The Price of Planning


The Roosevelt discussion from a couple weeks ago got me thinking about how Seattle funds planning work. Seems like this slow down in development should give Seattle a much needed opportunity to catch its breath and plan for future growth, maybe put something smart in place, or at least something more streamlined than the behemoth of a land use code that we currently have. Something more innovative than this. Look what Denver has done. Now that is cool.

Oh, but wait, DPD is funded primarily through permitting fees…so when projects slow down, revenues drop, and DPD lays off staff. And they won’t have more capacity until permits pick up again, but by then development starts happening too quickly and there is no time to plan.

So that leaves us at the mercy of privately funded planning, like with the Roosevelt Development Group. Even in the case of South Lake Union, an area that comprises about 2% of the city’s land base and is expected to accommodate nearly 20% of the city’s growth in the next dozen years, the city has no money to move forward with the necessary EIS to consider upzones. So until Vulcan and others pony up, looks like planning will stand still there too.

There has to be a better way. How about it, Sally? Diane? Ray? Are any of you lurking out there? Do I have my facts right? If so, any ideas for more sustainable funding for DPD? Anyone know what other cities do?

9 Responses to “The Price of Planning”

  1. Friends of Seattle

    Denver’s example is very compelling, and, as you note, Denver’s form-based and “Neighborhood Context” approach is completely different from the DPD’s proposed FAR-based revisions to the multifamily-housing zoning code.

    Perhaps you all should organize a panel discussion to evaluate DPD’s proposal? The Council is getting further along in considering the draft revisions, but maybe it’s not too late.

  2. Chris

    I’ve been working with this denver code a bit, too. I’m not sure how I feel about Denver’s “context”-based approach, because it seems to add an additional vector of unneeded complexity relative to the underlying zones. that said, I like the idea of eliminating FAR in favor of an envelope approach – we do both in seattle NC zones and it seems duplicative

  3. JoshMahar

    As someone a bit less wonky can somebody explain a few of the good things about Denver’s code for a laymen. As well, what is currently wrong with Seattle’s zoning. Isn’t it just the case between more units allowed in areas or not?

  4. michael

    What is currently wrong with Seattle’s zoning is that it is complex. This is often the case when cities have Euclidean-based codes, which traditionally have focused on uses (the separation of) rather than form. As cities like Seattle attempt to adapt their codes over time to be more responsive to design and form, they inevitably become quite complex. Using FAR is a flexible way to address building form and placement, however it also requires a bunch of other standards in order achieve other desired form and design attributes. Form-based codes can simplify things, especially in more complex urban environments – not so sure if there is an advantage when applied to less complex areas such as single-family.

    Denver’s code, like many other city codes that take a more form-based approach is great in that it clearly shows (using visual aids) what the code requires. However, in this way it can also be very prescriptive and less flexible than say a performance-based code. Where there is a well-defined vision for how a place, e.g. a street or town center, should look or function, such a prescriptive approach can be quite successful. In other situations it can be cumbersome. This is why often you see cities with form-based codes that are only applied in specific areas. But enough about that…

    To get to the real question: How can DPD plan when it doesn’t have money to plan? A straight forward answer would be to dedicate more funding out of the general fund to planning. I often wonder how a City like Seattle, which talks a lot about being a more livable and sustainable place, approaches planning primarily from a reactive rather than a proactive position.

  5. R on Beacon Hill

    Permit fees are intended to cover the costs of issuing building permits and inspecting the results. They were never intended to cover all the costs of the city’s planning function.

    Please tell us more (someone): is Seattle really relying on building permit fees to get its basic planning done? If so, it’s a recipe for disfunction.

  6. Chris

    I don’t know the answer definitively, but I thought that current planning was funded by permit activity (with more activity comes more cost) by long-range planning division was funded by general funds

  7. eldan

    I must admit to being pretty lost in the planning jargon here. Do you think at some point one of the hugeasscity bloggers could write a basic planning policy and terminology primer? I bet that would be a useful post for a lot of people.

  8. Kathryn

    What people care about is overall size, mass, and scale. When the code permits virtually the same size, mass and scale in all of the L zones, then we have a big problem. The difference is ‘density’ defined by size of units. Well.. number of bedrooms might give a better approximation of density.

    Most people don’t care (within reason) whether the thing is 3 apartments as a stacked triplex or 2 town homes as a duplex as long as the size, mass and scale on the lot are fitting, with a reasonable maximum number of residents. The old and new proposed code would not support the above example. Even on a narrow lot, the code supports three 1500 sq ft homes in an L1 zone. In a duplex neighborhood, a neighborhood for which the LDT and L1 zones were written in the first place, older homes are duplexes no bigger than a large SF home, some with with three generations and other extended family living in them.

    Take a look at the executive summary on DPD’s website. The pictures show us more lovely four packs and six packs. They celebrate that ‘special’ Seattle form that has no known home anywhere else on earth.

    Zoning for larger buildings use FAR. I think they also need to look at average height, with varying heights to take advantage of the hills and to make the building appear to have visual variety. Another way to avoid big boxes is to have frontages have only a given width with a single treatment. In other words, make one building look like three buildings when it takes up a whole block.

    The drawings above are very interesting. Problem is, with the current code, the third option does not really exist except as ‘special’ case. If absolutely zoned for that height, any builder worth it to investors will build out a box to fill the space.

    The other thing I have heard about NC zones is that there is no reasonable height designation to give us three residential over one level of commercial because of the jump from 40-65.

    So — yeah I think neighborhood context and use should be driving the zoning code. Most neighborhoods are in a position of doing infill, it’s not like we are tearing the whole shebang down and completely creating a context free blank slate. Denver took the forms that exist. My experience is that there is more creativity in the architecture there than here, thre are absolutely special distinct neighborhoods, and I don’t see the new code constraining that. I also do not see any 4-packs or 6-packs at all.

  9. Kathryn


    Denver zoning code page has a nice glossary:

    DPD has an Illustrated Summary of the Multifamily code updates on the right hand side of this page:

    There are links to summaries for all of the Seattle zoning designations on the right nav (scroll a bit) under Land Use – Seattle Zones Basics here:

Leave a Reply