Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mayor’s Proposals Still Don't Fix the Townhouse Mess,
Still Lead to New Messes

“Mayor Nickels is proposing amendments to the multifamily chapter of the City’s Land Use Code, to promote smart growth, green housing and good design. The new Multifamily Code proposal advances the City’s growth management objectives and better achieves the City’s goals and policies for new development, and makes the code easier to use and understand.”

Lead paragraph of DPD Director Report @ “Important Links”:
“Overall, the [Planning] Commission supports the goals of the Multifamily Zoning Update, but it is not clear that the proposed code changes achieve them.“

Lead paragraph @ Planning Commission's General Comments
“Almost everyone...recognizes that the existing code is virtually impossible to understand due to its form and complex amendment history”
--Report on Zoning Code reform options, prepared for City of Seattle, 1977, Joyce, Copeland, etc., Architects
Lead Quote in Land Use Code Simplification Issues/Options, prepared for City of Seattle, 1998, Nancy Fox.
[Multifamily Update/Amendments is supposedly an outcome of the 1998 “Simplification.”]

The current amendments (dated September 2008), unlike releases in November 2007 and July 2008, made it to the City Council and are being deliberated in three separate parts: first Lowrise, then Midrise, then Highrise. The Lowrise amendments are the subject of this paper.

The only obvious changes between the current draft and prior drafts are several rewordings in the “Locational Criteria Section.” The major substantive change occurred between the November 2007 draft and the July 2008 draft: a decision to abandon upward revision of the height limit in the three lowest intensity multifamily zones and to retain the current limit of25,' plus 10' within a pitched roof of 6”of rise in 12” of run. There is evidence however that the Mayor may be punting on this issue:
• Planning Commission in ref. above: “Height limit should be at least 30 feet in LDT, L1 and L2; it does not make sense to have a lower limit than is allowed in SF,”
• Councilmember Conlin: sponsoring Sunset Hill's proposal to reduce the SF height limit to match the LDT, L1, and L2, yet following “architects” (per press) advice to skip that part even after July draft retained lower heights in MF.
•Architects (CORA) lobbying PLUNC committee Apr, 8.2009 for raising the heights.

Where are we? Where to we want to go? We currently have a set of Lowrise Multifamily development standards that are a far better neighborhood design code than the Mayor's Proposal, even after nearly two decades of hair-splitting amendments. How so? Because they were adopted at citizen instigation in late 1989 to correct failed 1982 amendments ironically similar to the currently proposed amendments. Unaware of this fact, Council committee chair Clark's website repeats the planners' claim to be amending the work of 1982.

For well over three decades, Seattle legislators have actively promoted the townhouse, a housing type stubbornly not built in Seattle. So the current surplus of ill-planned townhouses is a definite first. It is also an easy to fix glitch. The double rowed “packs” are unintended consequence of townhouse code advantages, but they would not have occurred without intentional administrative interpretations playing to what turned out to be not a housing shortage, but an ownership mania.

In June 2008, the Seattle Community Council Federation held a townhouse workshop and adopted a resolution calling for the city to immediately enact an emergency ordinance placing interim restrictive controls on townhouses, and then really address the numerous Council directives for a more accessible code—one that is easy to administer, yet remains a design code that focuses on the way buildings fit together with their neighbors—and at the same time genuinely encourages good design.

The Mayor's response:
In July 2008, the Mayor announced in a press conference that the townhouse glitch was resolved through administrative design review and that his new code was simpler because it increased flexibility. Unfortunately, for neighbors “flexible” also means unpredictable, at least to those not interested in developable square feet, unit counts, and capacities. The Mayor 's proposal reduces design to a very brief, very nanny-state set of inflexible design standards for only the fronts of only small buildings.

The Mayor's full text reveals the Mayor's proposal still would:
1. Not fix the townhouse glitch.
2. Not stop “micropermitting” where a larger development is broken into many small permits in order to avoid street improvements and required design and environmental reviews.
3. Reincarnate Mayor Royer's 1982 apartment house disaster (it reverts to the same or worse numbers)
4. 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.
5. Wipe out the current focus on how buildings relate to their neighbors in terms of form and function.
6. Wipe out the investment security of property owners by destroying physical predictability, except through zoning, an uninsurable public property— see Fischel (1985 through 2001)
7. Increase allowed lot coverage’s at the expense of natural vegetation and natural stormwater infiltration— least cost, most effective ecological responses.
8. 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.
9. Set the stage, with #8 above, for selling upzones, a new and untried concept in Seattle and, as a corollary, make corrective downzones prohibitively expensive.

What is administrative design review?
Copies of old codes reveal a minor Seattle tradition—Councils proceed with uncertain land use amendments by subjecting a dubious situation to special criteria and discretionary review.
Two examples: 1. townhouses pre 1982, and 2. a “mixed density” zone for the Regrade (both examples worthy of further study).

But in the main, each zone sets forth certain uses as “allowed outright” meaning that approval to build can not be withheld (is “as-of-right”) if all stated requirements are satisfied— albeit requirements are increasingly complex and projects above a moderate size are also subjected to mandatory, discretionary environmental and design review.

In 1998, a second tier came into being that allowed departure from an array of requirements (the array itself has frequently changed) —known either as Voluntary Administrative Design Review or Design Departure. Mayoral proposals since 1980 proposed many versions, but finally, Ordinance #118980 under Councilmember Drago's sponsorship added to the Municipal Code: 23.41.004 B. Design Review-Optional, and 23.41.016 Administrative Design Review Process . Overnight, Seattle had a two tier land use code, the existing code comprising the first tier, and optional, negotiated departure comprising the second tier. An intentional two-tier code makes a lot of sense. Development standards lay out a foolproof first tier under which everyday projects do little damage and can be promptly permitted. Sound criteria for negotiated departures offers a second more strenuous track that not only furthers good design, project by project, but good code development as well.

But good intentions have a habit of getting lost over time. First of all, the present inclination and code have little to do with either foolproof or speedy permitting. Second, what the Mayor proposed back in July of 2008 is the opposite of an optional, more strenuous track. The proposal, not included in the package to Council, would add a new mandatory design review of all townhouses to either the workload of the present voluntary administrative review staff or the permitting staff, the same staff, untrained in design, that created the townhouse mess in the first place through misguided focus on “we need the housing.”(Stranger, July 18, 2007)

The real horror is that there is not yet anything, nothing, no authority in the Mayor's Amendments, 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 townhouse units into former yards. Worse, instead of removing the townhouse incentives, the Mayor proposes extending them to apartments. This would bulk up apartment buildings again outside villages to conditions beyond those of the mid 1980s.
2. Cramming too many units too close to neighbors. The proposal is to turn all “yards” into setbacks varying between 5' and 7,' except where adjacent to a Single Family zone and to only limit building widths and lengths on very large lots.
3. Compromised neighborhood safety. One fire will make all too clear that urban neighborhoods composed of dead-ended, auto-courted, tandem rows of unsprinklered wood-frame townhouses are but the modern version of the tenement, justified as essential to employment prior to motorized transportation.
4. Inadequate driveways, turning radii, turn-arounds, and too low overhangs, resulting in over-burdened street parking and restricted fire department access.
5. Speculators, profit-focused builders able to outbid anyone interested in either the existing ground-related housing or quality design. In booms: accelerated loss of pleasant, affordable neighborhoods and their replacement with less affordable housing of short-term appeal. In busts: the lost potential, a drag on the market, i.e. the current excess of ill-planned townhouses.
6.Use of bad manners to impact neighboring property and encourage forced sales.

Still valid—the Federation’s resolution calling for simple emergency interim controls to stop ill-planned townhouses followed by moderating standards and cleaning up means of departure to assure that both everyday and leading-edge buildings are good neighbors in appealing neighborhoods.

The City Council will need to hear from you on this.

A. Nissen (Nissen/Nissen Architect) by request, 06/09

1 comment:

glovin said...

The only obvious changes between the current draft and prior drafts are several rewordings in the “Locational Criteria Section.

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