Urbanism moved forward on two fronts in the past few days.
This morning, Seattle Department of Transportation staffers briefed the city council on plans to make the city's sidewalks and public plazas more welcoming to pedestrians.
Council members were generally receptive to SDOT's ambitious list of proposals (big smiles all around when talk turned to "parklets," mini-parks in former parking spaces), which aren't funded but which do show a transportation department headed in a pro-pedestrian, urbanist direction.
They include everything from expanding food vending and sidewalk cades, to making it easier for neighborhood groups to shut down streets for community events, to allowing ads on public benches downtown (the ads would pay for more benches) to new rules allowing people to sell items other than food and flowers on city sidewalks.
Most of the proposals just need money, council approval and a plan for implementation (easy, right?), but at least three would require changes to the city's municipal code. Of those, the one that's most likely to be controversial is the proposal to allow signs on benches.
Currently, city law bans most "off-premises" ads—that is, ads for goods or services that aren't available where they're advertised; if the proposal actually leads to legislation, expect to hear concerns that allowing ads on benches will open up a Pandora's box that could lead to a proliferation of billboards downtown—something the city has tried its best, with mixed success, to avoid. There's also the First Amendment question—as Metro has discovered, it's hard to draw the line between permissible free speech and offensive political rhetoric.
In a similar but less politically loaded vein, council members will have to walk a fine line to craft rules for street merchandising that keep large kiosks selling knockoff Louis Vuitton purses out, but allow legitimate vendors to sell on the sidewalk.
The second item on the past week's urbanist agenda—microhousing, or "aPodmenets"—isn't directly related to public space, although one could argue that tiny apartments wouldn't work without great public spaces. It came from the Seattle Planning Commission, which sent down its recommendations for how the city council should proceed with regulating microhousing last Friday.
The commission's proposals (which, believe it or not, also include plenty for microhousing opponents to like) generally boil down to this: Regulate micro-housing as a new type of housing (currently, the buildings are regulated like boarding houses or "congregate housing," with each floor treated as a single unit even if it consists of eight individual micro-units), but don't use such a heavy hand that developers stop building them.
"We believe this type of housing should be embraced and encouraged in appropriately zoned parts of the city," the commission wrote. "We believe some minor changes to the rules and regulations that govern micro-apartments are in order to ensure they add long-term value to Seattle’s housing stock and community."
Among the "minor changes" the commission recommends:
• Create a "clear and consistent" definition of "micro-apartments," which will help the city when deciding whether a development has to go through environmental and design review and whether it qualifies for the city's low-income tax exemption program for multi-family buildings.
• Consider creating a specific type of design review for microhousing, which currently does not have to go through design review.
• Continue to allow microhousing to be built without parking in areas of the city with no parking minimums, and increase the minimum bike parking requirement to reflect the number of people who are actually living in microhousing buildings.
• For microhousing developments that take advantage of the city's multifamily housing tax exemption program (which provides a tax break for developers who agree to produce some on-site affordable housing), create a new, lower affordability level to ensure that micro-apartments are affordable to people making very low incomes (currently, projects can qualify if they produce a certain percentage of units affordable to people making 65 percent of median income, or $39,455 for a single person).
• Continue to allow microhousing in all areas of the city where multifamily housing is allowed, instead of shutting microhousing out of certain parts of the city by creating new, restrictive zones, as some microhousing opponents have proposed.
Read the Planning Commission's full recommendations here.