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The Quest to Make Regulatory Reform Work in Seattle

The Quest to Make Regulatory Reform Work in Seattle
Courtesy: Chuck Wolfe

Analyses of Seattle's downtown rebirth seem to be in vogue of late, both from here and afar. From Jon Talton in The Seattle Times to Richard Florida, writers are holding up small mirrors to the central city-scape — like the "Claude Glass" used by landscape painters of old — to create motivating and exciting images of the evolving economy of the city I call home.

These perceptions showcase a walkable, creative-class city where transit meets the commerce of the future. However, in reality, Seattle's recovery is uneven. Widespread rebirth in this city will not happen without policies and regulations that allow for a changing marketplace, with flexible zoning to allow for land use consistent with new patterns of urban redevelopment and transportation.

In that spirit, early last year, Mayor Mike McGinn convened a roundtable group of Seattle business, environmental and neighborhood representatives (and I should fully disclose: I am a member of the roundtable) to consider land use regulatory reform with jobs in mind. The goal? 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.

Last July, we offered some proposed steps in that direction. In a Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee public hearing (PDF) on Wednesday, March 28, the Seattle City Council will consider the roundtable's proposals and set the stage for a full council vote in April. In summary, the proposals are as follows, with more detail available here (PDF):

  • Allow Small Commercial Uses in Multifamily Zones and Bring Back the Corner Store The Roundtable acknowledged the national 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.
  • Concentrate Street-Level Commercial Uses in Core Pedestrian Zones Near Transit and Allow Residential, Live-Work or Commercial Uses in Other Areas Based on Market Demand The Roundtable acknowledged that ground floor commercial uses makes sense in shopping and other pedestrian areas---and is a major premise of the reinvented 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 because such commercial spaces may not be leasable. The solution? Let the market determine if the demand actually exists, and allow regulatory flexibility to do so.
  • Enhance the Flexibility of Parking Requirements The Roundtable recognized the premise that as Seattle’s transit service improves, demand for on-site parking will shrink. This recommendation allows the market to determine how much parking should be provided for major institution and other non-residential uses in locations within a quarter mile of good transit service.
  • Change Environmental Review Thresholds The Roundtable recommended that the city take advantage of opportunities under Washington State law to streamline and combine environmental review with other aspects of land use regulation, for proposed residential and mixed-use projects in areas designated for growth (such as urban centers and light rail station areas). When announced last summer, labor groups explained how this streamlining could result in 40 new construction projects with 100 to 250 units each year. The Seattle Building Trades Council estimated that 2,400 direct jobs in skilled construction trades could be created through such measures.
  • Encourage Home Entrepreneurship The Roundtable embraced the assumption that the home-based business is an incubator for new ideas which create jobs. The recommendation allows 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.
  • Expand Options for Accessory Dwelling Units and Rental Incomes The Roundtable recommended additional flexibility for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU's) through allowance of backyard cottages on "through lots" (lots that front two streets), essentially providing for a "backyard" in cases where the Seattle Land Use Code has historically interpreted two front yards. The recommendation also provides more flexibility for the height of backyard cottages on sloping sites and clarify that ADUs are allowed in all housing types (including townhouses, row houses as well in multifamily housing in mixed use zones).
  • Expand Allowance of Temporary Uses The Roundtable endorsed a continuation of flexibility to non-permanent uses which help enliven neighborhoods. This recommendation would allow more opportunities for low-cost business activity where no permanent structures are needed. This recommendation would also extend the permitted days and hours of farmers markets, and extend the duration of certain temporary use permits.


Courtesy: Chuck Wolfe

One reaction thus far to our proposals suggests that zoning flexibility still brings out fears that Seattle's identity as a car-based city is in danger. Last Friday, The Seattle Times highlighted only one aspect of the roundtable's proposal, reporting on fears that eliminating certain parking requirements in areas served by transit equated to a parking prohibition. As Martin Duke so ably explained in Seattle Transit Blog, incremental increases in regulatory flexibility can get needlessly mired in the "identity politics" of urbanists versus the other side.

So goes the politics of land use innovation, however ambitious, which leads me back to perception and the "Claude Glass" which began this story. Seattle, like so many cities, would benefit from a regulatory approach focused less on incremental brush wars and more on holistic and sustainable tools, things like citywide transit-oriented development policies and ongoing integration of transportation, land use and underlying natural systems. Fortunately, all of that is on the horizon as our roundtable continues its work.

The proposals discussed here to help "make sustainability legal" (a catchy moniker coined by Seattle's Sightline Daily) can help lead the way, but they'll only work if they're implemented in concert with other efforts by city agencies, the city's planning commission and neighborhood stakeholders — including the very same creative class types discussed above.

Charles R. Wolfe is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting, including the use of innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques. All posts »

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