Ahoy There Planning Wonks: Tell Us What’s Good or Bad About Seattle’s Multifamily Zoning Update

[ Diagram illustrating proposed affordable housing height bonus ]

The process of updating Seattle’s multifamily zoning code has been underway since 2005, the most recent milestone being the environmental determination of non-significance issued on December 7, 2007. The proposed ordinance will be put before the City Council in Spring of 2008.

I was recently reminded of the update process by the Seattle Community Council Federation (SCCF), which issued an “alert” that was picked by several neighborhood blogs, see here, here, and here. And so I spent a little quality time with SCFF’s screed, as well as with the City’s documents.

To me, the City’s proposed changes seem reasonable and well thought out overall. On the other hand, while I respect SCFF’s intentions, I found much to disagree with in their criticisms. I’m inclined to be a little more restrained than Will at Horse’s Ass, but it was definitely disappointing how SCFF seemed to be so hung up on tired misconceptions about density (this subject deserves its own blog post), and to have such kneejerk negative reactions to new concepts such as the “Green Factor.”

The Squire Park Community Council has also published multifamily update recommendations, which I find to be relatively sensible and well-stated. Their main goals are to preserve existing housing stock, to create smaller, more affordable units, and to create more aesthetically pleasing buildings. To these ends they recommend density bonuses for (1) new units that preserve existing housing, (2) smaller units, and (3) green building, as well parking requirement reductions and the allowance for accessory dwelling units.

Anyhoo, here are a few of my favorite items in the City’s proposed update:

  • zero parking requirement in urban centers
  • height bonus for affordable housing
  • 4-foot fence height limit in front setbacks

Nothing stood out to me as an obviously bad idea (though admittedly, I didn’t exactly linger over the documents — life’s too short, no?). So then, precious wonks who are still reading, what am I missing?

12 Responses to “Ahoy There Planning Wonks: Tell Us What’s Good or Bad About Seattle’s Multifamily Zoning Update”

  1. Bejan

    Yeah I read through it and was pleased. Correct me if I’m wrong but I particularly liked how there is an FAR bonus for partially underground parking in townhome developments. I also liked the revised relief and widow requirements for townhomes. Hopefully this will help to reduce the ugliness of some of these townhomes.

  2. scott

    That graphic you have at the top says it all for me about what’s wrong with the quantitative way we manage development: only five feet for roof pitch. It forces architects to choose between useable space and good aesthetics. We need to free up the requirements so that they can choose interesting roof lines and other features that help these projects fit in with the older homes in the neighborhood.

  3. Gregory Wharton AIA

    The current multi-family code is an unworkable wreck. Everybody seems to know this except some neighborhood activist groups.

    I have been involved in the multi-family code rewrite for most of the last three years. There are a number of key elements that are being addressed in the changes that are significant improvements. In fact, it was a couple of my townhouse projects which prompted DPD to look for ways to change the code to make more projects like them possible (both of them required more than six major code departures in design review to be possible–they would have otherwise been illegal under the current code–and are regularly used by DPD as examples relating to these issues).

    The introduction of FAR criteria in lieu of the old lot coverage/depth/width limitations allows for much more flexibility for designers seeking to create better low-rise developments. Changes in auto access regulations and curb cut restrictions are intended to eliminate the infamous “four-pack” and “six-pack” developments, which are currently being generated by DBZ (design by zoning), are a visual blight on the city, and are creating small, unredevelopable lots which could easily become the “crack houses” of three decades from now.

    The height increase for LRT/L1/L2 brings these zoning categories more closely in line with the rest of the zoning code. Currently, single-family lots have a higher height limit than these three multi-family development zones. The change in the method for height calculation removes the existing penalty developers face if they seek to locate parking partially below grade (i.e. the lower motor court elevation reduces the height limit for the entire project as currently written).

    Revision of the open space requirements will allow the City to better comply with the state Growth Management Act density targets.

    Also, the “no shed roofs” provision in the code is being eliminated, allowing for greater variety in architectural expression. Actually, shed roofs are the best roof form for this climate, shedding rain well and opening one side of the building for greater natural light opportunities.

    Overall, while this version of the proposed code update does not address all of the key issues raised during the re-write process, it contains many significant improvements.

  4. dorian gray

    Looks good. I’m researching it myself. I echo the roof remarks -anyone strolling down avenues in Paris knows the contribution roofs provide -a tradeoff for great architecturally significant roofs (which cost more) should be allowed so long as the project is taking advantage of the code.

    The flat roofs of this city are a sad state and the resultant of a narrow minded code “thou shalt not go above 85 feetith”

  5. Steve

    I went to one of the meetings on these changes, in which some developer mentioned that it was very difficult to build apartments in lowrise zones given the square footage requirements. (I think his comment was something to the effect that he could build a 15-unit building of 600 sq ft 1-bedroom apartments for about the same cost as a 6-unit townhouse structure, but he couldn’t do it under the existing codes because the 600 sq ft units were too small.) The presenter from the city listened politely but let the issue drop. Does anyone here know more about the issue? Is the minimum lot size per unit something that could reasonably be changed?

    Also, with regard to the SCCF’s criticisms (which I similarly thought were well-intentioned but flawed): Has anyone studied the demographics of townhouse buyers? Are they selling to families, in general? Young singles? Young couples? Retirees? All of the above? SCCF’s response had a lot of say about family-friendliness of the city, and I’d be interested to know how accurate their take is.

  6. danb

    Steve, the issue is unit density, and for the new LRT, LR1, and LR2 zones the density max isn’t changed. The new LR3 zone has no unit density max, but instead uses FAR. So unfortunately in all but LR3 zones, small unit apartment buildings are still probably not viable. Apparently people are more concerned about the density of people than the massing or quality of the building that houses them.

    Regarding demographics, in my opinion the concern about families and children is overblown (and I can get away with saying that because I have two small children). In U.S., the fraction of households with children under 18 has dropped to only 22%. That’s a lot of households without children that don’t necessarily need a big house with a yard.

  7. Steve

    Interesting about the unit density details — I’ll need to read the proposal more carefully, I guess. It would seem like just making a change in LR3 is good — about half the multifamily zones in the city are L3 now, if I recall correctly.

    On families with kids: I agree completely that it’s not actually of paramount importance to know what housing types families with kids want given what a small portion of households they are, (and the SCCF argument that nobody wants townhouses is clearly flawed since townhouses are obviously selling to someone) but it would still be interesting to know who does want townhouses, if only for rhetorical purposes (e.g. to give an answer to the hand-wringing crowd over at Crosscut).

  8. Gregory Wharton AIA

    RE: Unit Density

    Although the current unit density limitations do not change, it is nearly impossible under the current code to build out to the density limits since there are so many other requirements that take up space on a lot (unit open space, driveways, etc.).

    A couple of years ago, DPD did a study which showed that only 5% of lowrise multi-family projects were being built out to the code density limits. This wasn’t because developers were unwilling to do so. It was because the other restrictions in the code make it really difficult to accomplish. This fact put the City in danger of being in violation of the state Growth Management Act.

    The proposed code revisions don’t change the density limits, but they do make it much easier to obtain the code-stated densities without making the units virtually uninhabitable.

  9. Some Rules Are Begging To Be Broken | hugeasscity

    […] Given the apparent popularity of bloviations on density such as this, as well as all the recent hyperventilating over proposed changes to Seattle’s multifamily zoning code, it is perhaps surprising that there hasn’t been more of an uproar over the prospect of tinkering with allowed building heights in a residential neighborhood. The short answer is this: 23rd and Union ain’t Wallingford. That intersection has been a gaping wound for so long that most neighbors are probably willing to cut the developer a whole lot of slack. Furthermore, the location of the building is such that it will impact very few surrounding properties. […]

  10. An Open Letter To The Livable Seattle Movement | hugeasscity

    […] In your Multifamily Zoning Update document, you make analogous claims about density causing sprawl, but this time townhouses are the main boogeyman. Your criticisms of townhouse design are spot on, and there is wide agreement in the community that we can do better. But as long as people are living in these townhouses, however badly designed, they are reducing sprawl, not creating it, contrary to what you claim on page 18. Your bogus arguments about sprawl do not serve you well in supporting your case for better townhouse design. […]

  11. If You Want To Understand The Real Reason There Are So Many Sucky Townhouses Going Up… | hugeasscity

    […] …look in the mirror. All those scorn-reaping townhouses are simply a reflection of the state of our culture. There is no alien invasion involved here. Townhouses are financed, designed, built, regulated, bought, and lived in by people who are part of our community. The trouble is, the community is broken. And no amount of building code updates or panel discussions can fix that. […]

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    […]Ahoy There Planning Wonks: Tell Us What’s Good or Bad About Seattle’s Multifamily Zoning Update | hugeasscity[…]…

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