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The missing middle—who is it really for?

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 . 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



  1. Phil Cornell February 6, 2018

    As President of SWONA, I am opposed to this proposal in it’s current form. I agree that housing the homeless is an urgent need but this is not the way to accomplish this goal. Our neighborhood has been a very livable area and I want to keep it that way. Increased pollution from stormwater runoff, increased traffic, increased strain on already crowded schools are just some of the reasons to fight this idea. SWONA will not allow this.

    • William Kingrey September 11, 2018

      MMH is designed for people with lower incomes – not the homeless, although the homeless and those on disability will benefit from the availability of affordable housing.

  2. Shannon Ford February 6, 2018

    Has the survey loses or is the link broken?
    Thank you for your thorough account of the issue.
    The whole thing is so upsetting. You are correct that the only winners here will be developers!

  3. Shannon Ford February 6, 2018

    *closed, not “loses”

  4. Sherri Goulet February 7, 2018

    Hi Phil,
    Please tell everyone what SWONA is. I hope the Planning Commission listens to the neighborhood associations. We need affordable housing BUT the Missing Middle density upzone is aimed at market rate housing. The term “ market rate” means developers will charge whatever the market will bear.

  5. Susan Davenport February 27, 2018

    A local steering committee for creating a Community Land Trust for housing in Olympia and wider Thurston county is meeting regularly. The intent is to provide permanently affordable housing by having the trust own the land under house and strutures that are owned by low to moderate income people. If you are interested in participating and becoming a supporting member email in charge of community connections.

  6. Colleen Bradford March 21, 2018

    Dear Judy,
    Thank you so much for writing this article. It is excellent and I have posted a link to it on the Nextdoor website which in turn will be available to many neighborhoods in Olympia by anyone connected to Nextdoor (I think over neighborhoods and about 6,000 people)

  7. Tom Newcomb March 22, 2018

    The ability to make smaller more efficient homes is a grand idea. Housing the homeless or providing low income with homes is a political mess. Look at the homes made on Mottman industrial to see why it doesn’t work. Providing mother in law apartments or small homes makes sense better for the environment, regardless of what they cost.

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