Preventing Sprawl and Preserving Neighborhood Character

Along with highlighting Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin’s support of more housing in single-family neighborhoods, this week’s Seattle Times story on neighborhood density had some confusing language about growth and growth targets. I think it’s worth looking at the Growth Management Act (GMA), growth targets, the City’s Comprehensive Plan, and what growth in single-family neighborhoods should look like. Seattle will continue to grow, including in single-family neighborhoods. Most growth will occur in multifamily neighborhoods, but more single-family homes will get built in single-family zones. The importance of building new homes in single-family zones isn’t because those homes will absorb lots of growth, but that these new homes provide a wider variety of housing choices in the city, rather than in sprawling suburbs.

The GMA was passed more than 20 years ago to prevent sprawl, a land use pattern emphasizing low density housing development linked by lots of roads and highways. By planning for future population and job growth in dense urban centers, the GMA intended to prevent more environmental degradation, traffic congestion, and highway construction associated with sprawl.

Under the GMA, counties and cities develop comprehensive plans for how growth will be managed within their jurisdictions, including land use policies and infrastructure investments. Part of the planning process is the “growth target,” an estimation of the number of people, housing units, and jobs local jurisdictions might expect. Here’s a description of growth targets from the Office of Financial Management:

Development of population projections for the Growth Management Act (GMA) is a shared responsibility. As directed by state statute, OFM prepares a reasonable range of possible population growth for Washington counties participating in GMA. County officials, also by law, are responsible for selecting a 20-year GMA planning target from within the range of high and low prepared by OFM. County officials select the county planning target; then within each county, population planning targets for cities, towns, and unincorporated areas are developed among all affected local jurisdictions as part of the city and county planning process.

Growth targets are not mandates for cities from  the state. Neighborhood advocates and others who are opposing projects or growth in general will often site growth targets as the basis for saying that a neighborhood has “taken” enough growth. As I pointed out in the Seattle Times article and elsewhere, growth targets don’t work that way.

Growth targets are a floor not a ceiling; the number of people, jobs, and housing can and should exceed the target. There are no sanctions for exceeding growth projections. This confusion about how to use population projections for planning has been made worse when policy makers attach requirements or regulatory relief to growth targets. This results, for example, in regulatory reforms that reduce costs for new development only in areas that are below growth projections, while places that are growing more quickly don’t benefit.

Thompson’s story makes it seem like growth in single-family neighborhoods is somehow connected to growth targets when it isn’t. The Comprehensive Plan doesn’t establish a limit on growth, only a plan for how it should happen, and most of that plan and the targets apply to Urban Villages not to single-family neighborhoods. Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan is pretty clear about growth in single-family neighborhoods:

The strategy of focusing future development in urban villages continues to direct new development away from Seattle’s single-family areas. (Urban Village Element 1.4)

Does that mean no single-family houses, Detached Accessory Dwelling Units, or cottages can or should be built in Seattle? Hardly. Here’s more on single-family growth from the Comprehensive Plan:

Maintain and enhance Seattle’s character as the city grows and changes. Seattle’s character includes its built environment: large areas of detached single-family houses both inside and outside of urban villages, many thriving multifamily areas, mixed-use commercial areas, industrial areas, major institutions, and a densely developed downtown with surrounding high-density neighborhoods. (Urban Village Element G1)

Enhance by every definition of the word, means a qualitative and quantitative increase (i.e. more and better). Enhancing single-family neighborhoods requires building new and different kinds of housing in those zones. And preserve should hardly be taken in this context to mean “no change whatsoever.”

There’s more.

Preserve and protect low-density, single- family neighborhoods that provide opportunities for home-ownership, that are attractive to households with children and other residents, that provide residents with privacy and open spaces immediately accessible to residents, and where the amount of impervious surface can be limited. (Land Use Element G8)

Take note that the first sentence of this section doesn’t say “preserve and protect low-density, single-family houses,” or views, or comfort of residents but, “neighborhoods.” There is nothing static about preserving and protecting single-family neighborhoods. In fact, the best way to do that is to add more single-family residents in new housing in a predictable way. And low-density is a comparative term here, not a set ratio (I think we need to propose a change here to make the word “lower.”)

Here’s more.

Preserve the character of single-family residential areas and discourage the demolition of single-family residences and displacement of residents, in a way that encourages rehabilitation and provides housing opportunities throughout the city. The character of single-family areas includes use, development, and density characteristics. (Land Use element G9)

This section is almost a restatement of the goal of Smart Growth Seattle.

We collaborate with homebuilders and community stakeholders to help government adopt codes that are appropriate for meeting housing demand and preserving neighborhood character.

The whole point of developing new single-family housing is to preserve the existing character by building a similar housing type, not demolishing existing homes (nothing is being demolished in the West Seattle project but a garage!), and creating more housing opportunity and choice.

Councilmember Conlin has already said he wants to see more opportunities and more choices in single-family neighborhoods. That’s good news; it’s also consistent with the comprehensive plan. Some growth will happen in single-family neighborhoods but it won’t be the major quantitative component of meeting or exceeding growth projections. Instead, growth and new homes in single-family neighborhoods will enhance the quality and character of those neighborhoods and the whole city. It also gives people an opportunity to live here rather than in a far off suburb.

Photo of housing in Pasco by author

Richard Conlin: “More opportunities for people who want to live in the city.”

There is a lot to think about and respond to in Lynn Thompson’s recent story about neighborhood density in the Seattle Times. The story seems to confound growth targets with growth in single-family neighborhoods (more on this later). Growth targets mostly apply to Urban Villages, those knots of more intense activity and use like the business districts of Wallingford or Columbia City. But growth is going to happen in our single-family neighborhoods too since may people want to live in detached homes. We’re not going to achieve our growth goals in single-family neighborhoods, but we will provide more choices for families who want to live in the city.

That’s why when we set aside all the breathlessness hyperbole about building more homes in single-family neighborhoods (It’s like a shark attack!), what we’re really talking about is increasing choices for people moving to Seattle. And the good news is that the Chair of the City Council’s Planning and Land Use and Sustainability Committee agrees:

City Councilmember Richard Conlin, chair of the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee, said infill development in single-family neighborhoods “provides more opportunities for people who want to live in the city.”

There it is in black and white in the Seattle Times. Councilmember Conlin gets the message. We are going to continue to grow in Seattle and some of that growth will be in single-family neighborhoods. The question is really about how that happens, not if it happens. It is encouraging that Conlin understands this point. People want to live in our city and they should have a wide choice of housing opportunity in all parts of our city.

Photo of Wallingford single-family by author, shark video by Steven Spielberg.


KING 5: What’s the Big Story?

Last Friday KING 5 news went out to JMS Homes’ site on 55th and Manning in West Seattle to talk with neighbors and JMS about the project. When Linda Brill the reporter asked me what the big story was I said, “there isn’t one.” I pointed to Bill Richmond the developer of the project and said, “this is just another day at the office for Bill.” Why does such straight forward project attract so much attention? It’s because things are changing in the neighborhood, and change is difficult. But if Seattle is going to grow smart, we’re going to have to learn to change together, and doing that is the big story.

I’ve already covered the facts of the project; it’s smaller than it could have been under the code, it will create a smaller view impact than if the site was fully built out, and there will be three homes on the site rather than two. And the project fits entirely within the “emergency” legislation passed last year.

But let’s take a look at the language in the KING 5 segment. It’s a short piece, but it covers a lot of ground.

Greed or financial responsibility?

One of the neighbors says Bill is greedy. It’s hard to understand how that could be when JMS could have gotten two big houses on the site with more square footage. There is a difference between greed and profit, and it’s unfortunate that the neighbors can’t tell the difference. When developers buy land, they have to meet the basic financial obligation of creating a return on the initial investment, often made with the help of other investors. Creating more value by creating more homes isn’t greed, it’s financially responsible.

Smaller houses on a big lot

The report starts out talking about the “problem” of big houses on small lots, but later in the report you’ll hear about the “ample lots” that prevail in the neighborhood. Remember this lot is already 12,000 square feet. And the houses aren’t big houses, but two smaller houses being built next to the existing house. You’ll hear the reporter say more than once the phrase “three small homes” or “three small houses” which is more accurate than the tease or the headline.

“Knitting together all these loop holes”

The word “loophole” gets thrown around a lot in discussion about development in single-family neighborhoods. There are many senses of the word, but the best definition of what I think the neighbor means is from Wikipedia:

A loophole is an ambiguity in a system, such as a law or security, which can be used to circumvent or otherwise avoid the intent, implied or explicitly stated, of the system.

That’s the opposite of what’s happening here since the developer is actually following the intent of the legislation passed last year, reducing the height of houses so that they fit within the new requirements. And as for “knitting together loopholes,” I would just have to refer that to the metaphor police.

No code change

At one point the reporter suggests that the developer is requesting a “code change.” Strictly speaking a code change is a change to the underlying rule itself, which is very different than submitting a permit to build or a request to sub-divide property. And code changes require a vote of the City Council; the Council isn’t voting on this project.

Which way is the view?

Um, this one is a bit hard to bring up. Take a look at the final image of the famous and eponymous bench of the Benchview Neighborhood.


The bench faces the water and the project site is behind it. You can see the clutch of neighbors talking to the reporter in the background. The view from the bench is going to be just fine.

Neighborhood Density

Finally, Bill points out that he is creating neighborhood density, efficiently creating a housing option for more people in a smaller footprint. It’s only two additional houses, but that’s two families that might have the option of living in Seattle rather than somewhere else, having to commute to work from the suburbs. It’s a small contribution to sustainability, but one that’s worth it even though it means change for the people already living there. That small contribution should be the big story.

Fact Check: Proposed West Seattle Homes Are Neighborly

There is something about land use and housing that provokes a lot of interest and emotion. That’s especially true about new housing in single-family neighborhoods. New housing in any neighborhood means change, and change isn’t always easy to accept.

A project in West Seattle that will add two new homes where there is only one has sparked a lot of comment and discussion over at the West Seattle Blog. Some of the comments aren’t, well, very neighborly.

Some of the concerns expressed in the comments make sense, though: if something is really great, especially a neighborhood, why change it? Why introduce uncertainty into something we already like?

Part of the answer of course is that Seattle is a growing city, with lots of new people moving in who need places to live. Some of those people will want to live in single-family homes, maybe even in West Seattle. These new homes at this property will help meet that need in the city rather than in a sprawling suburb.

Let’s consider one commenter’s concern about the new project:

That is a ghastly proposal. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should! Case in point: we added a floor two years ago to our house, and the city said we could go up 13 feet. That would have made our house tower over all homes on our block. To be neighborly, we kept the rise to only 8 feet. Result? No grumpy neighbors. And an healthy conscience.

But let’s look the facts about the project that is being proposed and see whether it is excessive or a project that actually is smaller than what the code allows.

The project is not, as the Seattle Weekly declares, a “Dan Duffus Development.” The project is financed by Blueprint Capital, sponsor of Smart Growth Seattle, but the property is owned by JMS Homes. That owner and the contractor, All Day Construction, offered to sell the neighbors a view easement over the existing one story home and over one of the two new proposed homes. Offering this kind of easement is not required by the code, but the neighbors declined.

Also important is that the owner is not demolishing the existing home, but preserving it, and building one 22 foot two story home with about 2000 square feet above grade (which is within the limits imposed by the “emergency” legislation passed last year. The second home is three stories and below the 30-foot height limit with about 2800 square feet above grade.

As for the commenter’s worry that the site is being maxed out creating the “grumpy neighbors,” existing code would allow demolishing the old house and the construction of two 5000 square foot homes. That would have an even bigger view impact than what is proposed and be more than twice the square footage. Rather than max out the site with two big houses, the project holds back, allows more views, and supports three homes on the site instead of two; that’s sustainable, efficient, and neighborly.

Call it growing pains: the frustration and anxiety created by new people moving in next door, new construction, and the loss of views. That’s the kind of change that can make people upset, but the truth is that this project isn’t as big as it could be but it does create homes for two more families in what in a neighborhood that people obviously love.

Emotion aside, the project really isn’t excessive at all, but meets the standards of legislation intended to help make new development more predicable and fit into existing patterns of development.

Image from Google Maps

Smart Growth Seattle to Promote Neighborhood Density at Downtown Events

Smart Growth Seattle, a new group advocating for more housing choice in Seattle, kicks off the New Year with two back-to-back panels to talk about the importance of smart growth in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods.

First, Dan Duffus will be a panelist at an event on Wednesday, January 23rd sponsored by the Urban Land Institutes Northwest Young Leaders Group. The Neighborhood Density Panel will start at 4pm with networking and the panel discussion starts at 4:30.

The discussion will include backyard cottages, cottage housing, multi-unit lots, and new development in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. Additionally, the panel will cover new legislation, how to successfully build new housing in single-family neighborhoods, and strategies for engaging neighborhoods.

Along with Smart Growth Seattle’s Dan Duffus the panelists include Richard Conlin, Seattle City Councilmember and Chair of the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee, Mike Podowski with the City’s Department of Planning & Development, and Gabe Rosenshine, Owner, Alchemy Real Estate. The panel will be moderated by Anne Vernez Moudon, Professor of Urban Planning at University of Washington.

The ULI panel will be at GGLO’s Space at the Steps, 1301 First Avenue in Seattle.

The following afternoon, Smart Growth Seattle will participate in a similar panel discussion at Great City’s regular brown bag lunch series, in the same space at GGLO. Great City urges attendees to “bring your lunch, your questions for our presenters, and your sense of vision for Seattle.” Great City’s brown bag lunch events are free and open to the public. They typically take place 2nd and 4th Thursdays of every month from 12:00pm to 1:30pm

Event Details:

Urban Land Institute: Neighborhood Density Panel

When: Wednesday, January 23

4:00 – 4:30 PM Registration & Networking

4:30 – 6:00 PM Panel Discussion

Where: GGLO Space at the Steps
1301 First Avenue
Seattle, WA

Great City Brown Bag Lunch: Single Family Style

When: Thu, Jan 24, 2013 12:00 PM – Thu, Jan 24, 2013 1:30 PM

Where: 1301 1st Avenue, Seattle, WA‎ (About 1/4th of the way down the Harbor Steps)

Image from Blueprint Capital