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C200: Let’s Stop Putting The Cart Before The Horse

2011 March 22
by Al Levine

< The Beacon Hill light rail station. Last year neighbors filed an appeal against proposed zoning that would allow a six story building on the vacant site adjacent to the station; photo: Dan Bertolet >

Over the past 15 years the City has provided lots of “carrots” for neighborhoods to increase density—new libraries, community centers, parks, light rail stations, matching funds, P-patches and more. These have been accompanied by lots of talk about accommodating increased density, but few “sticks” have been applied to facilitate this increase.

The conversations continue endlessly around rezoning for TOD at rail stations, rezoning South Downtown, Northgate, Capitol Hill, Roosevelt and other neighborhoods.

When new zoning has been put in place, it has generally been too ineffectual to have much impact.

Going forward, let’s stop putting the cart before the horse. Instead, let’s negotiate and implement appropriate zoning before we provide publicly-funded amenities.

Let’s give neighborhoods specific targets for new capacity and a larger toolbox to choose from to accommodate those targets. Options could include large scale duplex zoning, multi-family nodes, arterial rezones without the restrictions caused by adjoining single family uses, special block-end zoning and others.

This approach would give neighborhoods a more flexible voice in shaping their form and it would create the needed incentives for them to take action.


Al Levine is Deputy Director of the Seattle Housing Authority, and the above represents his personal views.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Stephanie Pure permalink
    March 22, 2011

    Great piece, Al!

  2. Zef Wagner permalink
    March 22, 2011

    Agreed. Neighborhoods should be willing to accept greater density as a condition for amenities. It is frustrating to see Light Rail running through areas where residents are able to enjoy this beneficial transit link while denying it to others through opposition to upzones.

    • Jane Jacobs permalink
      March 23, 2011

      The light rail areas were already upzoned substantially in 2001. The current zoning is very similar to what exists in the thriving Capital Hill/12th Ave area. With the exception of Othello, there is currently no construction without a sizable low income/workforce housing component – the area is not attractive to developers.

      What needs to happen is the city needs to vigorously address the level of crime and quality of schools in areas surrounding the light rail stations. Additionally, they need to create well paying professional jobs in the area. Rezoning to add some significant office space/grey collar jobs would be wonderful. Creating a human warehouse that is then forced to take the light rail to service higher income areas is a travesty of social justice.

  3. Patrick permalink
    March 23, 2011

    Except that it’s not neighbors, it’s one neighbor. And while it may not be true in this case, the same small groups that oppose upzoning are often the ones trying to block any other changes to their neighborhood as well. The “save Surrey Downs” groups in Bellevue fighting light rail are the same people that will be fighting any densification in the future – and would be more than happy to obstruct both at the same time.

  4. Bill Bradburd permalink
    March 23, 2011

    The “carrots” that come along with density are actually the types of necessities that a community needs to have to be successful, and are mandated by the Growth Management Act to be provided concurrently with increases in population.

    I think that if Mr Levine were to look at how well growth targets have been met and exceeded on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, it would be clear that the vast majority of those neighborhoods that have met or exceeded their targets are those neighborhoods that are already largely more ‘complete’ – i.e. there are lots of carrots in place already. The Department of Planning and Development’s own Urban Center/Village Residential Growth Report shows this, and I encourage folks to look at it and tell me if you draw a different conclusion.

    SHA and Mr Levine appear to want to lead with the “trust us to build it” approach as seen with their vague arm-waving plan for Yesler Terrace, which has been blessed by DPD (quelle surprise) and seems soon to moved forward a step at the Comp Plan level by an inadequately briefed Council that has taken a “we get to look at it again, so who cares” stance.

    The build-it-and-they-will-come model adopted by most Seattle developers and fostered by DPD, which is funded and measured only by how much stuff is built, has plagued this city with results that are a far cry from the healthy urban vision espoused by this website. The sterile, cold “neighborhood” that is Belltown – now the city’s densest – is a testament to what happens when we lead with density.

    Jane Jacobs(!?!) points out in a comment above, the zoning around the station on Beacon Hill is already zoned NC2-40 – a height that would accommodate quite reasonable density for TOD as any reading of TOD literature show. More restrictive to the development of those properties is a (stupid) requirement that ground level floors be 18 feet, effectively limiting buildings to three stories, not four. Lowering that first story height requirement would likely unleash a flood of opportunity throughout the city. This is a text amendment and requires no zoning changes.

    As far as Dan’s assertion in the caption: ”Last year neighbors filed an appeal against proposed zoning that would allow a six story building on the vacant site adjacent to the station”, is inaccurate. The appeal was not against any zoning change, it was an appeal against a SEPA Determination of Non-significance for Comprehensive Plan changes that would have allowed subsequent rezoning in the neighborhood. With no impacts, as the city asserted, there could be no mitigations – which translate to the “carrots” to help the neighborhood deal with the growth.

    It is wrong to say the neighborhoods do not want the growth. And it is fair to ask the city explain exactly how density will be supported in their neighborhood – just how the “carrots” will be delivered.

    As Seattle continues its upzoning frenzy we have created lots of new development potential, and few real successes. And how the public necessities, the “carrots”, for a healthy community will be provided seem even more remote as the City digs deeper into the negative. Open space, schools, solid infrastructure, transit options, balanced commercial and residential interests (proper zoning), libraries and cultural centers, etc are part of a complete neighborhood. The density will follow – no “sticks” necessary…

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