Last Wednesday, March 30, Mayor Nickels was ambushed. Nickels had been invited to speak at the Seattle meeting of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. During an unexpectedly heated Q and A, Seattle multi-family developers like Miklos Kohary took the mic and told Nickels the city was "cutting my throat."

It may seem strange that Nickels--widely perceived as a pro-density zealot who never met a developer he didn't like--would be taking it on the chin from developers. But the fact is, Nickels' pro-density stance is a ruse. His daring "pro-density" plans--upping height limits in the downtown core--don't actually challenge the status quo at all. Nickels' agenda is the same old concession to neighborhood provincialists who want to keep density out of their backyards, and the same old sop to downtown developers, who have been calling the shots in Seattle for years.

At Wednesday's meeting, people finally called bullshit. Neighborhood developers like Kohary complained that the city isn't doing enough to facilitate multi-family infill housing. Currently, a lengthy city review (to ensure that infrastructure like transportation and sewer lines are in place to accommodate new housing) kicks in when developers propose just six-to-eight-unit developments. Kohary and the Seattle chapter of Master Builders want the regulations to kick in at the more appropriate level of 20 units--when infrastructure questions are actually relevant. That's the way it works in places like Burien, Redmond, and Renton! As Kohary points out: "We're doing infill development. The urban infrastructure is already there."

Kohary's proposal to build an eight-unit development at Northeast 91st Street and Roosevelt Way Northeast (where transportation infrastructure like the 68 bus is already in place, BTW) took 13 months to get approved, thanks to clunky city guidelines. "Why is the city using this tool to hold up development?" asks Kohary, who says the delay spiked his costs 50 percent.

Nickels' downtown-centric plan will spike the cost of housing even more. By focusing on the city core in isolation--that is, without connecting a downtown density strategy to an overhaul of codes citywide--Nickels is failing to address the biggest choke on Seattle: the supremacy of single-family zoning. Of the available land in the city, an out-of-whack 75 percent is set aside exclusively for single-family houses. No wonder Seattle built an average of just 40 percent of the new units needed to meet its citywide density goals over the last 10 years. (With that sort of dearth, it's also no wonder housing costs remain so high in Seattle; median price $328,000.)

Nickels' big plan calls for 30,000 new downtown jobs. But it creates just 10,000 new downtown housing units. Those 20,000 downtown workers are going to have to live somewhere. Without facilitating density in the neighborhoods, Nickels is concocting a recipe for disaster. The limited supply downtown, compounded by a neighborhood movement that has walled off the rest of the city, will--through the laws of supply and demand--increase housing prices more and drive middle-income homebuyers out of the city.

Judging from the comments at last Wednesday's developers powwow, it's already causing multi-family developers--those who cater to middle-income buyers--to consider splitting town themselves.

Support The Stranger