What is the “Missing Middle?”
by Judy Bardin
The City’s “Missing Middle” (MM) plan envisions one of the biggest land-use changes ever proposed in Olympia. Its stated goal is to increase housing variety and supply and, therefore, affordability. Will that be the result?
There are 43 provisions in the plan and it is complex. It is also being implemented very quickly. After a City Council charter and a behind-the-scenes workgroup process, it was formally introduced in November, 2017. It’s scheduled to shoot through the Planning Commission to the City Council for approval in March, 2018. It will cause a virtual up-zone of a quarter to one-third of Olympia’s single-family neighborhoods by allowing a greater intensity of use.
The MM covers ten different types of housing, ranging from small units such as tiny houses and accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—currently allowed in single family neighborhoods —to multi-unit structures such as courtyard apartments (up to 12 units) and tri- and fourplexes that are not currently allowed in these neighborhoods (except on a limited basis).
Under the MM plan, these aforementioned multi-unit structures will be allowed in neighborhoods zoned single-family (now 4-8 and 6-12 units/acre) if they are within 600 feet on both sides of a bus route; within 600 feet of commercial areas; and in all R6-12 zones, which includes much of Northeast Olympia and parts of West and Southeast Olympia. Also newly proposed for R6-12 zones are single room occupancies (SRO’s)—otherwise known as rooming houses. To put these distances into perspective: 600 feet is about two blocks. In addition to our busiest streets, buses run down streets such as Decatur, Rogers, Bowman and Division on the Westside; Miller, 26th, Friendly Grove, Bethel, Puget and Pine in the Northeast; and Boulevard, North, 18th, 22nd, and Eastside, in the Southeast.
Beyond multi-unit structures, a number of other mechanisms are proposed to increase intensity of use. Some include: allowing a 50% density bonus for cottage housing; cutting by almost half the minimum lot width required for duplexes, tri- and fourplexes; and increasing the allowed height of ADUs to two stories, and eliminating their parking requirement.
What are the pitfalls of the Missing Middle?
Housing units like tiny houses and ADUs have large public appeal, but there are no requirements to make them affordable for people of limited means. Being smaller does not guarantee a lower price.
Olympia’s close-in neighborhoods affected by the plan are largely built out and contain modest homes, many of them rentals. To build multi-unit structures, more than one lot would usually be needed, thus leading to tear-downs of existing homes. The first houses to go are the less expensive ones, the low hanging fruit. Beyond that, the economics of financing a property, tearing down a house, and building anew means that the new units will be expensive—eventually gentrifying a neighborhood and forcing lower income folks out. Additionally, there are environmental concerns such as loss of green space, more polluting storm water run-off, and excessive demand on existing sewers, roads and schools.
The MM plan also appears to supplant a city commitment to work with the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations (CNA) and help people develop sub-area plans to shape their neighborhoods. At a January Planning Commission meeting, CNA members expressed concerns about the MM and urged the Commission to slow down the process, emphasizing that most community members do not know about or do not understand this large-scale proposal.
MM ignores existing opportunities to increase density
Planning staff admit that Olympia has more than enough unused buildable land for its future population needs. Additionally, the city’s Comprehensive Plan designates three high density neighborhoods (“nodes”) for development: 1) Downtown, 2) by the Martin-Pacific-Lilly triangle, and 3) around Capital Mall. These nodes are envisioned as being walkable, near transit, and close to services such as grocery stores. The City is on track to meet density goals for Downtown, but has largely ignored the other two nodes which allow 25 units per acre.
Given these realities, it’s important to ask ourselves, what’s really going on here? What’s the rush to infill old neighborhoods, and pre-empt neighborhood planning?
Enter the developers and contractors
Many property owners can add an ADU, but only developers and contractors are likely to be in a position to finance units such as fourplexes and apartments. It looks like the big winners here will be the developers. The MM is not an idea unique to Olympia. It originated in California as the brainchild of architect Daniel Parolek, who helped create Disneyland Tokyo. As the latest planning bandwagon, it is moving up the west coast. Seattle has been affected: the historic fishing fleet neighborhood of Ballard has totally vanished. Bellingham is alert and agitated and has taken up the slogan “Don’t Ballardize Bellingham.” Right now, it looks like Olympia is directly in the path to becoming the next target.
Check out the MM on the City’s website. Be sure to look at the maps to see what the changes mean for your neighborhood.
If the City wants affordable housing for its less affluent citizens, it has to mandate it through its land use regulations. Trickle-down economics didn’t work in the 80’s. Trickle-down housing won’t work now.
Note: the City continues to work on its MM proposal, and changes made after this article was written will not be captured.
Judy Bardin holds a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Masters in Environmental Health, and a Doctorate in Epidemiology. She has worked as an Environmental Epidemiologist for the State Department of Health, and served on the Olympia Planning Commission and the Olympia Utility Advisory Committee.
Note: The Coalition of Neighborhood Associations is asking the city to provide more opportunities for citizen participation before it moves to any decision on this change that promises to fundamentally alter the nature of Olympia. You can check out the Missing Middle on the City’s website http://olympiawa.gov/city-government/codes-plans-and-standards/missing-middle.aspx . It’s not easy to find the link for the maps that show how widely the new zoning would apply; it’s next to the photo of each “housing type” so look closely. Also, the CNA has created an on-line survey to gauge opinions on issues facing Olympia’s residents. You can find it at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/PG3M5P6