The Hotel Room That Saved Some Trees

 

Last Wednesday afternoon, I arrived in Seattle and checked into a room on the 16th floor of the Hyatt At Olive 8 hotel and began preparing to moderate a panel the next day on transferrable development rights programs. The hotel was brand-new and less than a block from the convention center. It was comfortable and cool, the first LEED certified hotel in Seattle. Little did I realize that the very room I was staying in existed because of the King County transfer of development rights program I was there to discuss.

TDR programs, as you may know, allow developers in "receiving areas" -- usually cities -- to increase density by purchasing the development rights of landowners in "sending areas" -- usually rural areas -- whose land has been designated for preservation. Our panel Thursday at the New Partners for Smart Growth was focused on TDR programs in the Seattle area -- including the King County TDR program, which is run by Darren Greve, who used to work with me at Solimar Research Group. The panel -- which also included Skip Swenson of the Cascade Land Conservancy and Ivan Miller of the Puget Sound Regional Council -- was an excellent overview of TDR programs in the Puget Sound area, and the questions from the audiences were unusually sophisticated and on-point.

And about halfway through the panel, I realized that my hotel room had been created as a result of the King County TDR program. I bring this up not just because it's kind of a fun thing to write about, but because it goes to one of the central questions about TDRs raised during the panel: How do you get developers, cities, and people in the receiving areas to accept additional density?

It's definitely a variation on the old notion of "what's in it for me?" Why should anybody in a receiving area be willing to accept additional density in order to preserve land a long way away? This is a question that Darren Greve, in particular, has been pondering a lot, because part of his job is to negotiate "interlocal agreements' with cities in King County to accept higher-density development through TDRs. In his presentation, Darren suggested several possibliities -- all of them compelling.

The first is that cities that accept TDRs may be able to lower the region's carbon footprint -- important if that's a reiognal policy goal. Darren showed a slide suggesting that a condo in a receiving area has less than half the carbon footprint than a single-family home on a five-acre lot. The savings are not just from less driving, but also from less home energy use.

The second is that it might be possible to link TDRs to urban redevelopment goals. For example, currently cities in Washington cannot use tax-increment financing. There's a bill in the state legislature right now to allow use of TIF -- but only if TDRs are also used.

The third -- similar to the second -- is the use of what are called "amenity funds." Sometimes it's possible to peel off enough money from the TDR system to give the receiving area money to improve neighborhood amenities.

The last one is the most intangible -- but possibly also the most powerful, and the one I thought about when I got back to my room at the Hyatt at Olive 8 that night. That's the sense of satisfaction you get from helping to accomplish a goal that conforms to your basic values. One of the reasons that TDR programs work in the Seattle area is that even the most urban dwellers do not feel removed from the rural environment. around them. Even if they walk or ride transit during the week, they love to get out and collide hard with nature on the weekends. So saving land far aware isn't an abstraction. It's real.

During our panel, Darren said that the Olive 8 condo/hotel tower had gotten 30% more height because of TDRs (I was on the second-to-higest floor) and that one TDR from rural King County -- that is, removing the ability to build one house on a five-acre lot -- bought 2,000 additional square feet in the Olive 8 tower. That means every six or seven rooms on the upper floors of the Hyatt at Olive 8 preserved one five-acre lot in eastern King County from being mini-mansioned by a Microsoft millionaire.

Maybe they should have put a plaque in every room: "This room preserved a half-acre of rural land in eastern King County." Hmmm. Not a bad idea. I'm suggesting it as part of the next TDR program I work on.

– Bill Fulton