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How to craft a better Seattle

The Future Shack awards suggest some design principles that could help us shape the city and region for the better.
Boulders at Green Lake

Boulders at Green Lake Johnston Architects

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?

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Posted Tue, Sep 15, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

A City for ALL or for the Wealthy and Tourists?


Without these principals, who cares!


Posted Tue, Sep 15, 8:54 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree with at least half of this article.

It's important to make the suburbs more sustainable too. That means letting them evolve and densify over time.

As for Seattle's tree canopy, yes it's important, but I agree with those who favor density within the city limits as a route to saving wilderness and rural greenery outside the city. Environmentally, the #1 need is to be compact, i.e. use less land and allow more efficient transportation. Of course I'm a fan of a denser Seattle anyway, which I admit is a bias.


Posted Tue, Sep 15, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

I would encourage people to look at the list of Sally Clark's financial backers:


The fox is guarding the henhouse.


Posted Tue, Sep 15, 10:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Unter: To be fair, while at that link look at the other incumbents and major candidates. The only clean one in that respect is Licata, who may well be headed for the fate that met Virginia Galle, the last elected with such "clean" support. To Clark's credit she led Seattle's recent public financing effort, but may also have left it stillborn--don't hear a peep about it anymore.

Knute: As usual you have your thinking cap on and write this with even more than your usual grace. Thanks.

You have a nice way of breaking it to them gently. Soon you will need to find a nice way to point out that the state no longer gives metropolitan centers a free ride on stormwater (high impact development). The same with the consequences of Seattle unofficially abandoning it still official urban village strategy and the error of the assumption that we (or the countryside, take your pick) can no longer afford it. The truth remains just the opposite. Focused rebuilding conserves the broad base of our most affordable housing all built with yesterday's dollars and the incremental evolution of those neighborhoods.

The environmental consequences of doing that obviously follows as well. But beyond that there is a direct tie to the state's new stormwater mandate-- neighborhoods outside urban villages and centers will need to carry even more of the load naturally if the entirely rebuilt ones inside the villages and centers are allowed to depend on artificial contrivances.

Head's up to Seattle citizens (regional ones too): Seattle's response to the new state stormwater mandate is in review draft with a poorly announced hearing set for Sept 21st, 5 PM. Get Your Invite and Info Here: http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/Planning/Stormwater_Grading_and_Drainage_Code_Revisions/Overview/


Posted Tue, Sep 15, 12:20 p.m. Inappropriate

You're describing a city I want to grow old in and raise a family in--a city that's urban yet also in nature. When cities were relatively few and most people in the world lived rurally, we could get away with razing the trees and generally imagining ourselves to be above the natural world, instead of hopelessly dependent and vulnerable participants in it. But now it's clear that our own health and well-being depend intimately on the health of the ecosystem we live in--and that's just as true in the city as outside it.

To me, the argument that we must sacrifice urban canopy in order to save trees in the suburbs makes no sense, it seems both illogical and despairing. On the contrary, I think we need to wake up and value the trees that keep our air breathable, our water flowing, and our temperatures bearable--and passionately protect them wherever we possibly can. So I love the idea of dense yet tree-friendly development in the city.

Posted Tue, Sep 15, 1:03 p.m. Inappropriate

My preference is dense development, but lining the streets with big trees.

And in parks...put more trees in them. We've gotten some new parks recently, but they've been disappointingly lacking in trees and shade.

The Seattle Center plan looks suspiciously like a ton of unshaded lawn. That needs to be fought.


Posted Tue, Sep 15, 2:27 p.m. Inappropriate

You probably know this already, but Roosevelt has in fact asked for more density... but near I-5, not so much on the Sisley side. Check out the Zoning Recommendations (The "Warren Report") here:

The tree canopy argument is important for Urban Villages, but a little silly when talking about Urban Centers like Northgate or the U-District, let alone downtown. We all know where those trees went: wider streets and parking lots. I suspect a lot of neighborhood trees have also been lost to larger driveways and new garages (two on my street at least). If we want an urban forest in the future, we need to plant.

It is certainly possible to have both density and an urban forest; both UW and the Woodland Park Zoo have won awards for tree stewardship while building large buildings like the Zoomazium. More here:

By the way, the problem of parking-heavy density (aka the sixpack townhomes) has been around since at least the 1970s: http://www.planetizen.com/node/40330


Posted Wed, Sep 16, 11:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Great article. Some of the ideas, like colonizing underused industrial and other areas, are so good one wonders how it didn't happen long ago. And a Seattle without trees is a Seattle I wouldn't want to live in.

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