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Sunday, September 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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James Vesely / Times editorial page editor

Close to your neighbor, sometimes too close

Way off on the political horizon is a topic candidates for state office should be talking about: How many of us can live together in Puget Sound?

The issue is summed up in "density" — the number of people per square mile and how that changes the quality of life that keeps us urban, rural or suburban. Density remains one of those my-eyes-glaze-over words, but think about it as traffic, housing costs and commute times. If density keeps going up, something changes, and so far, there's been a direct relationship — and a bad one — to the way we live.

The theory floating like gospel through planning offices and environmental groups is that higher densities reduce sprawl, save the greenery and prevent us from becoming Los Angeles.

But that theory falls short of reality if you go to Lake Stevens in Snohomish County or down through Maple Valley and Hobart in King County where the cul-de-sacs continue to boom and the nickel-a-gallon gas-tax signs proudly proclaim how the state is building more highways for you. I don't think we can realistically say curbing growth has stopped the region's sprawl or that density does not bring its own, painful residue.

Take, in just three examples, the sad tale of the "Mercer Mess," eruptions in neighborhoods when density arrives, and the rise of Bainbridge Island as the new Eastside.

• The Mercer Mess, that marvel of engineering that produces exhaust-pipe-to-exhaust-pipe traffic between Seattle Center and Interstate 5 almost every hour of the day, won't get better for the next 25 years.

That's the conclusion of a $350,000 consultant's study that examined new Mercer car traffic amid plans for a new, high-tech neighborhood nearby. Redevelopment of South Lake Union will not reduce travel times, a key Seattle planner told The Times. Expanding the roadway and moving to two-way traffic will, at best, make the Mess more visually likable, more bicycle friendly, but still hovering at 1.7 million hours of cars in traffic per year. More density in the city does not solve this problem.

• Frustrations from homeowners in Magnolia over a dense, new development say something about what happens when neighbors get too close. Neighbors took offense to a plan to put 39 homes on roughly four and a half acres of an old Seattle community. That level of cluster housing always looks good on paper. It has levels of density only achieved in Europe or East Coast planned communities — or badly planned ones. Here we have almost 10 houses per acre. The complaints from the neighborhood swarm around a familiar landscape: increased traffic, a fundamental change to the neighborhood and too many choke points.

• New cluster housing and higher densities also are coming to Bainbridge Island, where designers and planners are excited about piles of homes in new communities. Bainbridge is the next Eastside, the next Snohomish County, the next Maple Valley. It is too close and too tempting not to be part of the next economic boom. One sign among many is the Spirit of Adventure, the new passenger ferry service from Bremerton to Seattle. The key is that a housing-commuter boom has taken place west of Seattle and will not soon stop.

These vignettes beg answers: What will our new governor say about rising density and Puget Sound's quality of life? What should the state and region do either to limit growth, channel it or welcome it? Is our growth-management system working, or is it out of date? If these are not fundamental questions for our state and regional leadership, I don't what are.

Come to the debates

The Seattle Times Editorial Board will host two debates on important elections next month.

Oct. 12, 8th Congressional District debate between Democrat Dave Ross and Republican Dave Reichert at Meydenbauer Center, Bellevue, 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m.

Oct. 19, candidates for state attorney general, Democrat Deborah Senn and Republican Rob McKenna, at Seattle Central Library, Seattle, 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m.

Admission is free and open to the public.

James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: jvesely@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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