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Originally published Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Guest columnists

Growth can be an opportunity to create livable neighborhoods

Seattle neighborhoods are feeling the impacts of growth as we continue to add new jobs and housing throughout the city. In fact, the entire...

Special to The Times

Seattle neighborhoods are feeling the impacts of growth as we continue to add new jobs and housing throughout the city. In fact, the entire region is growing.

New growth projections by the Office of Financial Management (OFM) predict that King County will exceed OFM's earlier 2022 growth forecast by nearly 100,000 people. And the Puget Sound Regional Council expects 1.7 million more people — the equivalent of nearly three more Seattles — to the four-county region by 2040.

The Seattle region, for the first six years anyway, has grown somewhat faster than the 2002 forecasts predicted. Growth brings challenges, but also opportunities. Seattle is growing because of our strong regional economy and new jobs, our fabulous landscape and natural amenities, our many diverse and unique neighborhoods with new parks and new libraries. We are a desirable place to live for current and new residents — and that is a good problem to have.

How we accommodate growth, however, has a tremendous impact on our region's environmental, economic and social quality of life. And here, Seattle is getting it right in many ways.

Focusing growth in urban villages encourages compact and walkable neighborhoods that allow people to walk, bike or take transit to reach their homes, jobs and community services. The June 30 passage of the revised Multi-Family Tax Exemption program will encourage more housing options for a wider range of incomes in those neighborhoods. With today's challenges of global warming, there is simply no other conscionable way that we can grow.

The proposal before the City Council to update station-area plans before light-rail service begins is another step in the right direction. More people should have the opportunity to live and work close to light-rail stations, where they will have real transportation choices. Better station-area planning will let us leverage that multibillion-dollar regional transit investment to create vibrant, transit-oriented neighborhoods where people can live and businesses can thrive.

The greatest challenge is providing amenities and infrastructure to support the growing population. Again, Seattle has made a lot of progress on this front. The city has tripled bike and pedestrian funding in the past few years. Capped reservoirs will add about 76 acres of open space. The city's libraries have been renovated or replaced.

But as gas prices approach $5 per gallon, better transit is the critical amenity that Seattleites need. There is understandable frustration at overcrowded buses. The city will spend $12 million from 2008 to 2015 for 45,000 new hours of bus service from Metro — but that still won't meet the need.

Meanwhile, Metro is maxed out for additional funding, and their current funds are tied to a regional transit-allocation formula that does not give the agency sufficient flexibility to respond to ridership demands.

Help is on the way if Sound Transit board members allow citizens to vote on an expanded transit package to bring long-term relief to the region.

In Seattle, proposed streetcar lines would connect growing neighborhoods, including Ballard and Eastlake, to a downtown network. In the short term, however, we need Olympia to authorize new sources of revenue for transit to meet today's demand for choices.

There's no silver bullet. We need a variety of funding options, such as a sales tax on gas, toll revenues directed to transit, user fees like a carbon tax, or local options such as additional sales-tax authority for Metro, local gross-weight fees, or tax-increment financing.

The bottom line is that we are growing, and that growth will not stop in 2022. We need to continue planning to accommodate the next increment of growth in order to keep our region healthy and provide homes for our children. To this end, neighborhood-plan updates will be a timely opportunity for communities to revisit how they incorporate growth, as well as clearly prioritize — and in some cases, re-emphasize — current and future infrastructure and amenity needs.

While growth can be a burden to neighborhoods where plans are outdated or inadequate, it is also a chance to create a vibrant, livable urban environment. Throughout the city, buildings are being upgraded and reused, improving neighborhood quality.

In Phinney Ridge, for example, a small, family-owned grocery is expanding due to increased foot traffic from recent condo development. It's a happy moment for neighborhood-scale retail and the citizens of Phinney.

The challenge for all neighborhoods is to address the growth that is coming, and make certain it brings benefits to the community. Good transit service is a key component in ensuring thriving, livable neighborhoods.

Dan Cantrell is executive director of Futurewise. Jessyn Farrell is executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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