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The city could also offer builders wanting to avoid the cost of carbon offsets another choice: building structures with variations in height, set backs, income level, retail size, and rental rate. Re-habing or re-using buildings would have the extra benefit of providing a variety of scale, massing, and materials, putting to shame the articulated block-sized buildings that pretend to be what they are not.
There are other deterrents to variety and reuse that should be adjusted too: Developers looking to add to an existing building must provide parking (with some exceptions for historic buildings and special transit zones), which means they're often forced to demolish the building in order to meet parking requirements.
The Growth Management Act seeks to maximize the existing investment in such things as utilities, roads and sewers by adding growth where those services already exist. Currently about 65 percent of Seattle is zoned for single-family use. Surely there is capacity for growth in neighborhoods that already have these facilities, but it has taken decades for the city to begrudgingly accept accessory dwelling units (ADUs) like cottages and apartments in some neighborhoods. Today it agrees to do so only when the owner of the house lives there and builds a mother-in-law apartment.
This rule is supposed to protect neighborhoods from out of control numbers of renters, but in practice it means that other neighborhoods — almost always those that house people of lesser income and influence — take it in the shins. Enormous, block-long complexes take out big swaths of existing smaller homes. Wouldn't it be better for Seattle's overall quality of life to spread increased density more equitably throughout the city?
The city’s strict reliance on its ever-thickening land use code makes it very difficult for a property owner to respond to unique conditions and/or come up with a looser, more creative approach. If, on the other hand, the developers follow the book, the city gets out of the way, believing that they’ll naturally come up with what’s best. Having left these decisions to the building department for decades, who have in turn bequeathed them to the developers, the present approach has a decidedly mixed record.
Though a serious reappraisal of the land use code would be a fine idea, it may well not be sufficient. The code is a blunt instrument, and does little to uphold and deliver a broad urban vision. Perhaps it's time to try something completely different, some sort of organized, binding, community-based approach that allows neighborhood representatives and developers to make difficult choices alongside one another.
At worst, this kind of experimentation would lead to the construction of more uninspiring structures. Or, with luck, thought, goodwill, and an eye on the big picture, Seattle could begin to foster the kind of architecture and streetscapes worthy of its spectacular setting.
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