Seattle in Progress

Fact Check: No Explosion in Demolitions

Oct 20, 2015, Ethan Phelps-Goodman

Note: This story was originally published on The Urbanist: Fact Check: No Explosion in Demolitions.

Two recent articles, the first in ARCADE magazine, the second a follow-up in Seattle Magazine, have claimed that Seattle is experiencing an enormous and unprecedented increase in demolitions.

This simply isn’t true.

The erroneous analysis started in Schema Design’s ARCADE magazine, which ran a story and accompanying graphics showing the number of demolition permits per year growing from a mere 14 in 2005 to an expected 875 in 2015. Knute Berger followed up with a column in Seattle Magazine that cited the ARCADE piece and a supposed 8-fold increase in demolitions. In reality, demolitions are down from their previous peak in 2007 and 2008 and roughly in line with long-term trends.

Schema’s mistake? They draw their 10 year analysis from a dataset titled “Building Permits issued in the past five years”. When they plot this data, it’s no surprise that 2010-2015 looks dramatically different from 2005-2009, a period that isn’t included in their source data. The data does contain a few holdovers from previous years, making the resulting graph look plausible if you’re already inclined to believe the article’s conclusions.

(I contacted Schema Design and they amended the article with a statement expressing regret for the misleading analysis.)

[Update: Knute Berger has posted a follow up piece in Seattle Magazine.]

Here are the actual statistics on demolitions, straight from the Department of Planning and Development. Note that this graph shows the number of housing units demolished, whereas the ARCADE piece used the number of demolition permit applications, so the numbers are not directly comparable.

Graph of Seattle demolitions over 10 years. Source: City of Seattle.

Demolitions are indeed up in 2014, but only by about 60 percent over the 20-year average, and they look to be going down for 2015. As a whole, 2010-2015 demolitions are actually down by a third compared to 2005-2009. That’s a far cry from the 8-fold increase stated in the Seattle Magazine.

We build about 9 new units of housing for every unit we demolish. Source: City of Seattle.

The articles in ARCADE and Seattle Magazine no doubt tap into a widespread feeling that there are a lot of demolitions. As a value judgement, people can disagree on what constitutes “a lot”. What should be clear from the data, however, is that there’s no explosion in demolitions. In fact, the pace of demolitions is entirely average.


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