From commenter RossB yesterday, a lengthy response to how Seattle zoning got to be the way it is and what we might do about it:
It’s a problem, and I think it essentially progressed like so: Back in the day, Seattle built itself with a mix of houses and apartments. There was little regulation, so we ended up with a lot of buildings that would be illegal right now. Most people would consider some of them really nice (brick apartments without parking or small houses on small lots) while other buildings a bit much (high rise apartments in Madison Park or the Safeco building). But most of the city was a mix of smaller apartments and small lot housing. The houses are fairly close to each other, which I always took for granted, until a suburban friend of mine saw them and was shocked. At some point, we added regulation. At the same time, as growth spread outward, we incorporated areas that used to be farmland, and was never part of the city. These areas followed the standard suburban approach of the day. No cul-de-sacs, but big lots and fairly cheap, small housing. The Boeing bust hit and the city took a downward trend. There was no pushback against new development because there was so little development. Through the 70s, you had a gradual move to the suburbs, which again limited development in the city.
But by the 1980s, there was a lot of growth of two types in the city: duplexes and skinny houses. Both of these were OK by the zoning regulations, but neither were popular. In my opinion, the zoning regulations made things worse in both cases, because they required parking. But either way, in many cases nice, charming houses with interesting yards were replaced with ugly duplexes and boring landscaping (e. g. lots of cement and one rhododendron). Neighbors didn’t like this, so the regulations changed. Again and again, the regulations changed. They had a dual purpose, really. One was to try and force developers to make pretty buildings; the other was to try and limit parking hassles. On top of all this, you had people who just wanted things to remain the same. So the more regulation the better. The irony, of course, is that in many cases the regulations allow(ed) huge houses (AKA monster houses) to replace classic old ones, but not a duplex or row house. To many of these people, the key thing they want is for their street to remain the same. They often live on a residential street, not an arterial. To them, their compromise is to allow development on the arterial, just not the residential street. Once you make that compromise, those that favor development will push for the most development possible. If you look at a square mile of property and say that 90% of it has to be single family houses (each on a big lot) then you won’t be interested in building row houses on the other 10%. The demand for housing on that other 10% will simply be too large. You want big apartments because renters demand it (having been shut out of the other 90%). That’s essentially the current mindset. It’s not that people think we should be offered only the two choices you mentioned [eds, large single family houses or large apartment buildings], it is that people are afraid of new housing of any sort on their street.
On top of all this, you have sky high pricing for property of any type. I mentioned the monster houses, and they make sense. Why spend half a million for a small two bedroom house, when you can bulldoze it and put up a much bigger one for only 100 grand more? This sort of thinking goes on all the time in various neighborhoods. Not just the great neighborhoods that have million dollar views, but the more middle class ones, like the ones that used to be outside the city limits. Here is what I think the pro development folks should do:
1) First, level with people, and explain that any limitation in development costs other people money. The city is ridiculously liberal (we elected a socialist) but it is either ignorant or two faced if it doesn’t understand this. Over and over, we need to explain that limitations on any sort increase the cost of rent (for everyone) and the cost of owning a home (for anyone that doesn’t already own one).
2) At the same time, acknowledge that there are trade-offs. I own a house and I don’t want to live next to a forty story building, either. I also don’t want to see ugly buildings being built (anywhere).
3) Acknowledge that regulations designed to balance these interests often backfire. Regulations designed to insure pretty buildings have lead to some ugly, stupid housing (e. g. why on earth did the city mandate fencing in a city that has so little of it?!!).
I would propose the following:
1) Liberalize the mother in law apartment rules. This should be popular. Why tell the owners of a house that they can’t rent out the little shack next door, or develop it, when you want to preserve the neighborhood? That is crazy, and eventually it just leads to more tear downs.
2) Focus on the external dimensions of the buildings, not the number of residents. If it is legal to build a big house, then it should be legal to build a big duplex or a set of row houses. I could even see having the rules encourage density. You can build a big house or a smaller duplex. If there is push back, I can see two different approaches:
2 A) For areas of the city with big lots, go ahead and allow row housing, duplexes, small apartments, etc. Most of these areas are not super pretty, “classic Seattle”, but areas that until recently contained small, affordable houses on lots that weren’t all that pretty. People park on their lawns (in part because there is no sidewalk). In other words, people really don’t care that much about new housing going in. What they really want are sidewalks.
2 B) For other areas of the city (e. g. Wallingford) encourage conversions. There are plenty of big houses that take up most of the lot in various parts of the city. Why not allow these to be converted to apartments? The obvious reason leads me to my next point.
3) Parking regulations need to go. Of all the trade-offs, this one should be eliminated.
4) In areas that allow full blown apartment buildings, there shouldn’t be regulations limiting the number of residents (beyond the health and safety of the residents). Again, focus on the exterior. If a six story building is OK, then it shouldn’t matter if one family lives in it or eighty.