Growth is inevitable, but where is it going?

City leaders discuss possible challenges with affordability and displacement

Right now the next vision for Renton’s growth is a mystery.

Under the Growth Management Act (GMA), the Puget Sound region establishes growth targets for each city after several regional organizations create long-range plans. The latest effort was in 2010.

Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), a GMA planning organization for this metro, is going through the final steps for Vision 2050, a plan that helps shape the new population growth acceptance numbers that will show up in Renton’s 2023 Comprehensive Plan. In November, a new mayor and new councilmembers will be taking over policy-making positions right as Vision 2050 wraps up.

Community and Economic Development Administrator Chip Vincent said it will be especially interesting to see the direction a newly elected council and mayor will take population growth, since they will be coming in during this decision process. As the city waits for its next elected leaders, he doesn’t know which way Renton will go.

In the first two parts of this series, Renton Reporter looked at population growth and culture changes in the city. Part three looks at the plans and policy makers of the future, and what can be done to shape the inevitable growth as the region begins its next long-term planning cycle.

Can Renton be affordable?

Mayor Denis Law said there’s little Renton can do to stop growth, and called it a “natural gentrification” of the whole metro area. He’s witnessed Renton housing prices skyrocket— to places he never imagined. Median single family home prices around Renton were $522,500 in July.

The only thing the next leadership can do, he said, is make sure zoning and the city’s long-term growth plans does its best to maintain quality of life. Renton will also need to develop creative solutions to try to curb the forces of increased population and gentrification.

Councilmember Ryan McIrvin said Renton is going through a moment of growth that could quickly create displacement risks, unless there are policies in place to prevent it.

He said while economic activity happening in Renton is great, the type of investments happening will create stress on housing affordability and development. Affordable is typically defined as when the resident spends less than a third of their income on housing, and about 40 percent of Renton households are cost-burdened.

McIrvin also thinks there should be more affordable housing in transit areas, like the promised transit center — Sound Transit is putting a new center in Renton, as part of Sound Transit 3.

Vision 2050 is a chance to reset the goals that weren’t met with Vision 2040, and transit-focused growth is the way to do it.

As a member of the King County Affordable Housing Committee, he said the next comprehensive plan will need to balance creating land targeted to affordable housing while also taking in the growth target allocated by PSRC.

Although 2023 might seem far away, the city is already preparing for its next comprehensive plan, and councilmembers have ideas of what will be important this coming cycle. Councilmember Randy Corman said the Sunset area, Downtown Core and new transit center will likely carry the multifamily housing and high density in Renton.

“The challenge is where do you put that growth without displacing people, upsetting neighborhood balance that also minimizes congestion on our streets,” McIrvin said.

Renton’s possible plans

Corman can recall when Renton first worked under the guidelines of the GMA, as can Vincent, although he wasn’t with Renton at the time. Both remember that it was sorely needed, in a buzzing region with no overhead for planning.

Over 20 years later, they’ve seen the fruits of those efforts.

Renton only had 44,000 residents at the time, Corman said, but they planned to reach 100,000 residents. Renton has followed the region’s growth patterns, seeing higher prices and density as more people move into the area, and work near and in Seattle.

PSRC created Vision 2040, a plan that looked at where job and housing density should go throughout King, Kitsap, Snohomish and Pierce counties. Then King County created a regional plan, and determined the growth targets for each city and town. Then Renton used that plan to create its 2015 Comprehensive plan.

Renton expected to take in a large amount of growth, and designated itself a core city, one of 10 in King County. The designation opened the door to federal and state transportation funding, Vincent said.

“After that policy was made, everybody wanted to be a growth center, because it meant you got more transportation investment,” Vincent said.

As a core city, Renton established an urban growth center. Council placed high density where it made the most sense, Law said. The center, based in downtown Renton, calls for multiple floors of housing above ground-floor retail.

Renton was projected to take the third-most growth in Vision 2040, based off the buildable land analysis of the 39 King County cities. It was expected to accommodate for 14,835 new units from 2006 to 2031.

It was a different perspective on growth at the time, Vincent said. This time around, he said he expects a more informed conversation.

“There were some places we missed it”

Some of the areas of Renton slated for high density development were later withdrawn, and zoning has been changed in single-family residential areas to reduce how many homes can be developed. One big change included preserving South Renton’s character.

The South Renton neighborhood, which covers Main Avenue South to Rainier Avenue South below South Second Street, was originally part of the urban growth center and zoned for 35 to 100 units per acre. It was reduced after residents outcry. It was then changed to 14 units per acre.

Some of the other changes include creating a R-6 zone, which allows for six units per acre where it would have had to be four or eight, and no longer allowing multifamily development in the commercial arterial zones in Benson and Talbot.

“There were some places we missed it,” Corman said.

Annexations have slowed in Renton as the financial incentives and desire of residents fell.

Law said the council understands people are not a profit center. There’s a myth that annexations bring in money for the city, and jurisdictions can’t keep up with the cost of funding new roads and parks in larger annexations.

“Bigger isn’t better, more housing costs more,” Law said. “If we bring in two or three Costco’s, that would pay for itself.”

City staff said Renton has gone through a maturation process, and there’s a better sense of the external factors and challenges that come with accepting that growth.

Law, in his final term as Renton’s mayor, hopes that the council will continue to spend time maintaining residents’ quality of life. From time to time that will mean making some “difficult decisions,” like how to manage commuters cutting through city streets, zoning pressures from the development community and keep reviewing the comprehensive plan, he said.

But growth is inevitable

The Vision 2050 draft plan, which was recently published, shows a focus on density where major transit hubs are. This is going to keep a high capacity target on Renton, and city leadership say that growth makes sense and is inevitable anyways. Even city planners, that try to manage this infill with zoning, know there’s not much room for choice in population growth.

“Cities may think you have control of your own destiny. If you think that for a minute, you’re lying to yourself. You don’t,” Vincent said.

McIrvin sees North Renton and South Renton as neighborhoods that will be challenged by inevitable growth. As a new transit center pops up in South Renton and the large office development of Southport continues, it’s going to put more housing pressure on those neighborhoods.

“With (Seattle metro’s) success comes the pains of growth,” he said.

Law said rezoning South Renton back to a low density neighborhood was important to maintaining quality of life in Renton.

“We don’t want all those houses just removed for apartment complexes,” Law said.

But with the new center, the area will become a beacon for transit-focused growth. McIrvin and Corman both mention the Renton Village as a location for housing growth and high density, and that changes will likely begin to accommodate the center, one example was the stalled plan for apartments set to build at the old Roxy Cinema site.

“Will that have an impact to South Renton? Yes. But I think that’s coming regardless,” McIrvin said.

McIrvin said it’s not a question of whether the city wants growth or not in these neighborhoods, its how it will choose to handle the inevitable growth.

Corman said he doesn’t want to see Renton residents’ children getting pushed out and buying homes elsewhere, and rent increasing. He said increasing the housing can help Renton do its part.

The trick, McIrvin said, is to make sure growth benefits the city, like developments with ground floor retail that bring in revenue or offer convenient access to public transportation.

The choices for the future council will be obvious, Law said. They will need to understand with the help of city planners who is coming and options are available.

In the last buildable lands report, Renton was the only core city that met its housing capacity target. It’s not mandatory. Law said the council will have a choice in whether jeopardizing state and federal funds will need to happen to protect the interests and lifestyles of current residents. That is to the ability city leadership is actually able to protect it.

“I think the most important thing we do is preserve and even improve the quality of life of the people already living here,” Law said. “There’s not much available land now, how you develop that land is critically important.”