As our city continues to discuss how we grow, one phrase that we hear often is “Neighborhood Character.” Often the issue of Neighborhood Character is dismissed by urbanists as a tool to slow development. At the same time, we also see renters dismissed as being “transient” and somehow not real members of the community by some homeowners. Concerns about changes to Neighborhood Character that will draw in more tenants are what we hear from some of the loudest voices.
But what the hell does Neighborhood Character even mean? Often, from my perspective, people are referring to the horribly energy inefficient Craftsman homes. Or a really cool looking, energy-wasting Victorian. There are some great looking apartment buildings, townhouses, and row-houses – many of which leak heat something fierce.
That, however, is beside the point. When did we begin prioritizing buildings over people? Are the buildings what make neighborhoods great, or the people living and working in those buildings?
The unique nature of our neighborhoods in Seattle is pretty much awesome. What makes them unique, though, is the small businesses and the neighbors. Nowhere has this been amplified more than the recent explosion in Greenwood. The community response has been something amazing. As of this moment, nearly $35,000.00 has been raised to support the workers who all lost their jobs as a result of the explosion (BTW - take a second to kick in $5, eh?). People haven’t been sad about some old building being leveled – people are lamenting the loss of three local businesses, and the damage to other local businesses.
Support is coming to the workers not just from neighborhood homeowners, but renters. New residents. Old residents. Other small businesses. And this is what makes Greenwood such a fantastic neighborhood. Their retail core has a lot of great places to eat, drink, Karaoke, watch movies, caffeinate, shop for guitars. Greenwood businesses are well known to provide support to the neighborhood and neighbors – regardless of housing status. This is what Neighborhood Character means to me.
And the best way to keep our neighborhoods awesome? By being welcoming neighbors. I cringe when I hear people talk about renters as if they don’t contribute to the neighborhood. 52% of Seattleites are renters, after all.
Of course this means we need to allow more housing and housing types to be built in Seattle. Part of the initial HALA recommendations did just that by opening up opportunity for attached single-family units in historically single-family parts of the city. On this, I believe we lost opportunity for young families to be able to afford to become homeowners in our city, unless our city council shows the political will to move forward with pilot projects on duplexes and triplexes.
At the same time, our city must take steps to ensure small businesses can afford to operate in our commercial cores. This is one of the difficult pieces of the puzzle, as we move forward with more mixed-use development, more high-end and chain stores move into storefronts. Frankly, the cost per square foot of an older building is less than the brand new stuff. The affordability crisis extends to our small businesses in this regard. Fun fact: RCW 35.21.830 only bans rent control for residential structures. Just throwing that out there.
So next time you contemplate Neighborhood Character in your ‘hood, think about it – is it the buildings or your neighbors and small businesses that make it great? Of course we don’t want a bunch of hideous new structures built – but we do want energy efficient dwellings to help realize our carbon neutral goals. And, frankly, we can have buildings that add texture and are aesthetically pleasing that are also energy efficient (or, even better, use passivhaus technology).
Ultimately, though, I like to think we all want to be a little bit more like Greenwood – where residents new and old, renters and homeowners, small business owners and employees, all band together as community when disaster strikes. That is Neighborhood Character that I can get behind.