A brief history of Seattle’s anti-urban zoning

mike eliason
5 min readMar 1, 2018


In July of 1923, Seattle City Council passed its first zoning ordinance — the Comprehensive Plan — a document that set Seattle on a crash course with our present housing crisis. It was a policy rooted in exclusion and segregation. Its current iteration is not the zoning plan of a rapidly growing 21st century city — but one of shoveling multifamily dwellings into narrow slivers of land while preserving sprawl. Subsequent downzones, and the 1990s neighborhood planning that gerrymandered many of the urban villages, a process that 96% of Seattle’s present population were not participants in, have exacerbated Seattle’s housing crises.

The comprehensive plan was a product of Harland Bartholomew’s office. Bartholomew was the chief planner of St. Louis, who, in 1919, designed racial zoning without explicitly mentioning race:

‘According to Bartholomew, a St. Louis zoning goal was to “preserv[e] the more desirable residential neighborhoods,” and to prevent movement into “finer residential districts … by colored people.”
(source: http://www.epi.org/publication/making-ferguson/#epi-toc-5).

This was just months before he was brought on to consult on Seattle’s comprehensive plan. In 1922, concurrent with Seattle’s zoning ordinance, Bartholomew was working on the comprehensive plan for Memphis. Roger Biles wrote in Memphis: In the Great Depression,
‘Bartholomew’s efforts also resulted in the adoption of a comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1922. While it sought to demarcate areas of industry, commerce, and residence, the ordinance additionally reflected the desire of the elite to maintain existing patterns of racial segregation… Recognizing that these informal boundaries might shift or that a growing black population might spill over into heretofore white neighborhoods, the strict application of zoning laws, particularly having to do with dwelling standards, went a long way toward preserving the exclusivity of white enclaves’

Bartholomew’s office worked on the comprehensive plans for hundreds of cities — including many on the west coast, such as Vancouver, that are dominated by single family zoning, sprawl, and severe housing crises. Bartholomew was also a proponent of planning wide boulevards to accommodate drivers living in the suburbs who would be driving to work.

So pre-1923 comprehensive plan, Seattle’s land use code allowed multifamily dwellings and detached houses everywhere framed buildings were allowed. It should be noted that the 1923 comprehensive plan also didn’t entail any planning — it was largely an exercise in documenting existing land uses and using those patterns to determine what the zoning should be. What could go wrong?

The 1923 ordinance saw the introduction of single family zoning in Seattle. The ordinance, a pithy 22 pages, divided the city into separate use districts: first residence district, second residence district, business, commercial, manufacturing, and industrial districts. The ‘first residence district,’ permitted: single family dwellings, public schools, churches, and parks . Boarding houses were legal, if supervised by corresponding institution. The definition of dwelling at this juncture was now, ‘a detached building designed for and occupied by one family only.’

The ‘second residence district’ permitted: any use permitted in first district (I suspect this is one of the reasons there are so many single family zones on lots zoned low-rise), dwellings, flats, apartments, boarding or lodging houses, and hotels. The business district also permitted what was allowed in first & second residence districts.

The city was also divided into height districts: 40' (3 full stories), 65', 80', 100', and maximum height. Most of the first and second residential areas are zoned as 40'. The max height today for single family zones is 35' (30' if flat roof). Subsequent revisions to the comp plan made what was legal to build in 1923 even harder to build. This is how we slow walk into a housing crisis.

There were also area districts of A-D. Most of the single family zoning was in District A, which had a lot coverage of 35% (which still exists to this day) or 45% for corner lots. It introduced setbacks that were larger than existed under the previous land use code — 15' minimum for rear yard, 3' minimum for side yards (it’s 5' minimum today). The regulations on front yards varied, but if 35% of property on a block face were dwellings 10'or more away from the front lot line, then all new homes would require a 25' setback (the front yard setback is 20' today).

The 1923 zoning and use/height maps actually show much more land for ‘second residence district’ than we have zoned for multifamily today. Much of this land — including a significant percentage of land in the Central District, Wallingford, Ballard, West Woodland, Magnolia, and West Seattle was downzoned in further revisions to the comprehensive plan. The Sightline Institute has a really good graphic mapping the long slow march of most of Seattle’s multifamily land being eliminated for single family zoning.

Parking was not required in the 1923 zoning ordinance, but it shows up bigtime through the 90s. The combination of downzones, increased setbacks, reduced height limits and increased parking requirements that popped up in the 70s and 80s eliminated many of the more affordable forms of multifamily dwellings. The parking reforms presently being debated by City Council move the needle a little closer to where things were in 1923, and that’s a good thing for the city.

The 1947 comprehensive plan further segregated residential uses by splitting up the 1923’s ‘second residence district into ‘two family district’ and ‘second residence district’. This had the effect of downzoning large swaths of land zoned for multifamily housing into duplexes.

The 1957 plan segregated both single family and multifamily dwellings (this is where the SF5000, SF7200, SF9600 designations originate). Much more of the multifamily land at this time was downzoned to single family — as well as additional downzones by segregating multifamily into even more use categories.

In less than 35 years, Seattle went from no residential use segregation with multifamily buildings being legal wherever housing was legal, to 8 segregated residential categories with multifamily buildings being illegal in most of the city. Today, single family zoning is 80.3% of the land where housing is legal. We’ve made multifamily dwellings illegal in 90% of the city’s total land area. We have more area dedicated to golf courses than we have vacant or re-developable land for 6-story multifamily housing. Seattle’s housing crisis is self inflicted, and directly related to its land use (abuse!) patterns. Until we start to address that (which HALA does), we will continue to see rising rents, rising housing costs, and deepening inequality.



mike eliason

dad | designer | writer | Noted shill for housing. interests: Baugruppen, architecture, passivhaus, mass timber, staedtebau, not for profit housing