Rethinking the Fairness of Zoning Bonuses and POPS

The issue of fairness comes up a lot of public policy. Inherent in the classical notion of a “public” is a sense of sharing and unity which connects members of society despite all the inherent disparities of real life. The issue of access to public open space is rife with questions of fairness. How much public space are people entitled to? How should it be distributed? Who should pay for it?

The City of Seattle has struggled with this issue, particularly as it relates to the various privately-owned public spaces (POPS) scattered throughout the city. POPS are the result of one of the city’s well-established (although somewhat controversial) regulatory tools: the zoning bonus. This tools gives developers the option of adding stories in excess of the zoning limits in exchange for adding public amenities like parks and plazas. In theory this arrangement creates a win-win situation wherein the developer can extract more value from their property and the public gains valuable open space.

In practice, however, the picture is not quite so rosy. In 2000 local urban design firm MAKERS was commissioned to study the condition Seattle’s downtown public spaces. That report suggested that the majority of these spaces had been reappropriated by the building owners or had been poorly maintained. In either scenario, they were no longer serving the public as intended.

How might an understanding of fairness be used to rectify this problem? The initial concept of a zoning bonus has a clear foundation in fairness: the developers get taller buildings and the public gets open spaces. The problem arises in the implementation where developers are treating the spaces as if they were private or aren’t maintaining the spaces the way they should and in response the public stops using them. Perhaps it is just is the nature of building owners to maximize use of their building while minimizing (or prioritizing) maintenance costs. If that’s true then policy tool itself is inherently flawed and should be adandoned. But perhaps the problem lies in the absence of a clear benefit to the owner in maintaining the spaces. The benefit is clear when during the design review phase, but once the building is built this benefit may become less apparent and taken for granted. After all, the city can’t take away the extra stories if the public spaces aren’t maintained. In this case, it may seem unfair to the building owners that they must continually host these public amenities.

If that’s true, then there is a kernel of hope that this problem can be resolved. The key is to re-establish the fairness of the situation for both parties. What if the city allocated some portion of the future zoning bonuses dollar value to maintaining an accessible POPS directory? The city currently hosts a google maps of all the downtown POPS on the DPD website, but this list is missing opportunities on multiple levels. If the directory were made more accessible by publishing it across a variety of platforms (e.g. its own webpage, an app, printed maps on kiosks, inclusion in downtown flyers, etc.) then awareness and usage would increase. The greater the demand, the more potential there would be to celebrate the hosts of these public spaces (read: advertising). This solution makes it clear what benefit both parties get from the continued operation of the public spaces, which appeals to the sense of fairness even if the advertising revenue is not enough to cover the costs of maintenance. By reestablishing the value and sense of fairness to both parties, this approach or something similar has a better chance of achieving the desired effect in the long run.

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