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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.