Nickels backs 60% increase in city's population by 2040

To cut suburban sprawl, Seattle should increase its population 60 percent by the year 2040, Mayor Greg Nickels says in a recommendation to regional planners.

Nickels favors the most aggressive of four growth scenarios envisioned by planners, one that would add 350,000 people to Seattle's population, which now stands at about 575,000.

Nickels says the growth can be accomplished by allowing more apartment and condo towers in some parts of Seattle, while still protecting single-family neighborhoods.

Planners generally agree that the four-county Puget Sound area will see its population swell by 1.6 million in the next 34 years. But skeptics question the purported benefits of Nickels' plan and the city's ability to pull it off.

Richard Morrill, geography professor emeritus at the University of Washington, doubts Seattle could attract 20 percent of the region's growth by 2040 no matter what Nickels does.

"That magnitude of change hasn't happened anywhere except maybe Beijing," Morrill said.

For the city to reach such a goal, Morrill said, likely zoning changes and "somewhat astounding density" would reduce the number of single-family homes and families with children in the city, leading to "some kind of rebellion."

A blueprint for regional growth will be debated in months ahead as the Puget Sound Regional Council, which coordinates planning in a four-county area, comes up with its own proposal for the coming decades.

Norman Abbott, the council's growth-management director, says Seattleites shouldn't fret about the mayor's recommendation. Abbott says the regional board has indicated its support for a hybrid proposal that would meld the most- and least-aggressive scenarios.

"It shouldn't be overemphasized now that the city needs to plan for 350,000 people," Abbott said.

Nickels is staking out an aggressive growth position in hopes of pulling the regional panel toward the middle, said Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, adding that Nickels doesn't plan to roll back single-family zoning.

"There's no way anybody in this town is going to propose changing single-family zoning. It's the Holy Grail in Seattle," Ceis said.

Instead, the mayor would propose more high-rise zoning in urban centers, such as Northgate and South Lake Union, and "even some around light rail in Southeast Seattle," Ceis said.

Nickels made a case in an eight-page letter to the council that he wants to "direct growth to denser, more transit-supportive environments" such as Seattle and four other major cities in the region: Bellevue, Bremerton, Tacoma and Everett.

Nickels argues that concentrating densities in a relatively few locations would lead to higher use of transit, biking and walking for work trips.

Seattle has added about 4,000 residents a year over the past 16 years. If the city did nothing, planners predict it would gain 200,000 residents by 2040.

A subgroup of the regional council is expected to draft a plan in the fall or winter to accommodate new growth, Abbott said. Then the council's executive board will seek more public comment before making a final recommendation.

Morrill said the mayor's plan would require many more multistory apartments in Seattle — and some of those would displace single-family houses. "More parts of the city would feel like downtown or the densest parts of Capitol Hill," he said.

Morrill predicted some families with children would move farther from cities and workplaces to find affordable houses on sizable lots, thereby increasing vehicle travel and pollution, not reducing it as the mayor says would happen. Morrill also warned that increased density often leads to higher housing prices.

City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, who leads the council's Urban Development and Planning Committee, agreed.

"There would be a great cost and loss in the quality of life if we were to attempt to implement this scenario," he said.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or