Of pigs and parlors: thoughts so far on changing the code

A big part of what motivated this blog in the first place was a roundtable discussion about the code facilitated by the Seattle Mayor’s Office. That’s what got me thinking, “why not read the code from beginning to end?” This was my genuine effort to see what the code was all about. How could I say, “we need to throw it out!” if I hadn’t read it.

I’m not done yet. I still have a ways to go. But the roundtable group meets again soon and I figured I’d collect what thoughts I’ve had and put them here. The bottom line for me is that we need to see growth and change as positives, not something that we should be afraid of. How can we make the code reflect our hopes about the future rather than fears shaped by our past?

April 4, 2011

To:      The Roundtable

From: Roger Valdez

Re:      Suggestions – an outline

It would be really tempting to go after “things we could do now” in terms of revising the code. I urge we don’t go there yet.

Putting together changes that are simply tweaks of what is a questionable title in the Seattle Municipal Code would be like putting a new roof on a house that might need demolition.

We need an audit. And an audit would be a challenge to get done, but I think we could get a first draft completed largely with volunteers and, perhaps, with the help of a couple grad students.

An Audit: What is the code saying?

  1. Review all internal references – A simple but important housekeeping issue. The code is a mass of spaghetti, with many parts of the code pointing to other parts. It is important to untangle these references to make the code easier to read and use. It’s also important if we want to delete and rewrite sections of code. We’ll need to know the collateral damage we might be doing.
  2. Who’s in charge? —We need a matrix or key to flag everything in the code and figure out who is responsible for enforcement, review, and management of the code and its implementation (Mayor, Council, Planning Commission, etc.) Let’s separate the code out by who’s in charge. This will help if we want to allocate responsibilities in different ways.
  3. What’s in charge? —We ought to have a similar matrix showing what’s in charge; what does federal or state law require, for example? What elements of the code were written for some specific reason not articulated in the code itself? What is the backstory?
  4. What is the purpose of the code? –A bigger and bolder question to ask but still important. Is the purpose of the code to:
    1. Prevent things from happening?
    2. Promote new real estate development?
    3. Sustainably welcome and accommodate new growth?

Sustainably welcome and accommodate new growth

I choose letter “C.” What should be behind all of our efforts at reworking the DNA of our built environment is “what outcome do we want?” I think we want C.

But that means a different way of looking at growth. Growth is good! We want more of it and soon. Growth is not an impact or something that needs to be offset or apologized for. Our fields are parched, and coming growth is the rain we’ve been waiting for. Let’s be ready for it.

Maybe I have the lingo wrong, but we should be asking ourselves what are the uses we want and how do we encourage more of them? Right now we create a box into which new growth has to fit and then we hope that the box doesn’t goof up the market (creating the right supply for the right demand) for space. Our code constrains growth rather channelizing it towards the driest parts of our fields.

Uses should dictate standards, not the reverse

Uses—Keep it simple. I suggest three broad categories of use.

  • Residential—Places where people live.
  • Commercial-Retail—Places where people work and shop.
  • Car storage—Places where people keep their cars when not in use.
  • Industrial—A place for uses too intense or unsafe to mix with other uses.

Standards—Let the Director of DPD figure out the standards with the Planning and Development Commission through a three track permitting process.

  • Active track—the City identifies use development opportunities and cultivates developers and other partners to make it happen, then writes the standards.
  • Passive track—developers propose new development to the City for permitting based on use and subject to review and approval by the Director and the Planning and Development Commission.
  • Permit track—developers can submit permitting requests the old fashioned way based on a revised and refreshed standards based code.

Charter and code revision

All of this presupposes a substantial revision of the City’s Charter migrating authority away from the City Council and toward the Director and the new Planning and Development Commission.

Let’s face it. The City Council is a far too sensitive steering mechanism for land use. Because a third or more of the Councilmembers face reelection every two years, the process becomes way too impatient. Making big changes to the code is going to require bold moves that will cause short-term pain, disruption, and anxiety; none of those things makes a great campaign platform.

What it would look like

The idea that geographic parts of our city are zoned for use and standards–like single family or NC 85–is the relic of ancient zoning history. Zoning came about to separate use. We need to do the opposite. In a walk down any block in our city we should be able to see many uses and many typologies pushed together and even on the same lot. It’s going to take time to get away from the idea of preventing a “pig in the parlor” to welcoming the whole herd in the house.

But we’ve gotta get started!

Among the many choices people have when they decide where to make their home, we want them to choose Seattle. We believe they’ll choose Seattle because it has outstanding schools, livable and walkable neighborhoods, easy access to transit, and a wide array of desirable and affordable housing options.

Today, I think, the code is getting in the way of this by segregating uses, constraining new development, limiting housing supply and driving up housing price, and limiting creative and innovative design. Yes, it’s complicated. But the code belongs to us, we’re not subject to its whim; it is a means to our ends.

Parlor photo credit: kconnors from morguefile.com
Pig photo credit: luisrock62 from morguefile.com

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