Thursday, September 15 at 2:00 in the afternoon, the Seattle City Council committee on Planning, Land Use and Zoning (PLUZ) will hold its one public hearing for something called the 2035 Comprehensive Plan. This is the core planning document for the city for the next 20 years – the policy basis for municipal legislation like the Land Use Code. The Comp Plan will guide what gets built and where, determining what our city will look like, and what it will be like to live in, far into the future.
The 2035 Comprehensive Plan has been in the works for the past couple of years. A draft of the plan was released for public review in 2015, and lots of public comment was received (and duly disregarded.) The mayor’s office released a revised version in May, 2016, and now, in August, the PLUZ committee is looking at a set of 159 amendments put together by city staff.
So how’s it shaping up? About like you might expect, if you’ve been following city initiatives lately. For those of us who care about livability in Seattle, the news is not good. The most appalling part of this very large document is what has happened to plans for Single-Family Residential areas, in the Land Use element of the comprehensive plan.
Single-Family Residential stigmatized
The current plan – the existing comprehensive plan that 2035 will replace – starts off its Single-Family Residential section with a statement of what it’s about that I think most of us in Seattle would recognize:
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.
The 2035 Comprehensive Plan takes a little different direction:
Provide opportunities for detached single-family and other compatible housing options that have low height, bulk, and scale in order to serve a broad array of households and incomes and to maintain an intensity of development that is appropriate for areas with limited access to services, infrastructure constraints, fragile environmental conditions, or that are otherwise not conducive to more intensive development.
This statement introduces a couple of themes that are reflected in the policies put forward by the plan:
- No longer low density – how many houses on the land. Now it’s about how big the buildings are: “low height, bulk, and scale.”
- “Other compatible housing options”, besides detached single-family.
- Where’s the love? Find one good thing they have to say about single-family residential, in that statement of goals. Compare to the current plan.
- The social justice angle: “…in order to serve a broad array of households and incomes.” 2035 is liberally larded with this kind of language. In principle, a good thing, but it can also be convenient support for compromises to zoning and building standards.
The purpose of these changes is to introduce higher density development into single-family areas. The form that this development will take was initially vague, but presentations and amendments from city staff have confirmed that this means, among other things, duplexes and triplexes. There are other types of development, but many of these are impractical on the smaller lot sizes found in close-in neighborhoods.
Towards a single-family that isn’t
These are the same triplexes that were abandoned by the mayor last summer after controversy initiated by a Seattle Times article – item SF.2 in the HALA Report, which called for triplexes, row-houses and stacked flats to be allowed in Single-Family zones. They’re back.
The advocates for this change would just as soon eliminate single-family zoning altogether. They’re the people who call it “single-family exclusionary zoning”, and deplore any defense of it as “single-family protectionist”. That’s why the goal statement for single-family no longer mentions privacy, open space, children, home-ownership – because they hate to see any recognition that there might be the least merit in a house with a yard.
The Seattle Planning Commission, for example, in one of the amendments they have put forward for 2035, zeroed in on a policy that read:
Protect designated single-family areas that are predominantly in single-family residential use or that have environmental or infrastructure constraints; …
They propose to change that to:
Limit development in single-family areas that have environmental or infrastructure constraints;…
They explain: “The Planning Commission has recommended amending this policy to focus on areas with environmental or infrastructure constraints that make it unwise to build denser development. Removes language ‘protecting’ single-family areas.”
When policies talk specifically about higher density development in single-family, they’re usually talking about single-family inside urban village boundaries. Another recent Planning Commission amendment would extend this to single-family areas in or near urban villages, “to provide more flexibility.” This would apparently be done by rezones from conventional single-family like SF5000, to a Residential Small Lot zone (RSL.) One of the single-family policies, however, already seems to support higher density redevelopment, as a general change to single-family standards – inside or outside the urban village (LU 7.5):
Encourage accessory dwelling units and other housing types that are attractive and affordable to a broad range of households and incomes and that are compatible with the development pattern and building scale in single-family areas.
Why single-family zoning must be preserved
Many single-family neighborhoods already have some duplexes and a few small apartment buildings, from a bygone era prior to single-family zoning. That’s fine – the virtues of single-family residential aren’t spoiled by a few exceptions – but development patterns from half a century ago aren’t a good guide to what will happen today without single-family zoning.
Today’s development capital, building standards and typical small residential architectural styles paint a fairly dismal picture of the devastation we can expect. Any home that goes up for sale will very likely be a “tear-down”, to be replaced by a typical multi-unit grey box with cement fiber panel exterior and a roof deck, with vestigial front and back gardens that serve no real purpose. The loss will be the greatest in the oldest, most desirable neighborhoods – the very neighborhoods that contribute so much to Seattle’s high ranking as a desirable place to live.
The zeal with which single-family zoning is being attacked today, is evidence in itself of the forces that will attack single-family neighborhoods if not held back by that zoning.
- Tuesday morning, September 9 – The PLUZ committee will again consider amendments to the 2035 Comprehensive Plan – probably the same 159 amendments already introduced August 16.
- Thursday 2 PM, September 15 – Public Hearing before the PLUZ committee – an opportunity to speak. You may email written comments to the committee chair: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Tuesday morning, September 20, (tentative) – PLUZ vote on amendments, “then shares with full council.”
There is no sign at this point of any amendments in the works that would restore to the 2035 Comprehensive Plan a normal notion of single-family; that is, single-family that means what it says, and is fully supported in recognition of its merits.