A Win for NIMBYs and YIMBYs

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A backyard cottage in Ballard

I can still hear my John Muir Elementary School teacher admonishing us hyperactive second graders that “haste makes waste.” Recent decisions suggest the city of Seattle could learn from that.

Earlier this month a city hearing examiner found that the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development had not done its homework on proposed legislation to allow more backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments in single-family neighborhoods. Generally, these are a good thing for many of reasons: they provide more housing, they can help current homeowners stay in place.

Mother-in-laws have been allowed since 1993 and cottages, on a limited basis, since 2006. Relatively few cottages—technically known as Detached Accessory Dwelling Units, or DADUs—have been built, so the city council’s Mike O’Brien proposed to ease restrictions on them by not requiring parking places be provided, allowing them on smaller lots, allowing them to be bigger and taller, and removing the requirement that the property owner live on site for at least six months of the year. Some 82,000 lots throughout the city would be eligible for such units.

The Queen Community Council objected to the city’s approval of the plan arguing that its impact hadn’t been fully studied and its impacts had been dismissed as “non-significant,” although the arguments for it were that its impact would, in fact, be significant. The Office of Planning hoped that it would unleash a flood of needed housing in single-family neighborhoods. Skeptics said that might be true, but as written, it might also unleash a new level of gentrification because commercial developers could buy properties and drive up their values. In other words, instead of it being a grassroots way to create more affordable housing, it could create more unaffordable housing and displacement, especially in South Seattle.

The hearing Examiner found that the city did not comply with the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) by failing to do a thorough, unbiased study of the possible impacts of the ordinance, and has ordered Seattle do a full Environmental Impact Statement. It admonished the Office of Planning for becoming cheerleaders and rushing approval instead of doing its homework. 

There is a temptation for many agencies to take shortcuts. In January of this year, the same hearing examiner, Sue A. Tanner, also found the city had done an incomplete environmental review of a controversial mountain bike trail in the Cheasty Green Belt and was therefore out of compliance with SEPA. She reversed the Parks Department’s approval of the project.

Personally, I hope the EIS of DADUs finds that some version of ordinance will work—I favor keeping the residency requirement, but also think more and larger units are a good,even necessary, idea. I also think the examiner is right to require a better, fuller analysis.

Backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments are not the answer to housing needs, but they are part of it. They won’t replace the need for more multi-family housing on a larger scale, but they can be a useful piece of the urban puzzle. I also think that data should not be the enemy of either NIMBYs or YIMBYs. Better and fuller environmental review is a good thing.

Bellevue's University Bookstore to Close, but the East Side Keeps Its Edge

Bellevue's University Bookstore to Close, but the East Side Keeps Its Edge

Bellevue is in many ways more “urban” than Seattle now—certainly, it’s racially more diverse, which is complete flip from the white-bread suburbs of the ‘60s and ‘70s
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Berger supervising a photo shoot of Bill Gates and Brian "The Boz" Bosworth in 1988

The news that the University Bookstore is closing its downtown Bellevue location next month is hardly big news. Bookstores have had to close, move and adjust to changes in the book biz. Elliott Bay relocated from Pioneer Square and now thrives on Capitol Hill. Amazon—blamed for driving many small independents out of business—has opened a dead-tree bookshop in University Village and another in Portland. Change happens.

Still, the news spurred memories of the not-so-distant past when the U-Bookstore’s move to Bellevue in the early ‘80s was part of a wave of urbanization—you could call it the “Seattleization”—of the Eastside suburbs. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Bellevue became of the focus of what became known as “Edge City” city building. Skyscrapers popped up, much to the surprise of Seattleites who looked east and saw high rises. Between them and the Cascades.

There were other signals. Microsoft moved to Bellevue in 1979, before settling in Redmond, and became the vanguard of the Silicon Forest. In 1976, Starbucks opened its first outlet in Bellevue, and today the oldest Starbucks in Bellevue sits in a strip mall across from Bellevue Square on NE 8th and just around the corner from the U-Bookstore. Crossroads shopping center revamped as a kind of suburban mall-meets-Pike Place Market with a newsstand, bookstore, public chessboard, and a catalyst for social services. The demand for “third places” in the suburbs—often criticized as a desert of “no place” cul de sacs—was growing.

That growth was nurtured by other developments. In 1976, Bellevue got its own daily newspaper, the Journal-American, so Starbucks goers had first-rate local news and columns to read over their lattes each morning. In the late ‘80s, the statewide magazine I worked for, Washington, which had launched in Bellevue in the mid-80s, did a cover story on the fact that two major national celebrities were based on the Eastside: Bill Gates and Brian “The Boz” Bosworth. One seemed to reflect a new braininess in the ‘burbs, the other a kind of brazen, bleached Seahawks celebrity whose attitude suggested an in-your-face approach far different from quiet good guys suburban dads like Steve Largent. It seemed like the Eastside was an Edge City gaining some edginess.

In 1990, Seattle Weekly launched a sister paper on the Eastside. I was the editor and publisher and we arrived because we saw the changes of the ‘70s and ‘80s—the spread of cafes, the yearning for arts, the demand for urban amenities and services—increasing. An essential part of that was reflected in moves by chains like University Bookstore were a sign that a new kind “psychographics” was emerging, a population that wanted something more than split-level, bedroom community isolation. A population of readers, for one thing, that didn’t want to have to cross a bridge for culture, or good coffee.

The trend has been a steady, prosperous for Bellevue and the Eastside. Bellevue is in many ways more “urban” than Seattle now—certainly, it’s racially more diverse, which is complete flip from the white-bread suburbs of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It is now a majority minority city—the largest in the state!

Bellevue used to be Ronald Reagan country, but has been shifting “blue” politically since the early ‘90s. Light rail is coming, the cranes are still building, and the Edge City is now a big city in its own right. The seeds for that vision were planted long before the University Bookstore came to downtown Bellevue to serve hungry minds.

But the U-Bookstore’s move to Bellevue in the ‘80s was like an indicator species signaling to Seattleites and Eastsiders that the Puget Sound ecosystem was shifting. And boy, have they.