Preventing Sprawl and Preserving Neighborhood Character

Along with highlighting Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin’s support of more housing in single-family neighborhoods, this week’s Seattle Times story on neighborhood density had some confusing language about growth and growth targets. I think it’s worth looking at the Growth Management Act (GMA), growth targets, the City’s Comprehensive Plan, and what growth in single-family neighborhoods should look like. Seattle will continue to grow, including in single-family neighborhoods. Most growth will occur in multifamily neighborhoods, but more single-family homes will get built in single-family zones. The importance of building new homes in single-family zones isn’t because those homes will absorb lots of growth, but that these new homes provide a wider variety of housing choices in the city, rather than in sprawling suburbs.

The GMA was passed more than 20 years ago to prevent sprawl, a land use pattern emphasizing low density housing development linked by lots of roads and highways. By planning for future population and job growth in dense urban centers, the GMA intended to prevent more environmental degradation, traffic congestion, and highway construction associated with sprawl.

Under the GMA, counties and cities develop comprehensive plans for how growth will be managed within their jurisdictions, including land use policies and infrastructure investments. Part of the planning process is the “growth target,” an estimation of the number of people, housing units, and jobs local jurisdictions might expect. Here’s a description of growth targets from the Office of Financial Management:

Development of population projections for the Growth Management Act (GMA) is a shared responsibility. As directed by state statute, OFM prepares a reasonable range of possible population growth for Washington counties participating in GMA. County officials, also by law, are responsible for selecting a 20-year GMA planning target from within the range of high and low prepared by OFM. County officials select the county planning target; then within each county, population planning targets for cities, towns, and unincorporated areas are developed among all affected local jurisdictions as part of the city and county planning process.

Growth targets are not mandates for cities from  the state. Neighborhood advocates and others who are opposing projects or growth in general will often site growth targets as the basis for saying that a neighborhood has “taken” enough growth. As I pointed out in the Seattle Times article and elsewhere, growth targets don’t work that way.

Growth targets are a floor not a ceiling; the number of people, jobs, and housing can and should exceed the target. There are no sanctions for exceeding growth projections. This confusion about how to use population projections for planning has been made worse when policy makers attach requirements or regulatory relief to growth targets. This results, for example, in regulatory reforms that reduce costs for new development only in areas that are below growth projections, while places that are growing more quickly don’t benefit.

Thompson’s story makes it seem like growth in single-family neighborhoods is somehow connected to growth targets when it isn’t. The Comprehensive Plan doesn’t establish a limit on growth, only a plan for how it should happen, and most of that plan and the targets apply to Urban Villages not to single-family neighborhoods. Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan is pretty clear about growth in single-family neighborhoods:

The strategy of focusing future development in urban villages continues to direct new development away from Seattle’s single-family areas. (Urban Village Element 1.4)

Does that mean no single-family houses, Detached Accessory Dwelling Units, or cottages can or should be built in Seattle? Hardly. Here’s more on single-family growth from the Comprehensive Plan:

Maintain and enhance Seattle’s character as the city grows and changes. Seattle’s character includes its built environment: large areas of detached single-family houses both inside and outside of urban villages, many thriving multifamily areas, mixed-use commercial areas, industrial areas, major institutions, and a densely developed downtown with surrounding high-density neighborhoods. (Urban Village Element G1)

Enhance by every definition of the word, means a qualitative and quantitative increase (i.e. more and better). Enhancing single-family neighborhoods requires building new and different kinds of housing in those zones. And preserve should hardly be taken in this context to mean “no change whatsoever.”

There’s more.

Preserve and protect low-density, single- family neighborhoods that provide opportunities for home-ownership, that are attractive to households with children and other residents, that provide residents with privacy and open spaces immediately accessible to residents, and where the amount of impervious surface can be limited. (Land Use Element G8)

Take note that the first sentence of this section doesn’t say “preserve and protect low-density, single-family houses,” or views, or comfort of residents but, “neighborhoods.” There is nothing static about preserving and protecting single-family neighborhoods. In fact, the best way to do that is to add more single-family residents in new housing in a predictable way. And low-density is a comparative term here, not a set ratio (I think we need to propose a change here to make the word “lower.”)

Here’s more.

Preserve the character of single-family residential areas and discourage the demolition of single-family residences and displacement of residents, in a way that encourages rehabilitation and provides housing opportunities throughout the city. The character of single-family areas includes use, development, and density characteristics. (Land Use element G9)

This section is almost a restatement of the goal of Smart Growth Seattle.

We collaborate with homebuilders and community stakeholders to help government adopt codes that are appropriate for meeting housing demand and preserving neighborhood character.

The whole point of developing new single-family housing is to preserve the existing character by building a similar housing type, not demolishing existing homes (nothing is being demolished in the West Seattle project but a garage!), and creating more housing opportunity and choice.

Councilmember Conlin has already said he wants to see more opportunities and more choices in single-family neighborhoods. That’s good news; it’s also consistent with the comprehensive plan. Some growth will happen in single-family neighborhoods but it won’t be the major quantitative component of meeting or exceeding growth projections. Instead, growth and new homes in single-family neighborhoods will enhance the quality and character of those neighborhoods and the whole city. It also gives people an opportunity to live here rather than in a far off suburb.

Photo of housing in Pasco by author

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