Earlier this year, CVS suddenly started trying to build suburban-style, one story drugstores, chock full of parking, in the middle of three Seattle urban villages.
In a departure from a lot of the activism we often see, neighborhood groups organized to push back asking for more density, and today, the council unanimously passed temporary emergency legislation from Councilmember Conlin banning what he called “strip mall development,” sending a clear signal against underdeveloping neighborhood centers.
I’ve had the opportunity to be part of this since the beginning. Velmeir, the developer trying to build CVS, came to an Uptown Alliance Urban Design Framework committee meeting, presenting a fully designed pharmacy building and handwaving away any option of mixed use. Other Uptown Alliance members dug in, and found that they were trying to do the same thing in Wallingford and West Seattle.
A month or more later, when Velmeir came to their Early Design Guidance meeting, the first step to get a permit, they hadn’t changed a thing. Their design was rejected by the design review board (PDF), citing large blank walls and lack of any unique design elements – despite a design packet showcasing the art deco style of many buildings in the neighborhood. They tried the same design again in Wallingford, and that board rejected it for a different reason. They said it didn’t meet the height, bulk, and scale guideline – it wasn’t big enough!
Several neighborhood activists from both Uptown and Wallingford went to Councilmember Conlin and DPD, who worked together on emergency legislation (PDF) to block further development of this nature. The legislation requires minimum Floor Area Ratio (often FAR), something that to my knowledge has never been done before in Seattle.
For a 30 or 40 foot zone in a pedestrian overlay district (which exist in station areas and urban villages), any new building or modification of over 1000 square feet must have a minimum ratio of building square footage to site square footage of 1.5. For a 65 or 85 foot zone, this becomes 2, and for a 125 or 160 foot zone, 2.5. This isn’t a difficult requirement to beat; it just prevents these suburban-style developments.
I attended today’s Council meeting. Other than one crazy regular commenter, I believe every comment with an opinion on the legislation was in favor. Oddly, an attorney from Foster Pepper (retained by Velmeir) appeared, signed up to comment, and at the microphone, merely asked whether they had the latest version of the legislation the Council was considering. They did.
Just before the vote, Conlin gave some explanation and commentary. It got very interesting – he said (paraphrasing) that the land use code today is often used to limit height and density, but the Council thinks it can also be used to encourage them! He went on to say that this is just a step on that path, but “for the future of our city, it’s important that we go down that path.”
I’m generally wary of legislation to impose new requirements on development – many requirements, like parking, can put a price floor on new development higher than what the market would provide. Fortunately, this legislation may lead to a wider discussion of Seattle’s land use code that, if guided well, could lead to more affordability, more walkability, and stronger, more inclusive community. I applaud today’s move, and look forward to that discussion.