Land use in service of economic recovery

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In my last blog, I talked about some of the goals I had in mind when I re-upped for two more years as chair of the Committee on the Built Environment, a term that is coming to an end this December. I wanted to look back on some of those goals and reflect on how we did.

It seems timely and appropriate to look at how I think about land use as a vehicle for helping to speed economic recovery. This is a subject that’s on everyone’s mind, and has been since the recession started. The City’s annual budget process has become a grim struggle to shore up crucial services, like police, shelter and the most basic elements of our city’s infrastructure.

Economic recovery and growth in the world of land use tends to mean development. Development brings jobs (construction jobs and the jobs that come with new building tenants) and places to live for the 120,000 new residents Seattle will gain over the next 20 years. It’s been at times uncomfortable and at other times gratifying to lead efforts that promote or pave the way for new development. I’m a big fan of the Seattle I found when I moved here in 1984, as well as the Seattle I know now, and have to temper that with my obligation to set the table for the Seattle I hope to love tomorrow.

The best examples of land use in service of economic recovery that I’ve worked on include:

  • Extending the master use permit period to get building’s back on track and builders back to work as soon as financing becomes available.
  • Working with neighborhoods in Southeast Seattle on neighborhood plan updates to take advantage of smart development opportunities presented by light rail stations.
  • Working through 2 phases of the Pike/Pine Conservation District overlay to encourage developers to preserve the character of the neighborhood using design guidelines and transfers of development rights (TDR)s.
  • Approving zoning code amendments to help move forward good projects like UW Phase III in South Lake Union and new development on the old North Lot of the Kingdome.

Master Use Permit Extensions

The Master User Permit Legislation was designed to help offset the fact that financing for construction projects dried up (to put it mildly) with the recession. This meant that people trying to build larger projects requiring complicated financing got stuck with the clock ticking on their permits. When permits expire, people get sent back to square one in terms of permits. For any size project, this can be extremely expensive and cause even greater delay in getting a project out of the ground.

The legislation we adopted extends the life of building permits obtained before the end of 2012, so workers can begin building soon after financing becomes available.

South and Southeast Seattle Neighborhood Planning

Three neighborhoods where the land use code is going to work in service of economic recovery during my term are Beacon Hill, McClellan, and Othello. With help from the Department of Planning and Development, the city provided these three neighborhoods with “quick start” assistance in updating their neighborhood plans–pulling together snapshots of each neighborhood compared to 10 years ago, including demographic shifts, zoning, housing units and affordability, transportation upgrades in the last decade, new parks, and a neighborhood plan implementation report.

This information is helping shape new zoning around the light rail station to invite more residential units and more retail and office space for the neighborhoods.  These neighborhoods are leading the city in a progressive approach to incorporating density – along with all the other things that neighborhoods need in order to have great places and great communities, such as parks, greenery, and sensitive, intelligent transitions between greater density and single-family homes. The zoning proposals for these neighborhoods will come to the Council before the end of this year and be taken up by Council early next year.

The Pike/Pine Conservation overlay district

The Pike/Pine neighborhood on Capitol Hill is covered with buildings filled with the history of Seattle’s original auto-row. (Coincidentally, I’ve worked previous jobs in three parts of the neighborhood.) Lately, it’s an area that has attracted the attention of developers. No one has wanted to see the area’s character and charm lost in the process of becoming a popular “it” place.

Working closely with Councilmember Tom Rasmussen on legislation he spearheaded, we encouraged the preservation of “character” buildings, that is, buildings that have the historic facades and stories that define the neighborhood’s unique feeling.

The first phase of the legislation provided incentives to retain and incorporate buildings older than 75 years into new development. The legislation promoted new development that is compatible in scale with the existing buildings, encouraged small and diverse business, and retained the facades of buildings that define the neighborhood.

As I write this, we are reaching the end of phase three for the Pike/Pine Conservation overlay district. This legislation, which I hope to see passed before the end of the year, will create a transfer of development rights (TDR) exchange program that will make it easier for developers to preserve existing structures in exchange for the right to build larger buildings elsewhere within the district. We already established design guidelines in phase 2, intended to preserve the character of the neighborhood.

All of this work is intended to bring in new apartments, jobs, street-level retail, and vitality in a way that matches the “feel” of Pike/Pine.

UW Phase II and North Lot

As chair of the land use committee you get pitched on the special needs of various projects. This is a perversely good problem to have. In some cities in the United States new development knocking on

Sally and Jan Drago at the North Lot Groundbreaking

the door is merely a dream. Most projects go through what’s called a rezone. Some developers come forward from time to time with what they describe as short-comings in the existing zoning rules, shortcomings that hinder their ability to develop to the needs of potential tenants. I have supported text amendments in my time as a committee chair when the amendment truly fixes a code blindspot (though the yield in jobs and better design clearly benefiting the community are great, too). UW Phase III and the North Lot in Pioneer Square both met the criteria for me. Both will be built with dramatically better designs, open space, and street-level feel than would have been possible under the then-existing zoning code. Both will yield new jobs and, in the case of the North Lot, new residents to call Pioneer Square home.

Next time, I’ll be writing about land use and housing. Please check back: I’ll see you here.