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Originally published Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 3:58 PM

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Editorial: How to build denser Seattle neighborhoods

Proposals to build suburban-style retail projects in three dense Seattle neighborhoods have triggered an interesting debate about minimum density.

Seattle Times Editorial

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WASHINGTON’S 23-year-old Growth Management Act has effectively saved the green of the Evergreen State by funneling growth into increasingly taller, thicker Seattle and other urban sites.

Until now, developers haven’t needed more incentive to go further up. If anything, the Seattle City Council has been the hammer in a game of developer whack-a-mole, setting maximum-density caps to push building heights down.

But unusual spats in three Seattle neighborhoods suggest the council now has a duty to set a floor as well. Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin has introduced an emergency ordinance, to be heard by the council on Monday, to set minimum-density requirements on projects. It is an intriguing idea, but one that merits further discussion.

Conlin’s ordinance is in response to three proposals by a Michigan developer to build low-rise retail projects, apparently intended for chain-pharmacy stores in Wallingford, Uptown and West Seattle. The three are bland, car-centric, cookie-cutter designs that can be found in any suburban-strip mall in America, but shouldn’t be found in a dense Seattle neighborhood.

The Wallingford site, at the corner of North 45th Street and Meridian Avenue North, is zoned for 40 feet, but the project design calls for a one-and-a-half story structure with a generous parking lot. That drew a packed house of hostile neighborhood residents to a recent city-design review meeting.

The city has an clear interest in channeling growth into urban centers, like Wallingford, Conlin says. Density creates more vibrant, walkable neighborhoods while reducing pressure to up-zone residential areas.

“We’ve established a pretty good cultural preference in Seattle, but companies coming from the outside may not be thinking about that cultural preference,” said Conlin.

Conlin’s ordinance would set immediate rules on minimum requirements while opening a longer, broader rule-making process. It’s a good conversation for Seattle to have.

Ironically, the three projects which inspired this conversation would likely be vested under existing zoning rules and therefore exempt. But the neighborhoods seemed prime for a good, righteous fight.

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