Here is the murky proof in the murky pudding of Pike/Pine’s preservation incentive program: Developers in the 12 participating projects so far in the history of the conservation district are slated to build a few hundred prime-location apartment units in exchange for saving 19 “character structures,” mostly one-story brick facades. Towering above and behind those character structures will be a total of 1,363 apartments and 192,000 square feet of new retail and office space in Pike/Pine.
While the city doesn’t track how many apartment units directly result from extra-floor allowances under the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District, it’s clear that the incentives framed as a preservation program for the neighborhood’s architectural character are, first-and-foremost, incentivizing bigger buildings. On Tuesday the City Council will be reviewing updates to the overlay district rules that, like it or not, won’t do much to change the program’s course.
“The area is zoned to provide for substantial development,” said Dennis Meier of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development. “The desire was to make new developments fit in a little bit better.”
CHS recently reported on a study showing that old, small buildings surrounding new development correlate strongly with the most dynamic urban cores in at least three cities, including Seattle. The authors of that report were highly skeptical that preservation projects, like those created with Pike/Pine’s incentive program, could deliver the same results as true adaptive reuse projects.
So why aren’t Pike/Pine developers actually incentivized to save old buildings? .
Back in 2009, preservation incentives for Pike/Pine developers were drafted as a compromise, something in between creating a frozen-in-time historic district and allowing for the unfettered redevelopment of the entire neighborhood. The compromise in the overlay district relied heavily on offering developers extra height and building size in return for incorporating old character structures and facades into their developments.
What wasn’t part of the compromise was actually saving old buildings in their entirety while incentivizing a new apartment tower on the same parcel. A similar concept exists in residential zones where old houses don’t count against density or total floor area allowed on a parcel (i.e. backyard condo building).
There doesn’t appear to be any inherent barriers to such development in Pike/Pine, said Meier. What prevents developers from building such projects is the need to maximize the development potential on their parcel. That’s harder to do if you keep a one-story building only one-story tall.
“The idea was to not freeze the neighborhood time, but not have growth in an uncontrolled way,” said John Feit of the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Coalition, the group that helped draft the original preservation rules. “If buildings meet landmark status, they can be preserved.”
That’s not to say the cumbersome landmarks process is the only way to save an entire auto-row building. Developers will preserve small, old buildings, but only the smallest and best, and they won’t be saved because of the Pike/Pine incentives, they’ll be saved because developers like Hunters Capital and Liz Dunn make it part of their mission and have found a strong market for their projects.
The forthcoming upgrades to the Pike/Pine preservation incentives could nudge some more developers towards saving entire buildings, but it seems unlikely. One feature of the proposed updates would allow developers to build bigger in Pike/Pine by preserving an entire building on a nearby parcel. It’s called transfer development rights, and while the zoning incentive has basically been available on Capitol Hill since 2012, its gone largely unused.
Over the years, council members Tom Rasmussen and Sally Clark have been tweaking the preservation incentives as development in Pike/Pine has boomed. After a year and a half, they’re ready to roll out their latest round of updates. Broadly, the new preservation rules would require developers to retain more character structures to get an extra floor of apartments or more retail space. But still, nothing in the new proposal specifically incentivizes saving entire buildings.
The council’s transportation committee is slated to hold a public hearing on the proposed changes Tuesday at 9:30 AM. If you really want to get into the weeds, here’s the 43-page ordinance (PDF). If not, here are the bullets of what the upgrades seek to accomplish:
- Require that all character structures on a lot be retained, either partially or fully, if zoning incentives are used. The Design Review Board would be able to grant departures from this requirement, with guidance from criteria in the code;
- Reduce the bulk of new buildings on larger lots by further limiting the amount of floor area allowed on upper level floors;
- Remove the current 2.0 floor area ratio (FAR) limit on commercial structures, if all character structures are retained as defined in the Code;
- Remove regulatory barriers that make it difficult to retain character structures;
- Provide clearer standards for retaining character structures and for the limited circumstances in which the Design Review Board may allow demolition of a character structure if an zoning incentive is used; and
- Make technical corrections and clarifications.
The preservation program has been loudly criticized by some as the preserved structures seem reduced to bits of facade stapled to the new development (although developments like the recently opened Sunset Electric have shown how the character of a preserved facade can seep into a building’s interior).
“If it wasn’t for the overlay, all those buildings would’ve been torn down,” Feit tells CHS, adding that mandating preservation would have spelled trouble as well. “It’s not perfect, but we’re not fighting with lawyers.”