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Writing code for more sustainable neighborhoods

A roundtable of interested parties has proposed a series of code changes to make urban density happen faster and with less hassle in Seattle. Here's the backstory of the evolving package, by one of its architects.

Mayor McGinn and Councilmember Conlin announce the new recommendations.

Mayor McGinn and Councilmember Conlin announce the new recommendations. Chuck Wolfe

A recent joint announcement of recommended regulatory-reform measures for neighborhood development had Mayor Mike McGinn and Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin focusing on creating new jobs. That angle was the attention grabbing headline in the major media.

Ordinarily, reforms of urban land-use regulations come about after a lot of pushing and pulling by consultants and organized pressure groups. These reforms were different. They embraced community input by putting together a roundtable of interested parties to come up with some evolutionary Code updates, deriving from the issues de jour of recent years — including backyard cottages, revised approaches to multifamily development, parking requirements, street-level retail, and other arcane elements of urbanist lore.

This month's joint announcement is the outcome of a six-month process, discussed in detail below. It meshes with a March 2011 City Council resolution adopting guiding principles for strengthening and growing Seattle's economy and creating employment opportunities. The recommendations were released for public review and comment, due by July 25.

Full disclosure: I am an active roundtable member, which gave me a ringside seat but also makes me an advocate.

The roundtable behind the recommendations was composed of a broad alliance of business, environmental, and neighborhood representatives. Variants of the roundtable were convened by Mayor McGinn for initial conversations early this year, and a core group worked collaboratively on the announced recommendations. In a departure from past governance practices, the group is not an appointed "blue ribbon commission," nor does it have staff. It has met regularly (often many times per month), vetted issues and approaches, and worked with city officials to brainstorm solutions.

The current recommendations are in reality an early stage of the roundtable's work, and in the eyes of some group members, only a small tilt towards further revisions to the Land Use Code. Yet the proposals evince some sense of today's urbanism agenda — a move away from prescription and favoring implementation of tweaks, clarifications, and small expansions of certain non-traditional housing, business, and multi-modal transportation initiatives already under way.

Further, given the urgency of enhancing employment, the recommendations embrace immediate, simplifying measures, intended to reduce complexity and increase flexibility, in turn decreasing the costs in time and money of starting and maintaining businesses and building new, more affordable housing.

While the initial menu of fixes is designed to avoid duplication and enhance the prospect for new construction, the group will continue to work on longer term issues in association with pending revisions to Seattle's Comprehensive Plan. Those revisions are mandated by the Growth Management Act and championed through a dynamic update process recently launched by the Department of Planning and Development and the Planning Commission.

The group's goal is broad and ambitious: to help Seattle residents live closer to where they work. The starting place is to simplify and update the city's Land Use Code, what Sightline's Eric de Place calls "making sustainability legal."

This broader effort is akin to something that I first suggested here in Crosscut amid the elections of 2009. I proposed a frank recognition of traditional land use dilemmas in the City and a move towards contemporary land use regulatory approaches focused less on incremental brush wars and more on holistic and sustainable tools implemented elsewhere. Examples of this new approach, I wrote, are  form-based codes, citywide transit-oriented development policies, and ongoing integration of transportation, land use, and underlying natural systems.

Let me now provide a summary of the announced recommendations. More detailed discussion of each recommendation (with the addition of a proposed modification for height measurement) appears in public notice materials assembled by DPD here as summarized from DPD Director Diane Sugimura's Report and Recommendations, which urges adoption of the Roundtable's recommendations.

Encourage Home Entrepreneurship The Roundtable embraced the assumption that the home-based business is an incubator for new ideas which create jobs. The recommendation would allow property owners to operate home-based businesses ("home occupations") in any structure, as long as impacts to surrounding properties are minimized, and any associated alterations to structures are permitted in the underlying zone. Other new provisions would allow home-based businesses to advertise on the internet, allow up to two non-resident employees (currently limited to one), and allow more flexibility for weekday deliveries with limits focused on heavy vehicles.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jul 18, 6:46 a.m. Inappropriate

There is much ado about the dropping of retail requirements but two things are missing from any useful discussion:
1. maps showing the extent of the change.
2. any specific fact-based non-anecdotal reason for the change.

I find the following rationale to be temporary and shallow — "...recessionary times have made clear that more flexibility is needed outside of those areas to build buildings without ground-floor commercial spaces." For one thing the idea that you will get much construction during "recessionary times" is puzzling.

But I wish you good luck generally and specifically as to the neighborhood stores approach, which is great, though limiting to L-2 and L-3 is both politically wise and might practically be too limited to be of great consequence.

But since over the past 30 yearsI have seen so many efforts about "reforming the code," I am dubious we will get much beyond headlines, which may of course be what the politicians desire.

Posted Mon, Jul 18, 10:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Where is the roster of participants in this group?

ddmiller

Posted Mon, Jul 18, 10:55 a.m. Inappropriate

And I re-read this last remark: "...this SEPA aspect of the proposal could result in 40 new construction projects with 100 to 250 units each year."

That's more than puzzling — it calls for the word "absurd."

Yes SEPA can be a hassle to deal with. But if there is money to be made (and money to be borrowed), SEPA is a minor irritant . Unless. Unless by implication someone is saying that we have 40 projects a year which are so poorly designed and so offensive to neighbors that the City would deny them — which I would say then that it is doubly absurd to offer "reforms" which would allows those 40 projects to be built.

Posted Mon, Jul 18, 11:45 a.m. Inappropriate

This is pretty much the same old developer wishlist that the City has been trying to ram down the throats of neighborhood residents since before the neighborhood planning process began.

Same old wine, new bottle.

Posted Mon, Jul 18, 1:20 p.m. Inappropriate

"a series of code changes to make urban density happen faster and with less hassle in Seattle"

Is this emergency jobs act to be similar to the proposed $20 fee for reducing transit cuts—which is to terminate in a year in an improved economy? No? I didn't think so!

The development industry(s) big and small who have long steered Seattle code changes had no trouble at all producing the overbuilding that ended with the Great Regression, not withstanding "Toward a Sustainable Seattle" (the current comprehensive plan).

With the exception of recent major overhauls of the codes for mixed use and multifamily development, the code has become what it is through a multitude of fine adjustments with or without prior watering down of the comprehensive plan through yearly amendments.

Examples can be found in this backstory itself: the boys in the back room promote doing away with street level retail (pedestrian interest?) in any mixed use zone not designated a P (pedestrian) zone and at the same time they promote street level retail in multifamily (non-mixed use) zones in designated growth zones "urban villages, centers, and transit stations" (most all P zones are mixed use not multi-family).

Over here: http://www.seattle.gov/planningcommission/ we find another backroom promoting the designation of new growth areas called "transit communities" and demanding ("Affordable Housing Action Agenda"—Strategy 4) that the Comprehensive Plan's limitation on rezoning single family neighborhoods to higher uses be watered down

Additionally, public officials periodically broach upzoning "transit corridors" using a new rationale that all transit service is quid pro quo.

Any citizen who wades through all the gobbledegook has to assume that the comprehensive plan is, maybe always was, a fancy smoke screen for retaining the old hegemony and that the "dynamic update process" noted in the backstory is appropriately aimed at the naive, if not the young. This is really quite a shame, considering how much effort citizens of all stripes put into the initial version of the current plan and how much impact it made around the world as the first attempt to make sense of the conundrum "the most affordable housing is that which already exists." See:
1994 planning director Lawrence on the initial planning effort: http://www.rudi.net/books/13070
http://blog.seattlepi.com/chuckwolfe/2009/05/07/learning-how-to-grow-what-if-denver-stole-our-message/
http://www.yesmagazine.org/blogs/richard-conlin/density-and-community
http://www.preservationnation.org/issues/sustainability/green-lab/additional-resources/dunn_urban_grain.pdf

afreeman

Posted Mon, Jul 18, 1:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Hmm, I thought all the changes you outline in this article had been made as part of the Neighborhood Planning follow-through (a part of the Comprehensive Plan development). If one really wants to create jobs, then the very labor intensive and essential work of maintaining, renovating, refurbishing, re-purposing is the way to go -- I'm not sure what the Land Use Code could do to encourage this, but that would be the tack toward sustainability and job creation that would make sense to me.

dottyd2

Posted Mon, Jul 18, 2:56 p.m. Inappropriate

ddmiller, one of the group's other members, sometime Crosscut contributor Roger Valdez, noted the group's members in addition to Mr. Wolfe some time ago over on his land use code blog:
Tory Taylor, Housing Resources Group
Matt Anderson, real estate consulting, Heartland LLC
Eric de Place, Sightline Institute
Jeff Thompson, real estate developer, Freehold Group, LLC ("Interbay Wine District")
David Neiman, Architect (Safeco Field)
Jerry Dinndorf, Associated General Contractors of Washington
Denny Onslow, real estate developer, Harbor Properties
Jim Mueller, real estate developer of former Deano's property and vacant lot at 23rd & Union
A-P Hurd, real estate developer, Touchstone Development, board member of NAIOP Washington Commercial Real Estate Development Association.
http://seattleslandusecode.wordpress.com/2011/06/24/message-received-regulatory-reform-efforts-underway/

Posted Mon, Jul 18, 3:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Boy, that's a regular grassroots groundswell! Or not.

Posted Mon, Jul 18, 4:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Wow, so this plan was put together by a bunch of developers and their enablers. Good thing we didn't have any "pressure groups" involved.

Mannix

Posted Mon, Jul 18, 4:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Those are all very smart people and they care about Seattle and frankly I share much of their sensibility. I don't think it's useful to get into conspiracy theories about developers etc etc.

But reasonable people can disagree about facts and how to assess them.

Posted Mon, Jul 18, 6:46 p.m. Inappropriate

its called "tunnel vision"

salmonjim

Posted Mon, Jul 18, 9:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Low- and moderate-income housing could be greatly increased in Seattle with no new construction required if some of the more draconian requirements were removed from "mother-in-law" apartments. They're already part of the house; you don't have to have the considerable amount of money that's required to build a backyard cottage. Older people could stay in their houses by renting out the apartments; people who can't afford new apartments would have places to live.

But then, as I said, they don't require new construction, and this crew "very smart people"--i.e., real estate developers--aren't interested in stuff that already exists.

sarah90

Posted Tue, Jul 19, 11:05 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the info on the participants, "Guest". Not surprising there are no neighborhood representatives on there.

ddmiller

Posted Tue, Jul 19, 1:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Limiting "corner stores" to multifamily zones in urban centers and station areas defeats their real promise. In new urbanist terms, corner stores provide walkable convenience shopping for folks who live outside those areas, which already typically have lots of opportunities for retail uses. Seattle has vast swaths of predominantly single family neighborhoods that were once dotted by small commercial "corner stores" that provided this kind of convenience retail. Many of those are gone, others have been awkwardly converted to residential use. Advocates in some neighborshoods, like Broadview, are pushing for a broader definition of corner stores that would allow them even in single family neighborhoods that have no retail within reasonable walking distance. I say if they can convince their neighbors of the value of this, let's create flexibilty in the land use code to allow it.

gumba

Posted Tue, Jul 19, 1:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Ddmiller, don't these people live in neighborhoods? Or did you mean there are no anti-change NIMBY neighborhood representatives in this group?

Posted Tue, Jul 19, 6:34 p.m. Inappropriate

The members of this "roundtable of interested parties" may "care about Seattle" (says David Sucher), but the fact remains that with one exception it is devoid of any but developers and related interests.

I spent over a year and dozens of hours on another effort created by the City Council, the Neighborhood Plan Advisory Committee. That broad stakeholder based effort resulted in an extensive array of specific recommendations for improvements to Seattle's land use planning processes (see
http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/npi/npac_resources.htm). Unfortunately, as you can see from that page and others (e.g., http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/Planning/Neighborhood_Planning/NeighborhoodPlanUpdates/default.asp), our recommendations gather dust and neighborhood planning in Seattle is basically dead. Planning for transit oriented development is the husk that remains.

Regarding SEPA, Dave Sucher is correct to use "absurd" for Chuck Wolfe's analysis. I'd go further and say "insulting." The article is probably referring to ESHB 2538, Laws 2009 c 153, and earlier similar measures that allow generic or area wide planning and environmental review to cover specific projects in certain circumstances. However, this wasn't enough for the developers and their supporters in local government:

In the 2011 Session, another bill (E2SHB 1952) would have allowed local governments to exempt larger developments from SEPA review under certain conditions (e.g., raising the exemption for multi-family housing projects from 20 to 80 units). A number of public interest environmental advocates (including me) vigorously opposed this bill. As best I can tell at leg.wa.gov, this bill did not become law.

louploup

Posted Tue, Jul 19, 11:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Must we use the vile words 'new urbanism'?

Posted Mon, Jul 25, 11:25 p.m. Inappropriate

They probably do live in neighborhoods, urbanredneck, but likely those neighborhoods are places like Laurelhurst or Medina.

sarah90

Posted Thu, May 24, 9:28 a.m. Inappropriate

In planning and urban design, there is a phenomenon known colloquially as "the Trojan horse." Typically, this is a set of Land Use Code changes that are presented as harmless or minimal, but which turn out to have far-reaching implications. I suspect that is what we have here. I have not read the actual new Code language, so my comments rely on the presentations made by Mr. Valdez and Mr. Wolfe, and the discussion in the recent articles in the SEATTLE TIMES.

First, I find it problematic that Land Use Code changes are being pushed for the expediency of creating temporary jobs. It would seem to me that the goal of the Land Use Code should be to produce a quality environment in which we, and those who will come after us, can live.

John Ruskin wrote, "As we build our city, let us think that we are building forever." However, it appears that many of the proposed changes are driven by the short term goal of revving up employment (perhaps prior to the next Mayoral election?).

Second, several of the changes appear to be based on the idea that "the market knows best." While this kind of conservative ideology has driven one of the national political parties to an extreme, I had not realized it had penetrated urban design and planning thinking in Seattle. The fact that advocates of these changes are willing to sacrifice solutions that serve all citizens to those driven by "the market" seems to me to be highly questionable.

Turning to Mr. Wolfe's summary, we find a proposal to eliminate parking requirements in areas served by transit--to let the "market decide." This approach ignores very basic economics, and the lessons of the past, which indicate that where feasible, private sector owners/developers will profit by dumping problems into "the common" (the public space we all share as citizens). The history of the market has been one that has always required regulation to prevent the private sector from taking advantage of the common--this is why we have laws about water pollution, air pollution, etc. In the present case, the relevant part of the public sector (the common) is the adjacent and nearby streets which extend into adjacent single-family neighborhoods. Does anyone doubt that most developers are salivating over the proposed elimination of parking requirements? Under the proposed rules, they dump the problem and cost of parking into the public streets and, thus, into adjacent neighborhoods. After all, it's not as if the city is going to establish a regulation that says: "If one owns a car, one is not allowed to rent one of these apartments with no parking."

Once the overflow parking becomes a problem, we cannot go back--the buildings are built, there is no parking--the transfer of costs from private sector developers to the public sector (and those to all Seattle citizens) will be permanent.

Similarly, the proposal argues for eliminating requirements for ground-floor retail from arterials outside P-zones. The requirements for ground-floor retail were created based on the lessons of planning and urban design analyses over the past 40 years. The goal was to "grow" the pedestrian environment so that it would not be limited only to those areas (P zones) where the pedestrian environment was already successful. Elimination of the ground floor retail requirements along arterials outside P zones means that the city sacrifices the goal of extending pedestrian areas beyond where they exist now. Again, the proposal seems to be come from market-driven thinking: developers will provide ground-floor retail outside P zones if the market says it's appropriate to do so. The problem is that once block fronts are built without retail, any pedestrian life that might develop will wither. Again, this is not an experiment--once these rules go into effect, most developers will build what is least expensive and therefore promises the most profit, and the city will live with the result. The "common"--in this case the streets and sidewalks, the places where the public life of the city takes place, will suffer. Developers may profit but the city will lose, and pedestrian zones will not grow beyond their present limits.

Finally, Mr. Wolfe writes that one goal is to provide "more flexibility." One has to be careful when considering what this means. In a legal environment that allowed public officials discretion, and allowed negotiation of many aspects of use, form, size, frontage, etc. (such an environment does exist in some states, but not here), flexibility might be a benefit allowing a tailoring of projects to specific sites, site contexts, and long-term visions for an area through public-private negotiations. However, the legal environment that exists in Washington, as a result of the state's constitution as interpreted by the State Supreme Court and the State Court of Appeals, does not allow that kind of discretion or flexible negotiation. Courts have held that Codes in Washington must be specific, precise, and measurable, and can only be enforced if the Code language is clear. Thus, when Mr. Wolfe uses the term "flexibility" in our legal environment, it means only one thing: loosening the rules, creating a lowered standard. This lowered standard is not going to produce a variety of solutions. In the present economic climate particularly, there will be a rush to find the new lowest cost development solutions that produce the highest profits and this is what most developers will build--this will be the "new normal" and, in my opinion, the city as a whole will lose.

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