Opinion: Form-Based Codes Could Harm Seattle’s Housing Affordability

Form-based zoning codes can encourage mixed-use development and walkable neighborhoods, but focusing too much on aesthetic elements can drive up the cost of housing.

2 minute read

July 27, 2023, 12:00 PM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Writing in The Urbanist, Ryan DiRaimo explains form-based codes, which Seattle is exploring as part of the city’s effort to reform its zoning code.

According to DiRaimo, “The great thing about a form-based code is that it allows things like coffee shops, bookstores, corner stores, and small retail to mix in with the neighborhoods previously zoned exclusively for residential. With a form-based code’s flexibility for land-use, we can finally have vibrant, walkable neighborhoods again.”

However, DiRaimo warns, “where a form-based code fails is when it is used to mandate aesthetic details that have little impact on improving the quality of the public realm—the very purpose of form-based code’s existence.” Pointing to a recently passed state bill, DiRaimo writes that regulating design and aesthetics too much can be “overly prescriptive” and discourage creativity in design.

“With the clock running out on Seattle’s planning process, there is a deep concern that form-based code adoption will include prescriptive design regulations because it’s an established element of the code according to a consultant who has already completed a template.” For DiRaimo, “The eclectic mix of different styles of buildings is what makes Seattle neighborhoods interesting and desirable,” and reviewing every small aesthetic detail won’t improve affordability. 

“We need fewer rules and better processes,” DiRaimo concludes. “And since housing is almost never a charity, the aesthetic rules will only kill building plans, limit housing supply, and segregate who can afford to move into the neighborhood.”

Wednesday, July 26, 2023 in The Urbanist

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