Monday, December 13, 2010

A short history of CORA's Multi-family zoning initiative

CORA began participating the the development of the the Multi Family Update back in March 2007, when we invited DPD to one of our monthly seminars to present what was then the rough draft (the first of many) of the MFU. We had a lively discussion, sent DPD some notes outlining our various criticisms, and I suppose that could have been that.

In the summer of 2007, CORA members were invited to participate in a series of professional focus groups that were used to get input & feedback from design professionals. In retrospect, I wonder if it was the act of being invited by the city that got us to thinking of ourselves as being "involved" in this enterprise.

In early 2008, the process started to heat up. The draft of the legislation at that time combined a simplified, more flexible code, with a series of new design standards, intended to raise the bar on some of the worst outcomes that we were seeing at the time. This new approach was known as "Flexibility Within Limits." Feedback from community groups was lukewarm at best. They were suspicious, both of the efficacy of the language, and of the intent. They were convinced that it must be, all things considered, a giveaway to development interests.

Rumors were flying that neighborhood opposition was fairly stiff & that the multi-family update might be dead-on-arrival. CORA met in March 2008 to discuss stepping up our involvement. Consensus was reached that although the legislation was not perfect, it was a major step forward. We decided to become advocates for the proposal. We put together a presentation for the council & community groups to explain why the code needed to be changed, and how a new code would help facilitate better outcomes.

June 2008, CORA made its first public presentation at a city council meeting titled "Townhouses: Can the Patient be Saved". It was a lively & well attended public meeting that sent a clear message: Citizens were fed up with the explosion of low-quality development that had transformed their neighborhoods. Design professionals and developers alike delivered the message that the prime culprit in producing the poor outcomes was the code itself.

At the same time, as CORA became more familiar with the legislation, concerns were growing within our group that the current "flexibility within limits" approach to the code was both insufficiently flexible and relatively easy to abuse. We decided to start from scratch and make a proposal of our own. We held a design charrette at the UW School of Architecture to brainstorm "best outcomes" for small multi-family projects that we would then use to "reverse-engineer" a multi-family zoning code for Seattle.

Two weeks after the charrette, Mayor Nickels announced that a new feature would be added to the MFU - mandatory design review for all townhouses. Our group did a quick about-face, scuttled the the "start-from-scratch" plan and returned to our original direction: Educating the public about the MFU and showing them examples of better outcomes that would be enabled by a more flexible code. Over the next year we presented to more than two dozen community and professional organizations.

In January 2009, Mayor Nickels delivered his draft legislation to the City Council. At the time, the hope was that it would become law by the summer. In April 2009 CORA was asked to present at a round-table of stakeholders to present our critique of the legislation. In July, the council held a pair of public hearings out in the neighborhoods. Opposition to the legislation was negligible. By all appearances the legislation was on-track.

Later that month, we sat down for a scheduled meeting with Councilmember Sally Clark. Our agenda was laid out to go over a series of final tweaks to the legislation. CM Clark let us know that the agenda was moot. Her committee was in revolt. Weeks of hearings had left her fellow committee members thoroughly confused about what the legislation would do. They could not buy off on the premise that it would do no more harm than good. We proposed that they do a Black Hat / White Hat exercise: Do a series of designs, some of which exploit the flexibility of the new code to produce good design, some of which exploit the flexibility of the code for maximum economic gain. this would allow council members to see the various gating mechanisms in the code at work and allow the to identify any loopholes that needed to be closed. In the end the council invited three teams to participate: One from CORA, one from the Master Builders of King County, and one from a loose coalition of neighborhood groups.

In Sept 2009, CORA presented Black Hat/White Hat to the city council. It was an eye-opener for one and all. It showed many proposals with great potential, but also exposed a number of loopholes and mis-incentives that needed to some re-thinking. The code would need more than just some minor tweaking. It would need to have a major overhaul. The timetable for passage would have to wait until next year.

In February 2010, work began again in earnest. A series of significant revisions was presented that addressed our earlier criticisms and was in many ways more ambitious than the previous draft. It was a much more earnest attempt to allow a broad range of housing types, increase design quality, & create structures within the code that incentivized behavior that align with the foals of the legislation.

In April 2010, draft legislation was published reflecting this new direction. In May 2010 a SEPA DNS decision was announced. It was promptly appealed by the Seattle Community Council Federation. The managed to extend the appeal process through October 2010, but in the end, the appeal was denied and the legislation moved forward.

November 30, 2010, COBE passed the legislation 3-0 out of committee and scheduled a full council vote.

December 13, 2010 The full council passed the MFU by a vote of 9-0.

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