Jul 24, 2008

More than you wanted to know about zoning etc.

(more from the Seattle Community Council Federation. Sorry, they're kind of wordy but I've no energy to edit.)

Alert - Please read the following post before attending the July 24th Federation meeting.

Mayor's Proposals Won't Fix the Townhouse Mess,
Will Make New Messes

Last winter, the Mayor issued a Multi-Family Update (MFU). It was supposed to simplify the multi-family code and fix problems with townhouses. A working group of citizens began evaluating it. All agreed that the townhouses being built in huge numbers and crammed on sites in ill-planned double rows were destroying once pleasant and affordable neighborhoods. The working group also discovered that the Mayor's MFU, much more than a minor update, would:

• Not fix the townhouse glitch.
• Not stop "micropermitting" where a large development is broken into many small permits in order to avoid street improvements and required design and environmental reviews.
• Reincarnate Mayor Royer's 1982 apartment house disaster.
• Focus on ratios and other means of calculating capacity and the value of property instead of on the livability and long term appeal of the new buildings.
• Wipe out the current focus on how buildings relate to their neighbors both in form and in function.
• Wipe out investment security by destroying physical predictability.
• Increase allowed lot coverages at the expense of natural vegetation and infiltration of s• stormwater—the least cost, most effective ecological response.
• Replace clear and concise rezoning criteria with vague criteria so that upzones anywhere become unchallengeable, doing away with the urban village strategy of matching development with infrastructure to produce livable urban communities.
• Set the stage for selling upzones, a new and untried concept in Seattle, by eliminating corrective downzones.

In March, the working group called on the City to fix the townhouse glitch and not make any new messes by rushing to adopt the Multi-Family Update. MFU never reached the Council for some reason, but the townhouse problem continued.

At its June 2008 townhouse workshop, the Seattle Community Council Federation adopted a resolution that called on the city to immediately enact an emergency ordinance that places interim restrictive controls on townhouses and then take the time needed to come up with a code that is both simpler to administer and which improves the way buildings fit together with their neighbors and encourages good design.

In July, the Mayor announced the townhouse glitch would be resolved through more careful administrative review. He turned out to be speaking of MFU2. MFU2 turned out to be MFU1 with all its problems along with an additional explanation claiming that the code would now be simpler because of increased flexibility. For the neighbors, unfortunately, "flexible" means unpredictable, at least to those not interested in developable square feet, unit counts, and capacities. And for good designers, MFU2 still features a very brief, very nanny-state set of inflexible design standards for only the fronts of only small buildings.

You might have heard that the micropermitting issue is to be fixed by taking all townhouses through administrative design review. What this means is that the same overburdened staff, untrained in design and focused on "we need the housing" (Stranger, July 18, 2007) will add review of all townhouses to their design departure workload. Because there is nothing, no authority in MFU2 or any existing design guideline, that would allow any reviewer to fix the townhouse glitch, we would still have with us:

1. Cramming too many units on the lot because extra lot coverage and building depth is granted townhouses (over that permitted apartment buildings). These exceptions would not only be retained for townhouses, but extended to apartment buildings, bulking up those buildings again as well.

2. Cramming too many units too close together to meet front yard, back yard, and open space requirements. All the yards would become mere setbacks as small as 5 to 7ft.

3. Encouragement for doubled rows of unsprinklered townhouses (dubious fire-safe in neighborhoods without alley access).

4. Inadequate driveways, turning radii, turn-arounds, and too low overhangs, resulting in over-burdened street parking and restricted fire department access. Language being informally interpreted to encourage this is to be left unclarified.

5. Profit-driven speculators and builders encouraged to outbid anyone interested in either the existing ground-related housing or quality design, resulting in accelerated loss of pleasant, affordable neighborhoods during booms and its replacement with less affordable housing with very short term appeal.

6. Use of bad manners to impact neighboring property and encourage forced sales.

You may not be aware that this plan would not be adopted until next spring. In the meantime, many more townhouse packs would most likely rush to get in under the wire, still micro-permitted and with undersized access.

Conclusion: The Federation's resolution calling for emergency interim controls followed by a better MFU with standards and means of departure to assure that both everyday and leading edge buildings are good neighbors in appealing neighborhoods, is needed more than ever!

The City Council needs to hear:
  • that your neighborhood will support them in declaring an emergency to stop the bleeding
  • and then taking the time to focus of where we are, where we want to be, and how to most effectively get there.


Joy Canova & Mark Gibson said...

Well said. As a local Realtor, I can tell you that buyers do not care for ill-considered townhomes either. They, too, are buying quality of life and want a neighborhood.

ktkeller said...

Two comments:
First, the opening salvo is summed up in a discussion of the Incentive Zoning which should reach Council EVEN if during budget if Clark has her way. Someone from Vulcan commented that density should be all over the city, that devlopers OUTSIDE of the places we WANT density should be FINED for NOT building more densely and thus pay for low income housing. What??? In other words, their view is that they want to make everyone build more densely at 'market' rates, that we should just flat out upzone, and upzone extremely in South Lake Union. With the implicit threat that they will pick up their toys and go home if we don't.
Second: Please cross post the article on CD News. Please send it to every community newletter. Please!