Seattle City Councilman Mike O’Brien suggests there would be little impact in allowing a triplex on every single-family lot greater than 3,200 square feet.
RECENT public discussion has suggested that there is a war between urbanists and neighborhoods, a conflict between renters and homeowners, a generational divide between millennials and boomers, and an economic clash among Seattleites’ income levels.
This oversimplified and divisive messaging sadly reflects the national political discourse of segregating constituencies into steadfast oppositional camps. We need a rich, inclusive and respectful community conversation to address the housing emergency we face. Instead, most citizens are left adrift to navigate through top-down partisan policy proposals from City Hall.
There was a time not long ago when City Hall reached out and partnered with all our neighborhoods. Citizens participated in neighborhood planning, studied the special components of their unique communities, discovered values that are most important to their neighbors, evaluated issues and opportunities that define our place in the city, and partnered with City Hall to create neighborhood plans that have provided guidance and support for more than 30 years.
But there has been a paradigm shift. What once was a citywide dialogue and community discussion about strategy, planning, performance, values and the inclusive advancement of alternative ideas has now been turned upside-down. Now we are simply informed of what is best for us, with no need for citizen outreach, community-council and other group input, and only a few very limited public meetings that most closely resemble a slick marketing program. In fact, last week Mayor Ed Murray chose to unilaterally eliminate city support of the neighborhood councils, effectively replacing them with a body whose members he will appoint and then be tasked with making recommendations back to the mayor and council.
The suppression of public discussion, lack of City Hall disclosure and inclusive study is unprecedented, and it has degraded the political process in Seattle. Neighborhoods are tagged as resisting change, cloistered and protectionist, against increasing density, and sometimes much worse. In reality, most Seattle neighborhoods have accepted more growth than directed or anticipated by regional planners over the last decade.
Residents of the city have been assured by City Hall that encouraging more growth would cause minimal if any environmental impacts. However, there is a lack of real data gleaned from serious, inclusive, unbiased and professional citywide studies to confirm this assertion.
For example, the current proposal by Councilmember Mike O’Brien to loosen regulation of backyard cottages (DADUs) suggests that rezoning the majority of Seattle’s residential land area would produce not one environmental impact, and therefore needs no professional studies, nor an environmental-impact statement, nor a truly inclusive public process.
Given the responsibility to identify environmental impacts of O’Brien’s legislation in the required SEPA (Seattle Environmental Policy Act) checklist, City Hall answered “No Impact” to all 109 questions. That is: no impact from allowing larger backyard houses on smaller lots, greater lot coverage, higher building heights, reduced building setbacks, reduced minimum lot size, removing all parking requirements, removing current ownership requirements, and allowing a triplex on every single-family property in Seattle greater than 3,200 square feet. The assertion that these wide-ranging changes would have “No Impact” is simply absurd.
O’Brien’s change allowing triplexes could result in your neighbors demolishing their single-family home, garage and driveway and replacing them with two buildings; one duplex containing a 1,000 square-foot apartment attached to a house of unlimited size and 35-foot high, together with a backyard or side-yard house (Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit) that could be 23-foot high and 1,000 square feet. No on-site parking would be required, and after one year, the owner of the property need not even live there, opening up every neighborhood to uncontrolled speculation, immediate displacement, removal of affordable housing, and considerable environmental impacts to every single-family property owner.
O’Brien reports that he held two public meetings and met with a small number of citizens who have backyard cottages or want to build them, and an architect. This is preposterously inadequate, which is why the Queen Anne Community Council and I have filed an appeal of the city’s finding of “No Impact.”
Neighborhoods have a right and a duty to stand up and ask for a fact- and data-driven environmental impact study to inform and confirm every one of the city’s assertions about the backyard-cottages proposal, and for the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, or HALA program.
Neighborhoods have been at the table through time helping to build Seattle, to create a diversity of housing choices, to create plans that acknowledge their unique character and quality of life, and to enhance their small-business districts. Now we are being told to “embrace change” without any involvement in the process, with no seat at the table, and no real studies to predict the impacts and consequences of city policies.
There is not a war between urbanists and neighborhoods, only a rising storm from thousands of Seattleites who love their city, but very much dislike Murray’s and O’Brien’s new ideological foundation behind one-size-fits-all zoning, top-down proclamations that ignore public input, and a forced march toward controversial policies with little if any background study, with no reliable metrics and data, and without a serious and citywide commitment to listen to neighborhoods and invite their unbiased input.