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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