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Writing Code For More Sustainable Neighborhoods

2011 July 29
by Chuck Wolfe

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Crosscut. Hint: Food for thought regarding Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan Update.


< Mayor McGinn and Councilmember Conlin announce the new recommendations; photo by Chuck Wolfe >

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.

Concentrate Street-Level Commercial Uses in “P-Zones.” The Roundtable acknowledged that ground floor commercial uses make sense in shopping and other pedestrian areas, and is a major premise of the reinvented and walkable American city going forward. However, recessionary times have made clear that more flexibility is needed outside of those areas to build buildings without ground-floor commercial spaces. This recommendation will drop the ground floor commercial requirement outside of pedestrian-overlay (P) zones, and would apply to approximately 80 percent of Commercial (C)- and Neighborhood Commercial (NC)-zoned frontages on arterials throughout the city.

Enhance the Flexibility of Parking Requirements The Roundtable recognized recent debates over the cost of parking, and agreed with the premise that as Seattle’s transit service improves, demand for on-site parking will shrink. This recommendation will allow the market to determine how much parking should be provided in locations within one quarter mile of good transit service (generally, those with at least 15 minute headways). It eliminates minimum parking requirements for residential or non-residential uses in such locations (such minimums currently apply only to residential uses within urban villages). In addition, this recommendation modifies minimum parking requirements for major institution uses in urban centers to be the same as other nonresidential uses.

Allow Small Commercial Uses in Multifamily Zones The Roundtable acknowledged the trend towards re-establishing the small corner store amid the urban fabric. Historically, residential zoning has often been an impediment to locating such small commercial uses close to where people live. This recommendation would allow small corner stores in “Lowrise 2 and 3” multifamily zones in urban centers and light rail station area overlay districts — thereby providing additional retail opportunities already present in “Midrise” and “Highrise” multifamily zones.

Expand Options for Accessory Dwelling Units. The Roundtable recommended additional flexibility for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) through allowance of backyard cottages on “through lots” (lots that front two streets), essentially providing for a “backyard” in cases where the Code has historically interpreted two front yards. The recommendation also allows more flexibility for the height of backyard cottages on sloping sites and clarifies that ADUs are allowed in all housing types (including townhouses, rowhouses, and in multifamily housing in NC zones).

Mobile Food Vending/Temporary Uses The Roundtable endorsed a continuation of flexibility to non-permanent uses which help enliven neighborhoods. This recommendation would allow vending carts on private property where other commercial uses are permitted (“Lowrise 2 and 3” zones in urban centers and light rail station areas, and in “Midrise” and “Highrise” multifamily zones). Example: a coffee cart in front of an existing restaurant. This recommendation would also extend the permitted days and hours of farmers markets, and make temporary use permits easier to obtain for street food and other vending to expand their duration period. It complements other street food proposals under consideration that address activities within public rights-of-way.

Change State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) Implementation to Avoid Redundant Review and Provide Amended Review Thresholds. The Roundtable recommended that the city take advantage of opportunities to streamline and combine SEPA review with other aspects of regulatory review for proposed residential and mixed-use projects in designated growth centers, such as urban centers and light rail station areas The goal of SEPA is to minimize environmental impacts, but 1995, 2003, and 2009 legislative amendments to SEPA allow streamlining of environmental review to use development standards within the Land Use Code to address major environmental impacts.

This recommendation would codify SEPA conditioning authority for transportation analysis and mitigation in the Land Use Code (as a Type I, non-appealable, decision) in exchange for raising the SEPA unit and square footage thresholds for individual projects in urban centers and light rail station areas to 200 dwelling units (250 in the “Downtown Urban Center” designation ), and 75,000 square feet for commercial uses in mixed-use development. The Roundtable’s intent? By putting mitigations directly into city standards, this recommendation is intended to create more certainty that a project’s impacts will be addressed, while shortening the permit review process.

Which brings us back to the jobs theme at the press conference. As announced, this SEPA aspect of the proposal could result in 40 new construction projects with 100 to 250 units each year. The Seattle Building Trades Council estimates that 2,400 direct jobs in skilled construction trades could be created through such measures.


Chuck Wolfe, a Seattle environmental and land-use attorney, holds a master’s degree in regional planning. He blogs at myurbanist.