It’s not often that I find a plan that I can wholeheartedly agree with, but this one from Seattle sounds damn near perfect, at least in terms of marginal change (my emphasis…apologies to Publicola for stealing their content!):
1. Instead of the current generic land-use standards, the new regulations include five different allowed housing types: Cottage housing (collections of small single-family-style houses), row houses (rows of units attached by a single wall), townhouses (attached units that occupy space from ground to roof), autocourt townhouses (townhouses that each have a private garage), and apartments.
2. The maximum allowable height would be increased from 25 to 30 feet (basically, from three to a potential four stories)—a change that prompted commenters like Eastlake gadfly Chris Leman to accuse the council of supporting “larger and taller condos… that are bulkier and …. really worse than the worst townhouses” because they would block views, make it impossible to plant trees, and displace low-income housing.
3. The size of new developments would be determined by floor-area ratio (the ratio of a building’s floor area to the lot on which it is built) rather than simple building footprint, allowing more flexibility in building size.
4. Row houses would not be subject to the same density limits as auto-oriented townhouses, allowing them to cover more of a lot.
5. The law also includes new design standards to improve the appearance of new low-rise buildings and make them fit better into neighborhoods;
6. The changes would reduce the setbacks required between housing and the street (and between low-rise townhouses or row houses and each other), allowing more development on a lot;
7. Require developers to provide space for garbage, recycling, and food waste bins for smaller buildings, making it easier for residents of small town houses and apartment buildings to recycle and compost their waste;
8. And, perhaps most significantly, the new law would eliminate the minimum amount of parking developers must build in low-rise multifamily areas (currently one space per unit), allowing developers to build housing without dedicated parking (saving tens of thousands of dollars per unit).
Despite the controversy around the land-use changes, the zones the legislation would impact encompass just 8 percent of the land in the city.
Starting from the bottom: 8% doesn’t seem like a lot, but it sounds to me like these rules will affect some of the densest residential neighborhoods in the city, and the population of this area is probably disproportionate to the amount of land they sit on. Also, the original text (which is, naturally, a 796 KB HTML file without the attached maps) makes me believe that this revision only applies to “urban villages with frequent transit service,” which I guess amounts to 8% of Seattle proper.
Number 7 is a mandate but not at all an onerous one, and 5 could balloon into something bigger due its subjectivity, but I don’t think it would be too bad. Number 1 could mean two things – either it’s making zoning a bit stricter and not allowing less dense than prescribed, or it’s just simplifying and putting a name on regulations that were previously just as limiting, or maybe even worse.
Obviously I can’t even begin to understand the text of the legislation so I can’t say for sure, but it looks like this zoning change encourages density almost entirely by lifting restrictions rather than through new mandates. One of the criticisms of modern urbanism levied by libertarians and conservatives is that politicians and planners try to force density on us, and I myself have criticized urbanists for doing things like replacing parking minimums with parking maximums without bothering to try out the intermediate market equilibrium for a change
There appears, however, to be very little of that in this code change. Randal O’Toole has written before that he doesn’t think that things like parking minimums have much of an effect on developers, but at the same time he says that he believes the regulations should be eliminated anyway. He might not like the Seattle plan, though, if he thinks that the mandates in this law outweigh the liberalizations – I’ve sent him an email to ask his opinion, along with a few other thinktank libertarians who write about land use, and I’ll let you know if they respond.
Also, as an aside, I should mention that the only place I can find a write-up of these quite significant changes is in the local Seattle(/Washington?) blog Publicola – the last mention of it in the Seattle Times, the city’s only daily after the Post-Intelligencer went online-only, was back in March when they ran an op-ed in favor of the changes. I’ve linked to their analysis of user fees for local Seattle roads before – along with blogs like Greater Greater Washington, they’re proving David Simon wrong about when he said that blogs can’t cover local news.