A couple of weeks ago, Danny Westneat went after the city for taking action against a resident holding charity garage sales:

The city now knows all this. That this is a charity. That it’s for war refugees, some of whom are homeless. Yet the city intends to try to stop Zawaideh anyway.

“While her efforts are definitely commendable, such sales activities are not allowed by the underlying zoning,” the director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development wrote in an email this week. She added that after July 31 — this weekend — any sales there will be punishable violations.

I’d extend the implied question further — what if it weren’t for charity? What’s the compelling reason for the city to restrict (gasp!) actual commerce at this woman’s house? Aren’t we trying to create mixed-use neighborhoods?

30 Replies to “The Moral Weight of Zoning”

  1. I can think of lots of reasons I wouldn’t want somebody running a business out of the house next to mine: noise, parking problems, strangers wandering about, junk lying around. I don’t know anything about this particular business, but apparently it annoys her neighbors. Why second-guess those people when they have every right to expect the area to respect its zoned purpose?

    To address your last question: We want to create mixed-use neighborhoods, but that involves modifying the infrastructure to support more intensive usage, not just plunking down commerce or industry in a residential neighborhood.

    1. How are you not contradicting yourself by saying you don’t want “strangers wandering about” while also saying “we want to create mixed-use neighborhoods?”

      1. Sherwin, it seems pretty clear to me that X is posing the question hypothetically (addressing the idea that the poster of the article used), and pointing out some necessary things that need to be done for that to happen. Not actually stating declaratively “we want mixed-use”, but employing a rhetorical device:

        “[If] We want mixed use [then] that involves modifying…”

      2. I think X’s infrastructure point is key. Housing on commercial streets is designed quite differently from that on residential streets. For one little example, have you ever had to find someone’s house in a single-family residential neighborhood in the dark? You have to look around for address numbers, perhaps while driving. Maybe you park and walk around, looking closely for the numbers, inevitably looking in people’s front windows. It’s sort of awkward… and residents will naturally resent it if it happens too often. Commercial streets are better suited to finding places without invading people’s privacy. Businesses typically announce themselves and their addresses, and invite people to look in their windows and even open the door and ask for directions.

        At any rate, except in the densest areas, retail on every street just isn’t appropriate. On the residential streets it’s perfectly natural to want to limit traffic and keep noise down.

      3. So to those who think DPD is in the right should DPD go after EVERY resident of the city who holds a garage or yard sale in a zone that doesn’t allow for commercial uses?

      4. Chris, that’s not what’s happening here. From the article, DPD is fine with people having up to four garage sales per year. You could probably get away with a few more. This lady, though is apparently having one every week.

      5. I’m not sure whether I agree with DPD in this case. I don’t live far from there, but I haven’t been by to check it out. I think there are plenty of valid reasons for a neighborhood to reject a business in a residential block, but also plenty of people that will complain about things for petty reasons. It may be, as some commenters have suggested, that everyone might be better served if DPD would allow the use in this particular location while enforcing certain changes that address substantial neighborhood complaints.

        So I at least think it’s possible that DPD is right in substance. And yet I don’t think they should crack down on one- or two-day yard sales, or people that sell furniture on Craigslist. Those are temporary uses of the home that are well within the tradition of what people do in their homes. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re specifically allowed somewhere in the zoning code. If the disruption caused by them is really excessive, neighbors may confront the seller, and would escalate to the police, not the zoning department. There’s a difference between throwing a party and turning your house into a dance club. There’s a difference, for renters, between letting out-of-town guests stay overnight and offering them a permanent room; for homeowners there’s a difference between these things and renting out a room in your house. The differences are legal and social.

  2. Reminds me of the incredibly stupid case of the former Brooklyn Grinder sandwich shop just north of NE 45th:


    “The city made us move out or we’d be fined,” said Terry Houser, co-owner of the Grinder and self-proclaimed “king of sandwiches.” The city wouldn’t grant Houser and partner Angel Hanson a change-of-land-use permit — for either the existing space or the planned expansion area for which the restaurant signed the rental agreement — because the restaurant was not wheelchair accessible.

    The new tenant is a smoke shop. Nice work, DPD.

  3. According to Google Maps, 3806 Whitman Ave N actually faces Bridge Way N right by the N 38th St underpass of Aurora Ave N. Perfect place for some mixed use if you ask me.

    The right fix would be for City Council to change Bridge Way N zoning.

    1. This is an important point. It’s not like this is a perennial garage sale in the middle of a sea of single family housing in Sand Point, where the neighbors might have moved there expecting a quiet, single-family neighborhood.

      This is a perennial garage sale on a multi-family street adjoining a large-ish arterial. The city bureaucracy needs to enforce the code as written (we don’t want DPD making moral judgment about land uses), but it would be quite reasonable for the city council, who are elected to make these kinds of decisions, to change the zoning.

    2. Bridge Way N is basically a vehicle artery – hardly an ideal place for mixed-use. Some mixed use in that particular area *might* be a reasonable bet when RapidRide opens.

  4. This is a tricky one. We want mixed-use, but there are plenty of single-family neighborhoods where pretty much nobody wants commerce other than the occasional corner store or cafe. I think it makes sense to concentrate mixed-use in the urban villages and centers. Other areas should be zoned with more flexibility for small commercial uses. The city is apparently working on some changes to make it easier to run home businesses.

    1. When I lived in upper Fremont, I loved being two blocks away from Marketime, a small grocery store. But, I also loved living on a quiet street that was two blocks off of a main street. Close enough to Marketime and Video Isle as well as two different bus routes, but far enough away to be quiet. There’s no way I would want–or have moved to–a neighborhood that allowed a business on any random street. Urban villages are great but there’s more to a village than retail. You’ve got to make it desirable for people to live there. If I wanted to live in an active, dense neighborhood, I would have chosen to live on Broadway or in Belltown, but I don’t want that lifestyle anymore. And I would NOT welcome a re-zone in the area that I currently live. I chose it for it’s residential qualities and the fact that it IS quiet with no retail close by. I can still take the bus to places I want to go to even though it isn’t nearly as convenient as in Fremont, but that was a choice I made.

  5. I sometimes use a bus stop that is literally next to the perpetual garage sale. I’ve considered complaining myself (but haven’t) because the sellers often put goods on the sidewalk and block it.

    1. well, file a complaint, not only are they blocking a public right-of-way, they are also operating a business w/o a license AND not paying sales tax…

      1. I did some searching and there is a business licensed at that location (a travel agent). Don’t know whether they are paying sales tax or not.

  6. I think we need to create a climate for small businesses to take hold and grow, and that may mean liberalizing rules for home businesses. It can get complicated, though. My neighbor is a lapidary, tumbling rocks in her garage 24 hours a day, and recently started using chemicals to treat the surfaces of them that can be smelled outside of her property. Thankfully, she listened when the people next door asked her to stop with the chemicals because it was a worry for their child who plays in the yard near her garage-shop. What she is doing probably violates the code, and what she is doing has irritated some neighbors, and yet people understand it’s how she makes a living and no one is trying to put her out of business. If all my neighbors made as much noise as she did, it would not be a nice place to live. But they don’t, so it works in a way, but I would not expect that everyone would tolerate it. If I lived in a more propserous neighborhood, I doubt very seriously it would be tolerated at all.

    So mixed-use is great; small business is great; but lapidaries, like blacksmiths and car mechanics and dry cleaners and taverns, have a downside, and unless you can build neighborhood consensus on how numerous, how loud, how smelly, and how busy these businesses can be, they are not likely to get the blessing of something as blunt as the Land Use Code in areas people consider

  7. Yes, we want mixed use. We also want smart, safe use that works for as many users as possible.

    We need realistic, flexible zoning rules that work for business owners, customers, and residents. ADA/accessibility requirements were hard won and need to be respected AND exceptions may occasionally need to be made. Aging in place is gaining importance in urban design and–while there are always going to be examples where accessibility requirements were (or seemed to be) overly onerous–we need to create safe, welcoming, accessible public spaces and encourage businesses to do the same.

    If you’re operating a business in a primarily residential area, you need to be responsible for the impact on your residential neighbors. Ideally, you’d be offering a service that they find positive–or at least neutral. Traffic (foot and vehicular), parking, noise, garbage, etc all have real impacts. It’s possible to mitigate these impacts, but it requires effort and thoughtfulness. Business owners may lack either interest in or knowledge about how to mitigate these impacts–that’s why we have rules. When the rules don’t work, we need to tweak them.

  8. So I currently live in a 1910 single-family home that was converted into 3 apartments. It’s surrounded by a sea of SF5000, but my particular house and a couple of adjacent properties are NC1-30. If the woman in question lived where I did, would her activities have been permissible? If so, what would be the broader impacts of allowing low-end commercial activity in SF designations…i.e. merging certain SF and NC designations together so that we don’t unnecessarily prohibit this kind of low-end mixed use?

  9. There are homes scattered throughout my single family neighborhood that were clearly combination stores and homes at one point. I think that’s a great mixed use thats gone away. It allowed a family to pay one mortgage and both live in a home and run a business. Talk about a short commute.

    I wonder if some of the fears listed above are mostly groundless. Most businesses don’t want to be on your residential street – there just usualy isn’t the foot or car traffic to support more than a corner store.

    1. I wonder about that too, like on 6th Avenue south of 80th in Greenwood/Phinney, there is a block of small buildings that was obviously corner stores/offices, now they are small apartments ( maybe a studio).

      My favorite small business still in residential is on 82nd and 3rd Avenue, where there is a butcher…

    2. Absolutely, Seattle (and most cities) didn’t get into zoning until the 1920s, and the first really serious one was the Comprehensive Plan of 1956 if I remember correctly.

  10. I love that block! My dad ran his construction inspection from a storefront at 7708 6th NW from the mid-1950s until the mid-1960s. I remember a small market, a shoe repairman, a butcher and an upholstery/curtain shop being there, but by the time my dad left after the Worlds Fair, most of those shops were boarded up too.

  11. Seems like a lot of the complaints around mixed-use development are really just issues of noise abatement. Proper (albeit expensive) construction can solve most of those issues. So I wonder why we don’t see more super-insulated mixed-use construction, thus reducing heating costs AND noise issues?

    Greener construction would also keep people cooler in the summer and prevent a some of this open-the-windows-and-immediately-call-in-a-noise-complaint-about-that-damned-nightclub-across-the-street nonesense we’ve seen here in Seattle.

    1. People like open windows. I know I’d much rather cool the house with a nice breeze than recirculated AC (even if it does go through a MERV 11 filter). It’s not just noise from patrons. It’s garbage collection, roof mount HVAC systems, etc. Not to say it can’t work but it needs to be in areas that have already bought into that lifestyle like the U District. And that’s one of the reasons it’s better to bring residential to commercial/industrial than the other way around. ST just ended up putting stations in some really lousy locations because they didn’t have a lot of good choices given the politically correct route they were maneuvered into for Central Link.

  12. This is really an issue of whether we want to be a city or a suburb. Suburbs rigidly separate uses and try to provide quiet residential areas devoid of activity. Cities are intended to be bustling and active with mixed uses. Which does Seattle want to be? Does our zoning/land use code reflect our current values?

    Standard model American zoning codes were invented in the first half of the 20th century to create what we now know of as suburbia. They explicitly outlawed all the activities/characteristics that had defined cities for millenia, which early 20th century Americans found so distasteful. What baffles me is how nearly every major city in the US, from Seattle to even New York City, adopted and retains to this day these suburban codes. Under these codes most of the pre-war built environment, which people today cherish and protect, are illegal – non-conforming uses.

    1. For millenia, industry and commerce were not practiced at the scale they are today. If you want an answer to your question, visit neighborhoods with a real history of heavy industry. Take Chicago’s old stockyards: “hog butcher to the world” on one square mile between 39th, 47th, Halsted, and Ashland, if memory serves. There hasn’t been a slaughterhouse there for years but you can see and smell the legacy. Some other neighborhoods I’m familiar with: Chinatown, Pilsen, Little Village (formerly South Lawndale). When you consider the pollution and noise that once reigned in these places (and still does in a much smaller form), is it any wonder that those that could sprawled as far out in the suburbs as they could? The same industrialism that made our cities polluted and inhospitable made suburban lifestyles possible through fast personal transportation.

      Today the affluent flock back to cities; social benefits are vast, heavy pollution is largely under control (much heavy industry is now overseas or in quasi-rural areas), and urban concerns about safety, traffic, and the like are just as pressing in the suburbs. It’s easy to look at the situation now and ask what’s wrong with some retail on the neighborhood streets. There’s probably not much wrong with it, if it can survive. But we have to remember that, for better or worse, the modern world doesn’t turn on the corner store. It turns on industrial production on the massive scale. That’s what we zoned out of our residential neighborhoods.

    2. We in Pugetopolis tend to merge suburbia and and zone separation/automobilization because many of our suburbs were built in the 1950s and 70s. But in places with older suburbs, the suburbs are more like the quieter Seattle neighborhoods (Mt Baker, Fremont), with neighborhood businesses, gridded streets, and smaller house lots. Before WWII, suburbs were like villages, with the school and store and train station within walking distance or streetcar distance. They had to be because most people didn’t have cars. Rich people had isolated country homes, but only they could afford them, and they didn’t come to the city every morning.

      There are pro- and anti-sprawl books that explain the history and the American mindset. “The Geography of Nowhere” (anti) and “Sprawl: a Compact History” (pro) are two, along with my favorite “The Option of Urbanism” (anti). Europeans tend to cities as their security and the achievement of civilization, because walled cities protected them from bandits and invaders. Europeans also value public spaces (plazas and institutions). Americans tend to view cities as dirty, sinful, and unhealthy. Instead of a shared plaza, Americans prefer a private yard with a fence. Of course there are exceptions, and the WWII generation was especially cooperative, and now urbanism is more popular. And of course, they *did* have to separate people from toxic polluting factories and slaughterhouses. But the suburban explosion was as much psychological as a public-health issue.

      When Seattle was more mixed-use, there were fewer regulations overall, and property rights were more sacrosanct. It wasn’t any of your business whether your neighbor built a factory: it’s his land not yours. That leaves the question open: did people then *prefer* mixed-use, or did they just think that residential-only neighborhoods were an impossible fantasy?

      The cities retain suburban codes because of the power of NIMBYs and house owners. Right now that position is being challenged more than ever, but it’s not overthrown yet.

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