Since the early 1990s, high-density, mixed-use development has been heralded by land use planners as a means to more efficiently use a limited land resource, encourage use of mass transit and reduce automobile travel.
It has taken time, as well as pressure from the real estate market, for most developers and the real estate finance community to embrace the idea of living space above retail and office uses. Many examples of these projects and their innovative living concepts can be seen in various urban and suburban locations throughout the region.
Effective June 10, legislation authorizes Washington state jurisdictions to adopt comprehensive changes "to encourage high-density development, compact, in-fill development and redevelopment within existing urban areas to further existing goals of … the growth management act, to promote the use of public transit and encourage further investment in transit systems and contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases."
The bill, HB 2538, represents the legislature's commitment to provide both public and private incentives for this type of development.
For cities, the bill provides partial local funding to implement comprehensive plan and implementing ordinances. For the development industry, the bill allows local plans to protect developers who comply with these policies by limiting appeals for projects approved under them.
The high-density regulations are not, however, intended for broad application. For Washington cities exceeding 500,000 in population, the regulations may only be applied in urban center areas designated for mixed use, or in areas within a half mile of major transit stops zoned with an average minimum density of at least 15 dwelling units.
As part of the local regulatory process, cities must prepare an impact assessment to address probable significant adverse environmental impacts associated with the regulations. Public funds provided under the bill are inadequate to fund all plans, so some local commitment to this type of development will be required in order for these regulations to become reality. Community meetings would be held as required by the Growth Management Act. And in a positive signal to business, the legislation requires large cities such as Seattle to provide notice to all small businesses located inside and within 150 feet of the boundary of the planning subarea where the regulations are proposed to take effect.
Finally, in addition to the appeal exemption (which lasts until July 1, 2018), the bill provides that after the exemption sunsets, there will be immunity from appeals of applications where a municipality has adopted a qualifying environmental impact assessment by the sunset date. City regulations also may provide for transfer of development rights as an incentive for a developer's decision to protect agricultural and forest land of long-term commercial significance.
The plan changes that will result from the bill will produce mixed use project regulation that makes it clearer what exactly projects must include to secure approvals and, at the same time, limiting a timely and expensive chain of appeals.
On the whole, implementation of this bill will result in better development of our urban core areas.