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Encouraging Innovative Infill and Reuse
Alex Steffen, 14 Oct 09

Over on Ideas for Seattle, a new civic site designed to draw forward ideas for improving this city, I put forward an idea which so far has failed to capture the imagination of my neighbors, but which I thought some Worldchanging readers might find interesting:

Our city is full of vacant lots and unused buildings: odd-shaped parcels, light rail left-overs, half-abandoned strip malls and big box stores. Many of these unloved spaces have characteristics or problems that prevent economically viable development under current rules and regulations.

At the same time, our city also abounds in un- and under-employed architects, designers, engineers, landscape architects, planners and builders. They're the folks who will be building the Seattle of tomorrow, but right now, many of them do not have jobs that let them learn, stretch their talents and acquire experience being innovative problem solvers.

Finally, our city is crying out for more compact development and infill housing to build transit-supportive and sustainable densities and walkable communities. The thousands of neglected pieces of land in our city sap the vitality of our neighborhoods and usually offer almost no ecological or aesthetic benefits.

Why not take a shot at solving all three problems at once by taking the worst places in our city and putting talented people to work transforming them into vital (or at very least interesting) places, places that reknit neighborhoods and help bring our city up towards sustainable densities?

Create a special set of rules for unloved lots and buildings that allow quick spot zoning changes, innovation-friendly permitting and tax incentives for building on weird un-developed (even undevelopable) properties and for converting old buildings in new ways into productive spaces. Give away leases on all that weird surplus government property. Use forceful facilitation to get projects onto on long-abandoned polluted sites or sites with difficult slopes. Give students something real to work on. Hold competitions and design sprints. Partner with the homeless. Do everything possible to take the thousands of fallow spaces in our city and make them grow new possibilities, now, without delay.

Encourage new approaches. Let people try building small treehouse towers on supersmall lots, converting big box stores to live-work lofts, ripping up abandoned parking lots to stack container studios, catalevering housing pods over hillsides or whatever else they can dream up and pull together. As long as it won't fall down and hurt anyone, and meets minimal health codes, let 'em try it.

Get our young urban visionaries (of whatever chronological age) making things! Repair the urban fabric. Brush aside the NIMBYs and the change-adverse. Reverse the Seattle Inertia. Iterate and evolve and then correct mistakes. Take some risks for a change.

It's time to plant some new thinking in this town. Let 1,000 micro-towers bloom!

Reactions? Anybody seen an idea like this at work in the world out there? Any good models?

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Many interesting ideas, but I would be cautious regarding some of them.
Critical areas regulations prohibit building on geologically hazardous slopes for good reason and incursion or clearing of setbacks often leads to increased slide potential. Cantilevered designs mean vegetation removal and shading, once again this will increase slope instability.

I would be leery of any proposal that converts business or industrial zones to residential. It is vitally important that we maintain these zoning designations, the cites tax revenues/budgets depend on them. In addition people need employment opportunities near where they live so we can have the walkable, bikeable landscape we want. Mixed use development in business zones would be a good way to increase densities while maintaining employment potential. Kirland's downtown is a good model if your looking for one.

Brownfield development is being done in many places around the region. Development of the ASARCO site in Tacoma is a good example. The vexing problem is long term liability for health effects and pollutant migration from the site. It is very expensive so incentives need to be adequate to attract a risk taker.
"Forcefully facilitation" is an interesting phrase, curious as to what that means and how it would work. Are you contemplating a city permit person or office that can bypass code requirements or just a streamlining of processes?
NIMBY's, neighborhood councils are their power base. In my opinion they are the biggest obstacle to increasing urban density. How would you handle this one? Mayor's have tried and their political corpses litter the battle field.

Sorry to delve into details, but it is my way.

Posted by: Tony Peacock on 14 Oct 09

Good cautions, all. This is the one I'd question the most:

"leery of any proposal that converts business or industrial zones to residential. It is vitally important that we maintain these zoning designations, the cites tax revenues/budgets"

I think the ideas that a) our economy is powered by dirty manufacturing that needs to be protected and b) that what goes on in live-work lofts is not "business" -- if those are what you mean -- are both outdated.

Ideas, expertise and services dominate our economy here (and in most developed world cities) already; I think in the very near future, they will also swallow some of what we think of as "industry" and "retail" now and become even more central in the process.

But yes, your last point is the most important: need to break the deadlock that prevents innovation...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 14 Oct 09

I think I should have used the term commercial zoning as a catchall. My intent was to point out that this type of zoning once lost is hard if not impossible to replace. I agree that the types of urban business we attract need to reflect the realities of a new green economy.

Posted by: Tony Peacock on 15 Oct 09

NIMBY's are not so easy to "brush aside" these days.

In my town they have organized against 3-story mixed-use commercial boulevard buildings by forming a citizen's group to "protect scenic views".

They got an initiative on the ballot that would form a commission to create another "view" overlay on the zoning map to control building heights... with the majority of the commissioners to be appointed by the directors of this citizen's group.

The means by which they got 10,000 signatures for the ballot initiative were ruthlessly dishonest. The local paper gladly printed their "opinion" pieces claiming that tall buildings kill birds, cause global warming and "pave the sky". They also piggybacked their signature gathering with one of those perennial "Stop government from taking people's private property" initiatives, funded by millionaires to kill off rent-control.

So be warned, the people who live next door to the infill sites are going to push back. Some of them are politically savvy and they're willing to monkey-wrench the entire city planning process to protect they property values or the privacy of their back yards.

"New Urbanism" is a dirty word to these folks, and architects and planners are "elitists, who think they know better than everybody else".

The citywide election will be on Nov 4th. I think it's going to be very close. Everybody is in favor of "scenic views". It's much harder to sell the abstract concept of compact, walkable cities organized for public transportation.

Posted by: John on 15 Oct 09

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