Following Capitol Hill pushback, City Council backs off ‘corner store’ zoning changes — UPDATE

UPDATE: Following a wave of criticism, the City Council’s land use committee has unanimously voted to strip out commercial zoning changes in lowrise and midrise neighborhoods from the Regulatory Reform package.

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)

“We need to do a better job of engaging with the community and having a dialogue,” Council member Mike O’Brien said.

Committee chair Richard Conlin said that he supports the amendment to remove the new zoning but that he still believes the changes in commercial zoning would be beneficial and that this part of the legislation might be taken up again. He also left the door open to punting on the idea altogether. “We may be wrong in our assessment,” Conlin said of the process that led to the creation of the small retail proposals.

Conlin said the remainder of the legislation will move forward.

Original Report: Capitol Hill residents again filled the City Council chambers Wednesday morning as Richard Conlin and the Council’s land use committee pushed forward on Regulatory Reform legislation that would overhaul the city’s development process and open up areas of multifamily-zoned neighborhoods to small commercial uses.

“I’ve just been in shock that my city council would even think to work this way,” one homeowner who addressed the committee said Wednesday morning.


Many called for the committee to postpone any decisions on Regulatory Reform until a more complete community process on Capitol Hill can be completed.

“Have you realized yet that you have awakened a sleeping giant?” another speaker asked. “You have united the people of Capitol Hill in a way that we’ve never been united before,” the man said.

Many speakers said they were longtime homeowners who had just become aware of the reform legislation last week as the Capitol Hill Coalition group increased its effort to spread the word about the potential commercial changes (see their flyer below) and the Capitol Hill Community Council approved a resolution opposing the measures.

Another speaker said the Council’s actions could “destroy an oasis of residential goodness forever.”

While the reform package is a citywide set of updates to zoning laws and regulations, some of the elements focused on areas near transit stations and within official “urban centers” apply singularly to Capitol Hill.

CHS began reporting on the sprawling Regulatory Reform legislation in March. In the time since, the council committee has attempted to shape the “corner store” elements of the package so that commercial changes would be limited to arterials, smaller retail spaces and even by restricting certain types of businesses in specific areas like banning restaurants from the lowrise/midrise commercial zones on Capitol Hill.

The proposed set of code overhauls was set in motion by a City Council resolution last spring setting 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.

The Seattle Times looked at that “roundtable” process and documented what it calls the power of “developer interest” in driving the eased development rules. “Records show the mayor’s group worked to stay out of public view and communicate “more confidential stuff,” as one put it, via private email,” the Times writes.

Beyond the issues around public process and the encroachment of mixed-use development into residential areas, other elements of Regulatory Reform have been lauded for its elimination of minimum parking requirements in areas served by mass transit and helping to potentially untangle the increasingly byzantine process of developing property in Seattle.

The committee is considering seven amendments that Council members hope will shape the legislation to help alleviate the fears voiced by the community members who spoke Wednesday morning:

  • If commercial uses are ultimately allowed in Lowrise 2 and Lowrise 3 (LR2 and LR3) zones in Urban Centers and Station Area Overlay Districts, decrease the maximum permitted floor area of such uses from 2,500 to 2,000 square feet.
  • Prohibit any commercial enterprises that locate in eligible LR zones from installing electric signs (non-illuminated signs and externally illuminated signs would be permitted).
  • Allow businesses that locate in eligible LR zones to apply for street use permits to place merchandise displays in certain portions of the right-of-way.
  • Require DPD staff to provide an annual report to the City Council on the number, type, and location of new commercial uses that may be permitted to operate in LR2 and LR3 zones in Urban Centers and Station Area Overlay Districts.
  • Require commercial uses in multifamily zones to meet the same odor standards as apply in commercial zones.
  • Clarify that the nightlife disturbance provisions in the Municipal Code apply to nonresidential uses located in any zone (see Item #7 on the agenda for the May 23 PLUS Committee meeting).
  • Allow renewals of temporary use permits with terms of up to six months to be processed as Type 1 decisions, except for renewals of permits issued for transitional encampments and facilities for light rail transit construction, which would remain Type 2 decisions. Retain all other existing rules regarding the issuance and duration of temporary usepermits.
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33 thoughts on “Following Capitol Hill pushback, City Council backs off ‘corner store’ zoning changes — UPDATE

  1. I read that poster and couldn’t believe my eyes. I’m completely in favor of allowing more small shops to open in residential areas, especially along apartment-y streets like Bellevue Ave E (where I live). The parts of Summit that have little shops feel much more alive — think Top Pot and Analog — and Bellevue feels mostly dead.

    Yes, we have vacant commercial spots now, but that doesn’t mean they will be empty forever. If someone wants to be able to open a business in the neighborhood — within reasonable regulations, of course — they should be able to.

  2. There was one speaker from the Capitol Hill Community Council who spoke — VP Mike Kent said he supported the reform and the commercial changes. “”I believe in a Seattle that supports small business,” he said.

    I’m sensitive to drawing the distinction you note and try to (almost!) never attribute acts, etc. to “Capitol Hill” so you’ll see words/phrases about individuals or specific groups when possible.

  3. Ya, I don’t get it either. I like shops on my street (Summit Ave. E.) that I can go to for “some things”, beer, toilet paper,ice cream, etc,, I know the shop owners on my street and like them all. And, by golly, they like me too : )

  4. want to control the development of the neighborhood and keep it closed off for themselves to ward off lower income residences and businesses that would provide life for the community.

    A lot of those empty commercial spaces are vacant because they are located in newer buildings and more expensive areas, which are not accessible to most small businesses.

    I can’t believe this community would get behind such a backwards idea, and hope that the council will continue to move forward intelligently instead of listening to this group of ignorant people.

  5. All over Seattle you find houses whose ground floors used to be storefronts, and are now living rooms, and indeed even whole areas (eg the Windermere Office on 19th and its neighbors) which presumably used to be neighborhood shopping districts.

    It would be very useful to know what they used to be, and why they went away. From their appearance and faded signs on walls (eg the Roycroft cinema sign on the Russian Community Center building on 19th) it looks at though the changes happened in the 50’s, way before car ownership was universal on Capitol Hill (as witnessed by the City archive photo of my house in the 50’s: barely a car in sight).

  6. a big sigh of relief — if you want to live in a neighborhood where you can go out your building and with the next step get your nails done/get teriyaki/coffee/beer, fine, go and find housing there. I live in a neighborhood (13 years in my place) that I chose precisely because it’s a neighborhood, not a business street. I have to walk – gasp – 1 block for thai food/teriyaki/coffee/nails/beer. And that is close enough.

  7. no, not really ignorant, but wanting to keep the neighborhood atmosphere of our neighborhood. I am half-block from all those shiny business fronts. And for some of this, that is close enough. Don’t want our bit of neighborhood to turn into Belltown.

  8. Oh yeah, I was reacting to their quote: “You have united the people of Capitol Hill in a way that we’ve never been united before…”, which I think is silly hyperbole on his part. Plenty of Hill-ers would like to see more mixed use in their neighborhoods.

  9. I think this is a misguided read. People like to point to the collection of businesses on Summit (which I also love) as a way of supporting this provision, but the “corner store” provisions in the zoning changes weren’t going to provide unique spaces for a new Top Pot or even a local convenience store…they were going to provide incentives for developers to add market rate retail to their out-of-character-with-the-existing-residences projects, which would likely attract higher end boutique businesses. Businesses that need to attract a customer base far greater than the immediate neighborhood in order to survive.

  10. I don’t understand how having a coffee shop one block away vs. on your street will radically change “your” neighborhood into something undesirable. I agree that these huge stamped developments going up around the city should not be allowed in this area. However, allowing small infill development to occur within the existing fabric will only create a more tightly knit community with more opportunities for everyone.

  11. I live in the area with the proposed construction/rezoning that spurred the actions of this group. Like many people in the neighborhood on the back side of 15th Ave, I live in an apartment building (read: not a rich person) on a block with a combination of apartment buildings, condos and single family homes.

    What kills me is that this and another house a block away are slated for destruction within 3 years of full renovation. These aren’t even dilapidated houses in need of either tear down or reconstruction. These are livable (gorgeous) houses in a neighborhood with 4 chain grocery stores and an organic grocer, 2 specialty food stores, a gym, 4 dry cleaners, 2 bed and breakfasts, a barber shop, 3 salons, a consignment shop, a theatre, 3 different major religious institutions, and multiple subsidized housing complexes, half-way houses, and elder care facilities within 1 mile of the houses being torn down. (this doesn’t include the multiple restaurants, coffee houses, yoga studios, corner stores, independent fast food shops, music venues, and pubs within the same radius). If you want closer, you have your choice of two apartment complexes (with apartments for rent) ABOVE grocery stores. A brand new building was just finished on 19th & Madison with empty retail space (along with the spaces on 15th & John that many have already mentioned) with apartments above.

    This rezoning could only bring more walkability to the area of it required every other building to be a store. If that’s not walkability, America has a worse obesity epidemic than I thought.

  12. Too much was being given to developers. It is not that we did not want more commercial spaces. The ordinance was not written so that it allowed small pockets or “nooks and crannies” of great stores. Instead it allowed the entire building to be filled with these 2500 SF businesses, and this would have gone on for block after block. In a very short span, it could all resemble a neighborhood of strip malls but without the parking.
    Had this ordinance allowed only 1 or 2 businesses of 2500 SF per block, it would have been different matter.
    The point oaf all this, though, is TAKE BACK YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD! Don’t let developers who don’t even live here tell us how to live!

  13. I agree. Where I live (across from sound mental health) is, at this point, (still) residential, albeit apartments/condos. Expecting just a few nice storefronts of quaint coffee houses and such to utilize a re-zoning is unrealistic. There are enough places for businesses, small and large, to go to on Capitol Hill.

  14. In a prior post, we had a pretty lengthy discussion about how the area around Top Pot is zoned. Long story short: It’s a tiny commercial zone (likely grandfathered in) embedded between two other residential zones.

    Personally, I think that tiny commercial zones like that are the way to achieve ‘neighborhood shops’ rather than a blanket zoning change. However, someone pointed out that it wouldn’t be feasible to do this.

    See http://capitolhillseattle.com/2012/05/20/capitol-hill-commun and subsequent comments.

  15. John – I seriously doubt that you care much for facts or reality (since they tend to get in the way of your “us-vs-them” narrative), but most of the developers that I know have zero desire to put commercial uses in LR zones. Retail tenants are generally more expensive, more difficult to attract and retain, and make financing the project more challenging.

    I understand that we live in a culture of short attention spans and soundbites and that the simpleminded need to have a villain that they can rally against. However, in this case, your vitriol is misplaced.

    You and groups like the Capitol Hill Coalition can rail a you want against the evil cabal of “out-of-towners” and “greedy developers”, but those who deal with these issues everyday recognize you as being completely clueless.

  16. As usual a bunch of entrenched nimby lesser seattlites are retarding a city with great potential. No, no, no, no. That’s seattlespeak for, well actually, I have no idea why you ugly mossbacks bother breathing. Fortunatley you are being over run by capitalists fleeing California and more hardy folks from back east. You ninnies.

  17. The biggest understatement in is the whole mess is: “We need to do a better job of engaging with the community and having a dialogue,” Council member Mike O’Brien said. DUH!

    Apparently, the mayor and city council think that Seattle is no “livable” unless there’s some kind of commercial enterprise stuck into every block of the city. I think “livable” means that people live in neighborhoods and commercial interests are planned and placed to serve people rather than the other way around. Take a good look at the University District: is it “livable” because there is a multitude of businesses crammed into spaces about 15′ wide, with dirty sidewalks, and ratty advertising in each window? Does anyone remember how beautiful Berkeley used to be–as compared to tits current mess of tiny crappy little ragtag joints, one after the other. How many T-shirt stores does a neighborhood need to be “livable”?

    Another aspect of what makes a city “livable” is adequate transportation. Seattle’s population is aging, and the elimination of parking in apartment buildings and condos makes no sense at this time. Most older people don’t ride bicycles and cannot walk long distances to catch a bus–even if there were a bus to catch. Look at Columbia City: light rail is over a quarter of a mile away. For those of us with artificial knees, hips, breathing problems, etc., transportation is vital even life-saving. I am not against working to reduce the number of cars, but without realistic evaluation of the population (e.g., age and health), getting rid of parking places is not as intelligent as actually planning a bus system that is extensive.

    And while you’re at it, why not merge Metro, Sound Transit, and the city transportation systems into one comprehensive system. Why doesn’t the city council work to change the laws and bring these three operations into one organization to facilitate meaningful planning instead of piecemeal, duplicative, systems that drain taxpayers’ money?

    Getting rid of parking places may sound “progressive” but all it does is cut costs for developers and avoids the real work of planning a city that meets the needs of its actual population.

  18. Actually I care a lot about facts, which is why I spent weeks reading documents and researching. And if you read the articles that ran in the Seattle Times you would realize the same. I have nothing against development or density. I bought land and built a house smack in the middle of LR3 zone. And what developers want now is not necessarily what they are planning for. I agree there is a surplus of commercial spaces, mostly because it is ill-designed without proper ventilation for restaurants, or the landlord is waiting for the right tenant. Bu this does not mean that they pushed for this. Who else on the commissioning board pushed this? And if you had been at the hearing today, you would have heard Conlin reveal that the commissioners were equally divided on this contentious issue.
    But since you know so much, then please tell us who drove this section of the ordinance?

  19. Nothing in these proposals “gets rid of parking spots.” Reducing or eliminating parking minimums simply allows new homebuilders to have the freedom to decide how much parking to provide. If people still demand places to park their car(s), developers will build enough parking to support that market. It’s no different than letting QFC decide how many loaves of bread they have to provide in their stores…

  20. There is a difference between needing a vehicle in the case of emergency and driving five blocks because you can’t take the rain. I think that reducing parking will never ever have a negative affect on the neighborhood. Public transportation will continue to grow, however slowly and disjointed it now is, and there will always be parking available for those who really need it.

    The scale of the space has little to do with the crumminess of the business inside, so using the university district as an example is misleading.

    The writers of this reform should use caution in promoting actual advantages for small and local infill to occur instead of large scale annihilation of the neighborhood by out of town developers; I’m sure that is the difficult part.

    I hope that in a few years as I develop as a designer that I can find a small space in this neighborhood to use as a live/work business to show you all that I am really not that bad, even if I can’t afford the rent on Broadway.

  21. Wow John, you read the whole ordinance! Sounds to me like you must be the expert. As the expert, why don’t you tell us about these developers who are invading “your” neighborhood, “trying to take too much” and “telling you how to live”. You’ve made some pretty pointed claims on this and other threads. With these incredibly powerful developers pulling all the strings, you can certainly give us a name can’t you? I know that it’s so much easier to leave it as a faceless, nameless boogeyman – but to be able to pull off the things you charge they certainly wouldn’t be able to hide in the shadows. C’mon John, don’t leave us hanging.

    Do you actually know any developers? Could it be that the “evil”, “greedy” developers that you so hate could be Michael Malone, Maria Barrientos, Ted Schroth, Liz Dunn, Scott Shapiro, Denny Onslow, Jim Potter, Dan Ivanoff or Chuck Weinstock? These are among the people that have been “destroying” your neighborhood. Are they the ones pushing for these reforms? Are they looking to finish the job and put the final nail in the coffin of the once-great Capitol Hill?

    Or could it be that these people have made tremendous investments in your neighborhood and care deeply about it’s future? Some would even argue that their passion for the neighborhood has resulted in projects and places that have made Capitol Hill a more pleasant, livable place.

    But of course, trying to understand the facts and real people behind these projects might actually cause you to question your narrow worldview. Far easier to stick to your uninformed stereotype of the evil, greedy, out-of-town developer bent on ruining your neighborhood. However, if you insist on being too stupid or lazy to understand the full story, don’t be surprised when those who know the truth fail to respect your opinions.

  22. I’m all in favor of letting businesses try and make a go of it wherever they might prosper. The free market will determine if an area is too residential for a certain business to succeed. Why do we need zoning to tell us how our neighborhood should work?

  23. Hi, Dylan, Some of us are rich but many of us are not. (One reason I like living in this neighborhood is that we have a blend of folks–ages, races, incomes…) Regardless, we get to have our quiet residential street protected at least as much as those who live in commercial zones. The proposal did not even afford the same protections against sound, etc. that residents in commercial zones are given. Do you know our neighborhood? We are the poster-child neighborhood for this concept already. Our neighborhood is the densest in this part of the country. The parts of town that could use this kind of change are those where people get in their cars for everything. Are you aware that a large chunk of the people who put the plan together were developers?

  24. Um, there are plenty of places in the world where zoning laws are practically non-existant and the “free market” is left to dictate where things are built. If those places are your idea of heaven, go ahead and move there, we’re not stopping you

  25. We’re the ones paying the hefty property taxes in the quiet neighborhoods that provide a lot of things the not so rich use. At $15,000.00 a year, I don’t want a stop and shop next door. Deal with it.

  26. I wonder if “Roger Valdex Was Right” can tell us which developers his best friend Roger Valdez works for, and how much they paid him.

  27. Public transportation will continue to grow, however slowly and disjointed it now is, and there will always be parking available for those who really need it.

    Really? Have you ever lived anywhere else? Say, in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, or San Francisco? Those places are far more expensive than Seattle, with virtually no middle class. You are either rich there, or you barely scrape by, and their public transit networks have gaping holes.

    You’d better be careful just what you wish for, naive one.