Op-Ed

What Raleigh can learn from Seattle

The Seattle skyline: Several reputable list say it’s a great/safe city for pedestrians.
The Seattle skyline: Several reputable list say it’s a great/safe city for pedestrians. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Seattle has a lot going for it. Innovative, home-grown companies. Natural beauty and recreational areas. Major league sports. A great university system.

But as we heard on the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce’s recent Inter-City Visit & Leadership Conference (ICVLC18), the city also has its challenges. Seattle is grappling with issues that we are facing – including growth, transit and affordable housing.

This year, 153 business leaders and elected officials attended ICVLC18 to learn what Seattle has done well and what lessons we can learn and apply to Raleigh / Wake County.

“Our region needs to get ahead of growth through collaboration and by having a tool kit filled with options,” said Jim Hansen, regional president of PNC Bank and the chair of ICVLC18. “Seattle missed opportunities and they are now playing catch-up. That’s definitely a lesson we can learn.”

What were some other takeaways?

Transit and Congestion

Seattle’s recently approved $54 billion bond is the largest transit expansion in the US. Some of the plans, we were told, have been discussed for half a century – with no action.

As a result, Seattle ranks sixth in the country with one of the longest commute times at 55 minutes. Our first speaker, Marilyn Strickland, president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, told us she left her house in Tacoma before 6:00 AM to ensure she made it to our opening day meeting on time.

On the flip side, more people than ever are taking the bus and riding bikes because Seattle has made it easy and convenient to do so. Bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes enables buses to avoid traffic. In the urban core, the bus comes every three minutes. Protected bike lanes make cycling safer.

“What I learned,” said Cary City Councilor Lori Bush, “is that we need to take action on big ideas and solutions before our challenges become major pain points.”

Affordable Housing

Seventy percent of Seattle’s land is comprised of single family homes. With 1,000 people moving to the area each week, supply has not kept up with demand, driving up costs. The city’s median home price is $820,000.

Seattle officials will tell you they’ve done too little, too late. A-P Hurd, author of The Carbon Efficient City and president of real estate firm, Skipstone, explained why. “Change is hard,” she said. “It’s hard for people to love what they can’t see.”

Seattle recently adopted mandatory inclusionary zoning, requiring developers to build affordable units or pay a fee in lieu. (This is not a legal option in North Carolina.) Additionally, leaders encouraged us to build denser, and revise zoning rules to permit “missing middle” housing – duplexes, townhomes, quads, condos – in single-family zoning districts.

Seattle allows accessory dwelling units (a hot topic here) but leaders said they are not a viable solution for their community. It costs about $300,000 to build a 1,000-square- foot unit in Seattle – triple the cost of Wake.

“My big takeaway is ‘plan, plan, plan,’” said Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane. She said the smartest thing we can do to address affordability is increase the number of housing units available – a sentiment echoed by Seattle officials.

Major League Soccer

Participants attended a Seattle Sounders game, along with 45,000 enthusiastic fans. Raleigh is currently vying for an MLS franchise, which made the experience particularly relevant. The team’s leadership offered the following advice: build your stadium downtown, and remember, it’s not just about the game.

The Sounders have worked with the community on important issues such as neighborhood revitalization, historic preservation, economic development, and job creation. For example, they chose to hire neighboring restaurants to provide food at Sounders games instead of a national franchise – a win for local restaurants. And the Sounders charitable arm is building soccer playgrounds throughout the city that are free and accessible to disadvantaged communities.

What’s Next?

If we learned anything in Seattle, it’s that leadership matters. Let’s act with urgency to face the challenges of growth and mobility. Let’s embrace change, even if we fear it. And let’s work in partnership – businesses leaders and elected officials – to move our region forward. As we learned in Seattle, it’s never too soon to take action.

Mary-Ann Baldwin served as a member of the Raleigh City Council from 2007-2017.
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