Say It With Me Now: Single-Family is NOT SACRED

Anyone who pays even the slightest attention to such issues in Seattle has doubtless heard the oft-repeated edict: Our single-family zones are sacred. Discussions of future growth are almost invariably predicated in a tacit assumption that single-family is untouchable, that Seattle’s single-family zones will remain as they are from now until the end of time.

At the mere suggestion of even the most minor tampering with single-family zones, everyone from politicians to planners to developers and designers will nod heads in resigned agreement–just don’t go there, it’s not worth it, you’ll get yelled at, and you might even wake up to find a severed horse’s head in your bed. I’ve even caught myself mindlessly repeating the mantra.

But who decreed that this is so? Or more to the point, who cares who may have decided that this was so at some point in the past: Just exactly who still believes, given current conditions and prospects for the future, that all single-family zones in Seattle must be preserved at all costs?

Two of Seattle’s most outspoken voices for the sanctity of single-family are Chris Leman and Irene Wall, both of whom are members of the City Neighborhood Council. Both are quoted in this recent PI piece covering the Northwest Ecobuilding Guild’s recommendations for modest modifications to the single-family zoning code. Wall regrets that “there never seems to be a point where we say we say: ‘Hey, we’re full.'” In other words, shut the door, problem solved.

For Leman it’s actually neighborhood planning that is sacred above all else, and therefore he opposes any code update that has not been fully vetted through a full-blown neighborhood planning process. It may seem like a reasonable position, until you stop ignoring the fact that no neighborhood is an island. In the real world of interconnected planetary ecosystems, conditions may arise in which the interests of the many outweigh those of the few. Two words: climate change.

And here’s Wall laying out her case for preserving single-family in this DJC opinion piece, along with an opposing view by Roger Valdez. Roger is too nice. Wall’s arguments, many of which I previously addressed in this post, consist of the usual mix of biased sentimentality and sloppy analysis. I’m tempted to parse it out, but better yet, perhaps some of you commenters would enjoy taking a crack at it.

Getting back to the original point: The first step in freeing oneself from an unhealthy myth is to stop repeating it. Then you refute it. Like so: Given the current state of Seattle and the planet, and considering our most credible projections for the future, it is blatantly irresponsible city planning to keep single-family zoning off limits.