City Hall

Group Forms to Promote Dense Single-Family Housing

A new group, Smart Growth Seattle, is promoting denser development on small lots in single-family neighborhoods.

By Erica C. Barnett January 8, 2013

Environmentalist and sometime PubliCola contributor Roger Valdez has formed a new group, Smart Growth Seattle, to promote small-lot, dense development in single-family neighborhoods. 

The group is being funded by Blueprint Capital, a fund set up by two developers, Dan Duffus and Mark Knoll; Duffus, of course, is the developer responsible for building several now-infamous houses under a little-known loophole that allows single-family homes on small, so-called "substandard" lots created before the city had a zoning code. Those lots, which are created by effectively subdividing larger lots, can be as small as 1,500 square feet.

These small-lot developments—modern-looking cottages that tend, because they're on small lots, to be tall and skinny, with small yards—prompted outrage among neighborhood activists, who called them "megahouses" (in reality, the most controversial of these "megahouses" was about 1,400 square feet) and petitioned the city council to ban them. In response, the council adopted "emergency" legislation prohibiting developers from exploiting the loophole. 

Valdez says Smart Growth Seattle does not oppose the legislation. But, he says, they want the council to amend the city's land-use code to give developers more flexibility to build on smaller lots, and to eliminate the existing so-called "75-80" rule, a complicated regulation that limits development on smaller-than-average single-family lots. 

SGS' proposal would allow houses of any size on lots that are at least 80 percent of the average lot on a particular block. If the average lot is 5,000 square feet, for example, developers could build on lots as small as 4,000 square feet. Smaller lots, meanwhile, would be subject to height limitations—25 feet for lots that are less than 75 percent the size of the block average, and 22 feet for lots that are less than 60 percent the average size. Development on lots smaller than that would be prohibited. 

"This says, we're still going to develop housing in single-family neighborhoods, but we want to work with those neighborhoods," Valdez says. "It creates more predictability and accepts that there’s going to be a height limit."

The council's emergency legislation banning the tall, skinny houses expires next September; at that point, the council will have to revisit the legislation, adopt new regulations, or renew the emergency measure for another year. 

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