The Seattle Planning Commission held a panel debate this Wednesday featuring two sides: the developers v. the neighbors, with a Planning Commission representative in the middle.

The Issue

Over the past year there’s been construction of single family homes on small lot sizes, using loopholes in Seattle’s land use code. Because our building codes were written for certain minimum lot sizes, many of these homes have smaller than usual setbacks, and often feel like they’re quite tall (though technically built to the same height allowed for other homes). Also, because these small lots were at one time pieces of other lots they are sometimes located in what would normally be a back yard. The result can be a tall home built in a back yard with little setback, which understandably generated neighbor complaints. Last month this resulted in emergency legislation to end small lot construction until permanent rules could be put in place. Wednesday’s discussion was the next step in creating permanent rules.

The Panelists

On the developer’s side, Michael Ravenscroft (actually a realtor) described a vision of busy neighborhoods, dense neighborhoods, and continued housing construction. He argued that single family construction is needed drastically, and because of limiting codes very few homes have been built in Seattle.

In the middle, architect Brad Khouri advocated for diversity of structures in our neighborhood. He wants something supportive of the growth that’s happening in Seattle, and wants to find some room for affordability.

On the neighbor’s side, John Taylor explained that we buy homes rather than rent them because we want predictability, to control our house and to some extent control our neighbors. He believes standards should be well understood and not change. He used quite a few anti-development talking points (“out of character”, “open space”, “blocks light”), and implied that there should be a strict minimum of 2,500sf lot size in Seattle.

The Compromise

By the end of the night both sides stepped toward the middle, yielding significant points. Michael said that most builders would agree to a 22′ height restriction on small lot homes, and he could also agree to require street frontage. This represents two major sources of neighbor complaints – tall homes built in back yards, blocking light and with windows looking down on existing yards. He also said that builders would be fine with building smaller homes on small lots. On John’s side, he bent on the 2,500sf requirement, saying that if homes were smaller then the minimum lot side wouldn’t matter.


The main problem I saw with the debate is that it’s missing the big picture. Around 70% of Seattle’s land area is taken up by single family homes, and little has changed in these neighborhoods since lot minimums were created 60 years ago. Inside the single family zones Seattle has been frozen in amber for the better part of a century. The small lot loophole was a small crack in this amber, and finally let a few new homes in. Although I agree those homes aren’t ideal, we can use the lessons we’re learning about small lot homes and apply them to other new homes.

I’d prefer we go in the completely other direction from restricting small lot homes. Let’s remove minimum lot sizes. This actually fits in to the problem of small lots very well, since if the reason for minimum lot sizes is to please existing neighbors, and if we can figure out how to build small lot homes in a way that is acceptable to neighbors then there is no logical reason to have minimum lot sizes at all. Here’s how I would go about doing this:

1. Solve small lot home design issues. Neighbors don’t seem to like tall homes built in back yards, stealing sunlight and putting windows to watch their kids play. So we go with the solutions listed above, with street-facing homes and restrict both the height and square footage of these homes.

2. Slowly shrink minimum lot sizes. We can do this gradually, to make sure neighborhoods don’t change over night. Call it a reduction of 500sf every 5 years, until it’s gone.

3. Slowly shrink front yard requirements. Front yards are mostly a waste of space. But is would look strange to have some homes right at the sidewalk with others set far back. I’d make this transition even slower, and over many decades you’ll have a nice variation in front yards.

4. Remove parking requirements. I don’t mind if this one is done immediately. The slow rate of adding new homes won’t significantly impact parking in most areas of the city for decades, if ever.

Because these changes could happen throughout the city at the same time, there would be less impact on any one neighborhood. Over a long period of time we can increase density in the city overall without upsetting existing residents and while promising slow and gradual change.

56 Replies to “There are More than Two Sides to Small Lots”

  1. Good analysis, Matt. What perhaps you should have included is a good example “on the ground” of small, dense, sfd housing. In NY there’s a community on western Long Island known as “Breezy” (Breezy Point). What you’re envisioning has existed there for decades.

    1. Much of Breezy Point doesn’t exist anymore. Sandy and the fires that followed destroyed much of Breezy Point and the Rockaways. Urban planning failure?

      1. Urban planners aren’t the ones who get to make the political decisions about climate change impact. :(

      2. I’d say the failure there is allowing that much construction on a low-lying sand spit. The kind of density in that area doesn’t have any bearing on what happened — anything built there would be gone, at this point.

      3. But urban planners are the ones who push density without fully thinking through emergency management complications and costs. Most of the mass transit failed when needed most.

      4. Mass transit always fails in emergency situations. (Katrina, Sandy…any given snow day in Seattle…) That’s why I don’t consider a totally carless existence a good idea.

      5. To be fair, Link did exceptionally well during the 2010 Turkey Day snow storm. Metro, not so much. Typical Seattle driver…. epic fail.

      6. It’s not just mass transit or density that struggles with weather. Speaking of the 2010 storm, my brother drove to work that day and was no more able to make it back to West Seattle than people that took the bus. One person I knew that lived and worked in low-density suburbs took 14 hours to drive home that night, and he passed quite a few cars in ditches or abandoned on hillsides.

      7. “Urban” planners don’t promote growth at the edges; they promote growth at natural urban centers. Older neighborhoods and city centers were normally sited with a better sense of natural rhythms. It was only in the past few decades that people started building more in the floodplains and marshlands, feeling certain that their technology and insurance was adequate protection. It’s the same pheonomenon as building cities away from existing rail lines, or building houses with north-facing windows in northern climates. People just stopped thinking about environmental security as an important factor, and it became “just build anywhere that’s cheap and has a good view”. In Katrina, it was the oldest parts of the city that survived best. In Sandy, the floods in Manhattan were mainly on the artificial extensions of the island. In King County floods, you rarely see Seattle streets flooded or houses washed away; it’s in the Snoqualmie Valley etc.

      8. @Mike: Much of downtown Seattle was built on wetlands, they just raised the street level. Same with Chicago. Those waterfront city sites (and many others) are pretty much completely man-made phenomena.

        This really isn’t a city vs. suburb, dense vs. sparse thing. It’s just a thing.

      9. Perkins Lane will periodically host geology professors with students in tow, an event not to the amusement of local homeowners. And slides, as the Vashon Till does its thing over the Lawton Clay, again, not to the amusement of local homeowners.

        Speaking of urban planning, we still run power lines draped next to wind-prone trees, much to the confusion of residents of other nations who pay (taxes, of all things) to have that stuff routed underground. “It’s a first world country, why does their power go out every time it gets a bit windy?”

      10. [That was meant as a reply to Mike’s litany of older cities developed thoughtfully, newer ones cavalierly.]

        Al, the point is that they thought about past inundations and fires, learned from their mistakes, built higher and better.

        Newer SoDo, meanwhile, will be screwed in a flood.

        (Both are screwed in an earthquake, unfortunately, because filled-soil liquefaction was not a well-understood phenomenon back when people would have adapted to well-understood phenomena.)

      11. Older cities weren’t necessarily well thought out. They evolved Darwin style over centuries. Chicago fire, London fire, SF earthquake and subsequent fire. Great plagues and other natural and man made disasters resulted in a lot of do overs. I’d posit that for the most part the housing that has survived and is now loved wasn’t the areas built to create “affordable” housing.

      12. Lots of cities are built in flood-prone areas because of historical advantages of shipping. Downtown Seattle and Chicago grew big and important enough to raise and re-grade the streets of their downtowns; to build entire neighborhoods on landfill; to reroute the natural flow of their waterways.

        These decisions where not uncommonly wise or in tune with the natural environment. The cities were simply big and wealthy enough to raise the money to do the engineering. And that engineering is a continual process. I think in the 60s Seattle changed course on some waterway decisions to clean up Lake Washington; today it continues to resurface creeks. In Chicago the ultimate results of reversing the flow of the river still aren’t totally understood. Meanwhile New Orleans continues to dam up the Mississippi higher and higher, as it takes in more and more runoff as paved sprawl expands in the midwest. New Orleans is hardly the oldest city to deal with high water — Venice and Copenhagen certainly do. In the 90s a small Illinois town called Valmeyer actually picked up and moved into the hills, away from the Mississippi. The difference between Valmeyer and New Orleans isn’t that any part of New Orleans is better sited to avoid disaster. New Orleans was better sited for commerce and built a critical mass of people and businesses worth preserving at great effort and expense.

        It’s certainly true that many new developments are flatly stupid. Building in the foothills outside LA and then suing the government when it can’t perform the impossible miracle of protecting you from landslides is idiotic. But if a critical mass of people and businesses formed an important city in the Snohomish River valley they’d surely find a way to control the river (probably to the detriment of people living downstream). But I’d certainly go with something like selection over something like wisdom. People will build it wherever they think they can get away with it and always have.

      13. Also, you couldn’t do a regrade project like Seattle did, today; it would never pass environmental review.

  2. #2 is a great idea that has 0% of passing political muster. Its the lynchpin of SF zoning. I think we’d have better luck cracking into residential zones by having location-speckific criteria for where smaller lots could be allowed, such as on corner lots, lots adjacent to higher densities, lots on blocks with a mix of SF and LR/NC zones, etc.

    1. I’m not convinced it would be that difficult. The alternative affects individual owners strongly, which is a great way to build opposition to your idea. A gradual change throughout the entire city has a very small chance of affecting any one landowner, which only leaves the anti-growth zealots as opposition – and they’ll be opposed no matter what steps we take.

  3. Doubling the number of detached single family homes in a neighborhood just creates a big mess. Peanut butter planning always lands jelly side down It precluded the opportunity for a transit based car free lifestyle and in fact just makes implementing effective transportation harder. I don’t know what you mean by, “Inside the single family zones Seattle has been frozen in amber”. A look at parts of Ballard or Lake City show where things have changed completely. Build dense housing in relatively large blocks. Otherwise it ain’t dense. Build density along or within a few blocks of arterials so that public transit can actually be an option. Come to the realization that SF homes on reasonably sized lots inside the city are going to be expensive. That’s what happens when you build a city. Don’t like it, move.

    1. Why should there be only two options (SFH and big apartment blocks)? Isn’t more choice and variety a good thing? Most large cities have neighborhoods that are a mix of various housing types, in fact. There’s nothing good or natural about the sort of bifurcation you’re advocating, IMHO.

      1. Who said anything about just two options? There are boatloads of differences between different SF zoned neighborhoods. Likewise there are a multitude of choices with dense redeveloped areas that range from townhouses to highrise. The key is to have some sort of coordinated planning. Old east coast cities have brownstones or row homes. SF has it’s boulevards with old mission styled homes. All these are great because they were developed as such. Cut and paste any of these into isolated half lots of an established neighborhood and it creates a mess, not choice.

      2. “Who said anything about just two options?”

        You did, basically, when you objected to incremental densification and wrote: “Build dense housing in relatively large blocks.”.

      3. Think outside the box. Dense housing congregated together doesn’t mean one monolithic style. It just allows for an overall plan that works together rather than no plan that’s certain failure on many many levels; schools, power distribution, water/sewers, transportation, parks, etc. And like I said, detached SF houses in a big city are going to be expensive. It’s the price of success. If you think keeping the cost down then fight like hell to preserve every inch that still exists ’cause they ain’t making any more of the stuff.

  4. Also allow small (say, up to 4 units) multi-family buildings to be erected in single-family areas (or existing houses to be subdivided into such). Despite all the alarmism, this needn’t create slums. Look 160 miles south to Portland’s Nob Hill / Northwest district for an example of what such a neighborhood can be like.

    1. What’s the law on subdivided SF houses? Is there a cap on the number of residents? I currently live in a subdivided SFH in the C.D. (across the street from LR2), with 2 units and 5 adults total on a 3200 square foot lot. It’s a really nice way to live.

      1. I would be very surprised if it is not for the most part simply banned outright in Seattle, given how rare such houses are here compared to the other big cities I’ve lived in (Portland and Oakland). I agree that it’s a nice way to live and I wish there were more such options in Seattle.

        Standards are a good thing (I don’t think anyone wants to go back to how the Lower East Side was in the latter half of the 19th century), but too much of what was originally a good thing ends up with a situation like what we have in Seattle, where a relatively privileged and affluent group of homeowners uses the law as a tool to force others to live as they choose, or not live in Seattle at all.

      2. It’s not allowed at all in SF zones. In LR zones the number of units is capped based on the lot size, 1 unit per 1600 sqft.

        These restrictions are widely ignored/uninforced. Pirate multiplexes exceeding the limits are everywhere. I live in one.

      3. Two of my friends live in old homes that were clearly subdivided at some point, but they’re both legally multifamily right now – a duplex near Aurora and a pretty haunted-looking 5-apartment house on Capitol Hill. There’s also the possibility of legal ADUs that aren’t cottages… our place meets the majority of the requirements already so we’ve been toying with subdividing, though not very seriously.

      4. My previously posted unit/sqft for LR zones was incorrect, I was reading the wrong column as I ran out the door for work… subdivided homes fall under a different category.

        LR1: 1 unit / 2000 sqft (max 3)
        LR2: 1 unit / 1200 sqft
        LR3: 1 unit / 800 sqft

  5. Since there’s a parcel map of a southeast Greenlake neighborhood above, can I take this opportunity to tell people about King County’s Parcel Viewer, if you didn’t already know about it? It can come in handy, telling you who owns a parcel, who they bought it from, and what they paid for it, and much more.

    1. This came in handy the other day when I had to prove to my coworkers that Paul Allen still owns the Cinerama.

  6. Matt – I don’t understand your point 1, “Solve small lot home design issues.”

    If new homes must have street frontage, doesn’t that mean building only on vacant lots? I doubt there are very many lots in Seattle that could fit in a new home beside the existing home, facing the street. Seattle lots are typically narrow and deep. Giving on this point means giving up on the entire idea of new small-lot homes in Seattle.

    Now if “street frontage” includes alleys, then I am on board. A good affordable housing solution is to build small “carriage houses” in back yards facing the alley. Over time, alleys become functional but narrow streets in their own right. Perhaps the best solution is to limit the size and height of these homes in order to avoid freaking out the “median neighbor.” Some people will always complain no matter what.

    1. I think you have a good point. We don’t necessarily need street-facing and short and small requirements to make neighbors happy. Short homes in back yards (at alleys) would probably work as well, with a few careful rules.

      In fact, Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs, or backyard cottages) have been legal in Seattle for a few years. They’re much more restricted than regular homes, and aren’t owned seperately, but come close to what you’re talking about.

      I don’t see street-facing small-lot homes as only being built on vacant lots. Many homes in Seattle were built on two lots, but can’t be split because of our lot size rules. Look at the map at the top of this post. Rather than building a house in the back yard of 5501, a small home could have been built between that and 5427. The home down at 5423 near the bottom was built on two lots, and someday could be demo’d and built as two homes.

      1. Many homes in Seattle were built on two lots, but can’t be split … The home down at 5423 near the bottom was built on two lots, and someday could be demo’d and built as two homes.

        I’m not sure what you mean here. 5501 is almost a “double” lot compared to most on the street that are 30′ wide. For some reason is looks like it and 5427 were split out as pie shaped “super lots”. If the outlines are to scale I don’t see wedging in a house between 5501 and 5427 as being viable. I believe you are correct in that the one house built on two lots can become two building sites again. This happened around us in Lake City. If someone bought all three homes I could see a petition to rezone as 5 building sites that would still be in scale with the other homes in the neighborhood.

        Alleys are not where you want front access. It’s where the garbage cans and compost bins are put to keep them away from the sidewalk.

      2. On blocks without alleys people store their garbage cans in front of their homes. The alley on my block is constantly used as a playground. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using alleys as front access – it’s common in many cities.

      3. Bernie, in Washington, DC, rowhouse neighborhoods, there are all kinds of small units (some carriage houses and some small detached homes) that front on alleys. Yes, they are less desirable — but that’s the point. They are vastly cheaper than those facing the street, and in the slightly denser setting few people object to them. My wife was living in just such a carriage house when I met her, and it’s the only way she would have had a prayer of living in her neighborhood on her income at the time.

      4. I can see alley access working in some places. I just don’t think it should be a universally accepted practice. For instance, if the alley is in common use as a playground is it really in the best interest of the neighborhood that it becomes someone’s private driveway where not only they but all their guest drive through? If you’re talking about an old neighborhood in D.C. where the “carrage house” was actually a stable and not a shed for the “horseless carrage” that’s very different than what we have say on Capitol Hill. Nobody is using them for horses anymore so converting to living space makes perfect sense. In the “good ole days” it would have been the servants entrance and possibly a residence for said stable boy. The historic home my aunt just sold in Boston there was no driveway access allowed from the street. All cars were relegated to the back alleys. Worked beautifully for them and makes for really nice sidewalks but it would never fly trying to push that through in Seattle where most homes were built with cars in mind.

      5. “For instance, if the alley is in common use as a playground is it really in the best interest of the neighborhood that it becomes someone’s private driveway where not only they but all their guest drive through?”

        I don’t understand the distinction between this and the current case. Currently, alleys are typically used used as driveways and that’s where garages or parking places are normally located. People drive slowly through alleys, thanks to their narrow dimensions and short length.

      6. Let’s turn it around. Say someone at the entrance to the alley for some reason wants to build a house backwards (view, whatever). How do you think the neighbors would feel about this now double wide driveway and their garbage cans and such left out next to the sidewalk adjacent to everyone else’s front yard? It all comes down to compatible uses. Rules are in place to keep it consistent and make it fair for everyone. Or, to be more to the point; prevent someone from taking advantage of the accepted norms.

      7. But that’s not what’s being proposed. Being built in an alley on half a plot of land doesn’t place their garbage in people’s sidewalks, or add curb cuts.

      8. Bernie, you’re not even making sense anymore. Go visit any rowhouse neighborhood in DC or the outer boroughs of New York. Walk through a bunch of alleys. See how it works. It’s a great source of less-expensive housing that really has little or no impact on the street and neighbors, and we could do it here.

  7. Yo, Bernie.

    If you have a house on an alley in Seattle, that is where your garage is. Also, that is where your garbage is picked up.

    If you choose to put your garbage cans on the top of your roof or store them in your bedroom, fine. You will still have to move them to the alley for pick up…

    1. The point being that there are established standards of use and facing the front of your house toward the alley in most of Seattle doesn’t cut it. What does the house cut off from the alley do after a hack job on the lot? You guys are literally trying to make something out of nothing by carving up already small lots to fit additional detached SF housing. You’d end up with crappy SF housing and still have low density but with twice the number of cars trying to access it.

      1. I’m a little bemused by this discussion. Around where I live, about half of houses end up facing the “alley” because that’s where the view is for them. Some houses are backwards in their driveway placement (2325 West Viewmont Way W would be one), but it’s not like that’s the end of the world.

        (I have to say, I’m kind of impressed at how the area just south of the Discovery Park is platted out -five streets deep- into the sound. Was someone planning to bulldoze the bluff at one point?)

      2. “Was someone planning to bulldoze the bluff at one point?”

        Give it time. (Or humans get frisky with the hillside firehose thing again, Matthew 7:26 be damned.)

  8. The thing that has been changing the game the last decade and for the foreseeable future is new, more frequent and faster rail transit and express buses.

    Kent Station area is becoming “another Seattle” but still retains SFH character. There are now many Seattles sprouting up all around South King.

    I think the only problem is an obsolete mindset, from older natives in the 50s and 60s who still have not, or do not want, to open their eyes and see what has happened.

    I think their children will simply make economic choices, “oh Burien, looks cool”. And you see this in the very youngish, very diverse crowd that rides Central LINK every day…very unlike the old Green Lakers from 1995.

    1. That was certainly the goal for Kent Station, but I don’t think we’re there yet. The neighborhood around it is still mostly run-down single family homes. The one big development project that started adjacent to the station ended up failing and leaving a half-built parking garage standing as an eyesore for five years. Other then Kent Station itself — which seems to be doing okay, other than some restaurant turnover — there hasn’t been much change in that neighborhood.

  9. I suspect there’d be much less objection to building on small lots if it was happening in the fashion of Seattle’s historic small lot homes, but the ugly brick school of architecture seems to be dominant here… Zoning requirements are probably some of it, admittedly, but man…

    1. I think the problem is land values are now so high, it doesn’t make sense to build small. The people that are rich enough to afford the land don’t want small homes. So they end up trying to cram as much square footage into the legal footprint as possible…and that happens with tall, rectangular, flat-roofed structures.

  10. Excellent editorial. I completely agree. I can never find the actual report, but the Nixon administration did a study trying to figure out the best way to lower the cost of housing. Their conclusion: small houses on small lots.

    I think it is important to consider the many neighborhoods in Seattle which are outside the old city limits. I live in one such neighborhood, Pinehurst. When my wife bought the house, it was filled with cheap, often run down but affordable houses on big lots. Much of the area used to be farmland, and didn’t make much of a conversion to housing. For example, there are streets that don’t go through, but serve a handful of houses in the back. This is done in older places of Seattle, but mainly for geographic reasons (the hills are too steep). In this case, the neighborhood streets were carved at a minimum (no reason for every street to go through). The result is a mishmash of housing and streets that are neither dense nor that good looking (which is a judgement call, of course, but I think most people would agree). Now that the price of housing in the neighborhood has gone up, the quality of the houses has gone up with it. The restrictive zoning hasn’t helped the look and feel of the neighborhood, nor has it helped affordability. People built big houses on big lots because it made sense to do so. After all, you couldn’t build two tiny houses, but one big house was perfectly legal. Unlike nicer parts of the city (e. g. Wallingford) I would say it was a zoning failure. It is reasonable to say that zoning in a nice neighborhood has preserved the lovely quality of the neighborhood at the price of affordability, but in the case of Pinehurst, it has done neither.

    Small lot subdivisions with small houses would go a long way to preserving both the old feel of the neighborhood as well as affordability. Likewise, allowing more cottage houses on the existing lots would do the same thing.

    As the editorial suggested, easing into the new zoning is a great idea and more likely to be popular.

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