Anatomy of a NIMBY

Grief over growth is perennial, but it hasn't always been this bad. How a detente over development failed and fueled the rise of the modern neighborhood preservationist.

The language is apocalyptic; the tone, desperate. “Cancer,” “canyons of darkness,” “anguish, hopelessness, and loss.”

But these aren’t war-zone dispatches, nor recollections of a natural disaster. They’re public comments from a Seattle City Council’s land-use-committee hearing held earlier this year. It was there that aggrieved homeowners walked up to one of two smooth wooden podiums in City Hall’s Council chambers to vent the vexation they felt as they watched their communities “being torn apart” by development, as Capitol Hill resident the Venerable Dhammadinna put it.

“Elderly homeowners, the gay community, older women, and families are no longer welcome,” she told the Council, referring to the city’s mixed-density residential areas. “Our neighborhoods are shadowed by tall, bulky buildings. Gardens are being cemented, trees cut down. Those who can’t carry their bags of groceries up and down the hills are not invited into this dystopia.”

Building owner Katie Kulczyk choked back sobs as she described the high-density apartment building that had just been built next to her “lovely little two-bedroom townhouse” on Capitol Hill. The traffic congestion those new residents will create, she said, made the townhouse unlivable for her. “It shouldn’t always be about the people that are coming,” she said, prompting raucous applause from the audience. “What about the people that are here?”

The testimony was so consistent—or redundant, depending on your position—that a drinking game could have been fashioned from the proceedings: Take one shot whenever someone said “neighborhood character,” two for “transient.” Ravenna homeowner Suzanne Ferris, for example, said she was “emotionally devastated” by the microhousing units that had gone up nearby, which she called “hotels for transient people coming to the U-Dub.

“My inheritance, my husband’s family’s inheritance, is being ignored as you move forward in this juggernaut to develop,” she later added.

Through it all, committee chair Mike O’Brien kept his trademark aw-shucks smile plastered onto his boyish face, occasionally frowning or leaning forward to emphasize his empathy with some especially poignant point. Councilmembers nodding, the crowd politely angry: The whole scene played out as it had so many times before and since in the fight over Seattle’s growth. And though he naturally beams niceness the way the sun shines, O’Brien had additional cause to aim his nuclear-grade affability at the crowd of middle-aged white folks who mostly filled the Council chamber: They were his constituents, and it was an election year.

"The only thing slowing development now is that there aren't enough people to process the permits at City Hall fast enough."

Seattle is suffering an affordable-housing crisis—on this there is no debate. But the causes of and solutions to that crisis remain a well-gnawed bone of contention.

On one side is a faction known as “urbanists” by friends and “densinistas” by enemies. Their ideology begins with the premise that housing is a commodity. Like all commodities, its price follows the tug-and-shove of supply and demand. Right now demand is surging, and with supply sitting tight in its snug little single-family bungalow, cost is surging as well. An obvious solution follows from this narrative: Build more housing. Keep building until it catches up with supply, or rents will stay high and poor renters will either pay more than they can afford, move out of the city, or become homeless. As architect David Neiman puts it, “You gotta build as much housing as there is demand... [or] the whole housing market stays in a bidding war for scarcity, and poor people lose.”

On the other side of the debate are “neighborhood preservationists,” if you want to be polite, or if you don’t, “NIMBYs”—an acronym for Not In My Back Yard. In its most literal sense, “NIMBY” refers to hypocritical homeowners who support some project—a homeless encampment, a utility transfer station, a public-health clinic—as long as it’s located somewhere other than their own neighborhood. That is, it’s pejorative, denoting selfishness and dishonesty. But the term has evolved—at least among densinistas—to more broadly refer to opponents of development, whether they’re hypocrites or not.

The preservationists’ ideology starts with the premise that the capital costs of construction make new housing more expensive than old housing. Property owners with large debts to their investors are constantly squirming under the imperative to charge as much as possible in rents, while landlords of older buildings whose debts are paid off may have more wiggle room to leave rents be. Market-based housing development, they say, is synonymous with gentrification, displacement, and the sacrifice of Seattle’s soul for the sake of developer profits. As recent City Council candidate Bill Bradburd—whose campaign statements seemed to put him in the NIMBY camp—put it, “Market developers can’t build affordable housing—they can’t do it.”

This is a high-stakes debate. Seattle rent has increased by an average of about 60 percent since 2000, outpacing inflation by half. During the same period, Seattle’s population grew by about 17 percent. Booming costs have increased the pressure on poor renters as they play the cruel Tetris of Seattle’s bottom-shelf housing market.

Take Topher White. A restaurant worker and bike delivery contractor, he spends more than 80 percent of his income on rent, or $785 out of his roughly $900 monthly pay. Because of this, he says, “Really, really stupid things are barriers to me,” like having to choose between laundry and bus fare for a job interview. “It’s fine for six months,” he says, but then “having to pay so much of your money just for rent, it starts to crush your soul.” White’s not alone: He’s one of about 110,000 renters, or roughly one-sixth of the city’s population, that is “cost-burdened”—that is, paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent.

Both sides parade the poor in support of their position. If everyone cares about White’s plight, loves both affordable housing and Seattle’s green-urban character, then why do we have such explosive disputes over the minimum square-footage of an apartment, or how much car (and bicycle!) parking a new residential building needs? Whence the micromanagement of development, and whence the hollering?

Looking for answers, I spoke with some key activists in the fight for limited growth, plus some of their critics and a couple of old hands who have been here since time immemorial. The answers I found surprised me. I’ll bet you didn’t know that preservationists are fundamentally informed by a Marxist view of political economy, or that the city’s 1994 Comprehensive Plan was a high point for neighborhood/city relations, which took a nose-dive in the 2000s. Perhaps most important is the insight that our current battle over development has been going on for decades—long before the most recent boom—and is as much about people feeling as if they’ve been heard as it is about substantive questions of growth policy.

Growth has long been controversial in Seattle. By the 1960s—the same decade that the Space Needle signaled a city on the rise—Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Emmett Watson was leading the “Lesser Seattle” movement against city boosters who wanted the Emerald City to become the New York of the West Coast. He agitated his readers to “keep the bastards out” by spreading rumors of how unpleasant life was here, in hopes that the mossy utopia of old Seattle might avoid what former Seattle Weekly managing editor Fred Moody once called “the demons of ambition” and putative progress.

The city then was a battleground. Efforts to stymie the bisection of the city by the Interstate largely failed. But when developers and downtown business owners attempted to replace Pike Place Market with a giant development under the banner of “urban renewal,” a coalition similar to the current anti-developer alliance emerged and successfully stalled the plan. Then, between 1969 and 1971, massive layoffs at Boeing sucked the region’s economy into a sinkhole from which it wouldn’t emerge for years. Financing for the development project dried up and the preservationists declared victory.

The Boeing Bust ushered in a quieter time. Seattle abandoned its riotous growth for a soft slumber in which work was scarce and living cheap, as if Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman had a baby, except that the baby was actually a city, and that city had waddled out of the river of time and up the bank, where it took a 10-year nap. As Moody wrote in his 2003 Seattle and the Demons of Ambition, “A typical Seattleite got by on very little money and had all the time in the world to accomplish whatever it was he or she wanted to do,” which often included nature hikes, arts and crafts, and generally enlightened ne’er-do-welling. “Seattle [was] a city,” writes Moody, “where people chose to cultivate the mind and the soul, disdaining standard American upward mobility and status-seeking for a life in which people were essentially sympathetic with one another . . . ”

Think Haight-Ashbury with the volume turned down and expanded to cover an entire urban center. Current City Councilmember Nick Licata lived in a commune; Capitol Hill became gay; artists lived in Fremont. To many it was a golden age. And in many ways, it’s this idyllic decade that older Seattleites are thinking of when they pine for the Seattle that once was: Old Seattle, the Urban Garden before the Fall.

Then the ’80s happened. Microsoft started to take off, Boeing bounced back, Starbucks began to metastasize, and the Seahawks started playing like a real football team. Seattle slipped back into the rushing river of time. Moody again: “I looked back over the 1980s and saw them as a decade of gradual conquest of Lesser Seattle by Greater Seattle.”

That tech-driven ’80s economy has carried us to where we are today, a generation later: South Lake Union has been transformed into a glittering monument to yuppie hubris, while the Central District’s diversity is being blanched out by a growing affluent, largely white, population. Seattle is competing for prestige with A-list cities like New York and Los Angeles, even as homelessness has escalated into a civil emergency. And our wrestling match with growth shows no sign of ending anytime soon, as Amazon and its ilk continue to drag our economy by the scruff of its neck toward an inferno of prosperity.

Neighborhood preservationists are quick to point out that this prosperity is not equally shared by all residents of Seattle. By the ’80s, says activist John Fox, when “we saw the return of investment to Seattle and cities in general... the effect of that was the loss of low-income housing.” In other words, as money flowed into Seattle, space for poor people flowed out—precisely the same dynamic that Fox and other preservationists say they see today.

John Fox has been fighting bad development since 1977.
Photo by Daniel Berman

When I meet Fox, he’s sitting in his University District office, an old broom closet in a community center, murky with shadow, surrounded by the echoing screams of young children as they bolt down the hallway outside. The impression I take from this meeting is of a man with a tragic, maybe heroic, propensity to march head-on into an uncaring world. Roger Valdez, development lobbyist and arch-nemesis to Fox, calls him “one of the more principled opponents of growth that I’ve ever seen” based on Fox’s candor and intellectual honesty. A ruddy Irish intensity boils behind his eyes, which fairly bulge between the deepening wrinkles written into his cheeks like the expanding text of some epic novel. His face sparkles with animation as soon as I say the word “NIMBY”: “It’s an insult, and a gross mischaracterization.”

Fox co-founded the Seattle Displacement Coalition in 1977 to combat the housing-finance discrimination against black residents that was widespread in Seattle at the time. The University of Washington graduate student found himself gradually pulled more and more into the good fight against bad development—to keep Seattle, as the current slogan goes, “affordable for all.”

This quest for equity, he says, made his group a natural ally to neighborhood preservationists. “Poor people’s issues... dovetail, overlap with the issues of neighborhoods,” he says, pointing to concerns like access to green space and transit.

Underlying all this is the preservationist conviction that market development hurts housing affordability rather than helps it. “Developers are running roughshod over neighborhoods,” says Fox. “The only thing slowing down development now is that there aren’t enough people to process the permits at City Hall fast enough.”

The huge permit loads are a reality, says DPD spokesperson Bryan Stevens, though he contends that the city has it under control. “We continue to see some of the highest volumes of permit applications we’ve ever seen. Since working our way out of the recession, we’ve continuously hired to keep pace with the permit demand... [But] record permit volumes mean that in some cases, we might be delayed on our initial reviews by a couple weeks.”

“The impact of that,” says Fox, “is to cause massive displacement and loss of low-income housing.”

"We've kind of gone back to the way that things were done previously, and lost a lot of the goodwill that was created."

What about the supply-and-demand argument that we need more development to avoid a seller’s market in which rents get bid upward? Fox thinks that market-driven development, even if it increases housing supply, will drive gentrification, replacing older affordable housing with newer expensive housing. He advocates for tough city regulations requiring developers to include guaranteed-affordable housing (essentially a stronger version of what Mayor Ed Murray has recently proposed), and more broadly supports a “poly-centered” approach that directs much of Seattle’s growth into surrounding cities. To many development advocates, this makes him a NIMBY, whether he likes it or not.

Fox calls such advocates “neoliberal,” which is a red flag—a Marxist swear word that roughly translates to “evil capitalist.” And indeed Fox goes on to explicitly accuse densinistas of a “trickle-down—a kind of Reaganesque... economic analysis.” Failed Council candidate Bradburd uses “neoliberal” as well to describe his district’s victor, M. Lorena González. “I tried to point out,” he tells me on election night, “that Lorena is on the neoliberal side, perhaps unwittingly, because of identity politics. That’s a tactic of neoliberalism, to use identity politics.”

This is worth underscoring: When Bradburd and Fox look at a developer, they don’t see someone working to get the most use out of a property in a way that benefits everyone. Instead they see the One Percent squeezing the most profit out of the land in a way that is primarily self-serving. It’s a continuation, they say, of the deregulation and privatization that largely defined the Reagan era. This is part of why the debate over growth is so polarized: For Bradburd, Fox, and many others, the current wave of development in Seattle is part of a decades-long and international trend that amounts to an economic cleansing of poor people.

Fox’s ally, attorney and policy analyst Toby Thaler, puts it this way: “The people with wealth who own the property in the cities, and the lenders and their surrounding architects, lawyers, [etc.], want to increase the value of that asset. And the way you increase the value of that asset is to bring in more people, upzone it, develop it, sell it, flip it. And this goes back to fundamental Marxist theory.”

Neighborhood preservationists like Thaler and Fox are concerned that sunlight, smooth traffic, and the social capital of a neighborhood where everyone knows each other—all part of the “use value” of a less-developed Seattle, to use Marxist jargon—will be harvested by developers in the form of “exchange values” (that is, rent). For Fox & co., the process of development inexorably transforms publicly shared use values into privately owned and individually profitable exchange values—that is, revenue-generating rental properties. Thus, development doesn’t imply production of affordable housing so much as it entails gifting much of Seattle’s shared public wealth to the highest-bidding profiteer.

Valdez, the developer lobbyist, scoffs at this idea. “I think [Fox] has a ‘folkanomic’ view—this sort of folkloric view of economics,” he says. “That what happens is, you have seven or eight, or 70 or 80, units of affordable housing, and there’s these sort of salt-of-the-earth old fishermen living in [them]. And then this big, greedy developer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, comes in and buys the land and then throws all those people out and puts up a big fancy Escala-style tower. And it’s like, ‘John, that doesn’t happen. That’s a myth.’ ”

The absence of growth in the 1970s didn’t always translate into civic harmony. A city of hippies needs somewhere to focus its political energy, and it was into this context that Jim Diers entered one sunny day in the mid-’70s when he rode into Seattle in a tarnished orange VW station wagon. As economic activity began to ramp up at the end of the decade, he commenced to make a name for himself as your friendly neighborhood hell-raiser, organizing communities in the Rainier Valley and harassing elected officials who had turned a deaf ear to neighbors’ complaints. “We were pretty proud to be NIMBYs,” he says, “because we were fighting things like putting garbage incinerators in neighborhoods.” Out of that fight came Seattle’s citywide recycling program.

By the ‘80s, he says, neighborhood organizers became concerned largely with the effects of growth on Seattle’s soul as development began to speed up. “We were always fighting these developments after the fact,” he says, “and we’d like to be more involved with the front end.”

Charles Royer, mayor of Seattle from 1978 to 1990, confirms this. “Going back into the late ’70s,” he says, “we started getting an uptick in the economy.” That led to condo development, a housing shortage, and a city mood much like today’s, he says. “There was a lot of unrest in the neighborhoods... Vacancy rates were low, rents were going up. Nothing like the scale of what is happening now, but for those times the money impact was just as great.”

Given the tension between the city and the neighborhoods, no one was more pleasantly surprised than Diers when, in 1988, Royer appointed him to head the newly minted Department of Neighborhoods. This was the same mayor, after all, whose house he’d picketed and into whose office he’d once thrown a live chicken to protest Royer’s housing policy.

“It wasn’t just a chicken,” recalls Royer. “He brought a whole army of old people into the office right after I had built all this housing for the seniors in the city.” As the protesters waved a “Chicken Charlie” sign and the fowl crapped on the receptionist’s desk, the mayor thought to himself, This guy’s got something going.

“So I hired him,” says Royer. “I’m sort of surprised that he came to work for me. He was very good at what he did. People trusted him, and he wanted to do more than just criticize or sit on the sideline. He wanted to create stuff.”

Royer’s moves toward detente between the neighbors and the city government was continued by his successor Norm Rice, who, with Diers’ help, created the 1994 Comprehensive Plan. A masterpiece of statecraft, the Plan was the Magna Carta of Seattle densification, the road map that guided the city’s astounding growth over two decades. It demarcates 39 semi-autonomous “urban villages” that ultimately absorbed 75 percent of that period’s population growth. These villages were designed to be showroom models for the urbanist ecotopia of tomorrow: walkable mixed-use areas packed with people and amenities, a veritable city-as-buffet. But it also insulated single-family neighborhoods, which cover most of the city, from the biggest surges of development, because it funneled so much growth into urban villages like the University District, Ballard, and Capitol Hill. In this way, the Comp Plan tried and largely succeeded to have it both ways: lots of density in some areas and very little elsewhere.

Roger Valdez says preservationists are practicing folkonomics.
Photo by Daniel Berman

“When we first went through our first round of big growth planning in the ’90s,” says Valdez, who’s written voluminously about city land-use rules, “what the Rice administration did is it said, ‘Hey guys, neighborhoods, here’s the compromise: We’re going to take growth, but we’re only going to put it in urban villages, and we’re going to designate urban villages, draw a line around it, that’s where the growth’s going to go. And guess what? You guys get to decide what that growth looks like, to some degree, and in exchange you get infrastructure investment and amenities and good stuff.’

“And so what happened in the ’90s is you saw neighborhood activism transform from anti-growth, anti-Comp Plan, ‘We don’t want anything, don’t change it’ to ‘All right, as long as it’s coming and you’re going to put it over there, I want new sidewalks, and I want the school to get better bus parking, and I want street trees, and I want a design-review regimen for whatever happens in the core.’ ”

The plan wasn’t universally beloved. Resentment was strong enough to elect neighborhood activist Charlie Chong to the City Council, where he spent a little over a year. “Chong ran, essentially, against Norm Rice’s strategy for having urban villages,” says retiring Councilmember Nick Licata. Chong was a spiritual descendent of Emmett Watson, a devotee of the old Seattle that had worshipped neighborliness over business.

Yet even as Chong was rabble-rousing, the 1990s were a decade of relative harmony between the neighborhoods and the city. With Diers in the Dept. of Neighborhoods, its fund to match community contributions to neighborhood-based projects dollar-for-dollar ballooned from about $287,000 in 1989 to about $6 million in 2001 (in current dollars). Between 1988 and 2002, writes Diers in his book Neighbor Power, “Tens of thousands of [Seattleites] participated in implementing more than two thousand community self-help projects, such as building new parks and playgrounds, renovating community facilities, recording oral histories, and creating public art. Thirty thousand people guided the development on 37 neighborhood plans.”

Then, in 2002, the detente collapsed. Mayor Greg Nickels fired Diers on his first day in office and planning edicts from on high became the norm, according to Valdez. “The good thing about Nickels was, if he said it was 85 feet, boom, [a developer is] getting 85 feet. And he’d cram it through the Council and he would make it happen,” he says. “I don’t think [the Nickels administration] took [the Comp Plan] very seriously. They were just, like, ‘We’re going to do South Lake Union.’ ”

"In the '90s you saw neighborhood activists transfrom from anti-growth to 'All right, as long as it's coming, I want new sidewalks.'"

Neighbors who’d been lured into the sweaty crevices of the city’s planning bureaucracy retreated back into their warrens, alienated. Rice’s plan to concentrate density into urban villages continued, but the more basic project of grafting neighbors into the political process stalled. The emerald ship of Seattle sailed forward into a glittering, high-rise future, dragging a horde of bitter residents behind it.

Royers agrees with this assessment, though Nickels himself calls it “simplistic and inaccurate.” Nickels describes his relationship with neighborhoods as an attempt to hear all stakeholders without getting mired in the mud of Seattle Process. “I felt that... there had been a political culture that had encouraged people to not necessarily act in good faith when they came to the table,” he says. “We’d gotten to the point where the last person to say ‘No’ effectively had a veto over anything happening. . . . We worked very closely with neighborhoods throughout the city, and I think it was a very positive relationship. Now, there are folks who simply opposed anything happening, that felt that change was threatening and undesirable and unacceptable, and those folks probably don’t have a lot of . . . nice things to say about my time as mayor. But for the most part, we worked very, very well.”

Today, says Diers, “we’ve kind of gone back to the way that things that were done previously, and lost a lot of the goodwill that was created . . . The city really returned to more of a top-down way of doing its work, and when that happens, there’s a lot more distrust.”

The result is a politics of antagonism, in which only the most dickish survive. Politicians recoil from contentious public process, and thereby create the grumpy trolls who use public comment as an anger-therapy session. “Big mouths and small constituencies,” Diers calls it.

Those constituencies led a number of City Council candidates to run on anti-developer platforms this fall. In the District 4 primary, Tony Provine told voters he’d “Save Our Neighborhoods,” while in the general election, District 6’s Catherine Weatbrook stoked residents’ anger about the placement of a homeless encampment in Ballard and promised to push for lower building height limits.

But for many, Bill Bradburd was the new preservationist hope. Running on a campaign that promised to “Take Back Seattle!” from corporate interests, Bradburd initially filed with the intention of running against Sally Clark, who he thinks was too friendly to developers. When Clark left the Council for a job at the University of Washington, Bradburd found himself running against M. Lorena González, whose experience working as legal counsel in the mayor’s office made her, in his eyes, equally unaccountable to neighborhood priorities.

Like virtually all preservationists, Bradburd rejects the label of "NIMBY,” saying that he just wants the city to be an impartial arbiter between developers and neighbors. And, to be fair, he doesn’t automatically reject whatever urbanists want: For instance, he supports loosening restrictions on the construction of backyard cottages in single-family neighborhoods. Still, Bradburd fits squarely within the broader definition of NIMBY, with his de facto opposition to development, his Marxist-like politics, and his emphasis on neighborhood sovereignty. During the campaign, he called for Seattle to be “governed as a city of neighborhoods,” and his videotaped voter’s-guide statement begins like this:

Seattle is changing, and for many it is not changing for the better. Rapidly rising housing costs, traffic congestion, loss of familiar places and community because of gentrification. City Hall seems oblivious to communities’ concerns, and instead focuses on helping developers and corporations.

But all that sound and fury, in Bradburd’s race and elsewhere, failed to translate into election results. Across the city, voters chose more development-friendly candidates to sit on next year’s City Council. Bradburd himself was trounced by a more-than-three-to-one margin by his mainstream progressive opponent. Local media proclaimed the election a victory for densinistas. “The biggest winners in Tuesday’s election appear to be urbanists,” wrote Daniel Beekman of The Seattle Times.

Yet on the evening of his defeat, Bradburd was undeterred. At his election party in his Central District home, he wasn’t weeping or snarling into a bottle. His attitude hadn’t changed any more than his trademark gray chin-beard. He was the same as he had been on the campaign trail: wonky, intense, affable, voluble.

“Josh [Feit, of PubliCola] is trying to frame [the election results] like, ‘Oh, the neighborhoods are dead,’ ” Bradburd says. “And I don’t think that’s the case.” For Bradburd, this year’s election has just been one more battle in a war that’s far from over.

During his campaign’s wake, Bradburd could be heard talking shop with Josh Farris, a kindred radical who ran and lost in the District 2 primary election. As Farris was leaving, he turned and shook Bradburd’s hand.

“I’m good at yelling at City Council,” he said. “Let’s work together.”

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