A three-story apartment building next to a three-story townhome complex on leafy California Avenue in West Seattle.
Much more of the city used to permit low-rise apartment buildings like the Villa Lisa in the Junction. Let's make it possible again. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Seattle is embarking on a journey to adjust its zoning policy. That journey starts in earnest with the scoping period for the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Comprehensive Plan Major Update. The scoping comment period ends tonight (August 22) at midnight. Visit the One Seattle Plan Engagement Hub to comment on scoping — more comment periods will open later in the process, as well.

Alongside more than a dozen partner organizations, The Urbanist submitted a comment letter that urges the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) to expanding housing opportunities within all of the alternatives. Doing so creates a supercharged Alternative 5, and our letter also requests adding an even bolder option, Alternative 6, that would end apartment bans across the city and allow four- to six-story buildings. Augmenting Alternative 5 and adding Alternative 6 would then allow the city to have a real conversation about how to align its zoning policy to promote housing affordability, racial equity, and climate goals.

It boils down to this: Do we want to be a city for everyone or a one class city only for the rich? Do we want to work to correct racial housing injustices and environmental damage or only seek to entrench power for the already powerful? The choice is ours.

OPCD anticipates having a draft plan in Q2 202 and a final plan and zoning in the first half of 2024, with adoption in the second half of 2024. (OPCD)

The Urbanist has closely covered Seattle’s Comprehensive Update process from when OPCD first released its conceptual alternatives to a housing advocate’s guide to commenting to columnist Ray Dubicki’s lament of how lengthy and abstract the process is.

OPCD wants to hear from you as it does this once a decade update. “The Comprehensive Plan is a 20 year vision and roadmap for Seattle’s future,” OPCD notes on its webpage. “Our plan guides City decisions on where to build new jobs and houses, how to improve our transportation system, and where to make capital investments such as utilities, sidewalks, and libraries. Our Comprehensive Plan is the framework for most of Seattle’s big-picture decisions on how to grow while preserving and improving our neighborhoods.”

Upvote our comment letter on the engagement hub or submit your own comment and feel free to crib from our letter below if you are inspired.

To: Brennon Staley, Office of Planning and Community Development

Subject: Comments on the scope of the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the One Seattle Plan 2024 Comprehensive Plan update

We, the undersigned organizations, represent a coalition committed to advancing housing affordability and addressing climate change through Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan update, including affordable housing developers and operators, environmental advocates, climate activists, and grassroots housing organizers. It is essential that the City analyzes a full range of growth alternatives in the EIS. We urge you to expand the scope of analysis of each of the alternative growth strategies and to advance a new transformative Alternative 6, to provide as much flexibility to build as many homes as possible.

This Comprehensive Plan update is a once-in-a-decade opportunity for Seattle to lead the region by reforming land use, increasing density, and allowing for mixed uses in neighborhoods. At this distinctive moment in time, the urgency of the city’s affordable housing crisis is combined with a growing climate crisis and the disturbing reality of persisting inequities. We cannot ignore the interconnectedness that must bind our efforts inextricably on housing and climate action.

We have an exacerbated housing crisis; far too many of our neighbors sleep unsheltered, struggle to afford rent, or have been displaced from their communities, all because of how expensive homes in our city are. Simply put, we have a shortage of homes, and we need to build more of them. We need more affordable homes, more sustainable homes, more homes to rent and to own, and more middle homes, apartments, and corner stores throughout our city.

We also face a climate crisis, driven overwhelmingly by transportation, accounting for a whopping two-thirds. Car-dependent sprawl is not consistent with our climate goals or a sustainable future. As the center city of this region, Seattle must lead in welcoming sustainable land use patterns. Per capita emissions are lower in Seattle due to better access to transit, jobs, and walkable neighborhoods. By not welcoming housing growth in its borders, Seattle forces it to the suburban fringe, where residents are locked into car dependency and growth jeopardizes forests and farms.

Of the options currently drafted, Alternative 5 is the only alternative to make a major positive impact on Seattle’s housing costs by allowing for more housing growth to meet demand. Per the City’s analysis, by promoting a greater range of rental and ownership housing, the Combined Growth Strategy would address past underproduction of housing and rising costs and support complete neighborhoods across the city. It furthers climate goals by allowing more people to live in walkable, transit-rich communities near jobs and amenities, and could help create transit-supporting densities throughout Neighborhood Residential zones. And finally, it goes furthest among the five drafted alternatives to correct the racial inequities of historically exclusionary zoning policies.

In addition to advancing Alternative 5, it is essential that all the growth strategies studied include as much flexibility to increase housing supply, diversity, and affordability as possible. A new Alternative 6, should expand on the Combined Growth Strategy with policies to create abundant, affordable housing throughout the entirety of Seattle.

  • Alternative 2, the Focused Growth Strategy, should create or expand new urban villages and maximize housing development capacity in neighborhoods with high access to opportunity and low risk of displacement. The Focused Growth Strategy should ensure that urban villages encompass the entire 15-minute walkshed around frequent transit. Finally, the Focused Growth Strategy should incorporate analysis of high-rise and mid-rise zoning. These housing types maximize density around light rail stations and regional centers, would generate more Mandatory Housing Affordability contributions to expand the city’s affordable housing stock, and could encourage sustainable mass timber construction.
  • Alternative 3, the Broad Growth Strategy, should incorporate analysis of a wider range of missing middle housing types than just triplexes and fourplexes. Rowhomes, stacked flats, sixplexes, and courtyard apartments would also fit in well in Neighborhood Residential zones and create new affordable homeownership options. This alternative should also include mixed-use development on corner lots, with an emphasis on allowing uses that meet residents’ essential daily needs.
  • Alternative 4, the Corridor Growth Strategy, should incorporate significant upzones in the 15-minute walkshed around transit stations, not just a narrow band directly on arterials. Mid-rise and mixed-use zoning should anchor the 5-minute walksheds around transit stations, with wide swaths of low-rise apartments and missing middle homes permitted throughout the rest of the 15-minute transit walksheds.
  • Alternative 5, the Combined Growth Strategy, should incorporate the additional flexibility for housing production from each of the growth strategies enumerated above.
  • A new alternative, Alternative 6, should expand on the Combined Growth Strategy and be explicitly designed as the anti-displacement alternative requested by the Comprehensive Plan Racial Equity Analysis: it should “end the prevalence of single-family zoning” with a “racially inclusive approach.” This includes anti-displacement overlays in areas of high displacement risk and allowing maximum growth of the most affordable housing types in areas of high opportunity. It could look like a connected network of complete neighborhoods, allowing 4-6 story apartments in all neighborhoods, with bonuses for affordable homes by right, and ground floor commercial and community spaces to serve people’s daily needs. It should explore density bonuses and exemptions from setback requirements for green buildings, to encourage mass timber and passive house techniques.

Beyond specific growth strategies, we recommend that all the alternatives be improved in the following ways:

  • All of the growth alternatives OPCD advances for analysis should plan for—at a minimum—a continued rate of population growth similar to what Seattle has seen over the last 10 years.
  • The City’s greenhouse gas analysis should consider the regional benefits of preventing sprawl and adding dense, climate-friendly housing in the existing urban core.
  • All of the growth alternatives should analyze altering the transportation network concurrently with the land use strategy, to expand the area of Seattle covered by frequent transit service.
  • Broadly, all of the alternatives should develop strategies to expand the “15-minute city” concept effectively in residential zones to ensure complete, walkable communities with a mix of housing types with jobs, commercial spaces, schools, health clinics, and parks.
  • For all alternatives, locate new nodes of housing and business density in areas that currently have low access to frequent transit service and/or low access to businesses and amenities that provide essential daily needs. Growth strategy alternatives should be designed to fill these gaps in access by increasing housing development capacity to levels that can sustain transit service and commercial services.
  • All alternatives should maximize housing opportunities near planned light rail stations. With the 130th Street Station opening in 2026, the City should establish an urban village around the station. Likewise, Graham Street, North Delridge, Avalon, the Junction, Ballard, and Uptown could use new or expanded urban villages to complement their planned light rail stations.
  • All of the alternatives should analyze the impact of various growth strategies and housing production rates on the total homes affordable by area median income (AMI) band, with attention paid to residents making less than 30% of AMI, 30-50% of AMI, and 50-80% of AMI.
  • All of the alternatives should evaluate production rates of rental and ownership housing and incorporate land use strategies to create new homeownership and rental options across the city.

The undersigned organizations look forward to working with OPCD throughout the Comprehensive Plan Update process. We are committed to shaping our city’s land use to allow more homes to be built and to create a more equitable, affordable, and green city.

A graphic includes logos from signing organizations which include Housing Development Consortium, Futurewise, The Urbanist, 350 Seattle, Plymouth Housing, Welcoming Wallingford, Bellwether Housing, Sightline Institute, Mercy Housing, Community Roots Housing, Transit Riders Union, Cascade Bicycle Club, Homestead Community Land Trust, Beacon Development Group, Habitat for Humanity Seattle-King & Kittitas Counties, Sierra Club, and Tech 4 Housing.
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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.