Mixed-use Walgreens on Capitol HillOn Tuesday, September 3, I introduced emergency legislation to impose interim minimum density requirements in rapidly growing urban centers, urban villages, and station areas designated as pedestrian zones. The purpose of the legislation is to prevent valuable property in these areas from being developed with projects like stand-alone stores with large areas of surface parking. Such projects are contrary to our Comprehensive Plan and Neighborhood Plan policies for these areas and could limit our ability to meet our goals under the Growth Management Act.

I have long supported the idea of minimum density requirements in areas with high land values, frequent transit and an active streetscape, but public attention to this issue was prompted by three proposed new projects.  CVS Drug Stores is proposing free standing stores in the West Seattle Junction, Queen Anne, and Wallingford, with possibly more in the future. These are vibrant, growing neighborhoods and the community is concerned that the proposed designs for these projects are inconsistent with the pedestrian orientation of the neighborhood. This legislation is a response to concerns voiced by community members and City officials about such kinds of development and is designed to set a pattern for the future.

Zoning has traditionally focused on limiting the size and density of development by setting maximum heights and density, called “FAR”, which stands for Floor Area Ratio. The FAR is the amount of floor space developed on a parcel compared to the size of the property. Thus an FAR of 2, for example, would represent twice as much floor space as the footprint of the property. Usually the FAR is a limitation on the bulk and scale of a project – a developer may be allowed to build, say, four stories, but have an FAR of 2, which means that a blocky building could only occupy half of the land area, or, more commonly, the building is modulated to occupy some larger portion, but with setbacks or other features on the upper floors to create a more compatible design.

Generally, in neighborhoods that are attractive for development, projects will be built out at or near their maximum FAR, and the City’s growth planning projects future growth capacity based on that outcome. Our neighborhood plans envision denser development around traditional commercial/retail cores, with additional height and density allowed to encourage housing over the commercial space. Because of the financial rewards for building larger buildings, zoning these areas usually results in development that is at or close to the allowed densities.

Even in areas where the City is still having difficulty in attracting investment, such as the SE neighborhoods around the light rail stations, when investment takes place it still most often builds out to the preferred densities. This is the Seattle model, sometimes called the ‘New Urbanism’ model that has developed over the last two decades with the revival of urban areas.

But what can we do if a property owner decides to create a building that is totally out of character with what we are looking for? The most common type of such development are retail stores that have a high financial return per square foot, and that are designed to attract auto traffic as their major customers. These are most often free standing coffee shops or drug stores.

A few years ago, Walgreens moved into Seattle with a store model that called for exactly that. In some cases, such as just north of Columbia City on Rainier Avenue, the neighborhood and City were unsuccessful in trying to get the store to be built along more urban, pedestrian-oriented lines (although we did get the company to include a smaller structure that fronts on the street to make the project less like a strip mall). When a similar project was proposed at Broadway and Pine, in the heart of a rapidly developing neighborhood, the community rose up and ultimately persuaded the company to make the store part of a mixed use development with several floors of housing.

Unfortunately, once a project has started down the path to permitting, it is very difficult to stop it or significantly change it legally. Washington law recognizes that property owners generally have the right to develop under the regulations in effect when they apply for a permit so this legislation will likely not affect these three current projects.

The legislation will do two things. First, by establishing a minimum density of 1.5 to 2.5 FAR (depending on the maximum height permitted in the zone) it will prevent further projects like this. Being structured as emergency legislation allows the City to stop the immediate threat posed by inappropriate development proposals, and put interim regulations in place immediately while we write permanent legislation that can address the nuances and complexities of legislation that affects many different neighborhoods.

Second, by sending a clear message that the City will take appropriate steps to curb development that does not fit our growing commercial neighborhoods, we will challenge those who want to push cookie-cutter, strip-mall development into our pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods to rethink their approach.  Such developers might be startled by the depth of neighborhood demands for MORE development, not less. Knowing that the neighborhoods and the City are on the same page will help to generate pressure for them to back off on their incompatible proposals. It will also embolden the Design Review Boards, who are also unhappy about such projects, to use their powers to try to make the developments better. Together, we may be able to turn such projects around – and we have to try!

Regardless of the impact on projects already in the pipeline, we will have started down the path of establishing a zoning pattern that will make development work better in the future. By creating a minimum density regulation, we will help foster the kinds of neighborhoods that both the City and our neighborhood plans call for. And we will move a long way towards a zoning pattern focused not on preventing what we don’t want, but at encouraging what we want. That is the best approach for our urban future.