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The Obsolete Zoning Laws that Leave Downtowns Stagnant

Seattle’s mayor wants to revive the city center by opening much of it to businesses that have long been forbidden. It’s a move toward more lenient zoning that has been gathering steam in other places.

Vacant commercial space in downtown Seattle
A vacant storefront in downtown Seattle. The city’s mayor wants to open up much of the struggling downtown to businesses that have been banned by a century-old form of zoning. (Photo: CommercialSearch)
If you’re looking to go into business on many of the commercial streets in downtown Seattle, there are quite a few things you won’t be allowed to do. You won’t be able to open an arts or crafts studio, a medical office, a research lab, a printing shop or a food processing operation. You might be pleased to learn that a nail salon, a coffee shop or a clothing store would be legal, but that might not be much consolation.

If rules like this sound rather ridiculous, that’s because they are. They are based on the century-old system known in urban planning circles as “Euclidean zoning,” which determines the legality of business uses in designated areas based on what the proprietors do for a living. The idea was to keep downtown streets free of noxious enterprises such as factories and sweatshops that would be a nuisance to nearby residences. As the decades went by, however, the list of proscribed businesses grew in many places beyond the bounds of logic. Seattle was one of those places. The original noxious businesses left downtown long ago.

Seattle’s mayor, Bruce Harrell, is trying to change all that. His ambitious Downtown Activation Plan, unveiled in 2023 and expanded last month, would open much of downtown commercial Seattle to businesses that have been against the law. You could open a greenhouse or a doctor’s office or an art studio, and the city wouldn’t bother you. “Today’s vacant storefront,” Harrell says, “has the potential to become the next thriving restaurant, research lab, art installation, medical office or retail shop that meets the needs of our communities.”

There’s a lot more to Harrell’s vision for downtown Seattle. He wants to transform it into “a thriving residential neighborhood,” a hub for arts and culture, a top destination for visitors, and the home of a new elementary school. He’s working with a public-private partnership called Seattle Restored, which is getting some of its funding from J.P. Morgan Chase. One of their initial goals was to fill as many as 20 vacant storefronts, in part by changing the obsolete permitting rules. Some of their efforts are on the small side: a waiver of permits for food trucks and an evening with drinks allowed on the downtown streets once a month.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that Seattle isn’t a place whose leaders tend to think small. A couple of decades ago, then-Mayor Norm Rice sought to remap the city into a collection of “urban villages,” concentrating future development in designated dense hubs. That plan was never officially adopted, but much of the change Rice envisioned has happened on its own in the ensuing years. More recently, in 2017, Seattle voters approved a massive multi-year transit expansion plan that could cost more than double its initially estimated cost of $53 billion by the time it is completed. Say what you want about Seattle’s leadership — when it comes to planning, they don’t fool around.

The effort to rationalize zoning in downtown Seattle is an attempt to move toward form-based codes, a zoning idea that has begun to gather steam in the last couple of decades, promoted by New Urbanist planners and thinkers. It’s essentially a simple idea: Instead of regulating commercial spaces according to what goes on within them, we should largely forget about uses and regulate design — how well a structure relates to its surroundings and how it works aesthetically. We should pay attention to facades and the public realm.

New as this idea sounded in the 1990s, it actually has a rather long pedigree. The Spanish colonists sought to impose something like it in the cities they built in the western hemisphere. William Penn employed it in designing Philadelphia in the 17th century. Most famously, Baron Haussmann used it in his redesign of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s that made it an orderly, attractive city. Do what you want inside a building, Haussmann was saying — just make sure it looks right on the outside. In contemporary times, form-based codes were demonstrated in the experimental community of Seaside, Fla., in the early 1990s, and the idea has gradually created believers since then.

Some of Seattle’s planners have expressed interest in a different — and much more obscure — planning idea: what is sometimes called the “Gehl door average,” after the Danish architect, Jan Gehl, who promulgated it in his 2010 book Cities for People. Gehl judges the vibrancy of an urban commercial street by the number of doors its installations possess. Ten active doors in the space of 100 meters is considered good. In the words of one disciple of the idea, a high Gehl door average “separates a highly sticky, vibrant and successful commercial block from a boring move-it-along one with few active storefronts.”

READING ABOUT THIS, I can’t help thinking about 55th Street in my old South Side neighborhood in Chicago, a commercial strip crammed with small businesses and doors that were open and inviting most of the time: everything from candy stores to shoe repair shops and toy stores fronting for bookie joints. We will never recreate that site in the 21st century, but it seems demonstrably true that a long block with few doors and blank brick walls fronting the businesses is not likely to pique the interest of passersby and encourage them to remain and explore.

Minneapolis researcher Sam Newberg, who blogs under the name Joe Urban, actually applied the Gehl test to a number of well-known streets in the United States. Times Square in Manhattan and Michigan Avenue in Chicago came out pretty well, averaging between 8 and 13 doors per 100 meters on the Gehl Scale. Nicollet Mall, a busy commercial corridor in Newberg’s hometown, was a disappointment, with a score of less than 5 on most of its blocks. None of those numbers are proof of anything, but they suggest a goal Seattle’s planners might want to consider as they work to recreate downtown vitality.

It’s pretty clear, in any case, that downtown Seattle needs something rather substantial. A recent report from the West Coast real estate firm Kidder Mathews found that Seattle ranked near the bottom among U.S. cities in downtown recovery from the pandemic decline. Office vacancy rates in the city as a whole increased from 16.6 percent in the last quarter of 2023 to more than 18 percent in the first quarter of the new year. The figure for downtown was 23 percent. The Downtown Seattle Association reported that there were more than 85,000 workers in downtown Seattle on an average day — more than in 2023 — but that the number represented only about half of the pre-pandemic level.

WHETHER THE DOWNTOWN ACTIVATION PLAN will foster a significant improvement in those numbers is impossible to predict. We do know, however, that downtown retail revivals are tricky to bring off, with a variety of obstacles blocking their success. Some of them are relatively minor: Brick-and-mortar restaurants resent food cart expansion of the sort Mayor Harrell is proposing in Seattle.

But some of the obstacles are much more fundamental. New York City is a good example of that. The past decade has been a hard time for small retail businesses in the city, especially in the neighborhoods of Manhattan. Some of that is a combined result of COVID and digital shopping, but it is due even more to exorbitant rent increases imposed by landlords, many of whom are having financial trouble themselves. A significant number of them want to replace independent retail with banks and chain drug stores willing to sign long leases. During all this time, the New York City Council has had before it legislation that would place a limit on rent increases and allow retailers to renegotiate expiring leases at a fair price.

This legislation has failed to become law due to intense opposition from the real estate industry. Last year, supporters of regulation produced a milder version, one that would create a Commercial Rent Guidelines Board that could set a limit on annual rent increases. The fate of that effort remains undetermined.

Invoking the New York experience does not guarantee that Seattle’s mayor will face similar problems in his efforts to create a downtown retail revival through regulatory reform. The situations are different. It’s merely a suggestion that changing the rules of urban commercial enterprise can be a more sensitive business than it may seem at first.

When you look at all this in a larger context, it becomes clear that local retail rules and customs shift over time between mixed use and single uses. In the middle of the last century, as Jane Jacobs pointed out eloquently in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban commercial districts were festivals of mixed use, attracting customers of all ages, interests, occupations, schedules and even incomes. Over the ensuing decades, we have lost some of that rich mixture. Bringing it back won’t be easy. But getting rid of obsolete Euclidean zoning where it still exists is a good way to start.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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