Glimmers of Hope?

 
 

 

The Sunday Seattle Times offers a page full of graphs to support a rather grim view of the state's economic future. But that pessimistic view isn't necessarily supported by the graphs on the page. Economics is all about trends, and if you look at the trendlines over the past year, conditions look substantially brighter. We are clearly beginning to emerge from that deep hole in which the financial crisis buried us.

  1. Leading economic indicators for Washington have climbed to 116.3 by September, up solidly from 110.3 a year ago, suggesting we should expect slow but steady economic growth ahead.
  2. There are 4.27 online adds for every 100 workers in our labor force. That's up about 30% from 3.26 jobs per 100 workers a year ago. Maybe not enough to quickly bring down state unemployment which remains stubbornly high at 9 percent. But unemployment in the state is significantly lower than that national rate of 9.6%. And the jobs available are much higher than the 2.79 average for the nation as a whole.
  3. Boeing employment has been on a steady climb since hitting a bottom in May. Recent increases are small, but with the new 787 beginning delivery in the first quarter of 2011 and the 747-8 soon afterward, hiring should start to pick up.  
  4. The purchasing managers' index is 59.2, up solidly from 52.6 a year ago, and substantially higher than 54.4 for the nation as a whole..
  5. Retail sales showed a year-to-year gain of 4.2% compared to a 6% decline the year before.
  6. Cargo volumes at the Port of Seattle were up about 20 percent.

The stubbornly persistent bad news is in housinig, where sales are down and inventories remain high. Housing problems are likely to plague us for a long time. But even here there is a glimmer of hope. Net new drivers licenses granted, which tends to be a good proxy for migration into the state, shot up to 12,100 in September, nearly twice the level of last September. New arrivals in the state help to create new demand for all that excess housing we built during the boom years.

Creating an affordable, inclusive Puget Sound

Creating an affordable, inclusive Puget Sound

Making room for our growing population will require more density in urban areas as well as innovation in transportation and office use.
 
 

Seattle has an enviable problem. More and more people are moving to the Puget Sound, so many that, by some estimates, the region’s population could increase by one million residents by 2040. At the same time, Seattle is constrained geographically by water and hills. Our topography is scenic and beautiful, but it also makes it difficult to build new housing.

Further complicating matters, approximately 65 percent of Seattle’s land area is zoned for single-family residences. The hourglass shape of Seattle, at its widest point—between Ballard and Magnuson Park, along 65th Street—is zoned for the lowest density. Meanwhile, the area zoned for the densest development—downtown—is narrowest and where land is most scarce.

Water, land and zoning regulations: these are the facts. If population trends continue, how will people live in our city? As Seattle densifies, how can design provide a more humane environment and housing that all residents can afford? These are some of the questions I’m interested to explore at a panel discussion on October 5, “Seattle 2040: Where Will All the People Live?” at NBBJ’s Seattle office.

 

As an architect, I’m particularly interested in how we might insert greater density, for people of all incomes, into our existing street network including the single-family areas that constitute such a high proportion of Seattle. Mother-in-law apartments, residential units over garages, duplexes and townhouses are just a few options. Done right, we could increase density and affordability without dramatically changing the character of those neighborhoods.

This November a major ballot initiative, Sound Transit 3, could raise billions of dollars to expand light rail. If that happens, it would substantially increase the number of transit-oriented centers in our region, which would lessen the impact of building because we could spread it across more light rail stations.

There are other options. We could look at reusing and densifying public rights-of-way. High-rises like the “no-shadow tower” could mitigate the impacts of tall building on the urban environment. Or driverless cars might create a new transportation system in the next 25 years that fundamentally changes how we get around and where to encourage development.

If you think about the design of office space, 25 years ago, a majority had a private office with limited public amenities; now office space is moving in the other direction, asking people to have less personal space at their desk, but having access to a wider range of shared amenities. I almost think we need a similar approach whereby people move from large single-family houses to smaller homes or apartments. The key to making this work is to have access to more shared, semi-private amenities or nearby public open space.

Some of the issues Seattle faces also challenge many other U.S. cities, but these challenges cannot be solved by design firms single-handedly. A city’s growth affects everyone, young and old, rich and poor, newcomers and long-time residents. We are in this together, and it will require everyone to bring about our shared future. 

David Yuan, AIA, LEED AP, is a partner at global architecture and design firm NBBJ.