lessons learned from the development boom, redux

Last April 21, I wrote my first piece in seattlepi.com, and have not stopped since. I thought it would be worthwhile to “republish” here, as economic uncertainty stays with us well into the new year.

Infill development, or redevelopment of existing development, is among the key land use focal points in Washington State’s urbanized areas. As entrenched land use and environmental professionals, we have long advised clients on the broad range of due diligence, compliance and related issues which arise as infill development proceeds from planning to implementation. This advice has been practical by nature, not the stuff of daily dialogue. But suddenly, our entrenched professional dialogue is mainstream.

But have we lost a practical, implementation-based perspective?

“Green”, “sustainable” and “shovel ready”–and their older cousin, “smart growth”–have arrived with a vengeance, albeit often more as separate silos of ideas and inspiration than as interrelated elements of societal change. Even in a now slow real estate market, we now hear often from their advocates and thoughtful critics. How and where should we grow? Will the new residents of our region live, work and travel in a more sustainable way?

While former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck travels to Harvard in search of the ingredients of a more sustainable Seattle, former State Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald laments in Crosscut how growth management is not always working as planned, while national columnist Neal Peirce lauds the likely marriage of transportation and land use under the Obama administration–with the actual potential for silos of ideas to synthesize into cohesive programs with allied agendas.

As a long-time practitioner in the region, it is remarkable to see the dialogue emerge as never before, for debates to take center stage (witness the very public process over transit oriented development in South Seattle and Bellevue and the recent establishment of Seattle’s Green Futures Lab). Far more than entrenched and introspective professionals have become interested in land use patterns that conserve land, provide affordability and reduce emissions.

Absent large swaths of single-entity ownership such as South Lake Union, redevelopment of our current urban landscape will not be easy. As the pipeline of permitted and financed projects ebbs, we should take stock of what we have learned during the last boom–and look hard at how the silos and synergies will emerge on the ground.

Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA) has designated urban areas for growth for almost 20 years.

1. In the Puget Sound region in particular, the existing character of a neighborhood may be subject to dramatic change as preexisting neighborhoods are replaced by more dense redevelopment.
2. Critical area and contamination constraints, governed by elements of GMA and related statutes such as the Shoreline Management Act and the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA, the State’s cleanup law) have limited the amount of raw land available for straightforward development and often require sophisticated mitigation and/or remediation solutions.
3. In part to avoid long commute times, the live-work ideal has evolved as a major goal of mixed-use urban infill projects. As noted, transit oriented development has become a related driver of where people will live and work.
4. Cities such as Seattle continue to deemphasize traditional separation of residential from other uses and assumptions regarding parking and assumed modes of transportation.

Given the drivers influencing infill redevelopment, individual and interrelated projects can prove particularly challenging to assure an economic return and the absence of significant practical and regulatory constraints. From the private sector perspective, land must be accumulated in a rational pattern and permits and approvals obtained to allow for an economically and otherwise feasible project.

Infill redevelopment projects generate higher cost given the range of variables involved in the blending of old and new and assuring that existing neighborhood character is addressed in context. From the public sector perspective, GMA and regulatory consistency must be assured, as well as resource and human health protection achieved in concert with related environmental mandates.

Additional challenges result from a range of specific implementation concerns:

1. Assurance of Comprehensive Plan and Development Regulation amendments if necessary to assure implementation of project parameters that vary from traditional “Euclidean” zoning requirements or limited floor area ratio, height or excess parking
2. Project mass and building height may require preservation of
view corridors in an urban setting, either from a development regulation of State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) context
3. Historic landmarks impacted by redevelopment plans must be addressed as required (e.g. Seattle Landmarks Preservation Ordinance)
4. Assurance that building, seismic and fire codes, as well as “green building” considerations can be met cost effectively
5. Assurance that impacts to neighbors will be managed appropriately, both from regulatory and public perception standpoints

Finally, as highlighted in a recent University of Washington study on “brownfields redevelopment”, infill sites constrained by historic contamination offer a key example of the balance that must be struck between the needs of the marketplace and the State cleanup law’s regulatory mandate to protect human health and the environment to the maximum degree practicable. The Department of Ecology is increasingly called upon to provide assurance to marketplace stakeholders, such as property purchasers, developers and lenders, over and above its more traditional role implementing a more mandatory or enforcement approach to site cleanup. The forms of assurance provided by Ecology, and the availability of staff, has become a key issue for infill projects where residential uses will be central to a project’s financing and marketing. Project acquisition and construction lenders and equity partners, as well as retail leaseholders and condominium lenders, residents and homeowners’ associations need assurance that site cleanup activities have met legal requirements.

In addition to the issues discussed above, urban redevelopment is often beset immediately with particular expectations or requirements to help solve urban and regional problems such as affordable housing and transportation. As these are elements of cost, a developer must find a way to contribute to resolution of these issues with the allowances of the project pro forma. Allocation of funds towards provision of transportation and affordable housing infrastructure and/or mitigation must be balanced against design and constructability decisions (constrained site construction and demolition challenges, quality of building materials, lighting, etc.), allocations of uses, parking and open/street spaces and vegetation.

The bottom line? Innovation will face implementation challenges that can benefit from practical lessons learned in recent years. The silos of design, regulation and financing must be addressed at an integrated, practical level if the now much-discussed sustainable growth models are to succeed.

2 thoughts on “lessons learned from the development boom, redux

  1. BRIAN REGAN 206 283-9350

    Can the Wallingford Garbage Dump be moved to Fremont?

    Instead of pontificating about land use, here’s an actual current case:

    Is industrial the right zoning for the 5 large blocks in the Fremont Urban Village lying west of Evanston, east of 3rd Ave NW and between the Ship Canal and N 36th Street?

    While other close-in Seattle neighborhoods like Ballard have enjoyed a revival in recent years, this particular section of Fremont has been suppressed by outdated industrial zoning.

    Although it’s been zoned industrial for decades, the number and sizes of actual industrial users has declined steadily and sharply, until now there are less than 2 or 3 small “industrial” companies remaining. Outfits of a bygone era like the lumber mill, coal yard, dog food factory, trolley switch yard, chrome plating and paint brush plant have all disappeared or moved to places better suited to industrial businesses – like those with access to shipping by rail or water-borne freight. Instead, this area supports many single family and multi-family residences in the zone. It’s bordered on the south by the canal, a beautiful city park and the Burke-Gilman Trail; and is bordered on its other sides by commercial and residential uses; and yet it retains obsolete industrial zoning.

    The City has conducted a series of meetings to discuss changing the zoning to either:

    “Neighborhood Commercial” (potentially allowing for a diversity of mixed-use commercial/residential like the Epi/QFC, but not heavy industrial)


    “Industrial Commercial” (potentially allowing for larger non-industrial uses such as the garbage dump, bigger offices and “big-box retail” such as Wal-Mart Discount, but not housing).

    The zoning that would obviously allow the most flexibility for the long-range future needs of the property owners, the potential tenants and especially the community of Fremont would be the Neighborhood Commercial zones (not Industrial). This would allow for a sustainable mix of residential and commercial uses that would much better support the viability and vibrancy of the neighborhood and potential improvements in public transportation.

    Here is what the Seattle Comprehensive Plans says: “LU147.2 – Industrial zones are generally not appropriate within urban centers or urban villages, since these are places where the City encourages concentrations of residential uses. However, in locations where a center or village abuts a manufacturing/industrial center, the IC (“Industrial-Commercial”) zone within the center or village may provide an appropriate transition to help separate residential uses from heavier industrial activities. “

    If you’re interested in doing something about land use instead just talking about it, the city will be hosting a meeting regarding this on November 18th at the Fremont Public Library (4:00-6:00pm).

    See also http://www.seattle.gov/DPD/Planning/FremontUrbanVillageRezone/Overview/

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