December 9, 2004

Seattle's land code needs a diet

  • The new urban center code should be short and simple, such as Tacoma's 12-page zoning code.
    Kauri Investments

    Most people in our community agree that growth management is good. No one wants to see single-story development and asphalt continue to flow outwards from our cities, devouring more and more of our beautiful countryside.

    Yet this is at odds with our needs for places to live, work and play.

    Since the Growth Management Act was passed by the state Legislature in 1990, the central Puget Sound has been successful in gradually restricting growth on the perimeter of our urban areas, but it has been ineffective in helping cities allow for the growth in the urban areas necessary to keep the costs of housing and commercial development at affordable levels.

    Our leaders and our communities have largely come to recognize that in order to reconcile these disparate needs, we need to fully use our urban centers. We need more densely developed centers that are attractive and vibrant.

    The city of Seattle has five urban centers designated under its comprehensive plan, which was adopted in 1994 and is due for a 10-year update at the end of the year. They are: Capitol Hill/First Hill, Uptown (Lower Queen Anne), Downtown, Northgate and the University District. A sixth urban center will likely be designated this year as South Lake Union.

    While each of these neighborhoods has its own personality, most have fallen short of becoming a true "urban center."

    More than half of our six urban centers are struggling to overcome years of neglect from the city. Our goals for our communities have been thwarted by a cumbersome zoning code and other land use regulations which are complicated and difficult documents for neighborhoods, property owners, developers and city staff to use and administer.

    How cumbersome? The Seattle Land Use and Zoning Code is about 1,500 pages long.

    Additionally, the Northgate urban center is the only neighborhood out of 38 in the city that hasn't had its neighborhood plan updated since the comprehensive plan was first adopted.

    Our mayor recently announced zoning and land use code changes intended to help revitalize both the Broadway area of Capitol Hill and the University District. In the last several years, the mayor has also announced efforts to enhance Northgate and South Lake Union.

    While the mayor's intentions are worthy, these minor changes are not enough to turn these neighborhoods into what we need them to become. We need to look at our urban centers differently than we do other parts of our city.

    The city's urban centers are subject to the same lengthy and complicated land use code that other Seattle neighborhoods are.

    The existing Seattle Land Use Code was created in various stages from 1979 through the 1980s — and amended so many times that it is confusing and difficult to understand. It is time for a new land use code specifically for the urban centers so they can prosper.

    The new urban center code should be short and simple, such as Tacoma's 12-page zoning code. It should describe what our city's vision is for each urban center.

    A new code would allow the creative architects and developers in our city to seek new ways to accomplish the goals of growth management. Design review and design guidelines would still be available to help projects fit in with the context of each center and create dialog with our neighborhoods.

    Without this change to a new code, urban centers will be continue to struggle with outdated codes that were created during a different era.

    James B. Potter is chairman of Kauri Investments Ltd.

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