Seattle ‘Regulatory Reform’ could push mixed-use deeper into Capitol Hill

Inside a sprawling set of legislation designed to overhaul the laws Seattle uses to regulate growth and development is a plan that would impact Capitol Hill’s residential, business and restaurant environment like nowhere else in the city. For some, the proposal to open more of the neighborhood to mixed-use development — putting restaurants and stores mid-block in areas that are now entirely residential — is the stuff of urban planning dreams. Others are asking where we draw the line when it comes to mixing business and every day life.


“Here we have a proposal supposed to improve and make neighborhood more sustainable,” Capitol Hill resident and City Council staff member Rebecca Herzfeld tells CHS. “I think we already have that. Way more than other parts of the city. What’s so special is we have multifamily areas not just strung out along arterials. But it’s all residential and walkable. That’s so rare.”

A hearing on Seattle’s Regulatory Reform package is scheduled for March 27th in front of the City Council’s planning and land use committee. The goals of the reforms are efficiency and economics:

To spark innovation and entrepreneurial investment, and make it easier for businesses to be sustainable, the City is pursuing opportunities to reduce red tape and encourage job growth while enhancing our commitment to the environment. Over time, some of the City’s regulations have become outdated, or redundant. Now is the time to update the regulations.

Included in the 67-page ordinance is an amendment designed to “allow more flexibility for commercial uses to be located in multifamily zones,” according to the Director’s Report on the legislation (PDF): 

  • Allow ground-floor commercial uses in Lowrise 2 and 3 (LR2 and LR3) zones that are within urban centers or station area overlays (with permitted uses and standards similar to those in Midrise and Highrise zones)
  • Apply a maximum size per business of 2,500 square feet, and limit outdoor uses after 10:00 p.m., in LR2 and LR3
  • Extend the capability for ground-floor commercial uses in MR zones (no longer limited to places within 800 feet of an NC zone)
  • About 2,300 acres, or 5 percent of the city’s land area is zoned LR2 and LR3 and only about 20 percent of that area is located in an urban center or station area overlay. See the LR2 and LR3 Zones Map, where the proposal would allow ground-floor commercial uses.

    The commercial uses would be limited to a set including services, restaurants and cafes — no bars or taverns. You can see a list in a document prepared by Herzfeld, here. Currently, the commercial uses are restricted to midrise and higher zoning areas. And, yes, the new zoning would apply to existing structures within those zones, DPD planning staff tells CHS.

    The proposed set of code overhauls was set in motion by a City Council resolution last spring that set up a framework for changes to Seattle’s regulatory structure to boost the economy and create more jobs in the city. City planners then worked with “a roundtable of business, environmental, and neighborhood leaders” to craft seven proposals that range from raising the number of living units a development must contain before triggering an environmental review to codifying home-based businesses.

    Capitol Hill, for the most part, is a hot-mess celebration of mixed-use. For as much as it can be a drag — loud drunks, loud smoking drunks and loud drunks — the frothy mix of commerce and life is a big part of why we’ve chosen our respective places in the neighborhood. The lowrise commercial amendment could change that by extending the ability for developers to create mixed-use structures in areas off Broadway and commercial strips like 15th Ave E. The amendment — let’s call it the Volunteer Park Cafe amendment — has the ability to put Capitol Hill’s good nature about its frothy commercial mix to the test.

    “This proposal would damage both business districts and residential areas, and is not needed to make the Capitol Hill neighborhood sustainable,” Herzfeld wrote in an example letter to City Council planning and land use chair Richard Conlin.

    Before you bring out the NIMBY grenades, Herzfeld is the kind of neighbor a community might need to wrap itself around legislation like this. It’s a deep set of proposed laws. As a member of City Council staff, Herzfeld decided to put her Capitol Hill residency first and recuse herself from any dealings around the legislation in City Hall.

    Future cafe?

    She might be most concerned about the loss of the residential nature of areas on Capitol Hill but she also makes valid points about the existing areas of concentrated business activity. Do you see retail on Broadway as half-empty? Or half-full? (OK, 25% empty? Or 75% full?). There is more inventory coming to Broadway — lots of it — does it really need to compete with Federal Ave E?

    While it’s a citywide set of laws, with the requirements around “urban centers” and “station area overlays,” Capitol Hill holds the lion’s share of the land where the new zoning laws would be applicable. There are also opportunities the amendment creates that most anybody could get behind — more cafes on the edge of Cal Anderson Park, for example. The Regulatory Reform package also has other potentially interesting amendments for Capitol Hill including a loosening of the rules around temporary uses to be more “micro-business” and pop-up friendly.

    The City Council hearing on the reform legislation is scheduled for Wednesday, March 28.

    The City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee will hold a public hearing to take comments on the proposal on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 in City Council Chambers, 2ndfloor, Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Avenue. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. The entrances to City Hall are located on the west side of Fifth Avenue, and the east side of Fourth Avenue, between James and Cherry Streets. For those who wish to testify, a sign-up sheet will be available outside the Council Chamber at 9:00 am on the day of the hearing.

  • City Regulatory Reform site
  • Draft Ordinance (PDF)
  • Director’s Report (PDF)
  • Herzfeld’s report and example letter to Conlin
  • You can provide written feedback by emailing committee chair Conlin.

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47 thoughts on “Seattle ‘Regulatory Reform’ could push mixed-use deeper into Capitol Hill

  1. Having lived on Capitol Hill and First Hill for 20 some years, I see all of these sustainable development mixed use monstrosities as having ruined what used to be a nice place to live.
    Because of that, my wife and I are buying a 3000 sq ft. house in the suburbs on a large lot because Seattle has become too crowded. We are also going to buy a second car and a pickup truck.

  2. I’ve lived on the hill for about 12 years and I disagree. I used to have a condo on Summit and Republican and really enjoyed having the small business strip in the middle of an otherwise residential neighborhood, with cafes, mini marts, and bars. Now I live at Olive and Bellevue, and I like it even more. I don’t discount that there are some people who want to have a quiet and residential only neighborhood, but generally speaking I don’t think that’s appropriate for the area west of 15th. I bet less than 10% of the people in my building actually own cars, so for them it’s a quality of life issue to have services and entertainment within a short walk of where they live.

  3. Mixed-use is great, but I don’t understand how this change in regulation is supposed to help businesses be more sustainable. There are plenty of vacant spaces in the existing Pike/Pine, Broadway and 15th corridors, and I fail to see how adding even more businesses into the mix (in areas that will have far less existing foot traffic) is supposed to do anything to help existing small businesses thrive.

    I’d love to know what the impetus for this suggested change was (aside from Volunteer Park Cafe, potentially). I just don’t see the need for it; the Hill is already walkable enough, and seems to have plenty of mixed-use spaces as it is.

  4. And once the light rail station is complete, more people will be attracted to the area, providing support for even more businesses. This is, I assume, all part of the Urban Village concept, concentrating growth around transportation hubs.

  5. I think of some of the highly residential Cap Hill streets with some businesses – 12th north of Pike/Pine (Chungee’s, the sandwich place and the coffee place), Summit (Top Pot, Summit Public House) – and want to say this is a great idea. Except I can see the type of development this will encourage – more big, boxy, fugly buildings with retail spaces priced for upscale yuppies spots that are already saturating the Hill.

    What makes the type of residential-area retail spots work is that they are really designed for the people who already live on that block – and others through word of mouth, sure, but the survival of the business doesn’t necessarily require the majority of the clientele to come from somewhere else. New development retail will have to pull in people from other areas to make it profitable – and then you end up with another VPC situation.

  6. You hit the nail on the head and drove it in.

    These existing pocket business areas fit in with the neighborhood around them. Top Pot, that pizza place, the Summit, the Lookout, etc over there just work with the area. Thomas Street Bistro fits where it is. VPC fits where it is. The biggish strip on 19th fits where it is. Even the Redwood/bodega fit where they live.

    The sad part of the new development is that it’s being constructed with bringing in affluence and pricing out the current population in mind. Large open retail frontage brings chains that don’t mesh or expensive gyms or restaurants that most of us cannot afford to visit.

    Don’t get me wrong. Density is good. Change is good. All within reason though. Most of us were drawn to this neighborhood for it’s character, it’s “charm”, it’s weirdness.

    I’d embrace more residential/business blending, but at a scale set for the surrounding areas. Of course we, or the city, cannot dictate the sort of businesses that open on the hill, and we shouldn’t, but designing buildings with smaller or more interesting looking retail spaces breeds future institutions. Unfortunately, most of the money and development ideas (minus Liz Dunn – she is amazing) are coming from outside of the city, period. Big Eastside firms want to make the hill attactive to people who will live here, drive across I-90, work in DT Bellevue, and thus spend most of their time there.

  7. There aren’t many places in the United States where you can actually live without a car. Seattle is “sort of” there right now, but Capitol Hill, SLU, Pioneer Square (which is slowly being re-colonized), and Denny Triangle are leading the way.

  8. To call this the “Volunteer Park Cafe amendment,” as suggested in the post, could be misleading. The proposal doesn’t try to change the rules prohibiting new retail space in single-family home residential zones, such as the “SF5000” one VPC is in. The restaurant’s building is permitted to have retail space because a store had existed there since 1905, before residential zoning existed.

    BTW, this proposal does affect SF5000 zones (which cover much of central and north Capitol Hill east of 15th Ave) by relaxing restrictions on home-based businesses. (There are limits dealing with number of employees, advertising, etc.). The proposal would also make it easier to create “mother-in-law” apartments and cottages.

  9. It’s very, very difficult to enjoy all of our wonderful outdoors (presumably part of the reason why many of us are here) without ready access to a car. I bet that Zipcar don’t provide tire chains, and probably don’t want you driving down the dirt roads to many of our trailheads. And you probably don’t want to leave a shiny new rental car at deserted trailheads while you’re off backpacking for a week.

    Yes this is an argument for “rent a wreck” but the only time I did that, the wreck duly broke down (fortunately outside my house and not 20 miles down a dirt rod).

  10. Yes, but the less you need a car the more undesirable the area is:
    (crowded)
    No thanks. I have had enough of density and TOD. I am moving to the burbs where I will have some quiet and I won’t be accosted by beggars/bums/druggies every 20 feet.

  11. sheik, you’ll want to avoid the southern suburbs then for the drugs/homeless people.

    Some people like people. Density advocates like hustle and bustle. You don’t. That’s cool.

    Also, for the hiking/camping/fishing aspect of things, you can still do this without a car. Take a bus to North Bend and bike, or a ferry and then a bus onto the penninsula and then….bike. It’s doable. It’s just doable in a different way.

    People that choose to live carfee either have always bene able to be okay with not having things immediately presented to them, or have acclimated to that sort of lifestyle. It’s nice to not be in a rush. Leave when you need to. That’s how it goes. Living near everything you need does help a ton though. Living super close to grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, doctors, denstists, hospitals, bars, schools, movie theatres, theatres, etc is a perk of living in a dense area and it makes living carfree easier. We’re super lucky on the hill. We have all of those things, and we are close to the largest transit hub in the Northwest and are living in one of the largest in our city.

    It’s all a matter of choice though.

  12. I agree that there’s value to adding more business into the neighborhood right around the light rail station. But from looking at the map, most of the streets under consideration for the change aren’t near what I would call a transportation hub. My neighborhood is on that map; the future light rail station is a good fifteen-minute walk away. A business on my block wouldn’t serve those commuters or visitors.

    I don’t think the idea is necessarily a bad one, but I do think the change appears to encompass a much larger area than needed.

  13. Hate this. It’s a money grab, I call BS on the sustainability factor here. It’s just another excuse to create new development zones on the hill, there is no shortage of commercial space available on the hill, and the last thing we need is more commercial in the residential sections of the hill.

    15th Ave E from Highland Drive south to garfield is LR3 zoned, how long before the overlays are removed and it’s open season? I would hate to see this area become a commercial strip.

  14. @SoMad

    Be careful when you speak on behalf of your friends and neighbors and how they utilize transit. I walk from 12th the downtown transit tunnel and back again every single weekday. I’m not the only one.

    There are many transit users around and a 15 minute walk is not really an insurmountable challenge.

  15. Agreed it is nothing but a money grab by greedy developers and an equally greedy Mayor and City Council. All they care about is money and have been in bed with the developers for the entire thirty years I have lived in this neighborhood. Sure when I was younger I ASSUMED that those in charge had our best interests at heart but as you get older you realize that they don’t care. They don’t care about you or our neighborhood. They throw in words like sustainability and green but that is just Kool Aid for the gullible. We have so many projects going in that will provide more retail opportunities. Let that fill up and let’s grow the business districts that are already in place rather than this “Wild West” approach giving developers free reign over a neighborhood that most of them will never live in.

    This idea is one that the Mayor has cooked up and is buried in with a bunch of other stuff including increased height limits. Thank you Ms. Herzfeld for bringing it up. The meeting regarding this is conveniently in the morning on a Wednesday when most folks will be at work and unable to attend. Sneaky and underhanded I say.

    As far as the car thing goes we only need to look at our Mayor as an example. When I have seen him in the neighborhood he is being chauffered around in a giant black SUV with the obligatory rusty dusty bicycle on the back of it. He lives in Greenwood (not Capitol Hill)and I would imagine if asked ALL of our Council members DO have a car and a place to park it at home. I am still not over the complete elimination of any parking requirement here in our neighborhood. “It is too expensive for the developers they need more money@#$%!” Some people like having a car and need it for their business. I do. But I do walk most of the time like many of my neighbors.

    Lastly I will add in response to the guy saying for single family home owners to just move to Auburn if they don’t like what is happening. You move to Auburn buddy! I have spent 12 years restoring an historic house adding to the charm of the neighborhood that the Mayor is just handing over to the developers with this wacky idea. We have run off the drug dealers and prostitutes and made this a great place to live. I am not going anywhere and have as much a right to my home as you do!

  16. @SeattleSeven, you’re certainly right that plenty of residents would be walking that far TO a transit hub. I’ll probably do some of that myself once the station is open (but since I live on a main street with a bus stop right nearby, I tend to utilize that instead).

    However, my walk to the light rail, or to the downtown transit center, takes me through already-existing commercial districts, past plenty of shops of all sorts. I don’t see how scattering businesses through neighborhood areas is something commuters or residents need. And if the idea is to have more businesses right around a transit hub (or Cal Anderson), much of the area on the map doesn’t seem to fit that. That’s my point. It’s not that I think people in my neighborhood aren’t using public transit.

  17. “Also, for the hiking/camping/fishing aspect of things, you can still do this without a car. Take a bus to North Bend and bike, or a ferry and then a bus onto the penninsula and then….bike. It’s doable. It’s just doable in a different way. “

    It’s also not really doable at the weekend! Seattle -> North bend bus runs weekdays only. Could take Sound Transit to Issaquah then Metro to North Bend on Saturday but no service on Sunday.

    And that only gets you to North Bend! By the time you bike to where you want to hike to, it’s probably time to come home again.

  18. “The venting of odors, smoke, vapors, gas, and fumes would be required to be located and directedaway from residential uses “to the extent possible”.”

    This alone should be a great concern to anyone living in the affected area. Talk about a subjective piece of policy. If your backyard is the location “to the extent possible” you better like the smell old fry oil and grease. Nasty.

  19. @OhYes; YOU changed the character of the neighborhood by fixing up that outdated home and chasing off your neighborhood’s previous residents, the drug dealers and prostitutes. I moved here some years back and enjoyed the rather grittier sides of the neighborhood and now, lo and behold, folks like you keep moving in and “Fixing” places up and then… what did you think was going to happen? You have contributed to your own displeasure just as much as the capitalist market forces at play in this situation. There are GLOBAL trends at play here that are simply not going to go away or go around you. Your shortsightedness is not the city’s or society’s problem. This region has invested billions of dollars in this urban core’s infrastructure so as to accommodate this very type of up-zoning and density encouraging legislation. The developers will make their coin and, if you so choose, you will too (when you sell your property at a handsome profit, in no small part due to this very up-zone, and the developer you sell to tears your lovely old character building down and puts up a nice new clean and efficient monstrosity that my child’s child might one day find cool and vintage and full of character).

  20. what would actually be useful: corner bodegas in residential areas (little shops that sell a bunch of random stuff- food, drinks, socks, tape, flowers…). I miss these from living in Brooklyn and more urban cities. doubt strongly this would be the result of the law change though. seattlites don’t get bodegas as a way of life.

  21. This idea is bad from every angle. The old homes are what make Capitol Hill. Most of the new development has been awful and out of character with the neighborhood. We should not allow developers from out of the area, especially the east side, put up eyesores as they have done in the past. Does Capitol Hill have a review board for this issue?

  22. Haven’t fixed it up but you make a lot of stupid assumptions.

    There will be no profit when I sell it (due to those global forces you cite).

    We can skip the who has lived here longer, I lived here when it was this way or that way or gay or cooler or whatever. That bitching is just as irrelevant as the move somewhere else line.

    But you can still find an apartment in Auburn.

  23. I lived on the hill for over 20 years without a car. We’re “there”, not “sort of there”, and this proposal will make the hill less livable. We have the best of both types of streets now: busy commercial streets in easy walking distance of quiet, yet relatively dense residential streets. The “sustainability” argument is exactly analogous to Michelle Rhee and her claims about education “reform”: pure bullshit. Follow the money.

  24. Part of what the city is trying to code as urban centers on the Hill are beautiful residential areas and nothing like urban centers. If they mean they want to make them into urban centers–tear down the quaint neighborhoods and replace them with ugly new developments then that’s foolish and just a money grab.

  25. It looks like the City Council is playing some Sim City. You just got zoned medium residential! Of course that game allows you to just bulldoze whatever you want and there are never elections.

  26. Yes sadly the old houses mean nothing to the city. Seattle has always been known as a city that has torn everything down and that hasn’t changed. I do have an old house in this zone and can see that my days are numbered. Having property owners here is a good thing for the neighborhood but I’m not keen on having a needle exchange on one side of me and a tofu factory on the other. Any one whether they live in an apartment, townhouse or house should be very concerned about this.

  27. And what makes you think that you are going to be able to stay here? When your 600 square foot place becomes $2400 a month you too will be gone. Displaced by the yuppies just like me. Enjoy Auburn! I’ll be mourning the loss of the hood in my yurt on Lopez Island…………..

  28. Anywhere you live on the hill right now is easy access to all you could need or want. I am at 18th and Denny and can easily walk (even at my advanced age of 48) to Safeway, Qfc, Madison Market etc etc. Everything is 3 blocks away. I don’t think we need anything closer to be a viable neighborhood. Having it all next door might make us even fatter! As a current business owner in a retail area I am furious about the idea of diluting it down and spreading businesses out willy nilly. Remember that most of those in charge will NEVER live here as we do.

  29. Yes the city does have a Design Review Board but if you have ever been to a meeting like me you would know that it is nothing more than a formality. Projects are pretty much going to happen whether we want them or not. They are actually pretty rude too stopping short of telling you to shut up while golden boy developer is talking. Sadly the Landmarks Preservation Board is also very dry and not too interested in helping in cases of buildings that are truly historic. It all comes down to money for the city. Period. Historic preservation is NOT a priority at all.

  30. yeah, 20+ years on Cap Hill without a car, or even a driver’s license. Would camping and hiking be more accessible if I owned a car? Yes. But it is totally possible to access the outdoors from time to time by teaming up with others who want to do the same.

    I don’t fault people who own cars. And certainly someone for whom camping and hiking is a huge part of their life having a car is a priority. But that’s true no matter what neighborhood you’re in – the nature of the great outdoors is that it’s not filled with mass transit stations and retail.

    I’m with grimes10 – we’re there, not “sort of” there, in terms of having a neighborhood where cars are not a necessity.

  31. This if fine if it can be done in phases and ONLY small business goes into those new areas. 1) Regulate maximum s.f. 2) Regulate business type 3) Priority to local business (esp. live/work occupants)

  32. I really, really look forward to parking minima going away.

    As a lifelong renter who has subsidized the parking spots of everyone else in my apartment for all my adult life, to the tune of roughly $50 or more a month, I was really surprised that an affordable housing advocate like John Fox would oppose this opportunity to bring down the cost of building new housing units. Are you really thinking this through, John? Do you really hate people who don’t drive cars that much?