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Density, Parking, and Growth: Can Seattle Get It Right?

Cities like Seattle need to accomodate growth and housing in order to protect rural open space. But how do we do it right and end up with a city that is vibrant, healthy, and environmentally sustainable? Seattle mayor Greg Nickels is pursuing an ambitious agenda to remake South Lake Union, increase building heights and density downtown, and modify zoning and parking policies in neighborhood business districts. The Seattle Group Executive Committee is taking a close look at these proposals to ensure that Seattle grows sustainably.

Zoning, Density, and Height

The Mayor's proposed zoning changes affect commercial properties that can be developed for office, retail, or residential uses. In downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, the Mayor proposes increased height and slimmer buildings to accomodate increased density. This means new housing closer to jobs, more walking, and less automobile use. It also means enough people to support demand for transit, retail, and other services that make downtown and adjoining neighborhoods more attractive to live in.

New zoning provides tremendous economic value to landowners downtown, and Seattle needs to recapture some of that value to be dedicated to making the city more livable and environmentally friendly -- through affordable housing, parks, improvements to the Elliott Bay shoreline, and investments in bike and pedestrian improvements. The Mayor is looking to do that, but we want to make sure the deal is struck in the right place. This is the one chance to make sure that increased density brings with it increased environmental sensitivity.

The Mayor is also proposing changes to commercial zoning in neighborhood business districts, to allow greater flexibility in building design, and to allow more ground floor residential uses. The Sierra Club generally supports these changes, because they will increase housing availability and enhance the vitality of neighborhood business districts.


On parking, we are own worst enemy. We love pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, where we can walk to stores, meet our neighbors on the street, get a little exercise, and enjoy the fresh air. At the same time, we expect parking (preferably free) wherever we go. These two objectives are in conflict.

The convenience of driving to big box stores has sapped the life from many of our neighborhood business districts. Subsidizing automobile use over pedestrians or other alternatives leads to greater pollution of the air and water, reduced fitness, and excessive traffic and noise on residential streets. We subsidize parking by requiring new buildings to build more parking spaces and by requiring new businesses opening in new buildings to provide enough parking. These mandated subsidies deter creation of new residential units and discourage occupation of existing vacant storefronts.

The Mayor's proposals generally call for reduction in parking requirements to bring them more in line with market demand. We strongly support these changes and commend Mayor Nickels for tackling this difficult issue.

Green Building

The Sierra Club strongly supports revisions to land use and building codes that encourage or require that new developments are built to the highest green standards, leading to savings in energy and reductions in pollution of the air and water.

For example, "green roofs" (plants on a thin layer of soil) reduce stormwater runoff, insulate the building, and extend roof life. Choosing toxic-free materials improves indoor air quality and health and reduces sick days; building materials can come from sustainably grown forests or from recycling.

The green building movement is gaining strength, as a new generation of environmentally aware developers, architects, and craftspeople begin applying their ingenuity and talent to making buildings last and making them site lightly upon the Earth. The Sierra Club believes that green building needs to be a high priority for the City Council and the Mayor, for all new growth in the city.

For more information, please visit the Seattle city government web pages on center city planning, neighborhood business district strategy, and Lake Union plans.