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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