Upzoning Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods could provide crucial ‘communal space’

Dec 20, 2021, 8:02 AM | Updated: 11:17 am
Seattle single-family zoning...
An apartment complex in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. (MyNorthwest photo)
(MyNorthwest photo)

Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled a proposal last week to allow denser housing near major transit centers across the state’s large cities. But does that go far enough?

Slate writer Henry Grabar — who penned a feature on upzoning in early December — spoke with KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross to detail how cities like Seattle could benefit by reimagining their approach to single-family areas.

Seattle bid to end single-family zoning label designed to ‘reflect reality’

Seattle’s own battle over upzoning revolves around an age-old debate, where those living in areas zoned for single-family homes have traditionally pushed back against attempts to allow apartments in their quiet neighborhoods.

According to Grabar, though, it’s those quiet neighborhoods that could stand to benefit most from denser housing.

“If you look back in a city like Seattle that’s grown a lot recently, you have early examples from the 1920s,” he described. “We have blocks that have houses and small apartment buildings side by side, and it wasn’t the end of the world.”

“There’s an argument to be made that living on a block like that can be a communal space,” Grabar continued. “It can be a place where more residents means more people participating in a block organization, more people contributing at a block party, more kids who are able to play together, in someone’s front yard. Adding people to the block does not have to be viewed automatically as a negative thing on an aesthetic or a community level.”

Grabar also believes there could be a significant benefit to renters as well, given that, currently, they’re “required to live along some of the busiest streets in the city.”

“Everything we know about air pollution and its effects on physical and mental health suggests that these corridors … are extremely unhealthy places to live,” he noted “We have six lanes of traffic moving day and night, and these corridors are also usually freight routes, so you have big trucks going by.”

Seattle and Tacoma weigh changes to single-family zoning

Seattle’s own approach has largely been similar to what Gov. Inslee is proposing, with incoming Mayor Bruce Harrell’s priorities centering on denser housing near transit centers. Moving forward, Grabar hopes cities like Seattle might consider an alternative approach.

“While I understand the logic behind transit-oriented development, the development can still be transit oriented if it’s one or two blocks away from the bus route. You do not need to live above the bus to be in a transit-oriented development,” he pointed out. “And in fact, living above the bus is maybe not a choice for everybody. Perhaps it’s a choice for somebody who values that convenience, but maybe it’s not a choice for somebody who has a young child who gets woken up easily by the noise of a diesel bus, grinding up the hill outside.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

Dave Ross on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM
  • listen to dave rossTune in to KIRO Radio weekdays at 5am for Dave Ross on Seattle's Morning News.

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Upzoning Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods could provide crucial ‘communal space’