Attack of the 150-foot planners

Coming soon to a neighborhood near you: Extra growth!

OK, a bit of oversell there, but you've got to resort to punchy intros when you're column is actually about land use.

Wait! Don't turn that page! I promise this narrative will include controversy, heartbreak, subterfuge, rumors, and lies (kind of like a Judith Krantz novel written by professional planners).

The scandal in question takes us back to the mid-1990s approval of the Seattle comprehensive plan. This was Seattle's last great "you can't trust government" brawl (at least until the monorail); it provided the impetus for Charlie Chong's political rise (he managed his political fall on his own); and the document serves as a lasting legacy for Mayor Norm Rice, who will long be remembered for . . . well, um, never mind.

Anyway, every year our hard-charging, highly paid city planners suggest a few changes to the plan, but this year's package includes page after page of "minor adjustments." Unfortunately for them, a couple of University District activists, Matthew Fox and Jorgen Bader, actually sat down and read the document.

Surprise! The two activists discovered supporting language for a host of changes, from allowing two homes on single-family lots to handing out a host of extra development bonuses to giving major institutions a special, easier process for up-zoning their properties. After a few angry letters, the proposed comp plan changes were taken off fast-track approval status. A City Council committee will consider the changes in late November, with full council action expected in December.

Some of the changes are shocking! (Well, maybe only to people with long memories.) For instance, certain provisions would rezone single-family neighborhoods with an obscure zoning designation known as "single-family small lot." This is important because when this new zoning designation was created, city officials promised it would be used only in the urban villages (the city's designated growth areas) and only after residents specifically asked for its use through the neighborhood planning process. Well, the neighborhood plans are completed, and neighborhoods' desire for tiny houses on tiny lots proved negligible. So city planners now want to see the zoning authorized in not just the neighborhoods that didn't want it, but also in adjacent areas outside the villages.

Planners also included language to allow folks to build mother-in-law apartments in separate buildings on their property. This proposal has been considered twice by the City Council and rejected twice, but planners try not to let little things like that stand in their way.

Having been forced to sit through long, boring meetings as codes have been updated over the past two decades, neighbors are rightly frustrated to see proposals they managed to defeat reintroduced through this sneaky, backdoor process.

Of course, Paul Schell, our beloved developer-mayor, is in the mix. His unpopular proposal to remove on-street parking from arterials would get a boost here from a provision mandating that parking removal be decided solely on the basis of traffic circulation and commerce. The opinions of area residents wouldn't matter at all. Schell also wants language to allow up-zones along major arterials. This is annoying because the "deal" behind the urban village plan was that residential densities would be lessened along arterials in exchange for allowing bigger buildings in the villages.

Beyond all the broken promises, planners also seek to lay the groundwork for future "bonus" programs, allowing developers to build bigger buildings, cram in extra living units, and provide less parking. Don't worry about being turned down—the open-ended language should allow city building regulators to rubber-stamp any development proposal.

High-rises could be built taller if doing so would "promote desired urban design qualities." Commercial areas could see their height limits upped "based on the appropriate height needed to accommodate desired functions." Developers would be able to get parking breaks "when greater parking efficiency can be achieved." Bigger apartment buildings could be built "where concentrations of such housing are desired." Developers, simply ask and ye shall receive.

And for sheer ridiculousness, you can't beat the International District Mixed and Special Review District, in which building heights are limited to 65 feet "in order to maintain the character and prominence of the historic Union Station structure." A worthy goal, except that in "special cases," new buildings can be up to 150 feet in height. Now, assuming standard weights and measures still apply, 150 feet is a lot taller than 65 feet. How exactly do they keep these new buildings from being prominent?

Granted, the comprehensive plan is simply a policy statement, so this language doesn't change actual land use laws. But it does provide the city officials' wish list for the future: Two houses on every lot, more handouts to developers, and no promise left unbroken.

Civvies back monorail

Government watchdogs The Civic Foundation have once again spoken: yes to the monorail, no to the city parks levy.

The five-year-old political action committee is wading into this off-year election with a 15,000-piece pro-monorail mailer targeted at swing voters, says executive director Angela Toussaint. The massive $198.2 million parks levy will have to fall under its own weight (at that size, it's quite possible), but, at least, we all know how they feel about it.

 
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