Preference for alleys becoming an issue with developers

The city
The city's preference for alleys, like this one in North Renton, has become an issue for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.
— image credit: Tracey Compton, Renton Reporter

The Master Builder’s Association of King and Snohomish Counties is taking issue with the City of Renton’s preference for alleys as part of larger developments.

The issue surfaced this week during the City Council’s Planning and Development Committee meeting and then again during the public comment portion of the City Council meeting Monday night.

Representatives for the MBA, representing a member builder, is challenging the interpretation of the city code that calls alley access the “preferred street pattern” in Renton.

According to Planning Director Chip Vincent, the city prefers alleys for four reasons: Public safety, pedestrian access, aesthetics and because Renton is an older city built on an established grid pattern using alleys.

But the MBA is arguing that in areas outside of the downtown core, the alleys are not as necessary or desirable because they do not connect to a larger system. In addition, they dispute the public safety aspect.

But the larger issue to the MBA is that the builder they represent believes buyers do not want alleys, favoring larger lots with front access.

“Alleys just don’t sell compared to the rest of the units,” said Garrett Huffman, Seattle and South King County manager for the MBAKS. “Homeowners are looking for a yard.”

In addition the builder they represent would have to do additional engineering to make their homes fit with alleys and would result in fewer houses being built.

“The builder doesn’t have an alley-loaded product,” he said, adding “Our contention is when you put the alley requirement in . . . you can’t put as many lots in the development.”

According to Huffman, it also means fewer amenities in the houses because the price point for the builder has to remain the same.

The MBA is also challenging the administrative interpretation of the code that led to a project being sent back for re-design to include alleys.

The code presently reads “Alley access is the preferred street pattern except for properties in the Residential Low Density land use designation. . . . Prior to approval of a plat without alley access, it shall be determined through an evaluation of alley layout that the use of alley(s) is not feasible.”

It is the word “preference” that is hanging up the MBA. Because alleys are “preferred” and not “required,” the MBA wants more flexibility in its designs.

“We don’t understand it,” Huffman said.

Vincent said the code does provide flexibility, but alleys are still “preferred.” Vincent said the case at hand is over a 22-acre parcel of land on which the company is looking to build. Vincent said they have seen multiple designs for the property, mainly with homes around the outside and two blocks in the middle. In some designs, the middle island have alleys while the outside ring does not. In the design currently supported by the MBA, there are no alleys in the middle islands.

Vincent said the alley requirement is not new and the city requires them for all projects for which it makes sense but said they never required alleys in 100 percent of homes.

“We’ve got a lot of history (with alleys),” he said.

But Vincent is recommending a change in the city’s code to clarify and further define the preference.

In the proposed code change, it clearly states alleys are preferred for “all new residential development,” except the-low density areas. It also states, “New development in areas without existing alleys shall utilize alley access on interior lots” unless it is not “practical,” a change from “feasible” in the current code.

Vincent said the language simply clarifies the city’s administrative interpretation.

“Were not changing our policy,” he said, saying the re-written section is designed to “put a finer point on defining what is practical and what is reasonable.”

Huffman said prior to the current issue, there has been no enforcement of the alley requirement, which Vincent disputes.

“We don’t have a problem with alleys; we want to put them where they make sense,” Huffman said. “Don’t force them into a situation where it hurts us more than it helps us.”

Initially, the Planning and Development Committee hoped the issue could be taken care of between the applicant and the city, but once it came up during the council meeting, committee chair Rich Zwicker immediately moved the issue be placed on a Committee of the Whole agenda so the whole council could discuss it.

The motion was passed unanimously and it will appear on the agenda in the near future.


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