Progress toward sustainable land use in Seattle will be measured by whether our land use laws and policies spur innovation, not the height of buildings. Even though contentious discussions about density for Roosevelt centered on building height—with proponents of sustainable growth pushing for 65 feet on the Sisley properties and growth opponents wanting to cap the site at 40 feet—winning that argument only got us 25 feet of progress in what is a 10,000-mile journey toward sensible land use around light rail stations.
The answer isn’t about height at station areas like Beacon Hill; it’s completely getting rid zoning around light rail stations.
I’m guilty, as most of us are, of obsessing about height. Let’s not do it when it comes to Beacon Hill, where the City Council is again considering rezones. If the Council does what I expect, what Beacon Hill will get is some kind of mix of heights that respond to political and neighborhood concerns—including the concerns of people like me who think we need to put more growth in density (density is people!) around light rail stations. That wouldn’t be the best outcome. Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Mike O’Brien should team up to so something different on Beacon Hill.
The obsession with height is understandable, because people like a number to compare one option against another. We pro-growth people tend to push for the bigger number, the anti-growth set, push for the lower number. It’s the closest we’ve come to actually being party-like about growth in this town. It reminds me of the anti-British slogan from the 19th century, “54° 40′ or Fight!” Our version is “NC-65 or fight!” More after the jump.
The problem is that what is most important about how we regulate our land is use, not height. The two things are related for sure, and that’s part of the reason why those of us who advocate for the best and most efficient solutions for accommodating growth push for taller buildings; bigger buildings means more people can live there.
But size isn’t everything. Compare, for example, the density on Western Avenue with the density in the Summit Neighborhood in Capitol Hill. I like both—quantitatively—but qualitatively Summit is the best kind of density around. What’s the difference? (Summit density is on the top row below)
The difference isn’t zoning and planning. You can’t plan and zone your way into the kind of idyllic Upper East Side of Manhattan type feel that parts of Capitol Hill like Summit, or 14th Avenue East have. You just can’t. Capitol Hill’s unique mix of big apartment buildings, small apartment buildings, fourplexes, converted single-family homes, and single-family houses emerged over time and was driven by use. What makes the block where the original Top Pot Donuts lives so perfect is that it just happened.
There is an arrogance among the planning, zoning, and design set that is shared with NIMBYs and those against growth; by pushing around the envelope of a building they believe somehow we can build or preserve place. Planning can help. However, place “just happens” when there are lots of people in a small area. Kevin Lynch wrote eloquently in Image of the City about how place is woven into our brains and our souls. We can remember that tree in our front yard, the wall we sat on as kids, or the lobby of the big old building where an uncle worked downtown. You can’t zone those things into existence, they happen because of people. Over time, more people means more sense of place.
What I would ask the City Council to do is set aside the current recommendations, put the pointy part of a compass in a map, measure out one mile to scale, and draw a circle one mile around the station. Then get some bright folks to write up legislation repealing all land use requirements that apply in that circle except for state law and fire, health, and safety codes. The next step would be to entertain proposals from property owners, neighborhood folks, local businesses, and, yes, even bloggers and transit advocates. Forget about height bulk and scale. Ban architects, planners, and land use attorneys from the meetings.
The next step would include them, bankers, developers, and engineers. Their job would be to figure out how to build the vision. When they’re proposal was done, with elevations, soil studies, and a pro forma for financing, the planning commission could review the proposal, tweak it, ask questions, comment, cajole, and then make a final recommendation to the City Council. The council would vote up or down vote, no fussing over height or affordable housing or the color of the siding. A simple, “yes” or “no” would be their only say.
When they said, “yes,” as they certainly should, whatever that proposal looked like could be written up into the code and applied to that station area. Of course it really wouldn’t matter that much, since everyone involved would have a stake in what was proposed and its success. It’s called Zero Based Zoning, and it relies on people thinking about what people need not the height of buildings. You might say I’m a dreamer, but I am sure I am not the only one. On Beacon Hill and other station areas the Council should just let it happen, and avoid relying on a code built on assumptions from the 1950s.
(I have to hasten to add a preemptory parenthetical comment here: Zero Based Zoning is not an Urban Design Framework, or the errant process that went on in Roosevelt. Those things both rely on code tweaking and codifying the prejudices and fears of neighbors, not starting with use first.)
Of course, many will say that I’ve changed my tune, that all I’ve ever argued for is big buildings. Well, as long as we make the fight over height, bulk, and scale of buildings—which are just people containers—I’ll always want the biggest container we can get. Even an big ugly, poorly designed container is preferable to a small one so. The right measure to take is just how many people and uses can we fit into the smallest space possible, so it’s livable and can pay for itself. We can do that by creating a code actually based on use, not the size of buildings.