer look:

I zoomed into the area around where Martin Way crosses underneath I-5 between College and Carpenter Roads. City-owned roads on this map are black (residential), green (arterial) or red (collector). The gray roads are not city-owned.
According to this map, Lacey is essentially two cities.  

In the Southwest corner of the map, you have the (mostly) original core of Lacey that existed near when the city became a city in the 1960s. This area is a collection of neighborhoods and commercial strips south of Interstate 5. This was essentially the bleeding edge of suburban development from Olympia that wanted to be on its own.
The Northeast Corner of the map is is everything that was annexed into the city beginning in 1985. This is generally what we call today Hawks Prairie. It was historically Hawks Prairie too, of course.
But, these two parts of Lacey are not connected by Lacey owned roads.  The two roads that would connect Lacey together, Carpenter or 15th Ave SE/Draham, are owned and maintained by the county.
This makes total sense to me now, because the entire “loop around the north to annex around the older Tanglewild neighborhood” always seemed so blatant. So it made sense that you could easily drive from one part of Lacey to the other without traveling on city roads.  Just go down Martin Way.
But, before I saw this map, there’s no way I thought you couldn’t, in fact, drive on city roads to get from one end to the other.

Lakewood was not built for walking

This town was not built for walking
It isn’t the trains that make pedestrians unsafe in Lakewood. Like a lot of cities that were built primarily in the era of car-centered infrastructure, Lakewood is not particularly walkable and a lot of people end up getting hurt and killed because of it.

Since the Amtrak derailment at Dupont a few weeks ago, a new focus has been put on the comments of the Lakewood mayor on how bad a new high-speed train route is to his city. His statement that someone is going to “get killed” was said without any sense of irony that five people already get killed walking around Lakewood each year.

Just pedestrian injuries (deaths notwithstanding) from cars have been steadily increasing in Lakewood for the past ten years.

Buried in Mayor Don Anderson’s column in the Tacoma News Tribune is the logic that kills so many people in Lakewood. He states bluntly that local rail was “made obsolete” by buses in the 1920s. In reality, it isn’t that small-scale or regional rail became obsolete, it is that investment and planning in low-density suburbs (like Lakewood) in the car era made local rail inefficient.

Even if you don’t believe that the car lobby bought out local rail lines to simply shut them down, there are broad historical trends that play havoc with Anderon’s obsoletion thesis. While suburbs began sprouting up in the early part of the 1900s, the spread of cars and federal transportation funding pointed towards cars led to the development of car-centric communities. Places to shop and work became displaced spatially from places to live and sleep. I don’t think there’s a serious person who can say that Lakewood isn’t an almost perfect example of this kind of suburb.

Trains are not obsolete, but they are ill-suited for suburban cities like Lakewood that were built around cars. But then again, so is walking.

Lakewood’s walkability rating is 39, which means that almost every trip you need to make from your home requires a car. Much of Lakewood, even the portions with sidewalks, is built for cars. Thin sidewalks with little or no division from long, straight roads the encourage traveling at a high speed. This is the kind of city design that leads to less walking and which also leads to pedestrian injury for those who have to walk.

From Next City:

Wide, straight lanes, for example, encourage people to drive faster, making neighborhood streets less safe for those walking. Cars are three times more likely to cause death when hitting pedestrians while traveling at 30 mph than at 20 mph. And when some of the population does not have access to transit or a car, making a street pedestrian-free isn’t a realistic option.

Lakewood at one point did have a local rail system connecting it to Tacoma. And you could argue that it was shortline rail companies like Pacific Traction that originally spawned suburban living in the Lakewood area. More well-off Pierce County residents could set up home around American Lake, and in an era without decent roads to Tacoma, they could still find a way to earn a living in the city.

But it was the glut of highway and road spending in the later decades that made that dream available to everyone and subsequently killed Lakewood’s streetcar company.

Pedestrians getting hurt and getting killed in Lakewood is fairly common. Pedestrian deaths aren’t newsworthy, mostly because they’re cooked into the city’s design. 

Regional rail transit is also hopefully going to continue to expand, despite the tragedy at Dupont. So, if Mayor Anderson wants to make pedestrians safer, he needs to look at the layout of his own town, examine why cars kill and hurt so many already and not blame the train.

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