Since 1994, the City of Seattle has maintained an ever-evolving growth management system called Toward a Sustainable Seattle, better known as the Comprehensive Plan. Its purpose is to generate projections of growth in population, jobs and density, and to monitor local needs for things like transit and environmental stewardship. The next major update to the plan, Seattle 2035, is currently in development. Among the many valuable questions in this process, one is of particular interest to our neighborhood: Will another Capitol Hill boom skew growth projections?
The Comprehensive Plan is the result of the Washington State Growth Management Act of 1990, state legislation that required each county and major city to study and plan for growth over long periods of time, updating at least every 10 years. How planners come up with the population projections is a complicated matter, and unexpected spikes in the past decade demonstrate how unpredictable population growth can be.
For example, a report from early 2009 by the City of Seattle shows a population of 592,800 people, which is growth just under 30,000 people from the 2000 census. The most recent census shows a Seattle population of 634,535 people, meaning that Seattle saw 107 percent of its eight-year growth after only four additional years. Seattle has grown every year since 2000, and shows no signs of stopping. That same 2009 report blames a slight dip in the rate of growth early in the decade to the economic recession of 2001, but the Great Recession of 2008 was a time when growth in Seattle actually sped up.
Capitol Hill has been a center for that growth. Whereas Seattle in general grew overall by eight percent between 2000 and 2012, Capitol Hill grew by over 24 percent, jumping from 35,262 people in 2000 to a current estimate of 46,427. What’s more, the sheer density of our neighborhood is staggering compared to citywide density. On average, Seattle puts 7,401 people in every square mile, but Capitol Hill packs in 11,722 people in the same space.
The reasons for Capitol Hill’s incredible growth over the past several years are many and often too subjective to pinpoint, including that infamous density. Ours is still a fairly young neighborhood, so there are fewer people with families, and is therefore capable of living in smaller spaces. There’s little need for a car, so there’s an economic incentive to settle on the Hill as opposed to a more far-flung neighborhood like West Seattle or Green Lake. Arts, entertainment, and jobs at multiple pay grades all contribute to Capitol Hill’s popularity.
All of this growth and density amounted to one, startling fact: a demographics report from the Department of Planning and Development in 2009 showed Seattle reaching 60 percent of 2005′s 20-year growth projections in just over four years. Aside from an unexpected mass migration, how could this happen?
The answer is in how some city departments calculate projected density. DPD specifically looks at zoning restrictions and makes estimates based on whether or not they believe zoning classifications or laws will change. Back in 2008, 65 percent of Seattle’s land was zoned for single-family homes, leading to an assumption that the city could only grow so much because there simply couldn’t be housing to meet greater demand.
In reality, a lot of zoning has changed in recent years and many developers have learned how to put dense housing in single-family areas regardless. Some have built multiple structures on a single-family lot, others have used loopholes in DPD and Office of Housing regulations to put dozens of people on a lot intended for an average of five. The latter is common in Capitol Hill, so much so that residents and community groups have spent the past two years fighting it.
As the June 2015 deadline looms for the Seattle Comprehensive Plan overhaul, the city shouldn’t make the same mistakes that it made in the first decade of the century. The first “Capitol Hill boom” toppled conservative population estimates and, among other things, spurred rapid rail growth and made density the watchword of city planners. Another boom could come over the next decade, and not just in Capitol Hill. Other areas like Ballard, South Lake Union and, to a lesser extent, Greenwood/Phinney are also expanding in a density-focused way. Whatever the new projections are, they’d be better off thinking in terms of what could be, not what currently is.