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Democracy at Work: Seattle Passes Pro- and Anti-Density Bills in the Same Session

As an example of how fickle (or consistently NIMBY-ish) people can be when it comes to zoning and density, the Seattle City Council passed two measures today – one limiting the densities of certain neighborhoods, and one requiring it.

1. For those neighbors against the construction of “monster houses” on small lots, the city extended a moratorium on building higher than two stories (22 ft.) on existing lots with areas below 75% of the average lot size in their respective zones (to be updated after formal press releases & reports). The moratorium was introduced in 2012 as emergency legislation to halt the development of abnormally large houses in their neighborhood contexts. Developers had been using loopholes to get larger projects through permitting.

One House Per Lot_Example-01

Photo comparison of new Seattle construction, provided by One Home Per Lot, a proponent of the moratorium. This is one of their best examples of out-of-character building.

 

2. In the same session, the city council passed a minimum density bill. This legislation was received enthusiastically by most everyone of consequence. Interestingly, while many developers are under fire for trying to squeeze too much density out of the city (see above), other developers are facing strong opposition for not proposing enough housing units. It appears that citizens united in a last-ditch effort to prevent proposed developments by CVS and others in neighborhoods that have worked hard to promote pedestrian-friendly commercial centers. Unfortunately, the legislation is too late to affect the specific proposals that inspired it, in Wallingford, West Seattle, and Queen Anne.

A typical off-the-shelf design (this circa 2007) that CVS uses in strip malls across America. Via Wikimedia / Creative Commons.

A typical off-the-shelf design (this circa 2007) that CVS uses in strip malls across America. Via Wikimedia / Creative Commons.

 

The legislation would require a minimum FAR (Floor Area Ratio) for new commercial developments or major renovations in “Urban Centers, Urban Villages, and the Station Area Overlay District.” That ratio be somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5, depending on the location and the lot. For reference, a 1-story building that covers an entire lot would have an FAR of 1.0. The proposed CVS in Wallingford would likely have had an FAR closer to 0.5 because of a huge adjacent parking lot.

This is huge, partly because it seems a minimum FAR requirement is almost unprecedented. While many cities require a minimum building height in some districts, I have never seen a minimum FAR, possibly because builders are almost always trying to push the limit of the FAR (there are plenty of examples of maximum FARs). A quick google search came up with no other examples, though I will continue to poke around.

In any case, this suggests Seattle is being aggressive in defending the character of its commercial streets, as this legislation is almost directly targeting suburban, big-box-type developers who have no sense of urban context.

Now, to be fair, these two popular legislative bits do not quite contradict each other. In fact, I should point out that both the (potentially) regressive moratorium – more on this in a future post – and the ostensibly progressive minimum-density law were spurned by the same sentiment. That sentiment is a mostly a health wariness of big change with a splash of NIMBY-ism on the side.

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