Saturday, July 31, 2021

Problems with Seattle's Urban Villages might Prompt more Thought on Our Salem

The other day the Seattle Times had a front page piece on their "urban village" zoning concept from a generation ago.

The idea was to accommodate newcomers, revitalize the city and curb sprawl in the suburbs. The strategy, adopted in the 1990s, funneled new apartments, townhouses and condos into about two dozen neighborhood hubs, along with shops, parks and buses.

Nearly 30 years later, with Seattle’s population approaching 800,000 and the median home price recently topping $900,000,”it’s time to probably refresh,” Rice said in a recent interview....

The analysis recommends that the city change its zoning laws to allow more housing types in areas outside the urban villages that are now reserved for single-family homes. It also recommends the city adopt strategies to support low-income residents and residents of color who want to rent or own homes throughout the city.

Seattle Times, front page July 2021

Seattle's plan of course was for a metro considerably larger and more urban than Salem, with hubs commensurately larger also, but there are still some analogies with our hubs and the considerable swaths of mixed-use areas proposed along the great arterial corridors in the current draft of Our Salem.

Much of the proposed change is
for arterial corridors
Our Salem map

If problems with the detail don't always match up, problems with the general structure and vision do.

In both cases, the plans still work too hard to protect single detached housing and confine apartments and more affordable housing to restricted areas.

A resident and climate journalist critiques.
see the whole thread

A climate journalist who also lives in Seattle says that the "strategy of funneling all new growth into narrow corridors built around car a...disaster."

That sounds a lot like the approach in Our Salem.

By itself this does not prove Our Salem is on the wrong track, but it is evidence that we need to think bigger, not smaller, if we are to avoid the same problems Seattle finds itself needing to solve.

Happily, revisions along those lines are also consistent with ways we still need to strengthen the plan to meet our climate goals.


Susann Kaltwasser said...

What I find so frustrating about Our Salem is that when we ask cogent and important questions of staff like 'did you do a feasibility study of HUBs or R4 zones," they say no. In other words they are proposing major changes in development patterns without knowing if they can actually be built. They looked at neither building standards to see if existing houses can be converted or done an analysis on whether a no onsite parking rule is even possible in R4.

I asked a question of a leading Salem architect recently. "Does it seem possible that a person would replace a standard Salem single family house with a triplex?" The answer was probably not. At $200 a square foot for construction, the only way a person might even consider replacing a house is if it either was in such decline that it essentially had no capacity for being remodeled or if it was already destroyed by fire or other natural disaster.

If you had a 6,000 sq ft lot in a Salem subdivision that is about 40 years old it would sell for between $300,000 to $350,000. In theory a person could tear down that house and build a triplex or 3 narrow houses (houses that are about 15 ft wide) or a rowhouse that had 3 units. I should mention that this 6,000 sq ft lot is generally 60 ft by 100 ft. Current lots built since 1990 average a bit smaller (5,600 sq ft) with a minimum of 45 ft of street frontage.

So if you wanted to build something that was around 1000 sq ft per unit that converts to a cost of about $600,000. Add that to the original investment of $350,000, the cost is about a million dollars. How much do you think it would take to pay a loan off in 30 years? Now someone might contest my calculations (and I welcome that), I estimate that after taxes, insurance and maintenance you might be able to put 2/3 of whatever you charged in rent towards the loan payment. Rent would have to be at least $1500 a month per unit. And at that rate there would be no profit to live off of. You could live in one of the units, but you would still need to pay rent on your unit. In 30-years you might be able to see an income. Not many people are going to do this.

Big developers do math too. They know that building such housing is not profitable unless you are doing a lot of them in one other words apartment complexes.

So, just like in Seattle I'm not looking for what is being proposed in Our Salem creating a lot of measurable change and very little if any affordable housing. It might actually destroy current affordable housing with upscale new housing. At least that is what Portland has found happens when they installed these new codes.

I recently asked Planning staff about ADUs. Seems not too many have been built. Some are just adding a bedroom and bath with a separate entrance and some are garage concessions. I got a list of a few that are visible from the street and might drive by to see what they look like. But a few done each year is not a good strategy for how to accommodate 45,000 people to Salem over the next 15 years.

People who are studying this Comprehensive Plan process are not very hopeful.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

You are right that many of these options are not yet buildable here, and that Our Salem may be overselling the possibilities sometimes, but just because something is impractical or has a budget that doesn't pencil out is not by itself a reason not to adopt it.

See this interesting discussion about Portland's recent housing reforms:

"We Ran the Rent Numbers on Portland’s 7 Newly Legal Home Options:
Here are the three options we think can start to be built today - and five things we learned from this math."

They also temper fears that housing reform means lots of immediate change, "destroying current affordable housing with upscale new housing," as you say:

"On most urban lots, legalizing smallplexes would mean nothing at all for many years.

Whenever a city discusses this sort of proposal, many people leap to the conclusion that because four is more than one, legalizing fourplexes on any lot will mean that every lot will become a fourplex.

I sympathize. It’s exactly how I used to think this stuff worked myself.

These figures show why it doesn’t.