It’s true. I am impatient. During the ongoing discussion and debate about land use around Sound Transit Link Light Rail stations, I have been thinking, “there ought to be a law!” Specifically, I’ve been dreaming of legislation that would substantially up zone around all light rail stations in the city of Seattle, and create options for innovative ways to create the density that makes light rail work. There are a lot of discussions about doing just that, but I decided I’d take a crack at writing the legislation myself.
There are a number of problems affecting light rail and land use in Seattle. First, there is the lack of market appropriate land use to produce more housing and commercial space next to light rail. Second, there are vested interests wanting to keep things just about like they are, willing to accept only incremental change. Lastly, the City Council, just by the nature of politics, always has to try to make everyone happy, and that’s tough.
More below the fold.
The legislation I have written attempts to address all three problems. I’ve suggested ideas how to address the second problem in more detail elsewhere, too. I’ll run through the proposal and then suggest how we might get something like this passed. And the draft is on line as Google document, so leave comments and ideas of what you’d like to see.
Getting started: Growth positive language and making the overlay matter
The legislation revises the section of the land use code (SMC 23.59) creating overlay districts by removing the Station Area Overlay (SMC 23.61) so that zoning created by the legislation will override all the underlying zoning. Currently, in an overlay district, the zoning defaults to the underlying zoning if there is a conflict.
Next I revised the purposes of existing Station Area Overlay, broadening it out to include an intent statement, stating clearly that Seattle wants to sustainably accommodate growth in station areas. Most of the language in Seattle’s land use code talks about growth as in impact, something that has to be off set or mitigated. Growth can be a good thing if we’re prepared for it.
Zoning changes: More height, dominos, and a new type of land use decision
The legislation establishes a one-mile radius for the station area in which the base height allowable is 65 feet as designated on land use maps. This means that all parcels within a one mile radius, and any parcels partially in the district, would be zoned NC-65. Any parcel could be rezoned to 85 feet upon the completion of a Type II land use decision process by the Department of Planning and Development. Type II land use decisions don’t go to the City Council and don’t have as much public process.
There are two further provisions for changes. A proposed project can be rezoned over 85 feet without any height limit provided that it is approved under a new kind of land use decision. A type VI land use decision would allow projects permitting after approval from the Planning Commission and the City Council.
Additionally, any parcel adjacent to a property that is rezoned, including properties rezoned as a Type VI rezone, can apply to match the zoning of that adjacent parcel through the Type II process. This “domino zoning” means that properties next to rezoned properties can more easily match the zoning changes of those properties neighboring them with higher zoning.
There is no parking requirement in the new Station Area Overlay District and single use parking is banned.
Making a decision for light rail: Type VI Land Use Decisions
The legislation creates a new type of land use decision, the Station Area Decision by amending 23.76.
This new decision requires, comprehensive review of a proposal that would exceed 85 feet (there are no FAR provisions) in 90 days, including a general review, public hearing, and focus groups of a demographically diverse group of city and regional residents.
The Planning Commission can either approve the proposal and forward legislation to the City Council for approval with an up or down vote, or they can reject the proposal.
This means the City Council can’t amend the legislation presented to them and they have to act very fast. This gets at the ‘splitting the baby’ problem, when Council tries to make people by adjusting heights or adding requirements to proposals, changes that often add to costs and subtract benefits from the project. I also added a section putting developers on the hook for most of the cost of the Type VI process.
How do we get this passed?
The most obvious way to do this is to have Council pass legislation. The biggest challenge with that avenue is that this proposal would take some power away from the Council and it’s staff. Instead, much of the action would happen at the Planning Commission, a group with more distance from the political process. The other option is to put submit this to a vote of the people of Seattle in the form of a referendum. That would mean collecting signatures and running a campaign. We could also change the City Charter. None of this is easy, but let’s get started!