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Dispatch from the SPC: Triumph in the Triangle – West Seattle Upzones without Uproar

2012 February 27
by Catherine Benotto and Jeanne Krikawa

Note: This post is part of an ongoing series of dispatches from the Seattle Planning Commission.


At the end of 2011, tensions mounted and rhetoric exploded at City Hall over proposed zoning changes in the Roosevelt neighborhood near the future light rail station. Meanwhile, across the city another neighborhood was diligently working with city planners to change the zoning and pedestrian environment around two anticipated Rapid Ride bus stops in West Seattle. This progressive step happened without much fanfare but provides a successful collaborative model for realizing the “transit communities” vision in Seattle that should be replicated elsewhere in the city.

What are the elements that led to success?
What happened in the West Seattle Triangle resulted from a two-year effort among business and community members, the City of Seattle, and design consultants. The process began on common ground: several city-facilitated visioning sessions resulted in the establishment of broadly shared goals and objectives. The initial proposals also focused on the public realm with strategies to improve the street environment for pedestrians, not on building height or density. Only after the public realm framework and streetscape plan were established did the focus shift to zoning and building height, two of the most controversial topics in any neighborhood. The group explored ways to improve upon the existing auto-focused commercial zone and looked for solutions to realize the Triangle vision.

The end result?
An Urban Design Framework and complementary zoning changes were aimed at creating a pedestrian-focused, walkable transit community with more housing, shops, patrons, street activity and transit riders located near the future Rapid Ride stops. In order to support this vision, residential density was increased and building heights were raised to 85 feet in a few key areas.  Other important components of the proposal included the reduced parking requirements and mandated places for open space.

< Aerial image of the West Seattle Triangle area; click to enlarge >

Vision Realized By Balancing Diverse Community Perspectives with Technical Expertise and Analysis.
This did not come without controversy and differing perspectives. The advisory group kept at it, with meetings, walking tours, pushing the City and designers to provide graphic representations to better understand the proposals. Once the framework was agreed upon, the real work began in determining how to achieve the framework goals. This is when discussions and disagreements happened, but resulted in a proposal for building heights and open space that acknowledged the diversity of opinions in the community balanced by the strong analysis and technical expertise of city planners about how to best achieve the vision and goals.

Neighborhood as Part of a Broader Regional Transit Vision
While the Triangle process was under way, at the Planning Commission we were developing the Seattle Transit Communities strategy, which identifies ways to optimize regional transit investments by better aligning land use strategies and prioritizing the other investments necessary to create truly livable and sustainable communities. In our report, the West Seattle Triangle rose to one of the top 14 priority transit communities, prompting concurrent recommendations to consider building heights of at least 85 feet close to transit stops and encouraging multifamily housing.

Moving Forward Together
A unanimous approval by City Council on December 19, 2011 set the wheels in motion for implementing the Urban Design Framework through rezones. With Rapid Ride beginning service in 2012, this area is likely to see many changes in the character of the neighborhood. For years the Triangle has been home to lumber yards, auto dealers and repair shops, retail, the YMCA, housing and even single family homes. One goal of the rezone and framework was to allow many of the existing uses to stay and prosper, while taking advantage of some of the vacant land coming available. Development in the area is inevitable. Design guidance and zoning tailored to neighborhood conditions will help provide the area with a complete, pedestrian-focused community.

One last move that sweetened the deal and helped kick-start the transformation: City Council included $250,000 in the 2012 City Budget to begin evaluating a potential new design for Fauntleroy Way SW as a major gateway into West Seattle creating the potential for a great urban boulevard – a public realm improvement shared by all – which would kick-start the process and catalyze the transformation.


  Catherine Benotto co-chairs the Seattle Planning Commissions Housing & Neighborhoods Committee. She also represented the Commission on the West Seattle Triangle Advisory Committee, and is a former chair of the West Seattle Design Review Board. She spends time writing and lecturing on how to attract families with children back into our cities by designing urban areas with children in mind. By day, Catherine leads Weber Thompson’s Community/Urban Design and Landscape Teams.



Jeanne Krikawa
co-chairs the Seattle Planning Commissions Land Use and Transportation Committee. She is a longtime resident of West Seattle’s Admiral Neighborhood and also represents the Commission on the Yesler Terrace Citizen Advisory Committee and the Special Task Force for the Comprehensive Plan Major Update. She is a Partner at The Underhill Company and has experience in architecture, urban design, community planning, transportation and transit planning.



5 Responses leave one →
  1. Brian Neville permalink
    March 9, 2012

    It is interesting to see that cohousing is a concept that is still around. It’s been years since I’d heard anything about it. I remember it being a talked about a lot in the early 90’s.

    Given that cohousing is so group oriented, and that multitamily housing is so experience oriented, it seems that there are large barriers to getting it to the point where it could make a significant impact. There is always likely to be some interest in cohousing by the brave souls who have the time and patience to devote to the many year process of developing housing, but most people would probably prefer to buy a place to live and get on with their lives. I have to wonder how a group of people with little experience developing housing would be able to compete for land and financing in an arena that is dominated by increasingly savvy for profit and non profit organizations. It would be interesting to know that side of the story for the developments shown in this post.

  2. March 16, 2012

    Street trees spaces are limited in triangular intersections due to the need for visibility when cars enter intersections. A complicated sight line formula determines that trees cannot be planted near an intersection. Many older street trees are grandfathered in, in their current lcation, but if they are ever cut down for any reason, no replacement tree can be planted in that spot. I have asked for a count of how many of these orphaned ‘sight-line trees’ there are in the city, but no answers are forthcoming.

    This means trees will have to be planted on the lots, not in the parking strips. There’s a catch that may end up with the triangular neighborhood having very few trees.

    A little known provision of the new version of the low-rise ordinance allows a developer credit for planting trees offsite in the street right of way. The Seattle Green Factor does not require trees to be planted on a low-rise project, although it would be expensive to install enough green features to achieve the necessary points to get the project approved. In urban village zones there is zero setback required, leaving absolutely no room for trees.

    In 2011 our City Council repealed the Comprehensive Plan statement that we increase urban forest canopy cover by 1 % per year. Next year they are planning on reducing the Comp Plan’s citywide goal of 40 % canopy cover to 30 %. This would have the net effect of eliminating about 300,000 trees over the next quarter century.

    So, here we are in the West Seattle triangle. As good a place as any to start putting more concrete triangles and fewer trees. After all, it’s perfectly legal!

    Good thing we have all these architects, engineers, and speculators planning our ‘growth’.

    Arboreally yours,
    Michael Oxman

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