Most people would argue that Seattle has lots of rules for builders and developers, but what about guiding principles? The details of the former and the need for the latter are front-burner because of a variety of changes in the offing.
City Councilmember Sally Clark is leading a review of the city's multifamily code, looking at everything from backyard cottages to parking requirements. She's hoping to have some reforms implemented by the end of the year. It might be a bit like President Obama's health care reform: not a wholesale reinvention, but significant tweaking. But it will shape the rules for those developers who survive bankruptcy and dormancy and emerge to capitalize on the next boom.
The city has two mayoral candidates who are both "pro development." Mike McGinn favors high-rises in neighborhoods, massive density increases citywide, and mass transit. The civic group he founded, Great City, has received lots of developer support from 900-pound gorilla entities like Vulcan. Joe Mallahan thinks that some downtown high-rises aren't high enough (he says they've been built to "sub-optimal" heights) and his campaign donors include many establishment developers including Martin Smith and Martin Selig.
The bottom line is that while there's a construction lull because of the Great Recession and an inability to finance projects, plans are being laid, rules re-made, and the shape of the future will be guided by some new hands.
Looking to that future, by way of what's happening in the present, the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects sponsored a Future Shack competition to recognize projects that reflected in some way the direction things ought to be going. The competition finalists were featured in the Sept. 13 Seattle Times Sunday magazine, Pacific Northwest, and members of the two juries (one professional panel, one a panel of citizens that I served on) that selected the winners presented their findings to a packed house of 350 or so people at Fisher Pavilion.
In the process of reviewing Future Shack entrants and in debating their pros and cons, I felt that some general guidelines and principles emerged. With so many interesting projects to choose from, a defining element in the selection process became, what problem do they solve? There are many ways to increase density, for example. A Soviet-style block of apartments at South Lake Union, neighborhood townhouses, cottage clusters. So, what works better? What are the ideas you'd like to see repeated? Sustainability is a constant buzzword, but how is it defined? In the Future Shack, striving for sustainability wasn't a criteria, it was simply assumed. Of course you're sustainable, but what else?
So here are a few general principles that emerged that shaped my thinking:
Variety: Kent Kammerer, of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition and a member of the citizen's panel, argued passionately for variety. Zoning and building rules, market forces, and planning ideology often drive designers toward a few solutions that can drive, or zone, out creative ideas.
Seattle shouldn't be a city of single-family homes, high-rises, and six-pack townhouses. Planners and designers should accommodate and work creatively in more genres: live/work spaces, boarding houses, residential hotels and motels, mini-houses, trailer parks, etc. The principle is to preserve and expand housing choices, not lessen diversity. In the name of variety, let's cultivate rules that give flexibility to designers and developers, while holding them accountable on design.
One example both juries loved was Sky Ranch, a single 800-square-foot apartment built on top of a warehouse in Ballard. The intriguing idea is that this could be to industrial and commercial areas what the backyard cottages are in residential neighborhoods. It's a way to homestead acres and acres of available rooftops with small units that have great views and lighting, and that take advantage of space that is underutilized without changing the use and character of neighborhoods (Seattle's industrial neighborhoods are among the least dense). Currently, such units are only allowed for building owners or caretakers, but why not experiment with allowing them for other citizens, not just on warehouse roofs, but atop other commercial buildings, even public ones like schools?
Home improvement: There's a dogma that suburbs are inherently bad and that we should focus only on denser, multifamily, mixed-use projects. But 90 percent of our regional growth is outside Seattle, so what about making suburban homes better, smaller, and less isolating, instead of assuming that we should do away with the 'burbs entirely? Future Shack looked at projects throughout the region, and the citizen's panel recognized Danielson Grove, a cottage cluster in Kirkland. Instead of 10 2,200 square-foot homes on two acres, they built 16 homes of 1,500 square feet or less around a village commons that preserves green areas and mature trees. The development is family-friendly, for all ages, and evokes tradition in a place where developments sometimes feel like residential strip malls. Cottage developments like this are popping up throughout the region, from Shoreline to Bainbridge to Port Townsend, and while the most ardent Sierra Clubber might not defend them, they're a step in the right direction in terms of restraining single-family excess and cultivating a sense of community.
Auto immunity: Kevin Cavenaugh, an architect and developer in Portland, served on the professional jury. He said that architects are taught in school that form follows function, but that's wrong. "Form follows parking," he said. Indeed, in Seattle, parking requirements are responsible for ugly, car-centric town home designs that have produced projects that seem to be more about housing BMWs than people. Cavenaugh argued, as many in Seattle have, for what Portland has done: Waive requirements for parking if a development is within 500 feet of a transit stop. This way you get more square-footage for people and offer more choice for those who don't think their cars are a priority, if they have one.
Citizen juror Bob Melvey of Windermere Real Estate warned that architects don't like six-pack townhouses, but buyers do. Even in the recession, they sell, says Melvey. So don't expect them to disappear even if developers are immune from parking requirements. But new types of developments should sprout for those who want a car-free lifestyle or don't mind the Darwinian competition for street parking. The principle here is, don't let cars drive design. The six-pack is definitely on Sally Clark's to-do list of stuff to fix.
Adaptation, not destruction: Angela Brooks, a Los Angeles architect on the professional jury, noted that between the two panels, half of the projects selected had one thing in common: They adapted to the existing cityscape in some way, either by being built on existing footprints, preserving a historic structure, or incorporating an older building into a new, revitalized or denser use.
The 5th and Madison high-rise downtown was built on the site of a drive-thru bank and parking garage which was converted into an attractive tower and public green space that relates to some of the modern landmarks nearby, including the Columbia Tower and the Rem Koolhaas library. The Pantages Apartments on Capitol Hill created dense housing for people with HIV/AIDS, yet incorporated into the project a wonderful turn-of-the-century home. A project called Mambo Palazzo linked an existing 1910 mixed-use structure with a new-mixed use building that marries the old and the new. An important Beaux Arts medical/dental office building, The Cobb, was converted into downtown residential and is an excellent example of adaptive re-use.
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