Seattle land use: Throw out the book and start fresh

Somebody had to do it: Our intrepid author read the entire code and lived to talk about what should change. It's time to become denser.

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Aerial view of Seattle looking east over downtown.

Somebody had to do it: Our intrepid author read the entire code and lived to talk about what should change. It's time to become denser.

Earlier this year I decided that I would read the entirety of Seattle’s land use code from beginning to end, a stunt intended to draw some attention to the laws that guide the building of our city. I was surprised by the interest — more than 18,000 views of my blog and 374 comments — in the topic. What I read, wrote about, and discussed all strengthened my view that the code needs to be revised so that it no longer gives the force of law to unfounded prejudice against developers and the expectation that everything that gets built will make everyone happy.

I read the code with a slant in favor of more growth and density in Seattle. Others, like developers or neighborhood advocates, would likely have entirely different takes on Seattle’s land use code. Either way, I think they’d each agree we need to update our aging code to reflect what we want our city to look and feel like over the next hundred years.

Seattle’s land use code has 49 chapters, four subtitles, and three divisions. The chapters vary in length, with one of the longest, 23.49 the chapter on downtown zoning, alone weighing in at 145 pages, 61,637 words 361,326 characters, 805 paragraphs, and 5,570 lines. Code writers have a lot to say; or rather, we as a city have a lot to say about what we want and don’t want to get built in our city. It took 158 posts to fully explain what was in the code, to wax poetic about it, make fun of it, and suggest ideas for changes.

Most of Seattle’s residents hardly ever encounter the code itself, but rather the built environment that results from it. Tying the  outcomes with which we live back to the code itself is an important exercise, because it lights up how we might change what gets built or doesn’t.

Land draws us into primal debates over space and our differences with our neighbors and about where we’ve been and where we are going as a city. The code often sounds like it was written by Goldilocks, searching for a way to ensure that new development is not too big, or too small, but just right.

Whether new development is “just right” depends on who is making the decisions. Today, Seattle is dominated politically and geographically by single-family homeowners. More than 60 percent of Seattle is zoned single-family. Those homeowners have a financial interest in limiting the supply of new housing (less supply means high prices), which protects their equity from the effects of new development. The Seattle City Council tends to act in a way that protects those established interests at the expense of new growth. Strangely, single-family advocates are aided by advocates for the poor who, in their focus on greed, forget that scarcity drives up price, an outcome antithetical to their goals. Advocates for the poor should welcome the development of more housing, keeping in mind that more supply on the market means better selection and lower prices.

Growth in our region creates demand for housing, commercial, and retail space in Seattle and developers try to profitably create space to meet that demand. When demand goes up and supply is limited, price (and profit) goes up. That’s precisely the moment when the city needs to loosen land use regulation, so that supply can outpace demand, especially in places where we want growth.

The City Council, ironically, tends to listen to the voices worried about “greedy developers,” and enacts legislation that tightens supply when the market is hot because they fear price gouging; but that just means less supply and steady or rising prices (and profits) for real estate, especially existing single-family homes.

Form-based code is often discussed in urbanist circles. Form-based code draws broad design outcomes rather than strict design standards for new development. But why have design standards at all? We should encourage mixing of uses, like housing, commercial, retail, and manufacturing, rather than obsessing about what the buildings containing those uses look like.

Today, our code is an astonishing collection of floor-area ratios, setbacks, height limits, rules about fenestration, parking, and the size of yards rather than an articulation of the uses people need and want and how we want them, ideally, to work sustainably together. A formless code would start the permitting process with proposed uses rather than the envelope into which developers and builders must stuff those uses so that they make financial sense. A formless code approach would allow the maximum use of land while also achieving public goods.

Lastly, the code is way too hard to understand. I’m not asking for Fun With Dick and Jane, but we need a code that is straightforward in its statements about what we want as an outcome for the city and that provides some mechanism to decide whether we think a development proposal will achieve those outcomes. Today’s code is an accretion of decades of anxiety about what we don’t want, with lots of language intended to prevent someone from “gaming” the code to benefit their own narrow interests. That anxiety creates a spaghetti-like code, filled with internal references that confuse even dedicated and motivated land use attorneys. A particular parcel, for example, might be governed by three or four different sections of code, making it a challenge for anyone, including the public, to understand the rules.

The best way for Seattle to move forward on land use is to have an honest, sustained, and time-limited debate about what we want for our city in the next century. Will we continue to allow the economic interests of current single-family homeowners to drive our land-use agenda? Or will we take up the promise of the Growth Management Act and Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, which would welcome new people into existing and new dense neighborhoods? Whatever we choose, let’s stop fighting that fight one parcel, light-rail station, and neighborhood at a time. Seattle needs an intervention, a deep and honest discussion about land use. Then we need to make a decision and find political leadership to get us where we decide to go.


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