Over the objection of many residents, in November of last year the Olympia City Council adopted a zoning ordinance known as the Missing Middle (MM). The ordinance envisioned an era of new multifamily housing development in older, low density neighborhoods of Olympia.
During the public comment period before adoption of the ordinance, residents of those neighborhoods submitted research, testimony, letters and other material in an effort to warn the staff of errors in their assumptions and to recommend a more measured approach.
These concerns were evidently dismissed. Still determined to be heard, citizens formed a group and called it Olympians for Smart Development and Livable Neighborhoods (OSD). They raised funds and hired an attorney to appeal the city’s action to the Growth Management Hearings Board.
The notion that new market–rate housing will contribute to affordability in established neighborhoods is contradicted by the actual results of lifting zoning requirements.
Early in July, the GMHB invalidated the MM ordinance, citing a number of the very elements the residents had tried to alert the city to. The ordinance violated the city’s Comprehensive Plan by ignoring the ceiling it set on density levels. Staff also failed to consider the way construction under the ordinance could overburden infrastructure like storm drainage, sewers, parking and undermine neighborhood capacity. The Board ordered the city to come back with a plan to remedy the defects in the ordinance by December.
So far, the City Council hasn’t publicly discussed the significance of the findings nor indicated an interest in working with citizens to remedy the defects identified by the GMHB. Instead, their attorney announced that the city would ask the Board to reconsider its decision. In his words, “Boards can make errors.”
How did we get here?
Although the concept of the “Missing Middle” originated with planners in California, the words appeared first in Olympia in a Downtown Strategy Toolbox commissioned by the city in 2015. The “Toolbox” consultant recommended that the city “Move forward with the “missing middle,” saying they should “evaluate opportunities to increase density in areas where neighborhood resistance is low and services and infrastructure are in place to support higher density.” Translated, that meant close–in neighborhoods with older homes occupied by people with modest incomes.
The Community Planning and Development Department (CP&D) moved ahead on the consultant’s recommendation, developing a proposal and selecting people for a workgroup to serve as their sounding board in March of 2018. It was presented as an exciting opportunity to accommodate 20,000 new residents in a “diversity of housing types” close to downtown.
It was presented the same way in November at two open houses for the general public. In February of 2019, the CP&D staff produced a checklist indicating that the ordinance would have no significant impact on the environment, including infrastructure elements. A month later there was a hearing before members of the Olympia Planning Commission. The ordinance remained largely unchanged through its adoption by the City Council, putting it into effect at the end of 2019. The research, arguments, recommended changes by members of the public—all had fallen on deaf ears.
“Density” as a magic word
Claims for the benefits of the Missing Middle ordinance rest entirely on the assertion that “increasing density” is an unalloyed good. Supporters of the ordinance have an almost religious belief in the wonderful world that will be ushered in by eliminating height limits, lot coverage, setbacks, parking requirements, owner occupancy requirements and removing obstacles to real estate development in established older neighborhoods of the city.
A supporting letter signed by 40 politicians, realtors, public officials and others proclaimed that the ordinance would bring vast improvements in the environment and in the prospects for small businesses. It would add to homeowners’ income, and to the safety of neighborhood streets, turn people into walkers and bus–riders, and even strengthen families. Adoption of the ordinance would “enhance affordability …by bringing the private sector more strongly into the mix”
Reality vs magic
Others who also agreed that dense development is important, nonetheless examined the city’s proposal in detail. They found that key elements of the ordinance violated the city’s Comprehensive Plan, failed to consider environmental impacts, promised to create parking nightmares and would undermine neighborhood character – all without doing anything to make housing more affordable. Far from it: instead, the changes were more likely to usher in a future of gentrification that would transform the modest neighborhoods where housing was still in reach of first–time buyers.
The notion that new market–rate housing will contribute to affordability in established neighborhoods is contradicted by the actual results of lifting zoning requirements on behalf of private sector housing investment. New units produced under MM will clearly be rented and sold at market rates—rates that already burden Olympia buyers and renters. Recent studies make clear that market rate new construction also contributes to higher prices for surrounding neighborhoods, further raising rents and property taxes,
Support based on misconceptions
The CP&D staff repeatedly acknowledged that nothing in the MM is geared to greater affordability. Yet they fostered belief in the idea that the MM would make housing more affordable because: “the law of supply and demand:” more housing units would mean less expensive housing. One result is that a lot of people wrongly think that the MM ordinance is about affordability.
The staff also fostered other misconceptions. According to CP&D department Deputy Director Leonard Bauer, spearheading the effort, types of housing allowed in neighborhoods would change, but legal density limits would not. A member of the OSD group applied the density–enhancing provisions and discovered that the changes allowed new levels of density well in excess of legal limits. Others studied how reduction of off–street parking requirements would actually work, surveying current on–street availability and running MM scenarios that indicated streets would be overwhelmed with cars.
Why ask for public comment?
These findings and others challenged the promotion of the MM as bringing about a “bright future” for Olympia’s older neighborhoods — a future of “livable and affordable neighborhoods, pedestrian oriented streetscapes, a healthy natural environment and a thriving economy.”
Citizens presented their findings in “comments” to the City as part of the routine public process. The group also provided recommendations as to how the MM could be adopted with modifications that reflected how the City’s Comp Plan identified incremental ways to increase density and incorporate new residents into close-in areas of the city
News coverage and a further hearing at City Hall made it clear that the MM ordinance was very controversial. Instead of responding to the substance of the comments and the concerns of many residents critical of aspects of the ordinance, it became standard to vilify those making them. Maybe this was predictable coming from people who had an interest in removing zoning restrictions and those whose belief in the virtue of the proposition overlooked the details.
There must be a better way
Had the city staff chosen to take seriously the input by citizens who spent hours in analyzing the effects of the MM and providing their findings to the city, a lot of money would have been saved. Olympians for Smart Growth raised over $35,000 to hire an attorney; the city has already spent over $45,000 to defend the staff’s handling of the ordinance.
While candidates running for office and elected officials at their post in City Hall continuously tout their desire to be “partners with the public” in shaping our city, their actual behavior and implementation of opportunities for partnership contradicts those statements. It is the case that public trust in government to do the right thing — which in the 1960s ran over 70% — has continued to fall — polling around 40% around the year 2000 and about 20% today.
Partnering with the community
The Growth Management Board’s decision gives Olympia’s elected leadership an opportunity to remedy declining trust by partnering with the informed and committed citizens. Will they avail themselves of it? To echo the city’s attorney who observed that “Boards make mistakes” — so do city planners and council members.
Bethany Weidner worked for elected and appointed officials IN Washington DC and in Washington state. She graduated from Burlington-Edison High School in 1964.
Read the GMHB findings as well as the text of the letter from Olympia leaders predicting a glowing future under the Missing Middle ordinance.