How Seattle could rein in development abuses

Commentary: The city has a history of having to retreat from density initiatives because developers make everyone angry with their exploitation of loopholes in rules. Herewith, a preventive prescription to encourage density and quality.
Crosscut archive image.

Row houses on a street in Brooklyn

Commentary: The city has a history of having to retreat from density initiatives because developers make everyone angry with their exploitation of loopholes in rules. Herewith, a preventive prescription to encourage density and quality.

Seattle has a long history of trying to encourage sensible increases in density only to find a few developers abusing the well-intended rules. 

The stretching of development projects beyond any recognizable version of reasonable intention is happening again. The city has to figure out a good way to deal with a new wrinkle that has big houses sprouting in backyards.

The problem has grown severe enough that the city has imposed a moratorium to study possible changes. There is a solution available, and understanding local history helps make clear why it’s important to act for the sake of protecting existing neighborhoods and promoting beneficial growth.

The concern here reflects longstanding personal positions on urban design and development. I am generally disposed toward development, particularly when it occurs within cities where services, transit and parks are available. I confess that I am a growth-management junkie.

But there is a kind of pro-development position that merely lines the pockets of a few people who try to take advantage of loopholes in codes or impose a mind-numbing, thoughtless pile of construction on neighborhoods with an established scale or smaller, home-grown shops and services. Development should create community, add to diversity, expand choices and recognize that not every household is a double-income earning couple with a penchant for conspicuous consumption.

Unfortunately, in this metropolitan area we have had a history of people in the development sector who look for ways to misuse or stretch well-intended regulations for their own financial gain. And what that does is paint everyone else doing development as conniving, rude and rapacious.

Thirty-five years ago, the city of Seattle tried to encourage attached single-family dwellings – sometimes referred to as row houses. This form of housing has served as a perfectly fine choice in American cities for hundreds of years – from Baltimore, Boston and Philadelphia on the East Coast to San Francisco on the West. Even younger cities like Portland and Denver have embraced that form of dwelling. In the late '70s, Seattle allowed it in a handful of areas.

After some successful efforts developing a few row houses projects, one developer ripped down almost an entire block and packed in dwellings that were 11 feet wide. The result was hardly elegant; instead the development resembled a long row of single-wide, two-story trailers. So outraged were surrounding residents that the city voided the ordinance. An entire dwelling type was knocked off the list.

Since then, there have been a number of cases of the baby being thrown out with the bath water. Some folks may recall the era of “skinny houses” on smaller lots. All it took was for a few greedy people to build 10-foot wide, 35-foot-high walls for that ordinance to be deep-sixed. One such home literally blocks the views of five other homes behind it.

Fifteen years ago, the city of Shoreline was a model community for adopting an ordinance allowing “cottage housing.” The first ones that went in were beautiful and respectful of their neighbors. Then the bottom feeders swept in. Cottages resembling migrant worker cabins were packed into neighborhoods. The city swiftly revoked the code.

More recently, neighborhoods in Seattle have had to contend with the dreaded, repetitious “six packs” — parallel, barracks-like blocks of flats separated by a narrow lane leading to parking garages. These are perversions of the row house model and their builders should be ashamed for giving a whole, otherwise respectable, housing type an undeservedly bad name.

Now we have people who are building on “lots” created not by legal subdivision but by invoking old tax parcels. Three-story houses with tiny footprints have been jammed onto slivers of land, mere yards from current residents’ homes. Already, the city has had to scramble about to figure out how to plug this hole.

Actually, there is a very simple fix, one that cities in North America have used to prevent the overbuilding of lots, regardless of their status. That is the tool of maximum floor area ratio. It may sound complicated, but it isn’t. FAR is a multiple of the lot area. For example, if the code allows a maximum of 1 FAR on a 5,000 square foot lot, the maximum area within the structure cannot exceed 5,000 square feet.

Floor area ratio has been used for decades in cities for controlling commercial development and has been affirmed many times by courts. There is no reason why this technique cannot be applied to residential areas.

A check of dozens of single-family homes on the Multiple Listing Service in this region reveals that relatively few detached homes have interior floor area that exceeds 50 percent of the area of the lot they occupy. So we can simply adopt a code that places an 0.5 FAR limit on such development. That is, in fact, precisely what other cities, such as Vancouver, B.C., have done in single-family residential zoning districts.

So the folks who try to build a house on a remnant lot that is, say 1,000 square feet, would be stuck with building a tiny, cottage-like dwelling. For most rapacious people, the trouble would hardly be worth it. And even if they managed to make it work financially, the impact on neighbors would be pretty minimal.

The Seattle City Council need not re-invent the wheel. The wheel is already available for replication.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).