As a bastion of liberal values, Seattle is proud to be the capital of what some call Ecotopia. But local advocates of sustainable cities—densely packed urban landscapes with a mix of residential, commercial, industrial, and retail uses—are battling with Seattle’s neighborhood activists who, ironically, are using environmental regulations to stop construction of green-friendly buildings that would dramatically reduce energy use. Filing appeals based on the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) and the Growth Management Act (GMA), the activists have worked against the construction of two buildings, the Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill and the Stone34 project in Fremont. Both projects are part of the city’s Living Building Pilot Program, which offers various exemptions from land-use and building codes to new buildings that meet a set of rigorous standards—most notably, that they use just one-quarter of the energy and water of typical buildings.
When a developer proposed some modest additional exemptions under the LBPP, the city council caved to pressure from opponents and opened an extended debate about the developer’s motives. As local writer and urbanist Dan Bertolet wrote with exasperation, “Why is there a debate at all? It’s just plain embarrassing that in a city that talks so loud and proud about sustainability, once again we have such hand wringing over a modest piece of legislation that is so obviously the right thing to do.” Meanwhile, just this week, with almost no debate, the council passed emergency legislation banning some small-lot development, because three-story houses are “too big.”
What might be called the Seattle problem—simultaneously pushing for good things while setting limits on them—extends beyond green building to density and housing affordability. City officials hold conventional liberal views about land-use economics. They’re smart, educated, and even wonky people who love data, legislation, regulations, and process, process, process. They worry that clearing the way for more sustainable building will allow developers to “laugh all the way to the bank,” while poor people struggle to find affordable housing. In reality, low housing supply coupled with increasing demand and costs means higher prices, but Seattle’s leaders are ideologically averse to loosening regulations to increase supply. Instead, they control prices with mandates, slowing housing production and attenuating supply as demand increases—a recipe for still higher prices.
The Seattle City Council has taken a few positive steps. The council recently passed a regulatory reform that eased costly minimum-parking requirements for new development, which Matthew Yglesias touted as a move toward parking regulated by markets, not mandates. Yglesias acknowledged, though, that the modest reform makes Seattle’s parking regulations only “less bad.” And the city council continues to listen to neighborhood opponents of green buildings and multifamily housing projects. The critics, mostly from single-family neighborhoods, worry about views, parking, and change in general. Their intransigence is sabotaging housing supply in Seattle and making it harder for developers—for-profit and nonprofit—to meet increasing demand. Resistance to growth slows the permitting process, limits density, and keeps the price of existing single-family homes inhabited by development opponents out of reach of most first-time homebuyers. Who’s really “laughing all the way to the bank” in Seattle?
So far, Seattle’s struggle over these issues is more intellectual than political—after all, it’s a one-party city. Green buildings stopped by environmental regulation? Trying to reduce housing price by increasing costs? The cognitive dissonance may provoke a distinctively Seattle solution: sustainability through free markets and less regulation. A Seattle solution could be both self-interested and compassionate, based on broadly construed rules and regulations but not averse to risk, while assuring opportunity—but not outcomes. More markets and less regulation could make Seattle a truly sustainable city.