Seattle enacts “McMansion ban”

Earlier this week Seattle moved to approve accessory dwelling units and also limit the size of McMansions:

While loosening restrictions on accessory units, the new rules will tighten restrictions on the construction of single-family houses by outlawing certain large homes, based on their floor area and lot size.

The aboveground living space for a single family in a new house will be limited to half the square footage of the home’s lot. For example, a new house on a 6,000-square-foot lot will be limited to 3,000 square feet of aboveground living space, not counting space devoted to an accessory unit.

O’Brien has said the “McMansion” ban will discourage people from replacing modest older houses with more expensive new houses and will encourage them to add accessory units….

The city’s most recent environmental analysis estimated the new rules would result in 4,430 accessory units built and 1,580 houses torn down over 10 years, versus 1,970 accessory units built and 2,030 houses razed under the status quo.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The restriction on floor size based on lot size is a common one. This not only keeps the overall size down but also can help keep the new home from crowding up against the edge of the lot. Fitting a large home on a small lot is a common issue with those opposed to teardown McMansions.
  2. The story above says there is a restriction on aboveground square footage based on the lot. Does this mean some new homes will go underground instead (a la London)?
  3. The numbers cited at the end of the article are interesting in a city of over 700,000 people. The “McMansion ban” would not appear to have much effect: over the course of ten years, roughly 25% fewer teardowns would occur according to projections. Even with the restrictions, it will still be an option for those with wealth who want a single-family home (as opposed to the new option of an accessory dwelling unit on the lot of someone else). If the city really wanted to go after McMansions, could they have done more?

Linking Microsoft giving $500 million for Seattle area housing to tech companies and declining gov’t support for housing

Microsoft is pledging a substantial amount to address the important issue of housing in Seattle:

Microsoft plans to lend $225 million at subsidized rates to preserve and build middle-income housing in six cities near its Redmond headquarters. It will put an additional $250 million into low-income housing across the region. Some of those loans may be made through the federal programs that provide tax breaks for low-income housing.

The company plans to invest the money within three years, and expects most of it to go to Seattle’s suburbs.

The loans could go to private or nonprofit developers, or to governmental groups like the King County Housing Authority. As the loans are repaid, Mr. Smith said, Microsoft plans to lend the money out again to support additional projects.

This article frames the giving as part of the housing issues wrought by the actions of tech companies:

Microsoft’s money represents the most ambitious effort by a tech company to directly address the inequality that has spread in areas where the industry is concentrated, particularly on the West Coast. It will fund construction for homes affordable not only to the company’s own non-tech workers, but also for teachers, firefighters and other middle- and low-income residents.

From this point of view, the health of a region matters for companies. If workers, whether ones employed by a particular company or organization or others, cannot find affordable housing, it will be harder for the region to find and hold on to workers. Whereas businesses often focus on a good business climate (low taxes, tax breaks, business-friendly governments, etc.), housing is a big factor in finding a strong work force. Additionally, Microsoft can help show through these actions that they care about local conditions in ways that tech companies are often said to ignore because of their global status. Would Microsoft be the same if it were not in the Seattle region?

Another way to view this is that private companies are now taking on what the federal government should address:

The government spent about three times as much on housing programs in the 1970s as it does today, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In the years since, the government has gotten out of the business of building public housing. And capital funds to repair the remaining public housing stock have been cut in half over the last 15 years.

Over this time, federal resources have increasingly shifted away from subsidizing the construction of affordable housing to subsidizing renters who find housing in the private market. And now most new below-market-rate housing is built not by public agencies, but by nonprofit developers leveraging tax credits. The value of those credits has declined recently as well, as a result of changes in the tax bill passed in 2017.

In a sense, Microsoft’s proposal is an extension of this story, as private actors continue to step in where the government once stood.

Ed Goetz, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied the history of public housing in America, said: “I don’t want to diminish the magnitude of what they’re doing. I think it’s important, and it will help. But it won’t solve Seattle’s problem.”

This argument suggests that private actors can only do so much to address housing issues. Because so much money is involved and the issue is so widespread, even $500 million may not do much in a single metropolitan region with high land and housing costs. Of course, the government is involved in the housing industry: the federal government for decades has supported single-family homes, primarily in the suburbs. At the same time, the government and the American people have always been more ambivalent about public housing. It is not as if  the housing market is a free market: the United States subsidizes mortgages.

At the least, this will be an interesting experiment: can Microsoft make even a small dent in the housing needs of the Seattle area? Will this help strengthen the metropolitan region or primarily serve as good publicity for the company?

Pass through “Viadoom” for a better Seattle waterfront

A number of projects are underway at Seattle’s waterfront and while they are all intended to help the city in the long run, they may lead to short-term transportation issues:

The Washington State Department of Transportation will demolish the viaduct, freeing up 26 blocks of urban land. It will be replaced with a street-level boulevard and 20 acres of waterfront public space designed by James Corner Field Operations. Soon, Highway 99 will traverse Seattle below ground in a long-delayed bi-level tunnel dug by the world’s longest boring machine after a prolonged political fight pitting governor against mayor that made Seattle the laggard in a trio of major urban highway teardowns, alongside Boston’s Big Dig and San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

But this transformation stands to be a painful one. The highway closure kicks off a two-year stretch that City Hall calls the Period of Maximum Constraint and everyone else calls the Seattle Squeeze. The viaduct’s 90,000 cars are losing their north-south waterfront right of way. There’s mass-transit help on the way, in the form of Seattle’s massive light rail expansion, which is set to open a key northern extension in 2021. In between, downtown commuters and residents will contend with a ferry terminal rebuild, a convention center expansion, 600 daily buses moving from the downtown transit tunnel onto surface streets, a streetcar missing link on hiatus, and street closures related to the construction of the city’s second-tallest building.

The first three weeks of the Squeeze—known, somewhat apocalyptically, as Viadoom—are expected to be the worst, until the new State Route 99 tunnel opens on February 4. In anticipation of V-Day, local TV news has been running countdown clocks, and city officials are urging anyone who can to work from home, switch up hours, or take time off. Further amping up the state-of-emergency vibe, Mayor Jenny Durkan hired Mike Worden, a retired Air Force major general, to oversee the city’s response to the Squeeze. (His office did not return a request for an interview.)…

As with marquee waterfront-highway removals in Boston and San Francisco, the hope is that the viaduct’s demise can give downtown a waterfront worthy of Seattle’s setting. The design for the redeveloped space, by James Corner Field Operations, aims to string together several of the city’s major attractions, though some of the bells-and-whistles in the competition-winning design, like a swimming-pool barge and a downtown pocket beach, have been toned down.

It sounds like this will be a win for the city in the long-run. A few years ago, I was some of the locations mentioned in the article and I could see how these changes would benefit both residents and visitors.

At the same time, I could imagine many residents would want to know why this all seems to be happening at once. This is a complaint I have heard regularly in the Chicago area: why is there construction on multiple major roads at the same time that then makes it very hard to find alternatives? People can get the idea about the long-term benefits and still experience frustration at the day to day difficulties these projects pose.

Additionally, what are the odds that all the projects finish on time and on budget? Major infrastructure projects in American cities can end up with significantly larger price tags and seem to last forever as circumstances (and budgets) change. Again, these projects often need to happen but residents may perceive that officials and those involved in the construction do not care much for their time or pocketbooks.

Of course, an easy solution to all of this is to simply pursue these projects far before they become such boondoggles. That, however, is far easier said than done.

Watching the planes in style at SeaTac

After walking through security at SeaTac, I entered the central food court and shopping area. I was greeted with this view:

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From this gallery, you can watch the main runways as planes takeoff and land and you can do so seated in wooden rocking chairs (close to the windows). I assume many airports are designed with providing sufficient gates and access to planes in mind. Think of O’Hare or Atlanta where the concourses are long. Yet, this view took the mall court airport plan – common across many newer airports including ones I’ve seen in Tampa, Orlando, and Las Vegas – to another level: providing a large view of the most interesting work of the airport as planes travel at high speed.

An overview of the airport feature from when it opened in 2005:

The feature attraction, however, is the 60-by-350-foot glass wall that overlooks the runways and, in amenable weather, the Olympic Mountains. It’s more than just a big picture window. The panes are wrenched into a compound curve, convex in the vertical plane and concave in the horizontal. It looks more like a portal to a space warp than a mere window. The web of steel cables, struts and attachment spiders that allow the curtain wall to flex up to 11 inches in a worst-case windstorm or earthquake is all exposed to view, a celebration of virtuoso building technology…

Architect Curtis Fentress, the terminal’s principal designer, is convinced that people want to feel the excitement of travel again, and that it touches a deeper place than momentarily marveling at the apparent miracle of 400-ton cigars storming into the sky. He recalls a boyhood visit to the airport to see his uncle off to the Korean War. “We watched him wave to us from the plane,” Fentress recalls — an impression half a century old, burned indelibly into his mind.

Bonus: this area seemed to particularly fascinate small children. This is no small feat in the harried realm of traveling.

When the underground borer Bertha gets stuck under Seattle – for a year

The construction of massive infrastructure underground can be impressive but it doesn’t always go as planned:

A year ago this month, North America’s largest tunnel-boring machine got stuck just 10 percent of the way through a 1.7-mile-long dig under downtown Seattle. Throughout 2014, engineers have been plugging away on an ambitious plan, outlined in a Popular Mechanics feature, to free the mechanical marvel and get the project going again.

But today, Bertha remains stuck under the city. And according to an update from The New York Times, crews monitoring the project to free the machine have noticed something alarming: one inch worth of settling in the downtown district under which Bertha now sits…

Instead, investigators eventually concluded that Bertha was overheating—that grime and gunk had gotten past bearing seals, entered the machine, and muddied the operation. Engineers still aren’t sure why all this happened to the 326-foot-long machine, but they decided they had replace not only the seals but also the $5 million main bearing.

But just getting to Bertha, which sat more than 60 feet below downtown Seattle near the stadium district and the waterfront, posed a serious problem. Crews could go through the painstaking, time-sucking process of disassembling the machine from behind to make the fixes, but instead chose to dig a 120-foot-deep access pit in front of Bertha.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that such a big project could lead to a problem that doesn’t have a quick fix. Putting together a machine this size is notable in itself and getting it back on track likely requires a lot of careful planning and long hours. Yet, these sorts of projects tend to go on without much attention until they are done and people experience the benefits. Unless something goes wrong. It would be interesting to see how Seattle responds to the delay and if someone is blamed for the problems, what kind of negative consequences they suffer.

Black congregation in Seattle follows its members to the suburbs

Here is one illustration of the demographic changes in American suburbs: an African-American church heads for Seattle’s suburbs.

The Rev. Leslie David Braxton saw the writing on the wall in 1999. Members of his former congregation at Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Central District were moving south, and in Seattle, the black middle class was already starting to shrink…

A data junkie and sociologist by training, the reverend rattles off statistics effortlessly. In 1999, he gleaned that in 20 years, the Central District wouldn’t be the epicenter of the black community…

He pushed for Mount Zion to open a satellite campus south of the city. After some internal conflicts, he resigned and, in 2005 started his own church, New Beginnings Christian Fellowship, south of Seattle…

“We’re sitting on 8½ acres. There’s no way you’d be able to get that kind of property in the city.” And, if a similar building existed, he said, “it certainly wouldn’t be affordable.”

To Braxton, there’s an upside, however. For many black families, the suburbs offer an opportunity to live out the American dream — good schools, the house with a two-car garage and a spacious yard — far more easily than the city. It’s a reversal, he says, of white flight, common in the East Coast.

Churches can often go where a majority of their members go. The pattern described here sounds similar to that of numerous white urban churches after World War II: as whites moved to the suburbs, so did a number of the congregations. Such moves weren’t necessarily immediate; it took time for some established institutions to leave buildings and neighborhoods where they may have been for decades and/or served multiple waves of white immigrants.

But, the suburbs today have a wider range of residents including more non-whites, immigrants, and lower- and working-class people. Suburban religious congregations already reflect some of these changes and will likely demonstrate these further in the future.

Bill Gates could buy every home in Boston and still have $1 billion left

Redfin suggests Bill Gates could purchase all the homes in Boston but not Seattle :

If Bill Gates took every dollar of his net worth (most of which comes from Cascade Investment, his investment firm, as well as Microsoft), he could afford to buy every home in Boston — and still be worth more than a billion dollars, according to a new report from the online real estate site Redfin.

For the report, Redfin calculated the combined cost of every single-family home, condo and townhouse in a city by looking at home sales between April 1, 2013, and April 1, 2014. These sales were used as a representative sample of all homes in a city. The combined costs were then lined up next to the net worth of billionaires on this Forbes list. (You can find more about the methodology here.)

So for Seattle, Redfin calculated that 241,450 homes in the city are worth a combined $111.5 billion dollars. Bill Gates could afford each of the 114,212 homes they included in the Boston calculation (total cost: $76.6 billion), but he couldn’t buy every home in Seattle. The Walton family that founded Wal-Mart could afford every home in Seattle, but only if they teamed up. They could also afford every home in a lot of other cities, including Miami, Dallas and Washington.

Using the combined home prices on this list, some billionaires could settle for purchasing a few smaller cities rather than picking up one of the pricier options. Mark Zuckerberg, who reportedly spend more than $30 million last year buying up homes near his Palo Alto house, could take his Facebook money ($28.2 billion) and buy every home in nearby Berkeley ($25.9 billion, according to Redfin). Or he could decide to buy up a few Zucker-bergs (sorry) across the country, purchasing Corvallis, Ore. ($9 billion), Punta Gorda, Fla. ($10.1 billion) and Oak Park, Ill. ($7.6 billion) with $1.5 billion left over.

See the full list of billionaires and cities they could buy here. The primary purpose Redfin gives for putting this together?

Given that the average American struggles to afford a home, we wanted to illustrate just how many homes the wealthiest among us could buy.

Certainly a stark comparison between the buying power of the typical American versus the wealthiest. So is Redfin pushing hard here to criticize the .01%? It doesn’t appear that way. There is no indication how the differences between Gates, the Waltons, and others might be evened out to provide homeownership opportunities for more Americans. Or, is this more about page-clicks and driving traffic to their website? This is a relatively easy way to leverage their data capabilities and capitalize on recent talk about inequality.