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Originally published Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 4:51 PM

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Guest columnist

Is Seattle ready for design, density and affordability?

The city of Seattle is considering changes to its zoning code. Guest columnist David Neiman writes it's time to update the code to provide for more density as well as good design and better affordability.

Special to The Times

Special meeting

Seattle City Council Committee on the Built Environment — Row Houses, Apartments and Town Homes: New Rules for the Road. 10 a.m. to noon, Saturday; Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle.

OVER the past two decades, Seattle has been inundated by a wave of poorly designed cookie-cutter town-house development. Known commonly as "Four Packs," these buildings have been a blight on our city.

In addition to being unattractive, they have also failed to fulfill the basic function of starter housing, since they are too expensive for the average citizen to afford. Thanks to a new zoning code working its way through the Seattle City Council, the era of the Four Pack may soon be coming to an end.

To understand how this happened we need to go back to the 1980s, when the code was written. Back then, the goal was to force multifamily development to match the look and feel of single-family housing.

Through a mixture of good intentions, wishful thinking and mind-numbing complexity, the code created a regulatory labyrinth that stifled innovation and created perverse incentives to game the system. The code was constructed as a puzzle. Though unintended, the Four Pack was its logical solution.

The city has acknowledged the problem and is working on a completely new approach to multifamily zoning — the Multi-Family Update (MFU). Next month the city council will roll out a final draft of the legislation. The new rules will allow a wide range of traditional building types including row houses, cottages, courtyard buildings and small apartments.

Mandatory administrative-design review will enforce higher design standards and make development more responsive to neighborhood concerns. Parking solutions that reduce the visual impact of the automobile will be encouraged. While these are major steps forward and they deserve our support, addressing affordability is still a work in progress.

Our current code features strict density limits and parking requirements that cap the number of units on a given property and require one parking space for each unit. The net effect of these rules is that they dictate a minimum unit size.

As a result the average town house in Central Seattle is over 1,500 square feet and sells for more than $450,000. By contrast, Seattle's median family income is around $75,000, meaning the average family can afford a $270,000 mortgage.

To address this issue, the city council is considering eliminating density limits and reducing parking requirements in our densest transit-served neighborhoods, allowing development of compact, efficient, quality housing that an average citizen can afford. Any legislation that tinkers with density and parking can be politically challenging, but it's necessary if we're serious about reducing the cost of housing.

Easing up on density and parking will not unleash a flood of Tokyo-style micro-unit housing projects. There are a lot of checks and balances in the system. Bank-lending requirements, buyer preferences, design-review thresholds and condominium liability will continue to push developers toward buildings with relatively large units and full parking.

Rather than wholesale change, we will see changes of degree — a modest shift toward development that produces smaller, more affordable and less auto-centric housing.

Our current code was written a generation ago. Since that time our priorities and concerns have changed dramatically. Growth and density are no longer dirty words. We have accepted that we live in one of the most desirable cities in the world, one that will continue to be a magnet for in-migration.

We have finally invested in mass-transit infrastructure and committed ourselves to the goal of creating vibrant, sustainable, urban neighborhoods. To realize that ambition we need a land-use code that is equal to the task.

David Neiman is a Seattle native and member of the Northwest chapter of the Congress of Residential Architects. CORA NW has been working with the city for the past three years to advocate in favor of the Multi-Family Update.

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