Headed for Tomorrow. Future Seattle May Look Very Different.
No parking downtown. Office buildings repurposed for affordable housing. The Seattle of the future will look very different. Here’s why that’s a good thing.
By Rob Smith June 16, 2022
Years before they became coprincipals at Seattle’s Spectrum Development, Jake McKinstry and Gabe Grant got a clear glimpse of Seattle’s future.
McKinstry’s education came courtesy of a three-year stint as a member of Seattle’s Planning Commission. He became keenly aware of the city’s considerable challenges around zoning, transportation and urban density. Grant spent his time on the city’s Housing, Affordability and Livability Agenda, a body that devised 65 strategies for addressing housing affordability in Seattle, including the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan for new zoning requirements in 27 urban villages throughout the city.
“That’s why we’re mission-based and focused on the community impact we can make,” says McKinstry, whose company focuses on housing around transit-oriented development. “We do a lot of workforce housing for our missing middle, those people that are priced out of high-end, market-rate housing and don’t qualify for affordable housing.”
One theory of urban development suggests that cities undergo dramatic evolutions every 25 to 30 years.
If you think Seattle has changed since Microsoft and then Amazon began to reshape it in the 1990s, brace yourself. You may not recognize the Seattle of 2040.
Picture this: Parking downtown is almost nonexistent, creating safer, more walkable streets. Housing and retail development around transit stations — already a priority — intensify as the public transportation network becomes more robust. Funding and consensus finally materialize around long-discussed plans to widen downtown’s Third Avenue, creating vibrant, welcoming storefronts as buses and trolleys traverse the middle of the street.
Efforts to resolve homelessness focus on root causes like housing affordability, not just on risk factors such as mental health and drug use. In the same vein, single-family zoning is either abolished or severely restricted as condos and apartments become more commonplace, even in the suburbs. Repurposed downtown buildings boost inner-city housing stock as remote and hybrid work environments increasingly become the norm.
“This is all going to create a new renaissance, really, where central business districts, here and elsewhere, are going to reinvent themselves around people instead of work,” says Doug Demers, senior managing principal at consultant B+H Advance Strategy in Seattle. “It will be very powerful and, at the same time, reinvigorate all the bedroom communities and beyond to create new alternatives.”
As a new transplant to Seattle five years ago, Gregg Colburn was alarmed by the ubiquitous suffering of people living in squalor on Seattle’s streets. As an academic who studies housing, he was struck by the lack of a clear consensus on its cause.
Colburn, an assistant professor of real estate in the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments, has become perhaps the region’s most trusted and credible voice on the root causes of homelessness. He recently coauthored an entire book on the subject in which the title explains it all: “Homelessness Is a Housing Problem: How Structural Factors Explain U.S. Patterns.”
He says Seattle’s future, in large part, depends on its ability, and willingness, to fix what he calls an “acute crisis.”
“Everyone agreed it was a huge problem and was getting worse,” Colburn says, “but it was a little bit of a whack-a-mole strategy. There was no coordinated understanding of what was driving the crisis. Unless we, as a community, understand the root cause of the drivers of this crisis, we won’t fix it.”
King County authorities say almost 41,000 people were homeless at one point in 2020.
Colburn heard it all: Homelessness primarily stemmed from poverty. It was caused by drug use, mental illness, generous benefits that led to laziness, high unemployment. Colburn’s academic mind went into overdrive. Why was homelessness so much worse in Seattle (and other major cities such as San Francisco and New York)?
Colburn and coauthor Clayton Page Aldern analyzed 30 cities across the country. What they discovered intrigued and surprised them. Fast-growing cities such as Charlotte, Phoenix and San Antonio have increased their housing stock to keep pace. Seattle hasn’t. A 2020 study by Up For Growth and ECONorthwest finds that between 2000 and 2015, the state “underproduced” housing by approximately 225,600 units, or 7.5% of the total housing stock at the time, creating a supply and demand imbalance “that is reflected in the housing and homelessness crisis” in communities across the state.
Colburn and Aldern learned that St. Louis, Cleveland and Detroit have higher rates of poverty but lower rates of homelessness. The homeless population in Detroit, for instance, is about “one-fifth” of Seattle’s, Colburn says. Cities throughout Arkansas, New Hampshire and West Virginia have high rates of drug abuse but relatively low rates of homelessness.
While several risk factors contribute to homelessness, Colburn says they don’t explain its root causes: rising rental rates and a lack of affordable housing. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a minimum-wage employee in the Puget Sound region would have to work 70 hours per week to afford to rent a modest, $1,247 one-bedroom apartment.
Colburn suggests that one answer may be to eliminate single-family zoning throughout the city. That isn’t as radical as it sounds. Minneapolis and other major cities have already done that, and attitudes here may be changing. A recent survey by polling firms Quinn Thomas and DHM Research found that slightly more than half of King County residents surveyed supported getting rid of single-family zoning in favor of more apartments and condos in both the city and suburbs.
That’s already happening. An analysis by Storage Café shows that more than 156,000 building permits were issued for multifamily units in the past decade, a staggering number that places the Seattle region behind only larger cities New York City, Dallas, Los Angeles and Houston. Single-family homes accounted for 89,000 permits.
“We have to think about how we construct our city. Seattle has now gone from kind of a sleepy Pacific Northwest city to a major global hub,” Colburn says. “No one talks about single families owning in Manhattan because in New York City it’s laughable. But yet we still think that we can be a major global city and have people living in single-family homes within a 10-minute drive of, say, Lumen Field, and watching the Seahawks. That is a luxury that doesn’t exist in most global cities. It doesn’t exist in Europe and it doesn’t exist in Asia, but for whatever reason, we are really tied to that.”
Demers, of B+H, says the city’s future will increasingly revolve around its neighborhoods, in no small part because the new hybrid and remote work environment is here to stay. Downtown Seattle will remain the center of activity and innovation, but there’s no longer a need to commute for work. Many downtown-area office buildings could become prime candidates for repurposing, whether for housing, hospitality or other uses.
“Affordable housing is a big piece. There needs to be enough product,” Demers says. “The opportunity is to reinvent the places where we come together and to take the real estate and recast it. It’s going to be painful for cities like Seattle and Portland. Concrete and steel buildings are going to sit empty or partially empty for bits of time. But eventually they’ll be repurposed with alternative strategies.”
Demers predicts developers will repurpose buildings — a costly endeavor — because they’ll find themselves reacting to the growing desire for “biophilic” design, or a keen focus on connectivity to the natural environment. Several developments across Seattle (the Fremont neighborhood is a good example) already boast biophilic-type elements, including solar panels and rain gardens to reduce stormwater runoff.
B+H is so focused on the Seattle of tomorrow that it even employs a futurist, Jill Jago, whose official title is director of strategy. Though transportation continues to be the city’s weak point, she notes that the region has spent tens of billions of dollars to upgrade its public transportation system in recent years, including several new light rail stations. Sound Transit, for instance, has opened lines serving the University District, the Roosevelt neighborhood and Northgate. More are planned.
For Seattle to become a true 30-minute city — a concept that work and personal activities should all be located with 30 minutes of walking, cycling or public commuting distance from home — she proposes what many will consider a radical idea: Eliminate most forms of street parking in the urban core.
“We will not stand up to the car culture,” Jago says. “And it’s the key difference between the U.S. and any other country in the world, in Europe, in Asia.”
Changes are also in store for downtown’s Third Avenue, an unattractive, gritty street with narrow sidewalks, rampant traffic congestion and a constant flow of transients. The Downtown Seattle Association released a report prior to the pandemic containing several big ideas, including creating a three-lane street (it’s now four lanes, two in each direction); adding a median in the middle of the road where pedestrians could catch buses; adding a transit shuttle and hub; and diverting some bus traffic to Second and Fourth Avenues.
“Third Avenue should be a welcoming retail experience with buildings that foster public life,” the report states, adding that retail options on the street, one of the busiest transit corridors in the United States, are “inadequate” and that the street feels unwelcoming and unsafe. The report notes that Third Avenue lacks public spaces and that office and government buildings dominate the corridor.
That “street activation” is crucial to creating a sense of place and destination. Dani Cone, the cofounder of the two popular Cone & Steiner neighborhood markets, says world-class cities highlight small, locally owned shops.
She’s particularly focused on the Seattle Restored Project, a collaboration of local powerhouse organizations (Seattle Good Business Network, Shunpike) with support from the city’s Office of Economic Development. The goal is to fill vacant storefronts from Belltown to Capitol Hill with art and small business pop-ups. She predicts that those types of efforts, along with the ambitious, $760 million seawall project on Seattle’s waterfront, will have “game-changing impacts” in the city.
At Spectrum Development, Grant and McKinstry are banking on continued investments in the transportation system that will increasingly create transit-oriented development. They have already completed several such projects, including one that’s steps from the Othello Light Rail Station, Orenda at Othello Square, a 176-apartment community on top of Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. Forty percent have a 20-year affordability commitment.
National developers are taking notice. Indianapolis-based TWG, in partnership with nonprofit LifeWire, will soon break ground on a multifamily development in Kirkland, Grata at Totem Lake, that will reserve all 125 units for those earning no more than 60% of King County’s area median income. The project is supported by the Evergreen Impact Housing Fund, which received a $50 million donation from Microsoft last year.
Spectrum recently launched two large apartment projects adjacent to Shoreline’s future south light rail station targeted to workforce renters earning between 70% and 120% of median income.
“With so much recent growth in our urban communities, we find ourselves at a critical juncture in our city’s future,” says McKinstry, a Seattle native and national expert in mixed-use and affordable housing. “If Seattle handles its future well, it will be a city of diverse, interesting neighborhoods that are filled with a variety of housing typologies.”
Colburn says it all boils down to political will. “So, it could cost $10 billion to create 35,000 units of housing for the lowest of the low-income folks in Seattle. It’s a lot of money, $10 billion,” he adds. “But when you actually look at it with respect to the state budget of Washington, you wouldn’t even notice.”