Look around a residential neighbourhood in a typical American city, and you will see an ocean of single-family detached homes. There is a myth that it has always been this way. In reality, many cities have historically allowed a diverse mix of buildings and uses in residential neighbourhoods: duplexes, row houses, even corner stores. Seattle is no exception.

In this article, I’d like to introduce you to Greenwood, a residential Seattle neighbourhood where I used to live. Greenwood is a unique and wonderful place. Like many of Seattle’s residential neighbourhoods, it has a great diversity of building types and uses. However, due to overly restrictive zoning, this diversity is gradually giving way to a monoculture of single-family homes. Don’t get me wrong; I deeply cherish the beauty of our city’s Craftsman homes, and always have. But single-family homes can peacefully coexist with other kinds of buildings. Perhaps now is the time to consider how we might preserve our history of diversity, and remake it for our 21st century city.

History of Mixing Uses in Residential Greenwood

If you’ve been to Greenwood, you’re probably familiar with the many restaurants, stores, and multifamily buildings that line the streets of Greenwood Ave N and N 85th St. But there’s more to Greenwood than meets the visitor’s eye. When I first moved to Seattle two years ago, I regularly roamed the back streets of Greenwood to take in the beauty and quiet that they had to offer. In doing so, I began to discover a secret world of buildings that had not been constructed as single-family homes, even if they served that purpose today.

Below are just a handful of the commercial and multi-family structures hidden within the residential portions of Greenwood. Some still serve their original purpose; current zoning prohibits this type of use, but these buildings are grandfathered in. Others have been redesigned as single-family homes.

West Greenwood ZoningSome sections of Greenwood are zoned as Lowrise Multi-Family Residential (LR1 and LR2) and Residential Commercial (RC). One would typically expect these zoning types to be on a main street, but there are a few parcels of 6th Ave NW with these zoning designations, as you can see from the map. 6th Ave NW isn’t a main street. These zones were established here specifically for the sake of buildings like the ones above, the construction of which predated today’s zoning code. 8th Ave NW serves as the closest main street, but the equivalent zoning isn’t anywhere near these 6th Ave NW blocks.

Proposal

If multifamily residential and neighbourhood-oriented commercial has worked in Greenwood for so long, why can’t we consider allowing these uses at targeted locations throughout the city?

For many people, residential neighbourhoods are desirable places to live because of the quiet and low traffic volumes that they offer. Small-scale multifamily buildings and corner stores are entirely compatible with these desires. These pockets of density, nestled in residential areas, enable nearby residents to live a walking-oriented life without having to go to a busy commercial street for all of their needs. Some people can find it stressful to deal with crowds and activity on a busy street. A corner store can help you avoid the effort of a longer trip. Small-scale multifamily buildings offer people an alternative to the single-family home while still benefiting from the character of the residential neighbourhood.

Size, Use, and Location Matter

Within these pockets of density, it’s important to make sure that the businesses and multifamily residential we allow are of the right scale, type, and location.

Size: Recognising that residential neighourhoods have maximum height limits and small lots, new construction should not exceed 35 feet in height (three storeys) and encompass more than two lots which are standard within areas zoned SF-5000. Building widths should also be small, perhaps no more than 45 feet per building.

Use: For commercial uses, the best kinds are small and “boring” businesses. Think of uses like a café, family medical practice, law office, or a traditional corner store. By nature, these uses won’t generate much traffic; they will only attract people who live very close, rather than being city-wide attractions. As a simple litmus test, consider this: would anybody cross a main street to get to this business? If the answer is “yes”, then it should go on the main street. If the answer is “no”, then the use is probably appropriate within the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, multifamily uses can be much broader in nature like row houses, apartments, condos, and other such uses.

Location: In residential neighbourhoods, one of the traditional hallmarks of multifamily residential and commercial uses is that they are almost always located at the corners of an intersection. Intuitively, we know that intersections have the most access, traffic, and visibility. Following this precedent, new multifamily and commercial uses should accordingly be accommodated in the same manner.

To be sure, the exact set of regulatory policies would need to be much more nuanced than this. But this does gives us a good framework from which to develop rules accommodating a modest mix of low-density uses in residential neighbourhoods. As we can see, a mixing of uses and building types has been a highly successful feature of Seattle neighbourhoods. We should embrace that fact by working to preserve and expand it into the future.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for promoting sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He advocates for smart policies, regulations, and implementation programs that enhance urban environments by committing to quality design, accommodating growth, providing a diversity of housing choices, and adequately providing public services. Stephen primarily writes about land use and transportation issues.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Great post. I too have wondered about and admired 6th Ave NW. Do you know the history of the street? Why is it developed, while 8th Ave NW is not? In any event, it is an interesting street, and fun to walk on. It is a great example of why a street that isn’t exclusively single family homes can be very quiet and enjoyable. People tend to assume that apartments and less pleasant neighborhoods go together because we often allow apartments only on arterials. Comparing 6th and 8th is striking, in that regard — which one would you rather walk on? My guess is everyone would pick 6th, even though there are a lot more houses on 8th.

    The street is also interesting because the architecture isn’t exactly fabulous. Probably the best thing about it is that it is varied. There are plenty of mid century apartment buildings (buildings I would consider fairly ugly) but combined with the other buildings (and houses) it makes for a fun mix. It reminds me a bit of walking through the UW campus (one of the finest campuses in the world) and seeing some of the (to my eye) ugly 60’s style buildings. I think the campus would look terrible if those buildings dominated the landscape, but instead they provide for an interesting counterpoint.

    But back to housing in the neighborhoods, One stretch I really enjoy is Linden Ave in Fremont, north of BF Day. There are some really nice old brick apartment buildings mixed in with old houses and newer townhouses. Like 6th Ave NW, I think it would serve as a great example for much of the city. I know lots of people don’t want to live in an area like South Lake Union, but I think living on a street like that would be just as nice, quiet and pleasant as a street that is exclusively single family housing.

    • I wish I did know the history. I’d guess looking back at city ordinances on rezoning and historic aerials would be a good place to start, but I don’t have access to the historical zoning maps or the aerials. Maybe they were rezoned mid-century as a result of the existing commercial/multi-family uses there? My inclination is that is what happened.

  2. As to your policy suggestions, I commend you for your ideas on this subject. I think it is very much lacking when if comes to zoning debates in this city. We seem to have preservationists on one side (who often are more concerned about preserving the type of housing not the actual houses) and those that want to build as much as possible (without regard for aesthetics) on the other. You provide a more nuanced view, along with some creative ideas. This is what I think of them:

    Size: Yes, I completely agree, we shouldn’t anything bigger than what is allowed for a single family house (which is actually pretty big when you consider those so called “monster houses”).

    Use: I like the idea, but I think it would be very hard to legislate. It becomes really difficult to even come up with a definition, even a casual one. For example, a local cafe should be allowed, but what if the cafe proves to popular? The Barking Dog, for example, could be considered just a local pub, except I like to visit it even though I live in a completely different part of the city. Plus I’m not sure if you want that sort of rule, anyway (even though I can see the logic in it). A place that services down comforters (352 North 78th) or a boot fitter who specializes in ski boots (65th and 4th Ave NW) would be against the rules, but a 7-11 (or any other chain) would not. I’m afraid mixing commercial and residential areas will always be problematic (some people will love it, others will hate it, and it really depends on the business).

    Location: I also agree and I think this is one simply way of limiting the number of commercial establishments.

    In any event, I like your ideas, and realize it isn’t that easy to come up with a framework that is easily enforced, but leads to development that would satisfy most people (and piss off very few). I came up with my own ideas and wrote them as a comment on a blog here: http://seattletransitblog.com/2014/05/23/comment-of-the-day-zoning/
    As you can see, I didn’t come up with a simple, easy framework either, but I think we are pretty much on the same page. At some point I may work on those ideas a bit and polish them up a bit. I may also incorporate your ideas as well.

    Thanks,
    Ross

    • Awesome, thanks Ross! Obviously my post was meant to be general, with the primary goal of getting back the diversity of a traditional neighbourhood. I think there are plenty of ways to legislate something like this that would be acceptable. Certainly, there will be detractors, but that’s not really the point. Many cities I’ve visited outright still allow this kind of diversity, so it clearly would be worth looking into how they’re doing this.

      No doubt there is bound to be a really popular restaurant that shows up in a small space. Could a Red Mill show up? Very likely. How to deal with that kind of attraction situation would likely be something of interest to address.

      Great post on the STB by the way. And as Owen notes below, we’d love to see ya some time!

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