Just ‘take the bus’ doesn’t work in some Seattle neighborhoods


Parked cars crowd one side of 68th Avenue at the intersection with Dayton Street on Phinney Ridge, looking east towards Green Lake and the Cascades. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

And they say theirs is potentially just one example among many in a booming city where neighborhood needs and dynamics can vary greatly and where the public transit system is bursting at the seams, even as it’s still being built out to accommodate a growing metropolitan region.

“People need their car for living. What’s missing in this whole argument is: Commuting downtown is one need, but life is another need,” said Alice Poggi, a 40-year resident of Phinney Ridge and current president of the Phinney Ridge Community Council. She said city officials are overlooking the limits of public transportation, especially for aging residents and those with disabilities.

“They’re saying ‘take the bus, take the bus,’ ” she said, “but this is the cart before the horse.”

The concerns for her’s and other neighborhoods are rising after the Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan earlier this month adopted new citywide parking development regulations, which followed two years of public discussions. The new city law allows hundreds of new apartment units near “frequent transit” — such as those planned or under construction in the Phinney-Greenwood neighborhoods — to be built without parking spots for tenants’ cars.

City leaders say the new law will make housing cheaper to build — and thus, rents more affordable. New housing development near “frequent transit” shouldn’t be required to supply parking anyway because, city leaders argue, people who live near good transit service are less likely to own cars.

During the April 2 council meeting when the board passed the new parking regulations, the measure’s prime sponsor, Councilmember Rob Johnson, emphasized city findings he says show “a strong correlation for where people live without cars and where frequent transit exists.”

Johnson, who didn’t return a request seeking an interview for this story, deduced: “People are choosing to live in neighborhoods that have frequent transit when you don’t own a car, and that’s because that’s the only way to get around. So when we make it easier for developers to build buildings in and around frequent transit service and don’t require them to build parking, it will end up being beneficial for everybody.”

Many in these north-end neighborhoods and elsewhere in the city aren’t convinced.

Take Scott Nolte and his Taproot Theatre Company that’s operated off North 85th Street and Greenwood Avenue for more than two decades. The theater has no parking lot of its own, so it relies on nearby shared lots and neighborhood street parking to meet the demands of its 37,000 annual patrons.

Most of those visitors travel into Seattle by car from other parts of the city or places like Everett and Maple Valley. Traveling by bus isn’t practical for such patrons, Nolte says — especially when evening shows let out after 10 o’clock.

That parking setup has worked out well for years, Nolte said, but he now worries for the future of the theater because of the new parking regulations, which will reduce the amount of spaces available in the growing neighborhood.

Scott Nolte, president, CEO and producing artistic director of the Taproot Theatre Company, stands for a portrait across the street from the theater off Greenwood Avenue and North 85th Street in Seattle. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

“In my direst dream, at some point, my patrons are not going to be able to find a parking place and will not be willing to continue to subscribe,” Nolte said. “We’re going to get denser; not everyone is going to be able to use mass transit to get here, or bike, or walk. So, we are basically on a collision course to get more cars parking here whether we like it or not.”

Nolte and many Phinney-Greenwood residents worry that the new law won’t actually reduce the number of cars in their neighborhoods as city leaders argue it will. Rather, they predict, the greater population will force more cars into already limited areas, such as residential streets. Exacerbating the lack of supply, shared parking lots the community once used are disappearing to make way for those new apartment buildings.

“It’s an experiment, but it’s kind of a kamikaze flight at this point,” Nolte said of the city’s new law. “It just feels like we’re about to shoot ourselves in the foot for some idealistic standards that we’re actually not in a position to fulfill.”

Combating climate change and reducing Seattle’s carbon footprint has been one of the top priorities for Durkan, and she has the council’s support in her mission. She points to initiatives like the new parking regulations or her proposal for “congestion pricing” in the downtown core as means to support that goal of discouraging cars and encouraging public transit.

“What we want to do is get people out of single-occupancy vehicles into other alternatives,” Durkan said at a press conference earlier this month. “To do that, we have to have other alternatives that are real. There were a lot of questions, for example … on the new parking regulations. We made very clear that my position was: If we’re really going to reduce the amount of parking because there’s frequent transit service, we have to really believe that there will be frequent transit service.”

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