Zoning reforms in Seattle echo goals of some in Savannah

I was a member for several years of the technical committee that met monthly overseeing and discussing the work of local planners hoping to overhaul and update antiquated, overly rigid zoning codes.

Regrettably, that process of creating a Unified Zoning Ordinance (UZO) is now tied up in an open-ended public comment period, and when it moves forward again, I’m sure the same thing will happen that happened in 2011: Local residents and businesses — including some who were invited to participate in the process for years — will come out of the woodwork, profess their ignorance of the effort, and be simply shocked — shocked! — that the Metropolitan Planning Commission is trying to do something so ambitious. Rather than seeing it for the positive effort that it is and engaging with planners to see how it would impact them, those last-minute complainers will lawyer up or find irrational arguments.

Click here for my October 2011 column about the process.

Click here for the UZO’s official website.

There’s a recent and relatively short piece, The Quest to Make Regulatory Reform Work in Seattle, in the Atlantic Cities that talks in a clear, comprehensible way about zoning — always difficult to do — and summarizes some key zoning principles that Seattle seems poised to embrace. The proposals are a bit more far-reaching than those in the UZO, as they should be given Seattle’s size and its transportation needs.

But the basic principles are similar to efforts here — to give land owners more flexibility in terms of commercial uses, to bring parking and other requirements into the modern age, and to allow for more mixed uses where appropriate, especially the “corner store” concept.

From the piece by Charles R. Wolfe, who is a member of the roundtable working on Seattle’s zoning changes:

The goal? Embrace immediate, simplifying measures intended to reduce complexity and increase flexibility, in turn decreasing the costs in time and money of starting and maintaining businesses and building new, more affordable housing.

Wolfe bullets several key points (and discusses them in the article if you go to it):

  • Allow Small Commercial Uses in Multifamily Zones and Bring Back the Corner Store
  • Concentrate Street-Level Commercial Uses in Core Pedestrian Zones Near Transit and Allow Residential, Live-Work or Commercial Uses in Other Areas Based on Market Demand .
  • Enhance the Flexibility of Parking Requirements
  • Change Environmental Review Thresholds (i.e., make environmental review a part of other land use review)
  • Encourage Home Entrepreneurship
  • Expand Options for Accessory Dwelling Units and Rental Incomes
  • Expand Allowance of Temporary Uses

The piece contains lots of links to other analyses and discussions — it’s an advantage of a city of Seattle’s size that there’s a broader marketplace of ideas on difficult policy issues than we have here in Savannah.

I know this isn’t the most exciting stuff in the world, but it’s absolutely critical to understand the needs of Savannah as a city — and how our zoning code has in some ways starved the city for decades.